On television, modern histories of Rome lead one to think that Romans were rather well off, enjoyed a lot of free time, and commanded the largest and most powerful empire in the history of the world. That is, until the Americans came along.
America’s post WWII strategic and military dominance combined with affluence inspired comparisons to ancient Rome at its most powerful. With trouble in Iraq, mounting debt, and a teetering economy, America no longer seems invulnerable. Comparisons have shifted towards the ineffectual, bloated, later empire as Rome collapsed. Commenting on the fall, Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said it was “the greatest perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind.”
The vision of America as a new Rome resonates with us. There are obvious parallels and amusing similarities. In Why America is not a New Rome, Vaclav Smil, a scientist and lifelong student of Roman history takes a closer look at the America-Rome analogy.
Smil excels as he methodically unearths the meaning of empire and the relevant periods-of-time necessary for meaningful comparison. Smil ends up agreeing with Patricia Schroeder’s view that an empire “means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from it and alien to it.”
Depending on how you measure an empire, the Roman Empire wasn’t even the greatest. Consider the amount of land controlled as a proxy. Rome was the most extensive empire for only about 150 years, between 220 and 370 C.E. At the peak, the Romans controlled about 3% of ice-free land. To put this in the proper perspective, at the peak of its empire the British controlled about 23% of the ice-free land. If you were to rank empires based on land sizes throughout history, Rome would not even make it into the top 20.
After a close examination of modern US history, Smil concludes that if we are to “pay any attention to the root meaning of our words, hegemony makes a much better descriptor (of the United States) than empire. Smil quotes Schroeder in saying “Those who speak of an American empire bringing freedom and democracy to the world are talking of dry rain and snowy blackness. In principle and by definition, empire is the negation of political freedom, liberation, and self-determination.
Finally Smil offers a recent example of how the US is not cut-throat enough to be considered an empire. “Would an imperial power allow a prime minister of a country that it had recently conquered (and whose reconstruction and defence cost it thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars) to repeatedly visit a neighboring nation (which had been the great power’s avowed enemy for more than a generation and which actually helped to kill some of its soldiers stationed in the neighboring land by providing lethal explosives) and to have a cordial tête-à-tête with its president, who openly calls for the destruction of the great power whose very existence he deems satanic?”
The answer, of course, is no. But that is precisely what the Americans have done by allowing Iraq to engage in diplomatic relations with Mohammed Ahmedinejad, whom Smil refers to as “president of harshly anti-American fundamentalist Islamic theocracy in Tehran.” So depending on how you look at it, America is either too nice or too weak to be considered an empire. While not an empire, that does not mean that comparisons about various aspects of society and culture cannot be made.
Taking a closer look at the cultures proves exceedingly difficult as well. Much of what we know about Rome is unverifiable best-guesses. Of the Romans, Smil says they “were neither impressive inventors nor the leading technical innovators of their time and that their legacy of systematic, incisive intellectual inquiry compares poorly with that of their Greek predecessors and their Chinese contemporaries.” American creativity, on the other hand, is a bright spot.
While we know the Romans undoubtedly possessed excellent organizational capability, they were, Smil says, “oddly incurious in most fields of intellectual inquiry, content to live largely off the Greek legacy.”
America’s high energy consumption makes “the two societies fundamentally incomparable. America is an unequaled example of a large modern economy that derives most of its power from the combustion of fossil fuels, supplemented by generation of primary electricity that converts it to useful tasks with high efficiency and that consumes energy at a very high per capita rate. In contrast, Rome’s energetic foundations, much like those of every ancient society, rested on the low-efficiency combustion of wood and the muscular exertions of people and animals,with overall per capita energy use being a small fraction of modern rates.” While easy availability of energy enables opportunity in America it constrained every aspect of Roman society.
Romans were handcuffed with an extremely short life expectancy. While most Americans can expect to live until around 80 years old, the average Roman would have been happy to hit 35. While there were many causes for this, including poor medical care, war, poor sanitation, famine and disease, the greatest cost might have been a seemingly glacial pace in societal progress.
On city life
“For an ordinary Roman citizen,” Smil says, “the city was not a stunning cosmopolis of marble temples and showy fora; it was a squalid, fetid, unsanitary, noisy, and generous amalgam of people, animals, wastes, germs, diseases, and suffering.”
One of the differences between the American economy and the Roman one was structural. “In 2005 only about 1.5% of the US labor force was engaged in agriculture, about 11% in manufacturing, 9% in extraction, construction, and transportation, and the rest (78.5%) in a multitude of largely urban-based services. The Roman economy, like those of its ancient contemporaries, was fundamentally different. Classical writers left a record in which urban and military affairs take center place. … Given the low productivity of traditional agriculture, it was inevitable that most Romans spent their lives in fields and yards and along seashores, cultivating crops, threshing grains, pressing olives, producing wine, taking care of domestic animals, and harvesting marine foods.”
Smil does agree with the popular notion that the US is in a constant state of decline, having apexed long ago. “A closer critical look at US power reveals the country to be a weak, ineffective hegemony that has little in common with all those tiresome labels about “only remaining superpower” and “global domination” … while many of its indicators have increased in absolute terms, it has been in gradual relative retreat for more than two generations.”
Smil concludes that the most notable commonality between ancient Rome and modern America is the “vastly exaggerated perception of their respective powers, be they judged in terms of territorial extent, effective political influence, or convincing military superiority. If words are to retain their meaning then I am far from alone in concluding that America is not an empire, but I believe that even American’s undoubted global hegemony is of a very peculiar kind, much less effective and much more fragile than commonly thought.”
Polybius, the Greek historian of ancient Rome, should get the last word. At the outset of his great opus, The Histories, he remarked that those studying isolated histories are like a man who “after having looked at the dissevered limbs of an animal once alive and beautiful, fancies he has been as good as an eyewitness of the (living) creature itself in all its action and grace.”
If you’re interested in learning more, purchase Why America is not a New Rome.