In response:

In response to s33k3r’s post about parallels between Rome and America; I’m putting this in a separate post because LJ has a 4k limit on comments.

If there are any valid parallels, I’m not sure what they are.

Sorry about the delay in responding – I was out of town and wanted to give this some careful consideration.

So to preface this, I’ll say that I believe there are meaningful parallels – but of course there are quite a few differences, as well. I’m not arguing that we are Rome, but that there are sufficient similarities that we can usefully learn a great number of lessons from their mistakes.

Let’s begin with situational parallels. The most obvious one is that we are both running large, world-spanning empires. There’s an obvious difference in that most of American dominion is not being enforced by invasion and maintenance of garrisons; we expanded first as an economic sphere of influence, and have used military action rather judiciously to underscore our authority rather than establish it.

Nonetheless, we are in the position where a significant number of countries have their controlling legal authorities largely or wholly dependent on American support for their continued existence, and even more countries which are economically entirely dependent on us. Moreover, we’ve now started to assume direct political control in multiple foreign theaters – Iraq and Afghanistan being the most obvious cases. I believe this is a strong situational parallel because it requires American policy-makers to (directly and indirectly) determine day-to-day policy in distant areas.

I think this sort of thought can be taken fairly far, to find various technical parallels which simply stem from the requirements of imperial administration and economics.

But the differences may be more interesting than the parallels. We have three significant advantages over Rome, which I could describe as learning from their mistakes. First, we have an ordered mechanism of succession, and in fact an anchoring of the government in a “basic law” to which the people are actually loyal above their loyalty to individuals. One person takes office, another leaves it, and this occurs in an ordered and predictable way; I can’t imagine any president having the nerve to try to sieze power beyond the limits of election, and if one did I can’t imagine him living out the week.

Second, we have a systematic system of appropriations, funding and accounting. This is not to be discounted lightly: one of Rome’s biggest problems was that taxation was done locally and by demand, taking local resources to fund local military expeditions and so on. This made long-range planning virtually impossible, and made responding to changing circumstances similarly difficult. On top of this, sporadic taxation tended to be crushing, and almost always led to local revolts – hardly a recipe for success. (Had Ammianus, the chief accountant to several emperors in the 4th century, lived longer or had an equally competent successor, things could have turned out quite differently…)

Third, we have access to fast, reliable communications. This means in particular that local administrators, generals and other officials are in steady contact with the center. Apart from obvious practical advantages, this makes one political difference – the situation of military units becoming more loyal to their general than to the empire, and generals starting to act in their own interest rather than those of the empire, doesn’t tend to arise.

But there are some less-good differences: the United States does not have a large, established cadre of foreign administrators. Those we have tend to be hampered by policies of installing local rulers hand-picked more for their malleability than for their local connections and ability to run things. I’ll take Chalabi as an example of this sort of problem; his willingness to work with the Americans is unquestionable, but he has almost no friends in Iraq, and the only way he’s likely to ever get power is if he’s forcibly installed. Moreover, he doesn’t have systematic local ties, nor a feel for the current “pulse of the area.” One of the most serious lacks in present foreign adminstration is that in far too many regions, we have occasional agents, but we don’t have large-scale ties (say, with permanent employees of our government’s local administrations) with enough of the local populace to keep a feeling on the local pulse. This means we’re getting insufficient intelligence about what’s going on in the area. Rome avoided this by having long-term provincial governors who got to really know their areas, and because the relative isolation of provincial posts encouraged intermarriage and other long-term interactions of the entire local Roman staffs with the population.

And finally, I think that there’s one very unfortunate parallel, but one that’s perhaps more easily rectifiable than all of the above.

There was the legend of Roma Æterna, that no external force would ever be able to really make a dent in Rome’s empire, that external forces could always be dealt with by force and the might of the empire. This worked up until approximately the end of the 3rd century; but when Rome reached some functional limits on expansion, and couldn’t keep going out and conquering everyone they met, things changed, and Late Antiquity – what Gibbon called the gradual fall – is really a story of Rome learning to deal with and interact with foreign groups in ways other than conquest.

I think that America, today, is suffering from a very similar form of hubris. There’s a pervasive belief that no external force will ever be able to make a serious impact on the United States. I’m not talking, here, about a 9/11-style impact or a military defeat; I’m talking about a belief that our empire can operate unilaterally without triggering long-term repercussions, that our power is such that we can simply give orders to other countries and not attempt to maintain the more sophisticated relations that one needs with other nations of comparable power.

At this precise moment, it may be true that we have enough political power in the world to be able to act this unilaterally; but this sort of power is notoriously ephemeral, and when it fails we may find ourselves in a position of not having any mechanisms prepared to be able to deal with other countries. Those other countries won’t be suffering from the same lack – they’ve been dealing with one another for quite some time. This might leave us in a frighteningly weak position.

So these are the basic senses in which I believe that there are parallels between the United States and Rome. They’re not absolute parallels, as I hope I’ve made clear – but there’s enough in common here that I think we need to carefully study their history, and work hard to avoid making the same mistakes that they did.

Published in: on May 4, 2003 at 17:00  Comments (35)  


  1. Interesting read.
    Roman government, at its peak, was not the Republic that it once had been but was ruled by the Caesars. Even in the days of the Republic the citizenship was extremely exclusive and limited to a very selective group. Hardly the representative democracy (Federal Republic) of the United States, even at Rome’s best.
    Roman domination was accomplished militarily. Those lands and peoples subjugated often faced brutal oppression and slavery. US domination is economic. We compete and dominate global markets – not by the sword (there are always exceptions but this is not the rule), but by the dollar.
    The Romans had no interest in peaceful international engagement. They conquered nations. They were not interested in co-existing peacefully with surrounding nations/empires. They were interested in conquest for the wealth and glory that it brought.
    As the citizenry lost their sense of civic duty in centuries of warfare, the legions were filled with the very same barbarians that they were sent to control. Foreigners were slowly filling the ranks of the professional army, with less and less participation by the citizenry themselves. The discipline of the Roman legions degraded over time.
    The point is this:
    Whatever parallels we attempt to draw, we must be careful of the conclusions we reach. The Roman Empire fell not because of hubris, but due to poor policies and lack of representation on all levels.
    The general parallels between the Roman Empire and the United States, when examined in detail, are not valid parallels at all and specific conclusions cannot be reached. The political, military, and economic mechanisms, policies, and processes are so vastly different that no definitive inferences or conclusions can be drawn by parallels or comparisons between the two.
    That is not to say that valuable lessons cannot be learned from studying the Roman Empire. We must exercise care when applying those lessons to the present.

  2. One of the premises of your argument against unilateral US action is that there are comparable powers globally. I submit that there are not.
    Additionally, multilateral consensus requires that national interests of the participating powers not be significantly compromised. In a world where tyrants dominate a large percentage of the nations, what sort of multilateral consensus is possible or, even, acceptable. When so-called allied nations provide national intelligence secrets and military technology to the enemy, how much multilateral consensus are we expected to maintain, especially in terms of our national security?
    I submit that there will be many times when the national interest and security of a free nation will come into direct conflict with the interests of nations that either tolerate or are dominated by tyrants. In those instances, I would expect the free nation to act unilaterally.

  3. One set of ironies about all this, though, is that much of the fall of Rome did indeed come from a bad combination of hubris and the best intentions.
    Julius Caesar, at one point in his political career, thought to enfranchise a larger portion of the population of Rome. When this failed, he began to make murmuring of his own ascension to Emperor.
    Those who conspired against him, originally, wished to prevent this. In doing so – in assassinating Caesar – they created the circumstances that allowed the Republic to fall. There was a long time between the assassination of JC and the creation of a permanent Imperial position, but the groundwork was laid then and there.
    And through that, the circumstances of people having less loyalty towards Rome itself were born.
    Etc. etc. etc.
    I think the biggest problem that can be paralleled from Rome to the US is much more subtle and insidious: When people stop thinking of themselves as a united people (Roman or Americans) and begin to identify more with being part of a sub-group.
    For example, I may be a big, hippie “Green-ie,” and you (s33k3r) may be a Republican. But we are both Americans first and foremost. Too many people are paying more attention to the divisions first.
    And this endangers both the “melting pot” concept of the US, and the factors that led to our early survival for so long as a young nation.
    When Romans began to consider their social class, “purity,” and such to be more important than their existence as Romans, Roma Aeterna became threatened. A good part of the dissolution of Rome occured from within.

  4. The reason why the Roman Empire fell:
    It was an EMPIRE.
    By definition, this means that the vast majority of the population was oppressed and ruled by a very, very small elite.
    As a result, the Roman Empire, like any oppressive regime, was doomed to inevitably fall from internal erosion and rebellion, and from competing external pressures.
    Drawing conclusions from parallels between the Roman Empire and the US invites significant error. Not enough commonality exists between the two cases to arrive at an accurate conclusion or to develop an adequate inference.

  5. The reason why the Roman Empire fell:
    It was an EMPIRE.

    I suspect you’re perfectly aware that that’s, to put it mildly, a bit of an oversimplification. Did the Roman Republic fall because it was a Republic (such as it was)?
    The fall of the Roman Empire has been variously blamed on enemy military action, political corruption, the thing that always happens to war economies in peacetime, Christianity, famine and disease, loose morals, administrative incompetence and, I shouldn’t wonder, the Freemasons. To say that it fell “because it was an Empire…” I dunno.
    A cynical poster might say: the Roman Empire survived longer than any democracy ever has.
    A thoughtful poster might say: when we talk about “the Roman Empire,” we need to recognize that we’re talking about a series of very different governments that intentionally used Imperial imagery and rhetoric to bind themselves to their predecessors. Considering the periods of almost-anarchy, can we really say that Augustus’s Empire is like Trajan’s is like Constantine’s is like Alexios Komnenos’s?

  6. No, I wouldn’t consider it an oversimplification. Any form of government that is oppressive by nature and excludes the vast majority, composed of other subjugated races, from the political process is doomed to fail. At some point, the oppressed will rise and overthrow their rulers. Or, at least, weaken the infrastructure, making it easier for an external competitor to overcome the nation/empire.
    For these reasons, every empire inevitably falls.
    Whether a dictatorship or a Republic, the Roman Empire excluded all but a select few from the political process and ruthlessly oppressed the rest. This is always a formula for ultimate failure.
    “A cynical poster might say: the Roman Empire survived longer than any democracy ever has.”
    True, as representative governments (those that include most of the population in the political process, I mean) is a relatively recent development.
    Still, the response to the cynical poster would be:
    And what exactly is your point? Do you believe that representative governments (that include most of the citizenry in the political process) will not outlast the Roman Empire?
    “can we really say that Augustus’s Empire is like Trajan’s is like Constantine’s is like Alexios Komnenos’s”
    Yes. They all have one thing in common: the ethnically diverse many were oppressed and ruled by the elite few.
    As I’ve stated, such is the recipe for disaster.

  7. Drawing conclusions from parallels between the Roman Empire and the US invites significant error.
    While in theory I agree with this, I would also say that refusing to draw such parallels may also invite significant error.
    It’s awfully easy to look at the past and say “Can’t happen here.”
    It is sometimes necessary to think “What if.” To automatically dismiss such thoughts because they may come out with endings that one doesn’t like or agree with is still limiting your thoughts in a way that is unbecoming of an intelligent, thinking person.
    (Sorry – that came out much more harsh than it sounded in my head, so I apologize in advance for any offense.)
    For example – during the Elian Gonzales debacle, one friend of mine came up with a very valid point:
    Despite our beliefs, in every oppressive regime (Cuba, Iraq, what have you), there are a large number of people who merely go on with their day to day lives, not being affected in any way by the regimes directly.
    We don’t like to think about that – our hearts and minds as Americans go out to those who are in jail for doing things that we can do with impunity in the US. That’s what gets our ire up. And perhaps rightly so.
    But, in the chaos that arises in war, we disrupt the lives of those 90% who are completely happy and unaffected until we get involved.
    We should always consider that – that while we may perceive one thing, from time to time it does us good (and stretches our minds) to attempt to understand something else.
    Do I think the US is going to suffer the same fate as Rome? Eventually, yes. Just like *every* other major civilization. It’s the law of entropy as applied to social interactions. All things eventually decay and vanish. That way, there is room for more new ideas – some bad, some good. I’d rather have change than stasis.
    Do I think it’s happening now? Hell no. Sure, I see threats on the horizon to our freedoms, but I don’t think they are that big or unbeatable. Or even definite.
    But I think refusing to look at and determine the parrelels between the US and any other great civilization of the past, be it the Roman Empire, the Egyptian Dynasties, the Chinese Dynasties, Babylon, or even the British Empire and the French Empires, endangers us with an arrogance that we, as a people, should be above. There are many lessons in the past.
    Just my $.02.

  8. Hmmmm. A couple of points which I’ll address individually:
    At some point, the oppressed will rise and overthrow their rulers. Or, at least, weaken the infrastructure, making it easier for an external competitor to overcome the nation/empire.
    Oh, sure, you got revolts, but you got those even when the Empire was at its strongest. I’m not sure that the last years of the Empire were any more rebellious than the turbulent end of the 1st century AD, when the same general had to fight rebellions in Judaea and Britannia as well as fighting in a civil war. So, yes, there were rebellions, but there were rebellions throughout the Empire’s history. It’s just that in the fourth and fifth centuries, other factors sapped the Empire’s ability to deal with them. I don’t think “oppressed subject peoples” was a sufficient cause.
    This is always a formula for ultimate failure.
    This is a little bit like saying the mortality rate for humans is 100%. Up until the end of WWI, almost all governments excluded the majority of their populations from participating in the political process. There is currently no government in power that has, by that standard, lasted even half as long as the Roman Empire, or a fifth if you count the Republic in there. (I’m assuming for the purpose of this argument that even though Great Britain’s government has been nominally the same since the 17th century, it’s actually changed enough that it counts as a different government.) It’s a bit weird to be saying “all non-representative governments eventually collapse, given a long enough time” because that presumes that representative governments won’t, given the same amount of time — an argument for which you have zero evidence, because “a long enough time” hasn’t passed. A better statement would be “all governments collapse, given a long enough time.” The only way in which you single out exclusive governments as “the recipe for disaster” is if you start with the assumption that representative governments will be very long-lasting. That’s an appealing thought, and I hope it’s true, but it’s not borne out by history — there isn’t, yet, enough evidence to go on.
    Obviously, representative governments collapse, too. France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Finland, Italy, Germany have all failed at least once since 1920. In fact, hell, only Sweden, Switzerland and Great Britain managed to make it to, say, January 1944 as something like democracies … and Britain had an empire. By that same token, you might not count France and Holland as non-empires. As you can see, it’s perfectly possible for representative societies to be conquered by non-representative ones, and it’s equally, horribly, possible for a republic to vote a tyrant into office.
    So do I think any given representative government will outlast the Roman Empire? Well, let’s take Australia. It could last. But it’s been a near-run thing at least once, and over the course of the next couple of hundred years it might again. It doesn’t seem likely that the Australians will ever elect a dictator, and they’ve already done the “systematic oppression/extermination of native peoples,” so they don’t really have the opportunity to do it again. They might make the four-hundred-year mark. It’s possible. I hope to god it happens. But I don’t think it’s automatically going to happen. I picked Australia because I think they have a pretty good chance; they have a limited number of potentially hostile neighbors, they’re a little isolated.
    Do I think that representative governments in general will outlive the Roman Empire? Better to ask if representative governments in general will outlast empires in general. In which case I think it’s possible, but they’ve got a few thousand years to go for starters. It would certainly be nice.

  9. They all have one thing in common: the ethnically diverse many were oppressed and ruled by the elite few.
    (Rich enters Devil’s Advocate mode):
    Imagine, for example, that some in our country began to feel as if they were oppressed and ruled by the elite few.
    Maybe its the poor or middle class – I don’t have the money to make any significant contribution to the political process beyond my regular voting habit.
    Maybe its the gays – they aren’t allowed to marry or enjoy many of the benefits I have for being married, in the political/social domains of our country.
    Maybe its the blacks – we can say “We are all equal,” but regardless of the reasons, the current situation of the black community is much farther below that of the average white person.
    And so on and so forth.
    There’s a great quote/old saw:
    History is written by the winners.
    Rome was eventually a loser. So was England. And Germany. And so on.
    Oppression isn’t a definite thing – while we can both point at a group of people and agree “Yes, they are oppressed,” that doesn’t mean that all people who feel oppressed are those we see in that light.
    To say that no one in the US feels oppressed is a lie. Whether or not they are, I personally know several people who will tell you how the government is against them, how they are being inhibited from practicing their freedoms, and so on and so forth. I do regularly tell these people they are being idiots, but that’s not the point of this.
    My point is that there is a danger when someone can imagine an ‘elite few,’ as it could eventually lead to our fall.

  10. I really think there are more subtleties than this. The empire itself was not very oppressive in the provinces, simply because it couldn’t be – the lines of communication were not sufficient for any imperial policies beyond taxation to be really effective outside the major metropoles. Taxation itself is potential grounds for rebellion, but I don’t believe this was viewed as an issue of representation – it had to do with urges for local power and control, and as often as not with the political ambitions of local power groups. Beyond this, I don’t see rebellion as the primary failure mode of the Roman Empire; I’d say it was a systematic lack of internal administrative structures (like fiscal policy or a unified military) which left it extremely vulnerable to shifting outside conditions.
    That said, I recognize the significant difference in the styles of rulership of America and Rome, but I’m not convinced that this is a salient point in the long-term function of Empire. For one thing, American democracy only extends within its borders – we don’t ask for the Saudi populace to vote on whether they want us there. (We may pay attention to what they say, but this is different – they don’t have a franchise, but we need to stay on the alert for conditions which may lead to rebellion. I’d file this under “competent administration of a province” rather than extension of full membership in America) For another, I don’t see the main problems of Rome as being directly tied to their own political system, except insofar as they had no organized mechanism for political succession, which left them vulnerable to routine civil wars and political aspirations on the part of generals.

  11. Let me answer these point by point.
    First, as to the (non)existence of comparable powers: I agree. My point is that, while at this moment there is nobody else of a comparable scale to us, this situation is highly unlikely to persist for the indefinite future, because a state doesn’t have to be comparable to the United States in all aspects to require different treatment.
    Let me go back to a specifically Roman comparison. During the first two centuries AD, there was clearly nobody else of even vaguely comparable strength; they found themselves in a position comparable to our present one. By the mid-third century, however, some major “barbarian groups” (the Visigoths in particular, at least at first) had reached a critical value of strength: they were not as powerful as Rome by a longshot, but they were sufficiently powerful that Rome did not have the resources to deal with them purely militarily. Rome therefore had a (rather painful) learning period in which she learned to negotiate with powers which, while overall inferior, could not simply be ordered about out of hand. I believe that we find ourselves in a late-second-century position; while we are the strongest kid on the block now, it’s becoming clear that there are other actors (North Korea and China being early examples, although there will soon be more) with whom a subtler kind of negotiation is needed.
    In the particular case of our dealings with Europe, I believe that the issue is this: at this particular moment, we had the resources to unilaterally take on Iraq. However, we are fairly frequently meeting with circumstances where are unilateral resources are insufficient, especially in order to undertake long-term projects. (The rebuilding of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan etc. into “friendly states” being an example) In such a case, our taking a strictly unilateral approach is very risky because it assumes we will never be dependent on resource assistance from these countries in the future – something which I do not believe to be warranted.
    Second, you point out that multilateralism requires a confluence of national interest. Of course I agree with this; but I’m talking about multilateral cooperation with Europe, not Turkmenistan. While European nations have dealings with both sides in this conflict, I submit that this is nothing out of the ordinary – after all, we’ve had rather extensive dealings with Iraq in the past as well. (Thinking back to a well-known photo of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, about 15 years ago…) Any sort of consensus among nations is inevitably the product of negotiations, of individual nations weighing their own interests and forming alliances in order to further those. We must simply be aware that we are in a ‘repeated interactions’ game – the outcome of any individual negotiation influences future ones. (I can’t help but assume, for instance, that the ABM treaty pullout was somewhat related to Russia’s position on Iraq, especially during the earlier part of the run-up to war, and likewise the Kyoto treaty was related to part of the EU’s intransigence)
    Finally, in response to your last point: Free nation or not, we’ve not only condoned but actively supported tyrants ourselves, in the past. Saddam Hussein himself had a great deal of American support – as did the mujahadeen who developed into the Taliban, as does the present Saudi regime, as did scores of Central American rulers whose committment to principles of democracy can at best be called shaky. We act in our own self-interest as a nation and as an empire, and this is not always a particularly “clean” matter; I don’t believe that any of these things are inconsistent with a foreign policy that tries to pull allies further in to our way of doing things, rather than alienating them by treating them as insignificant.

  12. Apples and oranges.
    Whether or not subcultures perceive themselves to be oppressed by the elite (however the sub-culture defines the elite), they are participants in the national and local political processes through which they can seek redress of grievances or the expansion of liberties.
    Unlike the slaves in the Roman Empire who could only seek change by the sword.
    The bottomline:
    Whether or not a group feels oppressed within the United States, I submit that armed rebellion/insurrection will be an extremely rare and limited occurrence (if at all) because the citizens of this nation – the vast majority of the population – understand that they have a voice in the political process. As long as they feel that the stable security offered by the state is better than any alternative that armed insurrection will bring, they will not take up arms against the government.

  13. I agree with your appraisal of this; I don’t think large-scale civil unrest is something likely to happen in America, because there is a general sense of enfranchisement, correctly or not. This is what I would consider one of the differences between America and Rome; there is a system of government that provides for routine succession, and this system is seen as sufficiently legitimate by the population that its decisions are prone to be accepted, even in times of controversy. (In Rome, I don’t doubt that a mess like the 2000 election would have been settled in a bloodbath…)
    But that wasn’t the only problem Rome had.

  14. I’m not saying that parallels can’t be drawn.
    But the similarities (and differences) between the two models must be taken into account as well as appropriate context.
    If we attempt to use two broad, very general and very different models and attempt to illustrate specific parallels for the purpose of arriving at a particular conclusion while ignoring the vast differences between the two models, then we should not be surprised when we discover that our conclusions are wrong.
    We must be careful when attempting to apply the lessons of history – like all other things in life, they can oft be applied incorrectly.

  15. A nation, of course, must weigh whether the cost/benefit of unilateral action will be more favorable than multilateral action – especially if multilateral action comes at a price.
    When Russia, Germany, and France are the three nations with the largest oil and trade treaties/contracts with Iraq, are they acting in the interest of the international community or their own.
    Now, if they are acting in their own interest, how seriously can we consider their input with regard to American national security and/or international stability?
    If the various European nations are being unilateral in their approach to their issue, while attempting to bind US action to “multilateral” consensus, should the US tie its interest to those nations obviously acting in their own interests?
    When we find that France has given Iraq US intelligence information, Russia has been training Iraqi intelligence agents for operations against the US, and all three objectors to US military involvement selling Iraq (against UN embargo) sensitive military hardware – how seriously are we expected to take their cries for multilateral engagement?
    With regard to your final point, you make an argument that contains a common fallacy. Because we have supported tyrants in the past, does this mean that we must continue to condone or support tyrants in the present and the future? Or should we attempt to correct our policies? The argument that you present is oft used in order to attempt to bind the options of the US from taking particular actions externally to the nation by holding foreign policy hostage due to errors made in the nation’s past.

  16. As stated in an earlier post:
    A state with internally progressive policies (as opposed to oppressive policies) that allows a larger percentage of its population (total population under state rule) to be directly involved in the political process will face less internal dissent and open rebellion. An empire that oppresses the vast majority of the population (rape, pillage, plunder, death, slavery) and does not include them in the political process leaves no avenue for redress of grievances except through the use of force.
    Regarding your comments on Saudi Arabia:
    The US is not an empire. Saudi Arabia is not part of the US. As a result, the point of your example is lost.

  17. All valid points. You are correct. Representative democracies (federal republics, constitutional monarchies, etc) are a relatively recent development in human history.
    Whether or not representative democracies will be successful remains to be seen.
    However, I submit the following for consideration:
    Let us consider the nation/state in terms of internal and external pressures.
    People crave security – the ability to be master of one’s own destiny, and to be able to live without threat to life or liberty. Early in human history it was recognized that the larger, cohesive group would provide better security than the small or less cohesive group. Society and civilization, of which the concept of the nation-state is a part, was created out of the struggle to pursue stable security.
    A state with internally progressive policies (as opposed to oppressive policies) that allows a larger percentage of its population (total population under state rule) to be directly involved in the political process will face less internal dissent and open rebellion. An empire that oppresses the vast majority of the population and does not include them in the political process leaves no avenue for redress of grievances except through the use of force.
    Therefore, the internal security apparatus (bureaucracy and paramilitary/military forces) required in an oppressive state is very much larger than that required within a more democratic state (percentage population). This creates a larger drain on an economy (higher percentage GNP to internal security).
    Additionally, oppressive regimes tend to be expansionistic. Continued conflict with neighbors requires the creation and maintenance of a large military war machine in order to protect the provinces gained in previous campaigns as well as initiating new offensive campaigns.
    These all sap the nation-state’s resources. Lack of peaceful engagement and trade with neighboring nation-state’s force the oppressive empire to seek economic expansion through conquest. Which means more oppression and more conflict.
    Representative democracies have a history (albeit relatively short) of mutual cooperation, peaceful engagement, and free trade. They tend to have very robust and stable economies (relatively) as a result.
    While it may be too early to tell whether or not they will outlast the Roman Empire, the relatively limited external and internal pressures would lead one to believe that more democratic nations/states have achieved what the empires never could – stable security – and, as a result, stand some chance for surviving as opposed to the inevitable fall that empires face when they become stagnant because continued expansion is impossible.

  18. My objection to our handling of the matter wasn’t so much in its content as the method of delivery. I agree that, because of their own rather complicated dealings (Oil, domestic politics, trying to take over the EU, etc etc) it was very unlikely that we would ever come to a real agreement with France or Germany about this issue, and Russia was only medium-likely; and these circumstances should not have blocked our own foreign policy initiatives. I think the serious multi/unilateralism problem was that almost all of our diplomacy (a few of Powell’s missions excepted) took a strong tone of giving orders to the world – “This is what’s going to happen, you’re either with us or against us.” Even if this is the actual message intended, experience has shown that this kind of phrasing isn’t a particularly effective means of dealing with people; France and Russia in particular have been fairly malleable when their egos were appropriately stroked, giving them the sense that they’re still relevant to international politics, and notoriously intransigent when treated as less than world powers.
    Now, my first instinct when someone requires excessive stroking is to tell them to go to hell. But in this case, I think this was not the correct thing to do, because it creates very significant ill will for the future. (Just looking at the Kyoto->ABM->present situations progression is a good indicator of how this ill will can propagate…) I think the error of current American unilateralism isn’t that we’re willing to act alone, but that we’re dangerously underestimating the long-term costs of building frosty relations with allies. And it’s in this matter that I see the potential parallel to one of Rome’s mistakes, namely not building any mechanisms for peaceful relations with outside powers ahead of time. It’s a mistake that costs nothing – that in fact can be briefly beneficial – so long as one is strong enough to act alone in all things, but can come back to bite you if that ever falters.
    On the latter point, that’s not what I meant at all – my point is simply that we shouldn’t be reluctant to deal with someone else because they’ve dealt with tyrants in the past. (Or even in the present; we’ve got our own fair share of deals with unsalubrious folk at the moment. It’s a necessary part of getting things done in a world that isn’t particularly nice.) There’s certainly no reason why we shouldn’t try to clean our shop in the future.

  19. For the most part, I agree.
    ABM. Kyoto. ICC. UN Resolution on Arms Inspections in Iraq.
    When the various nations are unable to reach consensus or compromise, how are we to stroke the ego while taking the position that is in our best security interest? How do we act multilaterally and take the required actions that are necessary when the multilateral position is to do nothing?
    Personall, I, too, prefer multilateral action. However, I also understand the necessity of invading Iraq. And of withdrawing from the ABM. And not signing ICC. And withdrawing from Kyoto.
    I submit that no amount of ego stroking, as you call it, would pacify the nations positioned against these US stances. And the US stances, I believe, were not entirely unreasonable in these cases. Moot in the context of the current discussion, however.
    Succinctly, I agree that we should be positively engaged in the international community and act multilaterally when possible. There will be cases, however, where we will be forced to continue to act unilaterally (e.g. continued support for Taiwan, India, Israel, and Turkey) despite international objection.

  20. Representative democracies have a history (albeit relatively short) of mutual cooperation, peaceful engagement, and free trade. They tend to have very robust and stable economies (relatively) as a result.
    I’m not sure that’s true. During WWII, a large percentage of the world’s representative democracies were overrun by a republic and a consitutional monarchy that had turned into repressive totalitarian regimes. Having stable internal politics doesn’t matter much if you’re Holland and Germany decides it’s been too long since they kicked your ass. Then another totalitarian regime came in and sucked up some of the rest. The student of modern South America can see democracies with their economies collapsing all over the place.
    Now there are success stories, in terms of not getting conquered, surviving economic problems, and so forth. Off the top of my head, I’d say these are the USA, Canada, Great Britain*, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Eire, and probably one or two others. With the exception of the USA, these are pretty peaceful states. Either a) their neighbors are other democracies (which really helps), b) their neighbors are no one (invading Australia is a royal pain in the ass), or c) they’re neutral (Ireland’s neighbor is a democracy *and* it’s neutral … and all it took was a bloody rebellion followed by a civil war!)
    * an empire until the 1950s, so maybe they don’t count.
    So what does this all mean:
    1) you can say empires collapse “eventually” if you like. In the case of Rome, “eventually” took centuries (millennia, depending on what you count) of Roman domination. I think that the relative youth of representative governments means they can’t be meaningfully compared at the moment.
    2) I think that the success or failure of a government depends on a wide variety of factors, including its neighbors, its economic status (which is not connected to whether it’s representative or not; the end of the British Empire was a time of economic crisis for the nation), and a lot of other circumstances. Being an empire is probably not a sufficient condition for collapse; being a representative state is probably not a sufficient condition for success. They may influence things, but it’s hard to tell.
    3) I’m not sure it’s profitable to talk about a state with internally repressive policies in an era when all states had these. As Yony has pointed out, rebellions in Rome were usually a case of frustrated local elites trying to maintain their own control over the local populace. Occasionally this got dressed up as nationalism (or religious fervor), and hostility to Rome was probably a factor, but in general I don’t think it was the result of the Romans oppressing the little guy.
    4) I’m also twisting my terms a little bit — for example, I’m considering the pre- and post- WWII governments of Norway as two separate entities, when in fact they are pretty much the same (King Haakon, a Storting). If you accept these as the same government, you get a few more democracies, especially in Western Europe. The Netherlands would be another one. (This is one advantage of being a constitutional monarchy; if you can get your monarch to London, you have a great focus for rebuilding the country.)

  21. As representative democracies spread, these nations not only have internal stability but also gain external stability from the exportation of a system of government and economics (representative democracies tend to embrace free market ideals) that support peaceful engagement and mutual growth and stability.
    For example, the concepts of the European Union and the European Economic Community are unprecedented in history. Their success could only happen after representative democracies spread throughout the continent.
    The success of a world body where nations meet to attempt to peacefully resolve international issues (i.e. United Nations) is also unprecedented. The influence and power of the various representative democracies have helped bolster that international community DESPITE the fact a great many of the represented nations are tyrannical.
    Technologies, people, societies and, as a result, history all moved rather slow in the past. Had the Roman Empire existed in these fast-paced times, I doubt it would last a single decade. I submit that the imperial model is inefficient and cannot compete in this new world. Empires have been relegated to the pages of history. Citizens of the world have found their voice and demand their participation in the political processes of their governments. It will take time, but representative democracies will spread to every corner of the globe.
    Your statement regarding Roman internal rebellions is inaccurate. Three Roman legions slaughtered in Teutoberg Forest were not slaughtered by packs of Roman elites dissatisfied with the current status quo. The rebels at Masada were not Roman citizens at all. Nor was Spartacus and the slaves that followed him. Nor were the slaves of the several other revolts.
    Roman history is replete with uprising and rebellions. To state that the rebellions and revolts were little more than civil wars between Roman elites is to whitewash a significant part of Roman history.
    We must be careful when attempting to develop conclusions to the current political environment by studying history. The widespread success of representative democracies is unprecedented in history. Their economic success is unprecedented in history. Their mutual cooperation and formation of international political and economic bodies based on mutual trust and cooperation is unprecedented in history. Their truly global reach and influence is unprecedented in history.
    If you don’t consider the world today in terms of the vast and unique phenomena that are unprecedented throughout history, then you blind yourself to extremely significant factors that are critical in arriving at accurate conclusions.
    Use history, but don’t limit yourself to it. Consider the world within which we live, and how different it is from anything that exists in history.

  22. Your statement regarding Roman internal rebellions is inaccurate. Three Roman legions slaughtered in Teutoberg Forest were not slaughtered by packs of Roman elites dissatisfied with the current status quo. The rebels at Masada were not Roman citizens at all. Nor was Spartacus and the slaves that followed him. Nor were the slaves of the several other revolts.
    Read what I said again. *Local* elites, not Roman. So the German rebellions against Rome were not caused by some kind of desire for representative government, but were driven (mostly; anti-Roman sentiment played a part there) by the desire of the German chiefs and kings to retain their traditional authority. Those are local elites. Jewish religious leaders are a local elite. These rebellions are popular, but they aren’t populist; they’re not going to do anything but replace one autocracy with another. I return to this point in a moment.
    Spartacus’s rebellion was during the Republic, but yes, slave revolts did happen, you’re perfectly correct. And Rome had a couple of things that came close to popular uprisings, too. I just think that you’re overlooking the fact that recently-conquered parts of the Empire were states of their own before being conquered; they fought to get back to the way things were. The problem here may be conflating the ideas of “representation” and “self-determination.” (So, for instance, it is possible for Great Britain to be a representative constitutional monarchy, and still have Rhodesia and India as colonial possessions; similarly Rhodesia can gain its independence and, rather than becoming a democracy, become a brutal military dictatorship.) I think we’ve been making a mistake of not clearly separating “empire” and “not a representative government.”
    Anyway, to move on. I think in the rest of your post you’re taking issue with things I didn’t say. I never said that history provides accurate parallels for the modern day. I used examples of democracies collaping from the recent past — things that happened within living memory — to point out that democracies aren’t bulletproof. That’s all. You think they’re in it for the long haul? Good, I certainly hope so. On my optimistic days I’d say “me too.” You think current situation is unprecedented in history? It probably is — I think the end of the Cold War created a global political environment in which the various players are still finding their places. But there are some historical principles that apply no matter when you are, and I think that one of them is “things happen for a lot of different reasons; it is a mistake to deal in absolutes.”

  23. Actually, in many cases, the local leadership preferred to maintain the status quo. This would allow them to stay in power without incurring the destructive wrath of the Romans.
    When Masada finally fell, Jerusalem had already fallen and the religious and civil authorities slaughtered long ago.
    In the German tribes, Arminius had to convince the Germanic chieftains and the various tribes to band together against the Romans. The leadership was fearful, even during their campaign against the Romans, of the Roman wrath.
    When the Roman armies did finally arrive, the Romans were so savage and brutal that even Germanicus (in command of Roman forces) stated that in this war there were no winners.
    Perhaps we are talking at cross points, but my only point was that political systems that are less oppressive and that include the participation of a larger segment of their population tend to face less internal pressure and, therefore, (all other things being equal) tend to have a greater probability of achieving balance and surviving.
    “But there are some historical principles that apply no matter when you are, and I think that one of them is “things happen for a lot of different reasons; it is a mistake to deal in absolutes.”
    If this is true, then we should never call “science” such disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and archeology. Even in the realm of Political Science we find that there are some basic truths – absolutes, if you will.
    The direct relationship between oppression/effective political power by the population and the internal stability of a nation, for example.
    The more people have a voice in the affairs of the state, the less likely it is that there will be internal pressures active in the destruction of the said state.

  24. I think my opinion is this: Every type of government has its own internal strengths and weaknesses. Dictatorships have unified decision-making but are vulnerable to single, bad rulers; democracies optimize for the opposite. In either case, there are other questions, like the means of succession – democracies have some intrinsic systems for that, but there have been elected dictatorships in the past. (As in Greece)
    The Roman experiment is a good demonstration of how certain internal failure modes can, over time, be amplified to catastrophic proportions. Some of these (e.g. the poor succession mechanism) are distinctly associated with their internal political system, while others (e.g. random taxation) could happen under a very different sort of regime. It seems clear that the strains of running an empire will accentuate certain kinds of strain, especially those which influence logistical matters.
    However, I don’t think we can make too many conclusions from this about how other kinds of systems will fare as empires. Democracy in its modern form hasn’t been tested for very long, and it’s been tested even less under the strains of empire; Britain is the first example that comes to mind, but we don’t necessarily have the hindsight yet to make conclusions about how their own political structure interacted with the end of their empire. (Or perhaps we do – I’m not really an expert on British history. James, maybe you know more about this?) In particular, it’s hard to tell whether representative democracy in general is capable of supporting a long-term empire, and even harder to tell whether a particular one can. I could imagine possible failure modes – e.g., “bread and circuses” governments, rapidly rising internal dissent – but those could turn out to be red herrings. The actual, ultimate failure modes may (likely) be completely different.
    The only conclusions I feel we can draw comfortably are that Rome had certain, particular failure modes, some of which are mostly inapplicable to our case, and some of which are potentially highly applicable; that the analysis of these failure modes is relevant, since we are both subject to the strains of running an empire (albeit empires of two very different sorts… the difference in the techniques of dominion is pretty significant, without a doubt); and that ultimately, every empire comes to an end, every good situation and every bad situation ultimately changes, and so to adequately prepare for running a thousand-year empire, one needs to always be ready to deal with sudden shifts in situation.
    (Consider that, in the past century and a hair, not a long period by Roman standards, America has gone from a back-woods colony to an international power, to a superpower, to a sole superpower; Russia has gone from a feudalism to communism to whatever you would call its current situation, briefly becoming a superpower in the process; and the empires of Europe have all crumbled to dust. Sic transit…)

  25. we don’t necessarily have the hindsight yet to make conclusions about how their own political structure interacted with the end of their empire. (Or perhaps we do – I’m not really an expert on British history. James, maybe you know more about this?)
    The question is still very much up for debate. It’s been suggested that without the control of British public opinion, etc., India would never have gained its independece, or at least that the struggle for independence would have been bloodier and more awful than it was. It’s a matter of some debate whether Gandhi could have got away with nonviolently resisting, say, the Germans. But on the other hand I think you have to take into account the attitudes of the international community, and indeed of Britain’s big muscular ally, which was not very much in favor of empires. In addition, changes in economic conditions were making the Empire less of an asset than it had been in the past.
    Mind you, Britain still has an Empire. It’s just not much of one: the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Falkland Islands, Tristan da Cunha, British South Pacific Territory, Gibraltar, and a couple of other places.

  26. Perhaps we are talking at cross points, but my only point was that political systems that are less oppressive and that include the participation of a larger segment of their population tend to face less internal pressure and, therefore, (all other things being equal) tend to have a greater probability of achieving balance and surviving.
    I think we are in fact talking at cross purposes: I was just backing up Yony, who pointed out that most Roman rebellions were not trying to change the government to a less oppressive form, just one run by oppressors closer to home.
    I think that an important point here is the difference between “political system in which the individual citizens/constituents aren’t included” and “empire.” I think these are different things, representation and self-determination. Rome had neither; the post-WWI British Empire had one but not the other, the USA mostly has both, although we still have a few little territories like Guam. The rebels at Masada weren’t fighting for representation, they were fighting for self-determination. (How useful the concept of self-determination is when “self” means “an emperor who looks more like me than Nero does” is one of those questions — it doesn’t make much sense, but it’s clearly an important thing to a lot of people).
    If this is true, then we should never call “science” such disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and archeology.
    Yeah, no kidding. “Scientific techniques no more make archaeology a science than a wooden leg makes a man a tree.” I could quibble about psychology, but as for the rest you’re spot on. I think they make useful contributions to the knowledge of human history, society, and behavior, but if you are looking for “if X, then Y” you are in the wrong place.
    The more people have a voice in the affairs of the state, the less likely it is that there will be internal pressures active in the destruction of the said state.
    I just had this weird image of a bunch of dissidents in 1930s Germany being hauled off, saying to each other: “don’t feel so bad, Fritz. It was really unlikely that this was going to happen.” Or, dare I say, modern Americans trying to get their heads round the idea that people would vote a theocracy into power. Which only means, I think, that all else is not always equal and that unlikely events happen all the time.
    So I think that you can make statements that “the more X, the less likely Y, usually.” If that’s the kind of “absolute” you’re talking about, then fine. I agree with you completely. It’s even a useful guide to thinking about the way politics work, although it’s not a substitute for knowledge about the political and economic conditions of a particular region/period. But you have to admit that it wouldn’t cut much ice as “science.” Or maybe it would — science these days is getting awfully complex and unpredictable.
    I happen to think the whole debate over “is archaeology a science” is both pointless and useless. Archaeology is what archaeology is; the study of the material culture of the past using some techniques that are scientific (we can say with certainty that this tree was cut down in 976-878 AD) and some that you’d be hard-pressed to apply that label to (this cloister is a feminine space). Call it a science, you won’t change what archaeologists do — you’ll just be widening your definition of science. Don’t call it a science, and archaeologists will still be studying the material culture of the past using etc. It won’t make a blind bit of difference to the practice of archaeology.
    I just looked at the clock and realized I have to go. You can reply if you like, but chances are I won’t post again at least until after the exams.

  27. There are certain communities within government that are uncannily accurate in their predictions on the course of nations and the world. When failures occur, it is because conclusions were forced to be drawn without critical information. The methodolgy is sound.
    Analyzing nation-states and regions is much more scientific than you make it sound. There are well established theories, principles, and laws are proven over and over again.
    These can be applied to the Roman Empire, as well as any other nation-state. Analysis is more science than art – even in the realm of internaional relations.

  28. As stated earlier, there is much more technical discipline than you make it appear. Predictions can be made by watching certain factors.
    Thus the discussion on science.

  29. (Are you answering me or James here? I don’t think I said anything about the possibilities of analysis – and I’d certainly agree with you that it can be done, and to useful effect. Although the ‘art’ vs. ‘science’ distinction may be a bit academic)
    The failures I was concerned with aren’t failures of intelligence per se; they’re policy failures, which sometimes come from poor intelligence, but more often come from not thinking of something as a potential problem until it’s too late. (To stick with a Roman example, people simply weren’t thinking about unpredictable taxation as a critical problem because people weren’t doing serious analysis of how the empire’s logistics were holding together; they kept thinking of all supply matters as local issues rather than systematic imperial ones.)
    I’m simply not as convinced that democracy, in and of itself, makes the American and Roman empires incomparable. While it’s a difference, I’d say it’s not necessarily a very large one as far as long-term stability issues are concerned; this based mostly on the fact that most of Rome’s problems weren’t directly related to its internal governance so much as its system for handling its peripheries.

  30. You’re right, it’s not just the the type of government, which would be an oversimplification. It’s everything else in addition to the type of government which is directly and significantly impacted by the type of government in place. It’s also the economic system, domestic policies, external policies, military strategy and tactics, internal security methods, personal liberties of citizens, personal liberties of non-citizens, political processes, judicial system, rule of law, etc etc ad nauseum.
    There are so many and such significant difference between the US and the Roman Empire that any analysis of parallels must be made at very, very specific levels.
    “this based mostly on the fact that most of Rome’s problems weren’t directly related to its internal governance so much as its system for handling its peripheries. ”
    I submit that its internal government is at heart of the issue.

  31. there is much more technical discipline than you make it appear.
    I don’t know. I’m pretty familiar with how archaeology works (because, well, you know), and although I’m not a polisci student I grew up around political scientists — my dad was a professor of political science at Stanford (before the USSR collapsed and all of a sudden he became a professor of history) and my uncle’s also a political science professor (and a hard-core Marxist: now there’s some guys who think they can make predictions). I know that most political scientists are happier making forecasts on a smaller level (Country X will do this because of W, Y and Z) or on a more abstract level (generally, countries faced with X will do Y and Z). Predictions like the ones you made (in general, states with a greater level of representation will be less likely to suffer from dangerous internal dissent) are well within the range of political science’s ability to make predictions. But I don’t think it’s equivalent to the physical sciences’ ability to make predictions like “when we drop this cannonball off this tower, it will fall at such-and-such a rate.”
    Anyway, like I already said, the debate about whether X is a “science” and Y isn’t is completely meaningless, an artifact of the way in which university departments are structured and not much more.
    The bit where I admit my bias: my undergraduate degree was in history. In the basement of the Seeley Building in Cambridge, where the history department men’s room is, one of the toilet paper dispensers has written on it: “SPS [Social and Political Sciences, that is] degrees: please take one.” There’s a lot of animosity between the elder History department and the younger, smaller SPS department, and most historians have a fairly dismissive attitude toward the antics of political scientists, who are considered to be useless at best and harmless at worst. I don’t share this extreme view of things (how could I?) but the traditional animosity probably colors the debate.
    That’ll teach me to check my mail.

  32. I can’t really talk intelligently about how history is taught. I do know that my analysts use a heck of a lot of math when they’re trying to discern and predict the behaviors.
    There are even principles and laws (Vattel, which has been quoted in the context of both) that have been developed and are used to not only predict the behavior of nations, but to establish internal and external policies.
    Whether or not we call it science or voodoo, my guys are very accurate and very precise.

  33. There are so many and such significant difference between the US and the Roman Empire that any analysis of parallels must be made at very, very specific levels.

    While this is true, I think there are also enough similarities that the parallels can be meaningfully made, and most of the similarities come down to the fact that all sole world powers have similar issues to deal with. So these specific levels can actually still be fairly broad.
    I’m still not convinced about the salience of the internal government question. There’s no doubt that that was some of the issue for Rome, but it seems to me that most of Rome’s problems would have happened if it were a democracy, as well. (By that meaning “democracy at home,” not democracy over the entire empire – i.e., more or less comparable to America’s situation)
    I think part of the issue of comparison also depends on what we consider to be a part of the American empire. I’ve been implicitly thinking of our empire as consisting of those states over which we exert either direct rule (e.g. Iraq) or over which we have such strong influence that really they can’t act in contravention of our wishes. I’m thinking of Saudi Arabia as an example of the latter, although they’ve been trying awful hard to buck us lately; until pretty recently, all factions of the government there recognized that the only thing between them and a lynch mob was the rather powerful American backing they had, both economic and military, and so they were forced to act more or less in line with our interests. (Not entirely in line, granted – but most Roman provincial governors were acting in their own interests first and Rome’s interests second as well, so that doesn’t necessarily break the imperial analogy) More recently, they may be finding that catering to local Wahhabi clerics is even more important to their survival than us, and so what we’re seeing may be part of a “silent rebellion” by the local elites, tacitly encouraging anti-American groups as a way of getting themselves more political freedom.
    I realize this is a pretty expansive definition of empire, but I think it’s an appropriate one since America has a really extraordinary amount of political power derived from relationships of this sort, all over the globe. I’d even go as far as to say that this sort of relationship is one of the two core reasons that we’re a superpower and not just a major power, the other being our economic ties to the world. Since during the Cold War era those two facts were highly intertwined, I’m inclined to call them all part of the same client-state relationship, and thus use this fairly broad definition.
    The point of this being that, if we consider such semi-dependent states to be part of our empire, it becomes clearer that democracy is really only at home; the client states have essentially no influence over our internal rulership, and often fairly little even over their own. Likewise, using this expansive model I think that other analogues with the Roman Empire start to get a bit tighter. There are well-defined local elites with their own power interests, for instance, and the empire is much bigger than we could ever directly maintain by military force; therefore force projection has to be localized and orchestrated for maximum effect in scaring off others.
    And in this case, I think the issue of how our internal rulership is decided has less of an impact over how the empire is adminstered. Unless our internal situation were so unstable that civil wars large enough to interrupt central control over the peripheries (in the above sense, of “strong influence”) were happening, I think the dynamics of the empire as a whole would be pretty insensitive to whether we were internally a democracy or a monarchy.
    Except, that is, for the fact that democracies tend to have fewer total lunatics in power, over time, than monarchies. That’s the sort of nice thing about them.

  34. (And BTW, when I make this definition of empire, I’m not suggesting that it’s a bad thing at all – if anything, I’d say that membership in the American Empire is a net benefit for most people in the world, with the exception of local elites who imagine what their power could be like if they weren’t part of a larger system. A statement which may well get me pilloried by some in the Left. 🙂

  35. What are you doing? You’re better than this.
    You may not be an analyst, but you’re a scientist. You, above all people, should appreciate the application of precise terminology when bounding the problem. To conveniently mislabel the United States an “empire” for the sake of drawing parallels that are biased or skewed toward a particular conclusion is intellectual dishonesty.
    I stand by my previous statements: significant and numerous differences in both the internal and external situations of the modern-day United States and the ancient Roman Empire outweigh the rather minor similarities between them. Therefore, to make broad and general parallels between the two in order to arrive at rather specific conclusions is to make the analysis highly prone to significant error.
    I’ve fired analysts for committing these sorts of sins.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: