The Roman and the U.S. Empire: A Close Comparison
Both of these empires characterized a certain centrality (p. 3). During the Roman Empire, Rome was the capital of the empire. The flows of tribute and taxes from the Roman provinces were directed there and to the primary armies. The empire, although, was not circular. It was an east-west extension, as required by the differences in the communications links provided by the Mediterranean and the boundaries of the Sahara and the Alpine ranges (p. 3).
The Roman Empire began the Roman Republic when Julius and Augustus Caesar changed it from a republic into a monarchy (Anderson, p. 1). It was an ancient empire centered on the Mediterranean Sea, commonly dated from accession of the Emperor Augustus in 27 BC through the abdication of the last emperor in 476 AD (p. 1). The initial two centuries of the Roman Empire were depicted by the Pax Romana, a period of unchallenged peace and prosperity. While the Roman expansions were commonly attained under the republic, it persisted under the Roman emperors (p. 1). Specifically, northern Europe was conquered in the 1st century AD. It was also during this time when Rome strengthened its reigns in Europe, Africa and Asia (p. 1). There were uprisings, though. However, these were successfully put down by the Roman military. Unluckily, the Judea uprising was not pacified and this led to the suicide of the unpopular Emperor Nero and a short civil war (p. 1).
Rome reached its imperial heights during the 2nd century. After then, its wealth declined slowly. During the late 3rd century, the emperor Diocletian maintained the reign of the empire and he initiated the practice of sharing authority between four co-emperors (p. 1). There was disorder after his rule and it was pacified by the reign of Constantine, who was the first emperor to convert to Christianity and who created Rome’s eastern empire in Constantinople (p. 2). During the next years, the Roman Empire was usually divided along an East/West (Constantinople/Rome) axis (p. 2). Theodosius I was the final emperor to rule over both the east and west empire. He died in 395 AD after establishing Christianity as the formal religion of the Roman Empire. At the onset of the late 4th century, the Roman Empire started its demise as barbarians from the north overpowered the tight military control of the Romans (p. 2). The crumbling Western Roman Empire ended in 476 when Romulus Augustus was asked to concede to the German warlord, Odoacer (p. 2).
Many Roman Emperors came to the throne through election, heredity, coercion and betrayal, even murder or assasination. This is because the main support of an emperor's power and authority lies on the military. Being paid by the imperial treasury, the legionaries also pledge a yearly military oath of loyalty towards the emperor. The military called the emperor, “The Sacramentum” (Woolf, p. 14). The demise of the Roman emperor led to a crucial period of uncertainty and crisis. Formally, the Roman Senate was allowed to select the new emperor. However, in reality, most Roman emperors selected their own successors, often their kin or close family member. The new emperor had to confirm the general acknowledgement of his new position and authority so as to stabilize the political environment (p. 15). No Roman emperor could hope to survive, much less to rule, without the support and loyalty of the Praetorian Guard and of the legions (p 15). To secure their loyalty, several emperors paid the donativum, a monetary reward. Hence, in hindsight, the stability of the throne was usually dependent on various unpredictable factors and this led to the short reigns of most emperors.
In addition, politics was so much involved in the process of electing an emperor. No emperor could lead the Roman Empire unless blessed by the Senatorial order and the Equestrian order (p. 16). Most of the more vital government posts and offices were alloted for the members of these two aristocratic orders. It was from these two orders that the provincial governors, legion commanders, and similar officials were selected from. These two orders were elitist and were closed to outsiders. Very popular individuals could enter. However, this was an exception. The political career of a young aristocrat towards his reign as a Roman Emperor was very much influenced by his family links and the support of the said orders and patrons. Patronage politics was into play aside from the aristocrat’s ability, skills, intelligence, and experience.
Roman Taxation and Wealth
As mentioned, control during the Roman Empire was from a centrally-located capital, Rome, and flows of tribute and taxation were directed there, and to the frontier armies, from the provinces. Tribute-extracting systems were slowly created during the last centuries of the Roman expansion, generally through the use of tax-farming (Strauss, p. 1). As an outcome, the profits of expansion consisted largely of booty from campaigns. Unsuccessful groups were exploited by mainly obliging them to participate in new conquests as allies and by the establishment of a clientage (p. 1). The expansion only stopped when August Caesar made a systematic infrastructure for the extraction of taxes or tributes (p. 1).
This high-tax, high-spend structure meant that the Roman Empire insisted itself into localities to increase taxation. It was also able to efficiently collect money since the taxation was heavily supported by the Roman Army, who also heavily depended upon it. Generally, the tax rate was around 1% and it sometimes rose to 3% in situations such as wars (p. 1). These modest taxes were levied against land, homes, and other estates, including slaves, animals, personal wealth and items, etc. Taxes were collected individually.
Taxes were used to finance the rising costs of administrating and financing the Roman legions (p. 1). These were a necessity in order for the empire to sustain its national defense and to maintain their citizens’ loyalty. There were constant spending on warfare and it depleted the national treasures and collections. Because of the implementation of the slave labor, most of the Roman population also subsisted under government subsidies.
The Toppling of the Roman Legions
The dynamics of the Roman Empire emphasized military and political elements, particularly competition and martial values among the elite (Woolf, p. 21). However, the concept of competition was hardly unique to the Republican Rome. This is somehow linked with the rise of the slave mode of production in central Italy (p. 21). Roman aristocrats were certainly conscious of the personal gains to be made from expansion. However, their gains were mainly valued as contributory to the “glory” of the Roman Empire and not necessarily to the economic and military contributions of the conquest.
Indeed, expansion was against the interests of slave traders, since enslavement within the Roman Empire was forbidden (p. 122). Slaves were normally extracted from lands beyond the Roman Empire. In short, the central Roman legions collapsed since the migrants forcibly stripped it of the tax base for military purposes and not for long-term developmental investments (Anderson, p. 1). Another important basis for the collapse was the location of the clientage. External to the Roman states are tribes and provinces whose allegiance (and taxes) was difficult to manage. There was a major lack of management and discipline. Some of these tribes became useful allies to others. With the concept of freedom from direct Roman Empire control, the legions got loose. Hence, the Romans were not able to gain from their expansion, in economic terms. In this abrupt phase of collapse, some local Roman legions instantly went down. In Britain and north eastern Gaul, Roman landlords lost their estates and Roman culture disappeared with them (p. 1).
The Roman Way of Life
There were two distinctive dimensions of culture during the reign of the empire. The first was the “Roman”' in the sense of the “Rome” being the central state and the second was the “Roman” in the sense of characteristic patterns of life being lived within the Roman borders. Generally, the rich Romans had a good life. They had nice houses, usually on the hills outside Rome and they enjoyed extravagant lifestyles with elegant furnishings. They were also surrounded by their slaves and servants. The poor Romans, although, were living in squalid. They amused themselves with entertainment in public squares such as the chariot races and the gladiators (p. 22). While their lives were different, any Roman family would be headed by a man. He controlled the household while his wife managed it. Only the man could own property and he decided on the fate of his family members (the same way as the Emperors decided on the welfare of the state).
At the state level, the Roman Empire was not just replaced by mini versions of itself, even where Roman landowners persisted (Woolf, p. 18). Within two generations of 476 AD, a new and weaker type of state structure had emerged right across the former Roman west. Under this level, the old Roman Empire deployed two main systems of central power. First was the large-scale taxation, two-thirds of which was then spent on maintaining the second system, a massive, professional army.
At the local level, the characteristic patterns of local Roman life were very mush associated with the existence of the central Roman state, and, as the nature of state structures changed in the post-Roman world, the local living changed, too. Cultural patterns were also altered beyond recognition (p. 22). Roman elites learned to read and write classical Latin to such sophisticated levels through a broad and expensive private education. They were motivated mainly because it was a ticket for careers in the general Roman bureaucracy (p. 22). However, the end of taxation led to the disappearance of these lucrative careers in the post-Roman west. The Roman parents stopped spending so much money on education and thus, advanced literacy was contained with the churchmen for the next 500 years (p. 23).
The Fall of the Empires
The reign of the Roman Empire reminds us so much of the imperialism of the United States. At this juncture, it is best to identify the parallelisms between their fall, since these are vital lessons in history and in the future. Cullen’s book entitled “Are We Rome?” argued the various and striking similarities between the Roman and the U.S. empires. The author, then, argued, that the national character of the Americans separate them from the ill fate of the Roman Empire (Cullen, p. 43). Generally, there are political, military, geographic, and demographic similarities. Both Rome and the U.S. shared dominant powers globally. They both have the military and political powers to control other nations and regions of the world (p. 44). They were also leaders in the “soft” powers such as in technology, the arts and culture, language, business or commerce and trading, etc. (p. 43). In approximation, the two empires are also similar in terms of size (p. 44). The Roman Empire and its Mediterranean lake equal the three million square miles of the Lower Forty-eight states.
Aside from these, the two empires also both have global influence. They both established global structures, in aspects of governance, economy, military, and culture. Both also have an open society that is composed of various races. They are open to migrants and they are welcoming of the “genes and lifestyles and gods of everyone else” (p. 44). Both empires also share their distinct citizenships to incoming tribes from all over the world. Both empires also share similar cultures. Both identify themselves as distinct citizens that carry national characters uniquely their own.
The major similarities lie in the two empires’ fall and failings. As the Roman Republic fell due to politics and lack of national management, the United States also foresaw a failing in its staggering increase in the cost of elections, with unclear campaign fund resources (p. 1). According to Strauss (p. 1), the U.S. 2012 election reportedly cost $3 billion. All of these funds were raised from private sources, which often created the appearance or the reality that the national leaders are beholden to certain interest groups. This was true of the late Roman Republic. Their elections became remarkably expensive, with the same negative results (p. 1). As written, Caesar heavily borrowed for one political campaign that he feared he would be ruined, if he was not elected (p. 1).
Same with the corrupt Roman Emperors, the U.S. politics also led to the “Road to Personal Wealth” (p. 1). During the late Roman Republic era, holding a public office was one of the main paths to wealth. Hence, bureaucrats exploited their positions to attain massive, personal wealth. This is true of the American politicians. The U.S. Congressman, Senators and their staffs leverage their administrative positions to move to private sector positions, which pay three to ten times their government compensation. Given this financial status, their main agenda is focused on aggrandizing their wealth and not on helping the people who elected them into public office.
While it is true that the Roman Empire share a lot of similarities with the United States, Anderson (p. 1) also asserted the significant differences between the two. The author admonished that the people recognize these differences as they may be vital keys in understanding the future of the United States (p. 1).
The characteristics of the Roman Empire are hard to analyze or criticize. This should not be taken purely on political or economic terms. This is true with the analysis or the study of the failings of the U.S. Empire. Both empires have the political structures and social values that serve as their parameters and borders under which economic developments take place. While during the Roman Empire, economic growth was either non-existent or a response to the establishment of the tributary mode of production, it was during the U.S. Empire when the instruments of capitalism existed and its growth was greatly influenced by political and social factors (p. 1).
However, there is no denying that the Americans see themselves as the Romans, in terms of grandeur and glory. The way Americans see America and the way they look up to Washington is very much similar to how the Romans admired and revered Rome. Like the Romans, Americans tend to see themselves as more significant than they are. They tend to be larger than life and their sense of presence is seen by the world as their independence and leadership to act alone and lead others.
Another striking semblance is how they consider the outside world. As they both believe in the powers of their nations, they tend to devalue others. Rome underestimated other nations’ capabilities. Hence, in A.D. 9, Rome experienced defeat as three Roman legions were ambushed by a tiny German force. This led to a great repercussion. The same way, the United States was also greatly surprised when it was attacked by the Middle Eastern terrorist groups right at the heart of its homeland – New York, its banner city.
Another major semblance is how the military might enhanced the political and the economic powers of the American empires. Both empires began to depend on their militaries and start to find recruits through external sources. Thirdly, both empires had problems in maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities.
The question of borders is a fifth parallel. The boundary of Rome “was less a fence and more a threshold—not so much a firm line fortified with ‘Keep Out’ signs as a permeable zone of continual interaction.” Compare that description to our border with Mexico, and so can see many similarities.
Ultimately, both empires share the same size and complexity. The Roman Empire expanded too wide physically and this led to its complex administration and control. As Murphy explained, “the larger a country or civilization, the more “it touches, and the more susceptible it is to forces beyond its control” (p. 1). This is true of the United States. The more it got enveloped into the domestic affairs of other countries (or the points of its interest such as the Arab countries for its oil), the more it was hard for its government to manage its international affairs. This led to an internal entanglement between nations and ultimately harbored much animosity for the imperialistic America.
Anderson, Kerby. The Decline of a Nation. Probe Ministries. 1991. Accessed on 21 June 2014 www.probe.org.
Murphy, Cullen. Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 2007.
Strauss, Steven. 8 striking Parallels Between the U.S. and the Roman Empire. Salon Website. Accessed on 21 June 2014 < http://www.salon.com/2012/12/26/8_striking_parallels_between_the_u_s_and_the_roman_empire/>.
Woolf, Greg. World Systems Analysis and the Roman Empire. n.d. Accessed on 21 June 2014 < http://berlinarchaeology.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/woolf-1990.pdf>.