Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Is America the New Rome?

I remember reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire back in college when I was a history minor. I remember class discussion then about whether America was headed down the same path in terms of eventual decline. This topic resurfaced, as it frequently does, in today's LM_NET discussion. However, the thread was ended before it could be discussed. I contacted Edward Nizalowski, the original poster, and he gave me permission to share his query here and give space here for people to respond. Here is his submission:

"I have seen a variety of opinions expressed over the years comparing
American society and culture to that of the Romans. One of the most
pertinent questions involves whether we will repeat the "decline and
fall" part. I certainly see ourselves in decline, but I'm not ready to
bet money that will be falling apart in the near or distant future.

Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and
the Fate of America was interviewed in the latest issue of U. S. News
and World Report (May 7th). This exchange was especially perceptive:

You say there was an almost fatal parochialism among the Romans. Are we
in danger of duplicating it?

"I was looking the other day at one of the new Pew Center polls about
'what Americans know.' Americans in general aren't that interested in,
or aware of, the outside world, and increasingly even our elites don't
seem to put much stock in that kind of knowledge either. We don't have
[enough] Arabic speakers; the number of foreign correspondents continues
to shrink. Compared with the Greeks, the Romans were not passionately
interested in the outside world. And they were often taken by surprise.
The great disaster suffered by Varus in Germany in A. D. 9, when three
entire Roman legions were annihilated, stemmed partly from ignorance
about the tribes they were up against." "

Please feel free to share your comments.


  1. Gavin CallaghanMay 6, 2007 at 2:01 PM

    This is quite a coincidence, as I was recently working on an essay on much the same topic. The parallels between America and Rome go far beyond mere parochialism, to include the whole of U.S. foreign polciy and pragmatic worldview. As Polish writer K. S. Karol observed in his book China: The Other Communism (1967) written during the U.S. involvement during the Vietnam war:

    “I.F. Stone recently noted on a U.S. Marines’ recruiting poster this symbolic phrase: ‘The Pax Romana was the longest period of peace humanity has ever known. Join the Marines to ensure the Pax Americana.’ I wonder in what history book the Pentagon recruiting sergeants found this revelation of the benefits of the Roman ‘peace’; but the comparison is significant. Many Americans believe that their country is so powerful and rich that it can play the role that once belonged in the ancient past to the Romans. And in the American Congress there is no lack of modern Catos to proclaim Ceterum censeo Carthaginem delendum esse, …. (…)” (345-46)

    This comparison of American militarism and the "Pax Romana" of Rome is very significant, and the parallels between America and Rome are indeed much closer than would at first appear.

    As French historian Gerald Messadie observes, “Rome was originally a commerical nation that rule don political principles alone. Some have found it vexing that it had no ‘soul’ --at least not one that was Christian, Fascist, Nazi, and so on-- and have assiduously tried to concot one for it.” Assiduously “practical” and “utilitarian”, their “feet firmly on the ground”, enemies to mystical and Dionysian excess, their religion a “guarantor of order”, what some find so troubling to some about the Romans (and their gods) was, what historian Theodor Mommsen called their blindness to “…the mysterious shiver the heart seeks out.” (MESSADIE 152)

    Like the Romans, American foreign policy is primarly pragmatic and functional. Despite the Christian rhetoric often invoked by President Bush and his advisors, Christianity and its doctrines are actually (and refreshingly) absent from America’s economic, military, and foreign affairs. As conservative writer H. P. Lovecraft once rightly observed (in 1932): “Christianity cannot be taken seriously. … Had it been cast overboard long ago, the western world would have had all the earlier start toward a rational system of administration based on the actual needs of actual people. All that has enabled European mankind to survive in the past is the ignoring of the theoretical Christian docrtine and ethic.” This pragmatism allows President Bush and his followers to give lip-service to “the value of human life” and “Christian ethics” on the one hand, and then trade with nations like China on the other, a country in which Christians are persecuted and women are forced against their will to have abortions. Only in domestic and health affairs is Christianity preached and practiced to some degree by the U.S. government: but here, again, it is only invoked in a half-hearted and inconsistent way, so that, for instance, while Levitical laws against homosexuality are recognized by law, other Levitical laws concerning diet proscriptions and the touching of corpses are ignored, as are the Old Testament’s clear endorsements of polygamy, animal sacrifice, and slavery.

    It is ironic, then, that the current U.S. administration, which has so consistently identified itself, at least in its domestic policy, with religion, particularly Christianity, is currently engaged in a war against religious zealots who, quite rightly --given our nation’s secular and pragmatic foreign policy-- regard U.S. forces as “heathens” and servants of “Satan”. Indeed, this fundamental contradiction between the U.S.’s illusory social values and its actual foreign and military practices represents a fundamental flaw in American civilization and society --one which is foredoomed to short-circuit any attempt at even constructing the vocabulary of a dialogue with the East.

    The Romans, too, in the first century A.D., during their occupation of Israel, called by the Romans "Judea", found themselves in precisely the same situation as the U.S. in Iraq today: the pragmatic and rationalistic Roman conquerors, for whom gods were statues to be propitiated and then forgotten about --abstract ideas and personifications of mental attributes and natural forces-- becoming embroiled in a messianic war with a terroristic element among the Jews, who believed that the world was about to end, who believed that the Romans were servants of “Satan” (the Romans had never even heard of Satan), and who believed that the Messiah was shortly to descend to the earth with legions of angels, and put all of “God’s” enemies to the sword. These Jewish terrorists were referred to under various cirumlocutions in the works of Josephus and others, being called variously "robbers", "Zealots", followers of the "fourth philosophy", "Essenes", and "Sicarii" --the latter term being replaced in the New Testament by yet another evasive circumlocution, ie the well-known "Iscariot" (as in Judas Iscariot). Classical scholar Alexander Smith draws a direct line between these Sicarii terrorists and later Islamic terrorism in his entry on the “Sicarii” in his Classical Dictionary of 1881, comparing the “habits ….. of the Sicarii” with those of a “branch of the fanatic sect of Assassins” who “existed, at the time of the Crusades,“ ie the "Assassins" of Hassan-I-Sabbah, the original prototype of Osama bin Laden, who supposedly, I've read, held Europe in a grip of terror during the Middle Ages, ---although the later Assassins, he observes, “were of Arabian [and not Jewish] origin.”

    The attitude of these Jewish- messianic terrorists toward the occupying Romans was both aggravated and complicated by the Hellenizing tendencies which were apparent in the Jewish ruling classes, particularly the Herodians, who were regarded by Jewish zealots such as those at Qumran, as collaborators and therefore as "Satanic".

    Herod‘s reign over Israel, much like Sadaam Hussein’s in Iraq, was basically a police state. Extremely paranoid, even of his own family, Herod had spies everywhere, scouting out for signs of subversion, so that Israelites were even afraid to meet in groups, or to discuss political issues. According to Leon Bernstein, in his 1938 study of Josephus, “The suspicions of Herod against his sons became morbid. His whole life became disturbed. He hated everybody, trusted no one, and finally developed a fear of ghosts. ….. (…) …Herod, in his delirium, seized all persons of rank, and either put them to the torture, or executed them at once….“ (p. 92)

    The response of the Romans to the Jewish-terrorist threat in Israel was much like that of the U.S. today against the terrorist threat in Iraq following the U.S. invasion. According to Josephus, “the number of Robbers [“Lestai”] he [Felix, Roman governor of Judaea, 52-60 C.E.] caused to be crucified, and the common people caught and punished with them were a multitude not to be enumerated.” Festus, after him, is likewise described by Josephus as sending “armed forces, horsemen and foot soldiers, to fall upon those seduced by a certain Imposter, who had promised them Salvation and Freedom from the troubles they suffered if they would follow him into the Wilderness”. In another case, a revolutionary named “Theudas”, who led his followers into the Wilderness and attempted to part the waters of the Jordan, was beheaded by Roman Governor Fadus in the middle of the first century. This background of “preventative executions” in order to quell messianic agitation, described by Josephus in detail, likewise forms the backdrop for all of the messianic events in the later New Testament, including of course the beheading of “John the Baptist” and the crucifixion of Jesus --and it is notable that, even today, such “preventative” attacks form the basis for U.S. foreign policy’s application of force in the Middle East, such as the "preemptive" invaion of Iraq, as well as in the justification of the use of force by the various sides in the Palestinian struggle.

    In another instance, Josephus writes:

    “During his stay in Caesara, Titus celebrated his brother Domitian’s birthday with great lavishness, reserving for this occasion the punishment of many Jewish captives, the number of whom destroyed in contests with wild beasts or with one another or in the flames exceeded 2,500. To the Romans, however, the various forms in which these victims perished seemed all too light a penalty. After this Titus went on to Berytus [Beruit]… Here, too, innumerable captives perished in the same manner as before.”

    Interestingly, in 64 C.E., the fear and terror in Israel due to terrorism was increased when Albinus, “Hearing the next governor, Florus, was coming to replace him, emptied the prisons, arbitrarily putting many to death, but letting others go with ‘the payment of bribes’ so that as Josephus ruefully observed, ‘the country was filled with Robbers.’ “ (Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, p. 487) Although Eisenman is quick to link this “emptying of prisons” to the New Testament’s use of similar prisoner-releases as the backdrop for Jesus’ crucifixion ---we might also note the similarity to the behavior of Saddam Hussein just before the American invasion, when he likewise emptied the prisons of their prisoners, resulting in a situation of complete lawlessness and anarchy upon the American invasion, so that “Bandits and murderers”, as Josephus says, infested the countryside.

    Some of the riots led by the later Jewish Zealots are just as ridiculous, meanwhile, --and, sadly, murderously ridiculous--, as any of the riots currently being led by Islamic mobs due to Mohammed-cartoons or Holy Qur’ans in toilet bowls. Josephus, for example, describes how, in 49 C.E., a riot and a deadly stampede was caused by a Roman soldier who exposed his uncircumcised private parts to a Jewish crowd assembled at the Temple at Passover, ---the subsequent stampede killing “ten thousand“ according to Josephus in his Jewish War, and “twenty thousand“ according to this same author in his Antiquities of the Jews. According to Josephus, these Roman soldiers stood “at armed alert” as “guards” “on the Porticoes of the Temple to quell any attempts at Revolution that might occur”, --this guard, through his deliberate religious insensitivity, causing the very thing his presence was supposedly intended to prevent. As Eisenman notes, “in the aftermath of this episode,….the Roman soldiers tear up the books of the Law outside Lydda and disturbances break out between Galileans and Samaritans” --very similar, one might say, to the Sunni/Shiite disturbances in Iraq today.

    The terrorist acts committed by the Zealot Jewish terrorists, meanwhile, were often just as awful as anything committed by their Roman occupiers, and Josephus details the atrocities of both sides with disturbing, if not unflinching, accuracy. The Sicarii, for example, who were known for the sharp knives they carried in their cloaks for purposes of terrorism and assassination, were likewise known for the practice of forcible circumcision, a practice carried out by the prototypical Zealot Judas Maccabee in 1Macc. (1:15-1), and a practice which S. Paul directly alludes to in Galatians (5:12) in the New Testament , where he scoffs at Jewish-Christian Zealots like James the Just by comparing “circumcision” to “castration”, and jokes, “Would that those who are upsetting you [with regard to circumcision] might also castrate themselves!” Josephus attributes the assassination of the collaborationist High Priest Jonathan to these Sicarii in 55 C.E., the Sicarii, he says, having gone “up to the city [Jerusalem], as if they were going to worship God, while they had daggers under their garments, and by mingling in this manner among the crowds, they slew Jonathan.” Josephus likewise describes an incident in the first war against Rome in which a Roman garrison in Jerusalem are all killed except for their Captain, --who apparently agrees to be circumcised by his captors as the price for his freedom!

    Watching Osama bin Laden talking with his confederates on videotape, all of whom nod in deference to his “divine wisdom”, and who treat his every word as a “holy utterance”, one is suddenly transported back to the world of first century Palestine, where the words of supposed “teachers” like John the Baptist, James the Just, and Jesus were all taken as holy law. Indeed, viewing bin Laden on video, speaking with the same inane and arrogant assurance as a Moses or King David, should be enough to make any sane person realize that these men are not “men of God”, but rather an example of the persistence of human error throughout history, their “divine authority” nothing more than circular logic.

    The scariest thing , however, is that this earlier, Jewish, zealotry died out only after its exponents were exterminated completely, ---either at the hand of the Romans or at their own hands through suicide, the Romans razing the city of Jerusalem to the ground and replaciing it by a pagan city called “Aelia Capitolina”, and forbidding Jews from entering the city upon pain of death. And, barring the unlikely prospect of a sudden enlightenment and secularization of the Muslim world, an event roughly comparable in terms of likelihood to right-wing Christians in the U.S. doing the same, the world is heading full-steam toward the same course which lead to the slaughters of the first century C.E.: only now the slaughter will be worldwide, and nuclear, rather than conventional. Bush and his followers are playing the same game of “chicken” with the Muslims that they played with the U.S.S.R. during their many nuclear stand-offs, but it’s not going to work. The U.S.S.R. “blinked” and veered off from a collision course at the last minute. But the Muslim fundamentalists won’t blink. 9/11 already proved that. Unlike the Russians, collision is their goal. Simply detonate a few nuclear “dirty bombs” in selected American cities, and the Islamic terrorists will succeed in destroying American civil society faster than a few feet of water destroyed local government in New Orleans. The only solution is sanity. Allow it to spread in America, and maybe it’ll catch on around the world.

  2. I wanted to mention a book that I remember from the 1970’s or even earlier that compared Rome and the United States. It consisted of pictures of contemporary life with quotes from Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was quite interesting and a real quick read. The only two segments I remember made reference to the gladiator/circuses syndrome and the obsession Americans have with sports along with an increase in homosexuality. Does this book sound familiar to anyone?

    I just had an interesting encounter of narrow-mindedness that made me think of Rome’s insularity. I have a student who has taken an interest in Islam and asked that I obtain a copy of the Koran. I did this through interlibrary loan because our copy was missing. I do plan to replace it.

    I had known that the Koran has some very favorable references to both Abraham and Jesus. The copy that I received had an index and was quite amazed by the respect that was shown regarding both of these individuals in this Moslem holy book. The student took the book home and was engaged in conversation with his grandmother, who apparently takes a very dim view of Islam’s reported tolerance for these two Biblical figures. In spite of the student’s arguments to the contrary, the grandmother would not hear such talk and told the student she didn’t even want the Koran in her home. I guess the grandmother didn’t know that Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Koran in his personal library. No wonder Cullen Murphy makes the observation that we don’t have enough Arabic speakers.

    In doing some searching in my magazine database, I came across a Christmas essay written by William Dalrymple that appeared in the New Statesman (1996), Dec. 19, 2005. [Don’t ask me what the 1996 is supposed to mean]. I have yet to read the entire article, but the beginning focuses on a Nativity scene that was commissioned by the Mughal emperors of India:
    “The miniature illustrating this Nativity scene was one of a great number commissioned by the Mughal court under the emperors Akbar and Jehangir. It is one of the many moments in the history of Islamo-Christian relations that defies the simplistic strictures of Samuel Huntington's ‘clash of civilisations’ theory, for both Akbar (1542-1605) and his son Jehangir (1569-1627) were enthusiastic devotees of Jesus and his mother Mary, something they did not see as being in the least at variance with their Muslim faith or with ruling one of the most powerful Islamic empires ever to exist. Indeed, scholars are only now beginning to realise the extent to which the Mughal emperors adopted what most would assume to be outrightly Christian devotions.
    This quote comes from the summary at the beginning: “in the year that Islamist terrorism finally reached London, it is important to emphasise that Christianity and Islam are not nearly so far apart as both Bin Laden and the neo-cons would like us to believe.”