Rome Vs United States Similarities Essay

The example of the first great republic in recorded history (509 B.C. to 29 B.C.) was omnipresent in the minds of America’s founders as they created a new republic centuries later. As a consequence of their deliberations and, perhaps, the “protection of divine Providence” as written in the Declaration of Independence, the United States of America, in the mind of many of the founders, was intended to be the modern equivalent of the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic ended with the infamous assassination of Julius Caesar in 27 B.C..

After a protracted civil war, Octavian became the first “Imperator Caesar,” or Roman emperor. The subsequent period – post-republic – of Roman dominance is known in history as the “Roman Empire.” While Rome enjoyed an additional 500 years of world dominance and internal conflict under the Caesars, history reports its disintegration in the fifth century A.D. (476 A.D.) following the successful invasion of the barbarian Germanic tribes.

Common Influences on the Founding of Each Society

While the facts of the founding of the Italian city Rome are shrouded in myth, the Roman Republic was established in 509 B.C. by the overthrow of the last Roman king (Lucius Tarquinius Superbus) and expulsion of the Etruscan theocratic government by the Latins, one of the three Italic tribes in central and southern Italy. Similarly, the “Republic for the United States of America” was birthed in a bloody revolution against the British King George more than 2,000 years later.

According to historian Carl J. Richard in “Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers,” the earlier Roman Republic heavily influenced the founders of America who shared many common fears and hopes of the earlier architects of that Republic. These included the following:

  • Fear of Centralized Authority. Having learned the lessons of despots and emperors, both societies attempted to establish checks and balances to avoid abuse of unchecked government power. The Romans replaced their king who served for life with a system of two consuls elected by citizens for an annual term. America’s founders created the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to diffuse potential power and abuse.
  • Open Societies. Rome welcomed other people – particularly its vanquished enemies – into Roman citizenship, even accepting the gods of the newcomers. Likewise, America has long been recognized as a “melting pot.”
  • Selfless Leadership. Rooted in agrarian societies, commitment to family and mutual citizen interdependence were basic in each society. Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer, saved the republic from invading Aequi tribes in 458 B.C. and again in 439 B.C. when a conspiracy threatened the government. In both cases, he was named dictator, but shortly thereafter resigned his commission to return to farming. George Washington, a Virginia farmer who led the fight against the British, resigned after his second term as president to return to his Virginia estate. Both men are examples of leaders who put the needs of their country before their personal interests.

As a consequence of its influence with the founders, Roman symbolism is rampant in American society. The Eagle is the symbol of both, and Latin inscriptions can be found on all 13 original states’ seals, as well as the Great Seal of the United States. Roman sayings and symbols are on American currency; early American coins had the head of a Roman on one side because the founders did not want to have a king on their coins.

he Latin sayings Annuit coeptis (“He approves of the undertaking”) and Novus ordo Seclorum (“A new order of the ages’) are above and below the unfinished pyramid on the one dollar bill. The American founders clearly desired to emulate the best elements of the Roman Republic in the new republic, while avoiding the excesses that led its transformation into the Roman Empire.

James Madison in particular worried that the intemperance and extravagance of the later Roman Empire might also emerge in the new nation. As a consequence, the fourth president was adamant that the country was not like Rome. Writing in the Federalist paper No. 63, he declared that the example of the government during the period of the Roman empire, especially the Senate, was “unfit for the imitation, as they are repugnant to the genius of America.”

Parallels Between the Republics

Despite the efforts of some American leaders to set a different course than that experienced by the Roman Republic, an analysis of the two is inevitable. Cullen Murphy, former managing editor of “The Atlantic” and current editor-at-large of “Vanity Fair,” identified numerous similarities between the two civilizations in his 2007 book “Are We Rome?”

  • Global Influence and Dominance. Both societies were the preeminent entities in their worlds including “hard” power (military might and economic power) and “soft” power (language, culture, commerce, technology and ideas). Their dominant stature is taken for granted within their own societies and the world at large.
  • Solipsism. Americans have long believed that they are the straw that stirs the drink with qualities and abilities superior to other countries. In ancient days, all roads led to Rome, the center of the Ancient World – or so Roman citizens believed. Publius Cornelius Tacitus claimed that even “things atrocious and shameless flock from all parts to Rome.” According to Murphy, “Both see themselves as chosen people and both see their national character as exceptional.”
  • Political Corruption. Like America today, politicians in the Roman Republic had difficulty differentiating between public and private responsibilities and public and private resources. As a consequence, public services declined while the pockets of the public officials and their patrician sponsors grew large at the expense of common citizens. Numerous reforms were attempted to curb excesses, but were resisted by the ruling patrician class, echoing the partisan battles in American government today.
  • Foreign Wars. For the past century, America has been preoccupied with war, either fighting a war, recovering from a war, or preparing for a war. The list includes World War I (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945), the Cold War (1947-1991), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1954-1975), the Gulf War (1990-1991), Afghanistan (2001- ?), and Iraq (2003-2011). The list does not include the continuous fight against domestic and foreign terrorism. As a consequence, domestic problems lack attention and priority. The Roman wars include the initial overthrow of the King followed by 50 years of battle to subjugate the southern peninsula of Italy. Over the next four centuries, they repelled numerous Celtic invasions from the north and fought three Samnite Wars (343-282 B.C.), the Pyrrhic War (280-275 B.C.), the Punic Wars (274-148 B.C.), four Macedonian wars (215-148 B.C.), and the Jugurthine War (111-104 B.C.). These battles do not include numerous barbarian invasions, slave rebellions, and regular skirmishes with pirates who continuously threatened trade routes on which the republic depended.
  • Collapse of the Middle Class. The Roman middle class was crushed by cheap overseas slave labor; the rising income inequality due to technological change and the transfer of jobs to overseas labor threatens the middle class of America today.
  • Loss of Political Compromise. Just as Republicans and Democrats are focused on political gain rather than the public good, the inability of the opposing political parties of the Roman Republic – Optimates (aristocrats) and Populares (populists) – to work together led to the imposition of Caesar as dictator and the end of the Republic.

While the Roman Republic survived approximately 500 years and the American Republic has been in existence less than 250 years, America does face a number of major challenges, any of which have the possibility of transforming the country and negatively affecting the populace. Our economic inability to satisfy all constituents, combined with societal disagreement over priorities and the growing rift between haves and have-nots, heightens the likelihood of social unrest, unprecedented political change, and the loss of worldwide supremacy.

Most economists project that America’s supremacy in the world will be lost by the mid-21st century to the countries of China, India, and Brazil.

Are Comparisons of Ancient Rome and Modern America Valid?

Dr. Joseph Tainter, an American anthropologist and author of “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” theorized that advanced, complex, and technically sophisticated societies such as modern America, the British Empire, and the Roman Republic inevitably collapse due to the inability of the resource base to sustain the society. The lack of sufficient resources to meet everyone’s wants and needs invariably stimulates internal strife, class warfare, and political division. Modern issues of this include:

  • The country is less a melting pot today, but a stew of competing ethnic, racial, and social divisions
  • National, state, and local debt loads are unsustainable
  • Our elementary and secondary educational system ranks behind many of the other industrialized countries, even as the costs of a post-secondary education require students to assume thousands of dollars in personal student loan debt
  • Our national infrastructure – roads and bridges – is falling apart from neglect and lack of maintenance even as our electronic infrastructure lags many of our international competitors
  • Our healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, but mediocre by many world standards
  • Political corruption is rife and influence is based by the size of financial donation to the political party and candidate
  • Many political observers believe that in the era of rampant partisanship, America’s system of checks and balances in government is no longer operative
  • The growing disparity income inequality creates class tension and social stress

In spite of a host of seemingly convincing similarities, considering Dr. Tainter’s analysis suggests that the aforementioned issues are often shared across many advanced societies. Therefore, the issues do not suggest a tie specifically between modern America and ancient Rome. In other words, the assumption that America will suffer the same fate as the Roman Republic is coincidental – any comparison of two dominant economic, military, or international countries, regardless of the type of government, would produce multiple parallels.

Differences Between the Republics

Further, historians and economists note a plethora of significant differences between the Roman and American Republics, including:

  • Role of Technology. Rome’s entire existence was limited to the Iron Age where tools and weapons were primarily of the metal iron. Furthermore, the society was entirely agrarian, and the political system was simple and nascent. The Romans adopted technologies from their subject territories and were heavily dependent upon imports. By contrast, America was a leader of the Industrial Age, extended its leadership through the Information Age, and appears to be the leader of the Biotech Age. Some scientists believe that technological advances – led by nanotechnology and robotics – will create a new era of abundance, replacing the historical and dominant economic model of scarcity.
  • Democracy. While Rome had a Republic, political power rested solely in the hands of the patricians, a small percentage of the educated, wealthy, and powerful in the general population. As Murphy admits, “Even at its most democratic, Rome was not remotely as democratic as America at its least democratic under the British monarchy.”
  • Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are respected members of American society. Neither the Roman Republic nor the Roman Empire had a similar class of citizens. As a consequence, America is a hothouse of creativity and innovation while engineering breakthroughs of the older Roman society were limited.
  • Social Equality. While America is seeing a widening gap between haves and have-nots, it still is far less glaring than that of the Roman Republic.

Final Word

Not only is it inaccurate, but it’s ineffective to think the fate of modern America will follow that of Rome. We are not doomed to a similar outcome, though we need to take steps to prevent it.

Perhaps the single best hope for America and the world is the potential of emerging technologies to overcome the limitation of resources that has always existed. If the technological promises of nanotechnology, robotics, and biological breakthroughs can be realized, America’s democratic history, can-do spirit, and belief in social equality might prevail in a world of ideas, not shortages.

Do you think America is doomed to the same fate as the Roman Empire?


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Categories: Politics

Kerby Anderson looks at the comparisons between modern America and ancient Rome, i.e. the Roman Empire.  Do Americans have a worldview more like ancient Romans than the biblical worldview spelled out in the Bible?  In some ways, yes, and in other ways, not so much.

Similarities

The philosopher George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To which I might add that those who remember Santayana’s maxim also seem condemned to repeat the phrase.

Ask anyone if they see similarities between Rome and America, and they are likely to respond with a resounding, “Yes!” But I have also found that people who see similarities between Rome and America see different similarities. Some see similarities in our moral decay. Others see similarities in pride, arrogance, and hubris. But all seem to agree that we are repeating the mistakes of the past and need to change our ways.

In his book Are We Rome?, Cullen Murphy argues that there are many similarities between the Roman Empire and America.{1} But he also believes that the American national character couldn’t be more different from Rome. He believes those differences can help us avoid Rome’s fate.

Let’s begin by looking at some of the political, geographical, and demographic similarities.{2}

1. Dominant powers: “Rome and America are the most powerful actors in their world, by many orders of magnitude. Their power includes both military might and the ‘soft power’ of language, culture, commerce, technology, and ideas.”

2. Approximately equal in size: “Rome and America are comparable in physical size—the Roman Empire and its Mediterranean lake would fit inside the three million square miles of the Lower Forty-eight states, though without a lot to spare.”

3. Global influence: “Both Rome and America created global structures—administrative, economic, military, cultural—that the rest of the world and their own citizens came to take for granted, as gravity and photosynthesis are taken for granted.”

4. Open society: “Both are societies made up of many peoples—open to newcomers, willing to absorb the genes and lifestyles and gods of everyone else, and to grant citizenship to incoming tribes from all corners of the earth.”

5. Culturally similar: “Romans and Americans can’t get enough of laws and lawyers and lawsuits. . . . They relish the ritual humiliation of public figures: Americans through comedy and satire, talk radio and Court TV; the Romans through vicious satire, to be sure, but also, during the republic, by means of the censorial nota, the public airing, name by name, of everything great men of the time should be ashamed of.”

6. Chosen people: “Both see themselves as chosen people, and both see their national character as exceptional.”

While there are many similarities, there are also profound differences between Rome and America. Before we look at the six major parallels that Murphy talks about, we need to remind ourselves that there are many distinct differences between Rome and America.

Differences

It is no real surprise that people from different political and religious perspectives see similarities between Rome and America. While some see similarities in moral decay, others see it in military might or political corruption. Although there are many similarities between Rome and America, there are some notable differences.

Cullen Murphy points out these significant differences.{3}

1. Technological advancement: “Rome in all its long history never left the Iron Age, whereas America in its short history has already leapt through the Industrial Age to the Information Age and the Biotech Age.”

2. Abundance: “Wealthy as it was, Rome lived close to the edge; many regions were one dry spell away from famine. America enjoys an economy of abundance, ever surfeit; it must beware the diseases of overindulgence.”

3. Slavery: “Rome was always a slaveholding polity with the profound moral and social retardation that this implies; America started out as a slaveholding polity and decisively cast slavery aside.”

4. Government: “Rome emerged out of a city-state and took centuries to let go of a city-state’s method of governance; America from early on began to administer itself as a continental power.”

5. Social classes: “Rome had no middle class as we understand the term, whereas for America the middle class is the core social fact.”

6. Democracy: “Rome had a powerful but tiny aristocracy and entrenched ideas about the social pecking order; even at its most democratic, Rome was not remotely as democratic as America at its least democratic, under a British monarch.”

7. Entrepreneurship: “Romans looked down upon entrepreneurship, which Americans hold in the highest esteem.”

8. Economic dynamism: “Rome was economically static; America is economically transformative.”

9. Technological development: “For all it engineering skills, Rome generated few original ideas in science and technology; America is a hothouse of innovation and creativity.”

10. Social equality: “On basic matters such as gender roles and the equality of all people, Romans and Americans would behold one another with disbelief and distaste.”

While it is true that Rome and America have a vast number of similarities, we can also see there are significant differences between the two. We therefore need a nuanced view of the parallels between the two civilizations and recognize that these differences may be an important key in understanding the future of the United States.

Six Parallels

Murphy sees many parallels between the Roman Empire and America in addition to the above.{4} The following are larger, more extensive, parallels.

The first parallel is perspective. It actually involves “the way Americans see America; and more to the point, the way the tiny, elite subset of Americans who live in the nation’s capital see America—and see Washington itself.”

Like the Romans, Americans tend to see themselves as more important than they are. They tend to have an exaggerated sense of their own presence in the world and its ability to act alone.

A second parallel involves military power. Although there are differences, some similarities stand out. Both Rome and America start to run short of people to sustain their militaries and began to find recruits through outside sources. This is not a good long-run solution.

A third parallel can be lumped under the term privatization. “Rome had trouble maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities.” America is currently in the midst of privatizing functions that used to be public tasks.

A fourth parallel concerns the way Rome and America view the outside world. In a sense, this is merely the flip side of the first parallel. If you believe your country is exceptional, you tend to devalue others. And more importantly, you tend to underestimate another nation’s capabilities. Rome learned this in A.D. 9 when three legions were ambushed by a smaller German force and annihilated.{5} The repercussions were significant.

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.

A final parallel has to do with size and complexity. The Roman Empire got too big physically and too complex to manage effectively. The larger a country or civilization, the more “it touches, and the more susceptible it is to forces beyond its control.” To use a phrase by Murphy: “Bureaucracy is the new geography.”{6}

Cullen Murphy concludes his book by calling for greater citizen engagement and for us to promote a sense of community and mutual obligation. The Roman historian Livy wrote, “An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it.” America is not beyond repair, but it needs to learn the lessons from the Roman Empire.

Decline of the Family

What about the moral decline of Rome? Do we see parallels in America? I have addressed this in previous articles such as “The Decline of a Nation” and “When Nations Die.”{7} Let’s focus on the area of sexuality, marriage, and family.

In his 1934 book, Sex and Culture, British anthropologist Joseph Daniel Unwin chronicled the historical decline of numerous cultures, including the Roman Empire. He found that cultures that held to a strong sexual ethic thrived and were more productive than cultures that were “sexually free.”{8}

In his book Our Dance Has Turned to Death, Carl Wilson identifies the common pattern of family decline in civilizations like the Roman Empire.{9} It is significant how these seven stages parallel what is happening in America.

In the first stage, men ceased to lead their families in worship. Spiritual and moral development became secondary. Their view of God became naturalistic, mathematical, and mechanical.

In the second stage, men selfishly neglected care of their wives and children to pursue material wealth, political and military power, and cultural development. Material values began to dominate thought.

The third stage involved a change in men’s sexual values. Men who were preoccupied with business or war either neglected their wives sexually or became involved with lower-class women or with homosexuality. Ultimately, a double standard of morality developed.

The fourth stage affected women. The role of women at home and with children lost value and status. Women were neglected and their roles devalued. Soon they revolted to gain access to material wealth and also freedom for sex outside marriage. Women also began to minimize having sex relations to conceive children, and the emphasis became sex for pleasure.

In the fifth stage, husbands and wives competed against each other for money, home leadership, and the affection of their children. This resulted in hostility and frustration and possible homosexuality in the children. Many marriages ended in separation and divorce.

In the sixth stage, selfish individualism grew and carried over into society, fragmenting it into smaller and smaller group loyalties. The nation was thus weakened by internal conflict. The decrease in the birthrate produced an older population that had less ability to defend itself and less will to do so, making the nation more vulnerable to its enemies.

Finally, unbelief in God became more complete, parental authority diminished, and ethical and moral principles disappeared, affecting the economy and government. Because of internal weakness and fragmentation, the society came apart.

We can see these stages play out in the decline of the Roman Empire. But we can also see them happening before our eyes in America.

Spiritual Decline

What about the spiritual decline in Rome and America? We can actually read about the spiritual decline in Rome in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In the opening chapter he traces a progression of spiritual decline that was evident in the Hellenistic world of his time.

The first stage is when people turn from God to idolatry. Although God has revealed Himself in nature to all men so that they are without excuse, they nevertheless worship the creation instead of the Creator. This is idolatry. In the past, this took the form of actual idol worship. In our day, it takes the form of the worship of money or the worship of self. In either case, it is idolatry. A further example of this is a general lack of thankfulness. Although they were prospered by God, they were ungrateful. And when they are no longer looking to God for wisdom and guidance, they become vain and futile and empty in their imaginations. They no longer honor God, so their foolish hearts become darkened. In professing to be wise, they have become fools.

The second stage is when men and women exchange their natural use of sex for unnatural uses. Here Paul says those four sobering words, “God gave them over.” In a society where lust-driven sensuality and sexual perversion dominate, God gives them over to their degrading passions and unnatural desires.

The third stage is anarchy. Once a society has rejected God’s revelation, it is on its own. Moral and social anarchy is the natural result. At this point God has given the sinners over to a depraved mind and so they do things which are not proper. This results in a society which is without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful.

The final stage is judgment. God’s judgment rightly falls upon those who practice idolatry and immorality. Certainly an eternal judgment awaits those who are guilty, but a social judgment occurs when God gives a nation over to its sinful practices.

Notice that this progression is not unique to the Hellenistic world the apostle Paul was living in. The progression from idolatry to sexual perversion to anarchy to judgment is found throughout history.

In the times of Noah and Lot, there was the idolatry of greed, there was sexual perversion and promiscuity, there was anarchy and violence, and finally there was judgment. Throughout the history of the nation of Israel there was idolatry, sexual perversion, anarchy (in which each person did what was right in his own eyes), and finally judgment.

Are there parallels between Rome and America? I have quoted from secular authors, Christian authors, and a writer of much of the New Testament. All seem to point to parallels between Rome and America.

Notes

1. Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
2. Ibid., 14-15.
3. Ibid., 16-17.
4. Ibid., 18-20.
5. Ibid., 122.
6. Ibid., 135.
7. Kerby Anderson, “The Decline of a Nation,” Probe Ministries, 1991, and “When Nations Die,” 2002; both available on Probe’s Web site, www.probe.org.
8. J.D. Unwin, Sex and Culture (London: Oxford University, 1934).
9. Carl Wilson, Our Dance Has Turned to Death (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 1981), 84-85.

© 2009 Probe Ministries

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