Are Roman and American Empires Good?
By Staff News & Analysis - January 19, 2010

Classics professors are making a comeback after years of being out of fashion. Thomas F. Madden, a professor of history at Saint Louis University, has produced a very different look at ancient Rome and America (Empires of Trust) – one that may prove to be much more useful to us than the usual jeremiads about the decline of America. Madden has pinpointed the most important difference that Rome and America share from the rest of the world: empires of trust, not conquest. The comparisons he found between the Roman Republic and the American Republic are uncanny, and can be instructive in managing our power in today's world. … What is it about Romans that seems so modern, even after the passage of almost 2500 years, when they first appeared in Italy? … Understanding history can set us straight and the far past can inform the present and future. We will never understand what hit us if we only look to the past 50 years. Most of the books that compare Rome and America look to the Rome of the late Empire, which was colorfully decadent and in the minds of moralists was a model for the decline of America, which in their eyes is as sexually permissive as late Rome had been. However, this was not the Rome that even long after its demise (and Rome had a 2,000 year run, ending with the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453) has been a model of good governance, rule of written law, and high level of trust by its many allies. Rome was an "empire of trust" in which many countries and tribes wanted to become part. Just as today, despite the habitual badmouthing of the United States, people around the world would like to live here. We have something that they do not, and if they could, they would vote with their feet. – Right Side News

Dominant Social Theme: Trust us?

Free-Market Analysis: There are always those, well educated and passionate, who make a case for a pax Americana similar to a pax Romana and that within this context a world-spanning and judiciously militaristic (American) empire may be seen as a good thing. We think, in fact, this perception increasingly – and secretly – animates American militarism at the highest level of leadership and provides an intellectual substructure (a sophisticated mythos if you will) that offers justification for continual empire building. It is apparently the contention of this book that the American empire was a reluctant empire much as the Roman empire was. And it is this reluctance that makes American imperialism a higher and more easily tolerated sort. Here's some more from an excerpted public review on

Most Americans don't like the idea of empires, myself included. But not all empires were of the purely conquest type. Madden offers a fresh look at how Rome grew to become the empire it did and how America is dealing with its own superpower status. He admits that the two are not similar in every way, but there are some similarities and common patterns that stand out. While I may not find what he has to offer as necessarily comforting, he does make some solid points.

Rome, as Madden argues, did not acquire an empire out of a desire to rule over other territories or to exploit their lands. Madden argues that Rome was merely interested in guaranteeing its own peace and security, which necessarily led to its expanding realm. It wanted allies, not enemies, and as a result Rome became a trusted power and was depended on by other states to safeguard their own security and their own way of life. Only in cases where Rome's adversaries posed ongoing threats did Rome find it necessary to destroy its rivals, such as Carthage, for example.

America also had and has a history of isolationist sentiment and has had to accept its role in the world, especially when its own security was threatened as in World War II. America became and remains a trusted power that doesn't seek to deprive other nations of their freedoms, as we ourselves cherish our own. This doesn't mean that other nations love us. To the contrary, because other nations expect us to act in a just fashion, do they feel they can verbally abuse us. If they thought we would deprive them of their sovereignty and destroy their way of life, do you think they would heap this verbal abuse on us? Most likely not. I agree with Madden on this point. Madden uses the Greeks behavior towards the Romans as an example.

Rome did not remain a republic throughout its history. It eventually did come under the rule of emperors, but there were customs and traditions that had been established that even an emperor had to acknowledge. While it is true that all powers do fall, Madden ably argues that those saying America is ready to collapse is a bit premature. Several of the Greek and Roman historians said the same thing about Rome, centuries before it ultimately fell.

Madden also delves into modern day issues such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the War on Terror. He does get into a certain amount of political discourse, but I don't think its obsessively partisan. While readers may have some differing viewpoints on America's role in the world, and I don't always agree with the author, I find his historical knowledge gives his book weight and is important for what lessons it has to offer. An insightful book and certainly worth reading.

The interesting part of the book from our point of view is Professor Thomas F. Madden's perspective that Rome became an empire regionally even while it was a Republic. That is, it had territories, controlled or conquered long before Rome itself lost republican governance. The thesis, therefore, is that empires of this sort, that seek control only reluctantly, are far more likely to accumulate power and dominion because those outside perceive that the emphasis is on self-protection and defense not aggressiveness and rapine. America is such an empire, Madden apparently maintains – and therefore much of the angst over American militarism may be either wrongheaded or overblown.

Maybe. Or maybe not … In fact, from our point of view, it would be really nice if there were more libertarian, free-market historians because we think we could come up with a different thesis as regards Rome than the one that Madden, apparently a self-proclaimed conservative – has presented.

Follow along, dear reader, if you will. We will be as brief as we can be. It all begins with the famous hills of Rome. Here is a description from

Rome, the capital city of Italy, is historically known as ‘City of Seven Hills.' According to Roman mythology, the seven hills of early Rome were the Cermalus, Cispius, Fagutal, Oppius, Palatium, Sucusa and Velia. But now the modern ‘City of Seven Hills' includes Myrtle, Blossom, Clock Tower, Jackson, Lumpkin and Old Shorter hills and Mount Aventine.

In the beginning, all the seven hills were occupied by different small hamlet and were not grouped or recognized as a city called Rome. The residents of the seven hills started participating in a series of religious games which started bonding the groups together. The city of Rome thus came into being as these separate settlements acted as a group, draining the marshy valleys between them and turning them into markets. Rome became the most beautiful city in the world that soon started governing the whole world.

Five out of seven hills of current Rome are populated with monuments, buildings and parks. The Capitoline now hosts the Municipality of Rome and the Palatine Hill is an archaeological area. The monuments of Rome still stand as a reminder of Rome as one of the greatest centers of western civilization.

The point here is that to begin with Rome was actually a collection of separate political entities. And we think this is very important because every major civilization that we might identify as great – as we try to point at regular intervals – began with a similar profile. Yes, it seems it is always the same. There is one language and perhaps one culture but there are several or serial regional environments. This is CRITICAL. It means that individuals and families can pick up and move elsewhere if they are being treated unfairly. It is this mobility, the ability to move if one is danger of oppression, that creates the initial greatness – simply because government cannot afford to be too aggressive or demanding.

It is an obvious pattern, we think. Greece was a collection of city states and one could move from one to another – still speaking the same language – if one felt in danger or was being treated unfairly. Rome seemingly had its seven hills. Italy, during the Renaissance, had its city states. Egypt had its upper and lower kingdoms. China had city states long ago, before it was "China." The United States, before it was federalized, had its serial republics – states with their own cultures and religious values but a common language as well.

In every case, the greatness of the culture – its individualism and industry – is established early. And it is, we would argue, a direct result of the ability of citizens to move from one local to another without having to speak a new language or adapt to a totally different culture. In such circumstances governments simply cannot afford to become overbearing. Often, they won't even try.

Endless History channel programs debate the rise and fall South American societies – the Mayan, Aztec, Inca, etc. We would argue that the rise of these societies had much to do with the little city-states that proceeded empire. Once a tyrant arose and conquered the city-states around him (or her in some cases) empire was established and the very thing that had enriched the culture and created the civilization – the ability of people to get away from oppressive government – was lost.

Of course, modern, mainstream analysis doesn't see it that way. The greatness of these cultures, the History channel has determined, arises from empire itself. In fact, the aggregation of power and the assumption of empire spells the end of the civilization not the beginning. Yes, the History channel has it backwards – but that's OK. National Geographic et. al. love nothing more than prattling on about kings and queens and heirs and dynasties. It makes for colorful viewing but from our perspective, what they perceive as the greatness of leadership is actually the slow-motion descent into totalitarianism and rapine.

In fact, there is a theory that we have pointed out in these pages before (well, we try to point out it regularly) that many of the "glorious" dynasties of South and Central America came to an end because people simply couldn't stand the endless warfare and blood-letting. These were very bloodthirsty regimes apparently and getting your heart cut out while you were still alive was not a pleasant way to die.

History channel archeologists talk learnedly about how the great empires gradually damaged the land, polluted the water, etc. The idea is that man is responsible for his own destruction – etc, etc. (How little we learn from the past! they sadly declaim.) Yet the demise of some of these empires (and it appears to be a cyclical pattern) may be more mundane. People simply melted back into the jungle when they couldn't take it anymore. Perhaps their societies had been partially destroyed by the endless wars. Certainly, nobody wants to live in a society that emphasizes constant warfare. So as these empires became ever greater and more powerful, they also became ever more horrible places to live in. They sowed the seeds of their own destruction. People finally just wanted to get away.

Which brings us back to Rome. Rome, we would posit, became great because of the strong entrepreneurial culture that was fostered by seven hills and seven separate societies. These societies gradually came together in friendship and harmony and that is when the trouble started. Gradually, government became more codified and oppressive. The Republic — with its Senate and law enforcers — was not a step forward but simply the creation of wrong-headed homogeneity. Now there was nowhere, anymore, for the average Roman to go. The Hills had been blended into a "Republic" that would eventually become an empire, and Rome's demise was inevitable.

Of course, one can trace exactly the same sort of cultural pattern in America. We would argue that America's greatness was established long before its Constitution and was a direct result of the dispersal of power centers. The Constitution, in fact, as libertarians well know, was a centralizing device. Seen from this point of view, it was ultimately a step backwards not forwards.

Madden's book is obviously an apology in some sense for empire. It is a justification especially for American empire. But ultimately nations and empires are agglomerations of individuals. In fact, in a sense, there are no nations when you come right down to it. There are only groups of individuals taking individual action as best they can. When individuals are stopped from taking individual action by the state as a result of some newfound governmental power, the quality of life begins to suffer, entrepreneurialism is forfeit, and life and lifestyles gradually degrade.

After Thoughts

We don't believe empires, even reluctant ones, are desirable. We can't help thinking that all this empire-worship, no matter where it comes from, is just another kind of intellectual promotion. Ultimately, cultures that do the best and are the most pleasant places to live, are those that are the least oppressive and allow for maximum individual action. Seen from this point of view, serial seats of competing political power are infinitely preferable to even the most reluctant "empires of trust."

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap