Repetitions of history: the rise of Rome and America

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This is the fourth part in a series on the Repetition of history. The first part dealt with Europe and Ancient Greece, the second part with France and Athens, and the third with Germany and Macedon.

"Of ourselves, this Roman story is told." -Will Durant

The United States and Ancient Rome are more than history's most famous superpowers and its most famous republics. The arcs of their histories follow the same path, and it is this author's opinion--and that of many others--that they will also share the same fate. This post will concern the rise to power of both republics, while a later will deal with their respective declines.

Both Rome and America were founded when men sloughed off the arbitrary rule of kings--one Etruscan and one English. Newly freed, they created small, agrarian, constitutional republics populated by rugged individualists, and brought their cultures with them. 

Historian Thomas Madden notes, "The most of Roman culture came from the Greeks in very much the same way that most American culture comes from the Europeans--much of it filtered through the Etruscans much as the same way that American culture is filtered through Britain."

The Roman and American characters were formed at the plow and the building blocks of both civilizations were the independent family farms on the frontier.

Madden believes that the agricultural lifestyles of the early Romans and Americans differs markedly from the Ancient Greeks (and, he argues, modern Europeans). 

This is very different than the culture that had been developed by the Ancient Greeks to the East. There, in the Greek polis, the state was crucial in the Greek character. All of he Greeks worked together for the good of the state. It was the state that would raise children and make them citizens.

Here, we can again see modern European socialist values reflected in Ancient Greek society, while Americans and Romans in their respective republics looked as families as the most important layer of "government".

"For the Romans, the family life was the most important thing," Madden says. "It was in the family that the children were raised and educated. These were definitely 'Father Knows Best' sorts of families."

We begin to see the current fissures in America where conservatives argue for a traditional, family-based society and progressives want a more European state-centric one. What could be more symbolic of conservative America than Father Knows Best? Just as we are currently torn over whether to maintain our traditional values or adopt European ones, so were the Romans divided over whether to keep to their agrarian values or adopt "modern" Greek ones.

Those Greek values--secularist, hedonist, and statist--seeped into Roman society through public education, just as American conservatives fret about liberalism in our public schools.

"Those schools were a conduit for Greek learning, culture, and ideas," Madden said.

So it also was with religion. Whereas Greek religion could be found in large marble halls in great cities, Roman religion was practiced in the home, echoing how early American Protestants worshipped compared to European Catholics. Madden tells us that outsiders pointed to Rome's religion as a core component for its development.

The Greek Polybius observed:

But the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions. I believe that it is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach, I mean superstition, which maintains the cohesion of the Roman State.

So with Rome and America, we have two civilizations that rebelled against kings, founded constitutional republics, and featured agricultural societies characterized by religious, stern, rugged individualists. Apparently, when coupled with the right geography, that's a recipe for success, because both republics accumulated vast amounts of power and territory.

Madden theorizes that Rome and America are tied in a very unique way. He calls them "empires of trust." They aren't empires of conquest like Napoleonic France or Soviet Russia, nor empires of commerce like Great Britain. Madden takes the view that Rome and America did not seek empire but "backed into it" by expanding generally only when they felt threatened (unlike the Nazi concept of lebensraum). Neighboring countries simultaneously felt protected by the empires of trust's overwhelming military strength and comforted with their unwillingness to employ it, and naturally sought alliances with them.

That dynamic sucked other nations into their "empires," a term that Madden applies loosely. He does not mean the imperial form of government, which the Roman Republic was yet to become--nor the connotation that implies direct military control over conquered states. To him, "empire" is roughly a sphere of influence.  Most Americans reject that we are in possession of an empire, because we didn't set out to get one, just like the Ancient Romans. It just sort of happened along the way.

How many other civilizations have invaded regions only to withdraw their forces after freeing oppressed populations? The Americans and Romans both did it. We might point out that Romans left behind garrisons to keep order, and so that makes them more imperial. But what do we have in South Korea, Germany, Japan, Cuba, Guam, and Italy? Lots of military bases.

"They don't rule it the way you would think an imperial province might be ruled," Madden tells us about the Romans.  "The local governments are still local. But Rome has an enormous amount of authority there because they control the troops."

While both civilizations greatly expanded their "empires" through alliances, it was also achieved militarily.

"The aftermath of the First Punic War for Rome established it as what we would call a great power in much the same way the United States was established in that way after the Spanish American War," Madden said.

During these wars, the Romans and Americans created their first navies that could travel long distances. Other powers could no longer ignore the strength of the rising republics. However, with Rome distracted by three Punic Wars, Philip V of Macedon attempted to expand westward. After fighting the first and second Macedonian Wars, Rome effectively freed the Greek peninsula from its Macedonian rulers.

Recall from previous posts that Greece is analogous to Europe and Macedon is Germany, and it becomes apparent that the dynamic of Rome liberating Greece from Macedon is similar to America liberating Europe from Germany in World War II.

Upon liberating their parent cultures and finding themselves with unmatched power, both Rome and America reached their pinnacles before beginning the long, slow decline.

Next, we'll compare both civilizations as they enter their Late Republic phase.

This blog attempts to add perspective and context to local and national politics, through a variety of disciplines, such as history, economics, and philosophy--all tempered with common sense. About the author

Eric Ingemunson's commentary has been featured on Hannity, CNN, NBC, Inside Edition, and KFI's The John and Ken Show. Eric was born and raised in Ventura County and currently resides in Moorpark. He earned a master's degree in Public Policy and Administration from California Lutheran University. As a conservative, Eric supports smaller government, less taxation, more individual freedom, the rule of law, and a strict adherence to the Constitution.