The Roman Empire at its apex resorted to specific measures which eventually created the conditions that brought about its demise. On the economic front, the state consumed much more than it produced, and, as a result, people were led into prolonged exploitation, generating great discontent. Populism was exercised at a massive scale. Hand-outs and the promotion of entertainment became well engrained state policies. A lengthened trade deficit and currency debasement undermined the imperial foundations. This uncertainty gave rise to popular mobilization against the government, which in turn became even more authoritarian and despotic. Civil liberties were stifled, the tax burden became unbearable, and more acute social regimentation was enforced. Democracy was thwarted and power succession was besmirched by corrupt dynastic affairs. To foster its expansion, the state promoted fundamental moral and religious values that galvanized the people against a perceived foreign threat which had to be subdued at any cost. Large armies with superior weapons and discipline were deployed in order to complete this task. Military intervention became ubiquitous and over-extended throughout the empire and it led the state into hypertrophy. This overwhelmed the helm of the roman domain. The most evident result was the loss of administrative control over institutions, territories and legions. The empire was unreasonably colossal and it proved and immense challenge to buttress. Total collapse became imminent.
According to ancient myth, Rome was founded in the year 753 B.C. This new city-state flourished under a monarchy, but by 509 B.C., the foundations of a republican political organization had been laid into place. The Roman Republic relied on the finest advances from Greek tradition (which was the predominant culture of the period) to set up its own bureaucratic structure. i.e., democratic institutions, language, architecture, military discipline, and administration. The Hellenic civilization was then gobbled-up by this dynamic and expansionist power. It was incorporated as a mere province of the republic.
The Senate (SPQR) was a respected institution throughout the Roman Republic. This body was in charge of stability and in the creation and execution of laws. As the republic reached new and demanding heights, the Senate became less effective in adapting itself to changing circumstances. The most influential generals of the time joined forces to challenge the Senate in order to control political succession within the republic. The First Triumvirate was formed by Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, and it proved effective as a temporary check to senatorial power, but it did not distribute authority equally among the three generals, so it was neglected by Pompey. The Great Roman Civil War started as a power struggle between the Senate, which now had Pompey within their ranks, and Julius Caesar. The aftermath of the war proved disastrous for the republic. Julius Caesar emerged victorious, and he now epitomized one-man rule. The Senate became subservient to this new dictatorial figure, and this signaled a turning point for the republic. Julius Caesar was subsequently assassinated but his legacy of totalitarian power was espoused by succeeding rulers. Octavian was the first politician who was crowned as Emperor, in allegiance to Julius Caesar (circa 27 B.C.). This event marked the inauguration of a new era in history, that of the Roman Empire.
Even though this new power-structure would prove successful in grappling with social upheaval, it did not measure up to the sheer scale of barbarian intimidation. Militarization was a swift response to foreign threats, but it came with a hefty cost. The line that divided Rome between its barbarian enemies was blurred up to the point that both forces ended up coalescing into one brutal killing machine. Rome ended up sacrificing precisely the ideals that it fought for. It followed procedures that were supposed to further its interests abroad but these eventually backfired. The Roman Empire, which was believed itself to be eternal, ended up as one of the most tyrannical regimes the world has known.
Even though we don’t refer to powerful modern day nation-states as empires, it is inevitable that many of them end up adopting similar characteristics, traits and behavioral patterns. The most contemporary example is the United States of America and its global hegemony status. Analyzing the present situation of the US, we could observe (to a certain extent) that it is repeating and reinforcing some of the trends that I have pointed out to describe imperial Rome. The US has caused much resentment around the world and within its own territory acting unilaterally (in most recent times), imposing its point of view and spreading of its culture worldwide. The government has relied on strict moral and religious values in tandem with nationalism to justify specific actions in several foreign regions. Messy politics and gerrymandering have permeated recent developments in the nation’s affairs of state. Civil liberties have been curtailed and some degree of social regimentation has been instituted in the process.
One of the most tangible characteristics of contemporary US policy has been the concentration on developing military prowess. This has been notorious since the Cold-War era and even more today where no other power counterbalances its influence. The last two decades of military expansion have been justified by foreign threats like the Soviet Union, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now terrorism. The US Army has been ubiquitous and it has certainly over-extended itself on some occasions.
We can relate more trends of the US with those of the Roman Empire. First, the pervasive use of English language symbolizes how significantly this nation influences world scenarios. It permeates international relations, business, television, the internet, finance and social issues worldwide. It is used almost as a universal language throughout the western world and it is being adopted by hopeful developing countries to increase their chances of joining the developed world in terms of economic and social parity. These circumstances greatly resemble those which took place in roman times with the all-encompassing use of Latin. Next, the US is composed of various and sometimes alien social groups which were brought together by administrative organizations. The encouragement of mass migration was part of a government program to conform a homogeneous, tolerant and inclusive society and in this democratic facet it differs from Rome, which relied on force. In both cases we see the need for conciliation and assimilation of peoples by promoting universal and national values to achieve social cohesion. Finally, the US government justifies its actions by relying on the nobility and the universal character of its cause. This happens inside the country in the handling of the people and in foreign relations with specific regions. In this sense we can see a big failure in readjusting institutions to the nature and scale of changing national and international realities. This was a tendency which persisted throughout imperial Rome.
This essay in no way tries to predict an ominous outcome for the United States of America. Its main motive is to identify recurrent tendencies in imperial behavior using the Roman Empire analogy. Its ultimate goal is try to generate some degree of consciousness of contemporary events in order to avert a pessimistic outcome. It would be very valuable if powerful nation-states were humble enough to immerse themselves into history books and evaluate the words that they contain in order to learn from past mistakes to be able to understand that certain causes will always have their corresponding effects.