Rome in the News: Did the Roman Empire fall?

(Hat tip to Mike Vasta for alerting me to this article!)

It’s election season in the US, which means that it’s time to play the “America is Rome” game. The most recent entry, Michael Auslin’s long piece at Politico, compares American foreign policy against everywhere — China, Syria, Russia, and more — to Roman ‘foreign policy’ on its northern and eastern frontiers (scare quotes mine). 

I’m not interested (or particularly qualified) to comment on the US portion of this article. And I’m also not opposed to comparative history — some of the recent work on the ancient world and China, for example, is pretty interesting. But Auslin isn’t really interested in drawing comparisons between the US and the historical Roman empire. Instead, he’s relying on tired stereotypes and movie cliches about Rome’s internal problems to push for… something.

After reading through the entire piece a few times, I’m still not sure how the Rome parallel strengthens his analysis. But maybe that’s because his ‘Rome’ is so different from the Rome I recognize. Mr. Auslin, I have read The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. And this is no Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.

Rome appears in his opening sentence:

For many years, the world’s greatest power faced two grave external threats: from irregular groups of non-state actors and from large, newly empowered, rising states that wanted to displace it. Massive amounts of national treasure were expended on military operations ranging from tactical raids to full-scale war. Negotiation alternated with conflict, thousands of troops were deployed permanently abroad and allied states were built up as a buffer against both threats. But in the end all this wasn’t enough: National exhaustion and a breakdown of political legitimacy led to the eventual collapse of the state.

This description would, I think, surprise many ancient historians. For one thing, was Rome really “the world’s greatest power”? How should we measure that in a time before globalization? Before fixed borders? When census figures were not regular? Rome was surely the greatest power in Europe or within the Mediterranean. But since Auslin will later make clear that he’s mostly thinking of the Principate when he says ‘Rome’, that isn’t saying much. Certainly Chinese evidence suggests that their civilization was similarly, if not more, powerful.

We’ll skip over the middle of this paragraph, which basically describes “conflict”, and focus on the end: “National exhaustion and a breakdown of political legitimacy led to the eventual collapse of the state.”

Because Auslin is trying to draw a parallel between Rome and the US, I think he means that Romans got tired of war and had a succession crisis. (I’m open to other interpretations: what exactly is ‘national exhaustion’? A manpower crisis, perhaps? That’s arguably more historical for Rome, but breaks the US-Rome parallel…) But we don’t have evidence for either of these things. Our ancient evidence simply does not permit the large-scale frustration with wars that polls show in the US, and succession crises had come and gone without significant political change in Rome’s past.

Americans would be well advised not to do as the Romans did. For more than 250 years, spanning from the end of the Republic through much of the Empire, Rome’s policy of expansion resulted in a condition of semi-permanent warfare against two very different threats. In what is today’s central Europe, along the Rhine and Danube Rivers, Rome struggled to protect its borders from depredations and incursions by various Germanic tribes, colloquially known to history as “barbarians.” Meanwhile, along its far eastern extent, primarily in today’s Levant and Central Asia, and also along the lower Danube, Rome contended with strong states, most notably the Parthian Empire. These states could never displace Rome, but regularly threatened its borders and trade routes, disrupting the Roman idea of global order. Warfare was the endemic, permanent condition for much of Roman history, and the rulers in Rome did little but to deal with these successive crises as they came along, one by one.

Actually, Rome had a policy of expansion as far back as we can trace it. Legend has Romulus extending the empire militarily within a year or so of its foundation (see Propertius 4.4 and Livy 1.10). The frontiers of the empire were relatively settled areas in an age when Rome was less interested in getting bigger — most major expansion was done by the first century. I’m not sure what history Auslin’s reading, but ‘barbarians’ aren’t really a technical term. And Rome had no military forces in Central Asia, which is (by the way) pretty far from the lower Danube (although Parthians did live there).

It’s also not really fair to say that groups like the Parthians “could never displace Rome”. The Romans certainly feared that they could, or at least that they could invade the wealthy eastern provinces and deprive Rome of those revenues — forever. The best military men of Rome’s day fought against Parthians, and many of them lost. Just because we see history through western (and Roman) eyes doesn’t mean that this is the only, necessary way to interpret the poorly-understood wars against non-Romans.

Warfare was a permanent state of affairs for Rome, but there’s no evidence that the Romans didn’t like it that way. War is a known way to foster unity; it was far away from the capital itself; it could lead to fun events, like triumphs; and it was a way to gain glory, wealth, and prestige. As long as the war was directed against external forces, there is no evidence that Romans thought there was anything wrong with being at war all the time (civil conflict was a different story). Roman emperors (and before them, consuls) did nothing to change that because they saw no need to, not because they were paralyzed by lack of decision-making ability.

But the best part lies close to the beginning: “Just like Rome, America faces a two-front conflict to preserve its power and prestige—and as with Rome, these threats are not going away. They will last at least a generation, and most likely more.”

So Auslin calls for “a strategy that will last for a generation or more”, and castigates Rome for failure over five centuries? Sure, the pace of change is faster now than it was in antiquity. But compared to “a generation”, imperium sine fine looks pretty good.



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