What Bush Can Learn from the Romans: A Republic Founded on High Ideals of Liberty Becomes a Great World Power and Then Drifts into Empire. Sounds Familiar? It All Happened 2,000 Years Ago

By Holland, Tom | New Statesman (1996), August 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

What Bush Can Learn from the Romans: A Republic Founded on High Ideals of Liberty Becomes a Great World Power and Then Drifts into Empire. Sounds Familiar? It All Happened 2,000 Years Ago


Holland, Tom, New Statesman (1996)


Over the past few years, the image of George Bush as a Roman emperor, dressed in toga and laurel wreath, has been a hard one for his opponents to resist. But even after the bombing of the UN building in Baghdad, things have not gone as badly for him in Iraq as they did for the Romans. For 600 years, the dominant superpower of the ancient world sought to pacify the region--and all for nothing. The details of the various disasters that befell the Roman invaders are the stuff of Paul Bremer's nightmares. One emperor was killed; another, taken prisoner, was used as a footstool and then stuffed with straw. The most disastrous expedition of all, however, was the first, in 53-BC, which led to the loss of 30,000 men and the head of its commander. This gory trophy was presented to an actor for use as a prop in a tragedy--the perfect illustration of how nemesis follows hubris.

The defeated general, a power-hungry plutocrat called Marcus Crassus, had sought to justify his Middle Eastern adventure in the name of principle and self-defence, but everyone knew that his only motivation had been greed. To secure the command, Crassus had been forced to twist arms, grease palms and pervert the constitution to a monstrous degree. As he left for the Middle East, a tribune of the people--the Noam Chomsky of his day, perhaps--had ritually cursed him. The Romans, a superstitious people, had long feared the temptations of overweening greatness. The news of Crassus's death came as no great surprise.

In time, the Romans would become more relaxed about their imperial role. Yet throughout the centuries of their rise to supremacy, while the shadow of their power was gradually spreading across the known world, they had affected distaste for the burdens of empire. Certainly, they had been reluctant to countenance the permanent occupation of foreign territory, and for much the same reason as their American heirs: provinces were seen as expensive and troublesome to run. Instead, Rome had preferred to exercise power indirectly, intervening where necessary against uppity tyrants, but then, once they had been safely overthrown, withdrawing her lethal soldiers home. Just so long as Rome's preeminence was humbly acknowledged, and visiting plenipotentiaries and weapons inspectors obeyed, Rome had preferred to leave foreign despots in place. In time, the inadequacies of this policy would become increasingly clear. The Romans, by hamstringing every regional power that might pose a threat to their interests, and yet refusing to shoulder the burden of direct administration, left the field clear for the emergence of terrorist states. Ultimately, the collapse of the Middle East into near anarchy stirred the Roman ruling class into constituting a formal empire and a system of provincial administration that would last for centuries.

In that sense, the establishment of a Roman empire was a mark of failure. It was only by subjecting the world to a centralised autocracy that its supremacy could be preserved. Such an autocracy was provided by the rule of the Caesars. Before then, Rome had been a polity of free citizens, a republic, the first and, until recently, the only one to rise to global power. The Romans had had no doubt as to the superiority of this form of government. Freedom based on the dynamics of perpetual competition had been seen as the Roman way. The proof of its superiority had lain in its trouncing of every alternative. "It is almost beyond belief," the historian Sallust boasted, "how great the republic's achievements were once the people had gained their liberty, such was the longing for glory which it lit in every man's heart. …

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What Bush Can Learn from the Romans: A Republic Founded on High Ideals of Liberty Becomes a Great World Power and Then Drifts into Empire. Sounds Familiar? It All Happened 2,000 Years Ago
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