For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Perils of Empire:
The Roman Republic and the American Republic
  • Monte L. Pearson
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Perils of Empire:. The Roman Republic and the American Republic
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In Perils of Empire: The Roman Republic and the American Republic, the author traces how the Roman Republic gained an empire and lost its freedoms, and he ponders the expansionist foreign policy that has characterized the American Republic since Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill.

This well-researched study of both long-term trends and current events highlights the difficulties of balancing the demands of ruling an empire and protecting democratic political institutions and political freedoms.


About the Author

Monte Pearson holds a Masters Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and has been involved in politics since 1978. A grant-writer for nonprofit organizations, Mr. Pearson also teaches a course on the "Perils of Empire" at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the late 1990s he began to research the history of the Roman Republic; this book is the result of that research.

About the Book

Many articles in the media examine contemporary American issues and compare them to the problems that led to the fall of the Roman Empire. But before the rise of the Empire, a time of one-man rule and limited freedoms, there was the Roman...

Many articles in the media examine contemporary American issues and compare them to the problems that led to the fall of the Roman Empire. But before the rise of the Empire, a time of one-man rule and limited freedoms, there was the Roman Republic — 500 years of free elections, civil liberties, and conquering armies.

Pearson shows that in fact it was the Republic that was destroyed, and the implications are alarming for Americans today. At first the successful armies brought wealth and glory; then the Republican institutions began to groan under the strain of running an empire. There were feuds, then riots, then civil wars, and the Republic was gone. During this turbulent period some of the most famous people in ancient history vied for power and glory — Caesar, Cleopatra, Cicero, and Octavian, Caesar’s nephew, who became Augustus, Rome’s first Emperor.

The fall of the Roman Empire was caused by a dramatic loss of economic and military power and it led to barbarian invasions — a problem that may be starting to affect the United States, but it is hard to visualize the US being formally invaded and occupied by foreign enemies. However, the fall of the Roman Republic led to a severe loss of political and social freedoms at home — a trend that is already underway in America and that is a threat to our basic values as a people.

With US forces occupying Iraq and fierce debates over which civil liberties must be restricted in order to prosecute a never-ending war on terrorism, now is a good time to look into the historical mirror and examine the perils for democratic institutions when republics acquire empires.


Introduction

Rome: The Growth of an Underclass

The instability brewing in the countryside compounded the chaotic growth of Rome, the political capital and economic hub of Italy. A significant number of displaced farmers moved to Rome where they lived on handouts and part-time jobs. Former soldiers took up residence in the city,...

Rome: The Growth of an Underclass

The instability brewing in the countryside compounded the chaotic growth of Rome, the political capital and economic hub of Italy. A significant number of displaced farmers moved to Rome where they lived on handouts and part-time jobs. Former soldiers took up residence in the city, as did thousands of freed slaves. Those slaves who had practiced a trade in their homeland became craftsmen, traders, and shopkeepers (tabernarii). The rich, who mainly lived on the Palatine hill, were heavy consumers of all types of consumer goods and services, many of which could be satisfied by workers in the city. The city was known for manufacturing a variety of products including clothing, jars and bowls, locks, keys, heavy ploughs, yokes, and baskets.[1]

In spite of this bustling economic activity, there was not enough work for the people who poured into the city; in this period before the industrial revolution, there were no large factories to absorb the labor of thousands of unskilled migrant workers. Vast slum neighborhoods sprang up to house the new urban poor.[2] The city had no urban planning or publicly provided housing, so the poor were crammed into dirty, unhealthy tenement buildings called insulae (literally: islands) that frequently fell down or burned.[3] Marcus Crassus, one of the wealthiest men in Rome in the 1st century, enhanced his wealth by creating a private fire department. When an insula caught fire, his fire wagons would show up and, for a significant fee, put out the fire. If the owner could not pay for the service, Crassus offered to buy the site from the hapless owner at a price that steadily declined as more and more of the building was consumed in the flames.

A large, unemployed underclass developed that made the city dangerous and created an unruly social world. Many people in the city struggled to pay for food on a daily basis; when there was a bad harvest in Sicily or an economic downturn, hunger became a burning political issue. We have one demographic gauge for the scale of the problem. In 58 BCE, Rome had grown to somewhere between 750,000 and one million people. That year more than 320,000 hungry people, 32 to 40 per cent of the population depending on which total is used, participated in the free corn ration implemented by the radical Tribune Publius Clodius Pulcher.[4] In a city with 500,000 residents in 140 BCE, a similar ratio of hungry people would mean 150,000 to 200,000 individuals living on the edge of starvation. There were no social services or public programs for the poor. In general, a new phenomenon in the ancient world was forming: a proletariat.

Inequality in America

It would be foolish to think of inequality in America today as being comparable to the situation that developed in Republican Rome. The standard of living is much higher for the average person in the United States and there is a social safety net that takes care of many people. However, an interesting parallel is occurring in the distribution of wealth as the American empire grows and becomes a more dominant aspect of American life.

The first period of the American empire, from the Spanish American War up through the Vietnam War, brought rising prosperity for the average citizen. This mirrors the experience of the Roman Republic during the 4th and 3rd centuries. The Progressive Era and then the Roaring Twenties gradually increased the income of many sectors of the urban population. The Great Depression was an enormous setback, but after World War II, there was a 25-year period of growth that lifted incomes at every level of society.[5] The spread of unions, the growth of Social Security and later Medicare and Medicaid, the use of policies like the minimum wage to ensure the bottom fifth of the population shared in economic growth, the rapid increase in professional jobs, and the slow improvement in civil rights for African-Americans all created an unprecedented level of material prosperity for the average person. The most visible feature of this economic expansion was the explosive growth of suburban America where millions of people were able to own their own homes for the first time.

Economic growth was stimulated by a combination of factors. The low gas prices secured by American oil corporations made it inexpensive to operate the millions of autos being produced by thousands of well-paid union workers and mid-level auto executives. The rise of the automobile made it possible to build those new suburbs and stimulated public investment in highways, streets, and bridges.[6] Government spending for a permanent military establishment operated as an engine of growth; research, production, and deployment of thousands of nuclear missiles, airplanes, and submarines provided good jobs for thousands of well-paid workers in California, Texas, and other Sunbelt states. Consumers outside of the Soviet-Chinese bloc were eager to buy sophisticated products from American factories. This was the era when “Made in Japan” was shorthand for cheap, flimsy products, a political and cultural put-down as rooted in imperial dominance as Sardi venales in Rome.

The economics of the American empire began to change in the late 1960s. Military spending during the Vietnam War, combined with increased social spending on the “Great Society,” touched off a steady rise in inflation. The resurgence of industrial economies in Western Europe and Japan posed greater competition for American exporters and led to a rapid decline in the US trade surplus. Then, in 1974, came the first oil price shocks and the creation of OPEC. During President Carter’s term “stagflation,” a combination of inflation and stagnant growth entered our vocabulary. Automakers grappled with lagging auto sales as a result of high gasoline prices and inexpensive, high quality Japanese cars. Elected in reaction to Carter’s economic failures, President Reagan reversed earlier trends by curtailing social service spending, cracking down on unions, opposing civil rights measures, cutting taxes on the wealthy, and blocking increases in the minimum wage.

Since the early 1970s, inequality has grown slowly but surely, accelerating during periods of recession, with the entire populationÂ’s real income growing only during the boom years of the late 1990s.[7] This income stagnation has affected even affluent white-collar professionals and managers. Between 1972 and 2001, the real wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of income distribution only rose 34 percent, barely one percent per year.[8] By contrast, households at the 99th percentile of income distribution (in 2005 this corresponded to an income of $402,306) enjoyed an increase of 87 percent between 1972 and 2001; households with incomes in the 99.99th percentile (over $6 million) had a rise in income of 497 percent between 1972 and 2001.

Since 2001, the gap between the top one percent of the population and everyone else continued to grow. For example, between 2003 and 2004, real average income for the top one percent of households grew by nearly 17% while the remaining 99% of the population averaged a gain of less than three percent before inflation.[9] Much of this startling gain was due to the unprecedented salaries, bonuses, and stock options collected by top corporate executives. In a related statistic, the top one percent of households received 57.5 percent of all income from dividends and capital gains in 2003, a significant increase from 53.4 percent just a year earlier. An interesting historical note is that, in 2004, “the top one percent [of households] held a bigger share of total income than at any time since 1929.”[10]

There is also a stark echo of statistics quoted earlier about the Roman Republic. In 2006, the average US army private made $25,000 a year while the average CEO of a defense firm made $7.7 million.[11] David Lesar, CEO of Halliburton, was paid a total of $79.8 million, about $16 million per year, from 2002 to 2006.[12]

The growth of a new group of super rich people would not be notable if the rest of America was also prospering. However, the cumulative effect of decades of income stagnation is beginning to place painful stresses on American families. At the bottom of the income pyramid, the number of Americans without health coverage went up by 1.3 million in 2005, with a record 46.6 million people facing financial disaster whenever a major illness or injury occurred.[13] One measure of the impact of not having health coverage is that almost half of all personal bankruptcies in the US are now the result of medical debts. In the area of wages, the federal minimum wage, which directly benefits 6.5 million workers, was increased in 1997 (to $5.15 per hour) and then lost about 20 percent of its value until it was increased by the new Democratic Congress in 2007. By way of contrast, the top rate for the estate tax (affecting only 8,200 very large estates) has been reduced every year since 2002.[14]

Â…

While we might search the Internet each day for the latest trend, real changes in the tide of human affairs often require a decade or even a generation to take hold. In 63 BCE, Cicero was the senior consul of the Roman Republic, chief spokesman for the nobility and an orator who could sway the minds of juries and crowds. A generation later, in 43 BCE, he was a hunted man, proscribed by Antony and Octavian while the Republic collapsed into monarchy. In 1774, Louis XVI, at the age of 20, became the King of France, the exalted ruler of the largest and most powerful country in continental Europe, rivaled only by the English Empire. A generation later, in 1793, he was found guilty of treason and executed by the revolutionary National Convention. In 1900, Queen Victoria presided over a lavish centennial celebration, secure in the notion that the sun never set on the British Empire. A generation later, in 1926, a few years after the First World War left two and a half million young Englishmen dead or wounded, the country was paralyzed by a general strike. Two million workers from the coal, railroad, printing, docks, and steel industries defied the government for nine days, a sign of EnglandÂ’s declining economic vitality and a harbinger of her inability to hold together the worldÂ’s largest empire.

These sharp changes of fortune in seemingly invincible nations lead us to the question, where will the United States be in 20 years? What kind of country will today’s young adults and school children live in? The dire examples in the previous paragraph ring a bell with us because people in this country are concerned and pessimistic about the future. Since Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans in September of 2005, between 60 and 70 percent of the people responding to the Newsweek poll question, “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” have said they are dissatisfied.[15] The Gallup poll has tracked similar findings of unhappiness.

We should not be surprised that the percentage of Americans who are dissatisfied went up after Katrina. For many people, the events surrounding the disaster were a clear signal that first, global warming will mean more than extra time at the swimming pool, and second, that the Bush administrationÂ’s failures in Iraq might be as deep and long lasting as the bungled response to the plight of New Orleans. The concern is not just about the severity of these problems but the deep roots they have in the American way of life and the American empire.

Global warming is just one threat to the energy intensive, petroleum based economy that is the dominant feature of American life. The prosperity and long-term growth of the US economy has been based on inexpensive oil since Theodore Roosevelt was president. At the beginning of the 20th century, booming domestic oil production fueled the initial wave of automobile, steel, and rubber industry growth that made the United States the largest economy in the world by the 1920s. After the Second World War, as US production peaked, inexpensive foreign oil became essential to the energy intensive growth symbolized by the development of suburbs, strip malls, and inter-state highways. Because of this domestic demand for inexpensive fuel, a powerful dimension of the American quest for empire since the 1940s has been the desire to secure long-term control over supplies of oil.

The search for oil brought United States corporate and political leaders to the Middle East. AmericaÂ’s relationships with Arab nations have always been based on our preoccupation with securing inexpensive supplies of oil for the US economy. As we have seen, the quest for cheap oil eventually led to the invasion of Iraq. This bold attempt to make the one last, great source of oil a reliable part of the American empire has failed. That failure has both driven up the price of oil and called into question the United StatesÂ’ ability to secure inexpensive oil in the future.

The Roots of Terrorism

Less obvious to most Americans is the way in which roping oil-producing Arab nations and pulling them into the empire has alienated large segments of the Moslem world and spawned the al-Qaeda terrorist movement. The claim that America is the object of terrorist attacks because Osama bin Laden and his allies hate American freedoms and the American way of life is wrong. As a former CIA analyst puts it, “There is no record of a Muslim leader urging his brethren to wage jihad to destroy participatory democracy, the National Association of Credit Unions, or the coed Ivy League universities.”[16] He goes on to say:

The focused and lethal threat posed to US national security arises not from Muslims being offended by what America is, but rather from their plausible perception that the things they most love and value — God, Islam, their brethren, and Muslim lands — are being attacked by America. What we as a nation do, then, is the key causal factor in our confrontation with Islam.[17]



[1]  Scullard, Roman World, p. 352

[2]  Meir, Caesar, p. 30

[3]  Holland, Rubicon, p. 16

[4]  Fergus Millar, “A Critique of the Cambridge History of the Roman Republic,” in Journal of Roman Studies, V.85, 1995, p. 240

[5]  Teresa Tritch, “The Rise of the Super Rich,” The New York Times, 7.19.06; available from http://www.truthout.org/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/62/21309; accessed 25 July 2007

[6]  Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966, pp. 218-224

[7]  Tritch, “Super Rich,” 7.19.06

[8]  Paul Krugman, “Graduates versus Oligarchs,” The New York Times, 2.27.06; available from http://www.truthout.org/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/48/17995; accessed 25 July 2007

[9]  Tritch, “Super Rich,” 7.19.06

[10]  Tritch, “Super Rich,” 7.19.06

[11]  Derrick Jackson, “Soldiers die, CEOs prosper,” Boston Globe, 8.30.06

[12]  Michael Brush, “War Means a Windfall for CEOs,” MSN Money, 9.19.07; available from http://article.moneycentral.msn.com/Investing/CompanyFocus/WarMeansAWindfallForCEOs.aspx; accessed 20 September 2007

[13]  Lou Dobbs, “Are You a Casualty of the Class War?,” CNN, 10.4.06; available from http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/10/03/Dobbs.Oct4/index.html; accessed 25 July 2007

[14]  Aviva Aron-Dine, “Since Last Minimum Wage Increase, Congress has Reduced Estate Tax Burdens Eight Times,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 8.30.06; available from http://www.cbpp.org/8-2-06tax2.pdf; accessed 25 July 2007

[15]  PollingReport.com, “Direction of the Country,” available from www.pollingreport.com/right.htm; accessed 5 July 2007

[16]  Scheuer, Michael, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, (Wash. D.C., BrasseyÂ’s, Inc., 2004) p. 9, originally published as writing by “Anonymous.”

[17]  Scheuer, Imperial Hubris, p. 9


Table of Contents
Perils of Empire: The Roman Republic and the American Republic 3 Introduction: Empires and Political Freedom

Perils of Empire: The Roman Republic and the American Republic 3

Introduction: Empires and Political Freedom 8

The Invasion of Iraq 9

Stages of the Roman Republic 11

Outlines of the American Empire 12

On the Use of Historical Dates 13

Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Empire 13

Chapter 1: Birth of a Republic 14

The Historical Record 17

The Etruscans: Rome Ruled by Kings 18

The Etruscan Royalty 22

New Social Groups and the Tyranny of Kings 23

In Pursuit of Liberty: The Creation of Republican Institutions 26

Chapter 2: Military Glory and the Course of Honor 29

Political Offices in the Roman Republic: The Consuls 29

Roman Political Officials: The Praetor and Legal Rights 33

Quaestors and the Administration of the State 37

The Cursus Honorum 39

The Electoral Caldron 40

The Clientela System 41

The Influence of Small Farmers 42

Military Glory & Political Achievement 42

Chapter 3: The Struggle of the Orders and the Rise of the Nobility 43

Creating the Centuriate Assembly: The Census 44

Patricians versus Plebeians 47

The Sack of Rome 49

Defensive Imperialism and the Bush Doctrine 50

The Struggle of the Orders 51

Creation of the Nobility 54

Deference and the Roman Political Culture 54

Inequality, Dignitas, and Liberty 55

The Roman Senate 56

Chapter 4: The New Roman Legion and the Conquest of Italy 58

The Conquest of Campania and the Defeat of the Latin League 62

The Second and Third Wars with the Samnites 67

Rapid Growth and Social Change 69

Taming the Plebeian Assembly 71

Rome and America: Expansion and Social Reform 72

Chapter 5: The Republic Acquires an Empire 73

Pyrrhic Victories and the Conquest of southern Italy 74

Expanding Republics: America and Rome 76

The First Punic War 77

The Social Order of the Middle Republic 80

Religion and the State 82

Policing and the City of Rome 84

Chapter 6: Origins of the American Empire 88

The Desire for Markets 90

Naval Power and Trade 92

AmericaÂ’s Destiny 94

The Spanish American War 96

The Open Door Policy 100

The Bi-Partisan Empire 102

The Strategy of Openness 105

Chapter 7: The Open Empire 106

The Cold War 107

The Rise of Oil in the Politics of Empire 112

The Muscle behind the Drive for Openness 114

Globalization: The Next Stage of the Open Door Policy 115

Chapter 8: The Price of Empire 121

The Riches of Empire 122

Consequences of Wealth 123

Crisis on the Land 125

Rome: The Growth of an Underclass 126

Inequality in America 127

The Military-Industrial Complex 131

Electoral Corruption and Roman Politics 132

Money and American Politics 135

Chapter 9: Spain: Guerrilla War and Political Dissent 137

The Fiery War 138

A Massacre in Spain and a new Imperial War 140

The Rise of Viriathus 141

Social Conflict and Political Power 142

The Shadow of Honor 143

Defeat and a Widening War 144

Deepening Conflict in Rome and Spain 147

Defeat and Division 149

Turning Point: 134 B.C.E. 150

Chapter 10: The Brothers Gracchi and the Limits of Reform 152

Land Reform and Political Power 154

The Reform Coalition of Gaius Gracchus 159

The Nobility Strikes Back 161

The Populares Movement 163

The Empire under Attack and the Rise of Marius 164

Chapter 11. Clash of the Titans 167

SullaÂ’s Revenge 168

A Decade of Conflict 170

Pompey and Cicero Triumphant 173

The Consulship of Julius Caesar 178

The Descent into Monarchy 181

Chapter 12: The American Empire at War 184

Rise of the Neo-Conservatives 185

September 11 and The Bush Doctrine 187

Iraq and the American Empire 191

The Promise of Iraqi Oil 194

Expanding the Network of Military Bases 196

Conclusion: Breaking the Bonds of Empire 200

The Roots of Terrorism 201

Are You an Enemy Combatant? 203

The Perils of Empire 205


More . . .

As we strive to create a better world, we should draw strength and resolution by remembering the sad fate of the citizens of the Roman Republic. Their libertas was washed away in a swirl of cataclysmic events — but we do not have to follow their path of imperial misadventure. It is our turn to challenge history, and the future is unwritten. When we do save the Republic, when we do restore balance to an unstable world, somewhere in the mists of time, their spirits will be cheering...

As we strive to create a better world, we should draw strength and resolution by remembering the sad fate of the citizens of the Roman Republic. Their libertas was washed away in a swirl of cataclysmic events — but we do not have to follow their path of imperial misadventure. It is our turn to challenge history, and the future is unwritten. When we do save the Republic, when we do restore balance to an unstable world, somewhere in the mists of time, their spirits will be cheering for us.

Synopsis of Perils of Empire

The first section describes the Early Republic, from 510 B.C.E. to 365 B.C.E., the period when the Romans overthrew their foreign-imposed king and began creating a unique combination of political institutions including free elections, civil liberties, a citizens army, and a complex legal system.

Discussions about these institutions include evaluating similarities between Roman and American political values and practices. This first Republic influenced the founding generation of the American Republic, men who read Latin and knew a great deal about the Roman Republic's leaders and political ideas.

The second section covers the Middle Republic, from 365 to 146 B.C.E. During this period the city’s political institutions flourished. The Senate, composed of senior leaders of the aristocracy, dominated the city’s elections and foreign policies. After taking over Italy, the Roman Republics citizen army conquered Spain, Greece, Asia Minor, and Syria.

While the expanding empire brought great wealth and culture into the city, it also led to great inequalities and social unrest. The Romans suddenly found themselves entangled in a series of wars to preserve the newly won empire. Most strikingly, the guerilla war in Spain, like the war in Vietnam, led to draft dodging and open conflict between the city’s residents and the Senate. This section ends with an historical discussion of American foreign policy and proposes a way of thinking about today’s American empire, an empire of military bases and oil rights, not colonies.

The final section covers the Late Republic, from 146 B.C.E. to 31 B.C.E., when a series of attempts at reform led to bloody conflicts. An endless series of revolts against the empire set up an on-going clash between reformers and those who wanted to preserve the city’s traditional distribution of wealth and power. During the final stages of the Republic Caesar, Cicero, Cato, and Cleopatra vied for power. The book explains why Caesar led his army against the Senate and examines the collapse of the Republic. This section ends with a discussion of the War on Terrorism, its roots in the American empire, and the threat the empire poses to our basic liberties.


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Pages 284
Year: 2008
LC Classification: E179.P356
Dewey code: 973--dc22
BISAC: HIS002020 HISTORY / Ancient / Rome
BISAC: HIS036000 HISTORY / United States / General
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ISBN: 978-0-87586-612-3
Price: USD 22.95
Hard Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-613-0
Price: USD 32.95
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