Does History repeat itself? Many thinkers, from ancient times to modern, from Polybius to Hegel and Santayana, have thought so. Karl Marx, alluding to Hegel’s formulation, sarcastically added the well-known bit about “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Whether one believes in this theory or not, it is interesting to look at the many parallels that exist between Ancient Rome and the United States of America today.
Both were republics, governed by elected representatives. Their involvement in wars gradually changed this into rule by monarchs. Their early rulers, tempered by their wartime experiences, generally governed wisely – Octavius/Augustus on the one hand, Roosevelt/Truman/Eisenhower on the other. However, they were followed by others of a different type, the successors becoming increasingly warped as time passed, and more and more power seeped into their hands. As power accumulated with the monarchs, conspiracies and coups multiplied. Emperors were assassinated, presidents were forced from office.
As the powers of the monarchs increased, and their quality deteriorated, the weirdness of their antics manifested themselves more and more. There was Tiberius and his ‘minnows’ in the Blue Grotto; and Clinton sporting with Monica in the Oval Office. Caligula made his horse a Consul; Trump makes his son-in-law his policy chief. Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Trump tweets all the time. Clumsy Claudius was a figure of fun for many in Rome; George Bush Junior was (and is) the same for many in the USA (for example, see David Letterman). But the snickering of their people did not stop either of them from launching wars and bringing death and destruction to many lands.
The early rulers shared power with the elected representatives, but gradually all power passed into the hands of the monarchs. As this process occurred, more and more of this power seeped down into the hands that carried the weapons, and they began to play an increasing role in affairs of state. In Rome it was the Praetorian Guard, in the USA it is the Pentagon and the Deep State. With this power these entities began to interfere in government, even to the extent of enthroning and removing monarchs.
As conditions deteriorated in the country, and its entanglements abroad increased, the need arose to keep people amused (though perhaps bemused would be the more accurate term). Bread and circuses in one case; cheap junk food and 24-hour TV in the other (as William Astore notes in the Huffington Post). Such times also bring forth the critics and warners. In Rome there were Tacitus, Cicero and Seneca; today the USA has its Patrick Lang, Andrew Bacevich and Tom Engelhardt (we even have a 'Publius Tacitus' on this blog, sounding much the same warnings). Unfortunately, then as now, they are largely voices crying out in vain, drowned out by the noise of heedless revelry, and the beating of the drums of war.
For the rest of the world, in both ancient times and now, the mark of the imperial power is the wars being waged in their midst or around them, or the imperial soldiers in their camps and cantonments around the world. The people see their governments bow and scrape before this imperial power; those that dare to stand up to it either lie shattered (as does Libya) or are hemmed in on all sides and under imminent threat of attack (as in Iran’s case). But, while rulers and governments tremble, on the fringes of the empire the “barbarians” muster and rise up, and push back against the relentless outward pressure of the empire.
In Rome’s case, the “barbarians” finally beat the legions and conquered Rome. How will they fare this time?
One big difference now is that, if it goes down, the empire has the power to take the world down with it.
Will the end of the American empire signal the demise of our world?