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Empire without end? The Fate of Rome and the Future of America.

David Gress is professor of classics at Aarhus University, Denmark, and fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is the author of works on European history and contemporary international relations, among them A History of West Germany 1945--1991 (with Dennis Bark, 1993) and From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (1998). His most recent book is The Flickering Lamp: History, Education, and American Culture in the New Century.

"The Romans.

On them I impose no limits of time or place.

I have given them an empire that will know no end."

The Roman poet Virgil (70--19 b.c.) placed these resounding words in the mouth of the king of the gods, Jupiter. He is declaring his purpose for the exiles of Troy, the city captured by the Greeks. Led by the Trojan prince Aeneas, the exiles are on their way to Italy, where they are fated, after much sorrow and war, to found the city of Rome. Jupiter is speaking to Venus, the goddess of love, who is also the mother of Aeneas. She fears that Jupiter's consort, Juno, who has always favored the Greeks and opposed the Trojans, will continue to persecute the exiles. The king of the gods reassures Venus that her son and his followers will accomplish their purpose and that this purpose will be greater than even they imagine--"an empire that will know no end."

Jupiter's promise is how Virgil links his epic of the Trojan exiles, the Aeneid, to the history of Rome through the centuries to Virgil's own time. Aeneas' son, Jupiter says, will be called Iulus when the exiles settle in Italy; Iulus will be the forefather of Romulus, the founder of Rome and also the ancestor of Julius Caesar (100--44 b.c.) and Augustus (63 b.c.--a.d.14), the rulers of Rome when Virgil wrote. The tradition that the Julian family was descended from Venus was an old one; in the Aeneid it received poetic confirmation.


Unlike Homer's epics about the Trojan War, the Aeneid is not a retelling of ancient legends located in a mythical past but a carefully designed work of art that related those legends to what Virgil conceived as the real-life epic of Rome, its rise to power and greatness and its cultural mission. Since Homer's epics were virtually the Bible of ancient civilization, its basic text and cultural code, Virgil's purpose in composing the Aeneid was to place the formerly rude and primitive Romans at the head of that civilization. Rome was not merely power; it was dignity and justice, and its destiny was to use power to do justice. This is made clear in the second of three crucial passages of the Aeneid, where the story of the exiles is linked to Virgil's present and to his vision of Rome. In book 6, Aeneas is sent to the underworld to obtain a vision of the future that awaits his descendants. The shade of his father shows him in a vision a pageant of Roman history and points to the great men who will build the empire. "Behold this race, behold your Romans," he says. He concludes by prophesying that others, that is, Greeks, will excel in art, rhetoric, and science but "you, Roman, shall rule people by the skill of command- -this will be your artistry--and impose the order of peace, spare the humble, and cast down the proud."

Americans of an earlier and less guilt-ridden era would not have hesitated to apply Virgil's words to themselves. Woodrow Wilson, for example, who as president led the United States into World War I in 1917 to help "make the world safe for democracy," conceived of America's purpose very much in terms of "sparing the humble and casting down the proud." A similar self-image animated Franklin Roosevelt and the other American leaders and policymakers during World War II. The proud were, in each case, Germany and its allies; the humble were the victims of German aggression, who would be restored to liberty and self-determination by American power.

Unfortunately, reality did not match the image, either in the twentieth century a.d. or the first century b.c. Wilson's and Roosevelt's crusades for national self-determination and democracy conspicuously excepted members of the defeated nation, the Germans, from the rights promised to others. After World War II, American victory helped bring democracy back to Western Europe while enabling the Soviet Union to extend communist rule to the Baltic, the Elbe, and the Adriatic. The humble victim nations of German aggression to the east of that line-- Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Baltics--exchanged one tyranny for another until they liberated themselves in 1989--90.

Likewise, Virgil's statement of Roman purpose was an ideal, not a description. The Romans who, in the two last centuries b.c., conquered the lands around the Mediterranean, were certainly skilled in command, but to describe Roman policy as one of sparing the weak and humbling the proud is a cruel caricature. It might rather be defined as one of trampling the weak and rewarding the greedy. So hated were the rapacious Roman settlers in the east that the Armenian king Mithradates, who fought the Romans for several decades, was able in 88 b.c. to organize the simultaneous murder on one day of eighty thousand Romans in all the towns of Asia Minor, to the joy and relief of the native inhabitants.

Virgil knew quite well that his lofty vision of Roman purpose was an ideal, not reality. He died before finishing the Aeneid, and a persistent legend has it that he asked his friends to destroy the manuscript because the poem's patriotic glorification of Rome was based on a lie about what Rome really was. In Virgil's lifetime, warlords had fought for power in Rome and over the spoils of its empire. These warlords abused the patriotic rhetoric of Roman republicanism to disguise their greed for power, so that the word liberty, for example, came to mean "rule by the strongest." Philosophers such as Cicero (106- -43 b.c.) believed in their darker moments that the end of Rome was at hand because state and society were incurably corrupt.

Yet the Roman Empire was, as historians see it, only at its beginning. It was Julius Caesar's nephew and successor Augustus, glorified in the Aeneid as the man who brought peace and order to the Roman world after the civil wars, who performed the masterstroke of seizing supreme power in the empire and then pretending that he was merely restoring the republic. Staffing the Senate, the administration, and the armies with his own followers, he persuaded the rich and the powerful, who were all that counted, that his new order, camouflaged as the restoration of traditional Roman values, was free and just.

The great historians of Rome of modern times, Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century and Theodor Mommsen in the nineteenth, saw through Augustus' camouflage, but however much they might deplore the end of the republic with its political liberty and vital culture, they saw no alternative to Augustus' authoritarian settlement. The republican constitution was for a small town, run by a close-knit oligarchy of great families, in which all citizens were able to come together several times a year to elect magistrates. By the first century b.c., the dominion of Rome ran from Spain to Syria. This dominion, won by the sword, offered ambitious Romans the chance of riches and private armies, promises that seduced many and completely overturned the old, stern Roman morality of pride and poverty which made the republican constitution work. In this new world of competing warlords and mafia- style bosses, the only solution that would preserve the empire's political cohesion was a monarchy based on a monopoly of armed force, a monarchy that could deter warlords while pretending to uphold the old values but permitting the ambitious to enrich themselves. That is what Augustus offered.

His restoration was a careful ideological design, reminiscent of America's current attempts to restore traditional values without really criticizing or hampering the expressive individualism of the culture. But in the view of historians such as Gibbon and Mommsen, that did not matter in the perspective of Western civilization. Augustus and his imperial successors were important not because they restored old Roman values but because they brought peace to the Mediterranean. The mission of Rome was not a conscious but an unconscious one: to bring stability so that the legacy of ancient civilization could be assembled and passed on, and so that Christianity could begin and spread in peace.

Rome's imperial mission, in other words, was providential, not something designed by Augustus. Virgil may have had something like that in mind when he destined Rome for an unending empire of justice and peace, while knowing that Roman reality was often far from just. In the Middle Ages, Virgil was sometimes considered as a pagan prophet of Christianity, his vision of peace and order transferred from the political realm of Augustus to the future dominion of the Church, which he, of course, could not foresee.

From the founding on, Americans have seen connections between the United States and Rome. Most obviously, both nations chose the eagle as their symbol. Or rather, Americans chose the eagle because it was the symbol of empire and had been since and because of Rome. Another example is found on the Great Seal of the United States, portrayed on the reverse of the dollar bill. The Latin inscription annuit coeptis novus ordo seclorum means "the new order of the ages nods in approval of its beginnings." The motto is in part a quote from a very strange poem of Virgil, the Fourth Eclogue, composed some years before the Aeneid in the midst of civil strife.

In this poem, Virgil announces that the ancient prophecy of the Cumaean sibyl is being fulfilled. "A great order of the ages is born, wholly new. Now the virgin returns ... now a new child is being sent down from high heaven." What the Cumaean prophecy was, we do not know, but Virgil clearly meant that some great change of history, of cosmic scope, was imminent, and that this change had to do with a child who would be born. In the new world that this child symbolized, evil and suffering would diminish, and "all the earth shall bear all manner of things." No wonder that Christian interpreters applied this to the virgin birth of Christ and took it as evidence that Virgil, although a pagan, had by divine grace been given true inspiration of the future.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we live, as Virgil did, in an era of stark contrasts. Some are social and economic, as between America and other rich countries and the misery and conflict of poor, war-ridden regions. Others, and those are the ones I am here concerned with, are contrasts of perspective. Do we live in the era of the "end of history," when the liberal democratic order of market economics and popular sovereignty are poised to conquer the world? An age of ever- expanding opportunities for all in a world increasingly at peace? Or is ours an age of decadence, when learning and tradition are despised, the cultural and academic elites pursue ever more arcane forms of expressive individualism, political pressure groups vie for attention and subsidies, and national pride and common purpose have almost the status of four-letter words?

America, like ancient Rome, is a multicultural society. Some of our social and cultural problems are reminiscent of those faced by Virgil's generation at the turning point of Roman history. Moreover, America's long-standing interest in Roman analogies--the eagle, the claimed respect for justice--suggests that examining the fate of Rome may be of value to Americans today. Not that one can draw easy lessons from history, least of all from the history of a preindustrial, Iron Age civilization that, however sophisticated its elites in matters of philosophy and literature, lacked both the ideas and technology that undergird modern life. Still, I agree with macrohistorians (students of large-scale change in history) that human nature has not changed in two thousand years; nor have the rules of social organization and social changed. The ways people live together and shape society, and the ways that complex societies wear out and fail, have not changed at the most fundamental level because people have not. The Roman Empire was a vast structure of customs, habits, laws, and social order that ultimately disintegrated, leaving numerous ghosts and shadows in the later history of Western civilization. Can this fate tell us anything useful about our age and its prospects?

The political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, who popularized the idea of the "end of history" in 1989, used it to mean that the repertory of political ideologies and forms of social organization was exhausted. Even communism, democracy's most serious rival as a model of social organization, which for decades enjoyed the allegiance of many Western intellectuals, had failed. Ultimately, all forms of social order other than that of the liberal democratic West would disappear, simply because they could not satisfy either basic needs or hopes for liberty. History, defined as the struggle among radically different models of social and world order, had come to an end.

For the two centuries after Virgil and Augustus, many Romans said much the same. The most popular philosophy among the elite of the Roman Empire was Stoicism. It taught that happiness grew out of inner peace, which was to be achieved by distancing oneself from the emotions and from the hurly-burly of daily life, with its triumphs and tragedies. The universe was good; if a suffering individual could not see this, it was because he was subject to emotions and desires that must be shucked off. The death of near and dear ones or of oneself was to be borne with equanimity.

Politically, the Stoics advocated the idea of a "world community" of placid, egalitarian people cultivating their souls and rejecting conflict, both inner and outer. As far as they were concerned, history had ended because war and political struggle made no sense to the person who had realized the value of inner peace. In the second century a.d., a leading Stoic thinker, Aelius Aristides, composed a speech in praise of the empire as the perfect community, one destined to spread across the globe and embrace all mankind in a harmonious world order.

The idea of the end of history sends much the same message. Nothing new can be imagined because nothing new is worthwhile; all the alternatives to the current order are failing because they do not satisfy human needs or hopes. The ancients had no concept of satisfying material needs, for they lived in a world of extreme scarcity for the vast majority, but certainly Stoicism claimed to satisfy all hopes by providing a comprehensive and, to its adherents, comforting interpretation of the universe and man.

Yet scarcely had this ancient equivalent of the "end of history" thesis become the most popular doctrine of the Roman elites when their world began to collapse around them. Marcus Aurelius, emperor from a.d. 161 to 180 and a Stoic philosopher himself, spent most of his life campaigning against Germanic tribes that threatened the borders. Also in his reign, a devastating plague swept across the Mediterranean in one of the worst outbreaks of disease before the Black Death of the fourteenth century. Aurelius' death was followed by civil war among pretenders to the throne, something unheard of in well over a century. More dangerously, the imperial dignity itself had become cheapened. In earlier civil wars, warlords marched on Rome to be acclaimed by the Senate and people, because to be imperator, ruler and commander, of Rome was the highest honor to which a man could aspire. Now, in the 190s, the soldiers of the elite Praetorian Guard, stationed near Rome, auctioned off the imperial authority to the highest bidder.


For five decades, from the 230s to the 280s, the empire was almost constantly under attack from outside or torn apart by endless wars among pretenders. Stoics were few and far between. Newer, mystical doctrines promising individual salvation gained ground. People no longer wanted to learn how to accept life in this world but how to escape it, either before death or after. Christianity and Neoplatonism each offered to explain the cosmos and man's place in it. They reassured those fearful of the world around them that it was but a testing place or an illusion and that a deeper, benign reality awaited those who followed the right path.

By tremendous effort, a series of strong emperors from the 280s on restored the defenses, put down pretenders, and reorganized the state on harsher, more authoritarian lines. To maintain the tax base, Rome forbade people to leave their homes and obligated them to follow their father's profession. This measure was designed to prevent what was becoming a drain on resources, as people in the towns, where taxes were collected, fled to the countryside. There they either lived lives of banditry or joined households of landed magnates, prefiguring the feudalism of medieval Europe.

In a.d. 312, Constantine legalized Christianity; in 381, it became the official religion of the empire. Some modern historians have argued that the empire was stronger and more cohesive in the fourth century than ever before, but the restored imperial power was no match for the barbarian invasions that began in earnest in the 370s. By the mid-fifth century, the western half of the empire, including Rome itself, had been repeatedly invaded and plundered, and much of it was in the hands of barbarian warlords. The eastern half, centered on the new capital of Constantinople on the Bosporus, held out longer. Constantinople was not taken by an enemy until 1204 and not finally conquered until it fell to the Turks in 1453. The rulers of Constantinople never ceased to refer to themselves as emperors of the Romans, even when they were no longer Latin but Greek speaking.

Edward Gibbon's unsurpassed History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire takes account of this long history of the eastern empire, even though he did not think much of its last nine centuries. To Gibbon, as to many other historians, the last Roman emperor worthy of the name was Justinian (527--65). From his base in Constantinople, he set out to reconquer the lost provinces in the west, including the city of Rome itself, which became the capital of a Germanic kingdom in 476. Unfortunately, Justinian's obsession with recapturing Rome and Italy in a series of destructive wars consumed resources that would have been better spent protecting his eastern flank, where the Persian Empire was a more dangerous enemy than any Germanic kingdom. In Gibbon's eyes, however, Justinian proved his Romanness by his very determination to recover the old capital, no matter what the cost.

If one includes the later history of the eastern empire, more commonly known as the Byzantine Empire, the timescales of Roman history become strange indeed. The high point of Roman civilization was the century or so before Virgil, before Augustus became sole ruler and systematized the government of the empire. The high point of the pax romana, the Roman peace that enabled Christianity to spread and the Stoics to teach their doctrine of the end of history, was in the first and second centuries a.d. From then on came more wars, confusion, religious strife, and invasions, for twelve hundred years until Constantinople at last fell to the Muslim Turks. In other words, four-fifths of the empire's history, if one includes Byzantium, was a mere epilogue to a glorious beginning.

This perspective, which is Gibbon's but still lurks in latter-day textbooks, is wrong. The Byzantine version of Rome was only one of several. Even though its rulers called themselves Roman emperors, the Byzantine era was a culture in its own right, a mixture of Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern elements quite distinct from the east-west blend of the earlier Roman Empire at its height and even from the Christian Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries. Byzantium's role in world history was not to be an epilogue to ancient Rome but to transmit Christianity to the Slavs. In 989, Vladimir, a Russian prince who was of mixed Nordic and Slav descent, was baptized in Constantinople. Within a century, the Byzantine, Orthodox version of Christianity had taken firm hold among Russians. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the Russians believed that this empire of the Greeks had fallen because it was sliding into heresy. They, the Russians, were henceforth the true guardians of orthodoxy, and within a short time they were referring to their own capital, Moscow, as the "Third Rome." Two Romes, that of Italy and that on the Bosporus, had fallen to heresy, so God had permitted enemies to overthrow them. The third Rome, Moscow, would be the final and last, protecting true faith until the end of time.

In the West, the Roman Empire had no physical existence after the end of the fifth century, but its shadow remained. On Christmas Day 800, the king of the Franks, Charlemagne, was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Nicholas III in Rome. At the time, the Byzantine emperor was a woman, Irene, and the pope chose that moment to argue that a woman could not be emperor. Therefore, he claimed, Charlemagne was the one and only true Roman emperor. Soon a man succeeded at Constantinople, and henceforth two empires called themselves Roman, one in the West and one in the East. The western one, known since the twelfth century as the Holy Roman Empire, lasted until 1806. Its symbol--the eagle-- survived as the symbol of the Austrian and German empires, remaining the state symbol of the Federal Republic of Germany today.

However long its afterlife, the ancient Roman Empire certainly came to an end. Most historians place that end in the fifth century, when barbarian tribes overran the West and the East began its long transformation into the Greek-speaking, Byzantine version of the empire. Why did Rome fall? The German historian Alexander Demandt counted 210 theories, from "absolutism," or too much government, to "zealotry"--too much religious conflict. What, if anything, can these explanations of Rome's fate tell us about America's future?

The most widespread explanation of Rome's fall, which starts from the empire's internal social and economic conditions, goes like this. The wars of the third century and the subsequent restoration required vast new resources. This meant more taxation, more discipline, and more regulation. Government grew, provoking popular resentment and resistance. Loyalty to the imperial order waned as that order appeared less benign, more grasping and dictatorial. Moreover, wars and invasions had reduced trade and prosperity. People were poorer, their horizons had shrunk, and a distant state required ever more of them. Increasing numbers of people refused to be part of an oppressive system. Long-submerged ethnic and cultural differences emerged as society fragmented. People began to identify with local nationalities and religious sects, not with the Roman state, the res publica, or "common affair." Already in Virgil's time, many deplored the decline of public spirit. By the fourth and fifth centuries, public spirit had virtually disappeared, ground down between the twin millstones of an authoritarian state and regional fragmentation.


Is this America's fate also? Some signs are not encouraging. Public spirit is invoked but often disregarded as politicians, businesspeople, and interest-group leaders seek advantage for their own group at the expense of the whole. This is a common mechanism of complex societies, and that it should happen both in ancient Rome and today's America is no surprise. But one should not exaggerate. A deeper analysis of the fall of Rome indicates that these pathologies, however serious, were not decisive. The empire did recover in the fourth century, and the new religion, Christianity, advocated loyalty and public spirit in a way not seen since the good old days of the republic. In the end, it may have been the barbarian, Persian, and ultimately Muslim invasions that put an end to the old Roman order, and not domestic disaffection.

Today's world differs from that of ancient Rome in many respects, but one may be decisive: that is, the ease, speed, and cheapness of communications. Unlike the later Romans, we are not destined to decline into fragmented nationalism unless we choose to do so. This freedom of choice was not available to the Romans; had it been, one may well doubt that Rome would have fallen.

We are driven back to the differences of perspective that I mentioned. Is this the best of times or the worst of times? Are we headed for spiritual and physical betterment for all, or toward more decadence and disruption? My guess is that we will face something like the crisis of the Roman Empire, maybe not from foreign invasion, but from our own social pathologies and above all from our weakened faith in the merits and legitimacy of our own civilization--that, too, a trait not unknown in the third century. The Romans found a remedy in strong government and, more important, in Christianity. We may not need a new religion, but we will need, probably, to revitalize the ones we have and to revive our faith in the future.

If America is to be what Jupiter promised to Rome, an empire without end, it may be in shapes as yet undreamed of. After all, Jupiter was right, in a way, about Rome. Its afterlife, its dominating shadow over Western civilization, constitutes an empire without end all the more powerful for being cultural and internal and not political and external. This afterlife has taken two main forms. Ever since the time of Virgil, the idea that the civilized world of Western civilization, however shifting its geographical frame, should or could be ruled by a single head on the model of the single monarchy of heaven under God, has tempted and troubled thinkers and adventurers. This is one form and not one that it would be wise to emulate; the last to do so was Adolf Hitler.

There is another. That is the vision of book 6 of the Aeneid, of Rome as the bastion of peace and law. After Justinian reconquered Italy, his successors soon lost it again. But Justinian made another conquest, one that still lives, and that was his compilation of Roman law, the single most enduring legacy of Rome to modern society. The European Union is inconceivable without Roman law, and so is much of American law, despite its English antecedents. Our notions of property, contract, liability, and responsibility blend Roman and English models. The empire without end is alive and well.

What will America's legacies be? A legacy is a testament. America is not dead yet and not about to leave a testament. The best lesson we can learn from the fate of ancient Rome is to keep faith in the worth of our society and nation, whatever its real or apparent faults. It is ours and worth preserving, as the best of the Romans would have agreed.n
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Author:Gress, David
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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