For twenty years, I’ve been fascinated by the Romans. I always knew that they were more like the Americans than anyone cared to admit, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was so similar. I also always had the sneaking suspicion that the Romans were not the Assyrians, or the Babylonians, or even Alexander the Great. There was a startling difference at work, and I could never figure out what.
Thomas Madden had the answer. His book, Empires of Trust, explains why the Romans and the Americans are such different empire-builders: they don’t want empires at all.
Madden opens with the story of the Locrians. It was the second century BC, and Hannibal was tearing up central and southern Italy. Cities deserted the Roman alliance with abandon, and went over to the Carthaginian general. One city, Locri, opened its gates to Hannibal, and welcomed him happily.
Then Scipio (not yet Africanus, that would come later) arrived, took Locri, and established a Roman garrison in the city before heading south for the harbors and Africa. His appointed deputy ruled harshly, and eventually the Locrians got fed up. They sent a messenger to Rome, an ambassador, who got right in the Senate’s face: “your man and your garrison are behaving badly towards us; they’ve raped our women, stolen the city treasury, robbed our temples, and treat us with disdain, as if we were a conquered city.” The Senate recalled the garrison and the commander, and installed a token force in Locri, and sent a large amount of gold to re-fill the civic treasury and repair the damage.
The thing is, Locri was a conquered city. It was also a traitor; it was part of the Roman alliance and it went over to Hannibal like an uncommonly sluttish whore. Didn’t it deserve to be treated like a captured city, with all the death, destruction and horror that entailed? But the Romans didn’t treat Locri that way. They respected its ambassadors (apparently the same guy who had convinced the Locrians to go over to Carthage in the first place). They restored the treasury and the temple, and paid restitution to violated families.
Doesn’t this change your viewpoint of the Romans? Shouldn’t the legions be in there, hauling down the stones from the walls and breaking the citizens on the rack, and selling the women and kiddies into slavery? Doesn’t that match your picture of how the Romans behaved?
But no. The most common six words in any contemporary history of Rome are, “They appealed to Rome for assistance.” They’re even in the Apocrypha of the Bible, where the Jews hear of the value of friendship with the Romans, and promptly make a treaty of mutual aid and assistance. When the Seleucid Empire under Antiochus IV learns of the treaty, the Empire packs up its army and goes home.
Contrast this with America. Sure. We’ve all been told about KGB gulag prisons in Siberia, and there’s all sorts of rumors about Chinese prison hospitals where Westerners get fixed up with ‘spare’ kidneys taken from executed political dissidents. We complain about the human rights violations, etc. But when the scandal about Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq broke, what was the response? We rounded up the apparently appropriate people, punished them, and got to work straightening the place out.
The Romans were not nice folks, particularly not the Senators nor the consuls. They were indubitably racist, and like their American counterparts, you were unlikely to get a square deal from them if you belonged to an indigenous tribe with a hunter-gatherer or nomadic lifestyle. But Rome — like America — runs its empire on the basis of trust: If you’re France, or South Korea, or Mexico, and someone attacks you… we will come to help you. If you’re Kuwait, we will kick the ass of an invading Iraqi army — and you will be surprised that we will not take down Saddam Hussein the first time. If you’re a Vietnamese refugee, you may well be aware of how agonized American foreign policy is, and how divided the nation is, about our failures there.
And that’s sort of the point. Empires both ancient and modern are empires of conquest. March in with an army, never leave, install your own governors, try to crush the populace’s will to fight, and keep control. Recognize that the place will fight you as soon as they possibly can, possibly sooner. Empires of Commerce, like the British Empire, are similar: use merchants and missionaries to establish a beachhead, buy everything for cheap, eliminate industries that compete with the motherland, and sell everything dear. Use the transport network to make everyone else pay through the nose while enriching home.
Empires of Trust are different. Someone would have – should have – taken the US down by now, if we were an empire of conquest. Truth is that they just don’t last very long. They can’t last longer than their military commanders survive and remain focused. Yet we’ve been sea to shining sea for more than a hundred years now, we’ve been far overseas for more than fifty. And nobody’s really touched us much — not the burning of Washington DC in 1812, nor the attacks on New York and DC in 2001. There’s not a single army in the world that can really touch us or really invade us — and no one really wants to build such an army, nor let anyone else build such an army.
Sure, we get criticized. So did the Romans. But no one really expects the Chinese or the Russians or the Syrians to stop torturing people just because some ugly pictures make it into a magazine. It’s hardly news that people disappeared for decades in Chile and Peru with official government sanction. But when people complain about American human rights violations, they INSIST that something change. “It’s not characteristic Roman… er… American… behavior,” they splutter. And they’d be right — mostly. Because people understand that we’re a nation that takes its alliances seriously, and takes its responsibilities seriously. If we pledge to support some country, we do — and our lapses (invading places we promised not to, and not defending places we promised to) cause us tremendous angst and distress. We’ve invaded Europe twice: during World War I, and World War II. Is anyone claiming that the American army occupied Europe under General John Pershing? No. How about Eisenhower? No. The Romans rarely occupied anywhere, either. It wasn’t in their nature to do so. Even maps of the Roman “empire” are misleading, because all the Romans did was invite states into their network of alliances — sometimes by treaty, and sometimes by changing the government after an enemy state attacked a Roman ally about three times too often. (The Romans conquered Macedonia three times, and left each time. Is that the behavior of a conqueror?). Consider the Powell Doctrine: “If you break a country, you’ve bought it. You have to fix it.” The Romans didn’t just restore Locri — they rebuilt city after city after city that they themselves had destroyed.
Osama bin Ladin’s ultimatum of 1998 said something like, “America must convert to Islam or be destroyed.” The Jews said something similar to the Romans in about 66 AD. Rome’s response was to try diplomatic solutions first, and then fight a series of wars with the Jews that lasted almost a century. Each time a war ended, except the last, the Roman Senate showed leniency and goodwill to the Jews, who responded with assassinations, rebellions and city-ravaging sabotage. Finally, the Romans leveled Jerusalem and expelled the Jews from the newly-constituted province of Palestine. The Romans finally ‘got’ that every time they showed leniency and goodwill, the Jews took it as a sign that God was fighting for them and their cause. Then they showed no mercy whatsoever, and lined the roads with crucifixions for hundreds of miles. It’s to be hoped that America will be able to find a lenient solution to the problem of radical Islam. But Islam is going to have to be the changed thing here, not America. That’s because the rest of the world doesn’t trust Islam, and does — despite our failures — trust the United States. Even now, even after eight years of some of the worst government we’ve ever had.
The thing that amazes me about this book is that it’s helped me understand the current conflict we’re waging, and it helps me understand why I’ve felt so conflicted about it — largely by using arguments that are two thousand years old. I didn’t really want to go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I wanted to stay the course once we began. I didn’t want the surge to go forward, but now that it’s begun I want to see it finished right. Like the Romans, we Americans like to finish the things that we start, and finish them well. There’s no other nation on earth that I’d trust to handle world affairs as well as we have, even considering how badly we’ve botched it this last decade. China? India? USEurope? I don’t think so.
Stars: 5 of 5