Comparative Imperial Pathologies: Rome, Britain, and America

excerpted from the book


The Last Days of the American Republic

by Chalmers Johnson

Holt, 2006, paperback

Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome

Democracy [is] a wonderful invention by the people of history to defend themselves from the power of the wealthy.

Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome

When their class interests were at stake, the [Roman] senators had no trouble choosing political dictatorship over the most anemic traces of popular rule and egalitarian economic reform.

Patrick E Tyler in the New York Times

The Defense Department asserts that America's political and military mission in the post-Cold War era will be to ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia, or the territory of the former Soviet Union .... The new [Paul Wolfowitz] draft sketches a world in which there is one dominant military power whose leaders 'must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.'

The Roman Republic failed to adjust to the unintended consequences of its imperialism, leading to drastic alterations in its form of government. The militarism that inescapably accompanied Rome's imperial projects slowly undermined its constitution as well as the very genuine political and human rights its citizens enjoyed. The American republic has, of course, not yet collapsed; it is just under great strain as its imperial presidency and its increasingly powerful military legions undermine Congress and the courts. However, the Roman outcome-turning over power to a dictator backed by military force welcomed by ordinary citizens because it seems to bring stability-suggests what might well happen sometime in the future as a result of George Bush's contempt for the separation of powers.

Republican checks and balances are simply incompatible with the maintenance of a large empire and a huge standing army. Democratic nations sometimes acquire empires, which they are reluctant to give up because they are a source of wealth and national pride, but their domestic liberties are thereby put at risk.

After Congress voted in October 2002 to give the president unrestricted power to use any means, including military force and nuclear weapons, in a preventive strike against Iraq whenever he-and he alone-deemed it "appropriate," it would be hard to argue that the governmental structure laid out in the Constitution of 1787 bears much relationship to the one that prevails today in Washington.

The Roman Republic is conventionally dated from 509 to 27 BC, even ( though Romulus's founding of the city is traditionally said to have occurred in 753 BC. All we know about its past, including those first two centuries, comes from the histories written by Livy and others and from the discoveries of modern archaeology. For the century preceding the republic, Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings from their nearby state of Etruria (modern Tuscany). In 510 BC, according to legend, Sextus, the son of King Tarquinius Superbus ("King Tarquin"), raped Lucretia, the daughter of a leading Roman family. A group of aristocrats backed by the Roman citizenry revolted against this outrage and expelled the Etruscans from Rome. The rebels were determined that never again would any single man be allowed to obtain supreme power in the city, and they created a system that for four centuries more or less succeeded in preventing that from happening. "This was the main principle," writes Everitt, "that underpinned constitutional arrangements which, by Cicero's time, were of a baffling complexity."

At the heart of the unwritten Roman constitution was the Senate, which, by the early years of the first century BC, was composed of about three hundred members from whose ranks two chief executives, called consuls, were elected. The consuls took turns being in charge for a month, and neither could hold office for more than a year. Over time an amazing set of checks and balances evolved to ensure that the consuls and other executives whose offices conferred on them imperium-the right to command an army, to interpret and carry out the law, and to pass sentences of death-did not entertain visions of grandeur and overstay their welcome. At the heart of these restraints were the principles of collegiality and term limits. The first meant that for every office there were at least two incumbents, neither of whom had seniority or superiority over the other. Office holders were normally limited to one-year terms and could be re-elected to the same office only after waiting ten years. Senators had to serve two to three years in lower offices-as quaestors, tribunes, aediles, or praetors- before they were eligible for election to a higher office, including the consulship. All office holders could veto the acts of their equals, and higher officials could veto decisions of lower ones. The chief exception to these rules was the office of "dictator," appointed by the Senate in times of military emergency. There was always only one dictator and his decisions were immune to veto; according to the constitution, he could hold office for only six months or the duration of a crisis, whichever was shorter.

Once an official had ended his term as consul or praetor, the next post below consul, he was posted somewhere in Italy or abroad as governor of a province or colony and given the title of proconsul.

Over time, Rome's complex system was made even more complex by the class struggle embedded in its society. During the first two centuries of the republic, what appeared to be a participatory democracy was in fact an oligarchy of aristocratic families who dominated the Senate. As Holland argues, "The central paradox of Roman society... [was] that savage divisions of class could coexist with an almost religious sense of community." Parenti puts it this way: "In the second century BC, the senatorial nobles began to divide into two groups, the larger being the self-designated optimates ('best men'), who were devoted to upholding the politico-economic prerogatives of the well-born .... The smaller faction within the nobility, styled the populares or 'demagogues' by their opponents, were reformers who sided with the common people on various issues. Julius Caesar is considered the leading popularis and the last in a line extending from 133 to 44 BC." Everitt sees the problem in a broader perspective: "Since the fall of the monarchy in 510 BC, Roman domestic politics had been a long, inconclusive class struggle, suspended for long periods by foreign wars."

After about 494 BC, when the plebs-that is, the ordinary, nonaristocratic citizens of Rome-had brought the city to a standstill by withholding their labor, a new institution came into being to defend their rights. These were the tribunes of the people, charged with protecting the lives and property of plebeians. Tribunes could veto any election, law, or decree of the Senate, of which they were ex officio members, as well as the acts of all other officials (except a dictator). They could also veto one another's vetoes. They did not have executive authority; their function was essentially negative. Controlling appointments to the office of tribune later became very important to generals like Julius Caesar, who based their power on the armies plus the support of the populares against the aristocrats.

Cicero was the most intellectual defender of the Roman constitution whereas Caesar was Rome's, and perhaps history's, greatest general. Both were former consuls: "Cicero's weakness as a politician was that his principles rested on a mistaken analysis. He failed to understand the reasons for the crisis that tore apart the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar, with the pitiless insight of genius, understood that the constitution with its endless checks and balances prevented effective government, but like so many of his contemporaries Cicero regarded politics in personal rather than structural terms. For Caesar, the solution lay in a completely new system of government; for Cicero, it lay in finding better men to run the government-and better laws to keep them in order.

Imperialism provoked the crisis that destroyed the Roman Republic. After slowly consolidating its power over all of Italy and conquering the Greek colonies on the island of Sicily, the republic extended its conquests to Carthage in North Africa, to Greece itself, and to what is today southern France, Spain, and Asia Minor. By the first century BC, Rome dominated all of Gaul, most of Iberia, the coast of North Africa, Macedonia (including Greece), the Balkans, and large parts of modern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon.

Rome was the first case of what today we call imperial overstretch. There were several aspects to this crisis, but the most significant was the transformation of the Roman army into a professional military force and the growth of militarism. Well into the middle years of the republic, the Roman legions were a true citizen army, composed of conscripted small landowners. Unlike in the American republic, male citizens between the ages of seventeen and forty-six, except slaves and freedmen, were liable to be called for military service. One of the more admirable aspects of the Roman system was that only those citizens who possessed a specified amount of property (namely, a horse and some land) could serve, thereby making those who had profited most from the state also responsible for its defense.

By the end of the second century BC, in [Anthony] Everitt's words [Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician], "The responsibilities of empire meant that soldiers could no longer be demobilized at the end of each fighting season. Standing forces were required, with soldiers on long-term contracts." The great general Caius Marius (c. 157-86 BC) undertook to reform the armed forces, replacing the old conscript armies with a professional body of career volunteers. Senator Robert Byrd explains: "Whereas the ownership of property had long been a requirement for entry into military service, Marius opened the door of recruitment to all, enrolling men who owned no property and were previously exempt. In accepting such troops, he remedied the long-standing manpower shortage and opened up a career for the employment of thousands of landless and jobless citizens. By this innovation, Marius created a new type of client army, bound to its commander as its patron .... Marius, in creating a professional army, had created a new base of power for ambitious men to exploit and use as an instrument of despotic authority."

Members of this large standing army, equipped by the Roman state, signed up for twenty to twenty-five years. When their contracts expired, they expected their commanders, to whom they were personally loyal, to provide them with farms, which Marius had promised them. "From that moment on," writes Holland, "possession of a farm was no longer the qualification for military service but the reward." Unfortunately, land in Italy was by then in short supply, much of it tied up in huge sheep and cattle ranches owned by rich, often aristocratic, families and run by slave labor. The landowners were the dominant conservative influence in the Senate, and they resisted all efforts at land reform. Members of the upper classes had become wealthy as a result of Rome's wars of conquest and bought more land as the only safe investment, driving small holders off their properties. In 133 BC, the gentry arranged for the killing of the tribune Tiberius Gracchus (of plebeian origin) for advocating a new land-use law. Rome's population thus continued to swell with landless veterans. "Where would the land be found," asks Everitt, "for the superannuated soldiers of Rome's next war?"

Although the state owned a large amount of public property that theoretically could have been distributed to veterans, most of it had been illegally expropriated by aristocrats. Marius, who from the beginning allied himself with the populares in the Senate, was willing to seize land for military purposes, but this inevitably meant a direct clash with the established order. "Cicero detested Roman militarism' and Marius was exactly the kind of leader he believed was leading Rome to ruin. Utterly ruthless and caring little for the Roman constitution, Marius served as consul an unprecedented seven times, in clear violation of the requirement that there be an interval often years between each re-election. Suzanne Cross, an American scholar of classical antiquity, describes him as harsh and vengeful. Marius was the first Roman general to portray himself as "the soldier's friend." Marius's nephew, Julius Caesar, built on this framework, and Caesar's grandnephew, Octavian, who became Augustus Caesar, completed the transformation of the republic from a democracy into a military dictatorship.

During the final century before its fall, the republic was assailed by many revolts of generals and their troops, leading to gross violations of constitutional principles and on several occasions civil wars. Julius Caesar, who became consul for the first time in 59 BC, enjoyed great popularity with the ordinary people. After his year in office, he was rewarded by being named governor of Gaul, a post he held between 58 and 49, during which he both earned military glory and became immensely wealthy. In 49 he famously allowed his armies to cross the Rubicon, a small river in northern Italy that served as a boundary against armies approaching the capital, and plunged the country into civil war. Taking on his former ally and now rival, Pompey, he won, after which, as Everitt observes, "No one was left in the field for Caesar to fight .... His leading opponents were dead. The republic was dead too: he had become the state." Julius Caesar exercised dictatorship from 48 to 44, and a month before the Ides of March he arranged to have himself named "dictator for life." Instead, he was stabbed to death in the Senate by a conspiracy of eight members, led by Brutus and Cassius, both praetors known to history as "principled tyrannicides."

Antony and Octavian, Caesar's eighteen-year-old grandnephew, formed an alliance to avenge the murder of Caesar. It would end with only one man standing, and that man, Caius Octavianus (Octavian), would decisively change Roman government by replacing the republic with an imperial dictatorship. Everitt characterizes Octavian as "a freebooting young privateer' who on August 19, 43 BC (just over a year after Caesar's death), became the youngest consul in Rome's history and set out, in violation of the constitution, to raise his own private army. Holland calls him an "adventurer and terrorist," while Parenti, quoting Gibbon, says he was a "subtle tyrant," who "crafted an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth' Byrd laments, "There was absolute freedom of speech in the Roman Senate until the time of Augustus [Octavian] ' who put limits on how far senators could go. "The boy' says Everitt, "would be a focus for the simmering resentments among the Roman masses, the disbanded veterans, and the standing legions."

Cicero, who had devoted his life to trying to curb the kind of power represented by Octavian, now gave up on the rule of law in favor of realpolitik. He recognized that "for all his struggles the constitution was dead and power lay in the hands of soldiers and their leaders." In Cicero's view, the only hope was to try to co-opt Octavian, leading him toward a more constitutional position, while doing everything not to "irritate rank-and-file opinion, which was fundamentally Caesarian." Cicero would pay with his life for this last, desperate gamble. Octavian, still allied with Mark Antony, ordered at least 130 senators (perhaps as many as 300) executed and their property confiscated after charging them with having supported the conspiracy against Caesar. Mark Antony personally added Cicero's name to the list. When he met his death, the great scholar, orator, and Grecophile had with him a copy of Euripides' Medea, which he had been reading. His head and both hands were displayed in the Forum.

A year after Cicero's death, following the battle of Philippi, where Brutus and Cassius were defeated and committed suicide, Octavian and Antony divided the known world between them. Octavian took the West and remained in Rome; Antony accepted the East and allied himself with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt and Julius Caesar's former mistress. In 31 BC, Octavian set out to end this unstable arrangement, and at the sea battle of Actium in the Gulf of Ambracja on the western coast of Greece, he defeated Antony and Cleopatra's fleet. The following year in Alexandria, Mark Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra took an asp to her breast. By then, both had been thoroughly discredited for claiming that Antony was a descendant of Caesar's and for seeking Roman citizenship rights for Cleopatra's children by Caesar. Octavian would rule the Roman word for the next forty-five years, until his death in 14 AD.

On January 13, 27 BC, Octavian appeared in the Senate, which had legitimized its own demise by ceding most of its powers to him and which now bestowed on him the new title of Augustus, first Roman emperor. The majority of the senators were his solid supporters, having been handpicked by him. In 23 BC, Augustus was granted further authority by being designated a tribune for life, which gave him ultimate veto power over anything the Senate might do. But his real power ultimately rested on his total control of the armed forces.

His rise to power tainted by constitutional illegitimacy ... Augustus proceeded to emasculate the Roman system and its representative institutions. He never abolished the old republican offices but merely united them under one person-himself. Imperial appointment became a badge of prestige and social standing rather than of authority. The Senate was turned into a club of old aristocratic families, and its approval of the acts of the emperor was purely ceremonial. The Roman legions continued to march under the banner SPQR-senatus populus que Romanus (the Senate and the people of Rome)-but the authority of Augustus was absolute.

The history of the Roman Republic from the time of Julius Caesar suggests that imperialism and militarism poorly understood by all conservative political leaders at the time brought down the republic. The professionalization of a large standing army in order to defend the empire created invincible new sources of power within the Roman polity and prepared the way for the rise of populist generals who understood the grievances of their troops and veterans politicians could not.

Service in the armed forces of the United States has not been a universal male obligation of citizenship since 1973. Our military today is a professional corps of men and women who commonly join up to advance themselves in the face of one or another cul-de-sac of American society. They normally do not expect to be shot at, but they do expect all the benefits of state employment-steady pay, good housing, free medical benefits, education, relief from racial discrimination, world travel, and gratitude from the rest of society for their "service." They are well aware that the alternatives on offer today in civilian life include difficult job searches, little or no job security, regular pilfering of retirement funds by company executives and their accountants, "privatized" medical care, bad public elementary education, and insanely expensive higher education. They are ripe not for the rhetoric of a politician who followed the Andover-Yale-Harvard Business School route to riches and power but for a Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Juan Perón-a revolutionary, military populist with little interest in republican niceties so long as some form of emperorship lies at the end of his rocky path.

Regardless of who succeeds George W. Bush, the incumbent president will have to deal with an emboldened Pentagon, an engorged military-industrial complex, our empire of bases, and a fifty-year-old tradition of not revealing to the public what our military establishment costs or the kinds of devastation it can inflict. History teaches us that the capacity for things to get worse is limitless. Roman history suggests that the short, happy life of the American republic may be coming to its end-and that turning it into an openly military empire will not, to say the least, be the best solution to that problem.

Lord Salisbury, Britain's conservative prime minister at the start of the twentieth century

If our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British empire would not have been made.

That Britons and Americans have proven so comfortable with the idea of forcing thousands of people to be free by slaughtering them-with Maxim machine guns in the nineteenth century, with "precision-guided munitions" today-seems to reflect a deeply felt need as well as a striking inability to imagine the lives and viewpoints of others.

All empires, it seems require myths of divine right, racial preeminence, manifest destiny, or a "civilizing mission" to cover their often barbarous behavior in other people's countries.

American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr

The tendency to claim God as an ally for your partisan values is the source of all religious fanaticism.

During the nineteenth century, Britain fought two wars of choice with China to force it to import opium. The opium grown in India and shipped to China first by the British East India Company and after 1857 by the government of India, helped Britain finance much of its military and colonial budgets in South and Southeast Asia. The Australian scholar Carl A. Trocki concludes that, given the huge profits from the sale of opium, "without the drug there probably would have been no British empire, "

historian Mike Davis

When the sans culottes stormed the Bastille in 7891, the largest manufacturing districts in the world were still the Yangzi Delta [in China] and Bengal [in India], with Lingan (modern Guangdong and Guangxi) and coastal Madras not far behind... [In the early eighteenth century, India was a] vast and economically advanced subcontinent producing close to a quarter of total planetary output of everything, compared with Britain's measly 3 percent.

Scottish aristocrat and socialist R. B. Cunningham Graham in l897, in a story entitled "Bloody Niggers

Far back in history, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians lived and thought, but God was aiming all the time at something different and better. He let Greeks and Romans appear out of the darkness of barbarity to prepare the way for the race that from the start was chosen to rule over mankind-namely, the British race.

Sven Lundqvist

During the nineteenth century, religious explanations were replaced by biological ones. The exterminated peoples were colored, the exterminators white. It seemed obvious that some racial natural law was at work and that the extermination of nonEuropeans was simply a stage in the natural development of the world. The fact that natives died proved that they belonged to a lower race. Let them die as the laws of progress demand.

With rare exceptions, the countries that the various imperialisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exploited and colonized remain poor, disease- and crime-ridden, and at the mercy of a rigged international trading system that Anglo-American propagandists assure us is rapidly "globalizing" to everyone's advantage.

New York Times

The very same representatives of the club of rich countries who go around the world hectoring the poor to open up their markets to free trade put up roadblocks when those countries ask the rich to dismantle their own barriers to free trade in agricultural products?

At the apex of those who profited from British-style "free trade" at the end of the nineteenth century was the Rothschild Bank, then by far the world's largest financial institution with total assets of around forty-one million pounds sterling. It profited enormously from the wars - some seventy-two of them - during Queen Victoria's reign, and financed such exploiters of Africa as Cecil Rhodes.

The United States [was] protected from its inception to about 1940 by tariffs on manufactured imports that averaged 44 percent.

Mike Davis

The looms of India and China were defeated not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium, and a [British] imposed system of one-way tariffs.

Thomas Friedman

The most powerful agent pressuring other countries to open their markets for free trade and free investments is Uncle Sam, and America's global armed forces keep these markets and sea lanes open for this era of globalization, just as the British navy did for the era of globalization in the nineteenth century.

President George W. Bush, September 17, 2002

The United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world .... Free trade and free markets have proven their ability to lift whole societies out of poverty-so the United States will work with individual nations, entire regions, and the entire global trading community to build a world that trades in freedom and therefore grows in prosperity.

Imperialism and militarism will ultimately breach the separation of powers created to prevent tyranny and defend liberty. The United States today, like the Roman Republic in the first century BC, is threatened by an out-of-control military-industrial complex and a huge secret government controlled exclusively by the president.

Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

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