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Perils of Empire- The Roman Republic and the American Republic

Perils of Empire- The Roman Republic and the American Republic

by Monte L. Pearson

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Most discussions of the "American empire" have sought to draw parallels between the US and the British or other modern European empires. If classical models are referred to, this tends to be the Roman Empire. In this enterprising book, Pearson suggests that the true parallel for the US is not the Roman Empire, but the Roman Republic.

The US is, after all, a republic, and the founding fathers were steeped in classical republican ideas. What gripped them in the Roman case was the slide from Republic to Empire, and the fear that that could happen with the US, too. Pearson traces in detail the story of Rome's transformation into an empire. He suggests that there are worrying parallels in the US today, with the erosion of many liberties in the course of the fight against terrorism. The general pint is not new, of course, but Pearson comes at it from an unusual and suggestive angle. This is not a scholarly book, but it is agreeably written and adds usefully to current debates about the condition of the US. Summing up: Recommended. General readers.

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Algora Publishing
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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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 thebuilding 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 population'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]

. . .

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 England's declining economic vitality and a harbinger of her inability to hold together the world'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 administration'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. America'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 States' 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]

Meet 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.

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