Why America Is Not a New Rome

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Overview

America's post—Cold War strategic dominance and its pre-recession affluence inspired pundits to make celebratory comparisons to ancient Rome at its most powerful. Now, with America no longer perceived as invulnerable, engaged in protracted fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffering the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, comparisons are to the bloated,decadent, ineffectual later Empire. In Why America Is Not a New Rome, Vaclav Smil looks at these comparisons in detail, going deeper than the ...

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Why America Is Not a New Rome

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Overview

America's post—Cold War strategic dominance and its pre-recession affluence inspired pundits to make celebratory comparisons to ancient Rome at its most powerful. Now, with America no longer perceived as invulnerable, engaged in protracted fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffering the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, comparisons are to the bloated,decadent, ineffectual later Empire. In Why America Is Not a New Rome, Vaclav Smil looks at these comparisons in detail, going deeper than the facile analogy-making of talk shows and glossy magazine articles. He finds profound differences.

Smil, a scientist and a lifelong student of Roman history, focuses on several fundamental concerns: the very meaning of empire; the actual extent and nature of Roman and American power; the role of knowledge and innovation; and demographic and economic basics—population dynamics, illness, death, wealth, and misery. America is not a latter-day Rome, Smil finds, and we need to understand this in order to look ahead without the burden of counterproductive analogies. Superficial similarities do not imply long-term political, demographic, or economic outcomes identical to Rome's.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[T]his book is both a polemic and a work of scholarship." --
Daniel Headrick, Technology and Culture

The MIT Press

"Smil (Univ. of Manitoba, Canada) has written an entertaining response to authors who have compared the US to the Roman Empire..." -- S. Prisco III,
CHOICE

The MIT Press

Publishers Weekly
Smil (Global Catastrophes and Trends) scrutinizes the frequently made comparison between ancient Rome and the contemporary U.S. as “bloated, decadent” empires in decline. Though he sees the U.S. as a country “in gradual relative retreat” and believes that the perception of its power and influence, like that of ancient Rome, is vastly exaggerated, he dismisses any analogy between the two because of their vastly different reaches of power and economic bases. With exacting rigor, he makes his case first by clarifying such key terms as empire, then examining the political might, energy consumption, and demographic patterns of the two societies. Smil covers an impressive range of topics, from the U.S.’s national debt to the Roman use of water power. By taking a granular, scientific approach, the author convincingly demonstrates that life in ancient Rome and contemporary America are so different in almost every meaningful way that any comparison of the two societies is at best general and superficial. Readers willing to sift through the author’s frequently technical analysis will come away with a richer understanding of both the Roman Empire and the post-WWII United States. (Mar.)
Daniel Headrick
[T]his book is both a polemic and a work of scholarship.
S. Prisco III
Smil (Univ. of Manitoba, Canada) has written an entertaining response to authors who have compared the US to the Roman Empire...
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262195935
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2010
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 7.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of more than thirty books, including most recently Made in the USA: The Rise andRetreat of American Manufacturing (MIT Press). In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. In 2013 Bill Gates wrote on his website that "there is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil."

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Table of Contents

Contents

Preface....................ix
Part 1 America as a New Rome?....................1
I Nihil Novi Sub Sole....................3
Exempla Trahunt....................3
Imperium Americanum....................11
Intentio Libri....................26
Part 2 Why America Is Not a New Rome....................31
II Empires, Powers, Limits....................35
What Is an Empire?....................42
Roman Reach: Hyperboles and Realities....................54
America's Peculiar Hegemony....................64
III Knowledge, Machines, Energy....................79
Inventing New Worlds....................81
Power of Machines....................98
Energy Sources....................105
IV Life, Death, Wealth....................115
Population Dynamics....................117
Illness and Death....................126
Wealth and Misery....................135
Part 3 Why Comparisons Fail....................147
V Historical Analogies and Their (Lack of) Meaning....................149
Common Shortcomings....................149
Fundamental Differences....................158
One World....................163
Notes....................173
References....................197
Name Index....................217
Subject Index....................221
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First Chapter

Why America Is Not a New Rome


By Vaclav Smil

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-262-19593-5


Chapter One

America as a New Rome?

Quid enim simile habet civitatium earum quas comparasti causa?

For what similarity is there in the cases of those states which you have brought into comparison?

-Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita XXXV:xvi (Cyrus Edmonds 1850 translation)

The undeniably impressive extent and longevity of the Roman Empire and, arguably, its prestige, might, and glory (some of it real enough, much of it greatly misunderstood and often uncritically exaggerated, not a little of it entirely undeserved) created an irresistible standard of comparison for all subsequent powerful and expansive states of Western civilization. Some of these states pursued policies that were deliberately fashioned to invite positive comparisons with the great classical model (a quest that ranged from high-minded actions to tragicomic gestures); others unintentionally evolved in ways that made analogies inescapable to many classically educated minds as well as to superficially informed opportunistic commentators on modern affairs. All of these comparisons have shared a key generic problem: the singularity of their complex subjects.

There has never been any other powerful state whose politics, ethos, militancy, durability, and legacy would closely resemble the unique conglomerate of attributes that defined the imperium Romanum, and the same is obviously true about such modern entities as the British Empire, the USSR, or the United States. Commonalities can be always found, but singularities are more important than any similarities. Contrasting modern states with Rome has at least two other specific drawbacks. First, Rome was one of the most enduring states in history, one that underwent profound transformations during more than a thousand years of ascent, perpetuation, and retreat. This invalidates many generalizations about Roman conduct or makes them highly suspect. Second, given the time span that must be bridged by comparisons of modern states to Rome (nearly two millennia have elapsed since Rome's greatest reach), we do not know enough about many essential aspects of Roman society and hence cannot fully understand its modus operandi.

But making comparisons is a universal propensity of our species, and I will exercise it by focusing on a limited number of significant concerns, comparing well-defined factors, and calling attention to their links and functions in the two societies. Consequently, this is not a book of comparative history-not histoire comparative but histoire comparée using Marc Bloch's (1928) classic distinction-and not one preoccupied by any specific methodological concerns or written to meet the approbation of professional reductionist historians. As to the best approach, I agree with Raymond Grew (1980, 773) who in his thoughtful inquiry into comparing histories concluded that they are most enlightening when shaped in terms of general and significant problems and "when the elements compared are clearly distinguished, and attention is paid to the intricate relationships between the elements compared and the particular societies in which they are located."

Perhaps one more prefatory note: this is not a programmatic book, it was not conceived with any ideological message in mind, and its intent is not to offer any grand lessons. As a lifelong student of complex systems, I have approached the writing of this book much as I have done with all similar challenges: without any preconceived conclusions and without any agendas (the Romans had a phrase for this attitude: sine ira et studio). My only goals are to inquire, illuminate, and explain and thus, I hope, to understand.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Why America Is Not a New Rome by Vaclav Smil Copyright © 2010 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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