An imperialist culture?
‘We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.’ This is the famous explanation given by Victorian classicist and historian JR Seeley for the British Empire.
However debatable, it could equally be applied to the Roman republic. By 146 BC, the Romans found themselves the undisputed masters of the Mediterranean world. But they had achieved this without ever really intending to, and consequently they were unprepared to take on that mantle.
This is the position that the United States of America finds itself in today. Like the Roman republic, the US is now the policeman of the western world. Its armed forces are unstoppable, its influence is everywhere and just like the Romans, it got there by mistake.
Some commentators have said that the key difference between Rome and the US is that Rome was proud of her empire and America is not. The US, so the argument goes, will not forge an empire like Rome’s, because the US does not have an imperialist culture.
This argument is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of what drove these two great superpowers. In fact, both Rome and America were founded upon the same myth, and that myth has shaped their respective destinies.
In 509 BC, so the story goes, the son of the Etruscan tyrant of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, fell in lust with a beautiful Roman bride called Lucretia. The young Superbus had no compunction in raping Lucretia and then casting her aside.
In revenge, Lucretia’s family murdered the young Superbus and led the Romans in a rebellion against his father’s domination. They ousted the Etruscans and set up the Roman republic.
The defining moment of this rebellion came when a hero called Horatius single-handedly held the bridge across the River Tiber against an Etruscan army as his fellows cut it down behind him.
It doesn’t matter that the mythology is at best exaggerated and at worst untrue.
The rebel republic was saved and went on to defeat its old masters, conquering great tracts of Italy in defence of its new-found liberty.
Fast-forward 2,000 years to Boston, Massachusetts, where a small group of die-hards are tipping a cargo of tea into the harbour in an act of defiance against their colonial masters. In the war that follows, the defining act of the fledgling American republic is the daring midnight ride of Paul Revere to warn his compatriots of an approaching British army.
And so the republic is saved and goes on to defeat its colonial masters, ejecting them from American soil and conquering vast tracts of colonial land in defence of its hard-won freedom.
The details are different, but the sentiment is the same. Both Rome and America were founded on a myth of liberty – a tale of plucky underdogs fighting an evil empire in defence of their rightful freedom from the oppressor’s yoke.
It doesn’t matter that the mythology is at best exaggerated and at worst untrue. The crucial thing is that the myth persisted and influenced everything that the new republics did for centuries to come.
The ‘founding fathers’ of the American constitution would have had no problem with that comparison. In fact, they were the first to draw it. Steeped as they were in classical literature, it seemed only natural to hark back to the greatest republic of them all – that of ancient Rome – for inspiration.