For many centuries, Ancient Rome has had a lasting impact on the matrix of society, as well as our collective imagination. When most people look at Ancient Rome, if they aren’t historians, they usually think of the Roman Empire, and all the excesses associated with its rulers. However, when you really take a look at Roman history, Roman values, and Roman politics, you’ll notice that Rome’s path to glory and eventual destruction is quite similar to America’s rise to power, and its perceived decline.
For instance, let’s take a look at Rome’s beginnings under Etruscan rule. After the rape and suicide of a noblewoman named Lucretia, the Romans had grown tired of living under Etruscan kings. Led by an aristocrat named Lucius Junius Brutus, the Romans rose up against the last Etruscan king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, ending the rule of the Etruscans and the age of monarchy in Rome, and leading the way for the foundation of a Roman republic.
If you look at it in a certain way, this kind of reminds me of the American Revolution, in which the thirteen American colonies broke away from the British Empire to form what is now the United States of America. The difference between the American Revolution and the overthrow of Rome’s Etruscan kings was that while America fought Britain off, they didn’t end up taking over Britain, whereas Rome expelled the Etruscans, and eventually conquered their land.
Roman society was basically a melting pot of all the different peoples, cultures, and faiths that were assimilated into the Roman society as Rome expanded. This is similar to America’s assimilation of immigrants into the multicultural society we know today. However, Roman society, to my understanding, didn’t have the same racial tension that still somehow exists in America (or at least in the America of the news reporters).
In the Roman republic, they held elections to determine who would lead Rome, and anyone could vote, unless you were a woman (due to the fact that women in Roman society were considered inferior). In America, it was pretty much the same, for a time. However, elections in America are held every four years, and women were eventually given the right to vote. The other difference between Roman and American politics is that in America, it’s royally fucked up, what with the two-party system. Even though Rome did have political factions, they didn’t have political parties in the modern, fucked up sense.
If there’s one thing that Ancient Rome and America have in common, it’s the steep gap between the rich and poor. In fact, Rome’s social order allowed excess for the rich, with oppression for the poor. This is literally no different to today’s capitalist society, where the richest few have all the power to do whatever they want. The main difference here is that in Roman times, the rich could own slaves, and life for the poor was much nastier, especially if you happened to be slave.
Of course, I should also mention that in Roman times, they had the festival of Saturnalia, in which the roles of society were reversed. Back then, Saturnalia reflected on a time when, according to Roman mythology, the world was ruled by the agricultural god Saturn. In that setting, humans enjoyed a great bounty on the Earth without labour. Some have compared Rome’s Saturnalia to the modern day holiday of Christmas, but modern Christmas is basically about commercialism.
In ancient Rome, as in any other nation, corruption was a big problem. In Rome’s case, corruption was inevitable, due to Rome’s immeasurable wealth and power, and their desire to expand. In Rome, elections were often rigged in favour of the wealthy. In America, the only two parties who ever win elections are the ones who are always willing to appease corporate interests.
Some time after the beginning of Roman Empire, the Emperor Augustus attempted to restore “traditional morality”. For example, he made adultery a capital offence, punishable by either exile or death. This basically proves that the notion of “traditional values” is older than American politics, but in America, it always shows up at some point. In fact, the Etruscans (yes, we’re going back to them for a moment) were known for their erotic artwork, which was despised by the Romans and the Greeks. The Etruscans celebrated sexuality, while the Romans were scared that they had sex in complete darkness with their clothes on.
Both Rome and America tend to value law and order. The Romans believed in the meticulous planning of life and their world. If nature was seen as unpredictable, they would seek to control it. America likes to boast about freedom, while simultaneously speaking more highly of social stability than freedom. In that manner, they’re just like Rome, only they’re much more hypocritical about it. Both Rome and America just the eagle as their symbol. Incidentally, the eagle has almost always symbolized imperial power.
As Rome became an empire, it lost its integrity, turning from the representational government into a full-fledged autocracy, where the Emperor has all the say in what goes on. Even before Rome became an empire, Romans could sense the winds of change rocking the land towards doom. This seems similar to some Americans fearing the worst of America’s future (even though most of those fears are unfounded). Here’s hoping America doesn’t go the way of the Roman Empire.
Finally, I’d like to talk about Christianity. In Roman times, Christianity was an underground cult that stood against everything the Romans stood for. Now, Christianity is the dominant social order in many countries, including America. The worst part is that Christianity had turned into the very empire Jesus sought to oppose.
In conclusion, Rome and America have so much in common, whether its the architecture, or even the social values. That’s why I think it’s important to remember what happened to the Rome, so that they don’t make the same mistakes.