Friday, November 26, 2010

The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part II

The Melting Pot

I know it's no longer fashionable to refer to the United States as a melting pot, but the politically correct term of multiculturalism doesn't strike me as describing the process accurately.

It's actually been long discussed by the historians that a culture is stronger when it has more ethnic components, with bigger differences among them.

In Rome, the association of various cultures was eased by their tendency to consider that the same gods were worshiped all over the world under different names, leading to associations such as Venus – Aphrodite – Isis or Jupiter – Zeus – Serapis.

Cultural Complex

Both Rome and the United States owe a lot to other civilizations, from the cultural point of view. It has been said that there is no actual Roman civilization or culture, just the Greek one, popularized for the masses. For the Americans, the fact that they share the same language with the British doesn't help shake off the complex, either.

The Romans never managed to get over this completely. When the mad Nero wanted to make it big as an artist, he sought recognition in Greek towns, not at home. Even when the empire reached its height, the Greeks, now under Roman domination, still looked down on their conquerors, from a cultural point of view.


If you're going to dominate the world, it might help to turn your own mother tongue into lingua franca. American English made it by combining different channels – the Internet, probably the biggest factor of success, turning English into the primary business language and the entertainment industry, especially pop music. Various terms that denominate technological discoveries, business and stock market practices and showbiz words are borrowed by other languages all the time.

The Roman Empire didn't have the Internet, but had the next best thing – a written culture. Let's put it this way: Rome had a written culture at a time when the rest of the world was still relying on oral traditions, in the same way America had an electronic culture when the rest of the world was still relying on pen and paper. The entire empire was fundamentally bilingual, the two languages used being Koine Greek and Latin. Latin made it big after becoming the official language of the Catholic Church and its alphabet was adopted in many European territories.

The Balance of Trade

One of the causes that led to the fall of the Roman Empire was its own unsustainable economy. Scholars argue that Rome kept importing very expensive merchandise, such as spices and fragrances, from the Far East, and had nothing to export, thus consistently decreasing its gold and silver reserves. Its inflation problem started pretty much when Rome became an empire, it was already visible in Nero's time – mostly because that was also the moment when Rome's territorial expansion slowed down until it stopped completely. Sometimes at a slow rate, sometimes in leaps, the inflation continued to undermine Rome's economy, despite various attempts to control it made by several emperors.

The United States is also facing a huge trade deficit today. It's inevitable, the more prosper a country is, the more it turns itself into a consumer, rather than a producer.

Home Defense

You see, Rome never invaded anybody else. I don't know what they taught you in school, but really, all they were doing was protecting their own city. This meant expanding the borders a bit. And when those borders were threatened, they had to be expanded a bit more. And so on, until the whole world was conquered and there were no more threats.

Just because it was an expansionist empire (which the US is not, territorially, at least), Rome didn't accept wars for the sole purpose of conquering new territories. Generals who wanted to start a conflict (which they always did, for their own personal profit) had to present home some very solid grounds, such as “a tribe of 300 members armed with big wooden bats were threatening to invade us and were planning on taking over Rome, so we had to invade them first”. Going to war in a territory at the other end of the world in search of mass destruction weapons which might, or might not, be used on your own home territory at some point in a hypothetical future would have made perfect sense for the Romans.

Go to:
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part I
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part III
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part IV