Finding the spot where the most famous episode in Roman history happened is not easy. A bit of research, however, led me to a plaza where ruins have been unearthed. Tourists crowd around Trevi Fountain nearby, but when I arrived at these ruins, I was the only person gazing down at two sets of excavated steps. On one or the other — historians are uncertain which — Julius Caesar fell after being stabbed to death in 44 BC.
According to Shakespeare, one of the assassins marveled as he stood over Caesar’s bloody corpse: “How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!” He was right. Even though the site is unmarked, the story of this assassination has echoed through the ages. So has the larger story of the Roman Empire. It was one of history’s most powerful states. Yet despite its vast wealth and even vaster territory — it dominated Europe and much of the Middle East and North Africa — it collapsed. Walking through the ruins of ancient Rome has often led travelers to wonder how that happened. Today this age-old question leads to another. The United States is the Rome of our age. Are we heading for the same end?
The most famous modern historian of ancient Rome, Edward Gibbon, concluded that the empire fell because citizens lost their sense of “public virtue” and the government fought too many foreign wars. Having subdued such great territory, Roman leaders believed there was no limit to how far they could extend their power. In the end, though, they overestimated what their armies could achieve. Satraps rebelled, wars bled the treasury, and a population dulled by spectacle tolerated it all until the empire collapsed.
Gibbon’s six-volume masterpiece, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” was obligatory reading for learned Americans during the 19th century. Political debate was full of references to Roman history. When Aaron Burr broke with Thomas Jefferson’s government, for example, he was accused of leading a “Cataline conspiracy.” That reference would draw a blank in today’s Washington, where history is widely held to have no lessons to teach the United States. In past eras, though, nearly every member of Congress would have known that Cataline was a Roman senator who tried to overthrow his government in 63 BC.
When the United States erupted into debate over whether to set off on the course of overseas empire, both sides based their cases on Roman history. At the country’s first public anti-imperialist meeting, held at Faneuil Hall in Boston on June 15, 1898, the civic crusader Moorfield Storey thundered: “Let us once govern any considerable body of men without their consent, and it is but a question of time how soon this Republic shares the fate of Rome!” As he was speaking, the House of Representatives was voting to annex Hawaii — the first step in what would be America’s long march toward global military power. “Who dares to say that, even if we should enter into this new policy, the fate which befell the Roman Empire would be ours?” Representative William Hepburn of Mississippi asked his colleagues. “This same ‘greed,’ this thirst for annexation, this desire for new territory, this passion for extending civilization, has blessed the earth.”
Americans are still locked in this debate. Our 16-year war in Afghanistan is just one example of how fully the United States has committed itself to maintaining global power. Those who challenge our right to shape the course of events in their regions, whether they be Afghan, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or Syrian, become our enemies. Rather than seek to conciliate, we insist on dictating geopolitical reality around the world. That is the ambition that ultimately destroyed the Roman Empire.
Ultimately it fell to barbarians — a term that, as I learned in Rome, meant the same thing as “foreigners.” To the ancient Romans, all who resisted Roman power were by definition barbarians. In much the same way, we today vilify all who resist American power as terrorists, gangsters, mass murderers, “violent Islamic revolutionaries,” or whatever term publicists can invent that best triggers our deepest fears.
Since the fall of Rome, other over-ambitious states have shared its fate. The Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires collapsed in World War I. Thirty years later, the once-invincible British Empire also succumbed. To citizens of those doomed empires, collapse seemed unimaginable until the end — just as it does to us today. Yet the imposition of foreign power over faraway regions often requires coercion, and that coercion often sets off rebellion. Rome collapsed because its leaders refused to recognize this simple reality — or because, conditioned by long years of success, they believed they could impose their rule in spite of it. Today this same misjudgment, fatal to Rome, shapes America’s approach to the world.
Roman history teaches us that even the most powerful of empires cannot survive indefinitely if it insists on waging endless war in distant lands. Wandering through the ruins of this ancient city evokes admiration for a lost civilization, but also a sense of foreboding. Perhaps some future poet will view our ruins with the same wistfulness that moved Percy Shelley to marvel as he walked through what was once ancient Rome: “Behold the wrecks of what a great nation once dedicated to the abstractions of the mind!”
Follow Stephen Kinzer on Twitter @stephenkinzer.