Comparative Imperial Pathologies:
Rome, Britain, and America
excerpted from the book
The Last Days of the American
by Chalmers Johnson
Holt, 2006, paperback
Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's
History of Ancient Rome
Democracy [is] a wonderful invention by
the people of history to defend themselves from the power of the
Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's
History of Ancient Rome
When their class interests were at stake,
the [Roman] senators had no trouble choosing political dictatorship
over the most anemic traces of popular rule and egalitarian economic
Patrick E Tyler in the New York Times
The Defense Department asserts that America's
political and military mission in the post-Cold War era will be
to ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western
Europe, Asia, or the territory of the former Soviet Union ....
The new [Paul Wolfowitz] draft sketches a world in which there
is one dominant military power whose leaders 'must maintain the
mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring
to a larger regional or global role.'
The Roman Republic failed to adjust to the unintended consequences
of its imperialism, leading to drastic alterations in its form
of government. The militarism that inescapably accompanied Rome's
imperial projects slowly undermined its constitution as well as
the very genuine political and human rights its citizens enjoyed.
The American republic has, of course, not yet collapsed; it is
just under great strain as its imperial presidency and its increasingly
powerful military legions undermine Congress and the courts. However,
the Roman outcome-turning over power to a dictator backed by military
force welcomed by ordinary citizens because it seems to bring
stability-suggests what might well happen sometime in the future
as a result of George Bush's contempt for the separation of powers.
Republican checks and balances are simply incompatible with the
maintenance of a large empire and a huge standing army. Democratic
nations sometimes acquire empires, which they are reluctant to
give up because they are a source of wealth and national pride,
but their domestic liberties are thereby put at risk.
After Congress voted in October 2002 to give the president unrestricted
power to use any means, including military force and nuclear weapons,
in a preventive strike against Iraq whenever he-and he alone-deemed
it "appropriate," it would be hard to argue that the
governmental structure laid out in the Constitution of 1787 bears
much relationship to the one that prevails today in Washington.
The Roman Republic is conventionally dated from 509 to 27 BC,
even ( though Romulus's founding of the city is traditionally
said to have occurred in 753 BC. All we know about its past, including
those first two centuries, comes from the histories written by
Livy and others and from the discoveries of modern archaeology.
For the century preceding the republic, Rome was ruled by Etruscan
kings from their nearby state of Etruria (modern Tuscany). In
510 BC, according to legend, Sextus, the son of King Tarquinius
Superbus ("King Tarquin"), raped Lucretia, the daughter
of a leading Roman family. A group of aristocrats backed by the
Roman citizenry revolted against this outrage and expelled the
Etruscans from Rome. The rebels were determined that never again
would any single man be allowed to obtain supreme power in the
city, and they created a system that for four centuries more or
less succeeded in preventing that from happening. "This was
the main principle," writes Everitt, "that underpinned
constitutional arrangements which, by Cicero's time, were of a
At the heart of the unwritten Roman constitution
was the Senate, which, by the early years of the first century
BC, was composed of about three hundred members from whose ranks
two chief executives, called consuls, were elected. The consuls
took turns being in charge for a month, and neither could hold
office for more than a year. Over time an amazing set of checks
and balances evolved to ensure that the consuls and other executives
whose offices conferred on them imperium-the right to command
an army, to interpret and carry out the law, and to pass sentences
of death-did not entertain visions of grandeur and overstay their
welcome. At the heart of these restraints were the principles
of collegiality and term limits. The first meant that for every
office there were at least two incumbents, neither of whom had
seniority or superiority over the other. Office holders were normally
limited to one-year terms and could be re-elected to the same
office only after waiting ten years. Senators had to serve two
to three years in lower offices-as quaestors, tribunes, aediles,
or praetors- before they were eligible for election to a higher
office, including the consulship. All office holders could veto
the acts of their equals, and higher officials could veto decisions
of lower ones. The chief exception to these rules was the office
of "dictator," appointed by the Senate in times of military
emergency. There was always only one dictator and his decisions
were immune to veto; according to the constitution, he could hold
office for only six months or the duration of a crisis, whichever
Once an official had ended his term as
consul or praetor, the next post below consul, he was posted somewhere
in Italy or abroad as governor of a province or colony and given
the title of proconsul.
Over time, Rome's complex system was made even more complex by
the class struggle embedded in its society. During the first
two centuries of the republic, what appeared to be a participatory
democracy was in fact an oligarchy of aristocratic families who
dominated the Senate. As Holland argues, "The central paradox
of Roman society... [was] that savage divisions of class could
coexist with an almost religious sense of community." Parenti
puts it this way: "In the second century BC, the senatorial
nobles began to divide into two groups, the larger being the self-designated
optimates ('best men'), who were devoted to upholding the politico-economic
prerogatives of the well-born .... The smaller faction within
the nobility, styled the populares or 'demagogues' by their opponents,
were reformers who sided with the common people on various issues.
Julius Caesar is considered the leading popularis and the last
in a line extending from 133 to 44 BC." Everitt sees the
problem in a broader perspective: "Since the fall of the
monarchy in 510 BC, Roman domestic politics had been a long, inconclusive
class struggle, suspended for long periods by foreign wars."
After about 494 BC, when the plebs-that
is, the ordinary, nonaristocratic citizens of Rome-had brought
the city to a standstill by withholding their labor, a new institution
came into being to defend their rights. These were the tribunes
of the people, charged with protecting the lives and property
of plebeians. Tribunes could veto any election, law, or decree
of the Senate, of which they were ex officio members, as well
as the acts of all other officials (except a dictator). They could
also veto one another's vetoes. They did not have executive authority;
their function was essentially negative. Controlling appointments
to the office of tribune later became very important to generals
like Julius Caesar, who based their power on the armies plus the
support of the populares against the aristocrats.
Cicero was the most intellectual defender of the Roman constitution
whereas Caesar was Rome's, and perhaps history's, greatest general.
Both were former consuls: "Cicero's weakness as a politician
was that his principles rested on a mistaken analysis. He failed
to understand the reasons for the crisis that tore apart the Roman
Republic. Julius Caesar, with the pitiless insight of genius,
understood that the constitution with its endless checks and balances
prevented effective government, but like so many of his contemporaries
Cicero regarded politics in personal rather than structural terms.
For Caesar, the solution lay in a completely new system of government;
for Cicero, it lay in finding better men to run the government-and
better laws to keep them in order.
Imperialism provoked the crisis that destroyed
the Roman Republic. After slowly consolidating its power over
all of Italy and conquering the Greek colonies on the island of
Sicily, the republic extended its conquests to Carthage in North
Africa, to Greece itself, and to what is today southern France,
Spain, and Asia Minor. By the first century BC, Rome dominated
all of Gaul, most of Iberia, the coast of North Africa, Macedonia
(including Greece), the Balkans, and large parts of modern Turkey,
Syria, and Lebanon.
Rome was the first case of what today we call imperial overstretch.
There were several aspects to this crisis, but the most significant
was the transformation of the Roman army into a professional military
force and the growth of militarism. Well into the middle years
of the republic, the Roman legions were a true citizen army, composed
of conscripted small landowners. Unlike in the American republic,
male citizens between the ages of seventeen and forty-six, except
slaves and freedmen, were liable to be called for military service.
One of the more admirable aspects of the Roman system was that
only those citizens who possessed a specified amount of property
(namely, a horse and some land) could serve, thereby making those
who had profited most from the state also responsible for its
By the end of the second century BC, in
[Anthony] Everitt's words [Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's
Greatest Politician], "The responsibilities of empire meant
that soldiers could no longer be demobilized at the end of each
fighting season. Standing forces were required, with soldiers
on long-term contracts." The great general Caius Marius (c.
157-86 BC) undertook to reform the armed forces, replacing the
old conscript armies with a professional body of career volunteers.
Senator Robert Byrd explains: "Whereas the ownership of property
had long been a requirement for entry into military service, Marius
opened the door of recruitment to all, enrolling men who owned
no property and were previously exempt. In accepting such troops,
he remedied the long-standing manpower shortage and opened up
a career for the employment of thousands of landless and jobless
citizens. By this innovation, Marius created a new type of client
army, bound to its commander as its patron .... Marius, in creating
a professional army, had created a new base of power for ambitious
men to exploit and use as an instrument of despotic authority."
Members of this large standing army, equipped
by the Roman state, signed up for twenty to twenty-five years.
When their contracts expired, they expected their commanders,
to whom they were personally loyal, to provide them with farms,
which Marius had promised them. "From that moment on,"
writes Holland, "possession of a farm was no longer the qualification
for military service but the reward." Unfortunately, land
in Italy was by then in short supply, much of it tied up in huge
sheep and cattle ranches owned by rich, often aristocratic, families
and run by slave labor. The landowners were the dominant conservative
influence in the Senate, and they resisted all efforts at land
reform. Members of the upper classes had become wealthy as a result
of Rome's wars of conquest and bought more land as the only safe
investment, driving small holders off their properties. In 133
BC, the gentry arranged for the killing of the tribune Tiberius
Gracchus (of plebeian origin) for advocating a new land-use law.
Rome's population thus continued to swell with landless veterans.
"Where would the land be found," asks Everitt, "for
the superannuated soldiers of Rome's next war?"
Although the state owned a large amount
of public property that theoretically could have been distributed
to veterans, most of it had been illegally expropriated by aristocrats.
Marius, who from the beginning allied himself with the populares
in the Senate, was willing to seize land for military purposes,
but this inevitably meant a direct clash with the established
order. "Cicero detested Roman militarism' and Marius was
exactly the kind of leader he believed was leading Rome to ruin.
Utterly ruthless and caring little for the Roman constitution,
Marius served as consul an unprecedented seven times, in clear
violation of the requirement that there be an interval often years
between each re-election. Suzanne Cross, an American scholar of
classical antiquity, describes him as harsh and vengeful. Marius
was the first Roman general to portray himself as "the soldier's
friend." Marius's nephew, Julius Caesar, built on this framework,
and Caesar's grandnephew, Octavian, who became Augustus Caesar,
completed the transformation of the republic from a democracy
into a military dictatorship.
During the final century before its fall,
the republic was assailed by many revolts of generals and their
troops, leading to gross violations of constitutional principles
and on several occasions civil wars. Julius Caesar, who became
consul for the first time in 59 BC, enjoyed great popularity with
the ordinary people. After his year in office, he was rewarded
by being named governor of Gaul, a post he held between 58 and
49, during which he both earned military glory and became immensely
wealthy. In 49 he famously allowed his armies to cross the Rubicon,
a small river in northern Italy that served as a boundary against
armies approaching the capital, and plunged the country into civil
war. Taking on his former ally and now rival, Pompey, he won,
after which, as Everitt observes, "No one was left in the
field for Caesar to fight .... His leading opponents were dead.
The republic was dead too: he had become the state." Julius
Caesar exercised dictatorship from 48 to 44, and a month before
the Ides of March he arranged to have himself named "dictator
for life." Instead, he was stabbed to death in the Senate
by a conspiracy of eight members, led by Brutus and Cassius, both
praetors known to history as "principled tyrannicides."
Antony and Octavian, Caesar's eighteen-year-old grandnephew, formed
an alliance to avenge the murder of Caesar. It would end with
only one man standing, and that man, Caius Octavianus (Octavian),
would decisively change Roman government by replacing the republic
with an imperial dictatorship. Everitt characterizes Octavian
as "a freebooting young privateer' who on August 19, 43 BC
(just over a year after Caesar's death), became the youngest consul
in Rome's history and set out, in violation of the constitution,
to raise his own private army. Holland calls him an "adventurer
and terrorist," while Parenti, quoting Gibbon, says he was
a "subtle tyrant," who "crafted an absolute monarchy
disguised by the forms of a commonwealth' Byrd laments, "There
was absolute freedom of speech in the Roman Senate until the time
of Augustus [Octavian] ' who put limits on how far senators could
go. "The boy' says Everitt, "would be a focus for the
simmering resentments among the Roman masses, the disbanded veterans,
and the standing legions."
Cicero, who had devoted his life to trying
to curb the kind of power represented by Octavian, now gave up
on the rule of law in favor of realpolitik. He recognized that
"for all his struggles the constitution was dead and power
lay in the hands of soldiers and their leaders." In Cicero's
view, the only hope was to try to co-opt Octavian, leading him
toward a more constitutional position, while doing everything
not to "irritate rank-and-file opinion, which was fundamentally
Caesarian." Cicero would pay with his life for this last,
desperate gamble. Octavian, still allied with Mark Antony, ordered
at least 130 senators (perhaps as many as 300) executed and their
property confiscated after charging them with having supported
the conspiracy against Caesar. Mark Antony personally added Cicero's
name to the list. When he met his death, the great scholar, orator,
and Grecophile had with him a copy of Euripides' Medea, which
he had been reading. His head and both hands were displayed in
A year after Cicero's death, following
the battle of Philippi, where Brutus and Cassius were defeated
and committed suicide, Octavian and Antony divided the known world
between them. Octavian took the West and remained in Rome; Antony
accepted the East and allied himself with Cleopatra, the queen
of Egypt and Julius Caesar's former mistress. In 31 BC, Octavian
set out to end this unstable arrangement, and at the sea battle
of Actium in the Gulf of Ambracja on the western coast of Greece,
he defeated Antony and Cleopatra's fleet. The following year in
Alexandria, Mark Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra took an
asp to her breast. By then, both had been thoroughly discredited
for claiming that Antony was a descendant of Caesar's and for
seeking Roman citizenship rights for Cleopatra's children by Caesar.
Octavian would rule the Roman word for the next forty-five years,
until his death in 14 AD.
On January 13, 27 BC, Octavian appeared
in the Senate, which had legitimized its own demise by ceding
most of its powers to him and which now bestowed on him the new
title of Augustus, first Roman emperor. The majority of the senators
were his solid supporters, having been handpicked by him. In 23
BC, Augustus was granted further authority by being designated
a tribune for life, which gave him ultimate veto power over anything
the Senate might do. But his real power ultimately rested on his
total control of the armed forces.
His rise to power tainted by constitutional
illegitimacy ... Augustus proceeded to emasculate the Roman system
and its representative institutions. He never abolished the old
republican offices but merely united them under one person-himself.
Imperial appointment became a badge of prestige and social standing
rather than of authority. The Senate was turned into a club of
old aristocratic families, and its approval of the acts of the
emperor was purely ceremonial. The Roman legions continued to
march under the banner SPQR-senatus populus que Romanus (the Senate
and the people of Rome)-but the authority of Augustus was absolute.
The history of the Roman Republic from the time of Julius Caesar
suggests that imperialism and militarism poorly understood by
all conservative political leaders at the time brought down the
republic. The professionalization of a large standing army in
order to defend the empire created invincible new sources of power
within the Roman polity and prepared the way for the rise of populist
generals who understood the grievances of their troops and veterans
politicians could not.
Service in the armed forces of the United States has not been
a universal male obligation of citizenship since 1973. Our military
today is a professional corps of men and women who commonly join
up to advance themselves in the face of one or another cul-de-sac
of American society. They normally do not expect to be shot at,
but they do expect all the benefits of state employment-steady
pay, good housing, free medical benefits, education, relief from
racial discrimination, world travel, and gratitude from the rest
of society for their "service." They are well aware
that the alternatives on offer today in civilian life include
difficult job searches, little or no job security, regular pilfering
of retirement funds by company executives and their accountants,
"privatized" medical care, bad public elementary education,
and insanely expensive higher education. They are ripe not for
the rhetoric of a politician who followed the Andover-Yale-Harvard
Business School route to riches and power but for a Julius Caesar,
Napoleon Bonaparte, or Juan Perón-a revolutionary, military
populist with little interest in republican niceties so long as
some form of emperorship lies at the end of his rocky path.
Regardless of who succeeds George W. Bush,
the incumbent president will have to deal with an emboldened Pentagon,
an engorged military-industrial complex, our empire of bases,
and a fifty-year-old tradition of not revealing to the public
what our military establishment costs or the kinds of devastation
it can inflict. History teaches us that the capacity for things
to get worse is limitless. Roman history suggests that the short,
happy life of the American republic may be coming to its end-and
that turning it into an openly military empire will not, to say
the least, be the best solution to that problem.
Lord Salisbury, Britain's conservative prime minister at the start
of the twentieth century
If our ancestors had cared for the rights
of other people, the British empire would not have been made.
That Britons and Americans have proven so comfortable with the
idea of forcing thousands of people to be free by slaughtering
them-with Maxim machine guns in the nineteenth century, with "precision-guided
munitions" today-seems to reflect a deeply felt need as well
as a striking inability to imagine the lives and viewpoints of
All empires, it seems require myths of divine right, racial preeminence,
manifest destiny, or a "civilizing mission" to cover
their often barbarous behavior in other people's countries.
American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr
The tendency to claim God as an ally for
your partisan values is the source of all religious fanaticism.
During the nineteenth century, Britain fought two wars of choice
with China to force it to import opium. The opium grown in India
and shipped to China first by the British East India Company and
after 1857 by the government of India, helped Britain finance
much of its military and colonial budgets in South and Southeast
Asia. The Australian scholar Carl A. Trocki concludes that, given
the huge profits from the sale of opium, "without the drug
there probably would have been no British empire, "
historian Mike Davis
When the sans culottes stormed the Bastille
in 7891, the largest manufacturing districts in the world were
still the Yangzi Delta [in China] and Bengal [in India], with
Lingan (modern Guangdong and Guangxi) and coastal Madras not far
behind... [In the early eighteenth century, India was a] vast
and economically advanced subcontinent producing close to a quarter
of total planetary output of everything, compared with Britain's
measly 3 percent.
Scottish aristocrat and socialist R. B. Cunningham Graham in l897,
in a story entitled "Bloody Niggers
Far back in history, Assyrians, Babylonians,
and Egyptians lived and thought, but God was aiming all the time
at something different and better. He let Greeks and Romans appear
out of the darkness of barbarity to prepare the way for the race
that from the start was chosen to rule over mankind-namely, the
During the nineteenth century, religious
explanations were replaced by biological ones. The exterminated
peoples were colored, the exterminators white. It seemed obvious
that some racial natural law was at work and that the extermination
of nonEuropeans was simply a stage in the natural development
of the world. The fact that natives died proved that they belonged
to a lower race. Let them die as the laws of progress demand.
With rare exceptions, the countries that the various imperialisms
of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exploited and colonized
remain poor, disease- and crime-ridden, and at the mercy of a
rigged international trading system that Anglo-American propagandists
assure us is rapidly "globalizing" to everyone's advantage.
New York Times
The very same representatives of the club
of rich countries who go around the world hectoring the poor to
open up their markets to free trade put up roadblocks when those
countries ask the rich to dismantle their own barriers to free
trade in agricultural products?
At the apex of those who profited from British-style "free
trade" at the end of the nineteenth century was the Rothschild
Bank, then by far the world's largest financial institution with
total assets of around forty-one million pounds sterling. It profited
enormously from the wars - some seventy-two of them - during Queen
Victoria's reign, and financed such exploiters of Africa as Cecil
The United States [was] protected from its inception to about
1940 by tariffs on manufactured imports that averaged 44 percent.
The looms of India and China were defeated
not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled
by war, invasion, opium, and a [British] imposed system of one-way
The most powerful agent pressuring other
countries to open their markets for free trade and free investments
is Uncle Sam, and America's global armed forces keep these markets
and sea lanes open for this era of globalization, just as the
British navy did for the era of globalization in the nineteenth
President George W. Bush, September 17, 2002
The United States will use this moment
of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe.
We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development,
free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world ....
Free trade and free markets have proven their ability to lift
whole societies out of poverty-so the United States will work
with individual nations, entire regions, and the entire global
trading community to build a world that trades in freedom and
therefore grows in prosperity.
Imperialism and militarism will ultimately breach the separation
of powers created to prevent tyranny and defend liberty. The United
States today, like the Roman Republic in the first century BC,
is threatened by an out-of-control military-industrial complex
and a huge secret government controlled exclusively by the president.
Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic