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Sep 18, 2006 3:36 pm

America is really not the new Rome

Las Vegas Trevi Fountain
Las Vegas Trevi Fountain. Photo by *nathan

And now in the interests of political balance I'll have a go at a left-wing" Rome" story and praise a conservative poltician.

On Sunday the Independent ran a story US 'mirrors Roman Empire' in Iraq war. It'll be disappearing behind a pay wall soon. Potentially this could be a really interesting story. The Romans made repeated attempts to conquer the east and failed. For instance is the Coalition of the Willing running into similar difficulties in the terrain? But the parallel isn't with the invasion of Mesopotamia.

America's entanglement in Iraq bears a striking resemblance to ancient Rome's Punic wars, according to the author of a new book on the Roman Empire.

Simon Baker, who also produced BBC2's forthcoming series Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, on which his book is based, claims the decision by the greatest civilisation in the ancient world to attack its Mediterranean rival Carthage mirrors America's actions in the build-up to the second Gulf War.

He said yesterday:"You have hawkish Roman neo-conservatives saying that Carthage was a menace to democracy, 'weapons inspectors' being sent over, cooked-up dossiers exaggerating the threat, and huge debate at home about the wisdom of war.

"The arrogance of power... has a strong resonance with America today... And just as with America before the second Gulf War, there was a real argument about the best way of extending political control."

Which Punic War? For the first and second wars Carthage was a potent enemy, and Rome could have lost badly. You can make a case for parallels with the Third Punic War, but a major motivation for this war was to destroy an enemy which had come so close to destroying Rome. In Gulf War I, there really wasn't concern that Saddam would occupy Washington.

There are similarities that you can draw and hopefully the book does it better, but the brief story in the Independent doesn't do that. The" cooked-up dossiers exaggerating the threat" don't tell us anything about Rome, but they do comment on attitudes to contemporary America. This is why a lot of America is the New Rome pieces put my teeth on edge. It's a lazy way to discuss politics and hides behind often irrelevant facts. Is America imperial? Is modern imperialism comparable with ancient imperialism? These kind of debates get lost. Draw a few connections and America is an empire and as everyone knows empires are Bad.

You could ask if comparing America to Rome doesn't work then is there any modern relevance to Rome? Should we just not bother? Not necessarily. Superficial comparisons can be interesting if you're open to exploring why they're superficial. For instance are the neo-cons and Roman senators hawkish in the same way? I don't think so. Roman senators needed money and prestige. War provided both. Prestige came with victory, but there was also the tradition of looting. Romans saw the provinces as things to bleed dry to provide for Rome and for themselves. American hawkishness could be related to prestige, though many leaders of democracies have Churchill complexes. On the other hand there is no wealth incentive. The War in Iraq is hugely expensive and is not making America rich. You could argue that this isn't true, but the very fact you can discuss whether profiteering is happening emphasises that opinions have changed. It also wouldn't explain why so many Americans who are paying for the war returned Bush to office. I'm hoping Simon Baker's book is going to tackle this kind of question and the poor write-up in the Independent was due to lack of space.

Someone who has had the space to explore this and done a good job is the Conservative MP Boris Johnson. He had a two-part series called The Dream of Rome and an accompanying book. I found his argument personal, but well-reasoned and others also enjoyedthe programme despite, or maybe because, it was alloyed to a contemporary political argument. In his case he was comparing the Roman Empire and the European Union and by seeking difference rather than similarity he was able to do justice to both institutions in their own terms.

Reading back that last sentence perhaps that's the root of my distaste for many Rome comparisons. Concentrating purely on similarities forces histories into a mould which dimishes understanding of both periods. Robert Harris's comparison between a pirate raid on Ostia and the World Trade Center attacks gives me unease, though I don't imagine he's being intentionally disrespectful. In the same article Mary Beard notes that the Roman past has always been reinvented since its fall to compare to contemporary times, and seeking parallels with the past even happened in ancient Rome. Plutarch was a master at this with his Parallel Lives, matching a prominent Roman with an illustrious Greek. I think his method may be a suitable example. By acknowledging the differences the similarities can become meaningful.

Personally I'm in a much better mood now I've worked that out, and it's so much cheaper than a therapist.

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