An Empire, If You Can Keep It: Why “America as the New Rome” Depends on the Virtue of its Citizens

If you were to give an ancient Roman citizen a tour of Washington D.C., they would likely find an eerie resemblance to their own country. Strolling east on the National Mall, they would recognize the Capitol, a reference to ancient Rome, with its white marble and great Corinthian columns. They would note the similarities between the U.S. Senate and the Roman Senatus and how the Supreme Court building is, in fact, modeled after a Roman temple. Moving west, they would see the Lincoln Memorial as an imitation of the Parthenon of Greece, and that the Jefferson Memorial was partly derived from the Roman Pantheon. Reaching into their pockets, they would find portraits of presidents on their change modeled after the coins of the Roman caesars, and Latin phrases adorning their American dollars. Among them, e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” 

Our observant Roman friend alongside many Americans today may be forgiven for arguing America is the “new Rome.” Aside from American iconography and Roman references, America’s longtime position as an unprecedented global superpower has inspired observers to compare American greatness and hegemony to that of Rome. As a republic, Rome’s political institutions helped to prevent internal corruption as it presided over a wide expansion of its territory; as an empire, Rome continued its expansion and established a powerful hegemony that at its height extended beyond the Mediterranean, all while bringing vast wealth to many of Rome’s citizens. One could argue that America embodies elements of Rome, sharing its republican institutions and stable governance while ruling over a vast international system and hegemony. America’s current greatness can be explained best by the history and legacy of the Romans. 

The prevalence of Greco-Roman culture and comparisons between America and Rome are certainly not new; they have endured since the very beginning of our nation due to the prominence of colonial classicism among America’s Founding Fathers and their generation. Classicism permeated their culture, grounded their morals, and guided their action in ways in which, for most of us, it does not. Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and many of their compatriots were accompanied in spirit by figures like Cicero, Socrates, Homer, Epicurus, Cato, and Caesar. 

The founder’s fondness for classicism directed their attention toward what is today a little understood subject of classical thought: virtue. The concept of virtue was powerfully meaningful during the 18th century and among the revolutionary generation. For them, “virtue” was not merely a synonym for morality or goodness, but meant putting the common good before one’s

own interests. In their classical view, virtue was the cornerstone of society, the essential element of public life; its practice was paramount to the functioning and flourishing of society. Part of the reason classical concepts such as virtue are so underappreciated is because classicism itself seems very distant from us. Increasingly, many have questioned the inherent value of referring to the wisdom of classicism, and even that of our Founders. How helpful can the advice of men who lived hundreds of years ago, and in societies very different from our own, be in solving the issues of today? To answer this question, I will refer, with some irony, to a classical tradition going back to Aristotle (especially in the Rhetoric) and to Thucydides which explains history by the characters and persons involved. “Actions are a sign of character,” as Aristotle claimed in the Rhetoric. Because the same or similar characters appear repeatedly throughout history, and one’s actions follow from their character, history becomes a valuable tool for understanding the present, predicting the future, and planning accordingly. Human nature, Thucydides claimed, is constant and predictable. For this reason, history is intelligible to us today, when our human natures have changed very little if at all with respect to our ancestors. History, whether ancient or modern, will always have something valuable to offer to present and future generations. 

For something so important to the founders and their vision of a good society, it should be a bit concerning that, today, discussion of virtue or the pursuit of virtue seems at nil. Is our own society really lacking in some critical aspect of civic life? And, whether or not it is, why did the founders believe virtue to be so important? To answer these questions, we ought to look to the dominant inspiration for many of the founders’ ideas: the experience of Rome. 

The founders were particularly interested in the history of the Roman republic, and especially toward the end of the republic and its transition to empire under Julius Caesar. In the histories and commentaries on the Roman republic, it is widely understood that the average Roman was a person of great virtue. Montesquieu, one of the most influential political philosophers whose ideas are widely credited with having inspired the creation of the U.S. Constitution, wrote Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. In Considerations, Montesquieu paints a picture of the Roman republic as a predominantly agricultural society of virtuous citizens. Key to Rome’s early success, he claims, 

was the overwhelmingly patriotic and virtuous character of the mass of Romans. The average Roman was simple, steadfast, honest, courageous, law abiding, and patriotic. The people’s passionate love of their country, their willingness to work and sacrifice for the greater good, was the source of Rome’s greatness. 

Montesquieu’s views on the importance of public virtue are clear when one considers his more famous work, The Spirit of the Laws, which includes Montesquieu’s characterization of the different types of government. He distinguishes between three forms of government: monarchies, republics, and despotisms. Each kind of government, by its nature, produces an associated principle, or “spirit,” which influences and regulates the actions of its citizens and helps determine its laws. Republics are based on virtue as a principle, which Montesquieu defines as love of country and equality. Without political virtue, republics start to fall apart. 

What were the forces that undid political virtue in the Republic and caused its downfall? Montesquieu points an accusatory finger at three forces. One was Rome’s increasing wealth, which raised inequality and increasingly divided Romans by class. The spread of Epicureanism, which replaced traditional patriotic values with hedonism and atheism, was seen as another. As Rome’s dominion grew through conquest, public spiritedness across the Republic was stretched to its breaking point: the third force. Becoming too much for Rome’s republic, each served to destroy republican government and justify rule by an emperor. 

Several famous Roman historians, including Sallust, Horace, and Virgil, writing shortly before and after the fall of the Republic, agreed with the general trust of Montesquieu’s autopsy of the Republic. Among them, the Roman historian Livy perhaps offers the best representation of the prevailing Roman attitude in praise of the virtues of the Roman republic and admonishing the moral vices which stemmed from its materialism.Writing during the reign of Augustus, shortly after the fall of the Roman republic, Livy shared his contemporaries’ concern for the decline of civic virtue among the Romans and sought its revival in the new Roman empire. In his preface to The Early History of Rome, Livy writes

I hope my passion for Rome’s past has not impaired my judgment; for I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours or richer in good citizens and noble deeds; none has been free for so many generations from the vices of avarice and luxury; nowhere have thrift and plain living been for so long held in such esteem. Of late years wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.

The ills of Roman greed and self-indulgence Livy describes were already well established by the reign of Augustus and the beginning of the Roman empire. They had found their start in the latter years of the republic, when they began to undermine the simplicity, political virtue, patriotism, and moral goodness which were regarded as having been essential to Rome’s greatness. 

Having studied Rome’s history and literature, the American founders could not have helped but regard the essential importance of virtue to their experiment in building a new country from the ground up, one that avoided the descent into empire experienced by the Roman republic. Among the founders, Thomas Jefferson was one of those most influenced by the argument for the need for political virtue. Having read Montesqieu, Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists worried constantly that the proposed new U.S. Constitution did not just ignore, rather than encourage, the cultivation of civic virtue, but that it set up conditions that positively discouraged it altogether. 

Any comparison of the United States and Rome should include a discussion of the degree of political virtue among their respective citizens. Rome at the time of the republic boasted citizens who were more politically virtuous than the average American. Montesquieu, in his Considerations, stressed that Rome was primarily an agricultural republic, which he argued proved to be an advantage in cultivating citizens of virtue. Commercial republics such as Carthage, however, were seen as less friendly toward virtue, since commerce encouraged greed and materialism. Both Montesquieu and Jefferson were in agreement on this point, the latter producing writings and correspondence arguing the dangers that commerce posed to the young American republic, weary of their effects on liberty and virtue. 

Seldom is it said that the average American is passionate in pursuit of the nation’s common good. Less and less Americans regard themselves as “patriotic;” a little more than half of all Americans say they would be willing to fight to defend their country rather than flee. American society is highly consumeristic and we’re obsessed with material possessions. Many Americans remain neglectful of voting, either at the federal, state, or local levels, and few engage in meaningful civic participation beyond casting a ballot. Americans are becoming more atomized; our sense of community, national and otherwise, has continued to wane. 

With regards to the condition of the average American, can the United States really claim the mantle of Rome? The essential quality of Roman greatness, the simplicity and virtuosity of its mass of people, cannot be said to be present in American society to the extent that it was for the Roman republic. Though America may compare to Rome in our wide-ranging international influence or cultural hegemony, the political virtue which was the essence of the Roman republic and its citizens seems woefully absent among Americans today. In that sense, America cannot claim to be the new Rome. 

Most of us have heard the tale of Benjamin Franklin emerging from the Constitutional Convention after Americans had agreed on the design of the proposed U.S. Constitution. From among the crowd eagerly awaiting news of the outcome, a woman asked Franklin, “So what do we have, doctor, a monarchy or a republic?” 

“A republic, if you can keep it,” he replied. 

As a democratic republic, the character of America has always depended on the mass of its citizens. Our political institutions require the constant attention and care of all citizens. The continued health of the nation is reliant on the active and informed participation of all our people. The same was true of the Roman republic. If Americans are to aspire to the greatness of Rome, each of us ought to consider pursuing the greatness and virtue every one of us is capable of.

Categories: Culture

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3 replies »

  1. Very insightful, I loved the comparisons between Montesqieu and Jefferson, and the analysis of modern Americans and Romans when comparing their patriotism. I can’t wait to read your next article!


  2. Well done Diego! I was fascinated by the parallels and comparison. Without question, virtue was abandoned in our generational pursuits of maximizing profits. So eloquent, keep it up!


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