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Washington = Rome Redux

Can ancient Rome teach Washington lessons about empire building?

April 16, 2004

Can ancient Rome teach Washington lessons about empire building?

The United States and Europe have certainly been close partners for more than five decades. It would be natural to conclude that they are kith and kin for good. But consider the Roman Empire and its rapid demise after the founding of a second capital in Constantinople.

By the first century AD, the borders of the Roman Empire stretched west to Spain and the British Isles, north to Belgium and the Rhineland, south to North Africa and Egypt, and east to the Arabian peninsula.

Rome was to control much of this territory for the next 300 years. A hub-spoke pattern of rule provided the foundation for an imperial realm of such scope and longevity. And Rome managed to extend its reach over the periphery through overlapping sources of control.

The Romans made significant improvements in roadway construction, warfare and shipbuilding. This facilitated the flow of political influence and resources between the imperial center and its distant limbs. They also introduced an advanced system of governance that fostered the "Romanization" of new subjects.

Small groups of Romans were sent to live in imperial territories to help assimilate conquered peoples and encourage them to take on a Roman identity and way of life.

The goal was to cultivate allegiance toward, rather than resentment of, Roman rule. Assimilation was a much cheaper and more effective way to extend control than was coercion.

Rome was similarly thrifty in its military strategy. The well-trained legions were kept in reserve and deployed only as needed to put down uprisings or repel invaders. This system provided effective deterrence.

The mere prospect of facing the legions was enough to dissuade many potential challengers from attacking. Like the United States today, Rome enjoyed uncontested primacy and the deference that came with it.

By the third century, however, Rome was beginning to feel the strain of keeping together such a large imperial zone. The empire’s frontiers could no longer be guaranteed against contenders growing in both number and strength.

Germanic tribes threatened in the west. Persians and nomads from the Black Sea region pressed in the east.

The frequency and intensity of barbarian attacks compelled Rome to change its military strategy. With simultaneous threats emerging on the perimeter, the legions had to be dispatched to the frontier.

Their deployment put an extraordinary strain on troop levels and imperial coffers. Even worse, with the legions no longer held in reserve — but instead stretched precariously thin, they could no longer deter adversaries through intimidation.

Attacks on one part of the frontier therefore invited secondary attacks elsewhere. The empire also began to face threats from within. Some of the larger provinces had amassed considerable wealth and were seeking to distance themselves from Rome.

Enter Diocletian, who became emperor in 284. He offered a bold and innovative solution to the problem of imperial overstretch. The task of managing the empire, Diocletian reasoned, had grown too onerous for a single ruler.

Better to divide up the realm — and devolve responsibility for its several parts to trusted colleagues. He accordingly elevated one of his generals, Maximian, to the rank of co-emperor.

Diocletian and Maximian each named a junior emperor, known as a Caesar, who would help run the empire and be in line to succeed his Augustus (supreme emperor). The realm was then effectively divided into two halves, and each half again divided between the Augustus and his Caesar.

Diocletian ruled the Eastern Empire with the assistance of his junior counterpart, while Maximian and his Caesar ruled the west. Diocletian also divided the larger, wealthier provinces into smaller units, disarming the threat they posed to the authority of the Augusti.

These reforms proved effective in shoring up the security of the realm and enabling both the western and eastern portions of the empire to turn back the barbarian threat.

Over time, Rome and Constantinople emerged as separate capitals, each seeking to extend the influence and enhance the prestige of its court. The replacement of one political center with two had been formalized.

The papacy in Rome and the patriarchate in Constantinople soon joined the fray. They entered the battle over doctrinal questions — and differed as to whether religious authorities in Constantinople were of equal status to their counterparts in Rome.

Disputes over language and culture followed. The Western "Roman" Empire was based on Latin culture and language — the Eastern "Byzantine" Empire, on Greek. "New Rome" and "Old Rome" also competed over the style and grandeur of their architecture. The Western and Eastern Empires were becoming distinct political and cultural entities.

The order that unipolarity had provided was gone for good. True, the Roman Empire had been already experiencing a rapid decline before Diocletian's time. In time, it was this worsening state of affairs which had inspired his reforms.

But with authority and resources now divided between east and west, the pace of decline quickened.

The Western Empire maintained its integrity only until the death of Theodosius the Great in 595. Thereafter, much of its territory was overrun by Germanic tribes and other challengers.

Rome itself was sacked by Goths in 410 — and then invaded and plundered by Vandals in 455. Twenty years later, the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, ended his reign and left Italy in the hands of tribal leaders.

The church — which was to have helped secure imperial unity — did just the opposite. From the outset, church authorities in Rome and Constantinople were adversaries. The Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople were in a constant struggle for religious and political influence, if not predominance.

Tensions grew so acute that, in 484, the papacy and the patriarchate excommunicated each other. Serious doctrinal differences helped intensify the rivalry. Matters of fierce contentions concerned questions such as: Did the Holy Ghost proceed from the Father alone — or also the Son?

Was Christ one being of divine nature —or two inseparable beings, one divine and one human? Should busts and religious images play a central part in worship? Or did worshiping figures, as in Judaism and Islam, constitute idolatry?

When mingled with personal animosities, these doctrinal disputes were to mire both churches in centuries of competition and intrigue — including murders, kidnappings and lesser forms of abuse. The church nonetheless stayed nominally unified until 1054, when it formally broke into its Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox variants.

All in all, Rome's fate does not augur well for the current wave of transatlantic infighting. Simply put, the process of Rome's decline foreshadows a unitary West that is in the midst of separating into distinct North American and European power centers.

Excerpted from THE END OF THE AMERICAN ERA by Charles A. Kupchan Copyright (c) Charles A. Kupchan With permission from the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.