The Romans Have Much To Teach Us About The Costs Of Empire

View of the Capitolium and the Forum, 168 AD, Thuburbo Majus, Tunisia. Roman civilisation, 2nd century AD.
View of the Capitolium and the Forum, 168 AD, Thuburbo Majus, Tunisia. Roman civilisation, 2nd century AD.

With all these generals being called out of retirement to serve as Donald Trump’s “civilian” advisers, whether it’s General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense or General Mike Flynn (the real mad dog) as National Security Adviser, it’s difficult to envision the American empire being shrunk anytime soon.  The U.S. military is overcommitted around the world, attenuating its strength even as the American taxpayer foots the bill to the tune of over $600 billion a year, not including nuclear weapons, veterans affairs, interest on the national debt related to war and defense spending, and so on.

With its endless wars and global adventurism, the U.S. is slowly bankrupting itself, even as President-elect Trump promises higher military spending and more toughness abroad.  Imperial over-commitment, for the historically-minded, recalls the fate of the Roman empire.  Many moons ago, the classicist Steven Willett wrote the following words to me, words that America’s militarists and imperialists would be wise to read – and heed:

My personal concern is the misallocation of our resources in futile wars and global military hegemony.  We are acting under the false belief that the military can and should be used as a foreign policy tool.  The end of US militarism is bankruptcy.  I agree with [Andrew] Bacevich’s recommendation that the US cut military spending 6% a year for 10 years.  The result would be a robust defensive military with more freed-up resources for infrastructure, education, research and alternative energy.  Our so-called defense budget is a massive example of what economists call an opportunity cost.

The US is now about where Rome was in the third to fourth centuries.  In his magisterial study “The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey,” A. H. M. Jones shows what a drain the army was on the [economy of Rome].  By the third to fifth centuries, the army numbered about 650,000 scattered along the limes and stationed at central strategic locations.  It took most of the state’s revenues, which had long been declining as the economy in the west declined.  And even that 650,000 was far too small for adequate defense of the [Roman] empire.

General Mattis, described as a “warrior-monk” with a reputation for a close study of military history, perhaps understands some of this. But can he rein in the American empire and decrease U.S. military spending? The prospects seem grim.

Trying to be strong everywhere is a recipe for being weak when and where it counts. Under the five good emperors, Rome was able to balance imperial ambition with domestic vitality. Any chance Donald Trump is going to be a “good” emperor, a Marcus Aurelius, a man of wisdom? Early signs are unpromising.

Of course, America is supposed to be a democracy. We’re supposed to look back to the Roman Republic, not its empire. We’re supposed to be committed to a limited military of citizen-soldiers who are eager to shed their armor and weapons and return to the plow, like Cincinnatus ― or George Washington. We’re not supposed to worship warriors and violence.

Imperial decline and cultural decadence march together in step. Under Trump, it appears they’ll soon be marching in lockstep at double-time. Grim times, indeed.

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