Is America the “New Rome”?

When a legendary NBA coach like Gregg Popovich uses a classical analogy to make his point across on civics, and American politics, one feels that the Classics are still popular. As a classicist, and a teacher of the Classics, I believe the Greeks and the Romans are still relevant. Examples like Popovich’s prove that the Classics are still fulfilling its everlasting didactic role as models for analyzing historical events and human behavior. Whether he is right or not comparing the U.S. to ancient Rome–that’s a matter of perspective and interpretation.

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Asked about Trump’s winning the presidential election, Popovich went into an angry tirade that concluded with his comparison of America to Rome:

“I’m a rich white guy. And I’m sick to my stomach thinking about it. I can’t imagine being a Muslim right now. Or a woman. Or an African-American, a Hispanic, a handicapped person, how disenfranchised they must feel. … My final conclusion is, my big fear is: We are Rome.”

This was not the first time Popovich had used the Rome-US analogy. Previously, he has this to say on an Esquire interview (“Gregg Popovich Worries that the U.S. Is Experiencing Its Own Roman Fall”):

On the current election, and the trajectory of great nations: “I worry that maybe I’m being a little too pessimistic, but I’m beginning to have a harder time believing that we are not Rome. Rome didn’t fall in 20 days or 30 years. It took a couple hundred years. The question is: Are we in that process and we don’t even know it? I really am starting to think about that. It’s not just the two candidates. It’s the way the whole thing is being treated.”

Popovich is a beloved sports’ figure. He has a reputation of “telling as it is.” Beyond his basketball acumen, he is a well-respected figure in public opinion. He knows the military first hand, as he served in the Air Force. His comments on leadership and character have often provoked admiration among sports fans.

The comparison U.S. as Rome has been a favorite of political commentators and foreign policy analysts over the last forty years or so. In particular, it has gained traction and popularity in the last fifteen years as a vehicle to view America’s response to 9/11. The comparison of G.W. Bush’s militaristic policies in the Middle East to Roman imperial overreach, and supposedly an increment on his governmental powers, led commentators and cartoonists to present often Bush as a Roman Caesar or Centurion (see below examples from 2002 in Australia, and 2007 in the U.S.):

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After November 8th, similar images comparing new President-elect Trump to a Caesar were all over WhatsApp and the blogosphere–just like this one:

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Over the last 15 years, some books and scholarly papers studied the analogy in detail. For those interested in going deeper into the issue, I’ll recommend the following two books (one in favor of the analogy, the other against) and also two scholarly papers:

  • Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007
  • Vaclav Smil, Why America Is Not a New Rome, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010
  • Peter Bender, “The New Rome,” in Andrew J. Bacevich (ed.), The Imperial Tense, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003, 81-92
  • Paul Burton, “Pax Romana/Pax Americana: Perceptions of Rome in American Political Culture, 2000-2010,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 18, No. 1 (MARCH 2011), pp.66-104
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