From Republic to Empire

They make a desolation and call it peace.

Tacitus, 1st Century, CE, The Agricola

Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.

James Madison 1788

As a fourth grader I became fascinated by Roman history, a subject about which I still read widely. Since I attended a Catholic school the subject was taught in such a way as to portray Rome as the great arbiter of justice in the ancient world, its Pax Romanum an antique counterpart to the role the U.S. was presumed to be playing in the post-World War II era. Rome’s adoption of Christianity in the early Fourth Century CE cemented the parallel, since that event was presented as evidence that Rome also assumed moral authority over the ancient West.

I soon became aware of darker matters though and I have long wondered, if the parallel holds, just when the analogous endgame would occur. Of course, as Marx reminded us, history never repeats itself exactly but does so closely enough to warrant that at least with tragic events the second go-round is farcical, since our failure to learn from history engenders travesty.

In my early education most of the emphasis was on the Roman Republic which, after a century of violent civil strife, came to a complete end with the assassination of Julius Caesar and was then replaced by the Empire. Rome during the empire could be called the first fascist state and the empire’s unwelcome aspects had to be obscured, at least until the advent of Christianity, though Rome’s militarism, brutality (Romans were adept at torture), and dependence on slavery certainly persisted. Rome’s virtues were to be seen in the res publica, the Republic. Variously translated as the “public weal” or ”commonwealth,” the Roman Republic replaced a monarchy and had a written constitution (the Twelve Tablets) and various representational institutions, including a Senate made up of the patricians who automatically inherited their senatorial positions. After much turmoil a Popular Assembly of the people, the plebs, was grafted on to the system, who were represented by tribunes. This political order was supposed to provide checks and balances, like the later American one, and a separation of powers. All Roman males were citizens (no feminist movement in the ancient world) and claimed inviolable rights against the arbitrary power of the state. Public offices regularly changed hands and were limited to one year, so in theory at least, no single individual could dominate his fellow citizens. This was also intended to prevent coteries from fomenting plots- like coups or war- to the detriment of the whole. Of course, as Rome’s elites grew ever richer their greed and lust for power soon corrupted the republican order and conspiracies and absolutism did develop.

The record appears to show that popular government began to erode as Rome expanded its rule and waged ever more war, first upon the Italian peninsula, then out into the Mediterranean and its far shores, and then into Asia and much of northern and western Europe. Reliant at first on an army of defense made up of all able bodied citizens, the vaunted Roman army at the empire’s height was composed largely of professionals, most with no property or land that would have afforded them other occupations, and who came to rely on booty captured from the conquered colonies. Later, the army would comprise mercenaries and peoples the early Romans would have deemed “barbarians.”

We can easily see how greatly many of the early founders of the American Republic were influenced by their particular reading of Rome’s history. Much of the language of our law is Latin; the American Senate derives from the Latin Senatus, as does the Capitol (from Rome’s Capitoline Hill), and the motto on the Great Seal of the United States and dollar, Annuit Coeptis Novus Ordo Saeclorum (Announcing the Birth of a New Order of the Ages). The ancient Roman symbol of unity, the fasces (from which we get the word fascism), adorns the House of Representatives and ornaments many places on the Senate building and the Supreme Court, and the entrance to the White House Oval office. Perhaps the starkest tribute is the fact that the architecture of the Capitol district resembles that of ancient Rome. But here’s the rub- not of the Roman Republic, but of Imperial Rome. It seems the Capitol’s architects failed to heed Benjamin Franklin’s warning when asked what the 1787 Constitutional Convention had achieved. “A republic… if you can keep it,” said old Ben, aware that of the very few historical examples of popular rule, all had degenerated into tyranny.

Though our national mythology blurs this, the U.S. originated as an outpost of empire, the British one, and soon followed in its progenitor’s example. At the time the U.S. was established Jefferson professed it was an “empire for liberty.” A written Constitution, the first in the modern world, inaugurated Republican institutions to represent “we the people,” and a chief executive was made head of state but with strictly limited powers. Two branches of legislation were crafted: the Senate, essentially a millionaire’s club (or those who would become millionaires as a result of their service to elites) and the House of Representatives, seen as a concession to the middling orders (the lower classes virtually unrepresented. Not all persons were citizens; in fact most were not. Nor is much emphasis placed upon the fact that most white men could not vote for about the first half century of the Republic’s existence. I think most know that no women could vote, nor blacks-free or slave- nor aboriginal peoples. We all learn of the Bill of Rights but not that most of the founders recoiled from such popular guarantees and that it became part of our Constitution only to ensure that the original draft would be ratified by the initial states. So despite the rhetoric of “democracy” there was virtually none. “Rule of the people” was limited to classes of elites. Just as Rome’s economy depended on slave labor throughout both the Republic and Empire, so did the early American republic. The American economy still relies on slaves but they toil in the mines, plantations and sweatshops of Africa, Asia and Latin America, so we no longer have to see them.

At its height the Roman Empire encompassed about six million square miles and had over 53,000 miles of roads and highways. Interestingly, these numbers also apply to the continental United States. The original thirteen states began as a narrow ribbon hugging the Atlantic shoreline but within 60 years had conquered and subdued the entire continental territory. It took Rome 600 years to subjugate the same area.

One peculiar institution of the Roman Republic was that of Imperator from which the word emperor is derived. In the early Republic, when an emergency was at hand, a chief magistrate with dictatorial powers was given temporary reign until the crisis was resolved. When Augustus assumed the title permanently in the first century CE, military dictatorship soon followed, though Rome’s first emperor was savvy enough to retain the institutions of popular government but with no real power. In the U.S. after World War II the term “imperial president” entered the lexicon of scholars and pundits. It connoted the extraordinary powers that President Franklin Roosevelt assumed (not by Congressional mandate but by passive acceptance). The war was considered an emergency (though the U.S. had never been in any danger of being militarily conquered; the issues centered on who would control the resources, labor and markets of Europe and Asia). The designation worried many because every president since has assumed more and more powers not prescribed in the Constitution, and some which are clearly proscribed. Most dangerous is the manner in which the chief executive has assumed control of the power to make war, while Congress has rendered itself all but compliant on foreign policy matters.

In 1944 the czar of war production, Charles Wilson, former CEO of General Electric, one of the largest recipients of war contracts, worried about what would happen when the 16 million G.I’s returned home. Would they find unemployment again and more breadlines, especially since government contracts had kept factories running? His solution? The United States, he declared, needed a “permanent war economy.” This was a vexing phrase to the ears of most Americans who, after two wars in a generation wanted nothing more than peace. A permanent war economy pre-supposed permanent enemies and permanent taxes. Many citizens may think that payroll withholding taxes have always existed but the fact is that such taxation began only in 1943 as what was billed as a temporary response to the war emergency that would be lifted once the crisis was over. Such taxes have never been lifted but instead have risen from an average of four percent in 1944 to thirty percent today, about half of these revenues devoted to the Permanent War Department, otherwise known as the “Defense” Department, the sixteen  intelligence agencies, veterans benefits, and interest on the war debts. Permanent enemies have conveniently made themselves available. Since 1945 crisis has followed crisis, virtually all of them trumped up. This is what Orwell meant by “perpetual war for perpetual peace.”

In 1950 as the newly amplified presidency fretted that it could not win massive new defense taxes from a recalcitrant Congress and beleaguered populace, Secretary of State Dean Acheson breathed a sigh of relief, “Thank God,” he said, “Korea came along.” Only months earlier he had declared Korea outside of America’s “defense perimeter.” Nuclear standoffs followed with the Soviet Union, coming to a head with our near extinction during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The Vietnam War was sold with the canard that “if we don’t fight them over there soon we’ll have to fight them in San Francisco.” Even the Pentagon admits to killing 2 million Vietnamese in the name of “saving” them from something worse (the Vietnamese say 4 million). So many manufactured crises, interventions, assassinations, and secret wars followed that the tally is too long to list. Even a cursory analysis of the invasion of Iraq in response to the 9-11 catastrophe reveals that it was predicated on utter mendacity and therefore had ulterior motives that were hidden from the greater public. No sooner had the “Evil Empire” (USSR) collapsed than a “new Hitler” (Saddam Hussein) was claimed to be threatening the U.S. Now the U.S. appears to be setting the stage for a new Cold War with China, perhaps colluding with Chinese elites since they require their own machinations to rule!

American officials have been insisting lately that the slaughter of innocents by American “rogue” troops “violates our core values,” yet robotic “Predator” drones rain death and destruction upon those whom we deem the enemy and innocents alike. Our nation has killed approximately 2.5 million Iraqis since 1991 and made millions of widows, orphans and refugees, while reducing Iraq to what the United Nations asserted is an “apocalyptic condition.” Of course, these victims are subsumed under the Orwellian appellation “collateral damage,” yet evidence appears overwhelming that the U.S. systematically destroyed what had been perhaps the most developed and well educated of all Arab nations in order to send a message that amounts to terrorism- This is what happens when you thwart the will of the empire. Plans for the invasion of Afghanistan were formulated well before 9-11 in response to the refusal of the Taliban to allow a natural gas pipeline from the Caspian region through Afghan territory and NOT because the Taliban hosted al Qaeda’s base camp, as official propaganda assured the public.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of the dangers posed by the “military-industrial complex” are well known but largely ignored. As someone who knew it intimately, and presided over one of its most intense growth periods, one might think we would have taken the admonition seriously. Since 1961 this octopus has grown immensely and we are now ruled by what is really a “military-industrial-financial-intelligence-congressional-media complex,” that is manifestly insensible to any will of the people. Though President Barack Obama was elected on the strength of his promise to end the wars he inherited from George Bush’s administration, his withdrawal from Iraq remains incomplete since the largest and most heavily fortified American Embassy in the world dominates Baghdad, while his intensification of conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan has out neo-conned the most fervent wishes of the neo-cons. Meanwhile the double-standard on nukes in the Middle East is devolving ever more surely toward more war, this time with Iran. Where that might lead is a truly frightening prospect.

In an interview with CNN on April 18 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that he cannot sleep at night because the U.S is “within an inch of war almost every day,” adding that North Korea, Iran and Syria were the particular “threats.” The U.S. military spends more on so-called “defense” than almost all other nations combined. Can the American public really be led to believe that the nation that claims to be the world’s “only superpower” is really imperiled by Iran or Syria, or North Korea? The incessant drumbeat across the media spectrum declares such to be so, yet the real motivations for enmity, or intervention, or attack continue to be hidden. The real threat is to the Pax Americanum, otherwise known as the “New World Order” on strictly American terms. The “complex” cannot sustain itself without, at minimum, the threat of war. “Who controls the past controls the future.”

Back in the “heartland,” the inculcation of fear and anxiety is clearly the mainstay of foreign policy, and dissent is equated with a lack of patriotism, even akin to treason. Roman citizens were not stripped of ancient rights overnight, but much recent legislation indicates that the U.S. is going down the same road. Exhibit A in the U.S. would be the Authorization of Military Force Act (AUFA), which enable warrantless electronic surveillance of anyone suspected of aiding terrorism. What “suspicion” means remains undefined. Next is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that the American Civil Liberties Union says may mean the indefinite detention of American citizens, and arrest by the military, all but nullifying the post- Civil War Posse Comitatus Act (Latin again-power of the county), legislated precisely as another measure to preclude military dictatorship, to say nothing of the hazard to the Bill of Rights.  Senator Dianne Feinstein compares the legislation to the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII, a clear violation of Constitutional guarantees, while Senator Lindsey Graham declares that “the homeland is part of the battlefield.” The act also increases the military budget by more than $600 billion, and imposes draconian sanctions on Iran that, as noted, intensify the probability of yet another war in the Middle East.

It seems worthwhile to recall in the most categorical way one specific right citizens are told they possess.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (Amendment IV, U.S. Constitution).

In its decision reached on April 2 this year the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen committing a trivial offense (in this case failure to pay a fine) could be incarcerated and strip searched. In one fell swoop (four dissenting votes) the court eviscerated by judicial fiat one of every citizen’s most sacred guarantees. What is next, the First Amendment?

Amendment I of the Bill of Rights is by far the most important since without it no one could speak against the elimination of the others. That is precisely why it is the first. Its abrogation would be the moral equivalent of actuating the offence of Thoughtcrime. On a number of occasions in American history the chief executive, Congress and the courts have colluded to annul the right to free speech. This happened with the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 against those who objected to the undeclared war with France. The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-18, were enacted precisely to stifle anti-war protest and resulted in what was later ruled to be illegal jailing of Eugene Debs and many other outspoken dissenters, though no one was punished. The newly minted FBI at the time focused its operations on “un-American” activity, which has always been directed against the Constitutional right to dissent and since that time numerous violations of the Constitution have been perpetrated by the bureau and the Central Intelligence Agency, for example the COINTELPRO agenda during the Vietnam War, designed to suppress the antiwar movement.

In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, former National Security Agency official, William Binney said he resigned his position after 40 years of service because the NSA is now spying on the emails of EVERY American. “They violated the Constitution setting it up,” he says bluntly. “But they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way. When they started violating the Constitution, I couldn’t stay.” Binney was queried as to how many American emails are being stored by the NSA program known as NARUS and  responded that the NSA now possesses 20 TRILLION email messages captured by the NSA. After he testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee about this un-Constitutional invasion of privacy he was visited by FBI agents, and threatened with guns and a jail term (see

The War Powers Act of the post-Vietnam era was intended to rein in the imperial presidency. It has been trampled and purged. The Geneva Conventions going back to the 19th Century were intended to limit the scourge of war while the United Nations was established to prevent it. Today the U.S. all but openly abjures these pacts, except when convenient to American elite interests. The asserted power of the president to imprison without trial or charges or to assassinate any American whom the executive thinks might be a “national-security threat” is “evidence of a total police state masquerading as an accountable democracy,” as Paul Craig Roberts, a former Republican Treasury undersecretary put it, adding, “ In America six-year old little girls who misbehave in school are handcuffed, jailed, and charged with felonies. Not even Hitler and Stalin went this far” (see

Paul Atwood is Interim Director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, and faculty in the American Studies Department, University of Massachusetts-Boston, and member of the Smedley Butler Brigade, the Boston chapter of Veterans for Peace. He is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.

Paul Atwood is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.