Comparing America and Ancient Rome
Although the U.S. has faced significant challenges in recent decades, Vaclav Smil points out in a new book why comparisons with the decline of the Roman Empire fall short.
Vaclav Smil has written another very informative book called “Why America is Not a New Rome.” This is the third book of his to come out this year. I have previously reviewed and recommended both of the others, which focus on energy. Although energy is not the primary topic of this book, Smil still does his normal, thorough, fact-driven logical job on this topic.
After reading so many articles and speeches predicting what will happen to America because of some supposed similarities to the Roman Empire, Smil felt it was important to explain that there is no predictive power in these comparisons. Smil is a great student of history, including Roman history and the dynamics of its Empire over time. Even though I took five years of Latin and enjoyed being able to understand some of the quotes in the book, my understanding of the Roman Empire was greatly expanded by reading this book.
Smil points out that the Roman Empire went through many phases over nearly two millennia–starting with a Republic and then with an Emperor and finally splitting into a Western Empire and Eastern Empire. The western part died out about 500 C.E. and the eastern part lasted until 1453. Although many theories have been put forward about what factors finally led to the empire’s demise, historians do not agree.
The key point of the book is that more than 1,500 years separate our current era from Roman times, and life has changed so much that any sense of similarity is illusory. In Roman times, people had barely enough food to sustain them. Human and animal muscle power comprised virtually the entire kinetic energy source. Life expectancy was between 20 and 30 years. Income levels were a fraction of what we have today. So the dynamics of “surviving” were completely different then.
Smil makes an important point regarding scientific and technical advances. Whereas U.S. innovation has played a central role in creating a modern global civilization in less than 150 years, “the Roman Empire had an unremarkable…record in advancing scientific understanding, and its overall contributions to technical and engineering innovations were…fairly limited.” By contrast, he notes, China’s Han dynasty, which overlapped several centuries with the Roman Empire, was far more innovative in ways that changed the world—such as the invention of paper, iron, ploughs, harnesses and many important nautical advances.
The primary similarity that Smil finds between the U.S. and ancient Rome is that people overestimate the dominance of both. At its peak, the Roman Empire comprised 12 percent of the world’s population. At the turn of the millennium, the U.S. represented just 4 percent of the global population. Militarily, the Roman Empire never controlled most of the world, just as the U.S. does not today.
Smil makes the case that the U.S. is not an empire by any reasonable definition of the word. Economically, the U.S. percentage of the world’s economic product in 2005 was 22.5 percent, with China, Brazil, Russia and many countries in the European Union continuing to gain in economic strength.
You could argue that America has some level of hegemony, but that is the strongest word that applies to our position. It is certainly interesting to discuss how the U.S. position will change in the future, but reaching back to Roman analogies will not aid in that discussion. Most references to Rome simply talk about things that are common to all large and long-lasting governments—complexity, disagreement, and some level of failed ambition.
Anyone expecting Smil to forecast the future of America will be disappointed but he does allude to a number of trends that are of serious concern. I hope this book will help us focus on fixing these trends without thinking that analogies from the Roman Empire will help us find the right approach.