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Like Ancient Rome, America Shifts From Republic To Empire

by Franz Schurmann

Are we witnessing the birth of a Bush dynasty?
(PNS) -- America's awesome victory in Iraq has rekindled debate about "American Empire" in intellectual circles. Ordinary people still think of America in far more domestic terms, as the USA of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA." Current events and history show that that USA is increasingly a memory as the Republic transforms itself into an Empire.

The notion of the American Empire has been around since Thomas Jefferson's 1803 "Louisiana Purchase." The Allied victory in World War II saw articles comparing modern America to the Roman Empire. More recently in the journal National Interest, Prof. James Kurth of Swarthmore College writes, "A hundred years ago there were many empires. Today there is only one -- the global empire of the United States."

The decisive move that ushered in the new American Empire came only days after Sept. 11, 2001. President Bush declared a "War on Terrorism" and ordered American armed forces from all over the world into the Indian Ocean in preparation for attacking Afghanistan. Expansionism implies annexing territory, but Bush's move was not so much expansionist as imperial.

Both the words "empire" and "imperial" share the same Latin roots, the verb "imperare," to command, and the noun "imperium," empire. The two Latin roots trace an essential part of Roman history, as Rome went from Republic to Empire. The Romans were fiercely loyal to their Republic (as Americans are to the USA). But some 2,000 years ago they also were enthralled about their empire, which extended from the Atlantic to what is now Iraq. And they also were fearful about their economy and worried about so many strange people pouring into Italy, their Patria (the place where their ancestors were born).

At that time, Octavian, a nephew of Caesar, held the office of "First Consul" (similar to the American president who is both the civil "chief executive" and the military "commander in chief"). Octavian had held the office of First Consul since 33 B.C. and was entrusted with the Imperium, that is, making war against enemies and administering the vast empire. But in 28 B.C., Octavian decided to make his rule of the Imperium legitimate by asking the Roman Senate to give him the title "Augustus," which elevated him to the status of a god.

The agreement Octavian reached with the Roman Senate marked the beginning of the Roman Empire. Both sides agreed that the Senate would retain pro forma civil power but the Imperator (whence the English word Emperor) wielded the real power. In America a similar configuration seems to be evolving.

President Bush is more and more acting first as America's commander in chief and only secondly as its chief executive. Congress only wields power in the 50 states of the USA -- in short, domestic politics. Bush's main concern in domestic politics appears to be his re-election in November 2004.

While wars did break out in Octavian's reign, nevertheless his main policy was carrying out the new Pax Romana by creating hundreds of military bases all over the vast Roman Empire. It seems that Bush and the Pentagon are carrying out a Pax Americana by doing the same throughout the world. The plans laid out by the Pentagon visionaries about the Middle East's future envisage a world of universal peace, prosperity and freedom. As a result of Octavian's political restructuring, the Roman Empire did enjoy two centuries of peace and prosperity. And while the Romans would not have cared about modern democratic rights, they did allow a considerable autonomy in the many different states and communities over which they ruled.

Another similarity between Octavian and Bush is in the respective zeitgeists of their times. In the former's, all kinds of religion were sweeping through the Roman Empire. Few of them were spin-offs from the traditional gods that Rome had shared with classical Hellas. Since the old gods no longer moved the 50 million inhabitants of the Empire, Octavian felt he couldn't lose by inaugurating a new religious cult centered on himself as a god and rooted in his uncle Julius Caesar. That move created a "Julian" dynasty that ruled for the rest of the first century.

America too is witnessing waves of new and revived religions. As in ancient Rome, the traditional religions have lost their fire while the revivalist faiths are flourishing. It is well-known that Bush has embraced Evangelical Christianity. And, in stark contrast to earlier 20th century presidencies, the Bush White House has introduced regular prayer meetings. A spin-off of this new religious climate has led to many politicians using the word "God" without fearing attacks from secularists. If Bush should emulate Octavian's political approach, that could result in a Bush dynasty that would see future American presidents pride themselves as being part of the Bush line while having no biological connection to it. That was the case with Octavian himself.

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Albion Monitor May 14, 2003 (

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