Book Review: Empires of Trust (Part II)

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[Empires of Trust, review Part I]

Review of: Empires of Trust: How Rome Built–and America Is Building–a New World

My apologies for taking so long to get back with a second part to this review. In the first installment, I covered the history of Rome’s early expansion, and how its commitment to establishing a safe horizon of allies, and defending those allies against any aggression, led the city of Rome to effectively rule all of Italy. From southern Italy, Rome was drawn into Sicily, which in turn made it a threat to Carthage and drew those two superpowers of the third century BC into a series of wars that would end with the total destruction of Carthage as a world power.

With the power of Carthage effectively neutralized after the end of the Second Punic War in 201 BC, Rome immediately became an attractive ally for states throughout the world which sought a superpower ally. That same year, ambassadors from Pergamum and Rhodes arrived in Rome seeking aide against two of the major Hellenistic kings who had recently made an alliance, Philip V of Macedon and Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire (based in modern Syria). Since the time of Alexander the Great (125 years before) the Eastern Mediterranean had been dominated by several large and incredibly wealthy Hellenistic kingdoms. The more ancient Greek city states were in the main still free, but were no match for the military power of the Hellenistic kingdoms ruled by Macedonian dynasties if they should exert themselves to conquer them.

The Romans admired Greek learning and culture, and also admired their ideals of freedom. However, it was next to impossible to argue that the Macedonians and Seleucids presented any danger at all to Rome, and there was controversy in the Roman senate as to whether agreeing to help the Greeks would be legal, given the requirements in Roman Law that only defensive wars be fought. The case for a “defensive” war against the Hellenistic kingdoms was pretty tenuous, but those who idealized the freedom of ancient city states such as Athens won out, and Rome’s legions landed in Greece where they handily defeated Philip in 200-197, driving Macedonian forces out of Greece.

Having expelled him from Greece, the Romans left Philip in power in Macedonia, and in 196 issued a proclamation at the Isthmian Games declaring all the Greek city states (including those that had fought with Macedon against Rome) to be politically independent and free of any tributary obligations to Rome.

The Roman historian Livy recounts what Greeks were saying of this:

There is but one nation which at its own cost, through its own exertions, and at its own risk has gone to war on behalf of the liberty of others. It renders this service not to those across its frontiers, or to the peoples of neighboring states, or to those who dwell on the same mainland, but it actually crosses the seas in order that nowhere in the wide world may injustice and tyranny exist, but that right and equity and law may be everywhere supreme.
Livy 33.33 (page 131)

Doubtless the Romans felt the warm glow of a visibly grateful world and patted themselves on the backs a bit, as when Americans read about the throngs turning out to cheer President Wilson when he attended the peace conference after the Great War. Like the Americans after the Great War, Rome pulled all its soldiers out of Greece. However, the peace was even less lasting. Four years later in 192, The Aetolian League of Greek city states allied itself with King Antiocus III and set about attacking other Greek city states in Asia Minor. Rome sent legions back to Greece and across into Asia Minor, where it defeated the Aetolian League and the Seleucid Empire in the Seleucid War of 192-188 BC. At the end, however, Rome declared all Greek city states in Asia Minor free, and once again withdrew all its troops back to Italy.

By this point, Rome was clearly the hegemonic power in a monopolar world. The major Hellenistic kingdoms of Macedonia, Asia Minor and Egypt were no match for it, Carthage and been decisively defeated, and powers on the edge of the Mediterranean world such as the Parthian Empire were not a significant threat. However, up till this point Rome directly controlled very little territory outside of Italy. It was engaged in frequent wars to protect various allies, but did not rule them directly.

This situation did not last. One of the freedoms which the Greek city states had traditionally treasured was the freedom to wage small scale wars against one another on the slightest pretext. And as Rome repeatedly stepped in and used its overwhelming military superiority to demand that hostilities be broken off, the Greeks came increasingly to resent Roman power, even if it was wielded from afar and in the cause of peace. This caused many of the Greeks to support Perseus of Macedon (Philip’s son) in 171 BC when he moved to invade Greece. Polybius (a Greek who wrote one of the best works on the history and political organization of the Roman Republic) writes that the simple novelty and excitement of seeing a power with the apparent ability to mount a military challenge to Rome that the Greeks supported Perseus without thinking of the consequences that would follow should he actually succeed in conquering Greece. (Polybius 30.29, Empires of Trust, Page 145) Some may, Madden certainly does, see parallels to the American and European elites (people with no interest in living under an extreme Islamic regime themselves) who gleefully speculated that Taliban or Iraqi forces would stymie the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rome defeated Perseus, and once again declared the Greek city states free, though it took the precaution of helping pro-Roman political parties to power in key city states first. In 150-148, Macedon sought to take over Greece again, and the Romans reconquered Macedon and simply stayed. The Greeks continued to fight among themselves, with the Achaean League attacking Sparta against Roman demands for peace. A group of Roman senators sent to Corinth to negotiate the issue in 147 were beset by rioters who pelted them with rocks and excrement — with the senators barely escaping with their lives. At last Rome had enough, not only did it take over Greece and make it a directly ruled province, but it sacked Corinth and leveled it. After fifty years, Rome had decided to be a conquering power and rule foreign dominions directly. Within the next 200 years, most of the known world would come under its direct control — sometimes as a result of local kings leaving their dominions to Rome in their wills, in other cases when the Romans tired of local unrest and decided to administer areas directly. The empire of trust model was not wholly abandoned, Rome seldom openly conquered new territories (with the exception of “uncivilized” areas such as Gaul and Britain), but after 150 BC it quickly lost its hesitance to exert direct rule over territories outside of Italy.

Although similar events were taking place throughout the Mediterranean world in the second century BC, the events in Greece and Asia Minor are particularly interesting because they highlight to key elements of Roman power:

1) Rome tried repeatedly over a fifty year period to turn the conflict-loving Greeks into peaceful but self-ruling allies.

2) In the end, when no other solution would bring peace, Rome seized direct control.

However, as long as it could, Rome maintained peace through its allies, and stepping in only when regional wars broke out.

Madden points to several interesting similarities between the history of Rome in this era, and that of the US in the 20th century.

– The relationship between Rome and the Hellenistic world has some similarities to that between the US and Western Europe in the 20th century. Twice the US was drawn into massive wars that began in Europe, ending the wars, but leaving both allies and vanquished as independent states. However, after the failure of post-Great War isolationism, the US remained in Europe after World War II (though scrupulously leaving all European countries politically independent) and encouraged a situation in which all Western European militaries atrophied, while the US provided manpower to keep the peace.

– Like Rome after the Second Punic War, the US has not fought a truly defensive war in sixty years, however it has repeatedly fought regional wars to protect its allies and remove regimes causing regional instability. If the US is to continue to fill a similar role in the modern world to that of Rome after 200 BC, we should expect to see this continue. (For Catholics, this poses important questions about the nature of just war, reviving a situation which has not been seen since the flourishing of the supra-national empires such as the Holy Roman Empire, and in some ways not since Rome itself.)

– Rome did, overall, have the effect of bringing peace to those parts of the world which came thoroughly into its sphere of influence. Similarly, those parts of the world which have come fully into the US sphere has stabilized, while wars continue to be found at the periphery of the US sphere. This leaves one to ask: Is hegemonic power in fact the greatest force for peace? Is it in fact the sphere of the hegemonic power which has the effect that was hoped for from international organizations such as the UN?

– The above points will mostly be appreciated by American conservatives, with the exception of those “paleo-cons” who endorse a modern isolationism, but Madden makes another point which may be less congenial to many conservatives in regards to international organizations. The operation of an empire of trust, such as Rome in the 2nd century BC or the US in the 21st century, relies upon the existence of independent leagues of allies and unaligned nations for legitimacy. After all, while exerting power which is in many ways imperial, neither empire saw/sees itself as acting as an empire, but rather as a strong state with allies. In this regard, international organizations, whether of close allies such as NATO or more open ones such as the UN, serve as a legitimating force. At a pragmatic level, the UN is headquartered in US territory and its missions seldom succeed without being made up primarily of US troops, but the fact that the UN is independent enough to provide a forum for other nations to denounce the US both serves as a legitimizing force and as a forum for nations to blow off steam against the US harmlessly. Much though some may see room for the US to act alone to right international wrongs if necessary, according to Madden’s analysis it would violate the very paradigm which has allowed the US to become an empire for trust for it to act without the consent and assistance of a number of allies in any given situation. The US may not actually need those allies in a practical sense, but for the US to be what it is, to be a hegemonic empire of trust and thus a force for peace in order in the wider world, it must remain reluctant to enter any conflict without a number of regional allies.

Next in Part III: Rome and Palestine, an empire of trust confronts terrorism.

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  1. Like you (and Madden, I suppose) I found the parallels between the Roman Republic and the U.S. quite striking. The disanalogies, however, were also striking. What ultimately forced Rome to abandon it’s policy of political independence for Greece was the unwillingness of the various Greek city states to stop fighting with each other. By contrast, the countries of Europe seem to be perfectly content not to fight with one another.

  2. True.

    I think an important distinction (and a very positive development) is that the US was able to use international institutions to station troops all over the place without actually assuming ruling powers over any of those nations. This allowed the US to remain in Europe after WW2 without getting into the business of trying to rule it (which would undoubtledly have been a disaster for all concerned.)

    I suppose part of the question here would be: If the US had returned to total isolationism after WW2 as it did after WW1, would we see the sort of postwar peace in Europe that we have in the real world? One might after that the development of a fairly conflict-free European political climate after WW2 was to a great extent caused by the fact that US power encouraged those nations to allow their military powers to atrophy.

    I’m sure Europhiles would not buy that argument. I’m not sure to what extent I do. But it does seem interesting that while Europe has a very long history of frequent wars, that history seems to have ended in those areas (and pretty much only in those areas) which have come into the US sphere.

  3. Darwin, I don’t think there is any doubt about that. Had the US pulled out of Europe militarily and not assisted the population with the Marshall Plan (both done precisely with the idea of not repeating the mistakes of post WWI), Europe would have been engulfed in war within a year or two. Stalin would have attempted to gobble up Western Europe had it not been for the US presence.

  4. “Stalin would have attempted to gobble us Western Europe had it not been for the US presence.”

    Bad Americans. Messing things up again.

  5. If the US had returned to total isolationism after WW2 as it did after WW1, would we see the sort of postwar peace in Europe that we have in the real world?

    I’m inclined to doubt it. Even with the U.S. presence, you still had war in the Balkans, war between Greece and Turkey, the conflict in Northern Ireland, a French war in Algeria, a British war with Argentina, and so forth, not to mention the Cold War.

  6. Fair point. Maybe I’m overplaying the postwar peace meme.

    Though it does strike me that in all of those cases, the war was either at or beyond the horizon of US presence at the time.

    I dunno. I’m trying to play out and see what I think of this theory. Prior reading this, I’d pretty much accepted the, “After starting two world wars, the Europeans decided that war wasn’t the answer and so the US had to come in and protect them from the Soviets” meme.

    After reading it, and having a couple long, late night discussions with an old history professor friend, I’m wondering if its much more the case that the US decision to stay in Europe is what allowed peace-emphasizing parties to win out — and that the gradual spread of US presence further into Eastern Europe and the Middle East could potentially have similar effects.

  7. Don’t know. I think the Cold War was a real war that would have swallowed up a few (many, most)European countries if not for the US presence. Stalin was not opposed to absorbing whatever he could. Even if it would not have taken war for him to do it, he would have.

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