Painting: "Roman Campagna" by Thomas Cole

Roman Exceptionalism

…there was one people in the world which would fight for others’ liberties at its own cost, to its own peril and with its own toil, not limiting its guaranties of freedom to its neighbours, to men of the immediate vicinity, or to countries that lay close at hand, but ready to cross the sea that there might be no unjust empire anywhere and that everywhere justice, right, and law might prevail. 1

These words weren’t written about America. They weren’t even written since the rise of modern democracies. They were written over 2000 years ago by Titus Livius (commonly known as Livy), a renowned historian employed by Augustus Caesar to vindicate his family’s transformation of the former Roman Republic into an empire.

Livy’s Roman History chronicled the city’s rise from little more than a squalid village fortunately situated at a crossroads to an empire that straddled the limits of the known world. It told of Rome’s successful struggle for independence from its imperially minded Etruscan overlords 600 years before. The city’s newfound freedom was followed by a call for a free government; the Roman Republic was established ca. 500 B.C. The situation was tenuous. Rome was surrounded by ambitious trading partners who, often as not, turned to the sword rather than the merchant’s scales to realize economic gain. Rome’s early territories were acquired by fighting defensive wars waged against these tribes and cities. Wars against the Aequi, Volsci and Sabines also followed, partly because of obligations to make good on defensive alliances Roman leaders had brokered.

By degrees, then, the Romans began to become entangled in their neighbors’ affairs. Wars they’d been dragged into because of defense pacts gave way to wars fought against increasingly nebulous “threats.” “Self-defense” became a handy pretext for more gain. The burgeoning republic found that war was profitable, providing slaves, easy money and plenty of land. Rome’s increasingly greedy tendencies created a severe case of “blowback” in 387 B.C. The cause of this disaster was attested to by multiple contemporary writers. Rome had sworn an oath of diplomatic neutrality in the conflict between the Senones and their neighbors the Clusines. When the Clusines appealed to Rome, however, the Senate saw an opportunity. They voted to break the oath and intervene on the Clusines’ behalf. Legionaries swooped in like hawks—before being soundly trounced at Allia. The path to Rome was open. Its gatehouses emptied of soldiers, the city was easily ransacked. Such catastrophe ensued that the episode was remembered down to the fall of the empire in the late 5th century A.D.

Chastened, but fired with revenge rather than repentance, Rome recovered and waged wars prompted by ever looser causes. The Gauls were pushed back in the North, the Samnites in the South. Soon the Mamertines of Sicily took advantage of the Republic’s nascent willingness to “free” struggling peoples—if it advanced Rome’s interests. They appealed to the republic for aid against Carthage. The Senate agreed to this, despite the fact that that great maritime nation had long been Rome’s closest trading partner. Apparently, more stood to be gained by conquest than by trade. The First Punic War ended in a hard-fought Roman victory. This, however, was not enough. During the years of peace that followed, Rome took advantage of an uprising in Carthage to break the treaty and seize several of the city’s island possessions. This bred no goodwill amongst the Carthaginians and was one of many events that inspired Hamilcar Barca to urge resistance to the Romans. Eventually it was Hamilcar’s son Hannibal who carried the war into the heart of Italy where death and destruction reigned for years on end, though the war ended in Carthaginian defeat and humiliation. Carthage became, for all intents and purposes, a Roman puppet state.

Meanwhile, Rome’s expanding borders pulled her into war with the opportunistic Macedonians and Iberians. This gave the Carthaginians some breathing room, especially since it coincided in 151 B.C. with the fulfillment of her obligations under the treaty that had ended the Second Punic War. Rome, of course, wasn’t about to let her profitable tribute vanish. The Carthage treaty, it turned out, actually provided for an unconditional and perpetual subordination of the Carthaginian peoples. But behind this Roman obfuscation was a need for Carthage’s grain, which was doled out to the lower classes in Rome. Rather than risk an embargo, then, Roman troops landed on the shores of Carthage itself. After a siege, the city was sacked, burned and salted in one of history’s most infamous episodes. The entire population was either killed or enslaved.

Let it suffice to say that the trend continued: wars became more frequent and less justified as time passed and pride and profit increased. The logical conclusion of the whole sorry episode was reached in the hypocrisy of Imperial Rome. Here, Roman emperors finally succeeded in convincing the people of what a regime accountable to those who did the fighting and dying could not: Roman wars were actually fought for the good of the world, not for Rome’s benefit. The self-deceit was complete, and now that rapacity was cleverly disguised under a clean national conscience, conquest under the Empire resumed at double the pace. The emperors understood the power of the arts , and they employed talented, noble men like Livy and Virgil to churn out propaganda of enduring quality:

But, Rome, ‘t is thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war by thy own majestic way;
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.” 2

One would think after all this glorious, conceited hymning that “fetter’d slaves” everywhere would be signing up to be a part of this wonderful empire instead of rebelling against it, invading it and despising its very name. But the self-deceit had seeped so far into the Roman consciousness that most Romans no longer cared if it was true or not. It was nice to believe. In any case, one of these “fetter’d slaves” left us an idea of exactly what he thought of it all:

They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.3


1. Livy, Roman History 33, trans. E. T. Sage, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), vol. 9, p. 367
2. Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI (Dryden translation)
3. Tacitus, Agricola, Loeb Classical Library

Featured image: Thomas Cole, Roman Campagna, 1843

2 thoughts on “Roman Exceptionalism”

  1. Awesome post. It seems the frequency of US politicians throwing around the words “exceptional” and “god” has increased rapidly in the last few years. Pretty scary to think about why this is happening and where this could all lead…

React! Reply! Challenge!