Neocon Ancient History

Rome fell when the virtues and strengths that had created its empire became stale and its leadership became solely interested in staying in power. Does that sound familiar?
09/04/2007 04:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Neoconservatives are characteristically better versed in reading and writing about battles than actually fighting them, though that deficiency has not inhibited their initiation of vast schemes to remake half the world through force of arms. Noted neocons who identify themselves as historians include the Hoover Institute's Victor Davis Hanson and the two Kagan brothers, Frederick and Robert, whose father Donald is himself a Professor of Ancient History at Yale. Neither Hanson nor the Kagans has ever served in the military, so their knowledge of battles consists of precise red and blue lines drawn on a page with nary a drop of blood in sight. Warfare always looks clean and manageable on the neat diagrams produced at the American Enterprise Institute.

One of the most curious preoccupations of the neocon-as-historian is the focus on ancient history and most particularly the Peloponnesian War and Roman imperialism. Hanson's continuing support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq has interwoven stirring tales of ancient valor and renown into evocations of the neocon inspired warrior as a modern day hero, defending democracy and western values against the fanatical Asiatic hordes. His most recent encomium featured the movie 300 with its brave band of Spartans defying the might of the sinister Persian Empire at Thermopylae. Hanson rightly understood that it was a movie that any neocon might be proud of, particularly as the bad guys lost, something that happens only rarely in real life.

The only problem with the neocon view of history as a metaphor is that it doesn't quite work. It is true that ignorance of history dooms one to repeat its unfortunate lessons, but it is also true that failure to understand what those lessons actually are can be equally dangerous. The neocon obsession with fitting facts into a framework that supports and justifies a particular world view is their most dangerous delusion. Indeed, the parallels that might reasonably be drawn from classical history are frequently quite the opposite of what the necons would have one conclude.

Hanson's Thermopylae features Greek freedom as a counterpoint to Asian despotism, but, in reality the metaphor is somewhat strained. King Xerxes of Persia was undeniably a despot who regarded all his subjects as his slaves, but his army actually included a large number of Greek allies. The Spartans for their part were reviled by most other Greeks. They were not particularly big on liberties, running Laconia as a military camp and enslaving the surrounding Messenian population whom they called helots. Young Spartans acquired their proverbial toughness by attacking and even killing the unarmed helots as part of their boyhood training. Most Spartans could cite heroic poetry from memory but were functionally illiterate.

There are also two particular problems with the Peloponnesian War. Athens, like modern day America, developed a policy of expanding its empire by replacing local governments, which were generally oligarchies or despotates, with democracies. When the Spartans retook control of the cities lost to Athens they, in turn, replaced the democracies with oligarchies. Democracy promotion was a means of controlling subject states and, like the Bush administration embrace of the same, was not particularly concerned with actually enabling power to the people. Spreading democracy was not particularly successful for the Athenians as they wound up losing the Peloponnesian War to the Spartans and it has not proven particularly successful for the United States either. It's not that no one wants greater political freedom, it's just that no one wants it dictated by Athens or by the United States.

The other problem is the famous expedition to Syracuse, which might well be described as the fifth century B.C. version of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Like Iraq in its relationship to the United States, Syracuse posed no threat to Athens. In both cases, Iraq and Syracuse looked like easy marks and the politicians were predicting that there would be a cakewalk. Athens dispatched a huge armada more than 1,000 miles against Syracuse, became bogged down in the fighting beneath the city's walls, and eventually had to surrender. Very few Athenians made it home, most winding up worked to death in the quarries surrounding Syracuse that became makeshift prisons.

And then there is the Roman Republic. The Republic began its death throes in 100 BC with the rise to power of Marius. Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar followed, some of whom assumed the title of dictator and some of whom merely aggrandized their power through their wealth or their ability to dominate elections to the various magistracies. Rome had maintained its Republican institutions for four hundred years through checks and balances, much like the original intent of the US Constitution. There were two consuls so one could serve as a brake on the other and there were specific magistracies that represented class interests, like the Tribunes, who could veto legislation that was considered to be inimical. The first century BC changed all of that as the unitary executives of that time concentrated more and more of the effective power of the state in their own hands, frequently citing a security threat or a desire to restore order as their driving motive. Marius illegally held the consulship seven times and killed hundreds of his opponents. Sulla made himself dictator and killed and proscribed thousands of the Marians. Pompey put the final nail in the coffin when he gathered in the imperial prerogatives for himself to counter a raid by pirates on Rome's port of Ostia, making himself politically unchallenged and giving him imperial power that he subsequently failed to relinquish. He provided the precedent for Caesar, who finished the job by defeating Pompey, declaring himself dictator, and eventually establishing his own one man rule that led to the final death of the Republic at the hands of his nephew Octavian.

The Roman Empire lasted five hundred years, but its fall is equally illuminating. In 400 AD, Rome had the world's only standing army, numbering more than 300,000 men. It had a huge bureaucracy, a tax system, an economy that spanned the Mediterranean, and an imperial house that was respected. There seemed to be no external threat to its continued existence. Within fifty years, all of that was gone. It fell because it could not control its own borders. Barbarian tribes threatened the borders and, when they could not be driven out by force, they were allowed in as "federates" and provided soldiers for an increasingly barbarized army that had no interest in preserving the system except to maintain its pay and perks. Eventually, the almost completely barbarian and tribal army failed in its principal responsibility to control the borders of empire and instead got into the business of Emperor-making at the new Imperial capital in Ravenna, which paid better than fighting on the frontiers. Paying off the barbarians also proved to be too much for the imperial fisc, leading to economic collapse, the disappearance of Mediterranean trade, and the death of urban classical culture. In 476 AD, the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus was dethroned by the German general Odoacer, ending the Western Empire.

Is America on the same course? Well, there is the example of the Roman Republic in the destruction of our constitutional checks and balances in order to create a so-called unitary executive designed to fight a war against the entire world, much like Pompey's imperium to wage war against the pirates wherever they might be found. The global war on terror is, among other things, designed to go on "for as long as it takes," something like Pompey's imperial command that eventually led to the constant wars that brought about the end of the Roman Republic. It might be noted in passing that Pompey defeated the pirates in only two years, a record of military success that is somewhat better that that of the Great Decider in Washington.

And then there is the Bush Administration's embrace of democracy promotion, which has had only negative results, just as it did for the Athenians. Ask any Palestinian or Iraqi who bothered to vote. And then there is the Iraq debacle as an "Expedition to Syracuse." Will American soldiers wind up as missing-in-actions laboring in some Mesopotamian quarry, just as young men of Athens did at Syracuse? Will Tom Cruise star in a future movie leading a daring attempt to rescue them from their cruel Asiatic captors? Stay tuned.

Finally, let's not forget the end of the Empire, with its barbarian hordes crossing the Rhine and Danube, like today's Rio Grande, and the increased spending on military expenses that eventually overwhelmed and destroyed the civilian economy. America is also toying with the creation of a mercenary army to defend itself. The recently rejected Comprehensive Immigration Act would have permitted the armed services to recruit large numbers of non-US citizens as soldiers. Moral and intellectual collapse frequently precedes physical collapse. Rome fell when the virtues and strengths that had created its empire became stale and its leadership became solely interested in staying in power. Does that sound familiar?