USA : New Rome/Ancient Greece, is the shape of future rooted in the past?

It is often said that the founders of the United States of America envisioned their new republic not as a democracy but an aristocratic republic modelled on Ancient Rome.

The New Republic would be expected to geographically expand across the New World just as the old one of Rome had conquered the old world. While doing so, a competent core of leaders – Senators – would keep the unrestive masses at bay; guiding the republic through their higher intellects and philosophical understanding of the march of history.

‘Democracy’, it should be mentioned, was not always such a positive word, because it was seen as only one step away from ‘mobocracy’. In his description of the efficacy of political systems, Aristotle writing during the waning of the old polities of Ancient Greece rated it just above ‘anarchy’. Aristotle would, of course, mentor another Empire builder, Alexander of Macedon, soon to become, Alexander the Great. The education of his mentor most probably rubbed off on Alexander, as he did away with the old system of governance in Greece. However, Alexander was definitely not a Republican. He, in fact, modelled himself as an Egyptian/Persian God King.

It was left to the Romans to realise Aristotle’s ideal of the Republican Aristocracy. Alexander left in his wake a vast, pan-Eurasian Empire, built on the skeleton of the similarly vast Persian Empire of the previous age. The Empire shattered after his death. Momentarily, his generals were able to carve out their own smaller empires. The Romans, over the next century, gobbled up the Western half of Alexander’s Empire – including Egypt; while a new Persian power resurged in the East.

Now, let us return to our modern times. The New Republic of the Americas too gradually took over an older Empire of a sea-based power – instead of Rome and Greece, we saw the dynamic play out between the United States of America and Great Britain. As Britain undoubtedly waned in the beginning of the 20th century, writers like Henry Adams were already goading the United States on to replace it as the ‘monarch of the world’.

The United States was reluctant. But after the two world wars, it became the de facto successor to the Empire of Great Britain, as the new superpower of the new world order. In doing so, much like Rome had infused so much of Greek culture in the ancient age, the United States became much more a proponent of democracy – the ideological foundation of the British polity, though as a monarchical democracy and an Imperial power they had managed to achieve the best of all possible worlds.

Democracy is a notoriously difficult concept to describe. Our intention is not to say that the United States was not a democracy before it became the post-war superpower or even after it became an independent republic. But, after the Second World War, the United States made democracy the underpinning of its ideological outlook.

The ancient past casts a long shadow on the modern world. Be it Confucianism on China, Buddhism on East Asia, Vedic Hinduism on India, or even Greek and Roman ideals of republicanism and/or democracy – these are all philosophies that were born or took concrete form during what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, roughy the period from 450-300 BC, give or take a century or two, here or there.

So, it is natural, that scholars often turn to the Axial Age to make sense of not just the present but also the future. One example of this is the idea of the Thucydides Trap used as a heuristic device to predict the future of USA-China relations. The Thucydides Trap draws from the Greek historian Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian Wars between the Empires of Athens and Sparta in Ancient (pre-Alexandrine) Greece. The moral that present day historians draw from the history is that when there is an old power and a rising power in any international theatre at some point they are bound to clash. This has become a framework for understanding the future of the theatre we now call the Indo-Pacific. Sparta and Athens are now, one should assume, China and the United States.

The parallelism in history is often nothing more than the human mind’s pattern drawing instincts on overdrive. But the labels assigned to these patterns hint at our deeper convictions – or fears. Scholars who see the United States as paralleling Athens also now clearly see it as a Greek polity – with all its raucousness – rather than an ordered Roman Republic. However, it should be recalled that while the Empire of Athens was gloriously powerful for a while, it rose and fell in the small window between the waning of the old Persian Empire and the Rise of Rome. Perhaps there is some defeatism in this analogy. Perhaps it’s nothing more than pattern making.

Only time will tell. That after all is the only certainty in history.