Why America Is Not a New Rome
America's post–Cold War strategic dominance and its pre-recession affluence inspired pundits to make celebratory comparisons to ancient Rome at its most powerful. Now, with America no longer perceived as invulnerable, engaged in protracted fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffering the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, comparisons are to the bloated, decadent, ineffectual later Empire. In Why America Is Not a New Rome, Vaclav Smil looks at these comparisons in detail, going deeper than the facile analogy-making of talk shows and glossy magazine articles. He finds profound differences.
On the surface, the vision of America as the new Rome has resonance. There are obvious, intriguing parallels and amusing—even disconcerting—similarities. The America-Rome analogy deserves a closer look, and this is what Smil, a scientist and a lifelong student of Roman history, offers. He does this by focusing on several fundamental concerns: the very meaning of empire; the actual extent and nature of Roman and American power; the role of knowledge and innovation in the two states and the importance of machines and energy sources; and demographic and economic basics—population dynamics, illness, death, wealth, and misery. America is not a latter-day Rome, Smil finds, and we need to understand this in order to look ahead without the burden of counterproductive analogies. Superficial similarities do not imply long-term political, demographic, or economic outcomes identical to Rome's.
About the Author
Vaclav Smil is the author of more than thirty books on energy, environment, food, and history of technical advances, including Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines and Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, both published by the MIT Press. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.
“[T]his book is both a polemic and a work of scholarship.” — Daniel Headrick, Technology and Culture
“Smil (Univ. of Manitoba, Canada) has written an entertaining response to authors who have compared the US to the Roman Empire...", S. Prisco III, CHOICE
"Why America Is Not a New Rome is significant because, for the first time, it puts comparative perspectives on Rome and the United States in proper and much-needed historical context. This is a timely and valuable intervention."
Walter Scheidel, Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Stanford University
"Repetition by pundits and literary commentators in the mass media has entrenched in people's minds the notion that America is a new Rome. Smil's book, tightly argued and rigorously documented, is a concise and persuasive scientific demolition of the Rome-America parallel, totally deflating the usefulness of the analogy as a tool of historical analysis. Why America Is Not a New Rome is a much-needed corrective."
Paul Demeny, Distinguished Scholar, Population Council, New York