So why does God give Rome its empire? As I mentioned earlier, Augustine thinks part of the answer is that Rome was the best option on offer. But he goes further. He argues that Roman leaders and society had a love for their city and empire that was noble if flawed. As opposed to rulers who merely serve to enrich themselves and advance their own interests, Rome developed a republican tradition very early on that praised sacrifice for the commonweal and placed the needs of the citizens above that of rulers. Romans worried frequently about the corrupting effects of wealth on the ruling class and the character of its citizens. Roman heroes are praised by Augustine for their willingness to sacrifice their lives, their fortunes, and, in the case of Brutus, even their children for security, virtue, and glory of their city.
The recent social media fad of wives asking their husbands how much they think about the Roman Empire had me thinking about why the Roman Empire looms so large, even to this day. Many of the women were shocked by their husbands’ almost obsessive interest in the Roman Empire, in part, as they assumed, the Roman Empire was an archaic and bad thing. What could we learn from the big bad Roman Empire?
Back when I taught Roman history at a big state university my classes were packed with men and a small sprinkling of women, most of whom were classics majors. So why were all these men interested in the Roman Empire? The answer to me seems rather obvious: America itself is an empire. (Drawing parallels between America and Rome is something of an American pastime going back to our founding.) And if you want insight into our own time and place the Roman Empire offers an illuminating example of how one particular empire successfully navigated itself for many centuries.
An interesting feature of American life and history is that, unlike empires of the past, we are deeply ambivalent if not hostile to that reality. Some Americans would even reject that we are an empire. To live in this state of denial is bad if only because it blinds us to the reality that we are still the most powerful nation in the world and we use our power to influence and coerce other nations to act in ways we would like them. That is how empires behave.
Empires are a fact of reality in international politics and always will be. There will always be a few nations that exercise inordinate influence and power on the world stage. Scholars sometimes refer to these nations as “hegemons,” but empire is a more descriptively accurate and colloquial term. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR were the two major world powers and competed with one another globally for influence, wealth, and power. At present the US and China seem destined for competition, if not conflict, for global preeminence.
But the real question regarding empires is: can they be good? One could concede the fact that empires exist and have existed, but are they good for global order or for the nations that exercise imperial power? The historical record would have to be judged to determine whether we have been a good empire and whether the good that America has achieved throughout its dominance of world politics outweighs the bad. That’s not the argument I want to make, though I think that is a key question.
Many groups on the political left and, increasingly, on the right see American global hegemony as wicked and evil, though for quite different reasons. The left, generally, is committed to anti-imperialism in principle. Empire anywhere is intrinsically evil as a form of government, in part because it is exploitative and domineering at its very essence. It preys upon weak nations, using its overwhelming power to make subject nations into mere pawns for maintaining its power and extracting resources and capital to enrich itself at the expense of native populations.
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be more ambiguous about the nature of governmental forms, though more libertarian or Republican-leaning conservatives have a strong commitment to republican self-government. The right tends to object to American empire based on its effects: it neglects the good of the nation, whether through irresponsible wars abroad, economic policies that only enrich corporations, or through exporting the most debased aspects of American popular culture to the rest of the world. The regime change wars of the past two decades have been failures and a massive waste of blood and treasure, our economic policies have not benefited the middle or working class, and our culture grows more perverse by the day.
I am not offering a comprehensive analysis here, just noting that both left and right have strong moral objections to American empire. For the sake of my argument here, I am assuming America’s imperial epoch, running roughly from 1945 to the present, has been, on balance, better than worse for the US and the world. I realize many will disagree.
What I would like to argue in this essay is that American Christians, and conservative Christians in particular, should be open to the claim that empire can be a good form of government and that exercising imperial rule is not in and of itself a bad thing. It can be a good thing. Here I will turn to Augustine of Hippo and engage his rather complex view of the Roman Empire. Augustine’s appraisal of Rome was rooted in his account of providence and a considered ambivalence about governmental forms. He did not think there was one form of government that Christians should endorse. He could appreciate the Republican period in Rome as well as the Empire, though he saw weaknesses in both.
The importance of Augustine’s qualified acceptance of the Roman Empire and the good that it achieved is to show how the most brilliant theologian in church history thought about politics from a distinctly Christian viewpoint. “Empire” is a term of derision and loathing today, shorthand for all that is bad. But that view is more a product of our unique American history and experiences than a considered theological position. American Christians hold to the rather narrow and parochial view that “liberal democracy” is somehow the final form of all politics. However laughable an assumption that may be, one finds this unconscious conviction all too common in discussions among American Christians. This essay defends American Empire, at least against those Christians who will say any form of empire is sinful or intrinsically evil. Empire is not evil per se. Augustine provides at least one way to think about empire that breaks the stranglehold of our own contemporary political pieties.
It will surprise most that Augustine defends empire, even if in a rather qualified sense. Augustine’s defense is a mixed bag. Rome is deeply flawed, but a defense of Rome is what it amounts to.
Empire, Then and Now
It is interesting to contrast the US with the United Kingdom on the question of empire. Though there is a strong reaction against the British empire in the UK today, especially among academics, the British historically were more clear-eyed about the reality of their empire. Europeans, as a whole, are much less squeamish about empires given that Europe has more or less been ruled and structured by empires throughout their history. The European Union itself is a type of supra-national empire that blends the characteristics of empire with aspects of democratic representation.
The existence of empires is a fact of history. There has never been a world in which empires were not in existence. There have always and will always be nations who exercise preeminent power in the international sphere. The basic insight of realists is self-evidently correct: what matters most in international politics is power, and more often than not, hard power.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe, political order collapsed and Europe became a backwater of world history for at least 500 years, living in the shadow of Islamic Caliphates who conquered most of what was the Eastern Roman Empire and expanded its reach further to the East. World War II marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the ascendance of the American. British leaders knew this was the case and accepted their new lot in the American global order with dignity.
The British were by no means perfect in how they grew and administered their empire, but, in the grand scheme of things, they acquitted themselves well as imperial rulers. So good were the Brits at ruling that the nations who raised the Union Jack are among the most wealthy, stable, and democratic nations in the world.
The same was true of the Roman Empire. Commonly portrayed as rapacious and brutal, most of those outside the empire wanted to be part of it. Rome was indeed brutal, but not out of the norm for the ancient world. In a time of weak governmental structures and order, Rome was unique in its ability to bring some semblance of order and administration out of chaos and endless tribal warfare common among Germanic tribes. Imperial administration would be seen as highly desirable. The Germanic tribes that raided and pillaged the empire in the late 4th and 5th century wanted to be a part of the Roman Empire in order to enjoy its fruits. Many of the generals of the later empire were not of Roman stock but were from the edges of the empire and often had a parent that was not a Roman citizen. Stilicho, the leading general in the Western empire in the early 5th century, is a good example of this trend. One of the ways the military was able to raise and retain soldiers was to promise citizenship to non-Romans after a number of years of service. The retirement package often included a pension and property. If you were a poor Germanic man living a subsistence life outside the empire, this would be extremely appealing.
However, the Roman empire was not all upside. It was a system that favored aristocrats and the wealthy. Though something of a middle class was able to form in the golden years of the empire, those benefits receded in later years. Rome’s brutality is not something that should be overlooked either. But the critique of empire today is rooted in contemporary notions of race and oppression that are anachronistic.
After Roman government vanished from Western Europe, cities, population, and wealth vanished as well. Literacy rates plummeted. Population levels crashed. Trade slowed to a trickle and the general order society disintegrated into warring kingdoms led by tribal chieftains. In contrast to the West, the Eastern Roman Empire— referred to by Westerners as Byzantium— continued to prosper for another millennium. Few would think the West got the better end of that bargain.
Nigel Biggar addresses a similar critique of the British Empire in our day in his recent book on Colonialism and a recent essay in First Things wherein he defends American Empire. The fashionable critique of the British Empire that Biggar confronts is that the empire was an exceedingly immoral and rapacious in its behavior towards its colonies. Biggar concedes that there is plenty of material to lament and repent of, but also a great amount of benefit to be proud of. Empires, like any other form of government, are not inherently evil. The British, like all European powers, participated in the slave trade, but repented of their moral errors and used their navy to effectively end the transatlantic slave trade. The point is that every nation has a checkered past.