When In Rome — Was American Exceptionalism Inspired By An Ancient ‘Superpower’?


Roman armies dominated the ancient world, much like today's lone superpower.

Roman armies dominated the ancient world, much like today’s lone superpower.

By Dr. Shadi Bartsch

American citizens concerned about their military policy abroad might find an interesting mirror in ancient Rome.

The Romans wanted to make sure that they were fighting wars that were not driven by greed for gain, but were ‘just’. In fact they managed to make such claims for every single war of expansion they fought, and when they won, it confirmed their belief that they were in the right. After all, if the gods hadn’t supported them, they would have lost. But how were the Romans so sure that their wars were just before they saw divine support via victory?

Part of the answer sounds strange to us; the other half, perhaps, does not.

Publius Claudius Pulcher orders sacred chickens tossed overboard before the Battle of Drepana in 249 BC. An insult to the gods?

Publius Claudius Pulcher orders sacred chickens tossed overboard before the Battle of Drepana in 249 BC. An insult to the gods?

First, the Romans observed specific religious rituals to ensure divine favor, such as looking for omens in the entrails of sacrificed animals before declaring war. Through these omens they would know if the gods supported their proposed course of action. And if they had to account for a defeat, there were often explanations that the unfavorable omens had been ignored. For example, when the Romans lost the naval battle of Drepana in 249 BC it was clear why they had lost, at least in retrospect. It seems that when the admiral Publius Claudius Pulcher asked whether the sacred chickens on board the ship were eating their grain (even chicken antics could be an indicator of divine favor), he learned that on that particular morning they had refused their breakfast, a very bad sign. After trying to coax them into a few nibbles, Pulcher lost his temper and threw them into the sea, shouting “If they don’t want to eat, then let them drink.” The Romans lost that naval battle, and Pulcher was tried for incompetence and impiety and fined a large sum by the court.

But the Romans were pretty sure they were the good guys even without these rituals telling them when to go to war. It helped that they believed their civilization and their political system were better than those of the peoples they invaded, and that they were doing these subject nations a favor. As the historian Livy wrote:

There was one nation in the world which would fight for the liberties of others at its own cost, with its own labor, and at its own danger. It was even ready to cross the sea to make sure there was no unjust rule anywhere and that everywhere justice, right, and law would prevail.

In his Republic, Cicero claims that the Romans got their empire almost by accident through helping out their allies.

“Our people, through repeatedly defending their allies, have ended up as master of the world.”

And in the Aeneid, the national epic of Rome’s rise written in the first century BC, it is made clear that Rome’s military expansion is actually its divine destiny: The god Jupiter proclaims, “On the Romans I impose no boundaries of time or place: I have granted them empire without end.” The epic hero Anchises says as much to his son. “You, Roman, remember to rule the nations with power — this will be your skill. Impose the custom of peace, spare the vanquished and defeat the proud.”

Roman ‘just war theory’, such as it was, had corollaries and implications beyond war itself. It fit into a matrix of Roman cultural and national beliefs that brought together religion, pride in the Roman expansion, and a firm sense of the moral character of their ancestors, all of this creating a sense that the Romans were special. Perhaps not curiously, their national epic, the Aeneid, eventually appealed to another group besides the Romans, another band of settlers who had to cross the sea, found a new nation, and build up their territory from a narrow coastline to an entire continent. As Susan Ford Wiltshire has noted, “because the defining direction of America has always been westward, in terms of both original colonization and internal expansion,” the epic’s depiction of a people traveling west as explorers and colonizers spoke to early Americans especially.

Uniting the territory of America in one landmass was the geographical expression of the idea of an American manifest destiny as it was popularized in the United States in the mid-19th century: to conquer others as part of a divine plan and to export what was religiously and politically right.

The term “manifest destiny” was first used in 1845 by the journalist John L. O’Sullivan. He wrote that the U.S. was fated “to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

Many 19th century Americans believed that westward expansion was a sort of sacred mission as this painting suggests.

Many 19th century Americans believed that westward expansion was a sort of sacred mission as this painting suggests.

This notion that the young nation of America had a divine mandate to push west across the continent was used in the 1840s to justify the war with Mexico, it was used to acquire part of Oregon from the British Empire, it was used to explain the need for expansion past the Louisiana Territory. It is even visible on a $1 bill. On one side there is picture of the Great Seal of the United States, designed by a Latin teacher, Charles Thomson, who explained that “the Eye over it the pyramid and the motto Annuit Cœptis allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause.”

As for the Latin phrase on the seal, “annuit cœptis,” which means, “God has favored our endeavors,” it comes from a battle scene in the same Roman epic, the Aeneid.

The future king Ascanius asks Jupiter for his help in fighting the war against the native Italians so they can found a nation in Italy. “Favor my endeavors, Jupiter,” he asks, and then shoots an arrow at the native enemy, piercing him through the head and killing him instantly.

But we should be clear that manifest destiny was not just a cynical excuse for territorial land grabs, or sea. It was also an expression of almost religious faith in the uniqueness and moral value of the American democratic experiment.

Because nations and peoples need to believe they are just, or at least that their actions ultimately protect something of great value, even transcendent value, they create national stories in which they act for the most part on the side of right. This is the case whether they are acting in the interests of their own manifest destiny or in the interests of the people whom they are making into subjects and colonists.

In the course of time, manifest destiny came to suggest that the United States had a national virtue that was a result of its experiment in freedom and democracy. By the time of Woodrow Wilson, who actually used the phrase in a presidential address, it was an expression of the responsibility of the United States to protect and promote democracy as a form of government throughout the world. The idea became part of our history and part of our purpose.

Both the Americans and the Romans believed in the excellence of their form of government. Both also seem to have had some degree of belief in the religious sanctity of their nation and their foreign policies, and thought it their duty to export these benefits to other countries. Like the Romans, Americans are tied together by a largely shared politico-religious heritage upon which they have grounded the nature of their ethos as a nation and the nature of our moral uprighteousness. Unlike Romans, Americans don’t use sacred chickens. But they should realize that while national myths such as exceptionalism are valuable in many ways, not least in providing people with a sense of identity and pride in their country, such myths, in a globalized world, can stop America from hearing others people’s myths, or listening to their identities.

Shadi Bartsch is the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and is the author of a number of books and essays about ancient Rome. This article ran on the Huffington Post this past Saturday. Professor Bartsch has granted MilitaryHistoryNow.com to publish it. 

1 comment for “When In Rome — Was American Exceptionalism Inspired By An Ancient ‘Superpower’?

  1. 26 April, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    George Washington’s Prophetic Dream at Valley Forge:

    I do not know whether it is owing to the anxiety of my mind, or what, but this afternoon, as I was sitting at this table engaging in preparing a dispatch, something in the apartment seemed to disturb me. Looking up, I beheld standing opposite to me a singularly beautiful being. So astonished was I, for I had given strict orders not to be disturbed that it was some moments before I found language to inquire the cause of the visit. A second, a third, and even a fourth time did I repeat my question, but received no answer from my mysterious visitor except a slight raising of the eyes.

    By this time I felt strange sensations spreading through me. I would have risen but the riveted gaze of the being before me rendered volition impossible. I tried once more to speak, but my tongue became useless, as if paralyzed. A new influence, mysterious, potent, irresistible, took possession of me. All I could do was to gaze steadily, vacantly at my unknown visitor.

    Gradually the surrounding atmosphere seemed to fill with sensations, and grew luminous. Everything about me seemed to rarefy, the mysterious visitor also becoming more airy and yet more distinct to my sight than before. I began to feel as one dying, or rather to experience the sensations I sometimes imagine accompanying death. I did not think, I did not reason, I did not move. All were alike impossible. I was only conscious of gazing fixedly, vacantly on my companion.

    Presently I heard a voice say,

    “Son of the Republic, look and learn,”

    while at the same time my visitor extended an arm eastward. I now beheld a heavy white vapor at some distance rising fold upon fold. This gradually dissipated, and I looked upon the strange scene. Before me lay, out in one vast plain all the countries of the world — Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. I saw rolling and tossing between Europe and America lay billows of the Atlantic, and between Asia and America lay the Pacific.

    “Son of the Republic”, said the same mysterious voice as before,

    “Look and learn.”

    At that moment I beheld a dark shadowy being, like an angel, standing, or rather floating in mid-air, between Europe and America. Dipping water out of the ocean in the hollow of each hand, he sprinkled some upon America with his right hand, while with his left he cast some over Europe. Immediately a cloud arose from these countries and joined in mid-ocean. For awhile it remained stationary, and then it moved slowly westward, until it enveloped America in its murky folds. Sharp flashed of lightning gleamed through at intervals, and I heard the smothered groans and cries of the American People.

    A second time the angel dipped water from the ocean and sprinkled it out as before. The dark cloud drew back to the ocean, in whose heaving billows it sank from view.

    A third time I heard the mysterious voice saying,

    “Son of the Republic, look and learn.”

    I cast my eyes upon America and beheld villages and town and cities spring up one right after another until the whole land from the Atlantic to the Pacific was dotted with them. Again, I heard the mysterious voice say,

    “Son of the Republic, the end of the century cometh, look and learn.”

    And this time a dark shadowy angel turned his face southward. From Africa I saw an ill omened spectra approach our land. It flitted slowly and heavily over every town and city of the latter. The inhabitants presently set themselves in battle array against each other. As I continued look I saw a bright angel on whose brow was traced the word ‘Union.’ He was bearing the American flag. He placed the flag between the divided nation and said,

    “Remember, ye are brethren. ”

    Instantly the inhabitants, casting down their weapons became friends once more, and united around the National Standard.

    Again I heard a mysterious voice saying,

    “Son of the Republic, look and learn.”

    At this the dark, shadowy angel placed a trumpet to his mouth, and blew three distinct blasts; and taking water from the ocean, he sprinkled it upon Europe, Asia, and Africa.

    Then my eyes beheld a fearful scene. From each of these continents arose thick black clouds that were soon joined into one. And throughout this mass there gleamed a dark red light by which I saw hordes of armed men. These men, moving with the cloud marched by land and sailed by sea to America, which country was enveloped in the volume of the cloud. And I dimly saw these vast armies devastate the whole country and burn the villages, towns and cities, which I had seen spring up.

    As my ears listened to the thundering of the cannon, clashing of swords, and the shouts and cries of millions in mortal combat, I again heard the mysterious voice saying,

    “Son of the Republic, look and learn.”

    When the voice had ceased, the dark shadowy angel placed his trumpet once more to his mouth, and blew a long and fearful blast. Instantly a light, as of a thousand suns shone down from above me, and pierced and broke into fragments of the dark cloud, which enveloped America. At the same moment the angel upon whose head still shown the word ‘Union,’ and who bore our national flag in one hand and a sword in the other, descended from the heavens attended by legions of white spirits. These immediately joined the inhabitants of America, who I perceived were well-nigh over come, but who immediately taking courage again, closed up their broken ranks, and renewed battle.

    Again amid the fearful voice of the conflict I heard the mysterious voice say,

    “Son of the Republic, look and learn.”

    As the voice ceased, the shadowy angel for the last time dipped the water from the ocean and sprinkled it upon America. Instantly the dark clouds rolled back, together with the armies it had brought, leaving the inhabitants of the land victorious.

    Then once more I beheld the villages, towns and cities springing up where I had seem them before, while the bright angel, planting the azure standard cried with a loud voice:

    “While the stars remain, and the heavens send down dew upon the earth, so long shall the Union last.”

    And taking from his brow the crown, which blazoned the word ‘Union,’ he placed it down upon the standard while the people, kneeling down said, ‘Amen.’

    The scene instantly began to fade and dissolve, and I at last saw nothing but the rising, curling vapor, I at first beheld. This also disappeared, and I found myself once more gazing upon the mysterious visitor who, in the same voice I heard before said,

    “Son of the Republic, what you have seen is thus interpreted: Three great perils will come upon the Republic. The most fearful for her is the third. But the whole world united shall not prevail against her. Let every child of the Republic learn to live for his God, his land and Union.”

    With these words the vision vanished, and I started from my seat and felt that I had seen a vision wherein had been showed me the birth, progress, and destiny of the United States.”


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