Book Review: Empires of Trust (Part I)

It may seem like overkill to write a multi-part book review, but historian Thomas F. Madden’s new Empires of Trust: How Rome Built–and America Is Building–a New World explores a thesis I’ve been interested in for some time, which has significant implications for our country’s foreign policy and the wider question of what our country is and what its place in the world ought to be.

The US has been often accused, of late, of being an empire. Madden effectively accepts that this is the case, but argues that this is not necessarily a bad thing at all. Among his first projects is to lay out three different types of empire: empires of conquest, empires of commerce, and empires of trust.

An empire of conquest is one spread by military power, in which the conquering power rules over and extracts tribute from the conquered. Classic examples would include the empires of the Assyrians, Persians, Mongols, Turks, Alexander’s Hellenistic empire, Napoleon’s empire and to an extent the Third Reich, Imperial Japan and Soviet Union. Empires of conquest are spread by war, and conquered territory is ruled either by local puppet rulers or by a transplanted military elite from the conquering power.

An empire of commerce is interested only in securing enough of a political foothold in its dominions to carry on trade, and is less concerned over political control or tribute. Examples would include the British and Dutch empires; in the ancient world the Pheonicians and Athenians; and later, medieval Venice. Empires of conquest are typified by a network of far-flung colonies directly controlled by the home country, at locations which are strategic for exploiting natural resources or trading with regional powers. They are less focused on conquering large swathes of territority than with controlling enough of a foothold (and enforcing enough stability in the surrounding area) to carry on their commerce.

The book, however, is primarily concerned with a third type of empire, the empire of trust, of which Madden gives only two examples: Rome and the United States. The term “empire of trust” itself requires some unpacking.

Madden explains:

By that I mean that they were not only trusted by friends and foes alike with a responsible use of power, but that their empire itself came about as a direct result of that trust. Many people have an image of the Romans as lords of a brutal Empire of Conquest, built by marching legions crushing all opposition to them. That is wrong. As numerous scholarly histories of Roman expansion have made clear, the image of the Romans as brutal conquerors does not reflect the actual dynamics at work at all. The simple fact is that the Romans acquired their empire slowly and with great reluctance. As the Roman historian Ernst Badian once remarked, conquest is history’s norm and requires no explanation. “What does call for an explanation, when it appears in history, is that relatively high level of sophistication that rejects opportunities for the expansion of power.” It was actually that rejection that made the Romans seem trustworthy to others, that formed the basis of their Empire of Trust. The Romans did not want an empire, which is precisely why they got one.
Empires of Trust, (page 5) [emphasis in original]

“Trust” and “empire” are not two words usually heard together, and Madden’s interpretation runs contrary to most popular perceptions of the Roman Empire, so most of the first few chapters are spend on a review of Roman culture and history, and how Rome became a world power. In this project, Madden relies heavily on Roman primary sources: Livy, Polybius, Dio Cassius, Appian, Cicero, Josephus, Tacitus, etc.

Among the cultural values identified as leading to Rome’s empire of trust are listed its strong (indeed, literally religious) emphasis on the household as the essential social building block, an ideal of small farmer citizen-statesman, a strong emphasis on martial skill and duty, a suspicion of kingship and absolute rule, and a basic isolationism combined with a fierce desire to secure the horizon in order to keep the homeland safe from invasion — something which became a near obsession for Rome after the Gauls sacked it in 390BC, and their care resulted in Rome not being entered by a foreign army again for 800 years, until 410AD.

In the wake of the Gaulic invasion of 390BC, Rome was the greatest military power in central Italy (the Etruscans, who a century or two before had dominated over Rome, never really recovered from the attack). However, the Rome of 390BC was little more than a large-is city state. In an effort to provide security against future attacks, the Romans formed tight alliances with the city states surrounding them. There was much strife between neighboring city states in the wake of the Gaulic invasion, and as Rome established or re-established treaties with the surrounding city states in Latium (central Italy), it defended it’s allies in a series of local wars. The end result was a Latin League of city states, tied together by all their individual treaties with Rome, and thus prevented from falling into war with each other since Rome would protect any ally that was attacked.

This Latin League fielded a strong enough joint military force that it repelled subsequent Gaulic attacks, but Rome’s obvious power over the confederation (although it was theoretically composed of equal states) resulted in a rebellion/civil war in 340BC. Rome won this war with the Latin League, but rather than anexing the conquered cities it re-accepted them as allies with independant local government, though in the process Rome developed a sliding scale of alliances which bound different allies to Rome with varying levels of political unity.

The closest Latin towns would receive Roman citizenship, with full voting rights and the right to run for Roman offices. Although they maintained local state governments, the big decisions for the region were made in Rome. Others, particularly non-Latin allies, were given citizenship without voting rights. They, too, supported the common military and allowed Rome to deal with matters of warfare and foreign affairs, but they retained more local autonomy. The lowest rung were “equal allies” who were not citizens, but could do business with Romans, although not with others without Rome’s approval.
(page 75)

With the rebellion of the Latin League behind it, Rome resumed it’s policy of forming alliances at the frontiers, and then defending those new allies in any wars. With Rome’s military prowess established, city states on the edge of its sphere of influence began to seek out Rome as an ally, thus drawing Rome into more quarrels. In 343BC, Capua formed an alliance with Rome in order to get aid against the Samnite hill peoples. In 327BC, the Greek city (Greeks had established colonies throughout southern Italy and Sicily in the centuries prior) of Neapolis (modern Naples) was in a state of civil war. One faction brought in a Samnite garrison to support them, the other sought an alliance with Rome, which the Senate granted, expelling the Samnite garrison and adding Neapolis to the growing list of Roman allies.

Pick up any history of the Roman Republic and there is one phrase that you will find over and over again: “They appealed to Rome for aid.” Those six words explain the central dynamic by which the Romans expanded. A people would get into trouble. They would appeal to Rome for aid. The Romans would agree, gaining a new ally, but also a new war into the bargain.
(page 78)

In 285-275BC, Rome’s alliance with the small city of Thurii in southern Italy drew them into conflict with the major Greek city of Tarentum, further south in the boot of Italy, when the Tarentines assaulted and sacked Thurii. The Tarentines employed the famous Greek general Pyrrhus, who landed with a professional army of 25,000 men and twenty war elephants. Pyrrhus won several incredibly costly victories (giving us the phrase “Pyrrhic victory”) but was eventually beaten and driven from Italy by Rome and her Latin allies. This show of force soon brought all of southern Italy into alliance with Rome, but that in turn made Sicily Rome’s next doorstep, and drew Rome into the ongoing war between the north African kingdom of Carthage and the Greeks inhabiting Sicily.

It should start to become obvious the sorts of similarities which Madden sees to the experiences of the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries. Take, for instance, one recent series of events. In 1990, Iraq invades Kuwait, a minor American ally (but one with a major natural resource) who in turn applied to the US for assistance, along with neighbors such as Saudi Arabia. The US leads a large coalition (which in fact consisted mainly of US troops) in liberating Kuwait, and in return is given garrisons in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iraq continues to flout the treaty that ended the war, and the American presence in the region is used as a pretext for terrorist attacks against the US by Al Qaeda, which is under the protection of the Taliban government of Afghanistan. The US invades both Afghanistan and Iraq (again with the help of a number of allies, though their numerical contribution is small) and attempts to turn them into independent allied governments. However, this in turn increases tensions with/in the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan, with the danger that the US and Iran may be drawn into a war, or that the US-ally government of Pakistan will be overthrown by an anti-US faction, resulting in war there.

As with the Romans, territory is not being conquered and then ruled by the empire of trust itself, but once a major power gains a reputation for being willing to go to war to protect allies while leaving them essentially independent, there comes to be a draw on the power which pulls its security horizon out further and further until it either meets its match or — as in the case of the US by 1990AD and of Rome by 150BC — becomes the world’s sole superpower. In this process, what eventually creates the “pull” which drives expansion of the empire is the trust that it will defend its allies against all external threats while allowing them to retain their autonomy in all things other than hurting the empire or other allies. This, combined with a track record for turning former enemies into allies, provided every reason to work with Rome, and few reasons to fight against it.

Clearly the Romans did believe that defeated enemies should be treated with respect and dignity. More than that, as we shall see, the Romans, like Americans, were famous for making friends out of enemies, rebuilding and restoring them after militarily defeating them. As the Roman statesman Cicero once noted, “By defending our allies our people have gained the whole world.” [De re publica, 3.25] Empires of Trust,(page 11)

[Two more installments of this review to come.]

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