As others have noted, America's transition from republic to empire is remarkably reminiscent of Rome's. The irony is that as the United States inevitably becomes less democratic - it will also become less elitist. The mediocre and inapt peripatetic representatives of the popular will be replaced not by disinterested technocrats and expert civil servants but by usurpers, power brokers, interest groups, and criminal-politicians.
The Founding Fathers looked to Rome as a model. It is often forgotten that Rome has been a republic (509-27 BC) for as long as it has been an empire (27 BC - 476 AD). Hence the Senate, the bicameral legislature, the institutions of jury and professional judges, the interlocking system of checks and balances and other fixtures of American life.
Rome, like the USA, was a multicultural, multiethnic and inclusive melting pot. The family and religion - the mainstays of the American value system - were also the pivots of Roman society. Their work ethic was "Protestant" and their conduct "Calvinistic": frugality, self-reliance, steadfastness, seriousness, "fides" (good faith and reliability) were considered virtues.
From 287 BC, Rome was a full-fledged democracy and meritocracy - one's acquired wealth rather than one's arbitrary birth determined one's place in life. The Roman takeover of Italy is reminiscent of the expansion of the United States during the 19th century. Later, Rome claimed to be "liberating" Greek cities (from Macedonian domination and other Middle Eastern tyrants) - but then proceeded to establish a series of protectorates throughout Asia Minor, Greece and today's Israel, Palestine, Syria, Egypt and North Africa.
As Rome's sphere of interests and orbit of alliances widened to include ever growing segments of the world, conflicts became inevitable. Still, early Roman historians, patriotic to a fault, always describe Roman wars as "just" (i.e., in "self-defense"). Rome was very concerned with international public opinion and often formed coalitions to attack its foes and adversaries. It then typically turned on its erstwhile allies and either conquered or otherwise absorbed them into its body politic.
Roman commanders and procurators meddled in the internal affairs of these territories. Opposition - in Carthage, Corinth and elsewhere - was crushed by overwhelming force. Lesser powers - such as Pergamum - learned the lesson and succumbed to Roman hegemony. Roman culture - constructed on Greek foundations - permeated the nascent empire and Latin became the Lingua Franca. But, as Cato the Elder forewarned, foreign possessions and the absence of any martial threat corrupted Rome. Tax extortion, bribery, political machinations, personality cults, and moral laxity abounded. Income equality led to ostentatious consumption of the few, contrasted with the rural and urban destitution of the many. A growing share of gross domestic product was appropriated for the state by the political class. Rome's trade deficit ballooned as its farmers proved unable to compete with cheap imports from the provinces.
A whole class of businessmen - the equites, later known as the equesterian order (the equivalent of today's "oligarchs") - lucratively transacted with the administration. When erstwhile state functions - such as tax collection - were privatized, they moved in and benefited mightily. The equites manipulated the commodities markets, lent money at usurious rates, and colluded with Senators and office holders.
Sallust, the Roman historian, blamed the civil wars that followed on this wealth disparity. Cato the Elder attributed them to moral decadence. Cicero thought that the emergence of the armed forces and the "mob" (the masses) as political players spelt doom for Senatorial, republican Rome. Some are comparing the relentlessly increasing weight of the Pentagon since 1941 to the rise to prominence of the military in republican Rome. Yet, this is misleading. The role of the army in the Roman republic was enshrined in the centuriate assembly (the army as a voting collective) and the consuls, magistrates in chief were, invariably, former army generals. Though many American presidents, starting with George Washington, were former generals - the ethos of the United States is individualistic, not military.
Thus, when the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (133 BC) embarked on a land reform, he was opposed by the entrenched interests of the nobility (the optimi). Undeterred, through a series of piecemeal, utterly legal steps, Tiberius Gracchus sought to transform himself into a despot and neutralize the carefully constructed system of checks and balances that sustained republican Rome. The Senators themselves headed the mob that assassinated him. This was the fate of his no less radical brother, Gaius, ten years later.
These upheavals gave rise to the populares - self-appointed populist spokesmen for the disenfranchised "common man" in the Senate. They were vehemently confronted by the nobility-backed Senators, the optimates. To add instability to earthquake, Roman generals began recruiting property-less volunteers to serve as mercenaries in essentially private armies. Lucius Cornelius Sulla, an impoverished aristocrat turned army commander, actually attacked Rome itself twice. To secure popular support, Roman politicians doled out tax cuts, free entertainment, and free food. Ambitious Romans - such as Julius Caesar - spent most of their time electioneering and raising campaign finance, often in the form of 'loans" to be repaid with lucrative contracts and sinecures once the sponsored candidate attained office. Long-established, prominent families - political dynasties - increased their hold on power from one generation to the next.
Partisanship was rampant. Even Cicero - a much-admired orator and lawyer - failed to unite the Senators and equites against assorted fanatics and demagogues. The Senate kept repeatedly and deliberately undermining the interests of both the soldiery and the equites, Rome's non-Senatorial businessmen.
This clash of vested interests and ulterior motives gave rise to Gaius Julius Caesar, a driven and talented populist. Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the river that separated Gaul from Italy, and subdued a rebellious and obstructive Senate. He was offered by an intimidated establishment, the position of dictator for life which he accepted. The republic was over. Life in Rome improved dramatically with the introduction of autocracy. Roman administration was streamlined and became less corrupt. Food security was achieved. Social divisions healed. The republic was mourned only by the discarded ancien regime and by intellectuals. Rome the city-state was no more. It has matured into an Empire.
And now, to Rome's crippled successor, Byzantium.