We're not sufficiently attuned to the fact that we of the West are descended from the Roman Empire. It still exists in us. The good things of the Roman Empire are what we remember about it -- the roads, the language, the laws, the buildings, the classics. We're children of the classical world. But we pay very little attention to what the Roman Empire was to the people at its bottom -- the slaves who built those roads; the many, many slaves for each citizen; the oppressed and occupied peoples who were brought into the empire if they submitted, but radically and completely smashed if they resisted at all.
We Christians barely remember the Roman war against the Jewish people in which historians now suggest that hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed by the Romans between 70 and 135 CE. Why were the Jews killed? Not because the Romans were anti-Semites. They were killed because they resisted what for them was the blasphemous occupation of the Holy Land of Israel by a godless army. It would remain one of the most brutal exercises of military power in history until the twentieth century. That's the Roman story.
We Americans are full of our sense of ourselves as having benign imperial impulses. That's why the idea of the American Empire was celebrated as a benign phenomenon. We were going to bring order to the world. Well, yes… as long as you didn't resist us. And that's where we really have something terrible in common with the Roman Empire. If you resist us, we will do our best to destroy you, and that's what's happening in Iraq right now, but not only in Iraq. That's the saddest thing, because the way we destroy people is not only by overt military power, but by writing you out of the world economic and political system that we control. And if you're one of those benighted people of Bangladesh, or Ghana, or Sudan, or possibly Detroit, then that's the way we respond to you. We'd do better in other words if we had a more complicated notion of what the Roman Empire was. We must reckon with imperial power as it is felt by people at the bottom. Rome's power. America's.