Empires Without End
It’s sometimes lamented by a certain kind of journalist or commentator that we do not live in an heroic age. Policemen, soldiers, teachers, or crippled celebrities might be called heroes for a while but, so the complaint goes, a real appreciation for heroism is absent from our age. Heroes once had permanent cults in their honor; they don’t any more. Not even cops, soldiers or Christopher Reeve.
Those who complain about this perceived lack of heroism in our day should probably read more epic literature — the Iliad or the Aeneid would be obvious places to start. Heroes, for all their excellence, led lives that few of us would envy. The tragic story of Achilles speaks for itself. Odysseus got off fairly lightly, he was just lost at sea for a few years and lost all his ships and crew, most of whom either drowned or were eaten by monsters. Such is the fate of a hero’s companions. Then there was poor Aeneas, the Roman hero. He lost his home and his wife in the sack of Troy. He later lost his father, a woman he loved, and a good many of his followers over the course of his wanderings. All of his storm-tossed misery was ultimately for a purpose, though: fate had predestined Aeneas to found the line that would later found Rome.
What Aeneas lost — just about everything that could be worth having — he lost for the sake of a single thing: imperium sine fine, an "empire without end." His heroic epithet was pius, "dutiful," because whenever the opportunity came his way to do something sensible, like settling down with the nubile queen of a prosperous North African city-state, he would instead follow the path that fate had decreed. He was a dutiful son and soldier, yes, but his first duty was to the empire-to-be.
Aeneas paid a dear price for his devotion and, much to its credit, the Aeneid gives no easy answer to the question of whether the imperium was worth its price. There have long been arguments within classics departments over the possibility that maybe, in some cryptic way, the Aeneid is an anti-war, anti-imperial work. It probably isn’t: the emperor Augustus commissioned the epic himself and when the poet Vergil left instructions that his unfinished epic be burned after his death, Augustus and his cultural adviser, Maecenas, went ahead and published it anyway. It was instantly heralded as a masterpiece and rapidly became a standard text in Roman schools. If there’s a subversive subtext to the Aeneid it evidently didn’t bother the emperor or his ministers, any one of whom would have been in a better position to detect it than the greatest of modern philologists.
But even without being directly critical of Augustus, the Aeneid at the very least shows the high price of war and empire in an artistically honest fashion. There is nothing glamorous or noble about the warfare seen in book II of the Aeneid, the sack of Troy by the Greeks. The murder of the old Trojan king, Priam, by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles and in Vergil’s account a near-psychopath, is as pitiable a scene as is to be found anywhere in literature. And the final scene of the whole epic, in which the hero slaughters an already fallen foe, in an echo of the mad rage of Achilles, should leave any reader unsure of his sympathies. For Turnus, victim of Aeneas’s wrath, was a brave man in his own right, but differed from Aeneas in not having had the favor of the gods.
For all his courage and virtue, Aeneas might seem more like a fool than a hero were it not for the god-given assurance of his — and his heirs’s — success. Imperium sine fine doesn’t sound too preposterous when its coming from the king of the gods. It’s poetic license, of course, but the Aeneid is poetry, and great poetry at that. History, however, is a very different thing. The great historians of antiquity do not offer much comfort to those who would seek to create an empire without end. The Roman historians Livy, Tacitus and Suetonius all lived during the principate and hated what Rome had become. However permanent the imperium abroad might have seemed to them, Rome itself — the republic to which they owed their affection and (albeit after the fact) their loyalty — had proven sadly ephemeral. Tacitus and Suetonius chronicled the strife that comes with empire: standing armies ready to mutiny, domestic repression, the intrigues and abuses of power-hungry rulers, the fraying of the fabric of civilization.
None of it would have surprised the earlier historians, the Greeks, the earliest and greatest of whom, Herodotus and Thucydides, both dedicated their seminal works to exposing the follies of unbounded imperial ambition (that of Xerxes on the one hand, and the Athenians on the other). Herodotus in particular was explicit about the inevitable nemesis, the inevitable downfall, that follows upon hybris, excessive pride and power. As embellished and sometimes inaccurate in detail as Herodotus’s history is, in this central point he is simply relating what has always been history’s surest lesson, valid from before the time of Croesus to the era of Napoleon, to today. There is no imperium sine fine, because worldly power cannot compensate for man’s mortal and venal nature. The accumulation of power just leads to more and more atrocious expressions of that nature, and ultimately to harsher nemesis.
American foreign policy really is guided by a belief in imperium sine fine, a belief that must find its roots, like Aeneas’s empire without end, in a confidence in some kind of divine Providence, because certainly it is not historical. The issue here is a serious one: the US has some 100,000-odd troops in Western Europe, as many again in the Far East, and a few hundred thousand more right now in Central Asia and the Middle East. Just how far-flung do Americans — or more importantly, American policymakers — think US forces can be? How many hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform will it take to maintain the military presence we already have, and how much money will it cost? How much blood? And just as importantly, how long do we really expect it all to last — and how will it end? No doubt there are superficial answers to these questions to be had from "defense intellectuals" (who usually aren’t very intellectual and do nothing at all that relates to "defense"), but the correct answers are those that are provided by history — not only history-to-be, but history as it has been.
But it’s not history that guides US foreign policy; one cannot escape that conclusion. Instead it’s a religious and poetic vision, one given ghoulish form in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (written in the early 1860’s to urge on the federal armies attacking the South; it ought to be called the "Battle Hymn of the Empire"), with its lines like "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make them free." Even apart from the question of whether a soteriological function should be attributed to any nation, the idea that one can free another by dying is patent nonsense. Iraq has proved a case in point: no sooner was Saddam Hussein out of power than a new kind of tyranny, the anarcho-tyranny of mob rule, erupted. Yet still the idea of "saving" others through military force continues to inspire Americans who ought to know better.
Some of our countrymen may think that America itself can be saved in the same way. Throughout the 1990’s sleazy talk shows would, from time to time, do programs on "boot camps" for wayward youths. Among certain conservatives there’s a belief that militarization will provide just the kind of literal "boot camp" that America’s fat, lazy and decadent youth really need. This belief is every bit as vain as the idea of turning Iraq into a "democracy." History certainly refutes it; as Rome became more militarized, the decadence only increased. Nor does Sparta provide much of a role model; all its austerity failed to stave off internal corruption, or even to save the city itself from being reduced to a third-rate power after it had exhausted itself in wars with Athens and succeeding wars with other city-states.
There is no empire without end. With America at the zenith of its power the nation’s downfall is the last thing on most of its people’s minds, but a nation, no less than an individual, has only so long to live. The man who has faith may know that there is another, longer life ahead but for the nation-state, this is it. Just as death, in this world, comes to the mighty, the wealthy and the good as surely as to the feeble, poor and evil, so too through demographic collapse or foreign conquest or natural disaster every nation is brought low. But not all deaths are equally bad; where nations are concerned, fading away peacefully is surely better than to be hacked to pieces by Goths or Huns or Mongols. The actions that America takes now will influence what end the nation will ultimately have. Which is more likely to have a tranquil end, a world-spanning empire with no conception of its own limits — or of any human limits, for that matter — or a self-limited republic?
One of the characteristics of the human being is that he can look ahead to possible futures when making a decision, and can reconstruct the past. Other animals can learn from their own mistakes; but man can learn from the mistakes of others, even those made by men far away and separated from him by hundreds or thousands of years. If man were immortal, he would never have to learn any lessons at all, and could afford to make as many mistakes as he might like, because there would always be time to make amends. But man isn’t immortal, in the earthly sense, and nation-states certainly are not. To have all of this history, all of this literature, and learn nothing from it would be as damning an indictment against civilization as the savagery of empire itself. Empires have consequences, and there are no "heroes" without terrible human costs.
Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.