You are hereEmpires of Trust Versus Religions of Conquest
Empires of Trust Versus Religions of Conquest
by John Evans
Thomas F. Madden's recently published Empires of Trust has been duly praised by such prominent historians as Joseph J. Ellis, Niall Ferguson, and Victor Davis Hanson and is indeed, as Ellis indicates, “a breakout book” that deserves to be ranked very high among works that compare the Rome of ancient times with the United States of today.
There are remarkable similarities between the two, Madden argues; and if his analysis is correct, the United States may well have a promising future that contrasts sharply with the declining civilization that many see when they compare the modern America with ancient Rome.Thomas F. Madden's recently published Empires of Trust has been duly praised by such prominent historians as Joseph J. Ellis, Niall Ferguson, and Victor Davis Hanson and is indeed, as Ellis indicates, “a breakout book” that deserves to be ranked very high among works that compare the Rome of ancient times with the United States of today. There are remarkable similarities between the two, Madden argues; and if his analysis is correct, the United States may well have a promising future that contrasts sharply with the declining civilization that many see when they compare the modern America with ancient Rome.Madden distinguishes three types of political arrangements that warrant the classification of “empire.” First, there is the Empire of Conquest, which establishes direct rule over foreign lands through military power. Empires of this type are found in abundance in history from the time of the Hittites to that of the Soviet Union and include the large domains that Muslims have created through warfare. They are the simplest and easiest type of empire to build, but as the familiar case of the latter reminds us, they “have the disadvantage of disintegrating in an equally simple and rapid fashion”(5, 63-64).
Second, there is the Empire of Commerce, epitomized by such examples as ancient Athens, late medieval Venice, early modern Portugal and Holland, and even the British Empire, the last of which became, for a substantial period of time, the world's leading superpower. The driving force behind the formation of this type of empire is the pursuit of economic gain through commercial contacts rather than the desire to subject more people to the direct rule of the imperial authorities (12-13). Of course, such empires have often exercised great political influence beyond the boundaries of their homeland and have sometimes incorporated foreign lands into the territory subject to their direct rule. Nevertheless, the fact that the homelands of empires of this type have close commercial ties with lands that are under their protective umbrella but retain a separate identity and at least some of the trappings of independence serves to differentiate them from Empires of Conquest.
The third type of empire in Madden's classification, the Empire of Trust, “is among history's rarest treasures” (5). A domain of this type does not come into being primarily because of the desire of its leaders to rule over other lands or the commercial and expansionist ambitions of its citizens, but because the people of other lands trust it and invite its protection. These other lands continue to be essentially self-governing, but they have firm ties to the dominant national power. In Madden's estimation, history presents two outstanding examples of an empire of this type: the Rome of the ancient world and the United States of America today.
Madden's classification of Rome as an Empire of Trust means that he rejects the notion that we should refer to the Roman state that existed prior to the reign of Augustus Caesar (which formally began in 27 BC) as the Roman Republic rather than the Roman Empire. Prior to that reign, it is true, Rome still retained republican forms of government, above all the Senate, but Madden recognizes that it had become a de facto imperial state run by dictators and oligarchs. Having found it convenient to refer the Roman state under the leadership of such individuals as Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar as functionally being an empire rather than a republic, I find myself naturally inclined to agree with Madden on this point.
In the course of making a detailed comparison of imperial Rome with modern America, Madden discerns significant parallels between them with respect to the role of religion. In both cases, he observes, we see religious observances sanctioned by the state that qualify as official requests for divine favor—like having pagan priests apply the techniques of divination to proposed state actions or beginning a legislative session with a prayer. In both cases also, however, there stands out the principle of extending to individuals and families a great deal of religious freedom, “provided that it did not inhibit the state seeking its own divine blessings” (47-48).
While the two Empires of Trust have generally accepted the idea that individuals should be permitted a great deal of religious freedom in the conduct of their private lives, Madden notes that both incorporated the foundational principle that “the health of the republic necessitated that the citizens believe in God and that God, in turn, believed in the republic” (53). The incorporation of this principle led in both cases to the adoption and social reinforcement of a widely held moral compass that contributed enormously to their success. At least for a long time, the two empires successfully met the challenge of finding a proper balance between the need for religious piety and the endorsement of personal freedom (54-62).
Madden's analysis readily lends itself to the observation that at the present moment in time, the United States has reached a phase of its history that closely resembles where Rome was during the first half of the first century AD. This does not necessarily suggest an exact parallelism between the two cases—I am not, for example, ready to compare Barack Obama with Caligula—but it does, perhaps, shed light on two major (and interrelated) problems that the United States currently faces: (1) a general crisis of the spirit, and (2) the assault against it by a dissident religious group possessing a theology that proclaims destined to achieve world dominance.
The Roman equivalent of what I have termed a general crisis of the spirit is intricately associated with the relationship that evolved between the Romans and the Greeks. That relationship dates back to at least the early years of the third century BC, when the expanding Roman state began establishing important contacts with the Greeks of southern Italy, but it really took off after the Romans finally managed to overcome their great adversary Hannibal of Carthage at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC.
Although the Romans did indeed develop the trappings of high culture, Madden insists that “it was little more than a Greek knockoff,” and he adds that they “were very good at winning wars, keeping order, and building things, but they were all thumbs when it came to producing culture” (228). Thus, while the greatness of their empire was largely rooted in the Romans' ability to govern and their military prowess, it also reflected the enormous impact of Greek culture. In a very real sense, therefore, the Roman Republic evolved into a Greco-Roman Empire, a point that becomes especially obvious when we remember that the empire's capital was moved to Constantinople in the third century AD.
When the Romans emerged victoriously from the epic struggle with Carthage, they were quite conscious of the fact that the Greeks were considerably more culturally sophisticated than they were. As a result, a pronounced tendency quickly emerged among the ruling elites to turn to the Greeks for cultural and educational enlightenment. “Within a generation of the victory over Carthage,” writes Madden, “every educated Roman could speak Greek and was familiar with at least the basics of Greek history” (120). This meant, of course, that a large demand developed for the services of educated Greeks among prominent people who were Latin speakers.
Given this background, and given the widespread fondness among liberal academics for playing up the role of the Greeks relative to that of Christianity in the development of Western Civilization, I find it remarkable that the many liberal biblical scholars who think that the four-kingdoms sequence of Daniel 2 and 7 consists of Babylonia, Media, Persia, and Greece tend almost universally to pay little or no attention to the possible significance of the reference in Daniel 7:19 to the bronze claws of the fourth beast. I consider it blatantly obvious that their treatment of this remarkable verse stands as powerful testimony against the validity of their approach to biblical scholarship.
Madden passes up the opportunity to relate Daniel 7:19 to his analysis of the Roman Empire, and given that there are not many prominent scholars in mainstream academia who have gone on record as identifying Rome as the fourth kingdom in Daniel's sequence (with Medio-Persia and Greece as second and third, respectively), I can well understand why he does so. I shall elaborate a little on this point, however, because I am convinced that it is one of great value.
Daniel 7:19 is as follows (ESV): “Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet.” Verse 7:20 completes a long sentence with the famous references to the various horns on the head of the fourth beast.
For those whom I tend to characterize as “mainstream” (or liberal) biblical scholars, the idea that the teeth of iron that devour and break up the fourth beast's victims symbolize Roman military might while the claws of bronze that further pulverize the remains symbolize the power of Greek culture is about as welcome as the coming of daylight would be to the fictional Count Dracula. Consequently, Daniel 7:19 has received remarkably little attention from these scholars. While it is true that there is symbolism in the four metals of the statue of Daniel 2, they concede, they assure us that we should attach no significance to any notion that Greece may have had a particularly close historical association with bronze just as Rome did with iron. They do not, however, explain why. I suggest that they cannot afford to open the door to that possibility.
Can it be that the refusal to recognize this historical association possibly has something to do with the fact that while Babylonia was admittedly closely associated with gold, Media, Persia, and Greece cannot be shown to have had particularly close historical associations, respectively, with silver, bronze, and iron? The answer to this question is of course it does, which means that I am simply pointing out that the refusal of liberals to entertain the historical association possibility in this case stems from their presuppositions regarding the identity of the four kingdoms and their determination to shape their analysis to fit their biases.
Historically, Rome did indeed have a particularly close association with iron, as did Greece with bronze. Keep that in mind the next time you see a movie portraying warriors of either ancient nation and observe their armor and weaponry. Moreover, the Medo-Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great had a particularly close association with silver, which stemmed from its conquest of Lydia and its use of the silver from the mines of Croesus to maintain the huge mercenary military force that allowed that empire to flourish and expand. These are obvious historical facts, but they are facts that the mainstream biblical establishment finds it essential to ignore. Unfortunately, some conservative scholars also find them to be inconvenient.
Daniel 2:40 states that the fourth kingdom will be “strong as iron” and will have the power to “crush and break” all other kingdoms. Note that this is a historical prediction, not merely an invocation of symbolism, and that it found its historic fulfillment in the unprecedented power of a military machine that was able to crush and break even the Macedonian phalanx. Moreover, it is factually correct that this machine was relentless and thorough in its punishment of those who insisted on putting it to the test. Nevertheless, as Madden repeatedly emphasizes, the Romans were, up to a point, remarkably tolerant in the face of provocative actions against them. When their tipping point was finally reached, however, no one excelled them in terms of the thoroughness of punishment.
Following the Second Punic War, Rome came to aid of Greek cities that wanted to be independent of such rulers as Philip III of Macedonia and Antiochus III of Seleucid Syria. The Greeks showed their gratitude, Madden suggests, by taking the Romans for granted and finding fault with their benefactors. “Freed by the Romans from any serious external dangers, the Greeks wrapped themselves in their own cultural superiority, sniffing at their boorish, overbearing protectors,” he writes, and he appends the observation that anti-Romanism became popular among the Greeks just as anti-Americanism has in modern Europe (137).
Taking full advantage of the opportunities for self-indulgence presented by the protective shield that the Romans provided them after their defeat of Antiochus III, Madden indicates, the cities of the Greek heartland began placing even greater emphasis than before on those aspects of their culture that highlighted self-indulgence. An important consequence of this trend was a decline in the birth rate and the threat of demographic stagnation. Madden finds notable parallels here between the Greek heartland and postmodern Europe, where life seems to have lost much of its meaning and fertility rates have fallen well below replacement levels (138-39). Although Madden does not provide much detail on this point, in due course, the weakening of moral fiber and sense of purpose that emerged among the Greeks came to include the Romans as well.
Conflicts among the Greeks and repeated efforts by Macedonian rulers to reclaim power over the Greek heartland provoked the Romans into annexing these territories and turning them into provinces, Macedonia in 148 BC and the Greek heartland in 146 BC. By this time, although Rome was still formally a republic, it was clearly also an empire. For Madden, by the year 146 BC, the Romans had attained a supremacy in its world that is “not unlike that achieved by Americans today” (168). Fifteen years earlier, incidentally, the Romans had entered into an alliance with Judas Maccabeus in order to offer protection to the infant regime that he had established at the expense of the Seleucids (173-76).
Before the second century BC came to an end, Madden indicates, Rome began to experience social stress in the form of growing populist pressures. The city of Rome had grown into a huge metropolis, and the vast majority of its population now consisted of people without access to political power. Aspiring Roman politicians who belonged to prominent families discovered that they could carve out careers for themselves by serving—or posing—as friends of the people (231). Increasingly, therefore, the Roman state became more concerned than it had been before with catering to the whims of general public. Although Madden does not heavily emphasize the point, it is clear that by the end of the second century BC, the path had been cleared for the legendary bread and circuses that so many movies about ancient Rome have emphasized. It goes without saying that there is an obvious parallel here between the Rome of the first century BC and post-New Deal America.
Rome's growing wealth also encouraged the growth of hedonism and political corruption. This produced a rising chorus of complaints among prominent conservatives that the nation would ultimately destroy itself as a consequence of social disintegration and the onset of mob rule. A kind of growth industry developed in prophecies of doom that bears comparison with the appearance in recent years of various books on America that predict its imminent collapse. These forecasts of imminent doom failed to be fulfilled for Rome, Madden points out, and he suggests that a similar fate probably awaits their twenty-first century counterparts (240-46, 248-50).
Unfortunately, Madden selects the Book of Revelation to argue the case for the existence of “a vibrant market for telling Romans that their empire was doomed.” In doing so, he makes what I regard as a very serious error. Revelation, he flatly asserts, was written “at some point in the late first century AD, probably at Ephesus.” He then proceeds to amplify his claim that it forecasts “the impending fall of Rome” by informing us that the harlot of Revelation 17 symbolizes Rome. At no point does he consider the possibility that she symbolizes Jerusalem. Neither does he acknowledge that there are eminent biblical scholars who believe that Revelation was written before the death of Nero in AD 68 (246-48).
That such a powerful conservative writer as Madden shows no awareness of the work of preterist scholars highlights the magnitude of the task before those biblical scholars who recognize the importance of the events that culminated in AD 70 as fulfillments of biblical prophecy. It also suggests, however, that the potential payoff from successfully accepting that challenge is huge.
In the tenth chapter of his book, “The Threat of Terrorism,” Madden brings in the rebellious Jews of the first century AD and compares their struggle against Rome with that of the jihadists of today against the United States. It is a comparison that seems remarkably apt. “First-century Palestine had an abundance of terrorists,” writes Madden, “perhaps even more so than today.” They were organized into different groups that sometimes cooperated and sometimes fought among themselves (251-52, 258). They were motivated by religious considerations, and like the Americans of today, the Romans of that time had great difficulty in understanding the religious roots of the terrorism that was aimed at them and their allies.
Historically, the Romans had been very tolerant of the Jews and had provided them with vital support. They had sided with the Jews of Judea in their struggle against Seleucid Syria. They had allowed Jews to settle in their domain. They treated the Jewish faith with considerable respect and allowed their Jewish residents to live in separate neighborhoods with their own separate courts. They even generally freed Jews from military obligations, and they did not require them to do business or appear in court on their Sabbath day (259). To these observations I add that the percentage of the empire's population that was Jewish undoubtedly increased due to both natural population growth and proselytization.
For many Jews, however, their destiny could never be realized until their faith became supreme. “In the ancient world,” Madden observes, it was generally the case that while “one might worship a particular god or set of gods . . . that did not imply that different gods did not exist.” Indeed, “the prosperity of those who worshipped other gods was proof enough of their existence.” But the Jews rejected such thinking, and many of them persisted in holding that “their God alone was real” and would use the Chosen People “to bring His glory and power to the whole world.” This destiny apparently entailed the creation of a world-dominating kingdom with the Jewish faithful at its head (260-61). In short, no political arrangement without the Jews at the top of the power pyramid was acceptable.
During the first century BC, growing political instability plagued the area that included the disintegrating Seleucid state and its adjacent territories as well as the independent Jewish state that had emerged from the Maccabean Revolt and became known as the Hasmonean Kingdom. Moreover, the Parthian Empire that had emerged from Persia had become a potential threat to Rome and was trying to take over the area to the west of Mesopotamia. This situation led the Roman general Pompey to intervene by annexing Syria and effectively establishing Rome as the overseer of Palestine. In doing so, he granted autonomy to some localities inhabited by Gentiles in areas that the Hasmoneans had taken over.
The Judean heartland and its adjacent territories, such as Galilee, in which there was a strong Jewish presence, proved to be a very difficult area in which to maintain order. Although Pompey occupied Jerusalem in 63 BC, it was not until 37 BC, when the Romans installed Herod as King of the Jews, that they were able to temporarily prevent the ignition of the Palestinian powder keg. Under Herod's capable and sometimes brutal rule, the area prospered greatly economically. Simultaneously, however, messianic Judaism was on the upsurge.
After the death of Herod, which is generally dated 4 BC, factional fighting and disorder erupted in the area that he had ruled. The Romans' solution to the problem was to annex his kingdom in AD 6 and make it the province of Judaea. The Romans sought to maintain a government there that was largely run by Jews, but the area continued to be a source of unrest. The unrest came increasingly to reflect the growth of militant Jewish messianism (264-65).
Madden does not speculate as to what caused the messianic expectations of the Jews to increase after the death of Herod. On this point, he largely confines himself to the observation that “there were prophecies floating around [in AD 64] that God was ready to give the Jewish people victory over the Roman Empire” (269). He does not provide any specifics about those prophecies.
I am persuaded that an important contributing factor to the militant Jewish messianism of the first century AD was the growing conviction that the primary end time for the fulfillment of most of the prophecies of Daniel, specifically those of chapters 2, 7, 9, and 11-12 lay immediately ahead. That Madden foregoes the opportunity to refer to Daniel stems, I suspect, from his implicit acceptance of the view that the end time for these prophecies is in the time of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (d. ca. 163 BC), which included the Maccabean Revolt. This “Maccabean date” of the Danielic prophecies evidently prevails in most of mainstream academia.
Tensions between the Romans and the Jews continued to heighten until finally, in August AD 66, fighting broke out in Jerusalem between militant Jews and the small Roman garrison there. After the garrison's commander surrendered its weapons to the Jews in return for the promise to be allowed to leave safely, the Roman soldiers were massacred (272-73). And thus began the great Jewish War that was to result in the utter destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple four years later.
After their initial success in the war that began in AD 66, writes Madden, “The deserts and mountains were soon filled with Messiahs.” Inept Roman policy perhaps played a role in all this, but the religious dynamic of the revolt was its driving force. Jerusalem became “drunk on messianic prophecies, certain that God was ushering in a new age or perhaps bringing about the end of the world” (274-75). Most Jews, it is clear, had to not taken to heart Jesus' words that “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
Even after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Romans were hard-put to find a solution to the problem posed by their Jewish subjects (whom I, incidentally, tend to equate with the clay in the feet of the great statue of Daniel 2). According to Madden, “The Romans were slow to find a solution to the problem of religious terrorism and extremism because it simply did not compute within the context of their Empire of Trust.” Fortunately for them, the destruction of system of worship centered on the Temple of Jerusalem put them on the right path to finding a solution, namely bringing about fundamental changes in the practice of Judaism (278).
In due course, Madden explains, a new rabbinic Judaism developed that found a way to accommodate itself to Roman rule. Nevertheless, the hydra of Jewish messianism sparked a bloody revolt against the rule of Trajan in 115 that began in Cyrenaica (to the west of Egypt) and affected Egypt and Cyprus as well. It was soon followed by the even bloodier Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-136 during Hadrian's reign, which was fought in Judaea. These episodes provoked the Romans into a more punitive response than after the war of 66-70 that included prohibiting Jews from living in Jerusalem (278-82).
For Madden, Rome's encounter with Jewish terrorism offers important guidelines for today's America if we will take the lessons to be learned to heart. “First and foremost we must recognize that the root causes of the problem are not economic, social, or political—they are religious.” For their Jewish opponents, there was nothing the Romans could do to appease them short of submitting to Jewish supremacy. From the perspective of the terrorists, “the rise of Rome was contrary to God's plan for humanity. It fell to them, therefore, to wage holy war against the Romans. He finds the parallel here with the situation confronting America is remarkably similar (282-84). I could not agree more.
Second, writes Madden, there is the problem posed by a Muslim Diaspora that resembles the migration of Jews into different parts of the Roman Empire in the first century AD. Just as there were Jewish moderates outside their historic homeland in the first century who struggled to adapt to the society around them while remaining loyal, there are Muslim migrants to lands where they are a minority who oppose terrorism while remaining sympathetic to the complaints of terrorists. He adds that “It was when they [the Romans] cracked down on all Jews, friend and foe alike, that they exacerbated their problems,” and he therefore warns that the United States will have to be very careful in how it deals with their citizens who are Muslim moderates (284-85).
That the United States will have to be careful in how it deals with “Muslim moderates” is obvious. I fear, however, that this country will find that it cannot deal with this problem in a way that effects a peaceful solution. Islam is a religion of conquest, and it is much more so than was the Temple-centered Judaism of the first century AD. On the other hand, I would argue that Islam is far more vulnerable to critical analysis of its holy texts, its history, and the life of its founder than first-century Judaism was, and I suspect that the solution to the problem will be found by offering such analysis. Madden, however, does not deal with Islam's potential vulnerability critical thinking.
Madden's third concluding observation is that “Americans need to accept that the War on Terror is going to be a long one.” He has no doubt, however, about the ultimate outcome. Like the Romans, he asserts, “Americans are willing to be tolerant but not conquered,” and since America is far more powerful than the terrorists will ever be, “they must lose” (285-86). I suspect that he is correct, but I pray for an end to the epidemic of political correctness that allows our enemy to use any tactic he chooses while we hobble ourselves with rules of conduct that our enemy treats with contempt.
Just as the Romans won their War on Terror by forcing Judaism to change, Madden insists, America must work to get Islam to adapt to the modern world. It will be a difficult process, and the struggle is likely to get worse before it gets better. He seems to be confident, however, that the necessary change will eventually occur (286-88). I am not so confident in the ability of Islam to reform itself. My judgment is that ultimately, Islam must collapse and that its implosion will be accelerated to the degree that we overcome the bonds of political correctness.
I shall close by observing that Madden does not allocate much of his book to the discussion of the general crisis of the spirit to which I alluded earlier. He does point out that Rome survived well beyond the crisis of the first century AD and he obviously feels that America's time as the great Empire of Trust is far from over. I am inclined to argue, however, in contrast to Edward Gibbon of Decline and Fall fame, that the advent of Christianity gave Rome a needed spiritual infusion that ultimately succeeded in creating the modern world, and I am inclined to argue its power to impact humankind is far from exhausted.
 Thomas F. Madden, Empires of Trust: How Rome Built—and America is Building—a New World (New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2008).