An Augustinian Case
The Fact of Empire
The recent social media fad of wives asking their husbands how much they think about the Roman Empire had me thinking about why the Roman Empire looms so large, even to this day. Many of the women were shocked by their husbands’ almost obsessive interest in the Roman Empire, in part, as they assumed, the Roman Empire was an archaic and bad thing. What could we learn from the big bad Roman Empire?
Back when I taught Roman history at a big state university my classes were packed with men and a small sprinkling of women, most of whom were classics majors. So why were all these men interested in the Roman Empire? The answer to me seems rather obvious: America itself is an empire. (Drawing parallels between America and Rome is something of an American pastime going back to our founding.) And if you want insight into our own time and place the Roman Empire offers an illuminating example of how one particular empire successfully navigated itself for many centuries.
An interesting feature of American life and history is that, unlike empires of the past, we are deeply ambivalent if not hostile to that reality. Some Americans would even reject that we are an empire. To live in this state of denial is bad if only because it blinds us to the reality that we are still the most powerful nation in the world and we use our power to influence and coerce other nations to act in ways we would like them. That is how empires behave.
Empires are a fact of reality in international politics and always will be. There will always be a few nations that exercise inordinate influence and power on the world stage. Scholars sometimes refer to these nations as “hegemons,” but empire is a more descriptively accurate and colloquial term. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR were the two major world powers and competed with one another globally for influence, wealth, and power. At present the US and China seem destined for competition, if not conflict, for global preeminence.
But the real question regarding empires is: can they be good? One could concede the fact that empires exist and have existed, but are they good for global order or for the nations that exercise imperial power? The historical record would have to be judged to determine whether we have been a good empire and whether the good that America has achieved throughout its dominance of world politics outweighs the bad. That’s not the argument I want to make, though I think that is a key question.
Many groups on the political left and, increasingly, on the right see American global hegemony as wicked and evil, though for quite different reasons. The left, generally, is committed to anti-imperialism in principle. Empire anywhere is intrinsically evil as a form of government, in part because it is exploitative and domineering at its very essence. It preys upon weak nations, using its overwhelming power to make subject nations into mere pawns for maintaining its power and extracting resources and capital to enrich itself at the expense of native populations.
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be more ambiguous about the nature of governmental forms, though more libertarian or Republican-leaning conservatives have a strong commitment to republican self-government. The right tends to object to American empire based on its effects: it neglects the good of the nation, whether through irresponsible wars abroad, economic policies that only enrich corporations, or through exporting the most debased aspects of American popular culture to the rest of the world. The regime change wars of the past two decades have been failures and a massive waste of blood and treasure, our economic policies have not benefited the middle or working class, and our culture grows more perverse by the day.
I am not offering a comprehensive analysis here, just noting that both left and right have strong moral objections to American empire. For the sake of my argument here, I am assuming America’s imperial epoch, running roughly from 1945 to the present, has been, on balance, better than worse for the US and the world. I realize many will disagree.
What I would like to argue in this essay is that American Christians, and conservative Christians in particular, should be open to the claim that empire can be a good form of government and that exercising imperial rule is not in and of itself a bad thing. It can be a good thing. Here I will turn to Augustine of Hippo and engage his rather complex view of the Roman Empire. Augustine’s appraisal of Rome was rooted in his account of providence and a considered ambivalence about governmental forms. He did not think there was one form of government that Christians should endorse. He could appreciate the Republican period in Rome as well as the Empire, though he saw weaknesses in both.
The importance of Augustine’s qualified acceptance of the Roman Empire and the good that it achieved is to show how the most brilliant theologian in church history thought about politics from a distinctly Christian viewpoint. “Empire” is a term of derision and loathing today, shorthand for all that is bad. But that view is more a product of our unique American history and experiences than a considered theological position. American Christians hold to the rather narrow and parochial view that “liberal democracy” is somehow the final form of all politics. However laughable an assumption that may be, one finds this unconscious conviction all too common in discussions among American Christians. This essay defends American Empire, at least against those Christians who will say any form of empire is sinful or intrinsically evil. Empire is not evil per se. Augustine provides at least one way to think about empire that breaks the stranglehold of our own contemporary political pieties.
It will surprise most that Augustine defends empire, even if in a rather qualified sense. Augustine’s defense is a mixed bag. Rome is deeply flawed, but a defense of Rome is what it amounts to.
Empire, Then and Now
It is interesting to contrast the US with the United Kingdom on the question of empire. Though there is a strong reaction against the British empire in the UK today, especially among academics, the British historically were more clear-eyed about the reality of their empire. Europeans, as a whole, are much less squeamish about empires given that Europe has more or less been ruled and structured by empires throughout their history. The European Union itself is a type of supra-national empire that blends the characteristics of empire with aspects of democratic representation.
The existence of empires is a fact of history. There has never been a world in which empires were not in existence. There have always and will always be nations who exercise preeminent power in the international sphere. The basic insight of realists is self-evidently correct: what matters most in international politics is power, and more often than not, hard power.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe, political order collapsed and Europe became a backwater of world history for at least 500 years, living in the shadow of Islamic Caliphates who conquered most of what was the Eastern Roman Empire and expanded its reach further to the East. World War II marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the ascendance of the American. British leaders knew this was the case and accepted their new lot in the American global order with dignity.
The British were by no means perfect in how they grew and administered their empire, but, in the grand scheme of things, they acquitted themselves well as imperial rulers. So good were the Brits at ruling that the nations who raised the Union Jack are among the most wealthy, stable, and democratic nations in the world.
The same was true of the Roman Empire. Commonly portrayed as rapacious and brutal, most of those outside the empire wanted to be part of it. Rome was indeed brutal, but not out of the norm for the ancient world. In a time of weak governmental structures and order, Rome was unique in its ability to bring some semblance of order and administration out of chaos and endless tribal warfare common among Germanic tribes. Imperial administration would be seen as highly desirable. The Germanic tribes that raided and pillaged the empire in the late 4th and 5th century wanted to be a part of the Roman Empire in order to enjoy its fruits. Many of the generals of the later empire were not of Roman stock but were from the edges of the empire and often had a parent that was not a Roman citizen. Stilicho, the leading general in the Western empire in the early 5th century, is a good example of this trend. One of the ways the military was able to raise and retain soldiers was to promise citizenship to non-Romans after a number of years of service. The retirement package often included a pension and property. If you were a poor Germanic man living a subsistence life outside the empire, this would be extremely appealing.
However, the Roman empire was not all upside. It was a system that favored aristocrats and the wealthy. Though something of a middle class was able to form in the golden years of the empire, those benefits receded in later years. Rome’s brutality is not something that should be overlooked either. But the critique of empire today is rooted in contemporary notions of race and oppression that are anachronistic.
After Roman government vanished from Western Europe, cities, population, and wealth vanished as well. Literacy rates plummeted. Population levels crashed. Trade slowed to a trickle and the general order society disintegrated into warring kingdoms led by tribal chieftains. In contrast to the West, the Eastern Roman Empire— referred to by Westerners as Byzantium— continued to prosper for another millennium. Few would think the West got the better end of that bargain.
Nigel Biggar addresses a similar critique of the British Empire in our day in his recent book on Colonialism and a recent essay in First Things wherein he defends American Empire. The fashionable critique of the British Empire that Biggar confronts is that the empire was an exceedingly immoral and rapacious in its behavior towards its colonies. Biggar concedes that there is plenty of material to lament and repent of, but also a great amount of benefit to be proud of. Empires, like any other form of government, are not inherently evil. The British, like all European powers, participated in the slave trade, but repented of their moral errors and used their navy to effectively end the transatlantic slave trade. The point is that every nation has a checkered past. What matters is not just the failures but also the good that is done.
Americans have a hard time talking about the imperial nature of our current position in the world because our country is rooted in a mythology that is resolutely anti-imperial. What we rebelled against in 1776, so we tell ourselves, was precisely this form of government and the moral and political degradations that accompanied it. Without getting into the long history of American thinking about empire, we should note that Americans have gone to great lengths to paint our history as one that is resolutely counter-imperial. A great many American Christians have argued the bible is inherently anti-imperial and that Jesus Christ himself was crucified, in part, for his counter-imperial preaching. Those committed to a “classical liberal” reading of the American founding or wedded to a particular Whig narrative of American history where history is moving, ineluctably, towards freedom, democracy, and capitalism hold to American anti-imperialism as central to our political tradition.
If we are looking for an exact period in which America becomes the preeminent imperial power in the world, post-World War II is likely the consensus, though our imperial ambitions started much earlier. People tend to forget that the US started off as a series of colonies on the Eastern seaboard on a continent divided up by major European powers— Spanish to the south and far West; France to the West, and the UK to the north. The expansion of our original coastal country to a continental one, however it is described, was not less imperialistic in nature than American policies in Asia or South America.
After World War II, Europe lay in ruins, the Soviet Union had been ravaged by the German military, Japan pacified and in ashes, America stood alone in terms of economic and political power. The British Empire was in permanent decline and Europe and much of the world looked to the US to establish a new world order out of the ash heap of global conflagration. And the US did.
What we euphemistically call the “liberal international order,” was series of institutions (UN, IMF, NATO etc.) and agreements that sought to produce peace, prosperity, and order so as to prevent another major global war. The system was largely successful. The last 70 years have seen unprecedented growth in global economies, the spread of democracy, and, most importantly, no major war between superpowers. Those are historic achievements. But they came about because of preeminent American political, military, and economic power. Without that power the order would have been unimaginable.
Take one facet of the order: safe shipping lanes. Without the US Navy patrolling the world’s shipping lanes, the relatively safe and efficient shipping of goods from around the world that are the lifeblood for the global economy would not be possible. Americans used their power to not only benefit themselves but to benefit others as well, which is why there was a great amount of global buy-in. In fact, it’s fair to say in many respects the order benefited other countries as much, if not more, than the US, which, in part, explains the current reaction against it in the US.
The creation of the global American empire would have been impossible without the enormous asymmetry of power between the US and the rest of the world. And so, while Americans emphasize the more liberal aspects of our imperial rule (rights, democracy, free markets, prosperity), they downplay and dress up the reasons for the success of that order: American power.
Although the reality of American empire is very clear to anyone outside the US, Americans have a hard time seeing our global position because we so strongly play up anti-imperial and republican features of our history. Individual rights, resistance to monarchy, and popular sovereignty are central planks of the mythical American self-identity, and there is much truth and value to this identity. But we are fooling ourselves if we are unable to acknowledge that the role we have played in the last century is anything other than imperial. Call it hegemonic, or superpower, or any other terminology you prefer, but a mature nation should be able to reckon with itself and acknowledge that which is plain to the rest of the world. (The convenient and comforting, and to many welcome, lie of liberalism as ideological paradigm is the denial of this empirically demonstrable reality.) Moral assessment cannot proceed with abstractions; it begins with a sober acceptance of reality. And any such assessment should maintain political perspective. That is, political success cannot be singularly defined by the extent to which ideological aspirations are attained— and they rarely are. More practical, granular measurements must be applied.
It is a testament to the level of our denial that we are coming out of a period in time where we were the sole superpower on the world stage and yet we somehow convinced ourselves that we were just a plain ole “liberal democracy.” We may not directly rule other countries as the British or Romans did, but our power is exercised through international institutions, security arrangements, trade, and other means of soft and hard power. Because our rule is exercised indirectly we are able to continue in the delusion that we are merely a democracy.
We have over 100 military bases spanning the globe. After World War II and the Korean War, we occupied Japan and Germany, and have a significant military presence in South Korea. And we are still there. We exercise singular influence upon the global economy. We are the lead provider for security on the European continent and the Asia-Pacific region. We exercise sole dominion over North and South America and refuse to allow other countries to have undue influence in our hemisphere. With the rise of China as a competitor on a regional level (Asia) and a global level, the US, perhaps for the first time, is facing the prospect of prolonged competition and conflict with a nation that matches its economic and military power.
Americans operate with a sort of willful innocence, an intentional naivete about hard power and international politics, as though our place in the world just fell into our lap by accident. The fact of the matter is that Americans intentionally sought the role of sole superpower and have sought to maintain our status ever since. Our love of freedom and state sovereignty creates immense cognitive dissonance when it comes to foreign affairs, because we seem to imagine that the rest of the world somehow voted us into power or that we occupy our place of preeminence because our ostensible (and contested) moral values are so wonderful. Those outside the US rarely have such illusions. They realize the US is an empire and that it uses its power, in part, to benefit itself and maintain its position as the dominant hegemon.
The first step for Americans is to admit they are an empire. The rest of the world sees it, because they are under no illusions or compulsion to pretend otherwise. The tension in the American psyche is between myth and reality. Honesty would demand we own up to reality and stop pretending that our vast global reach, economic, military, and culture are somehow something other than an empire of sorts. Call it what you like, but Americans would do well to accept the reality and get over their hang ups about empire.
Augustine’s Defense of Roman Empire
Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the late Roman Empire, provides an interesting defense of the Roman Empire in City of God which is worth recounting for contemporary American Christians who seem to presume that liberal democracy can be read off the pages of scripture. Perhaps calling Augustine’s account of the Roman Empire a “defense” is a bit too strong, but he does believe the Roman Empire did many good things in the ancient world and was preferable to basically every other option that was out there.
He is also quite critical of Rome. He does not have a gauzy view of Rome that some Christians in his day did. They did lots of bad stuff and Augustine is not shy of recounting their history in painstaking detail. After the so-called Christianization of the Roman Empire, which occurred throughout the 4th century, we begin to see defenses of empire as divinely sanctioned form of government. The most notorious defense comes from the pen of Eusebius of Caesarea, whose description of Constantine is so glowing that one loses track as to whether he is referring to Constantine or Christ. The defenses of Christian empire often took the form of historical narrative. Christians were uniquely concerned about history and movement of history because the biblical narrative that framed their faith was an unfolding history in which God worked within and through history. “Salvation history” named the unfolding of God’s works of creation and redemption that would one day be brought to a final consummation.
Christians were riding high and the empire appeared, to some, to be God’s vehicle for bringing about the kingdom of God. Augustine himself seems to have held this more optimistic appraisal of the empire earlier in his life during the reign of Theodosius. But his experience of the actual workings of the cruel machinery of the empire along with the theological conviction that the conversion of the empire was not the fulfillment of salvation history caused him to draw different conclusions about the meaning of the Roman empire in God’s providential purposes.
When Augustine sets out to answer the question as to why God gave the Romans the empire in book 5 of City of God he starts with a basic theological conviction about providence. He does not ask “did” but “why” God gave Rome its empire. That is a crucial distinction. He does not question divine providence in giving rule to the Romans. He took that as a given and necessary conclusion from his view of providence. Now the fact that the Romans were given rule does not mean it was given based on merit or moral uprightness. It could have been given its empire for any number of reasons.
The praise Augustine gives to Roman heroes stands in stark contrast to the doom and gloom that precedes in earlier books of City of God. The simple fact is that God has given dominion to the Romans and the growth of their empire must be accounted for theologically: “let us consider the virtues of the Romans and the reason why the true God, in Whose power are all the kingdoms of the earth, deigned to help them in enlarging their empire”. Every aspect of creation is governed by “the laws of [God’s] providence,” including “the kingdoms of men and their lordships and servants,” for the purpose of bringing about some sort of harmony and peace among these kingdoms. He postulates that God gave dominion to the Romans because their rule would more effectively deal with the “grave evil” that had afflicted many nations and compared to the “famed kingdoms of the East” the Romans were a more nearly just regime that had greater concern for their patria than their own personal gain. Of all the available aspirants, Augustine thinks the Romans are clearly to be preferred to their peers in the East.
So why does God give Rome its empire? As I mentioned earlier, Augustine thinks part of the answer is that Rome was the best option on offer. But he goes further. He argues that Roman leaders and society had a love for their city and empire that was noble if flawed. As opposed to rulers who merely serve to enrich themselves and advance their own interests, Rome developed a republican tradition very early on that praised sacrifice for the commonweal and placed the needs of the citizens above that of rulers. Romans worried frequently about the corrupting effects of wealth on the ruling class and the character of its citizens. Roman heroes are praised by Augustine for their willingness to sacrifice their lives, their fortunes, and, in the case of Brutus, even their children for security, virtue, and glory of their city.
Rather than merely calling this idolatry or pointing out its vicious aspects, which he does at great length in earlier books, Augustine praises Rome and says Christians should imitate their desire to glorify their city and sacrifice on its behalf. He goes so far as to say that God extended Rome’s empire and glory “for the advantage of citizens of the eternal City…that they might diligently and soberly contemplate such examples.” Because of Rome’s commitment to the wellbeing and moral probity of its people, it has been rewarded with great and glorious empire. And so Augustine concludes his section on why the “true and just God aided the Romans in achieving the glory of so great an empire” stating that the Romans were “good men according to the lights of the earthly city.”
The defect in Roman virtue and society was its love of praise and glory. Praise and glory, in themselves, are not bad, but because Rome had no conception of the true God their motives and actions were in some significant sense, defective. For a virtue to be true virtue, in Augustine’s thinking, it must fundamentally be ordered by worship of the true God who is the end and object of all our actions. To make Rome and its glory the primary object of one’s actions is to both fail to give God His due and to act contrary to the proper good of our own souls. Love of praise was able to put a break on more base vices, such as licentiousness, love of luxury, and the lust for domination, because it cared about the judgment of others and directed its actions to noble deeds and sacrifice on behalf of the Roman people. But the motivation of Romans was defective and thus introduced a virus into the Roman body politic that manifested itself in strife, oppression, licentiousness, and, ultimately, civil war.
Though Augustine believes that republican government is preferable to empire, he is realistic and ambivalent about governmental structures and forms in and of themselves. When Augustine recounts the decline of Roman society in book 3 of City of God, it is the Republican period that occupies his analysis in which Roman vice brings about the chaos and civil war. The quality of rulers was more important than governmental structures. He praises emperors Constantine and Theodosius for their character, humility, and conduct in office. They did not worship the gods in order to secure political power or fleeting happiness, but worshipped the true God who grants eternal life and happiness. Augustine is far more concerned with character and quality of leaders than forms of government. Different forms of government are required at different times and providence raises up different rulers in different times “when He judges that the condition of human affairs is deserving of such lords.” The sort of government people have is the one they deserve.
Could we imagine a justification of American empire along Augustine’s line of thinking? I think so. Though the temptations to hubris of imperials powers is great and often causes them to act in vicious and imprudent ways, the benefits of good empire are immense, as both Rome and the United Kingdom demonstrate. But the real issue not whether we can give an answer as to why Providence saw fit to raise up the American empire when He did. The issue is that American Christians cannot even contemplate the question. They see it as offensive and bigoted. The sign of a mature mind is the ability to see outside its own time and place and not be beholden to its own prejudices. We ought to listen to voices such as Augustine, and, frankly, the majority of Christian political thought who were not ideologically wedded to a particular regime type or political ideology. Americans can and should take pride in how we stewarded the world since the end of World War II. Is God done with America? I don’t think so. American empire, on balance, has been good for America and the world. That doesn’t mean we should not critique or change course, but we should reject assumptions that lock us into modes of thinking that are unnecessarily limited or parochial.
Image Credit: File. (2020, October 24). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cole_Thomas_The_Consummation_The_Course_of_the_Empire_1836.jpg