Vaclav Smil

Distinguished Professor Emeritus

Why America Is Not a New Rome

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America's post--Cold War strategic dominance and its pre-recession affluence inspired pundits to make celebratory comparisons to ancient Rome at its most powerful. Now, with America no longer perceived as invulnerable, engaged in protracted fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffering the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, comparisons are to the bloated, decadent, ineffectual later Empire. In Why America Is Not a New Rome, Vaclav Smil looks at these comparisons in detail, going deeper than the facile analogy-making of talk shows and glossy magazine articles. He finds profound differences.Smil, a scientist and a lifelong student of Roman history, focuses on several fundamental concerns: the very meaning of empire; the actual extent and nature of Roman and American power; the role of knowledge and innovation; and demographic and economic basics--population dynamics, illness, death, wealth, and misery. America is not a latter-day Rome, Smil finds, and we need to understand this in order to look ahead without the burden of counterproductive analogies. Superficial similarities do not imply long-term political, demographic, or economic outcomes identical to Rome's.

Business Insider, July 27, 2011

Choice, Vol. 48, No. 5, January 2011 (PDF)

Steve Forbes, Forbes.com, December 6, 2010. (PDF)

Bill Gates, "Comparing America and Ancient Rome," October 21 , 2010

John RF. McNeil, American Scientist, September-October 2010

James B. McSwain, Canadian Journal qlHistory/Annalees canadiennes d 'histoire, Volume XLVI, AUlumn/aulomne, 2010 (PDF)

Washington Post: Steven E. Levingston, April 15, 2010 (PDF)

"Smil (Global Catastrophes and Trends) scrutinizes the frequently made comparison between ancient Rome and the contemporary U.S. as “bloated, decadent” empires in decline. Though he sees the U.S. as a country “in gradual relative retreat” and believes that the perception of its power and influence, like that of ancient Rome, is vastly exaggerated, he dismisses any analogy between the two because of their vastly different reaches of power and economic bases. With exacting rigor, he makes his case first by clarifying such key terms as empire, then examining the political might, energy consumption, and demographic patterns of the two societies. Smil covers an impressive range of topics, from the U.S.’s national debt to the Roman use of water power. By taking a granular, scientific approach, the author convincingly demonstrates that life in ancient Rome and contemporary America are so different in almost every meaningful way that any comparison of the two societies is at best general and superficial. Readers willing to sift through the author’s frequently technical analysis will come away with a richer understanding of both the Roman Empire and the post-WWII United States. (Mar.)"

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, 1/25/2010

"Repetition by pundits and literary commentators in the mass media has entrenched in people's minds the notion that America is a new Rome. Smil's book, tightly argued and rigorously documented, is a concise and persuasive scientific demolition of the Rome-America parallel, totally deflating the usefulness of the analogy as a tool of historical analysis. Why America Is Not a New Rome is a much-needed corrective."

Paul Demeny, Distinguished Scholar, Population Council, New York

"Why America Is Not a New Rome is significant because, for the first time, it puts comparative perspectives on Rome and the United States in proper and much-needed historical context. This is a timely and valuable intervention."

Walter Scheidel, Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Stanford University

  • © Vaclav Smil 2014