The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Does USA resemble ancient Greece or Rome?

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 25, 2023 - 05:41

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People sometimes ask, “Does the USA more closely resemble ancient Greece or the Roman Empire?” The answer is “Both,” because America has characteristics of both Greece and Rome. Like ancient Greece, for example, America is devoted to noble ideas such as democracy and human rights. At the same time, however, like the Roman Empire, America embraces commercialism and pragmatism.

As had ancient Greece, so too does America have internationally famed scholars, scientists and universities. When it comes to advanced learning, therefore, America excels compared to other countries. That is the reason many international students come to the US to pursue advanced degrees. Besides, as ancient Greek culture expanded well beyond its borders, American culture has influenced the whole world.

Like ancient Greece, America is also a democratic country. America resembles the Greek Acropolis where people freely gathered, discussed and debated the important issues of the day. From the beginning, the US refused to be a monarchy ruled by a king. It chose instead to become, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people;” in other words, a representative democracy. And just as ancient Greece consisted of a collection of city-states, America is primarily made of 50 states.

Another resemblance between ancient Greece and America is technology. Ancient Greeks invented vital things such as screws, water clocks and steam-operated machinery, among others. Likewise, American scientists also invented many crucial things, such as airplanes, lasers, refrigerators, cellphones, microwave ovens and air conditioning. Among Britannica’s “321 Greatest Inventions,” American inventions number 161.

At the same time, America also resembles the Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire was, America is currently the strongest country on earth. The Roman Empire had the most powerful army in the world, like America does today. The US Army is mighty, equipped with weapons of cutting-edge technology. Like the Roman Empire, America’s global influence is also great and felt all over the world.

History tells us that the Roman Empire generously granted citizenship to non-Romans when they deserved it. So too does the US government. According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, America has welcomed more than 7.4 million naturalized US citizens in the last decade alone.

Anti-American radicals have long condemned what they call American imperialism, frequently comparing America to the Roman Empire. Unlike the Roman Empire, however, the US does not overtly pursue an imperialist policy of expansion by seizing territory abroad or colonizing other countries. The US acquired Puerto Rico and Guam, and control to some extent over the Philippines and Cuba, as an outcome of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Still, however, historians debate to what extent the idea of "American imperialism" played a role.

When former President Donald Trump was in the White House, America’s image resembled the Roman Empire with his aggressiveness and arrogance. On the contrary, during the Clinton and Obama eras, the image of America was more like ancient Greece -- pensive and philanthropic.

Will America continue to resemble both ancient Greece and the Roman Empire in the future? Perhaps not. The US seems to have chosen to be a country that resembles ancient Greece, not the Roman Empire, and there is a compelling reason for that. When America played the role of peacemaker or "international police," it was harshly criticized as an imperial power and became a target for terrorists. The American people no longer seem to have the will to tolerate such unjust accusations.

As is shown in the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, it is obvious that America will not directly interfere with international conflicts from now on. Then, America not only should be safer from terrorist attacks, but it also does not have to shed blood or spend astronomical amounts of money on behalf of foreign countries. Furthermore, America will no longer have to suffer anti-American sentiment or false accusations of imperialism.

Of course, America’s newfound isolationist policy betrays the original dream of Founding Fathers such as John Winthrop, who preached that America should be “a city upon a hill.” However, to contemporary American people who are tired of anti-American sentiment or unfair accusations, noninterference surely is an attractive option.

If America quits being the international police or third-party negotiator, many countries will be in deep trouble. As former communist countries are now dreaming of resurrecting and restoring their lost power and influence, their neighboring smaller countries will surely be in great danger. South Korea, too, will be vulnerable to North Korean aggression if US troops leave the Korean Peninsula and do not look back.

If America quits her job of being the maritime police, ships sailing for trade will have to deal with vicious pirates and bullying countries that demand tolls for passing through their straits and oceanic passages. That would be disastrous for a country like South Korea whose economy heavily depends on trade.

We hope that America continues to be the peacemaker in the international community. Regrettably, however, the prospect is dim. If so, we should conjure up ways in which we can survive and thrive under a new world order.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.