Elegy for a Disappearing Empire: was the US Domination of Europe a Good Thing?





An interpretation of Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, Celts who lived in Britain at the time of the Roman invasion (Image by Kate Spitzmiller). Cartimandua lived at the same time as the more commonly remembered Queen Boudicca, who fought the Romans. Cartimandua, instead, was what we would call today a “collaborationist.” You might also call her a traitoress of her people, but so goes history. Can we learn something from the way the Romans subdued the Britons and incorporated them into their empire? As usual, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot. 

Martys’ Mac argues in a recent post that the American Empire had some special characteristics that make it different than other empires, especially the Soviet one. According to him, the US has been more benign, more open, more willing to let its client states develop independently, both economically and culturally.

Marty’s Mac is a sharp observer but, in this case, I think he missed some basic points. In my opinion, Empires (and states, as well) are all very similar to each other. Not that I pretend to know more than anyone else about the old Soviet Union, but I suggest caution when discussing such wide-ranging issues. The Soviet Union was a complex reality that, in the West, remained largely unknown, shadowed by a barrier of language and propaganda. And we must be careful about falling into the trap of thinking that anything real looks in any significant way like the portrait that propaganda paints of it. 

This said, let’s discuss Marty Mac’s position. He starts with: 

A traditional empire does not seek to enter into mutually beneficial economic arrangements with its neighbors, but to suck up neighboring resources for its own benefit.

Which is, by all means, true. But it describes not just empires, but also states and kingdoms. There is a general law called “the rich get richer” that creates a centralization phenomenon. In all states, resources move from the periphery to the center. Think about France, which is not an Empire, but where the size of the capital, Paris, is so much larger than any other French city that it is outside the normally used statistical models. To the point that a specific term has been invented for it “The Dragon King.

The argument Marty Mac’s makes is mostly based on a comparison between the Marshall plan that the US enacted after WW2 was over, with the equivalent for the Soviet Union, the less well-known Molotov plan. 
The Soviet Union imposed severe reparations on its conquered territories. Romania was obligated to pay $300 million (in 1938 dollars, i.e., prior to war inflation) to its new Soviet masters; Hungary was also obligated to pay $300 million (200 to the USSR and 100 to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia). The on-paper equivalent of the Marshall Plan within the Soviet sphere was the Molotov Plan, which officially offered aid to conquered Eastern European nations. However, this assistance was meager at best (nations like Romania and Hungary still suffered under their war debts), and could reasonably be understood as a public relations effort at countering the Marshall Plan.

The data are clear: the Soviet Union was considerably more sting than the United States. But why did the two empires behave so differently? We could argue that it was because of some ideological differences, but also, more simply, structural ones. The Soviet Union was a rival of the American Empire, but it was also much smaller. The population of the Warsaw Pact countries (Soviet Union+allies) was around 400 million, that of the NATO alliance (US+allies) was over 600 million. Then, in terms of GDP and expenses, I wrote in a previous post that

…in order to survive, the Soviet Empire had to match the rival Western Empire in military terms. But the Soviet economy was much smaller: we can roughly estimate that it always was no more than about 40% of the US economy, alone. To match the huge Western economic and military machine, the Soviet Union needed to dedicate a large fraction of its economic output into the military system. Measuring this fraction has never been easy, but we can say that in absolute terms the Soviet military expenses nearly matched those of the US, although still remaining well below those of the NATO block. Another rough estimate is that during the cold war the Soviet Union spent about 20% of its gross domestic product on its military. Compare with the US: after WW2, military spending went gradually down from about 10% to the current value of about 2.4%. In relative terms, during the cold war, the USSR would normally spend at least four times more than the US for its military. In short, the Soviet Union just could not afford costs equivalent to the Marshall plan. It means that Soviet citizens were forced into a lifestyle much soberer than that of the US citizens: no private cars, no overseas vacations, no suburban homes, nothing like that. Most of the surplus they produced went into the military expenses that the Union had to produce to maintain a military apparatus comparable to the Western one. 

So, the behavior of the US empire was, and remains, dictated by practical factors rather than ideological ones. When the US had a considerable surplus, it could afford an extravaganza such as the Marshall plan. It was also a good investment since the European states were a much better barrier against a possible Soviet attack if they were economically strong. But, now things have changed a lot. In the grip of a terrible crisis, probably in its last gasps, the US empire is now behaving like the old Soviet Empire. That is, it is extracting resources from its client states in Western Europe to the point of beggaring them. That’s typical imperial behavior: why should the imperial rulers worry about the well-being of their vassals?

The discussion could be long and detailed but I think that, as usual, we can find much food for thought in the behavior of past empires. In particular, I think that a good illustration of the behavior of empires is given by how the Romans dealt with the Britons during the period that goes from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. We see how the annexation of the Britons was only in part obtained by a military invasion. Mostly, it was a question of assimilation. The Romans “romanized” the Britons, making them appreciate such things as the Roman money and the luxury items that money could buy. Then, they tricked them into borrowing money from Rome and, finally, when they could not repay the debt, they used that as an excuse to seize their assets and their lands. The similarities between the behavior of the US empire with Western Europe are evident. First, they offered money to the Europeans to rebuild their economy, and now they are extracting everything they can from Europe. Probably, the next step will be an “official” military takeover of Western Europe. Not a big problem, since the Europeans are powerless from a military viewpoint. 

It is the typical way of Empires: they work like pushers. First, they offer you cheap drugs, then if you don’t pay for more doses, they may beat the pants off you, or kill you. In this, they are helped by the traitors that they can place at the top of the states they want to incorporate. Also here, we have an example in the story of Britannia, with Queen Cartimandua as a symmetric equivalent of Queen Boudicca. Whereas Boudicca is seen as a heroine who rebelled against the Romans, Cartimandua allied herself with them. History, as usual, rhymes. 

Below, a post that I published about Queen Boudica that illustrates the mechanism of corruption and assimilation that the Romans used to incorporate Britannia in their Empire

The Queen and the Philosopher: War, Money, and Metals in Roman Britain

We know very little about Queen Boudica of the Iceni (20 AD (?) – 61 AD) and most of what we know is probably deformed by Roman propaganda. But we may still be able to put together the main elements of her story and how it was that she almost threw the mighty Roman Legions out of Britain. Above, a fantasy interpretation of the Celtic Queen from “galleryhip.com” (This post was inspired by a note from Mireille Martini)

You probably know the story of Queen Boudica. Tall, strong, and terrible, she was the embodiment of the fierce warrioress who fought – bravely but unsuccessfully – to defend her people from the oppression of an evil empire, that the Romans. It all happened during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st century AD. 

The passage of time has turned these events into legends, deformed by the lens of propaganda. But maybe we can still discern the reasons for Boudica’s rebellion and learn something relevant for our times. As it often happens in history, to understand why something happens, you only need to follow the money.  In this particular case, it is curious that the money that triggered the war may have been provided by no one else than Lucius Annaeus Seneca, yes, the Stoic philosopher. But it is a story that needs to be told from the beginning.

First of all, why were the Romans in Britain at the time of Queen Boudica? Simple: because of the British mineral resources. Britain had a long story of mining that went back to the Bronze Age and to even earlier times. The British mines could provide copper, tin, iron, lead, and even precious metals: gold and silver. These were all vital resources for the Roman Empire which used precious metals for coinage and all sort of metals for its various technologies.

The Romans already set foot in Britain at the time of Julius Caesar, in 55 BC. They set up a full-fledged invasion only in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius. But even before invading, according to  Strabo‘s Geography, there was a brisk commercial network that connected Rome to Britain. The Britons exported metals and imported luxury goods of all sorts, silk, olive oil, food, slaves, and more.

It was all part of the way the Romans managed their empire. Their expansion was not simply a question of a blitzkrieg war machine. Invading a foreign kingdom was preceded by a long period of cultural and commercial assimilation and it was attempted only when it could provide a financial return. That required a certain degree of economic development of the regions being assimilated. It didn’t work with the Germans, who had no mines and only a relatively primitive economy. And they were also a tough military force, able to defeat even the mighty Roman war machine – they did that at Teutoburg, in 9 AD. So, the Romans shifted their attention to the wealthier and metal-rich Britain. It worked: the invasion of 43 AD was relatively easy in military terms. Afterward, the mines increased their production by means of Roman technology, commerce boomed, new Roman settlements were built, and Britain started being romanized.

But something went badly wrong in 60 AD, when the Romans suddenly faced a major rebellion of the Iceni people living in Eastern England, led by their redoubtable queen, Boudica. At the end of this post, you can read the details of the story as we know it, told by Jason Porath in a light-hearted style. Summarizing, when Boudica’s husband, King Prasotagus, died, the Romans intervened, seized his lands, had his widow flogged, and his daughters raped. The queen was not amused and the rebellion started with all the associated atrocities. Eventually, the Romans managed to get the upper hand and Boudica killed herself.

But what made the Romans behave in a way that was nearly sure to spark a rebellion? Maybe it was just their lust for power, but there is a detail told by Dio Cassius (vol VIII, Cassius Dio, Roman History, 62.2) that can help us understand what happened. Cassius says that Seneca (yes, he was a philosopher, but also a rich man) had lent to the Iceni a large sum of money and that the Iceni were unable to return it. That suggests that the key to the story was money.

According to Dio Cassius, we are talking of 40 million sesterces. What kind of money is that? It is not so easy for us to visualize this sum, but we know that in those times a Roman legionary was paid nine hundred sestertii per annum. So, 40 million sesterces could pay some 50 thousand troops for a year – a large military force for the time. From this and other data, we could say – very roughly – that the value of a sesterce was of the order of 50 dollars. So, 40 million sesterces could be compared to some two billion dollars today. Clearly, we are discussing of a large sum for a small economy such as that of the Iceni tribe had to be.

We don’t know what King Prasotagus had in mind to do with that money, but we know that something went wrong. Dio Cassius faults Seneca himself for having precipitated the rebellion by insisting to have his money back. That Seneca did that out of personal greed seems to be unlikely, as discussed by Grimal. Cassius was writing more than a century after the events and he may have wanted to cast Seneca in a bad light for ideological reasons. But that’s just a detail,  what matters is that the Iceni (or, better said, the Iceni elite) defaulted on a large debt they had with the Romans.

In ancient times, defaulting on one’s debt was a serious crime, so much that the early Roman laws punished it by having the debtor drawn and quartered. In Imperial times, there were considerably more lenient laws – but these laws very valid only for Roman citizens and Boudica was not one. In this light, flogging doesn’t sound like an exaggerated punishment for defaulting on a large debt (2 billion dollars!). Even the rape of her daughters was not something unusual as a punishment for non-Roman citizens in those times. In any case, it is likely that the Romans didn’t do what they did because they enjoyed torturing and raping women — they used the default as an excuse to seize the Iceni kingdom. We can’t even exclude that the loan was engineered from the beginning with the idea of annexing the kingdom to the Roman Empire.

Be it as it may, at this point, the Iceni elite had little choice: either lose everything or rebel against the largest military power of their time. Neither looked like a good choice, but they chose the one that turned out to be truly disastrous.

All that happened afterward was already written in the book of destiny – the archeological records tell us of cities burned to the ground, confirming the reports of initial Iceni victories told to us by Roman historians. Standard propaganda techniques probably caused the Romans to exaggerate the atrocities performed by the Iceni, just as the number of their fighters in order to highlight their own military prowess. Even Boudica herself was portrayed as a larger-than-life warrioress, but we can’t even be completely sure that she actually existed. In any case, the revolt was bound to fail, and it did. In a few centuries, Boudica was forgotten by her own people: we have no mentions of her in the records from Celtic Britain. The Roman Empire faded, but the Roman influence on British customs and language remains visible to this day (and the ghost of the old queen may be pleased by the Brexit!).

What’s most interesting in this story is the light it sheds on the inner workings of Empires. We tend to think that Empires exist because of their mighty armies – which is true, in part – but armies are not everything and in any case, the soldiers must be paid. Empires exist because they can control money, (or capital if you prefer). That’s the real tool that builds empires: No money – no empire! 

And that takes us to the current empire, the one we call the “American Empire” or “the “Western Empire.” It does have mighty armies but, really, the grip it has on the world is all based on money. Without the mighty dollar, it is hard to think that the large military and commercial network we call “globalization” could exist.

So, can we think of a modern equivalent of the Iceni rebellion? Surely we can: think of the end of the Soviet Union. It was brought down in 1991 not by military means but by financial ones. The debt the Soviet Union had with the West is estimated at US$ 70 billion, in relative terms probably not far from the 40 million sesterces the Iceni owed to the Romans. Unable to repay this debt, the Soviet elites had only two choices: dissolve or fight. They made an attempt to fight with the “August Putsch” in 1991, but it rapidly fizzled out. There was no chance for the Soviet Communists to make a mistake similar to the one Queen Boudica made, that is starting a full-fledged military rebellion against a much more powerful enemy. That was good for everybody on this planet since the Soviet Union had nuclear warheads which might have been used in desperation. Fortunately, history doesn’t always repeat itself!

But, if history doesn’t repeat itself, at least it rhymes and the ability of the Western Empire to use financial means to bring countries into submission is well documented. Another, more recent, case, is that of Greece: again a nation that couldn’t give back the money it owed to the imperial powers. For a short moment, in 2015, it looked like the Greeks had decided to rebel against the empire but, in the end, the Greek elites chose to submit. The punishment for the Greek citizens has been harsh but, at least, their country was not bombed and destroyed, as it happens rather often nowadays when the Imperial Powers that Be become angry.

But for how long will the Western Empire remain powerful? Just like for the Roman Empire, its destiny seems to be a cycle of growth and decline – and the decline may have already started as shown by the failure of the attempt of bankrupting the heir of the Soviet Union, Russia (again, fortunately for everybody, because Russia has nuclear weapons). The globalized empire seems to be getting weaker and weaker every day. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, only time will tell.

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More