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Home | Wire | Rome and America, through Schumpeter's Eyes

Rome and America, through Schumpeter's Eyes

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Tags Big GovernmentWar and Foreign PolicyWorld History

From Imperialism and Social Classes by Joseph Schumpeter, translated by Heinz Norden (Meridian Books, 1955) pp. 50-52

[T]he policy of the [Roman] Empire was directed only toward its preservation and therefore was not imperialist within our definition. True, there was almost continuous warfare, because the existing situation could be maintained only by military means. Individual emperors (Germanicus, for example) might wage war for its own sake, in keeping with our definition, but neither the Senate nor the emperors were generally inclined toward new conquests. Even Augustus did no more than secure the frontiers. After Germanicus had been recalled, Tiberius tried to put into effect a policy of peace toward the Germans. And even Trajan's conquests can be explained from a desire to render the empire more tenable. Most of the emperors tried to solve the problem by concessions and appeasement. But from the Punic Wars to Augustus there was undoubtedly an imperialist period, a time of unbounded will to conquest.
The policies of this epoch are not as naively manifest as those in the other cases discussed so far. Here is the classic example of that kind of insincerity in both foreign and domestic affairs which permeates not only avowed motives but also probably the conscious motives of the actors themselves—of that policy which pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war, the policy of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome interventionism.
There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest—why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted.
The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome's duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs. They were enemies who only waited to fall on the Roman people.
Even less than in the cases that have already been discussed, can an attempt be made here to comprehend these wars of conquest from the point of view of concrete objectives. Here there was neither a warrior nation in our sense, nor, in the beginning, a military despotism or an aristocracy of specifically military orientation. Thus there is but one way to an understanding: scrutiny of domestic class interests, the question of who stood to gain.
It was certainly not the Italian peasant. The conquests gained him nothing—on the contrary, they made possible competition on the part of foreign grain, one of the causes for his disappearance. He may not have been able to foresee that eventuality in the republican period, but he did feel all the more keenly the burden of military service that was always interfering with his concerns, often destroying his livelihood.
True, it was this class that gave rise to the caste of professional soldiers who remained in the military service beyond the minimum term of enlistment. But in the first place, the rise of that estate was only a consequence of the policy of war, and, in the second place, even these people had no real interest in war. They were not impelled by savage pugnacity, but by hope for a secure old age, preferably the allotment of a small farm. And the veteran would much rather have such a farm at home than somewhere in Syria or Britain. As for war booty, the emperor used it to pay his debts or to stage circuses at Rome. The soldiers never saw much of it.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is founder and chairman of the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com.

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