- Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors by Charles S. Maier
These are good times for historians of the Roman empire. Often anxious about our relevance in the modern world, today we can revel in the attention, popular and scholarly, showered on our field. For just as many imperial systems have drawn extensively on Roman administrative models and cultural ideals, so too do the many modern commentators on empire have repeated recourse to the ancient Roman version. Charles Maier is no exception. Throughout his magnificent new book on American “ascendancy,” Maier draws on a wide range of Roman examples in order to illustrate some essential features of empire and to draw attention to parallels between ancient Rome and modern America. The result is a tour de force that not only sets American power in a broad and deep historical context—a salutary corrective to the superficial pronouncements of pundits and editorialists—but also, along the way, provides Roman historians with a number of potentially useful insights. Indeed, I have already begun assigning parts of the book to my students.
Rome is not, of course, Maier’s only point of comparison. As he states near the beginning of the book, it is time to depart from the historiographical tradition of American exceptionalism and to attempt a “national story . . . of comparability” (5). Before examining Maier’s use of ancient Rome, it is worth pausing to consider Maier’s approach to comparative history in general. Maier deploys historical comparisons in three ways. In the first part of the book, he grounds his discussion of the “recurring structures” of empire in an impressive series of concrete historical examples, all supported by ample references to modern scholarship. Next, he employs this wealth of comparative data to build up formal typologies of imperial structures, such as frontiers (83–84) and forms of violence (118–127). And finally, in the second part of the book, he systematically compares the military and economic foundations of modern U.S. power to those of the British empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In broad terms, the historical examples in the first part of the book serve to show how, in its basic anatomy, America’s “post-territorial” empire is like many earlier imperial structures, even with respect to the very problem of territoriality itself (101, 107–111, 281–82), while the comparisons in the second part of the book underline the many ways in which U.S. ascendancy is unlike its British predecessor, especially, if I understand Maier correctly, in terms of America’s economically hegemonic role as an “empire of consumption” (ch. 6).
Comparative history, then, is at the heart of Maier’s enterprise. Yet Maier is surprisingly ambivalent about the value of this approach. He has misgivings about the “decontextualization” that historical comparisons impose (5), and nearly disavows the very heuristic device that makes his original assessment of American ascendancy possible: “Historians,” he declares, “will rightly resist generalization as an impediment to understanding” (19). But it is precisely through generalization, as Maier’s surely recognizes, that we can perceive the “imperial” features of U.S. power, and it is precisely when Maier generalizes most freely that he provides historians of other periods with powerful new tools for historical analysis. His typology of forms of imperial violence (118–127), for example, is an outstanding piece of historical sociology that has encouraged me to re-think the economy of force in the Roman empire. Weberian “ideal types” could hardly have been better suited to the purpose.
I had planned to use part of this review as a polemic against those who criticize scholarly “outsiders” for making mistakes in “their” fields (and no one defends their territory as ferociously as historians). Surely (I had planned to argue) this is not the point of comparative history. If the scholar who trains his lens on the forest gets the forest right, then it does not matter very much if one or two of its trees are wrongly identified or overlooked. But Maier has deprived me of my opportunity. Throughout...