The Republican presidential debate and our fascination with the Roman Empire

The Republican presidential debate and our fascination with the Roman Empire September 28, 2023

Last night, Janet and I watched the second Republican presidential debate. The seven participants took aim at each other, President Biden for his perceived failings, and former President Donald Trump for not attending. While our ministry does not endorse candidates, I will say how grateful I felt to live in a country where candidates must go through such a rigorous process to be elected. Across much of human history and in much of the world today, last night’s event would never have occurred.

In light of the value of our democracy, it is odd to me that so many people these days—men, especially—seem to be fascinated with the Roman Empire. Even when it was a republic, Rome was never anything like the democracy we embrace and appreciate. Colonial Americans went to war to remove themselves from the power of a despotic ruler whom many of Rome’s emperors would have recognized and celebrated.

However, a noted historian of the Empire explains that “ancient Rome is a kind of safe place for macho fantasies. It’s where men can pretend to be macho men.” Another historian adds that “the display of might—especially when backed up by color, clamor, and overpowering architecture—can be stirring, even thrilling.”

Cultural edifices aside, there is an even more urgent parallel between Rome and America, one to which Christians need to respond with passion today.

“The fall of an empire and the fate of America”

I have long been fascinated by the ancient Greco-Roman world. I’ve led more than forty study tours to various parts of the Roman Empire and did my doctorate in philosophy of religion with special emphasis on ancient philosophy.

I was especially interested some years ago in Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. Here are similarities he notes between their empire and our nation:

  • Both built the most powerful military in their world, by far (America invests as much in military expenditures as the next ten nations combined).
  • The Roman road system, stretching some fifty-three thousand miles, was about the length of the US interstate system.
  • The Roman Empire and its Mediterranean Sea would fit neatly inside America’s lower forty-eight states.
  • Both cherish a glorious past and embrace a Manifest Destiny. Rome claimed to be an imperium sine fine (empire without end), while America’s dollar bill proclaims us to be a novus ordo (new order).

Of course, dissimilarities are conspicuous as well:

  • Rome never left the Iron Age; America has evolved from the agricultural to the industrial era to the Information Age.
  • Slaves made up half of the Empire (some emperors owned twenty thousand or more), while America eventually rejected slavery.
  • Rome had no middle class; the middle class is America’s core sociological fact.
  • As noted earlier, Rome was never remotely as democratic as America.

“If it is female, cast it out”

Here’s the intersection that I believe especially deserves our notice and response: the parallel between abortion today and infanticide in ancient Rome.

Folk remedies and herbs such as silphium and pennyroyal were used as abortifacients in the ancient world. However, unwanted pregnancies were much more often resolved by abandoning the children after birth.

In a fascinating and troubling article on abortion and the “repaganizing” of our culture, Louise Perry quotes the anthropologist David F. Lancy, who describes the “far more common pattern”: “Among the ancient Greeks and Romans sickly, unattractive, or unwanted infants were ‘exposed’ or otherwise eliminated.” For example, we have a letter from a Roman soldier named Hilarion to his pregnant wife Alis in 1 BC: “Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out” with the trash.

As I noted yesterday, infanticide is the logical extension of reasoning for abortion: no unwanted children should be born (or allowed to live), mothers should make birth (or parenting) decisions in light of their circumstances, and society has no right to tell mothers whether or not to choose abortion (or infanticide).

Perry cites Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer as recognizing the logical parallels between the two: “Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time,” he explains. “So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.” In Perry’s view, the decline of Christian influence in our culture is escalating such a paganized rejection of the value of life.

“All this wealth has been laid waste”

Ancient Canaanites often worshiped their god Molech through child sacrifice. The Lord sternly prohibited such atrocities: “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering” (Deuteronomy 18:10). When the Jewish people rejected his command and “slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire,” God destroyed their nation in judgment (Ezekiel 16:21).

As we have seen, Rome likewise endorsed and practiced the wholesale killing of preborn and newborn children. Theirs was the most powerful and wealthy empire the world had ever seen (cf. Revelation 18:16), but when God’s judgment came, “in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste” (v. 17). This text is in God’s word as a warning to all who would follow.

Are we listening?

NOTE: When asked what the greatest commandment was, why did Jesus link loving God with loving others? In our newest resource, an online course called The Greatest Commandment: How to Love God and Others with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength, you’ll learn why, as well as how to better exercise each of those aspects of your faith. Start the free self-paced course today, either on your own or within your small group.

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