American Exceptionalism and the Universality Fallacy

Why modern-day Americans should look to the Roman Republic for a lesson in diplomacy.

In his speech this week at the Reagan Library, New Jersey governor Chris Christie posited a concept he called “earned American exceptionalism,” which seemed to favor influencing other countries through American example rather than assertive efforts to remake them in the American image. Christie said, “There is no better way to reinforce the likelihood that others in the world will opt for more open societies and economies than to demonstrate that our own system is working.”

This could be a welcome departure from the kind of “nation-building” adventurism that George W. Bush pursued in Iraq and which, under Obama, was placed at the heart of the American mission in Afghanistan. But it still seems to commingle sentiments of American exceptionalism with the idea of the universality of American values.

Could it be otherwise? Could America bask in its exceptionalism without being driven by universalist convictions that all peoples of the world should live under systems similar to ours? Perhaps not. But perhaps there is merit in pondering the sentiments of the people and leaders of Rome during the glory days of the Roman Republic, which lasted for five hundred years before it ran aground upon the rocks of an ongoing crisis of the regime.

There are some striking similarities between the stories of the two republics. Both got fed up with the tyrannies of monarchy and threw over their kings. Both then crafted delicate new systems based on principles of popular sovereignty. Both had, in the beginning, a narrow definition of popular sovereignty and then spent decades, even centuries, struggling to expand that definition. Both consolidated their natural geographic territories through expansion and then set out into the world. Both entered epic foreign struggles to protect weak allies from threatening aggressors (for Rome, the Punic Wars with Carthage, 264 BC–146 BC; for America, the struggle to save Europe, 1918–1989). Both ultimately triumphed in their epic struggles and found themselves the lone superpower in a unipolar world.

And like Americans of our day, Romans of the Republic considered their civic system to be a work of genius and utterly exceptional. Unlike Americans of our day, however, few in the Roman Republic felt their system should be, or could be, embraced by others in the mysterious ancient societies of the East.

In pondering this dichotomy, I am reminded of a scene in one of Colleen McCullough’s six magisterial historical novels recounting the last century of the Roman Republic. These narratives are, of course, fictional, but they are based on exhaustive research and probe with minute accuracy all aspects of Roman society, culture, customs and social mores. The scene in question involves Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a brilliant general who was of the generation just before the great Caesar. Sulla had a powerful personality and huge appetites and ambitions, and he wasn’t above resorting to violence in the pursuit of those ambitions. We might say he was cut from the same cloth as Tony Soprano.

We know from history that Sulla, during his days on the rise as a Roman senator and general, took an army to the Euphrates River. He went east because of problems in Asia Minor perpetrated by Mithridates VI of Pontus, who had designs on territory within Rome’s sphere of influence. So Sulla took his army to the Euphrates and then crossed into the territory of the Parthians. There he encountered the satrap of the Seleucians, Orobazus, who answered to the king of kings of Parthia.

McCullough, knowing this conversation took place but of course not knowing precisely what was said, manufactures the exchange. But, while the words are made up, the sentiments are entirely accurate as expressions of the two powerful men and the cultures that had nurtured them.

Orobazus greets Sulla by addressing him by his full name, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla says to the king, “Lucius Cornelius will do,” but Sulla himself takes pains to address Orobazus respectfully as “Lord Orobazus,” in keeping with his standing in his own territory.

Then Orobazus errs again, addressing Sulla as “my lord Lucius Cornelius.” So Sulla corrects him again: “Not ‘my lord,’ just plain Lucius Cornelius. In Rome there are no lords and no kings.”

Orobazus is puzzled. “We had heard it was so,” he says, “but we find it strange. You do follow the Greek way, then. How is it that Rome has grown so great, when no king heads the government?” For Orobazus, a lack of kings normally means small entities that end up warring against one another, as in Greece. But Rome had real power and yet no king. It was incomprehensible.

Sulla: “Rome is our king, Lord Orobazus. . . . We Romans subordinate ourselves to Rome, and only to Rome. We bend the knee to no one human, any more than we bend to the abstraction of an ideal. Rome is . . . our king.” Sulla offers himself as an example. He was not there on his own behalf but on behalf of Rome. “If we strike a treaty, it will be deposited in the temple of Jupiter . . . and there will remain—not my property, nor even bearing my name. A testament to the might of Rome.”

McCullough has Orobazus’s fellow Parthians listening rapt to these concepts, but totally confused. Orobazus says, “But a place, Lucius Cornelius, is jut a collection of objects! . . . How can a place generate such feeling, such nobility?”

Sulla: “For a while Rome was actually ruled by kings, until the men of Rome rejected the concept that a man could be mightier than the place which bred him. . . . No Roman man is greater than Rome.”

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