Manifest Destiny: Roman and American

15 April 2011


Recently I listened through Classical Mythology: The Romans, 14 lectures by Professor Peter Meineck. Professor Meineck made an interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me previously in comparing Odysseus to Aeneas. These two are, respectively, the hero of the ancient Greek “national” epic, The Odyssey, and the hero of the ancient Roman “national” epic, The Aeneid.

The Romans, like most peoples up until the modern period, sought truth, authenticity, and authority at its source, in the distant past. It was enough for a tale to be reputed to be ancient for it have a certain presumptive value. Thus the Romans looked back to the Homeric poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, as the proper measures of what a “national” epic should be (before the emergence of nationality per se). The Romans didn’t merely take on the setting and the story of the Trojan War, which was the setting of the Iliad and the Odyssey, they literally inserted themselves into it. The figure of Aeneas was extracted from The Iliad and pressed into the service as the founding father of Rome and the Roman people. Thus not only were the Greeks ultimately Trojans, but the Romans were ultimately Trojans also — in other words, an heroic people.

But the heroism of Romans was rather different from the heroism of the Greeks. Odysseus spent ten years trying to get home to Penelope, surviving many a remarkable adventure, but always focused on getting home. That is to say, Odysseus wanted to get back to the place where he started. Without the goal of home, the Odyssey loses its purpose. Aeneas, the Roman hero, on the other hand, has not set out to find his home but to make a home. His goal is not to return to the life he left, but to establish a new life and a new people. Aeneas was a man with a mission. In other words, Aeneas had a manifest destiny; Odysseus did not.

This is, of course, not the only different between Odysseus and Aeneas. Odysseus is a “man of many turns” — he takes pride in subterfuge, stratagem, indirection, and evasion. Aeneas, in contrast, even before he has established a bourg of his own has all those bourgeois values that a solid, stolid people like the Romans wold have wanted in their founding father. These are indeed two very different men.

While Odysseus was sidetracked for seven years by Calypso, and although he admitted that Calypso was more beautiful than Penelope (the former was a Goddess, after all, or at least a nymph), he ultimately left Calypso and the possibility of immortality with her in order to get back to home and to Penelope. Aeneas, too, had a notable dalliance on his journey, with Dido, Queen of Carthage. Aeneas jilted Dido when reminded of his mission to found Rome, and Dido offed herself (being thrown over for a city that doesn’t even exist yet must be tough). Dido’s being jilted by Aeneas provides the backstory to the Punic Wars, making the love affair more than tragic. In contrast, there was no Hannibal from the island of Ogygia to take revenge for Odysseus leaving Calypso.

Since the end of the Cold War it has become a commonplace to make comparisons between the Roman Empire and contemporary America. Even before the end of the Cold War one would hear references to Pax Americana, and recent US wars (and US-sponsored wars) have been relentlessly criticized as imperial. Certainly both Rome in classical antiquity and America in modern industrialized civilization represent the dominant powers in the Western world, and as such they are rightly examined for parallels.

There is, it must be said, some justification for this parallelism. The US is a political experiment that draws equally from the two greatest exemplars of political power in the ancient world: Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism. One tends to think more about the democratic heritage, but the Roman republican heritage is no less significant. The Federalist Papers were signed “Publius” and not “Demosthenes.” More than a parallelism between Rome and America, there is also an element of descent with modification.

The manifest destiny of Rome and America, however, I do not credit to descent with modification, but to parallelism and affinity of temperament. The Romans created a polyglot empire of many peoples, and eventually made Roman citizenship open to anyone who would exert themselves for Rome. America, more or less, made herself open to the peoples of the world, and assimilated diverse cultures and ethnicities no less relentlessly than Rome. (Yes, of course, there are important exceptions to both of these examples.)

How do you give shape and structure to a society of diverse peoples of diverse backgrounds and diverse beliefs? You do so by giving them a mythology based on the future, and not on the past. Most peoples the world over have taken their identity from their past, from their roots, from the origins, and I have remarked above that, like all peoples of antiquity, the Romans too sought authenticity at the source. But they also had Aeneas and his manifest destiny: that is to say, manifest destiny displaced into the past.

America, too, once had its manifest destiny in the past, and looked upon its Pilgrim fathers and its founding fathers and men who left the Old World for the Promise of the New World, much as Aeneas left Troy, that great ancient city, to found Rome, that great city of destiny. Aeneas, fatefully, founded the Eternal City.

What can possibly come after or beyond the Eternal City? The Future City. The land of the future. The people of the future. The nation that would project itself into the future. The nation possessed of manifest destiny.

With the emergence of the idea of manifest destiny, American authenticity was transformed from the past into the future, and thereby separating itself from most nations and most peoples in history. Identification with the future, with possibility, with potential, is a rare thing in human history, and it accounts, at least in part, for American exceptionalism.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Manifest Destiny: Roman and American”

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