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Blueprints of Empire: Ancient Rome and America

Evening Program

Thursday, September 6, 2018 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1L0208

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John Prevas and Steve Forbes (Photo: Brian James Gallery Photography)

History is a stage and upon that stage only the actors change, never the scenes. —Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Was Marcus Aurelius right? Do empires come and go, have their moment and then disappear from history’s stage? In their 2010 book Power, Ambition, Glory, Steve Forbes, editor-in-chief of Forbes, and historian and classicist John Prevas examined the rise and fall of ancient empires through an analysis of the political and moral leadership of the rulers who shaped them, with a parallel look at modern CEOs and how they fit into the framework of history.

The comparison between imperial Rome and contemporary America continues to surface even more frequently today. Both began as agrarian societies ruled by foreign kings: the Romans by Etruscans and the Americans by the English. Both revolted against monarchy and transitioned into republics, and then into empires. The republic, from 500 B.C. until the advent of Augustus as the sole ruler of Rome in 30 B.C., was the most democratic period in Rome’s history—an era when the lower classes and the aristocracy cooperated for the good of the city.

A series of wars with Carthage in the 3rd century B.C. set Rome on the path to empire and the most prosperous, yet tumultuous period, in its history. In becoming an empire, Forbes and Prevas observe, Rome sowed the seeds of her own destruction. Democracy gave way to autocracy as annually elected consuls were replaced by emperors appointed by the army.

In a similar scenario, America emerged from World War II to fill the power vacuum that had developed and became the strongest and most influential nation in history. In that period, the authors contend, the office of the presidency has taken on “imperial” trappings and the role of the popularly elected Congress has declined.

Forbes and Prevas come together to compare these two empires, their similarities and differences, and speculate on what that connection holds for America’s future.

National Museum of Natural History
Baird Auditorium
10th St & Constitution Ave, NW
Metro: Federal Triangle