That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Three days after 9/11, as the Twin Towers continued to burn, a near-unanimous United States Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The lone dissenter, Representative Barbara Lee, warned that the resolution gave a “blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.”
Representative Lee was right. In the sixteen years since 9/11, these 60 words have been used to justify at least 37 military operations in 14 countries under George W. Bush and Barack Obama alone, many targeting groups that played no role in the attacks. The Trump administration, too, continues to pursue covert military actions under the AUMF that only occasionally emerge into the news cycle — as with the mysterious deaths of four US soldiers in Niger this October. Expressing surprise at their presence, Senator Lindsey Graham, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged, “This is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time or geography.”
I felt a shock of recognition as I read Graham’s words. Earlier that evening, my graduate seminar on empire in the Roman imagination had discussed Jupiter’s prophecy in the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid:
His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono;
imperium sine fine dedi.
For the Romans I place neither boundaries nor time limits on power;
I have given them empire without end.
Most readers, analogizing imperium with its English cognate, understand this as a promise that Rome’s territorial “empire” (imperium) will be “without end” (sine fine) in space or time (the Latin finis can refer to either type of boundary, and sometimes to purpose, as I’ll return to below). But long before imperium denoted the geographical entity or political abstraction now known as empire, it referred to an elected official’s legal permission to command troops within a specific region or scope (provincia). In the sense most common in Virgil’s day, then, Jupiter is granting the Romans an ex post facto AUMF: authorization for the “military force without limit” by which Rome would conquer the Mediterranean world, and finally herself.
In her 2001 speech against pursuing an “open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target,” Representative Lee warned Congress not to “repeat past mistakes” like the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which escalated America’s long and divisive war in Vietnam. But the Romans’ shifting uses and abuses of imperium provide older, and equally troubling, commentary on America’s nebulous “war on terror” — which has by now outlasted the Vietnam War and shows no signs of abating. If history does not repeat itself, but rhymes, then Rome’s “warfare without bounds” resonates with America’s present outward and inward strife. As Aeneas says to the Cumaean Sibyl, after she prophesies a new war in Italy that will reprise the one at Troy:
“No new or unexpected form of suffering appears to me, o virgin;
I’ve foreseen them all and experienced them before, in my own spirit.”
Everyone who tried to avoid political debate over the holidays knows that opinions, like history, can be circular. Our political views, our perceptions of the world, and our readings of texts are interdependent and self-perpetuating (sine fine?). This is no less true for the Aeneid than for Trump’s tweets. Readers of the poem have historically fallen into two camps. To “optimists,” the Aeneid expresses hope that Augustus would make Rome great again after taking over the failing republic. On such a reading, Jupiter’s speech in Book 1 gives a divine mandate to Rome’s Mediterranean dominance as well as Augustus’ dominion over Rome, both a fait accompli by Virgil’s time.
But “pessimists” like me point out that Rome ruled an empire long before it obeyed an emperor: it had already (supposedly) conquered “almost the whole inhabited world” under Republican leaders. Augustus’ prime territorial contribution was the annexation of Egypt after a skirmish against Mark Antony and Cleopatra, later recast as a victory for the ages. Calling himself “first citizen” rather than “emperor,” Augustus paid lip service to Republican precedent while eroding former bounds on individual power, including term limits and colleagues in office. By accumulating military, political, economic, juridical, and religious functions into his single charismatic person and permanently institutionalizing his supreme power of command (maius imperium—there’s that word again!), Augustus founded what we now call imperial (in the sense of monarchical) rule at Rome.
But Jupiter’s imperium-granting speech falsely conflates Rome’s geographical empire with Augustus’ personal supremacy as a two-for-one deal of manifest destiny. This echoes the alternate facticity of state-sponsored speech, then as now. Compare the monument in Ankara that preserves our best copy of Augustus’ Res Gestae:
Below is a copy of the acts of the Deified Augustus by which he placed the whole world under the sovereignty [imperio] of the Roman people.
In the first-person account that follows, Augustus magnifies his extension of Rome’s borders (fines, 26) — in part, one could argue, to distract from his expansion of powers at home. The Res Gestae is as defensive as it is aggressive, insisting that Augustus acted legally, morally, and through “unanimous consensus” rather than for personal gain.
Augustus’ self-defensiveness is one manifestation of Rome’s longstanding obsession with validating its use of force. In Virgil’s poem, Jupiter gives Roman imperium a supernatural seal of approval (sic placitum, “thus it pleased”). In historical practice, this was done by the fetial priesthood, an office that Augustus occupied proudly in the Res Gestae and may have helped revive.
These priests were charged with declaring war for Rome and enlisting Jupiter’s support as divine protector of good faith (fides). In an ancient ceremony described by Livy, a fetial priest would travel to the enemy’s territory and articulate grievances publicly, calling the gods to witness. If Rome’s demands had not been met within 33 days, the priest would ritually declare war by throwing a spear into the enemy’s territory. As cynical observers noted, Rome would go on to take over much of the known world in the name of fides and self-defense. As Rome’s borders expanded, a piece of land in the city was even designated enemy territory, to save fetials quite a hike to throw their spear.
What is the Authorization for the Use of Military Force if not a modern-day fetial spear, propelled by righteous rage in the name of self-defense, hurled before the gods of public opinion and international judgment? While the Romans were careful to name their enemies, though, Congress gave their authorizing consensus to any actions the president might deem appropriate against any parties he could connect with 9/11. This bestowed the commander-in-chief, then and now, with maius imperium unbounded in time and space, invisible and unaccountable to all but himself.
Sic non placitum: the media gods immediately protested. A decade before 9/11, George H. W. Bush had announced his war in the Persian Gulf with the infelicitous words, “I have crossed the Rubicon.” His dynastic successor was now cast as Caesar, leading US troops across a Rubiconian Tigris. Doonesbury depicted Bush the Younger declaring a “Pox Americus” in place of the Pax Americana, a legionary helmet now perched above the asterisk by which creator Garry Trudeau denoted the dubious basis of his power (remember those hanging chads?). This grapheme rhymes with the six- or eight-rayed star that signified Julius Caesar on Roman coins but reverses its legitimizing intent, simultaneously recollecting Astérix’s resistance to Caesar’s invasion of Gaul.
Bush himself denied any imperialistic intentions: “We have no territorial ambitions. We don’t seek an empire.” But Caesar’s territorial gains were the product of his pursuit of imperium in another sense: military command that could yield gold and glory. Lucan frames the rise of such strongmen as a result of Rome’s global power and prosperity, which engendered corruption, greed, and scorn for legal constraints among increasingly power-hungry generals. Eventually, Lucan writes, “Caesar could no longer endure a superior, nor Pompey an equal,” terming their command regnum rather than imperium to highlight its autocratic nature.
The immediate cause of their conflict was Caesar’s pursuit of imperium sine fine in a temporal sense. Though military commands normally lasted one year, Caesar had already served a 5-year term in Gaul, and tried to “drag out [his] imperium” even further since it kept him immune from prosecution for war crimes. With Cato leading the call to “lock him up,” the senate refused to extend Caesar’s Gallic command; to exert imperium beyond their authorized limits was a capital crime. So Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in January 49 BCE, from Cisalpine Gaul into Italy, was a transgression of both territorial and legal fines tantamount to open war against his country. A cowardly senate fled Rome before his advance, abandoning the city to Caesar and ultimately imperial rule.
The US political climate after 9/11 was very different. Far from exercising Caesarian ambition or political acumen, Bush gained support he could never have earned on his own from the national cohesion that followed the attacks. In October 2002, Congress further propelled his invasion of Iraq with a resolution that one editorial characterized, in Lucanian style, as “hurried into law by servile majorities … much relieved to escape the chore — tiresome, unpopular, time-consuming, poorly paid — of republican self-government.” If Caesar was like lightning striking a majestic oak, then Bush was a low shrub engulfed in jet fuel.
Though Bush claimed multinational cooperation for “Operation Enduring Freedom,” it’s primarily from a global perspective that American aggression across the Tigris resembled Caesar’s transgression of the Rubicon. As Terry Jones pointed out in 2006, Caesar had named himself “protector of the Gauls” before massacring tens of thousands (even millions?) of them in the name of Roman self-defense. George W. Bush didn’t even keep body counts in Iraq. Far from justifying the war on an international stage, the AUMF degraded America’s fides and moral authority abroad, as the “Pox Americus” metastasized into an even broader battle against ISIS.
But the expansion of US imperium after 9/11 had equally cancerous, if less visible, effects within the American body politic. The USA PATRIOT Act broadened governmental powers to impinge on civil liberties, including domestic surveillance without a warrant and harsh detention and interrogation policies sine judicial review. These transgressions are bipartisan: just before leaving office, Barack Obama issued an executive order widening intelligence agencies’ ability to share citizens’ private information. But the AUMF’s expansion of presidential powers has culminated, thus far, in the Trump administration’s blurring of lines between governmental branches and offices, legal auctoritas and executive potentia, even truth and fiction. (On that front, “the first crime of the new regime” was its attempt to recast its lack of a popular majority as a consensus universorum by disputing the size of inaugural crowds.) Less than a year later, different parts of the electorate no longer perceive, inhabit, or obey the same reality. We are in the midst of a war “worse than civil,” waged not on the plains of Emathia but deep within the national psyche.
So in a way, the current era not only recalls but rewinds the Roman civil wars. Caesar’s wars and dictatorship ultimately resulted in Augustus’ maius imperium and personal accumulation of offices, but at least gave Rome peace in exchange. We, instead, have broken the Pax Americana and diminished our global authority in order to wage “wars that will win no triumphs.” US troops continue to die on faraway fields without their fellow-citizens’ knowledge or consent. Occasional traces surface by accident — most recently, the dismembered remains of Sgt. La David Johnson. But our commander-in-chief soon feeds these to the wolves of domestic discord, targeting the supposed “Other” within, from the grieving African-American widow to the Muslim Gold Star father. The autoimmune inward ravages of American imperium recall nothing so much as Lucan’s preface to the Civil War:
I sing of a worse than civil war, of war fought between kinsmen
over Pharsalia’s plains, of wickedness deemed justice; of how
a powerful people turned their own right hands against themselves;
of strife within families; how, with the first Triumvirate broken,
the forces of the quivering globe contended in mutual sinfulness;
standard ranged against standard, eagle matched against eagle,
spear threatening spear. What madness, my countrymen, how wild
that slaughter! With Crassus’ spirit still wandering unavenged,
while it was yet your duty to strip proud Parthia of Italian spoils,
you chose instead to grant our enemies the sight of Roman strife,
waging a war that could win no triumphs!
Though Lucan wrote a century after these events, the wounds were still fresh. Caesar’s civil wars resulted in the rise of the Julio-Claudian emperors, culminating with Nero, the archetypal “Bad Emperor” who would force Lucan’s suicide in 65 CE. Oddly, though, the poet’s wish that Rome had turned her sword against foreign enemies rather than herself channels the very rhetoric that originally justified imperial power. Augustus had healed domestic divisions, aiding and obscuring his own expansion of imperium, in part by deflecting Rome’s attention toward foreign terrors, real or imagined. In 32 BCE, he illegally obtained and publicized Antony’s private will — fake news, or VestalLeaks? — as evidence of Antony’s un-Roman loyalty toward his Egyptian consort (and Caesar’s former mistress) Cleopatra. Augustus then opened hostilities against his rival with the launch of a fetial spear declaring war against Cleopatra, now cast as a threat to Roman values.
Later, Augustus captured Roman imaginations through his quest for “vengeance” against the Parthians who in 53 BCE had captured the legionary standards of Crassus (then co-triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey). Long after Augustus recovered the standards through diplomatic means in 20 BCE, Romans continued to clamor for military expeditions across the Tigris — and remained largely silent on Augustus’ expansion of imperium into regnum at home. Perhaps such matters faded into the background for a thriving, prosperous, and increasingly cosmopolitan Rome that, thanks to Augustus’ patronage, was enjoying an artistic golden age almost unrivaled in world history.
In the US, though, our remembering rage from 9/11 has turned inward into our own viscera. Despite our nation’s Romulean origins in immigration and asylum, we have grown accustomed to illegal discrimination against whole classes of minorities; hate crimes against Muslims and ethnicities conflated with them by popular ignorance (much as the Caesarian mob killed the wrong Cinna); and a national climate of incivility that has given just about everyone a reason, right or wrong, to feel aggrieved or under attack.
Worse, our eminently asteriskable forty-fifth president exacerbates such internal divisions to shore up his own tenuous grasp on power. In the hindsight of history, the artistic ferment and open expression of Augustus’ age may compare favorably to the current administration’s open attacks on women, minorities, artists, and future thinkers and teachers. The corporate defunding of a 2017 production of Julius Caesar starring a “provocative but inexact stand-in for President Trump” not only misapprehends the message of Shakespeare’s tragedy; it makes the reign of George W. Bush, which saw high-profile productions of the same play, look comparatively progressive. We no longer expect leaders to wield mind, pen, and sword with Caesar’s agility, much less his tolerance for criticism or clemency toward opponents. The present administration, which shows about as much concern for the rules of grammar as it does for law, makes me nostalgic for the days when the Onion could run a (real) fake news piece entitled “Bush Regales Dinner Guests With Impromptu Oratory On Virgil’s Minor Works.”
This impels a pessimistic (re)reading of imperium sine fine in the Aeneid, informed (as all readings are) by our historically conditioned experience. Like many other optimistic prophecies in the epic, Jupiter’s speech in Book 1 distorts the truth for rhetorical motives — here, to reassure Venus that Aeneas’ descendants will survive. Juno ultimately extracts a superseding promise that the Trojans’ bloodline and culture will be subsumed into the local Italian population, rendering their victory Pyrrhic indeed. By the end of the poem, Rome’s city walls have yet to be built. Instead, at the very moment of victory, Aeneas loses control over his emotions and buries his sword in his defeated opponent’s body. This final act of violence, triggered by the memory of a dead friend, unleashes the fury that Roman rule was supposed to contain, in Jupiter’s ideal vision:
The dreadful gates
whence issueth war, shall with close-jointed steel
be barred impregnably; and prisoned there
the heaven-offending Fury, throned on swords,
and fettered by a hundred brazen chains,
shall belch vain curses from his lips of gore.
From its earliest meaning, as the power of life and death over others, imperium existed only within confines: anything otherwise would be tyranny or anarchy. Aeneas’ final (ab)use of this power further reminds us that imperium over others ultimately depends on rule over one’s self. In both cases, a lack of restraint, boundaries, or goals — the darker connotations of imperium sine fine — would have struck many Romans as dangerous indeed.
Aeneas’ remembering rage at the end of the epic puts him into parallel with the Trojans’ enemy Juno, whose own remembering rage (memorem iram) drove much of the plot. Jupiter’s final question to his wife — “what end will there be?” — might apply just as well to the modern US as we, too, struggle not to “become the evil we deplore.” On a negative reading, imperium sine fine connotes the ability to use military force over others without end or purpose — even without a goal-post (one meaning of meta in the prior line). The 9/11 terrorists at least had a target in their sights. It is increasingly hard to imagine how, when, or with what success the US pursuit of vengeance can end as it extends from figures like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to ill-discerned targets the world over, taking countless innocent lives in the process.
As the opening monologue of HBO’s Rome suggests, it is easier to topple foreign kings than to lead a representative government:
Four hundred years after the last king was driven from the city, the Republic of Rome rules many nations, but cannot rule itself.
One unintended consequence of America’s expanding global imperium, like Rome’s, has been a creeping expansion of the chief executive’s powers over the state and its citizens. From Caesar to Caligula to Caracalla, Roman history shows that as autocrats break free of legal and ethical constraints, their own self-control (or lack thereof) becomes the measure of their rule. This places terrifying destructive potential within reach of the tail that wags the dog of Trump’s America. The head of the world’s most powerful body politic is no longer expected to articulate, much less advance, any coherent goals or policies (another sense in which American imperium increasingly lacks finibus).
Indeed, Trump shows no compunctions against embroiling the world in nuclear warfare out of ego-driven, Twitter-fed rage. In Roman culture, the foldable curule chair that accompanied magistrates symbolized the rights and responsibilities of imperium; a sphere signified Rome’s collective ambition to bestride the world like a colossus, by the grace of her gods and the might of her leaders. In their place, the nuclear football that trails Trump symbolizes his autarchic, Senecan potential to ignite universal conflagration on a whim with “fire, fury, and frankly, power, the likes of which the world has never seen.”
Sixteen years almost to the day after the AUMF’s passage, debating a (failed) bipartisan bill to end it, American elected officials finally set the resolution within a longer historical arc:
“Little did I realize having cast that vote, 15 or 16 years ago, that I wasn’t just voting to go after the terrorists responsible for 9/11. I was voting for the longest war in the history of the United States of America, a war that continues to this day in Afghanistan,” said [Senator Dick] Durbin. “I don’t think there was a single member of the senate, either party, on the floor who would have believed that that’s what we were voting for.”
There will soon be people fighting in a war who were not alive when the attacks on September 11, 2001 occurred. “Should one generation be able to bind another generation?” [Senator Rand] Paul asked. “Realize if we don’t force these authorizations to expire, this war could go on forever.”
Lucan similarly complains that his own generation still suffers the consequences of a war they never chose:
The nations in this conflict were dealt
a wound too heavy for their age alone to bear;
here more than simply life and limb it was that
perished: we were laid low for centuries, all
generations doomed to slavery were conquered
by those swords. What fault did we, their sons,
their grandsons, commit that we deserved to be
born under tyranny? Did we fight fearfully or
shield our throats from the sword? The guilt
for others’ cowardice is pinned to our necks.
If fate gave us, born later, a lord and master,
it should have also granted us chance to fight!
Lucan’s imperial “slavery” was, of course, the unforeseen cost of the imperium that Nero’s predecessors had seized. Rome was not the figure astride the globe, after all, but the sphere beneath the tyrant’s feet. We Americans, too, whatever our party affiliations, are bound together under a shared traumatic past that continues to compress our freedoms and identities, both locally and globally. As history rhymes and reverses, imperium sine fine seems a terrifying thing indeed. But like it or not, it’s ours — America nostra.
Nandini Pandey maintains that pessimism is a form of idealism. She thanks Grant Nelsestuen for helpful comments on this piece, the bastard brainchild of courses she taught in Fall 2017 at UW-Madison on Imagining Empire and Revenge.
This article first appeared on eidolon