“An outpost of the Roman Empire”: or, an unusual historical analogy

Something caught my eye in yesterday’s New York Times story on the potential contested convention for the Republican presidential nomination. The story focused on the fight – which is already underway – for a select group of RNC delegates who will arrive at the convention “unbound”, not obliged by primary or caucus results to vote for particularly candidates. If the delegate count is close, these unbound delegates may be in a position to select the nominee. I was less interested in the nitty-grity of Republican party politics than a striking quote from a Republican official from American Samoa:

Almost all of them [the unbound convention delegates], after all, come from places that have had little or no influence in presidential elections, like American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands and North Dakota.

“We want to be able to change our minds,” said Mr. Malae, the American Samoa Republican Party chairman.

Being uncommitted and unbound, Mr. Malae said, was precisely the point for a place like his territory, which has no vote in Congress or in the Electoral College. “We joke that this must have been what it was like being in an outpost of the Roman Empire,” he said.

It is unclear exactly what Mr. Malae is referring to by “this” – the lack of a vote in Congress or the strategy to select unbound RNC delegates – but the point seems to be that American Samoa is neglected and starved of metropolitan attention. But why make an analogy to the Roman Empire?

My sense is that normally the Roman Empire stands in such political analogies for two things: an impressively effective imperial state, getting things done for the peoples of Empire (the Life of Brian stereotype) or an impossibly decadent empire, doomed to decline and fall. But I’m not sure that Mr. Malae’s analogy quite falls into either – though I suppose the referent might be to the Roman departure from Britain in 410 CE, which tends to be mediated in popular culture through the Arthur Legend, but I don’t think he means to say that the USA is abandoning Samoa forever. Rather, the idea seems to be that American Samoa is a remote and forgotten imperial possession that deserves attention from the centre.

Although scholars do now tend to think of Roman imperial governance as quite minimal and as passive – the inevitable form of an extensive premodern state – I wonder if the analogy here actually refers to a stereotype about a rather more modern empire: the British Empire of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, on which the sun never set, and whose colonies often suffered apparent neglect in the face of limited imperial resources? Samoa was once entangled in this empire: New Zealand administered the islands to the west of American Samoa from 1914 to 1962.

I suggest, then, that it would have been rather impolitic for an American Samoan to have compared the US to the one of the other Western states to have possessed parts of Samoa, so Mr. Malae transformed an imperial stereotype and conjured up a Roman Empire rather different to the ones imagined by Monty Python or countless op-eds on decline and fall.

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