Nandini Pandey
Jan 9, 2018

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.

Maps (left) of current US military operations under the AUMF and (right) Rome’s expansion of imperium, before and after the emperors.

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.”

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