The insatiable appetite of broadcast media for compelling images has elevated Americans’ brawling at political rallies to a central place in the 2016 campaign. Whenever adjudication of political differences happens in the streets — instead of inside the voting booth — or with fists (or appears likely to do so), democracy is imperiled. If elections are swayed by those who feel entitled to riot, or to threaten or silence their political opponents, as do some Black Lives Matter protesters and some Donald Trump supporters alike, then we might indeed be embarking on a path that will result in traumatic changes to the American political system.
Degradation of republican institutions is not a new phenomenon. A mirror to the coalescing upheavals in America today is provided by that all-too-familiar doppelgänger, Rome. Last decade, anguish over the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq spawned shelves of books and reams of articles on how America had become a new Rome, risking overstretch and blowback. This decade, it might well be the image of a crumbling republic that invites the most comparison with events of two millennia ago. Perhaps it is precisely because of the timeless fascination of decline and fall that Rome remains a topic of endless discussion after more than 20 centuries.
Two new scholarly, yet popular, treatments of Rome may resonate particularly in America’s current time of troubles. The Cambridge don and public intellectual Mary Beard, in her sweeping SPQR, and the classicist Tom Holland, in his highly dramatic Dynasty, delve into the wicked doings and unending drama of a civilization almost unsettlingly modern. Complementing other recent Roman histories, such as Adrian Goldsworthy’s Augustus (2014) and Barry Strauss’s The Death of Caesar (2015), they explore the crucial moments of transformation and reconstruction in the Roman sociopolitical sphere. What each reveals, in the reading that we should care most about in light of our looming election, is the eternal, yet banal, lesson that national elites can ignore deep social divisions while steadily rigging the system in their favor for only so long before the plebeians catch on. Once that happens, only the most ruthless, cunning, and daring will emerge when the dust settles.
Idiosyncratically, Beard begins her history with the conspiracy of Catiline in 63 b.c., the event that marked the high point of the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero’s career. If she were going to flout standard chronology, one might have expected her to begin in 44 b.c., with Julius Caesar’s assassination, or possibly with the murders of the people’s champions, the Gracchus brothers, in 133 and 121 b.c. But Beard’s work is not intended as a straightforward chronicle; it is, rather, a triumph of interpretation. More than with any treatment since, perhaps, Edith Hamilton’s classic The Roman Way (1932), Beard’s readers will understand Rome, but how much they will know about Rome is another question.
But first, back to Catiline. Beard is careful to note that we might not be able to learn much directly from Rome’s travails, but our engagement with them can nonetheless teach us a great deal. Thus, the Catilinarian conspiracy is a good fit for our current national mood, as it reflected the desperation of many ordinary citizens during yet another financial crisis in Rome and their apparent willingness to support the violent schemes of a flamboyant (though bankrupt) member of the Roman elite. Anger at the vast fortunes amassed by the top slice of society, and a lack of faith in the political system, spurred on Catiline and his supporters. Yet just as important as the political programs of both Catiline the rebel and Cicero the defender was the way in which the public debates were dominated by the idea of what Rome was supposed to be. It was both to Jupiter and to Rome’s mythical founder Romulus that Cicero appealed in his peroration against Catiline. This appeal to ideals and origins also drives much of America’s current political contest.
The continuing power of foundational images is striking in both the Roman and the American case. Few Britons refer today to King Arthur when arguing over Brexit, nor do Japanese often invoke the sun goddess Amaterasu when debating fiscal policy. Yet the appeal to the idea of Rome as defined by its origins recurred at moments of great national drama, as the similar idea of America still does in U.S. politics. In each, the founding myth (or calling) is based on a perilous journey and the dangers faced in establishing a divinely inspired land.
Consider, for example, the opening lines of the Aeneid (in Robert Fagles’s magnificent translation):
Wars and a man I sing — an exile
driven on by Fate,
. . .
before he could found a city,
bring his gods to Latium, source of the
the Alban lords and the high walls of
Compare Virgil’s paean to the Augustan Roman spirit with the Puritan John Winthrop’s famous 1630 sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” which he delivered onboard his ship crossing the Atlantic to what would become Massachusetts Bay:
Wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world.
The divine strain is strong in both — the presumption that it is the gods who will bless or curse the endeavor and thus the responsibility of the citizen to shoulder the unending burden.
That’s not the only way the two foundation stories rhyme: Beard reminds us that Rome was, from its start, a city of immigrants, invited by the mythical founder Romulus. She ends her story just as idiosyncratically as she began it: in a.d. 212, when the emperor Caracalla bestowed citizenship on every free male of the Roman Empire. In Rome’s granting of citizenship and its responsibilities to ever wider groups of foreigners, and in the attendant battles over the definition of just what it meant to be a Roman, a modern American will see more than a distant echo of his own country’s path to greatness, as well as of its current political disputes.
Beard does her best to bring to life the often invisible plebeians, women, and slaves of the empire. But the reader will come away with only a basic knowledge of how the Roman army evolved, though historians from H. H. Scullard to Adrian Goldsworthy have identified the military as perhaps the main element of Rome’s sociopolitical system. The centuries-long development of Rome’s distinctive political mechanisms is deftly sketched but not explored in detail. At the end, a sympathetic reader may well feel what it was like to be Roman but he will have little understanding of how it all came to be.
The focus of both Beard and Holland on how a city-state empire at its height succumbed to the machinations of selfish strongmen and the violent outbursts of citizens who no longer believed that the republican system looked out for their interests will resonate painfully with today’s readers. Roman politics throughout the first century b.c. descended into a battle among self-interested groups that were made cohesive by clan and patronage loyalty. It was only when the ideal of the republic had been fatally undermined by the clash of private armies led by Julius Caesar and Pompey, and when Rome was terrorized by politically active gangs of thugs, that all pretense could be dropped. Caesar, and even more so his successor Octavian (Augustus), gained popular support not only because of their military victories but also because they offered a new idea of Rome that was becoming apparent below the veneer of tradition.
In contrast to Beard’s impressionistic approach, Holland paints like a Dutch Master, meticulously detailing how one family monopolized power in the greatest empire in history and then precipitously lost it. The author of Rubicon, a fine popular work on the fall of the Roman republic, Holland here shows a family drama as a cautionary tale of what happens when personality takes over politics. As Rome suffered through a century of civil unrest and war, the new autocracy instituted by Augustus necessarily depended increasingly on the character of individual emperors. Such was the price paid by the former republic for stability after a century of increasing upheaval.
As Holland demonstrates in exquisite detail, while it took decades of civil war to destroy the republic, the intrusion of the image of the emperor into nearly every facet of daily life, from coinage to public statues, occurred in almost no time at all. The decisions that ruled the lives of the empire’s subjects were increasingly hidden from view, moved from the Forum to the imperial precincts on the Palatine Hill. A people that had prided itself for centuries on the public settlement of all questions affecting the republic quickly satisfied itself with a fictive political role at best, instead gorging on salacious stories and gossip about those who held absolute power and being entertained with the now proverbial bread and circuses. The enervation of the Roman spirit of liberty was complete by the time the Julio-Claudian dynasty died with the assassination of the abominable Nero in a.d. 68.
It is too easy to read into the past the roadmap of our future, and it would be unreasonable to contend that American politics is moving in the direction of imperial rule. No president yet has dared suggest he won’t pack up his suitcases at the end of his term. Yet an American public ignorant of public policy and how government works, following merely the most artfully packaged disinformation from leaders of both parties and a partisan press while more interested in sports and entertainment, is complicit in the attenuation of its freedom. At the same time, there are indeed worrying signs about the public veneration of our leaders: The beatification of Barack Obama severed popular opinion about a political leader from reality for perhaps the first time in American history (except, maybe, for JFK). The aggrandizement of the presidency has been occurring for decades, and this distorting trend is steadily chipping away at the Constitution.
The phenomenon of Trumpism is another step in the process of the triumph of personality over ability and experience, and the gutter battles now being fought over the candidates’ families is a sign of depravity among political “professionals” that the Romans would have known all too well. Should this not prove a temporary aberration in U.S. politics, a tale like Holland’s — of sanguinary plotting, brutal capriciousness, and the constant risk of upheaval — might gradually come to dominate the American political imagination. That alone would mark a tragic loss of the balance so carefully created by the Founding Fathers, a balance, ironically, based on the unwritten constitution of the Roman republic.
– Mr. Auslin is the author of the forthcoming book The End of the Asian Century.