Postmodern Conservative


Roman Meanderings: Dante, Manent, Rubicon, and HBO’s Rome

I’ve been on something of a Roman kick for the last half-year. Part of it’s due to needing an occasional change of pace from a more extensive study of American political history, and part of it’s due to trying to think about “late-republican times.”

But it’s really the fault of Dante and Manent. 

I know that reading Dante is supposed to save your life, as Rod Dreher’s forthcoming book will make the case for, and having finally almost made it through the Purgatorio now, after several false starts on that mountain, I won’t deny that it can provide a literary spur to one’s prayer and penance, but a lesser way Dante can change your life is to draw you into the unfamiliar world of his source material, which in poetic terms particularly, has a great deal to do with the Roman transition from a republic to a monarchy. 

In my case, I was led to explore the poets Statius and Lucan. I had scarcely heard of these guys, but there they were in Dante’s honored circle of poets, and as the notes to the Divine Comedy revealed (besides what seems to me a superior translation, the Hollander edition contains some of the most extensive notes), they were being alluded to throughout the poem. I’m saving a full tackling of the graceful Virgil for later — for some reason it was these lesser and rougher poets that appealed to me. 

Lucan is very much lesser, but often a hoot. His (incomplete) epic Pharsalia (aka Civil War) written in the days of Nero, gives you the main events in the civil war initiated by Julius Caesar — the crossing of the Rubicon, the battle of Pharsalus, the death of Pompey, Cato’s final days, etc. — but “epic-izes” them, thus tossing out all concern for accuracy and even-handedness, the better to let him denounce Caesar to his heart’s content. It feels a bit like the collective Roman soul, after quietly enduring nearly a century of increasingly worse Caesars, finally shouting out the full measure of its hatred.

It’s fascinating that Dante’s Comedy, given its rather serious recommendation of “Caesar-ism,” refers so often to Lucan. Dante’s Lucan-use fits with his astounding placement of Ceasar’s intransigent republican opponent Cato just inside the realm of the saved, but not with his astounding placement of his republican assassins Brutus and Cassius in the very lowest circle of the damned. The Hollander notes taught me to see that a number of the Lucan references are present to allow Dante to subtly signal his disapproval of Caesar’s character and actual overthrow of the republic, even as he argues for an Italian return to rule by an emperor. 

Lucan himself, like most all the rest of the pagan statesmen, philosophers, and poets Dante esteems, is found in Limbo, a curious part of the poeticized hell reserved for unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans, and where there is no punishment per se. But Statius, only five years younger than Lucan, is presented by Dante, contrary to all source information we have about him, as having secretly converted to Christianity, around a.d. 90. So Dante and his guide, Virgil, meet up with Statius in purgatory, rather than in hell. 

About the quality of Statius’s poetry, judgments vary widely, from Clement Greenberg using it as an example of art so inferior and derivative as to belong to the class of the kitsch, to the one-step-down-from-Virgil esteem Dante apparently had for it. It does seem a last gasp of the Greco-Roman epic tradition, and it seems right to describe it, as C. S. Lewis did, as illustrating the transition from myth to allegory, and particularly in the representation of the gods. (In Lucan, the gods are nowhere to be seen.)

I found the key work, The Thebaid, by turns driving, very tiresome, delightfully over-the-top, and suggestive of greater depth. If some of those sensed depths seem likely to be rabbit-holes of thrice-refracted allusions to and allegorical uses of Greek and Roman myth, I’m certain comparisons to Virgil, and perhaps also to Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Apollonius, could be explored with profit.

The Thebaid’s most interesting feature is its continual meditation upon and lament about mankind’s fratricidal tendencies, in specific reference to the Theban myths, but with obvious application to Rome’s civil wars. Dante’s suggestion seems to be that such meditations, in a context where the gods of Rome no longer elicit sincere belief, and in the shadow of Nero-like emperors and the general depravity they represent, can lead one to be ready to hear the Christian gospel. There were significant numbers of Christians in Rome by the time of Statius, after all.

A historical-novel presentation of a very similar idea, but without any focus upon Statius, is Quo Vadis, published by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1896, and made into a film in 1951. I highly recommend both novel and film — if to a disputed degree they deserve the “Christian propaganda” tag sometimes given them, both are excellent at bringing Roman society to life, and are genuinely thoughtful considerations of the larger meaning of Rome’s story.

Now while my Dante-prodded wanderings amid the Latin poets have been perking my interest in Roman topics for some time, it was a recent book by another European Catholic, the truly great contemporary political philosopher Pierre Manent, that really sent it into overdrive. His Metamorphoses of the City, translated into English in 2013 and which I’ve only just gotten around to, provides us with perhaps the grandest consideration of the larger meaning of Rome’s story possible. 

At the center of this breathtaking work is an extended study of what Manent labels “the enigma of Rome.” The study is from the perspective of political philosophy, and makes particular use of Cicero’s De Re Publica and De Officiis. It is punctuated with what Montesquieu and Augustine say about Rome, and to lesser degree what Publius, Machiavelli and Strauss do also. I am at something of a loss for words to describe all that Manent is up to here: I notice his thought jumping back from the modern movement to the ancient polis and then back again, repeatedly back and forth, with Rome and Christianity in certain senses serving as the key stepping stones between them, but perhaps our Ralph Hancock, who wrote a fine review of the book for the CRB, will jump in himself to summarize things more fitly. 

The subtitle — “On the Western Dynamic” — can help us sense the purpose of the book, and some words from Manent himself can allow us to sense why Rome becomes so central to it. I’ll begin by quoting from a good introduction to Manent’s important theory of political forms, the slender volume Democracy without Nations? Manent’s theory holds that there are three basic political forms: the city, the empire, and the nation. 

Rome fascinates because it underwent the greatest political transformation ever seen. . . . Athens submitted to Philip of Macedon while retaining its form as a city. Rome, on the contrary, underwent a complete transformation as a political form; from a city it became an empire, a change of form that of course included a change of regime.

And here is Manent expanding this idea in Metamorphoses:

The form that succeeded the city was empire. The Western Empire, by contrast with the Eastern Empire, is a type of continuation of the city. The city of Rome deployed such powerful energies that it broke all the limits that circumscribed cities, as it joined to itself ever more numerous and distant populations to the point of seeming on the verge of assembling the whole human race. The Western empire surrendered the freedom of the city but promised unity and peace. It is a promise that was not kept or not entirely kept, but, as in the case of the city, the political and spiritual energies partially survived the fall of the form, and the imperial idea marked not only by the enduring prestige of the Roman Empire but also under an absolutely unprecedented form that is also proper to Europe, which is the Church . . . that seeks to gather all men in a new communion, more intimate than the closest-knit city, more extended than the vastest empire.

So moving into the medieval situation, Manent says,

the Europeans of that time were divided among the city, the empire, and the Church. The lived under the mixed and competing authorities of these three modes of human association. The cities that subsisted or revived were in competition with, often at war with, the Roman Empire that became the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, and the Church was in competition with both the cities and the empire, which were in competition with it. . . . The quarrel has to do with institutions, to be sure, but also, more profoundly, with the human type that must inspire human life. Whom is one to imitate? Must one follow the life of humble sacrifice for which Christ provides the model? Or must one rather lead the active and proud life of the citizen warrior who produced Rome and was produced by it? And among the pagans themselves, will we admire Cato, or Caesar? . . . It is in this radical perplexity and in order to confront [these divisions], that, I repeat, the modern project was born.

Well, while we may be turned toward Roman questions through such very scholarly Frenchmen, Poles, and Italians, the more typical American way to get on a Roman kick is through the Founders, and through Shakespeare. This might lead to considerations of the early Republic, in which Livy and perhaps Machiavelli become key, or into consideration of the late republic and early empire, which is the kick I’m on. 

Part of the attraction of the late republican period is the sheer drama of it, with so many clashing larger-than-life characters. Through certain writings of Cicero, Appian, Lucan, Suetonius, and most especially Plutarch, the key source for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, we can relive those heady, if ultimately rather discouraging, times. In our day, the story has been masterfully told by Tom Holland’s Rubicon, probably the most engaging narrative history I’ve read since John Lukacs’ The Duel. I’ve found it a huge help to my own studies, as Rubicon helps one see the larger picture and to fill in the gaps between the various biographical sketches you get in Plutarch, which you’d otherwise have to be fairly expert in the overlapping historical sources to explore yourself. 

Surprisingly, what I’ve found much less helpful is the HBO Rome mini-series, which also appeals to our taste for the involved political drama of the late republican era. I was initially pretty excited about it, ready to look past its HBO penchant to magnify the porny and the cynical. Let’s begin with its revisionist correction of a certain artistic tradition of presenting a cleanly idealized republican Rome, which was its excuse for the porn-iness, among other things. This overall correction was necessary, it’s just that it got seriously overdone. The gleeful icon-smashing and hype-filled revisionism that characterizes too many history scholars these days, seems to be the spirit that drives it. The result is that while Rome’s look is more accurate to the period than what you see with older films, the bottom line is that in every nearly every area where it stirs our thirst for knowledge and acts as if it’s giving us the real deal, including those areas concerning “everyday life,” we ultimately wind up feeling we can’t quite trust it. As we have reason not to.

As for the political history, it gets pretty screwed up in certain episodes. I have no problem with the creative insertion of the two “regular Roman soldier” characters, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, into (or in-between) various famous episodes, so that, for example, Pullo impregnates Cleopatra without Caesar knowing, and Vorenus just happens to land at a place where he can help smuggle Pompey out of Thessaly. That’s largely harmless fun. But when the writers alter the basic order of key political events, so that, for example, Octavian’s initial army-mustering occurs at a different time and in a very different manner than it actually did, it gets confusing and disorienting for those who know a bit of the real history. 

Nor is the invention of the Atia character and the elevation of her imagined feud with the real Servilia to one of world-historical significance helpful. You want to make to the case that lots of key events were actually initiated behind-the-scenes by scheming women? Fine, make the case as well as you can, but only with the available evidence. Once key players like Mark Antony become part of such yarn-spinning, the viewer cannot hope to disentangle the real history.

One cost is that it becomes very difficult to judge the actions and words of the republic’s defenders Cato, Cicero, and Brutus, actions and words which go the heart of how the republic understood itself as a regime. We have to have a solid sense of the political context to judge them, and we can’t when we’re uncertain how much of it has been re-jiggered. And although I did not see every episode, I’d describe the series’ overall attitude towards Cato and Cicero, and towards political details beyond the ones linked to personal machinations, as essentially dismissive. Though they had ample time, its makers displayed little of the boldness you saw in Lincoln, where Spielberg and Kushner would let a real political speech or discussion unfold for a bit. So the core of what is republican is in a strange way absent from the series; none of its “roads” lead us into examining the Rome that ought to matter to us most. Alas, most of them rather lead to the one-dimensional “realism” about politics found in Game of Thrones and such.

There are many brilliant aspects of Rome that I can’t dwell upon here, many triumphs of casting, writing, acting, costume, and set-design, but overall, it leaves you with too much of a burden to separate out its education from its mis-education. And, as just suggested, it eventually leaves you with a more fundamentally sour taste in your mouth.  

If you’d like a contrary view, here’s Martha Bayles’s praise of the first season. I’d nonetheless still say that if you’d like a dramatic presentation to draw you into the late republic’s history, you’d be better off beginning with Shakespeare, perhaps starting with the excellent 1953 film version of Julius Caesar, and then going to Plutarch, read alongside Hollander. I don’t know why I’m telling you so much about the mixed-bag of Rome, when I could be raving at length about the brilliance of Holland’s accomplishment instead, which is superior even simply in terms of entertainment value.

Anyhow, I hope you’ve enjoyed these meanderings, and that you’ll keep an eye out for Dreher’s book. Next time, I’ll dwell on the more strictly political things we Americans might need to learn from the fate of the late Roman republic.

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