Paul Krugman recently appealed to the example of ancient Rome in making a point about Trump’s threat to our Republican institutions. In his column, “How Republicans End,” Krugman argued that “Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms.”
This prompted a response from noted Roman historian Mary Beard, who wrote in her blog A Don’s Life,
“I’m not sure how we should feel about ancient Rome becoming an increasingly popular comparison for modern politics: both a mixture of delight and fear, I guess. . . and with a recognition that these comparisons tend to come in waves, and will retreat again soon.”
While she allowed that “There is obviously something in this,” she also cautioned that, “as with all such comparisons it conceals as much as it reveals.”
She argued that, “There were all kinds of other factors at play, which may — or more likely may not — be relevant,” mentioning “social and economic changes caused in part by the influx of slavery,” which are clearly not relevant today, adding, “and there is also a question of what kind of historical change we are dealing with.
“OK, the Republic DID in the end collapse. But the nostalgic view (held by ancients and moderns alike) of the early and middle Roman Republic as a place where politics was done honourably and properly, unlike the later period, doesn’t stand up in its simple form.”
In other words, there was never a time in Roman history when the Republic was not afflicted with corruption. We might note that the same is true of our own Republic.
Krugman was grateful for the critique, tweeting that, “Honored to see Mary Beard noticing what I write! Indeed, the Roman Republic had its virtus but was no role model.”
Krugman is hardly the first to make such comparisons. In 2005, novelist Robert Harris, who has set a series of novels in late Republican Rome, drew a comparison between George W. Bush and the Roman strongman, Pompey the Great. In “Pirates of the Mediterranean,” Harris argued:
IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.
The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.
Though Harris pointed out that “It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case,” Krugman has shown that even without a terrorist attack, such comparisons can carry weight, even if a historian cautions we do not read too much into them.
History is a record of such facts as we can glean from the past but also their interpretation, and history is constantly suffering revision based on what is current, from feminism to post-colonialism.
For a long time, it was accepted that Rome fell. Then it became vogue to say it “transitioned” out of existence. The American experiment might also fall, and its fall might someday be interpreted as a transition as well. The truth is known only to those who experience it.
Just as it was once Romans vs. the barbarians (everyone else), we once had Americans (to be translated as Anglo-Saxons) vs. savages and other less-than-equal inhabitants of this continent. Then we had multiculturalism and just as the distinction between Romans and barbarians gradually disappeared, so too did the distinction between white Americans and those with darker skins.
This blending of “races” bothers conservatives. It didn’t bother Romans so much, not for the most part. The Romans willingly extended their franchise throughout Italy, and eventually, the empire, and everyone became Romans. Even barbarians could become Romans. There was resistance, true, but the Romans weren’t racist in the way Anglo-Saxons have proven to be racist.
Rome’s darker skinned emperors were not attacked because they weren’t “white.” Septimius Severus was African, from what is now Libya. Philip the Arab was, well, something more than many Americans would accept under the existing Trump climate.
One historian,* a proponent of the “unpleasant” collapse of Rome as opposed to its transition, has pointed out that,
“Indeed, in the modern post-colonial world, the very concept of ‘a civilization’, be it ancient or modern, is now uncomfortable, because it is seen as demeaning to those societies that are excluded from the label. Nowadays, instead of ‘civilizations’, we apply universally the neutral word ‘cultures; all cultures are equal, and no cultures are more equal than others.”
Heresy, for Trumpism, for hell hath no fury like a conservative exposed to multiculturalism and the resultant loss of white privilege. Rome shared its franchise; Republicans won’t.
The Romans on the street who experienced the fall of Rome aren’t here to tell us how they felt about it any more than are those who experienced the fall of the Republic, or how they felt about their unwritten Constitution.
We, however, are alive, and whatever comparisons we may or may not make with our collective past, we are making history with each day we wake up and return to the fray. We know how we feel about the potential collapse of our own republic, and what needs to be done in answer to the threat.
Rome fell. The United States does not have to follow it’s example. Trump is a threat but the American experiment doesn’t have to end here.
* Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.