What Rome Can Teach Us Today
Ancient lessons for modern politics
Mary Beard has written a kind of history as irony that makes comparisons between Roman and modern politics inevitable. Her book SPQR is a translation of Roman history into the English of today and offers insights into not only Rome's history but also the challenges of the present.
Romans – they’re just like us
Beard does not need to reference today's U.S. Congress to make readers appreciate the subservience of a Roman senator who, when asked to vote on a matter in an open ballot by the emperor Tiberius, responded, “Could you tell me in what order you will cast your vote, Caesar? If you go first I shall have something to follow. If you go last of all, I fear I might find myself inadvertently on the wrong side.” The anecdote can't help but make one think of the servility of some members of the U.S. Congress to powerful special interests such as the National Rifle Association.
We even hear echoes of the frequent denunciation of so-called political correctness by today's conservatives in comments made by Cato the Younger in 63 bc, “Long ago we lost the real names of things,” Cato warned. “Giving away other people's money is called ‘generosity’. Flagrant misbehavior is called ‘courage’. We've reached the tipping point and it's killing our country.”
Beard begins SPQR in 63 bc, with Cicero—an Obama-like political outsider (he was the first in his family to achieve high office and was born in the provinces) with an Obama-like gift for rhetoric. That was the year Cicero took office as consul of Rome—a political position that resembled the U.S. presidency— and then discovered a terrorist plot to assassinate him and his co-consul and burn down the city. Relying on the word of informers, Cicero arrested a group of young men who admitted their involvement in the conspiracy. But despite the arrests, Rome was gripped by panic: no one knew how far the conspiracy extended, and its leader, Catiline, managed to slip away and joined his paramilitary supporters in Tuscany. The Senate met to discuss its options; the debate is what Rome greatest historian, Sallust, has later made the centerpiece of his account of the episode. “In the case of other offences” thundered Cato the Younger, in the same speech in which he denounced his contemporaries’ tendency toward euphemism, "you can proceed against them after they have been committed; with this, unless you make sure it doesn't happen, there's no point appealing to the laws after it's happened. Once a city has been taken, nothing is left to the vanquished.” The thing to do, Cato suggested, was to execute the plotters immediately; that was the best way for Rome to project strength and persuade the other conspirators to give up and go home. The problem with Cato's idea, however, was that it was illegal.
If his argument nonetheless sounds familiar, that's because it is. Days before the first anniversary of 9/11, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush, appeared on television to sell the idea of invading Saddam Hussein's Iraq, “The problem here,” she mused on cnn, “is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Just like Cato's, her implication was clear: speedy preemptive action was the only way to prevent an irreparable catastrophe.
Like the Roman Republic did, the United States governs overseas territories through republican institutions; like Rome, as e pluribus unum, the Latin motto on the U.S. dollar bill, suggests, Washington prefers national unity to imperial diversity, encouraging assimilation by choice. Such features are relatively uncommon in world history, and it is even more unusual to find them in a single country. From this point of view, the United States is more like republican Rome than it is like many of the past century's authoritarian states.
Like the contemporary United States, Rome was made up of a culturally and ethnically diverse population, and like some Americans today, some prominent Romans doubted the loyalty of certain minority groups. In the year 111, for instance, Pliny the Younger, then the governor of Bithynia, a Roman province in northwestern Anatolia, encountered the adherents of a strange and relatively new religion called Christianity, then still illegal under Roman law. Pliny felt bound to subject the Christians to loyalty trials, and he wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan asking whether the ad hoc procedures he had adopted, among them making use of an anonymously provided list of alleged local Christians, were acceptable. The emperor's reply was remarkable. The Christians “must not be hunted out,” he wrote. “If they are brought before your court and the case against them is proved, they must be punished…. But anonymous lists must not have any place in the court proceedings. That would set a terrible precedent. It's un-Roman.” Despite Rome's official intolerance of Christianity, Trajan's lesson is worth remembering: strong state values can be invoked to avoid setting particularly disastrous precedents in the treatment of marginalized minority groups.
And the emperor Theodosius’ decree of ad 380, which required all Roman subjects to believe in the Christian Trinity and led inevitably to the persecution of religious dissidents, should remind us to be wary of politicians who seek to prohibit the expression of an unpopular belief or mandate the acceptance of a popular one.
There is plenty to learn from the Romans—if we have the courage to entertain the possibility. Viewed in this light, SPQR is a broad introduction to the best thousand years of Roman history that proves why, as Beard writes on its first page, “Rome is important”—and reminds us why it is particularly important now.
Adapted from the review by Michael Fontaine in Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016