Historian Niall Fergusson, this week, complains about the latest round of journalistic analogies, increasingly frequent since the 2016 election, he points out, between the current state of the US and the late Roman Republic. “The only thing to be said in favor of this analogy”, he says, “is that it beats ‘We are the Weimar Republic’.”
There is some truth to the adage that those who ignore history are bound to relive it. It is even more true that while history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. We listen to the present, and we hear echoes of the past.
I agree with Ferguson that we are not Rome. In many ways, we aren’t even anything like Rome. But our construction of the Roman past, like our construction of any other past, is a useful field in which to sit and contemplate our current struggles, opportunities, and threats.
We don’t know very much about the past. Even for periods that are relatively as heavily documented as late-Republican Rome, we have at best a rough surface, cobbled together from the accounts of a few interested observers drawn from a very narrow cross-section of society. Other periods of our past are imagined on the basis of little more than a few flakes of stone and the occasional bone fragment.
We fill in the gaps and give the picture some depth by imagining what things, people, and actions could have connected the fragments we see. This imagination is deeply rooted in the present. We take a few old things, and, using what we know in the present, we imagine connections between them.
Individually, we don’t know much more about the present than we do about the remote past. We know a very small and narrow patch of the present in more depth than the rest, but we imagine the rest. We look at the few things we know about the wider world, and imagine connections between them based on what we know of our immediate surroundings.
Our models of the present have a great deal in common with our models of the past. It isn’t surprising then, that we have no trouble using the one, to help us think about the other. Ferguson argues, using Seven Days in May, one of my favourite book/films combos, that the study of ancient Rome has no predictive power for contemporary US history. He is right about that. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a helpful framework for asking questions about what decisions we should make as a community, what dangers await us as polities, and how we should conduct ourselves as citizens. The Roman past, like any other past, holds valuable lessons for the present.
I hear its echoes. In the current immigration crisis, which is fundamentally about the ability of non-US citizens to participate in the US experiment, I hear echoes of the Social Wars. In the monotonic and repetitive campaign rhetoric of Bernie Sanders, which is fundamentally a call for a return to largely imaginary values of fairness, humility, and collectivism, I hear echoes of Cato the Younger’s speeches. In the paralysis and abdication of the constitutional oversight role of the US Congress, I hear echoes of the rise of the Principate of Augustus.
That doesn’t make us Rome, but hearing each of those echoes, some stronger than others on different days, focuses my mind and helps me think about what we are going through. I could equally hear echoes of the rise and fall of the chiefdoms I believe existed in the Eastern Baltic in the mid-Holocene, but I don’t think my thoughts about them would be as intelligible to my family and friends. I could focus on the echoes I hear in Trump’s tweets of Cleon, Son of Cleanenetus, who was the first Athenian politician, according to Aristotle, “to use unseemly shouting and coarse abuse”, and “seems, more than anyone else, to have been the cause of the corruption of the democracy by his wild undertakings”, but I choose not to.
Most days, I choose to focus on the echoes of the Fall of the Roman Republic. I listen to them to help me think more clearly about a present that is just as mysterious, challenging and opaque as the remote past, but which is infinitely more dangerous, because, unlike any of our pasts, it can end us.
2 thoughts on “Trump, the fall of the Roman Republic, and the place of analogy in historical thought”
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