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Armchair historians and dime-a-dozen political pundits (like yours portly) love to compare the United States to the Roman Empire, usually during its decadent latter-day decline. The comparison is an easy one to make; just like Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries, the United States possesses an underclass of wage slaves; an obsession with mystery religions and spiritualistic fads; an immigration crisis; a decadent, self-indulgent quasi-morality; declining birth rates; and a sense the precious liberty of the old Republic has been lost.
Yet for all those declinist comparisons—apt though they may be—Americans should extend their historical gaze back further, to the Roman Republic. That is what Dr. Steele Brand, Assistant Professor of History at The King’s College, urges Americans to do in an op-ed entitled “Why knowing Roman history is key to preserving America’s future” (thanks to a dear former of colleague of mine—and a regular reader of this blog—for sharing this piece).
The ancient Roman Republic, founded in 509 B.C. after the overthrow of the old, mysterious monarchy, was a vital republic of small yeoman farmers and citizen-soldiers that expanded by starts and fits to dominate the Mediterranean world. As Dr. Brand demonstrates, its unwritten constitution and emphases on local government, strong families, and a healthy citizenry allowed it to conquer the known world.
Dr. Brand also points out how enamored our own Founding Fathers were with republican Rome. Jefferson’s vision of an “empire of liberty“—a nation of small, independent farmers living clean and governing wisely by the sweat of their brows—clearly derives influence from Rome. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, the trio that wrote the Federalist Papers, shared the pseudonym “Publius” in honor of the Roman Publicola.
George Washington was famously called the “American Cincinnatus,” after the Roman farmer who put down his plow, repelled his invasion when called upon to do so by the Senate, and then promptly returned to farming once the threat had been vanquished. That act of humbly surrendering power is, like his Roman forebear, Washington’s greatest gift to and legacy for the United States.
Dr. Brand makes the point that America was “remarkably unoriginal” in its Founding, in the sense that it pulled generously from the lessons of ancient Rome (not just those of its glorious republican period, but also of the elements that allowed that republic to collapse). The American Revolution and the subsequent Constitution it birthed were conservative in nature, in the traditional, oldest sense of the word: the Founders sought to preserve the good order of the Roman tradition (as filtered through the long history of English liberties), and the Framers built a system of government that drew from Roman experience.
I have serious doubts about our ability to restore the American republic, also based on the Roman experience. The desire to restore the Republic was a dream that grew more and more bleary as decades and then centuries of imperial rule unfolded. If Robert Graves’s I, Claudius is to be believed, Emperor Claudius seriously sought to restore the Republic—but kept finding reasons not to do so (it’s much easier to make reforms when you’re in charge). The Senate lingered on as a ceremonial rump parliament, a body dedicated to honoring wealthy oligarchs in a kabuki theatre of republican politics, but without serving any true purpose. Sound familiar?
But perhaps history won’t rhyme. Perhaps good men will step forward again to lead our nation back to its decentralized, federalist roots. Maybe we’ll return to the manly virtues.
Perhaps. Ask Cicero.