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Response to ‘American, not Roman’

| Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The recent political climate has sparked many conversations about the role of popular opinion, the ramifications of our democracy and the role of executive authority. This is one of those conversations. As a classics major, I have made it my business to study the subtleties and toils of what’s known as the “crisis of the Roman Republic,” the transition of Rome from republic to empire. For readers who haven’t kept up with their Plutarch or Livy, the fall involved the political battles between the optimates (the senatorial aristocracy) and the populares (the Roman male citizens outside the senatorial class); this was a prolonged battle between aristocratic and tribunal (popular) control. Spoiler alert: the populists won.

So, anyway, the title of sophomore Kit Jones’ Viewpoint, “American, not Roman,” piqued my interest. Wishing to feed my enthusiasm for Roman history and political philosophy, I hoped to read a compelling assessment of the American political environment interwoven with Roman parallels. Instead, a slew of empty, democratic platitudes and “alternative facts” about the Roman Republic brought my spirits below their usual Monday morning gloom (not a big Monday guy). Jones tremendously misunderstands the fall of the Roman Republic and its political progeny that influenced the founding of the United States.

In his piece, Jones attests that the Founding Fathers “made the conscious effort to avoid a Roman-style republic by adding representation by the people … rather than just having a (sic.) elite, ruling class that made decisions.” This assertion is doubly incorrect. For one, the Founding Fathers drew heavily on Rome to model our representative republic: the Nation utilizes Roman architecture (from the Architect of the Capitol’s website: “Jefferson wanted Congress housed in a replica of a Roman temple,” hence, the Capitol building), Roman symbols (the fasces festoons the neoclassical architecture of D.C.) and Roman language (e pluribus unum, semper fidelis, novus ordo seclorum, etc.).

Secondly, the Founding Fathers intentionally created the Senate (name taken from Latin Senatus, a derivative of Latin senex meaning “old man”) as a sort of wisdom control over the ravenous beast that is popular opinion. This idea evolved from the Senate of the Roman Republic, which was a conscious aristocratic control over the populares. Keep in mind that until 1913 the Senate was elected by state legislatures rather than popular vote. The unbridled populist faction that brought and end to the Republic is exactly what the Founding Fathers aimed to prevent in their project. In sum, Jones’ fabrication of truth not only misses a few caveats, it is hostile to reality.

Most notably among the blunders of Jones’ piece stands the diagnosis that “Rome, in its final days of being a Republic, was more akin to an oligarchy than a government of its citizens.” On the contrary, again, the Republic fell at the hands of populism: Caesar was a cunning populist. He used his overwhelming popular control to violate Roman law and seize concentrated power. Thus, in all reality, it was too much government “by the people, for the people” that brought down the Republic. Furthermore, this misreading of history demonstrates that, like most Americans, Jones equates class with wealth. This is an incorrect understanding of societal structures, both American and Roman. Case in point, Roman gladiators often earned great wealth, but were still owned as slaves and couldn’t participate in politics. The same applied to wealthy prostitutes. Even rich merchants who weren’t of aristocratic stock struggled to attain political clout. In fact, the political acumen at the beginning of Caesar’s career came not from money (the Julii were relatively modest), but from the traditional gravity of the gens Julia, Caesar’s ancestral clan.

I applaud Kit Jones’ instinct to look to the past for wisdom and I strongly endorse the study of Classical antiquity, the Roman Republic in particular. Unfortunately, the unquestioned platitudes of democracy’s virtue have crept so deep into the national mindset that they have not only misguided a Viewpoint contributor, but also hoodwinked the editorial staff that published his piece.

In the interest of the positive, though, an important point follows from this correction: Jones shows rightful distaste for oligarchic tendencies in America. I agree that a tectonic shift in American power structures has occurred in the past few decades, but the problem at hand is, like most capitalist truth, less measurable than median incomes and tax revenue. The malady of the Late Roman Republic’s power players that America now suffers is the loss of the Noblesse Oblige: the aristocratic idea that much is expected of those to whom much has been given. When class demarcations fade, the definite metric for assigning a position in society becomes wealth (this is de facto). Cicero saw the writing on the wall as the fall climaxed, and his political speeches as praetor and consul demonstrate a noble wisdom that saw past the panem et circenses (i.e. democratic spending) of the populares, but could not topple the popular machine of Caesar and Antony. This is not unlike how democratic politicians leverage the image of a miserly millionaire to push for more social spending: the corollary of this tactic is that the government must look out for the underprivileged because nobody else will. The decline of the Noblesse Oblige validates such accusations, for without that moral demand on the upper class, why would they step in? This moral demand is all that separates a functional aristocracy from a plutocracy (Greek for “the rule of wealth”) apathetic to its underlings.

To conclude, Jones’ Viewpoint piece offers zero accurate diagnoses or historical fact. America, not Rome displays an irresponsible fabrication of history, tailored to fit an agenda. This author, like most modern Americans, clings desperately to popular democracy and its catchphrases: lamenting that “our leaders…[come] from the upper echelons of society;” thinking that “the type of government the Founding Fathers established…is something to be marveled at as well as protected;” asserting that the wealthy “do not always have the best interests of the American people in mind.” The Roman Republic fell in 45 BC when Julius Caesar named himself dictator with the backing of the army and the populares; the scary part is that the popular masses believed they were getting what they wanted. Viewpoint author Kit Jones prescribes more democracy to treat the current maladies, while history, in fact, proves the opposite.

Brendan Coyne
May. 2

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