A crazy idea!
Wednesday lunch in Bloomsbury’s new hipster vegan coffee shop. After the usual catch-up on the banalities of the London life, my friend and I had been complaining about the state of affairs of the world. We were both shocked by the Trump election, expressing in as many ways possible our disbelief that such a man was elected President of the United States of American, when I said:
‘I wonder what the Romans would have done?!’
My friend looked at me surprised! As a graduate student of Ancient History, it is a question I asked myself fairly often but never aloud… and especially never around people…
‘Wait, what do you mean?
‘Well, I wonder what kind of responses the Roman Republican system would have developed to deal with the problems we are facing nowadays?
He looked at me perplexed. ‘I’m sorry but I don’t see the connection between politics in Ancient Rome and modern politics. Surely, they are both different! We have passed the time of waging war for glory, of an elite competing for power, of consuls, yearly-elected kings.’
‘But have we?’ I replied, with a smile. ‘What are presidents or prime-ministers, if not nowadays consuls? What are representatives of the people, lobbyist and etc, if not an elite competing for power? To just name a few…’
‘Fair enough, I see your point. But I can’t see how say the events of the Late Roman Republic (150 B.C.- 45 B.C.), which of Julius Caesar and the disintegration of the consensus of the elite, would help us out with a Trump administration or a fight between pro and anti European or a migration problem?’
‘Of course, the events by themselves are not helpful to us to navigate the present troubled waters. But the political culture to which they belong may shade some light on our modern-day crises.
‘I am not convinced’. He was visibly sceptical and rightly so. ‘The events of 1930s are more contemporary precedents. Why go back so far into the past?’
‘Touché! Well, indeed, the 1930s are powerful precedents. The financial crisis of the late 2000’s has created similar economic and social conditions than in the 1930s – if not worse. And it is thus natural to think of the 30s and its dramatic events to reflect on our present and to come up with potential solutions.’
‘But our political system descent from the Greek and Roman political tradition. Aristotle, Cicero, Polybius, and Sallust played a great role in the debate surrounding the American constitution. For instance, John Adam, one of the founding fathers and the second president of the United State of America, relied on Cicero’s analysis of the breakdown of the Roman Republic system on the lack of a constitution to support the ratification of the constitution in a work named the Federalist Papers – still an important inspiration of jurisprudence for the Supreme Court of the United States of America. In Europe, Montesquieu, whose ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ inspired so many constitutions throughout the world, was fascinated by Cicero as a young man. In fact, he wrote a eulogy ‘Discourse on Cicero’ in which he extolls the virtues of Cicero and of his writing. It is hard not to see an echo between Montesquieu’s concern for constitution and Cicero’s works like ‘The Republic’ or ‘The laws’.
‘OK, fair enough, I start to see where you are going’ He said still frowning at me.
‘I could add all the Ancient Roman symbolism in the mix if you want’ I interjected. ‘For instance, what is the name on which Congress in the United State of America sit?’
‘The Capitoline Hill – just like the hill in Rome on which was the temple of Jupiter Maximus, the most important temple for the Rome and in which the Senate would meet! No need to go further, I get it!’ He replied resigned. ‘But I still don’t see how you can use the Romans as a thought experiment?’
‘Well look, the Romans as a civilization is a sort of finite set of data: while we discover new things about the Romans every day, no new data is created by the Romans since the fall of Rome in 496 A.D. and Constantinople in 1453 A.D. With such a set of data it is possible to uncover underlying mechanisms and to map their evolution in short to create an overarching narrative. It is an exercise almost impossible to do for the present as every twist and turn of fate could lead to big change or amount to nothing.’
‘A very scientific approach’ I joked. I laughed heartily.
‘I am not trying to be scientific here! I am aware of the potential limitation of such an exercise. The American political culture bears more resemblance to the Roman’s than European ones. But I think the European project has loads to learn from the Romans on how to build a multi-cultural community. Let me give you two examples, one concrete, one a bit more theoretical.’
‘The first one - which I found fascinating by the way - is the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. While it was a shock for most people, the appeal of Donald Trump and ultimately his victory are rooted in the ideal of the ‘American Dream’, - in the American ideal of success - an ideal that paradoxically his fiercest opponent, Barack Obama, re-invigorated to get elected in 2008. The Romans had a similar dream, a similar ideal: you wage successful wars to get rich, buy yourself a farm, live off this farm and be a good citizen by serving your community through elected offices and voting. The most successful politicians in Ancient Rome either appealed to this dream or rejected it, but the ideal remain central to their self-representation. Exactly what happened with Trump!’
‘Hmm interesting, you will have to explain your thoughts later in details! I had never seen the problem from this angle’
‘Count on me!’ I said winking at him. ‘To finish my train of thoughts, the European Union is trying to bring together twenty-eight nations into one single unique political and economic project. To a certain extent, the Romans faced same issues – how to pacify conquered nations to keep exploiting them economically? Don’t get me wrong I am not saying the E.U. is doing the same’ I added with a wry laugh.
‘And here I will put an important caveat – I don’t think the Romans purposefully developed any plans to unify its empire. The Roman elites very much proposed ad-hoc solutions to current problems of the time and did not seem have a long-term plan. However, I think we can learn from the tools they have implemented over time as a template to support the integration of the European Union’
‘Fair enough, your points are compelling and certainly intriguing!’ He conceded. “So what you propose is that we find solutions to modern political problems using Ancient History?’
‘Not at all’ I laughed at his disconcerted face. ‘What I propose is more a thought experiment to understand better some of the mechanism at play in our modern political culture and formulate appropriate and durable solutions using Ancient Rome.’
‘hmm, fair but still a bit vague as an approach!’
‘Give me a break! It is just a crazy idea!’ I defended myself.
We both took a long sip of our drinks and he smiled at me. ‘It is a crazy idea – I don’t buy it fully, but I have to admit you are in essence a true modern romanist!’