We have a tendency to look at the past as a mirror, to see ourselves reflected in it rather than recognize the past as a foreign country — even when, indeed, it’s both.
This leads to methods of historical divination that try to read the past closely and thoroughly enough that the present is entirely recognizable and therefore the future will be foreseeable.
Sometimes this is presented merely in aphorism (“history repeats”, “it rhymes”, “people repeat history”); sometimes pseudo-scientifically (“these are the six economic indicators that will predict the next president”). Previous societies would sacrifice animals on an altar and from their entrails suss out messages they already wanted to find. We’re much more advanced nowadays, so we substitute cherry-picked data in place of viscera.
Roman history, though, is especially at risk for this sort of confirmation bias because there is so very much of it and it influenced so many successor states, all of whom could reasonably claim to have inherited part of its legacy.
As much as anyone, the United States has intentionally drawn those same parallels since our very founding.
Rejecting absolutism, we were a republic with the highest ideals of personal liberty, representation, and equality under the law. Yet, like the Romans, we only cared to extend this to some, and freedom didn’t preclude seizing territory by conquest or wiping out whole peoples. In Rome’s Italian territory, perhaps a quarter of the total population was enslaved at its height. In the Deep South, it was more like half.
When hobbyist podcaster, now graduated to a professional popular historian, Mike Duncan set out to write his 2017 book The Storm Before the Storm, he admits he went into it with an eye toward resonant parallels between Rome and the United States.
I also do think that if there is any period in the thousand-odd-year history of Rome that Americans in the 21st century can look to for an analogous historical setting, it’s right here.
Once you zoom into this period there are a lot of familiar problems: growing economic inequality, intransigent elites more focused on petty political one-upmanship than addressing the needs of their citizens, endemic social and ethnic prejudice, the breakdown of unspoken political norms — very fertile ground if you want to study how it could all go horribly awry if we’re not careful.
He went back with Storm to re-examine not the fall of the Roman Empire or the end of the Republic in the civil wars of Julius Caesar and Augustus but the roughly 70 years prior to that.
In the process, Duncan tracks how norms and taboos became irrelevant, institutions failed, and ultimately how legitimate political power ceased to exist as something separate or distinct from the capacity for naked violence.
Without overly making the analogy within the book, Duncan compares America’s position following the collapse of its greatest rival in the Soviet Union was somewhat similar to Rome’s after the final destruction of it’s greatest rival Carthage in 146 BCE.
Unable to find a common cause outside itself worth setting aside differences, the social fault lines within Roman society became predominant.
Further riches this preeminence gained went only to those already most wealthy, most powerful members of society. Those enslaved attempted to gain their liberty unsuccessfully through three Servile Wars. The unwillingness of Romans to extend citizenship and a say in government to Italian allies resulted in the Social War where the allies earned by arms what persuasion could not.
However, it was the issues of free Romans—those middle-class Equestrians and former soldiers who now were urban poor left outside the social elite versus wealthy senatorial families—that formed the primary disharmony of the factions that are known to history as the Optimates and Populares.
As modern progressives, it’s easy to look back in time and see the Gracchi Brothers and their goals of land reform and maximum wealth limits, extending citizenship and adjusting representation to be proportional, and curbing corruption as being obviously in the right.
Indeed, many of the issues pushed by Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were eventually enacted only after tens of thousands died in civil war and the intransigent government with an elected republic transformed into the more responsive government of an unelected principate.
But what is more universal, and recognized as such by near-contemporaries, is the way that societies come apart by playing the game increasingly ruthlessly until the hypocrisy of the sword in the scabbard is gone and the naked blade is all that’s left.
Norms matter next to nothing when set against people’s material needs and sense of fairness.
As Roman senators were accepting enormous bribes from foreign kings to decide disputes, and, once caught, bribing their way to acquittals in court, that was the same time that those who were less wealthy were unable to always buy bread. Soldiers who’d risked their lives in the name of their city came home and their sacrifice earned them next to nothing. This was a powerful source of sincere grievance, and traditional custom could not hold back the desire to check injustice.
But once norms are broken without any immediate punishment, people don’t voluntarily go back to following them. The idea that cheaters never prosper is absolutely true but only because once they’ve prospered, it’s no longer considered cheating. Originally people may have joined a cause for its intrinsic merits, but later, the personal power that cause might provide is a better incentive.
The Populares wanted reform, and their leaders such as the Gracchi were murdered for it. On either side, those who’d follow knew murder was in the realm of the possible. When Populares found a new champion in the aging general Marius, he knew to bring an army with him into the city to seize power from and butcher his opponents so they couldn’t do the same to him. When Marius’s rival Sulla took the city back from Marius’s faction, Sulla brought a proper army. Where Marius had killed political rivals during a few days of terror and bloodshed, Sulla’s posted new public proscriptions each day.
Sulla’s reforms for the cause of the aristocratic Optimates were fundamentally conservative, but his actions were radical, and while his laws would be ignored his example would not. There were anecdotes in his time that certain people died only because their fine house or garden or baths or Alban farm had informed against them. By the time of Augustus and Marc Antony, they were openly murdering people to add their wealth to the treasury.
For the character Caesar, in the imagination of a later writer like Suetonius or Shakespeare following him, “crossing the Rubicon” in 49 BCE was a dramatic decision, but for the historical person, there’s no reason to think it was anything more than an imitation of the same behavior—a military general with personal loyalty imposing his political will on Rome by armed force—that Caesar already seen within his own lifetime.
In 2016, the U.S. Senate broke precedent and refused to have hearings on the vacant Supreme Court seat of Antonin Scalia. The U.S. Senate broke precedent and forced a Supreme Court seat through on simple majority in 2017. Prior to that, senators had talked of shrinking the Supreme Court from nine seats to eight if the party in Congressional power didn’t get its preferred executive. Now, the party out of Congressional power is suggesting increasing the number of seats to pack the court and make up for the seats stolen in the past two decades due to popular-vote loser nominees and Senate shenanigans stealing it.
If we’re in for a new Lochner era destroying the past century of gains in worker rights because of these past decades of minority rule, does it make any sense to play by the old rules that one faction is perfectly fine with ignoring?
If this sounds like facile “#bothsides-ism”, it isn’t. The Republican Party has been responsible for pushing this chain of events, but then Sulla and Caesar had little in common politically. The similarity came in their behavior to seize power directly.
The movement to abolish rather than reform ICE has gained support rapidly. I don’t mean to suggest this seems improper. But the fact that it isn’t just the right pushing for the eradication of federal agencies anymore means there’s a new game.
It’s also natural to push for D.C. statehood and, if they still want it, Puerto Rico. Before the Trump administration, PR had more people in it than 20 states. But then, Queens has more people in it than 15 states, and Brooklyn has more than Queens. Why not two senators and four representatives for each borough in New York City? But if so, why shouldn’t Eastern Washington or California’s Inland Empire split off to try to get their own pieces of the Senate? Why wouldn’t we expect state-level gerrymandering to become typical?
If we do something to fix it, there’s a new model for abuse. If we do nothing, in 20 years time 30 percent of the country will control 70 percent of the Senate, and it could be worse if the right is allowed to continue rolling back voting rights and otherwise targeting minority voters.
To go along with the talk of expanding the Supreme Court from nine to some larger number, why not enlarge the House of Representatives? How about one rep per 100,000 people (other than that we’d need a larger physical House to fit 3200 representatives)?
The right wing of American politics, if not necessarily of America, has been aggressively pushing for a radical restructuring of government and as now has been demonstrated, also willing to essentially endorse a foreign coup to maintain it.
As in game theory, you can’t just forgive and forget unless you want to be shanked again. So maybe Jamelle Bouie is right.
The trouble is things are only unprecedented once. Actually, the real trouble is you can’t continue to play chess or checkers when your opponent is willing to flip the board.
Actually, more than one thing can be the real trouble.
When James Hodgkinson, a violent domestic abuser but inarguably a left-wing ideologue, targeted a Congressional baseball game in June 2017, it was not deadly, but also it was not functionally very meaningful if it had been.
He was trying to shoot U.S. House members, most of whom, thanks to gerrymandering were in safe districts, and regardless, the partisan margins in the House were then relatively large. What if instead, though, he had been more deadly and targeted Republican senators in blue or purple states?
What if he’d been a right-wing ideologue and targeted progressive Supreme Court justices knowing there was a Republican president and Senate majority willing to take advantage of the opportunity his violence created?
We know that in 2016, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan were more interested in stealing a Supreme Court seat and helping their donors than speaking out against Russian election interference because it benefited their party. Is there any reason to think that they would not take advantage of assassinations that provided political gain? And if so, what reason other than principle do Democrats have for adhering to a better standard? What reason should we expect something so awful not to be in store in coming years?
We look back at history, and for most of us, our hindsight isn’t so much 20/20 as telescoped, compressing decades into sentences that follow one another in a book’s summary, laid end-to-end in a single paragraph. We’re unable to appreciate the gradualness of these things of these things, the naturalness of accepting a broken precedent and extending it a bit further then a bit further still. ABC becomes BCD becomes CDE becomes DEF. For the young people of the latter time, what lived experience have they with the ancestors others later will read alongside them on a page?
When Trump won the Electoral College in 2016, I wrote that a military coup was the most desirable outcome many on the Left could imagine because the Republican Congress changing its nature clearly was unimaginable (it remains unimaginable). But things are only unprecedented once, and the deserved excuse for a dictatorship today—preventing a thermonuclear strike on North Korea or Iran or for god-sake Venezuela—would be used as justification for a later one when a president signed into law a bill for Medicare For All or the Abolition of ICE.
We’re already abducting immigrant and refugee children from their parents, subjecting them to deprivation and torture and making those innocents vulnerable to child trafficking and exploitation generally, routinely sexually abusing captives, and signaling support to white supremacists with 14 words and “out of 88s“.
But the Left is hoping something will happen to make the people with all the guns, tanks, and aircraft agree with us about the future of the country.
We need unions. We need churches. We need marches and apps and Black Bloc, too. Nazis and Proud Boys and “Free Speech enthusiasts” with shields and truncheons can’t be overcome by shame or boycotts but only the threat of countervailing, defensive violence.
However, our own history as well as those of prior civilizations like Rome show us that when deeply felt grievances cannot be redressed by means consensus grants the veneer of legitimacy, people resort to the shortcut of violence more quickly and with more enthusiasm until it becomes the only method.
This was how aggressive slavers and abolitionists came to try murder one another in Missouri, in Kansas, at Harper’s Ferry, and on the Senate floor. The greatest period of labor passivity has been since the 1930s when the federal government under Franklin Roosevelt finally began to side with worker protections and acknowledging unions. Prior to that, workers would strike, sabotage property, and engage in violence and murder, largely because corporations and their thugs were willing to terrorize and murder workers and their families.
The Roman Republic lasted much longer than our own has so far, almost 500 years. But its compromises and legitimacy were not eternal. Eventually, permanent dictatorship became more or at least as inviting as representation that wasn’t so representative of people’s needs, and it became less radical to go along with accepting it.
I don’t know where we are on this path or how close (again) we are to constant violence. The anarchist bombings of the early century ebbed, the political assassinations of the 1960s did not continue. Then again, in a thousand years, they and the present might be placed with to each other as if it directly influenced us though we wouldn’t feel it did.
The Storm Before the Storm may be written reaching a bit too far in its historical analogy; I certainly hope my interpretation of it is. But regardless, the book is an important reminder that nothing gold can stay, and it never has—at least not without hard and terrible work to preserve it.