I usually like to do a bunch of reading in the downtime around the holidays, and whenever current events seem especially troubling, I like to read history. Partly because most tempestuous times in the past were a lot worse than our present, and partly because covering several centuries can give you a healthier perspective on the current crop of knaves and imbeciles threatening our peace of mind.
So last week, as soon as I finished Frank Muller’s great reading of “A Christmas Carol,” I took up a book on the history of Rome in the last 150 years or so before the Republic fell, and the Empire started. The book is Mike Duncan’s “The Storm Before the Storm,” and if you like history, I’d recommend it.
Roman history has always intrigued me, but I’ve mostly gotten into only the period starting shortly before Christ, when the Empire supplanted the republic, precipitating the long decline and apocalyptic fall. From the aqueducts to the roads to the countless innovations in architecture and governance and war, the Romans are endlessly fascinating.
They combined great cultural achievements with a depraved and cynical brutality that is hard to comprehend. I always think of a moment from the Sopranos, when Tony and a couple of his henchmen are intimidating a Jewish business owner. When the guy proves tougher than they’d expected, he gives them a little speech about how Jews have always had to be tough, and citing the example of when a bunch of them resisted to the death against a huge Roman force at Masada.
He closes with defiance, saying, “The Romans? Where are they now?”
Gandolfini delivers the line perfectly: “You’re looking at ‘em, a-hole.” As much as “the Romans” bring to mind Cicero and Aurelius and the Colosseum, they also had more than a little of the mafia in them, and that scene always rings true to me.
And when it comes to languages, Latin has to be on the medal stand. English is God’s favorite language, obviously (I cite Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the largest vocabulary of any known language by a factor of 5 or more), and German is my recent favorite. But Latin made the Romans even cooler than they would have otherwise been.
You can’t beat the personal names: Trajan. Hadrian. Tiberias. (If I’d had five sons, right after Walter Payton Simpson and Antonin Scalia Simpson would have come Trajan, Hadrian and Tiberius Simpson.) I also love the Roman practice of giving people honorific names based on battles they won or peoples they conquered. So when your average Scipio kicks some arse in Africa, he comes back as Scipio Africanus.
Even thousands of years later, the title “Caesar” is so cool that the Germans Germanized it into Kaiser, and the Russians Russified it into Czar. Plus July and August are named after two Caesars, which had to heady stuff for them.
If I had a month named after me, I’d be working that into conversations every chance I got. I’d be saying things like, “I can’t wait for the month of Mart this year.” And people would be like, “Do you mean ‘March’?”
And I’d say, “No. It used to be March. But since I whipped Hannibal, or the Gauls, or whoever, it got changed to ‘Mart.” I would be even more insufferable than I already am. “I hope you guys enjoy Black History Month, because after that, it’s the month of Mart. If the Trump vaccine is as powerful as we hope, we’ll be playing Mart Madness again before you know it. And I guess I don’t have to tell you to beware the Ides of Mart.”
Anyway, in the two centuries since Gibbon wrote his influential The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, it’s been an intellectual parlor game for people to look for parallels between the course of that great empire, and every empire after it. As I read “The Storm Before the Storm,” I couldn’t help doing the same. After this painful year of sleazy, dishonest leftists and an unexpectedly inspiring yet tragically flawed leader (call him Trumpicus), one sequence of events jumped out at me.
Around 90 BC, after decades of wars against various foreign enemies, Rome faced what was later called the Social War, named after a word in Latin meaning “allies.” We usually think of the Romans as synonymous with Italians, but that was not the case. As a powerful and prestigious capital, Rome was all-powerful, and Roman citizens looked down on the rubes and deplorables living in the rest of Italy as hicks and nobodies; if they’d had airplanes, they’d have called most of the peninsula “fly-over country.”
Over many decades, pampered, entitled Roman elitists – think of the Swamp – had been dangling the prospect of Roman citizenship over the Italians. They used them as conscripts to fight wars, taxed them to support the capital’s appetites, and flattered and manipulated them when it was time for elections, before pulling the rug out from under them and tossing them aside after every election or crisis.
They even had Philly-style election fraud. One faction would temporarily banish the other factions’ voting base from the city during an election, they would cancel elections at the last minute, and more than once, when an election was going against one group, they’d rush in and smash the giant urns that held the ballots.
After one betrayal too many, the deplorable Italian tribes finally rose up against the arrogant elites from inside the Roman “beltway,” and the result was the “social war.” (Is it a coincidence that “social war” and “culture war” are essentially synonyms? Nope.) In the short run, the powerful elites won a ruinous, Pyrrhic victory, which resulted in a lot of dead on both sides, a season of famine, and social and financial instability that led to continual power struggles, until the Republic finally succumbed, and slid into a tyrannical quasi-dictatorship. The Italians did gain long-promised Roman citizenship within a decade or so, but the loss of the republic spelled eventual doom.
You can read too much into historical parallels. The Romans lasted nearly a millennium, and we’re still in our awkward adolescence. They were also a lot more brutal than us; every round of palace intrigue and every political power play ended with the losers being murdered and their bodies dumped in the Tiber.
If we can thwart AOC and Grandma Squanto, they’re not going to end up floating down the Potomac without their empty heads. They won’t even have to go back to bartending or sleeping in a tepee in the backyard (#wemustneverstopmockingher) – they’ll just go on the View and give paid speeches to gullible leftists.
Supposedly it was Mark Twain who said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Reading that book over the last week or so, I heard a lot of echoes of the late Republic in our current dilemma. It feels like our elites — in DC and on both coasts – have been waging an escalating social war on us for years, and now they’ve monkeyed with the ballot urns.
But I don’t think that we’re doomed to Rome’s fate, and I’m not giving up. It seems like the country has edged up toward the Rubicon this year, but we haven’t crossed it. Our opponents in the social war are powerful because they have few scruples, but they are not smart, and they are not competent. They’re a lot closer to Nero and Caligula than Marius or Sulla or the Caesars.
That’s not a completely happy thought. But they’re led by avaricious and arrogant dopes, and they have no idea how much they don’t know. If we can hang on and thwart their worst policies, I think they’ll be fighting viciously amongst themselves within a few months.
We’ve survived worse than Biden Cornpopicus, and we’ll do so again.
Here’s to 2021 being a better year, and to keeping our Republic!