What Ancient Rome Has to Tell Us About Today
The only way to make sense of the events of today is by looking at the events of yesterday. I know it’s a cliché—but like most clichés, it’s true.
One recent book that’s helped me get a kind-of clear perspective on what’s going on now is an obnoxiously long book called The History of Rome, written by Titus Livius Patavinus, better known as Livy.
Livy wrote The History of Rome during the reign of Augustus Caesar. The History of Rome was originally made up of 142 longish “books” (what we’d probably call chapters), only 35 of which have escaped the clutches of sluttish time.
The book charts the growth of the Roman Empire from its humble birth to the founding of its Republican government to its conquest of its rival Carthage to its increasing involvement in Greece and the Mediterranean World. It’s an epic work of myth and fact, religion and culture, war and peace, and of course politics.
Here are a few lessons I gleaned from Livy.
Lesson One: America Is the New Rome.
Like the U.S., Rome was the World’s Policeman. Warring tribes and states in Europe and the Mediterranean world would call on Rome to form alliances or settle their differences. Just as the U.S. was somehow involved in the Irish peace process and helped end the Bosnian War and is currently embroiled in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Rome was a kind of big-brotherly arbiter which wielded a big stick. From Book 31 of The History of Rome:
Just about the same time envoys arrived from King Attalus and also from Rhodes with the information that Philip was trying to gain the States of Asia Minor. The reply made to both deputations was that the situation in Asia was engaging the attention of the senate. The question of war with Macedonia was referred to the consuls, who were at the time in their respective provinces. In the meanwhile, C. Claudius Nero, M. Aemilius Lepidus and P. Sempronius Tuditanus were sent on a mission to Ptolemy, king of Egypt, to announce the final defeat of Hannibal and the Carthaginians and to thank the king for having remained a staunch friend to Rome at a critical time, when even her nearest allies deserted her. They were further to request him, in case Philip’s aggressions compelled them to declare war against him, that he would maintain his old friendly attitude towards the Romans. During this period P. Aelius, the consul who was commanding in Gaul, learnt that the Boii, prior to his arrival, had been raiding the territories of friendly tribes…
In the above breathless passage, we have Rome involved in the affairs of Greece, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), the Mediterranean isle of Rhodes, Egypt, Carthage (modern-day Tunisia), and Gaul (modern-day France).
Ancient Rome had, and America has, its fingers in a lot of pies. This has two implications: by the very nature of such active involvement in other countries’ affairs, we’re bound to have to occasionally prop up and support some unsavory characters, like Pinochet or Batista or the Saudi royal family.
Secondly, being the World’s Policeman also means that we, like ancient Rome, must be in a state of almost perpetual war.
Lesson Two: Compromise Is Necessary.
Livy spends quite a bit of time outlining one of the major social conflicts in ancient Rome: the Plebeians versus the Patricians.
The Plebeians, or Plebs, were the commoners, the traditional lower classes who may or may not have been still poor. Some plebs were quite wealthy, while some were still simple farmers and or middle-class merchants. In any case, they made up a distinct political and social class that grated against the traditional aristocracy of the Patricians.
In Book 2, Livy describes how the Plebs, unwilling to undergo another military draft without more political power, retreated to a hill outside the city, contemplating revolution:
The senate decided, therefore, to send as their spokesman Menenius Agrippa, an eloquent man, and acceptable to the plebs as being himself of plebeian origin. He was admitted into the camp, and it is reported that he simply told them the following fable in primitive and uncouth fashion. “In the days when all the parts of the human body were not as now agreeing together, but each member took its own course and spoke its own speech, the other members, indignant at seeing that everything acquired by their care and labour and ministry went to the belly, whilst it, undisturbed in the middle of them all, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures provided for it, entered into a conspiracy; the hands were not to bring food to the mouth, the mouth was not to accept it when offered, the teeth were not to masticate it. Whilst, in their resentment, they were anxious to coerce the belly by starving it, the members themselves wasted away, and the whole body was reduced to the last stage of exhaustion. Then it became evident that the belly rendered no idle service, and the nourishment it received was no greater than that which it bestowed by returning to all parts of the body this blood by which we live and are strong, equally distributed into the veins, after being matured by the digestion of the food.” By using this comparison, and showing how the internal disaffection amongst the parts of the body resembled the animosity of the plebeians against the patricians, he succeeded in winning over his audience.
Negotiations were then entered upon for a reconciliation. An agreement was arrived at, the terms being that the plebs should have its own magistrates, whose persons were to be inviolable, and who should have the right of affording protection against the consuls. And further, no patrician should be allowed to hold that office.
In these days of heated partisanship and bloated hyperbole, it’s necessary to remember that progress and peace are created solely through compromise.
Lesson Three: The Masses Are Fickle.
It has long bewildered me how the same general public could elect Nixon, then Carter, then Reagan, then Bush, then Clinton, then the other Bush, then Obama, and now Romney is in the running. None of these men are extremists, but nonetheless there is quite a bit of difference in their political philosophies.
One can only chalk it up to fickleness.
We are a country of sudden enthusiasms for the new, perforated with just-as-sudden fits of nostalgia. We admire and idolize certain politicians and celebrities, but then our disgust quickly kicks in, sometimes for the paltriest of reasons.
The Romans did this too. There are several examples in Livy, but the most notable is that of Marcus Furius Camillus. He was a very popular and successful general, but because he refused to let his soldiers plunder the enemy after a victory, he was later falsely accused of embezzlement, and went into exile.
But later, when Rome was invaded by the Gauls, the people called on Camillus to return. They named him Dictator—a temporary office in ancient Rome only bestowed in times of great turmoil. From Book 5:
Friends and foes were alike persuaded that nowhere else was there at that time so great a master of war… Fortune had now turned, divine aid and human skill were on the side of Rome. At the very first encounter the Gauls were routed as easily as they had conquered at the Alia… After thus recovering his country from the enemy, the Dictator returned in triumph to the City, and amongst the homely jests which soldiers are wont to bandy, he was called in no idle words of praise, “A Romulus,” “The Father of his country,” “The Second Founder of the City.”
The Founding Fathers of our country knew this fickleness of the masses well—and that’s why our government is based more on the Roman Republic than the purer democracy of ancient Athens.
Lesson Four: Patient Prudence Is Better Than Hot-Headedness.
Hannibal was the biggest threat Rome ever faced. In the third century B.C., he led a large army from Carthage-controlled Spain over the Alps in wintertime to invade Italy—an unheard-of feat for the time.
For more than a dozen years he hounded Rome, laying waste its outskirts and getting as far as its walls. Faced with possible destruction, many Romans pressed for swift, decisive action—but one Fabius Maximus, a cautious, shrewd general, knew that an outright battle was exactly what Hannibal wanted. Maximus instead advised a more lengthy war of attrition in which Hannibal’s army slowly dwindled away through lack of provisions.
Municius, Maximus’s subordinate, disagreed, however:
“The smoke from the burning farms and fields is blown into our faces, our ears are assailed by the cries of our despairing allies who appeal to us for help more than they do to the gods, and here are we marching an army like a herd of cattle through summer pastures and mountain paths hidden from view by woods and clouds!… It is mere folly to fancy that the war can be brought to an end by sitting still or making vows to heaven. Your duty is to take your arms and go down and meet the enemy man to man. It is by doing and daring that Rome has increased her dominion, not by these counsels of sloth which cowards call caution.”
Unable to sway the minds of the masses, the older Fabius Maximus acquiesced when they wanted to divide up the army and put Minucius on equal footing with him.
Minucius immediately attacked Hannibal, but was outmaneuvered, and his army was on the verge of being wiped out. Then Fabius Maximus came to the rescue and routed the Carthaginians:
On their return to camp Minucius called his men together and addressed them thus: “Soldiers, I have often heard it said that the best man is he who himself advises what is the right thing to do; next to him comes the man who follows good advice; but the man who neither himself knows what counsel to give nor obeys the wise counsels of another is of the very lowest order of intelligence. Since the first order of intelligence and capacity has been denied to us let us cling to the second and intermediate one, and whilst we are learning to command, let us make up our minds to obey him who is wise and far-sighted. Let us join camp with Fabius.”
Lesson Five: There Was Never a Golden Age.
In the preface to his History of Rome, Livy writes,
Unless, however, I am misled by affection for my undertaking, there has never existed any commonwealth greater in power, with a purer morality, or more fertile in good examples; or any state in which avarice and luxury have been so late in making their inroads… In these latter years wealth has brought avarice in its train, and the unlimited command of pleasure has created in men a passion for ruining themselves and everything else through self-indulgence and licentiousness.
It’s a very curious sensation, reading a book two thousand years old, decrying the public morals of its time. Just goes to show that the present—no matter how long ago—is almost always worse than the past. But the present is tomorrow’s past, which means that, as always, all we’re left with is now.