Republics compared

There is an enduring  romance between the intellectual histories of two of the world’s great, long-lasting republics, Rome and the United States of America.  At its heart are two fundamental texts in dialogue with each other.  One is the sixth book of Polybius’ history, written by a Greek hostage at Rome in the mid-second century BC,  an outsider who nonetheless had access to some of the key figures of the time, and who was fascinated by how Rome came to conquer his known world.  Nearly two thousand years later, his view of the Roman constitution as the product of monarchic, aristocratic and popular elements was translated into a theory of checks and balances in Madison’s contributions to the Federalist Papers.[1]

Between these two key points lie a number of thinkers, not least Cicero on the Roman side, Montesquieu on the modern.  This passage of intellectual ‘influence’ (to use with all due scepticism a word which Quentin Skinner once tried to ban) is in fact a complex and tortuous one, but it has become a commonplace.

Making America Roman has had many consequences, ideological and visual, and many are baleful, as is now more widely recognised.[2]

Neo-classical architecture on the Capitol.

But even if we are less likely now to use Roman history to valorize a monocultural world of male hegemony, the temptation to draw lessons from the transformation of the Roman political system is hard to resist.  The drama of the end of the Republic and the emergence of the first emperor, Augustus, has always been a case study for decline.  Even writers supposedly in tune with the Augustan spirit could be tempted to be gloomy.

This has not been a universal view.  Gibbon’s famous comment on the prosperity of the late first century AD and early second century was written in full cognisance of the political conditions of the time.  In the early twentieth century it was not unusual to praise Augustus, and as the bimillenary celebrations of his death showed, the temptation remains.[3]

However, the idea of a necessary corrective, and the pass sometimes given to Augustus because his successors were often far worse, implies at any rate that there was something deeply awry with the Republic.  This story has often been told, and has recently been told again by Edward J. Watts in a lively narrative.[4] index It’s a good example of its genre.  And it is unsurprising that on the basis of the profound connections between a certain picture of the Roman Republic, and the intended shape of the American version, the author attempts to form an analytical bridge between the two:  ‘This conscious borrowing from Rome’s model makes it vital for all of us to understand how Rome’s republic worked, what it achieved and why, after nearly five centuries, its citizens ultimately turned away from it and toward the autocracy of Augustus.’

Watts’s answer to the question of why the Roman Republic fell acknowledges the largescale issues over militarism, ambition and so forth, but insists that of equal importance was the persistent undercutting at all levels of the constraint on power.  The death of the Republic ‘was caused as much by the thousands of small injuries inflicted by Romans who did not think it could really die.’  This is a clever call to good modern citizenship.

The assumption that Watts makes is that at some point in time the Romans were getting it right, and since Polybius is explicit, as are other sources, that Rome was starting to slide away from its perfect balance by the mid-second century, this point in time must be even earlier.   Tiberius Gracchus occupies in his account a rather negative role for flouting customs and rules yet further.

Guillaume’s 19th century depiction of the Gracchi

Watts’s picture depends substantially on the existence of a normative framework which precluded individual power growing too much.  It’s hard to quarrel with this at one level.  There were indeed significant obstacles within Roman society to individual accumulation of power, some customary (the Romans’ reference to the mos maiorum, the customs of the ancestors, was a catch-all), and some legal obligations for power sharing among the elite.


However, there are refinements which one might choose to make.  Insofar as the Roman system ever worked, it did so only under huge pressure and as a result of constant change and reinterpretation.  A basic tension persisted because of the expectation of high performance by the elite in war, and in urban display.  The Romans prized achievement, and so conflict and competition were inevitable.  Success revolved around the intricate interpenetration of wealth, family and prowess.  It was probably never – or only for a very short time – impossible to gain entry, and it was possible to fall out of the elite in various ways, but there were mechanisms which could ensure the continuity of large loosely linked descent groups.

The story which the elite told itself and others was that it was operating on behalf of the res publica.  Watts begins with two famous stories, Appius Claudius the Blind, who came to the Senate when close to death to urge unremitting hostility to Pyrrhus, and Fabricius’ refusal of Pyrrhus’ bribes.

Fabricius meets Pyrrhus, and some Roman soldiers encounter an elephant (Ferdinand Bol)

Yet whatever truth may lie behind these stories, the point is that they were being told and elaborated exactly at the time when the system was – on the usual story – going wrong, or was finished, that is in the late Republic and after, and in histories written by and for the people who were allowing it to go wrong.

It is not over-sophisticated discursive analysis to insist that we differentiate the reality from the story told about it.  I happen to think that Roman civic structures were significant brakes on individual excess, even in the fourth century BC, though others would dispute this.  But I am equally sure that the Roman account of how they constrained competition was produced precisely in the context of barely contained competition and violence.  It was a distorting mirror which justified elite behaviours and inequalities.  All Roman politicians claimed to uphold the principles of a glorious past, whilst radically disagreeing on what those principles were.[5]

Insofar as history was the Roman civic education and philosophy, it did a poor job.  Brutus, we are told, spent the night before the battle at Pharsalus between Caesar and Pompey writing a summary of Polybius.[6]  This may have convinced him later that he was right to kill Caesar in defence of the wounded constitution, but it did not convince him to treat the provincials in the east with any degree of respect.  Cassius and Brutus between them extracted huge sums from the Greek east; Cassius sold entire towns into slavery; Brutus charged extortionate interest.

The change of government at Rome was at least partly about the tension between inside and outside, governors and governed, where that boundary lay, and what kind of functional connection between Rome and the people of the empire could be produced.  This too was a story which sometimes made its way into the narrative of the past – one of Romulus’ first acts was the initially violent but then allegedly welcome incorporation of Sabine women and some men into the community, a repellent and self-serving fable.  One may lament the failure of the old Republican system, which had changed so much anyway that it was much like the farmer’s axe, which is deemed to be the same even though both handle and head have been replaced and none of the original has survived.  Weight has then to be given to the prosperity of the provinces, the imperial system which bound elites in the periphery to the emperor at Rome.[7]  Much of this is there in Watt’s account, but missed in a review by the influential commentator Yascha Mounk in the New York Times.[8]  Mounk, whose commitment to rebuilding a liberal consensus is clear if it has not always been entirely convincing,[9] takes the bait of Watt’s comparison of the two republics and draws an analogy between Tiberius Gracchus’ the vigorous and revolutionary tribune of the people, and the current President of the USA.

‘Like the original populist, Trump was propelled to power by the all-too-real failures of a political system that is unable to curb growing inequality or to mobilize its most eminent citizens around a shared conception of the common good. And like Gracchus, Trump believes that, because he is acting in the name of the dispossessed, he is perfectly justified in shredding the Republic’s traditions.’

This it seems to me is disputable in many ways (and although Watt is negative about Gracchus I should stress that it is not his comparison).  That is for another conversation.  What interests me is what we think we achieve by these kinds of comparison?

The Roman Republic was a fable which helped construct one kind of American Republic among the many possibilities.  That is a story in itself.  Its redeployment in sometimes horrendous ways is another.[10]  Making either the presumed actuality of the early Republic a model, or the surviving narrative of the later Republic, with all its partisan and post hoc problems, a morality tale for our own times, is, like all exercises in historical comparison, inherently problematic.[11]

To play this game seriously, we need to work harder at what it is that we are comparing, and be self-critical about the outcome.  Politics is nothing if not about myths.  The myth that things were once better, more regulated, more communally self-regulating is attractive, but less so if it is used to defend an autarchic or unequal order, or to deny the essential fluidity of society, or to close options for the future.

The mythemes of populism are various and persistent.  One is that progress only comes through the destruction of tradition; but another is that such progress is always dangerous.  One justifies chaos, the other immobility.  Setting our compass by either pole is unlikely to bring us to a safe harbour.  We need to acknowledge how complex the original stories were in context and construction in order to respond to them intelligently, and we need to define very clearly the ground of comparison between past and present before we let it imprison the future.  As a brilliant comparative mythologist has said, ‘we can eliminate some interpretations, but we should still be left with more than one.’[12]

[1] From a massive bibliography, see C. J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment, Harvard 1995; D. J. Bederman, The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution: Prevailing Wisdom (Cambridge, 2008);  G. Lehmann, ‘Greek federalism, the rediscovery of Polybius, and the framing of the American constitution,’ in H. Beck & P. Funke (eds.), Federalism in Greek Antiquity, Cambridge 2015, pp. 512-523.

[2] More on this below, but for surveys see W. L. Vance, America’s Rome, New Haven 1989; C. Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910, Johns Hopkins 2004; C. Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750–1900, Cornell 2009;

[3] P. Goodman, ‘Twelve Augusti,’ Journal of Roman Studies, 108, (2018) 156-170.

[4] E. J. Watts, Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny, New York, 2018.

[5] The fundamental argument f R. Morstein-Marx, Mass oratory and political power in the late Roman Republic, Cambridge 2004.

[6] Plut. Brutus 4.

[7] This is close to the parallel account to that of Watts by J. Osgood, Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE-20 CE, Cambridge 2018.

[8]  This is an instance where the book is better than the review, and the image used is of the Tiberius who would become emperor.

[9] for Pankaj Mishra’s sharp review of Mounk’s The People v. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, Harvard 2018.

[10] M. Malamud, Ancient Rome and Modern America, Malden – Oxford 2009 offered an important update to more traditional accounts of the 18th and 19th centuries; see now for important accounts of the use of the classics to sustain nationalist and racist ideologies, D. Zuckerberg, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny, Harvard, 2018; and articles collected at

[11] V. Smil, Why America Is Not a New Rome, MIT 2010 deploys a range of arguments to show why, from a social scientific point of view, the comparison is deeply flawed.

[12] W. Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth, New York 1998, p. 154, from whom I also take the concept of the mytheme.


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