History Is Short Enough, if You Know How to Use It

Portrait in bas-relief of Julius Caesar, inspired by the medals of the Roman era, carved on the base of the facade of the basilica Certosa di Pavia. Pavia, Italy, ‎1396-‎1507. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

So, why do men—a certain kind of man, anyway—think about the Roman Empire so often? 

The question has, for some reason, been on the public mind in the past week or so, and has produced a number of interesting and amusing essays, podcasts, etc. Please enjoy Jonah Goldberg’s “All Rants Lead to Rome” if you haven’t already. 

Here are some of my thoughts. 

It may very well be that men interested in politics and society think about Rome for the same reason Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest: because it is there. 

Rome is there for us in a way that many other historical polities are not. Rome was full of writers—poets, lawyers, historians, satirists, epistolists—many of whom were also political figures and many more of whom were intimate with the major political figures of the time. The Vikings may have been interesting, but they did not leave behind the kind of accessible literary account of their times the Romans did. 

The critical era in the political life of classical Rome consists of the decades on either side of 44 B.C., when the assassination of Julius Caesar put his adopted heir, the former Octavian, on the path toward the new name and station he would acquire: Augustus. That the displacement of the republic by a monarchy would fascinate the American Founders, who were moving in the opposite direction, was inevitable. What was not inevitable was that the Romans should have written about their own era at such length and with such style. 

While Rome did not have political parties as such, the major factions of the time were the populists led by Julius Caesar and the conservatives led by Cicero. Both men were statesmen of the first order, and both of them were gifted and copious writers. Many U.S. presidents have written books (and many have had books published in their names!), but, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses Grant, none of them was a writer in the sense of literary artist. Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars isn’t read today by Latin students because it is interesting history—it is sloppy and dishonest history—but because it is beautiful, lucid writing. Cicero was an even finer prose stylist and rhetorician. Imagine if the two most important political figures in the United States in the 19th century had been Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson, or if Walt Whitman had succeeded Abraham Lincoln instead of only eulogizing him. 

Other writers of the critical Roman period included Virgil, Pliny the Elder, Seneca, and Horace. The history of that time was written in the subsequent years by such figures as Livy (about 15 years old at the time of Caesar’s assassination) and, later, Suetonius (born A.D. 69, the Year of the Four Emperors). We often observe how notable it was that such a small population as that of the Americans who fought the revolution should have contained so many extraordinary men, but consider that imperial Rome—the city, not the empire—had about as many people as modern-day Omaha, or, if the highest estimates are more accurate, maybe Oklahoma City. 

The Romans have long been alive to us in a way that the great men of other great empires have not because so many Roman men of action were also men of letters, and because they put so much of themselves into their writing. There are many historical epochs about which we have a great deal of mere information: You can read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or dig into the “Burghal Hidage” and glean a great many facts and stories about ancient Britain, but many of the key personalities of that time and place remain opaque to us. We English-speaking people don’t really know many big figures from our own history—say, Edward the Confessor—as well as we know the major figures of late republican and early imperial Rome. By that, I mean that we don’t know their personalities

One notable exception in the Anglophone world is the Tudor era. Like the Romans, many (though by no means all) of the great figures of the Tudor era were tireless writers: of letters, pamphlets, plays, satires, religious treatises, vitriolic denunciations, and, in the case of King Henry VIII, even of music. Henry VIII was the first English king to write extensively in English, and his court was full of careful and colorful writers—Thomas More, most famously, but also Thomas Cromwell, Stephen Gardiner, etc. That was an especially productive literary era: Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII only 10 years after the death of the last Tudor monarch. 

You may hear Dispatch writers talk about Rome, but you’ll hear them quote from A Man for All Seasons pretty often, too. It is not historical data that we connect with as much as historical personalities. 

Another reason that Rome seems familiar and urgent to us is that Rome was urban, and urban life is, in some ways, continuous over the many centuries. English life and English politics were, for much of English history, overwhelmingly rural. When Henry VIII came to power, you could have fit the entire population of London into one half of the football stadium at Texas A&M, while York had probably 10,000 people. When Charles I got into a snarl with the Scots more than a century later, you could have put the entire population of Edinburgh into a Texas highschool football stadium, there being only some 15,000 or so residents. Rome was not very populous by the standards of modern cities, but it was big enough to have a recognizable urban culture and urban politics. Life for a wine trader in Augustan Rome was in many ways more like life for a wine trader in revolutionary Boston than it was like life for a serf on a Norman estate. 

The essence of the Southern disposition, a wry Yankee once observed, consists of an obsession with being from the South. The same might be true of the American disposition at large—I do not think that modern-day Ecuadoreans or Greeks think so obsessively about what it means to be Ecuadorean or Greek as we think about what it means to be an American. Thinking about somebody else from time to time is probably healthy for Americans, and, if nothing else, the Romans are a nice break from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, and that 16th Teddy Roosevelt biography middle-aged American men are all waiting for. And, there’s the other thing—irresponsible and corrupt populists on one hand, overwhelmed conservatives on the other, a rabble of would-be radical levelers, trade disputes, immigration crises, rising powers in shadowy alien realms about which very little is actually understood by the officers of the state—there is a reason we think about the Romans. It is easy to overstate the parallels; it is easy to understate them, too. 

If you know the name Musonius Rufus, it probably is because the Stoics are having a moment just now. I am glad for the Stoics’ newfound popularity. As Seneca observed, life is long enough—if you know how to use it. History is short enough—if you know how to use it. 

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