The 20th century’s foremost scholar of the American revolutionary era was Harvard professor Bernard Bailyn who died last year aged 97. Bailyn won the Pulitzer Prize for history twice. The first was in 1968 for his analysis of every political pamphlet, newspapers and private letter he could get his hands on from the 1700s. Prior to Bailyn, Marxists dominated the interpretation of the American Revolution and so it was all about economics.
Bailyn revealed the colonials were astonishingly well-read in political history and philosophy. Great works had now become accessible to the public and Americans devoured them. They were students of Athens, the Reformation, the English revolution and anywhere that freedom had battled tyranny. Bailyn found however that one episode of history most gripped the colonials:
‘Most conspicuous in the writings of the Revolutionary period was the heritage of classical antiquity. Knowledge of classical authors was universal among colonists with any degree of education. It was an obscure pamphleteer indeed who could not muster at least one classical analogy or one ancient concept. Often the learning behind it was superficial but what gripped their minds, what they knew in detail was the political history of Rome from the civil wars in the early first century BC to the establishment of the empire on the ruins of the republic. Britain, it would soon become clear, was to America what Caesar was to Rome.’
The first generation of independent American leaders were Rome-obsessed. In private correspondence, they used noms de plume for fun: George Washington was Cincinnatus, Thomas Jefferson was Cicero, Alexander Hamilton was Publius, etc. When debating their constitution the lessons of Rome were foremost. Maybe that seminal generation consumed so much Rome that America has unwittingly become Rome II? Let’s review the striking and, yes, ominous parallels.
Both were founded by a ragtag band of freedom fighters fleeing a lost cause. They crossed the sea and came to a new land with high hopes. They encountered often hostile natives who they overcame. They quickly grew into the dominant local power based on military strength and economic success.
As confidence grew they tired of being constrained by a tyrannical king, so rebelled. By now they were too pro-freedom to settle for a new king and so they crafted a highly sophisticated and fairly democratic constitutional republic which strived to share power.
Most societies have religion but the Romans were, and Americans are, especially devout to their traditional faith, but both added a near-sacred fealty towards their republic. The Law of the Twelve Tables was revered by the Romans as much as Americans do their constitution.
What the Romans named the Latin Wars, the Americans know as Manifest Destiny – expansion and domination of their near-abroad. The city of Rome had its ups and downs along the way, but by around 300 BC it owned the Italian peninsular. By the 1850s the United States stretched to the Caribbean and the Pacific. Next stop, the world.
The great conflict of antiquity was the Punic Wars (264-146 BC). They concluded with Rome permanently crushing both their foes, Carthage and Greece, in the same year. From that point, Rome was all but the master of the Mediterranean world. The modern equivalent of the Punic Wars was the American-led victories in both world wars and the Cold War. Post the Punic Wars, Rome was all-supreme, extraordinarily wealthy and certain of its exceptionalism. It was the same with America post the Soviet Union.
The Romans however did not capitalise on their awesome success. With few external enemies left to fight their warrior spirit turned to domestic politics. The republic had had its internal upheavals over the centuries but, with existential threats just over the horizon, those squabbles were sorted. That check was now removed.
A decade after the triumph of 146 BC, a populist leader appeared on the stage – Tiberius Gracchus. He was physically impressive, charismatic and iconoclastic. Romans were obsessed with ancestry and Gracchus was from one of the most blue-blooded families, although he shocked by being elected a ‘tribune of the plebs’ (the people’s advocate).
Gracchus campaigned on land reform. The senators and their families increasingly owned most of the best land. Gracchus campaigned to break up the vast estates and let the little guy have a go. After intense political battles, Gracchus enacted his reforms and became a hero across the Italian peninsular. In the process, Gracchus largely united a typically divided Senate who became hellbent on destroying this menace.
The Senate said Gracchus was an apocalyptic threat because he wanted to be king. Gracchus said the Senate was an apocalyptic threat because it had forced most citizens into poverty. Both sides breached centuries-old constitutional norms but Gracchus’ popularity soared. At one point he addressed so many in the heart of Rome the crowd was likened to an ocean.
The power struggle culminated in 133 BC. Senators and their thugs armed with clubs stormed the forum and a violent melee erupted. Gracchus and 300 of his supporters were bludgeoned to death. Rome had seen endless blood on the battlefield but this was a political massacre in the heart of Rome. The republic still had life in it, but this day the descent began. After a century of civil wars and purges, the republic was dead and power was henceforth held by an emperor chosen by a small-minded, heavily armed cabal.
So what now for America? According to the Roman forecast – escalating political tension that erupts into civil war. Civil wars should always be avoided but particularly when the nation has a tonne of nukes.
A nation’s destiny is not predetermined – it is a choice. America of course is in many ways unlike Rome – America’s underlying Christian ethos makes it a far more humane superpower. The Roman republic however has a lesson for America – don’t end like us. A positive step would be for Americans to rediscover their noble ancestors’ great love and brush up on the history of the first great republic.
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