When I sat down in March and made my schedule for the fall semester, it did not occur to me that I would study the history of Ancient Rome during an election year. I blame it on the lockdown that I did not notice the gears of our republic groaning to life for another season of mud-slinging.
HIS 304, better known as Ancient Rome, is one of my most favorite history classes I have taken as a history major at MC. Before the midterm on Oct. 5, we covered the construction and decline of the Roman republic. The details and stories of Rome’s history were interesting themselves, but much more interesting is how similar Rome in the final century of the republic is to the current climate of the United States of America.
“O tempora! O mores!” as Cicero said. How similar the times and values of Rome are to those of America! The following are merely three critical examples of the similarity between America and Rome.
First, the Roman senate was composed of old men with long careers in politics. One needed only run for a minor magistracy, and he would be made a senator for life. A largely aristocratic and patrician body, the senate was the pinnacle of Roman paternalism. In the American senate, women join the men as representatives for states, but that is really the only difference. Many senators in America today have been in office for decades. Bloomberg reported the average age of the American senate this year is 62.
Second, the Roman virtue of pietas commanded Romans to put the needs of their family, their community, and their country above their own needs. Horatius Cocles was a farmer who took up arms against invaders in 508 B.C., faced the enemy on the bridge into Rome, and defended the city from attack. For centuries, Horatius stood as the embodiment of pietas, of doing one’s duty for Rome. Much later, around the 130s B.C., the definition of pietas changed. Generals like Sulla, Marius, and Caesar commanded absolute loyalty from their soldiers, even giving them money and land in exchange for dutiful service. By the end of the republic in 27 B.C., pietas meant nothing more than being unquestionably loyal to one’s superior.
In the 1960s, President Kennedy appealed to Americans to ask what they can do for their country, not what their country can do for them. That phrase has been inverted today, as Americans divide themselves into political factions. The benefits are different, but the motivation is the same. Surrender your vote, your hope to a certain party, and everything will be perfect.
Third, though we do not throw people to lions for amusement as the Romans did, America has erected its own colosseum theater on social media. Those who disagree with the popular opinion are ripped apart on Twitter and ostracized from society. While the judgment against a person’s opinion may be right, people today do not stop and tell the offender why their opinion needs reevaluation. Entertainment has trumped understanding. The act of proscription, or the sanctioned killing of one’s political enemies, silenced minds like Cicero and Cato who spoke out against the radical changes that were killing the republic.
This country of youth is governed by the old. This country is divided into political factions and seems incapable of working together. This country does not know how to communicate with each other, nor how to correct ideas with wisdom and grace. Whatever the outcome of this election, we must restore political discourse, the free exchange of ideas, before it is too late to turn back, before our toes meet the waters of our own Rubicon.