Why We Can’t Get Over the Roman Empire

6 minute read

Holland is an award-winning historian of the ancient world, a translator of Greek and Roman classical texts, and a documentary writer. He is the author of seven books, including his most recent, PAX: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age. He contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He co-presents the podcast The Rest Is History. He lives in London

“I worry far more what the judgement on me will be in a 1,000 years time than what the trolls are saying today.” So wrote Cicero, Rome’s most celebrated orator, in 59 BC. Although the comment was made privately to his close friend, Titus Pomponius Atticus, no one would have been surprised to read it. Cicero was notorious among his fellow citizens for the insufferable quality of his conceit. The notion that anyone would remember him a millennium after his death would have been greeted in Rome with widespread hilarity.

Yet in truth Cicero was being modest. Not one but 2,000 years have passed since his death, and still he is being quoted. His posthumous fame is tribute not just to his own achievements, but also to the enduring hold on the popular imagination of the city of which he was a citizen. “Urbs Aeterna,” the poet Ovid called Rome some 50 years after Cicero’s death: “the Eternal City.” The empire ruled by the Romans may long since have declined and fallen; its monuments crumbled into ruin; its language evolved to become Spanish, Italian, and French; but its memory remains a golden one. Indeed, according to a meme that has recently taken social media by storm, millions of men across America are apparently thinking about it every day.

Why? Not, I think, out of any particular devotion to Cicero or Ovid. The reason is likelier to be altogether more visceral. The Roman Empire was the apex predator of antiquity: powerful, terrifying, box-office.

If that makes it sound like a tyrannosaur, then perhaps that is no coincidence. The Romans, much like the dinosaurs, are not merely glamorous—they are also safely extinct. Two thousand years have passed since the heyday of the pax Romana. The age when the capital was at its most teeming and gilded, when the sands of the Colosseum were black with the blood of gladiators, when the rule of Caesar was backed by legions capable of visiting slaughter and ruin on all who opposed them, are long gone. Few people watching Gladiator, no matter how much they might be rooting for Russell Crowe, feel complicit in the enthusiasm of the crowd. The Romans are too distant to be truly unsettling; instead, they have become exotic.

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The display of might—especially when backed up by color, clamor, and overpowering architecture—can be stirring, even thrilling. Successful empires have always understood this. It helps to explain why so many capitals in Europe and America are replete with monuments inspired by imperial Rome. Yet the shadow these buildings cast in the 21st century is not merely a Roman one. We understand, as the designers of the Capitol and the Arc de Triomphe did not, to what extremes swagger and steel can lead. With fascism, a long tradition in Western politics reached a hideous climax and then expired.

But the fascination with power endures. Only the most toxic crank today would confess to finding the displays of Nazism alluring. Yet Julius Caesar—who was reported by one classical biographer to have slaughtered a million people and enslaved another million while conquering the region of Gaul—still has his statue in the centre of Rome, while, just down the road, touts dressed as centurions and gladiators encourage tourists to pose with them outside the Colosseum. The empire of the Caesars—unlike more recent empires—is removed in time enough from us to be protected by a certain statute of limitations.

Read More: Women in Ancient Rome Didn’t Have Equal Rights. They Still Changed History

Of course, this does not explain why modern-day men of America are busy thinking about the Romans rather than, say, the Egyptians, or the Assyrians, or the Vikings. The answer, perhaps, lies in the way that the Romans, more than any other ancient people, seem to offer America a distorted reflection of itself. So they have always done. Just as American conservatives today look back wistfully to the Founding Fathers as patrons of an age of rugged independence and virtue, so did the Founding Fathers look back with an equal wistfulness to the early years of Rome. There, for any infant republic victorious in a war against a great monarchy, was a morality tale to be found that could hardly help but serve as inspiration. The Romans, like the Americans, had originally been ruled by a king; then, resolved no longer to live in servitude, they had dared all in a heroic and ultimately successful campaign to expel him. In 1832, commissioned to mark the centennial of George Washington’s birth with a fittingly imposing statue, the sculptor Horatio Greenough represented him as a properly Roman hero, returning his sword to a grateful people. Simultaneously toga-clad and be-wigged, the first president of the United States was portrayed by Greenough as the heroic, if sartorially challenged, intersection point of twin republics: the Roman and the American.

In the 21st century, the parallels drawn between ancient Rome and the modern United States tend to be gloomier. Wars in Iraq; the rise in the east of a rival superpower; political vendettas pursued in the law courts; anxieties that venerable constitutional traditions are menaced by populism; the emergence of radicals preaching that the last will be first, and the first will be last, to the excitement of many, and the consternation of others. All these are developments that will be familiar to anyone with even the most glancing familiarity with Roman history.

Gladiator—the most celebrated sword-and-sandals epic of the 21st century (of which there is a sequel currently in the works)—offered a portrait of a world that seemed, in many ways, as much about the future as the past. Citizens fed on dazzling entertainments; armies striking at an elusive foreign foe; the high-tech delivery of weapons of fire. Here was a mirror being held up to the decades that were to come.

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that so many Americans today should be thinking about the Roman Empire. They are thinking about a civilization that is at once strange and familiar; terrifying and glamorous; safely extinct and the image of themselves.    

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