Saturday, December 21, 2013

Give me the republic or give me death

Watching the two-season HBO series Rome was an enjoyable experience for this amateur interested in the history of the republic and later empire. The juxtaposition of stoicism and epicureanism in the two historically insignificant protagonists, the skillful crafting of a narrative in a world that is in some ways strikingly similar to our own but in others utterly alien to it, the immensely satisfying casting--combine for one hell of a historically fictional ride.

On that last point regarding the casting, though, a couple of the portrayals bugged me. Octavia, not for aesthetic reasons, but because in the series she's an irresponsible hedonist when the historical consensus seems to be that she pulled off quite the balancing act, managing to remain loyal, faithful, and contemporarily dignified both to her brother Augustus and her husband Mark Antony even after the two most powerful men in the moribund republic were on a seemingly inevitable path to war.

The other is Cato (the Younger), the unflinching Republican who uncompromisingly opposed Julius Caesar, and, in so doing, helped prod Pompey into forcing Caesar to march on Rome. I find affinity for the historical Cato to come easily, but the series tests that by portraying him as a bit of a stammering, quixotic buffoon.

Randall Parker's recent post entitled "Cato of the Republic was a fool", however, makes the HBO perspective more easily comprehensible:
Cato was one of the leaders in the Roman Republic who maneuvered Julius Caesar into a position where his only choices were to either get convicted of a crime by the Senate (thereby losing all power, possibly his life, and with his best outcome a life in exile) or to overthrow the Republic. Caesar's decision was not surprising. His ability to execute on his decision was also not surprising. Caesar was an incredible dynamo, a great leader of men who inspired intense loyalty and devotion in those he led. Cato, by contrast, was a fool. He helped accelerate the death of the Republic. 
Cato serves as an inspiration for the modern day Libertarians at the Cato Institute. They look up to a guy who overplayed his hand in a Rome where few deeply shared his principles and views. Cato's views found even less support among the native peoples in most of the conquered lands which the Romans ruled. Does this sound familiar? 
Why are open borders Libertarians wrong on immigration? For reasons similar to why Cato was wrong about Caesar: a refusal to acknowledge that pursuit of unachievable ideals can result in worse outcomes.
With all the caveats about enormous differences in time and place, one might make the argument that Ron Paul is a sort of Cato of our times. However, it is such incorrigibility that allows inspiration to survive two millenia and a transcontinental journey across the Atlantic.

Like Cicero, posterity might remember David Brooks as more effectual among his contemporaries than Cato then or Paul now, but history's great moderates lack the appeal that history's more committed giants do. What modern think tank takes its namesake from Cicero? What Christian denomination from Erasmus?


Randall Parker said...

What is sad: Our own republic is in decline for reasons which a few wise politicos could not reverse at this point. Our elites insist on blinding themselves to the reasons why.

Will our elites ever try to reverse the decline? When and how?

Glossy said...

I saw 3 or 4 episodes of Rome a long time ago. It had many elements of modern British PC. The villainy of one character, for example, was established when he said a few disrespectful words to a group of East Indian merchants. How important were East Indians in ancient Rome? Probably a few thousand times less important than in modern Britain. But Rome wasn't really a show about ancient Rome.

The Roman class divisions were portrayed in very much the same way as 20th and 21st century British class divisions. I'm talking about cultural attitudes, tones of voice, the exact shades of resentment - the subtle stuff. Even 19th century British class conflict felt different from that, judging by 19th century literature. How could anything from 2,000 years ago have been similar to it then? The answer: it wasn't really a show about ancient Rome.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Parker,

Our Republic is not in irreversible decline, it vanished in the night in 80 years ago.

The New Deal replaced it, that's what's in irreversible decline. As to our elites reversing it, Sir they are the very authors of its' destruction. The assassins are not blind they're quite determined.


bdoran said...

"posterity might remember David Brooks as more effectual among his contemporaries "


Posterity could well remember Guilderstein more effectual amongst his contemporaries than Hamlet.

Come ye Fortinbrass!! Lead on, I'll follow ye!

Audacious Epigone said...


I recall Vorenus, as an agent of a Roman merchant, strongarming some Jainists (I think) after a transactional dispute of some sort, and it ends up putting him off that sort of livelihood, but at least as an 21st century American (who has a relatively keen eye for these sorts of things) it didn't strike me as class commentary on more recent British history.

Re: class distinctions, if I were to level criticism, it'd be that they were glossed over rather than accentuated. Vorenus, for example, rises to become a senator even though he doesn't have the wealth to even be an equite, let alone a member of the senatorial class. Lots of face-to-face, candid interaction between rank-and-file soldiers like Pullo and the commanders of multiple legions like Augustus and Mark Antony.

As for the affectations, how would you have them altered? It was cast in Britain, and it's difficult to get a real feel for class distinctions on a mundane, day-to-day level in ancient Rome.


German(e!) name!

Anonymous said...

I'm back. And this time we mean to win. It helps when your enemy destroys himself.

We don't have Rome. We have the New Deal. And it's old, and ending.


Randall Parker said...


You did enough damage the first time.

Put Vercingetorix as your identity and know that Napoleon III repeated your mistake.

Arvind said...

republic is the best system in the world