Not Of Rome's World: While the similarities between the Roman and American republics are striking - especially in terms of the deliberate corruption of their politics by wealthy elites - the notion of belonging to a moral polity, as enunciated by Christ, could hardly be more different. The Kingdom of Heaven will always stand in sharp contrast to the brutally contested rewards of worldly governments.
I’VE JUST FINISHED READING Robert Harris’s historical novel, Dictator. Set in the final tumultuous years of the Roman Republic, the book has sharpened my appreciation of the current campaign for the American Presidency. Though separated in time by more than two thousand years, the political similarities between the world’s two most influential republics are more than a little unnerving.
In both instances we are confronted with extremely ambitious and fabulously wealthy men joining forces to subvert the institutions of the republic. The weapon of choice against the Roman and American constitutions are the all-too-easily aroused passions of the long-suffering plebs. Having whipped up the fury of the common people against the depredations of the elites, the enemies of the republic then set the plebs to dismantling the constitutional checks and balances which are all that stand between them and the exercise of unbridled power.
All that is lacking from the political stage of contemporary America is a Julius Caesar. There is, as yet, no United States equivalent of Rome’s all-conquering general. No one in command of an army of fanatically loyal soldiers ready to march on Washington itself – if that is their imperator’s command.
Some would cast Donald Trump in the role of America’s Caesar. Having read Harris’s novel, however, I would rather cast Trump as America’s Publius Clodius Pulcher.
Clodius was a populist Roman politician who relinquished his aristocratic privileges so that he could be elected to the office of Tribune – the representative and protector of ordinary citizens. Like Clodius, Trump is vilified by “decent” citizens for adopting the vulgar accents of the mob, and is accused of inciting them to intimidate and attack his opponents.
In Trump’s recent prediction/threat that there will be “riots in the streets” if the elites attempt to deny him the Republican Party’s nomination, one detects ominous echoes of Clodius’s actual use of his fiercely loyal plebeian followers to overawe the aristocratic Roman Senate and secure the passage of his populist legislation.
The fall of the Roman Republic was, paradoxically, the result of its extraordinary success. As Rome’s conquests multiplied, its wealth grew to the point where the civic virtue so essential to the operation of its complex constitution was utterly overwhelmed by avarice and corruption.
There was simply too much money to be made out of Rome’s expanding empire: more than enough to buy up the key public offices of the republic. Gold could also create legions, the military power upon which the city state and its empire ultimately rested. Inevitably one ambitious politician would lay his hands on sufficient wealth, and swords, to dispense with the consent of the Senate and People of Rome altogether.
This fascination with Rome, stronger today than it has been for many decades, may strike you as odd until you are reminded, every Easter, of the events which bind the world of two thousand years ago with the world of today. Whatever else it may purport to be, the story of Jesus of Nazareth; his birth, ministry and ultimate execution; is a story which takes place in the context of Rome’s imperium.
Jesus and his followers could no more avoid the political and moral questions posed by Roman rule than we can escape the challenges of American hegemony. In his time, as in ours, there were many who sought to free themselves from imperial rule by violence. Only a handful of those struck by Rome were willing to turn the other cheek.
The Judea of 33AD was as plagued by terrorism, and the grim reprisals it provokes, as the Israel of 2016AD. It’s people awaited the coming of a mighty leader: someone to make the land of God’s chosen people great again. For a moment, they thought they’d found one. But, when asked by the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, whether he was this long awaited King of the Jews, Jesus replied: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
What did Pilate make of that enigmatic answer? Did he shake his head – incredulous at his doomed prisoner’s naivety? How could Jesus not know that imperium and reality are inseparable? That nobody is more of this world than a king.
The idea of a moral imperium was as foreign to Pontius Pilate, then, as it is, now, to Donald Trump.
A version of this essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times of Thursday, 24 March 2016.