WHY ARE MEN always thinking about the Roman Empire? Women, baffled by their partner’s quickening heart-rate when confronted with images of disciplined legionaries preparing to “unleash hell”, or worried by the Caesar-like poses they catch them striking in front of the bedroom mirror, have turned to their sisters on Tik-Tok for answers. Predictably, it was men who responded. The conclusion of the male commentariat? Men think about the Roman Empire a lot because the Roman Empire still contributes such a lot to what it means to be a man.
But, Rome retains its relevance for another reason, one only partially bound up with masculinity. Rome provides the template for empire: a template so powerful that we have been surrounded by its symbols for centuries. From the Dark Ages, when Charlemagne received the title of Holy Roman Emperor from the Pope; to the Consuls of the French Republic and, after them, the Emperor Napoleon; to the fasces that can still be seen adorning the United States House of Representatives and Lincoln’s memorial throne; to the classical colonnade of our own Parliament Buildings in Wellington: the legacy of Rome is ubiquitous.
The simple truth about Rome’s persistence of vision is that the ideas, the institutions, and the leaders that nourished it continue to inspire and guide our own. The way we think about politics: our curious bifurcation of means and ends; the way we honour the spirit of the Laws, even as our leaders flout the reality; the way we seek peace by preparing for war; all this is as Roman as “Hail Caesar”.
So, too, the notion that, to a favoured people, God (or, the Gods) might promise “empire without limit”. There are still numerous New Zealanders who recall hearing their parents talk about “the British Empire, upon which the sun never sets”. To this very day, Americans still celebrate in song a continental republic stretching from “sea to shining sea”.
So, Rome lives, and men of all ages still thrill to its unalloyed celebration of power. Ninety years ago, Nazi stormtroopers marched beneath devices self-consciously modelled on the eagle standards of the Roman legions. “Hail Hitler” they cried, as lustily as the men of Rome’s Thirteenth Legion had shouted “Hail Caesar!”, offering their leader the same stiff-armed Roman salute. Certainly, the movie director Ridley Scott had as little difficulty as Joseph Goebbels in mixing valour and violence into a thrilling, if extremely dangerous, recapitulation of Rome’s political imperatives. “Gladiator” is fascism in sandals.
Rome’s shadow is visible even in today’s headlines. It is said that the Roman senator, Cato, ended every speech with the same sentence: Ceterum (autem) censeo Carthaginem esse delendam [Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed.] When it came to which great city-state should command the Mediterranean basin – Carthage or Rome – there could be only one. Clearly, the Israeli state and Hamas have arrived at the same conclusion. Like Cato, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems hell-bent on destroying his mortal enemies. When Carthage finally fell, the Romans left not one stone standing upon another. The Israeli’s seem determined to leave Gaza in the same state.
Confronted with the imminent demise of his people, the Roman historian Tacitus has the ancient Briton, Calgacus, say of his conquerors: ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant – they make a desert and call it peace. We must earnestly hope that Tacitus’s words do not supply Gaza with its epitaph.
Equally relevant to the headlines of the 2020s is Rome’s bloody transition from republic to empire.
Very few people living today understand that Julius Caesar, the man who made the Roman Republic’s fall inevitable, was what most of us would call a socialist. Though a patrician (aristocrat) by birth, Caesar saw in the Roman Senate little more than a corrupt body of elite oppressors of the plebs (the ordinary people).
Attempting to protect the plebs from the patricians was, however, a risky enterprise. Caesar had before him the fate of the Gracchi brothers (think of the Kennedy brothers in togas) whose lack of a sufficiently large body of armed men to protect their reformist agenda resulted in both of them being assassinated.
Caesar’s success as a political leader was founded squarely on Rome’s legions and the money they allowed him to amass. By the time the patricians became desperate enough to kill him, Caesar had made sure that the corrupt, elite-driven Roman Republic was beyond saving. His adopted heir and protégé, Octavian, would become Rome’s first emperor – Augustus.
It is very difficult to look upon the corruption and dysfunction of the present American Republic without recalling the moral and social disintegration of the Roman Republic. (The constitutional inspiration, incidentally, which guided the USA’s founding fathers.)
Like the young Roman Republic, the young United States would acquire its own version of empire and, by virtue of its military and economic strength, emerge as the master of its world. As is so often the case, however, the vigour and vitality of a young republic fades. Wealth substitutes for glory. Republican virtue becomes a memory. Unity dissolves. The republic falls into the hands of men with too much money and too many years.
The question upon which the fate of the world now turns is whether or not the American Republic, still rich, still immensely powerful, can rise above the rancour and corruption into which it has fallen. Caesar was murdered by men who clung to a Roman republican constitution that no longer worked. It had become a threadbare veil, no longer capable of hiding – let alone restraining – the naked ambition of ruthless political and military leaders eager to replace it with something more rational – and less restrictive.
There are many who would argue that the United States is not that far removed from the circumstances which led to the fall of the Roman Republic. America’s enemies would appear to be better students of history than either the Democratic or Republican parties. Profound challenges to American hegemony in Europe, the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East can hardly be faced down by a nation that cannot even elect a Speaker of the House of Representatives – let alone pass a budget! Not even Rome, in all its long history, was able to produce a cavalcade of clowns to match the current American spectacle.
That the USA is presided over by a man in his 80s speaks eloquently of the USA’s predicament. Every day, it’s sclerotic institutions make it clear that America is no longer a country for young men. America desperately needs what Rome, in extremis, always seemed to find: a vigorous political general, with a plan in his mind – and loyal legions at his back.
It is as well, then, that, all over the Western World, young men are thinking about Rome. Because, if ever there was time to “unleash hell” on the decrepit, the corrupt, and the criminally incompetent, then that time is now. For, make no mistake, all across the rest of the world, there is no shortage of young men thinking about the Barbarians.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 23 October 2023.