Where’s My Toga?
A great article in The Economist of the similarities between Donald Trump’s Washington and the Roman Republic.
AS THE parade of billionaires and generals joins Donald Trump’s cabinet, it is hard not to be reminded of the Roman republic. Parallels between Rome and America have been made in the past, of course; Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” talked of imperial overstretch—excessive military spending that eventually undermined an empire’s position.
But the current parallels date from much earlier in Roman history; how the republican system eventually turned into plutocracy or “rule by the rich”. In her history of Rome, “SPQR”, Mary Beard writes that:
The first qualification for office was wealth on a substantial scale. No one could stand for election without passing a financial test that excluded most citizens
This is not to say that the poor were ignored. Ms Beard adds that:
The votes of the poor mattered and were eagerly canvassed. The rich were not usually united, and elections were competitive.
The nature of that competition, however, would often depend on the amount of food and drink that candidates were able to supply to the voting public; indeed political slogans were often inscribed on the bottom of wine cups, so you saw who to vote for after you had finished your drink. Never mind “drain the swamp”; this was “drain your drink”.
The power of the generals in ancient Rome came from two sources. The first was that being a general was one of the fastest routes to riches; a conquering army could seize the spoils of war (and distribute them to consolidate a general’s power). Second, as Julius Caesar showed, a general could use his army to intimidate the civilian powers. Thankfully, neither is true of modern generals. In modern times, a military leader is seen more as an “alpha male” who can get things done; remarkably 12 out of the 44 Presidents to date have been former generals, from Washington to Eisenhower.
Which figure in ancient Rome does Mr Trump most resemble? The one that springs to mind is Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the wealthiest man in the history of Rome; he made his fortune through property speculation. He was dubbed to be a good orator and suffered from a sex scandal when he was accused of getting too close to a Vestal Virgin. The parallels are not exact, since Crassus was a military leader as well as a wealthy man. But it is striking to note, in Tom Holland’s book on the Roman Republic, “Rubicon”, that Crassus had a rich father and that he:
Would inherit from his father the recognition that wealth was the surest foundation of power
And, given Mr Trump’s tendency to flip-flop on issues such as abortion, the following sentence in Mr Holland’s book also rings true:
Principles, to Crassus, were merely gambits in a vast and complex game, to be adopted and then sacrificed as strategy required
Crassus never quite achieved total power, being part of the first triumvirate with two even more famous figures, Pompey and Julius Caesar (with the best will in the world, it is hard to put Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan in the same category as those two). The machinations of these men played a large part in ensuring the replacement of the Republic by the Empire, under Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian (later Augustus) and his less illustrious successors.
What happened to Crassus in the end? He died leading his army in futile battle in what is now modern-day Iran. At least we know that will never happen again…
From The Economist