I haven’t finished Ancient Rome and Modern America, but I have read the epilogue and most of the chapters. It has reinforced my fondness for Benjamin Franklin, confirmed my wavering affection for Gore Vidal and introduced me to a new hero, Robert Byrd. More than that, it has shown me why or how each of us in the U.S. approaches presidential elections so convinced that whoever doesn’t support one’s candidate is … evil/an idiot/terrible/wrong. And perhaps even more than that, it has given me an overarching image of American history.
Ancient Rome and Modern America covers American history from the founders to the present. In each period, the author, Margaret Malamud, shows what use the people of America had for ancient Rome. Sometimes the people identified with the downtrodden of the Roman Republic. For a while some even identified with the Carthaginians. At other times, the Roman Empire was either positive or negative. Julius Caesar, through most of the book appears to have been thought of as the greatest villain in ancient history, a tyrant, demagogue, and cause of the fall of a great republic. Once America shed its British yoke, the villains tended to be the American elite, either the politicians or those who managed to accumulate wealth. Part of this stems from the early days of our country when the goal was not to have a chicken in every pot, but to have a plot of land, with a chicken or two in everyone’s coop.
The Founding Fathers identified with Cato, Cicero, and Brutus, considering George III a new Julius Caesar tyrannicus.
Aristocrats = Industrial Capitalist. Their enemy — still Caesar, but now Andrew Jackson = Julius Caesar demagogus.
Plebeians = Workers, Wage Slaves. Their champions: Marius, Spartacus.
Land distributions weren’t going to the people but were being swept up by the rich. The end of the yeoman farmer dream. People had to leave the plot and go to the city to become a wage slave.
To the Northerner, the Villain was like Rome = Southern slave owner.
The northern abolitionist’s hero was Hannibal or the slave mother who kills her own children so they can be free of slavery.
Southern response is to scorn a Carthaginian-like mother who would kill her children.
There is another, universal hero during this period: The Gracchi
North: The Gracchi = agrarian reformers
South: The Gracchi = reformers of a corrupt Senate
References to history support slavery.
This post Civil War period saw an influx of former slaves to the workforce and a suddenly deeply impoverished south. This was also the period in which America became actively evangelically Christian.
Rome presented two parallels for America of the day.
Caesar = Corrupt politicians and robber barons
The other side: socialists, labor
Rome vs the Christians
By embracing Christianity, America might escape Rome’s fall.
So much for any puritanical tendencies. Decadence of Roman Empire not a problem as America became self-indulgent. Roman Empire legitimating America’s new empire-building and class structure. Entertainment sops for the masses. Great civic building projects meant to awe and emulate buildings like the colosseum.
Entertainment exposed political corruption.
The next stage is the cold war, but I haven’t read the chapter.
The epilogue discusses Gore Vidal, the last defender of the Republic, who calls our form of democracy highest scale bribery, Ben Franklin, who wrote that the Constitution would work well for a time until the people became corrupt and in need of a despot, and Byrd, who has also mourned the loss of civic virtue in senators.
“The senator took the floor to inform [the Senate] pf a ‘truly great’ Roman senator from the first century CE named Helvidius Priscus. One day, said Byrd, the Roman senator was met outside the Senate by the Emperor Vespasian, who threatened to execute him if he spoke too freely. ‘And so both did their parts,’ Mr. Byrd said. ‘Helvetius Priscus spoke his mind; the Emperor Vespasian killed him. In this effeminate age it is instructive to read of courage.”