Polybius & Livy
Today is citizenship day in our class. In honor of that,
let's begin with a passage from "Rip Van Winkle."
Having nothing to do at home, and being arrived at that happy
age when a man can do nothing with impunity, he took his place
once more on the bench, at the inn door, and was reverenced as
one of the patriarchs of the village, and a chronicle of the
old times "before the war." It was some time before he could
get into the regular track of gossip, or could be made to
comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his
torpor. How that there had been a revolutionary war-that the
country had thrown off the yoke of old England-and that,
instead of being a subject of his Majesty, George III, he was
now a free citizen of the United States.
The change in the relationship between the individual
and the state (from a subject of the king to a citizen of the
republic) was at the time so revolutionary that Winkle had
trouble grasping the concept. We, however, have lived so
long as a republic that we sometimes forget what's necessary for
us as citizens to give back if our republic is to endure.
A successful republic has numerous ingredients, but two
necessary ones are the republican form of government, which we
find in Polybius and many other sources, and the republican
(small 'r') citizen, whose virtues are embodied in the stories
we find in Livy.
We can't really know who we are if we forget where we came
from. Yet there is widespread confusion among some of our
fellow citizens about the origin of our system. For
example, consider the painting "One
Nation Under God" by Jon McNaughton, an artist who sells
bad art to dumb people. In his imagination, Jesus handed
down the Constitution to the founders as a kind of divine
inspiration. I suppose his thesis is that the United
States is a Christian nation, as though such a thing were
possible. So if our republican form of government didn't
come floating down from heaven while angelic choirs sang in the
background, where did it come from?
The answer of course is Rome. Ancient Rome famously
booted out its last rex (king), and replaced the
monarchy with the republican government:
If this looks familiar, it should. We replaced the
consuls with a president and vice-president. The tribunal
power was to limit the other powers by forbidding it - the Latin
word is veto. The president has the tribunal power
to block bills from taking effect, and the judiciary has the
tribunal power to limit what powerful people can do the the
weak. There the power is called habeas corpus.
Our Senate is based on Rome's Senate, obviously, and the House
of Representatives is based on the Comita. And Rome was
exceedingly proud of its legal system. Justinian
eventually systematized Roman law into a code (as opposed to a
mishmash of sometimes contradictory laws that had been cobbled
together ad hoc over the centuries) into the Justinian
Code. Later still it was systematized once again by Napoleon
into the Napoleonic Code. Louisiana adopted the civil
portion of the code; Rome is never very far away.
So why Rome? Because it's always Rome.
It's ALWAYS Rome.
It's always Rome.
So then why is it always Rome? Consider the ancient world for a
moment: ancient Sumer gave way to the Babylonians, the Perians,
and eventually to Islamic rulers; each civilization led to one
more advanced than the one before. Egypt was followed by
Greece - Alexandria, Egypt was built in honor of Alexander the
Great and was the greatest center of learning of its time.
Then Rome followed and eventually the Islamic countries.
And similar processions of civilizations occurred in Japan,
China, India, etc. Until you get to the Western Roman
Empire. When it collapsed, the following period came to be
known as the Dark Ages. A period which lasted for hundreds
of years. The little flicker of civilization that survived
during those centuries was the Catholic Church, headquartered in
The attempts to rebuild civilization all sought in some way to
re-establish Rome. From the Holy Roman Empire forward,
there were attempts to re-kindle civilization. When the
Euro was introduced in 2002, the speaker pointed out that this
was the first Europe-wide currency. Since Rome. And
now the Euro is mired in crisis. Sometimes it takes a long
time indeed to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Western conservatism is rooted in the belief that civilization
is a fragile edifice, like a Jenga block, and that changes
should be moderate and careful lest the whole thing
collapse. Of course, in current America we see a form of
right-wing radicalism that plays Jenga with bowling balls.
Their radical plans for extreme experimenting with society and
no clear path to a positive outcome do not belong to any
recognizable form of conservatism. And if our civilization
collapses, this time it will be the Dark Ages with nukes.
Soooo — are you feeling lucky, punk?
Giant Jenga fail.
The question then is, which Roman do we wish to become?
The answer most often has been Caesar. The Holy Roman
Empire led up to a Holy Roman Emperor. Napoleon had
himself crowned Emperor and First Consul, just to cover his
bases. This ambition affected the very languages
involved. What do the German 'Kaiser' and the Russian
'Tsar' have in common? Both words are derived from
'Caesar.' Caesar started as a name, but after his death,
Octavian adopted the name as his own, and it gradually became a
In contrast to these examples, the leader of the young United
States chose other Roman heroes. Heroes like the first
Brutus (not the one who assassinated Caesar; the one who set up
the Republic and served as one of the first two consuls).
George Washington took as his personal hero Cincinnatus.
Cincinnatus was a Roman senator and general. When word
reached Rome that they were threatened by imminent attack, the
Senate appointed him dictator for 6 months. Because their
system of government was so inefficient (by design), the
dictator had absolute power over all the elements of government
and could pass laws, try people, and exile or execute
them. The messengers found him plowing his field (the plow
is behind him in the statue below). The gave him the fasces
that represented his power (in his right hand). He
took over the army, repelled the enemy quickly, and with months
of absolute power ahead of him -- resigned his commission and
returned to his plow. Washington followed his example twice;
once at the end of the Revolutionary War, and the next time
after the second term of his presidency. Since the USA
eventually amended the Constitution to limit a President to two
terms because of Washington's example, Cincinnatus has
influenced our constitution. This is one example of good
citizenship from the ancient world making its impact on American
ideas of citizenship. Livy is full of dozens of these.
Early Americans were constantly studying ancient Roman virtues,
which they called civic virtue or republican virtue. It
usually involved putting Rome's welfare ahead of their own
welfare and self-interest. Romans were deeply suspicious
of the consolidation of too much power in the hands of too few
people. In many area, leaders were put on a pedestal --
Gilgamesh was 2/3s god, the Pharoah was the incarnation of
divinity on earth, the king of Israel was a Messiah chosen by
God and anointed by his prophet. The Roman rulers were mere
mortals chosen by their fellow citizens. Not God but the
Godfather. It's from the Romans we got the concept
of the consent of the governed and that authority comes up from
the bottom instead of down from the top. The later example
of the Emperor should warn us that when we hand all our power
over to a few rich people or powerful politicians, we might be a
long time getting it back. When you read Livy, you aren't
simply learning his stories or Rome's stories; you're learning
about yourself and your country.
Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what
thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling
of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself
relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself
relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the
last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion
from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love,
and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.
Thou seest how few the things are, the which if a man lays
hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and
is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part
will require nothing more from him who observes these things.
It's almost impossible to overestimate the importance of Rome
to the founders. Just as Rome was named for its pater
patriae (father of the country), Romulus, the new country
built a capital city named for our pater patriae,
Washington. When they bought the land for D.C., one
of the farmers they bought it from renamed a creek through his
land the Tibur. (Note to McNaughton, it wasn't renamed the
Jordon, and the city wasn't named Jerusalem.) They hired
eminent French architect Pierre "Peter" Charles L'Enfant to
design the new city; Jefferson, who was assigned to work with
him, told him to make it look like Rome. The main public
buildings in Washington from that time and for decades
thereafter remind us of Rome. The Lincoln Memorial is a Doric
Temple. Even McNaughton's distressingly bad art fails to
completely eliminate the Roman influence from the
background. This is not a secret that we need Nick Cage to
excavate from underneath the Capitol Building; the buildings
scream it. It's also on our money (check the back of the
$1.00 bill. There's Latin on it. What verses of the
Bible does the Latin come from? Take the challenge!)
The statue in the New York harbor isn't a statue of Moses
freeing the Israelites; it's the old Roman goddess Dea
Libertas; when ancient Roman slaves achieved their
freedom, they underwent the ritual of manumission in the temple
of Dea Libertas in Rome. If you examine the feet
of the Statue of Liberty, you'll see her feet are surrounded by
the broken chains of freed slaves.
Finally, the Romans measured years by A.U.C. (Anno Urbis Conditae, from the Founding of the City). Early Americans experimented with a new dating system, A.I.A. (Anno Independentiae Americanae, in the year of American independence). This dating system is still preserved in obscure documents like the United States Constitution ("done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names") and the Gettysburg Address ("Four score and seven years ago").
I teach the civic virtues of Rome because they are under a
systematic attack in our nation by forces that want our people
to forget that power comes from us, and that we can take that
power back from the ones who want to put all that power into the
hands of some new emperor. If you want to destroy a
republic, convince the citizens to give up their civic virtue.