Teaching the fall of the Roman Republic during the Trump presidency
Edward Watts is the Alkiviadis Vassiliadis Chair at the University of California at San Diego and former director of the Center for Hellenic Studies at UCSD. His most recent book is Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny (Basic Books, 2018).
The summer of 2016 changed the way I teach Roman history. That summer, Mitch McConnell blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and Donald Trump excluded protesters from political rallies. As these violations of American political standards accumulated, I began to receive questions from students and relatives who were alarmed by the striking similarity of Trump and McConnell’s behavior to the actions taken by politicians. Romans in the later years of the Roman Republic.
This is not the first time that students have turned to Roman history for tools that could help them understand the present. During the Iraq War, students and journalists looked to the later Roman Empire to diagnose the state of American global hegemony. It was Empire that counted then as students strove to understand the contemporary relevance of moments of Roman imperial overtaking like the disastrous invasion of Mesopotamia by Emperor Trajan or the failed attempt by Maximinus Thrax to conquer the ‘Germany. I used to speak of modern analogies with Roman imperial history. But it was the Roman Republic that students and relatives evoked in the summer of 2016. At first, it seemed easy to dismiss their concerns. I assured my friends and family that American voters have learned from the past. Our fellow citizens could never reward such cynical and threatening behavior. Of course, I was wrong. We hadn’t learned enough to get to know each other better.
As I stood in front of a room filled with nearly 100 undergraduates to give my first lecture after Donald Trump’s travel ban in early 2017, I realized how much the lessons of the Roman past could have. new meaning for my students. I scanned this room and saw students struggling to understand the abrupt transition from Barack Obama’s administration to Donald Trump’s regime. They didn’t want me to give them answers and they certainly didn’t want me to preach an ideology to them. They wanted me to provide them with tools that could help them understand what this new world meant and how they could navigate it at their leisure. I decided to drop my scheduled lecture that day and instead spoke of Roman efforts to limit immigration in the 120 BCE. This sparked a broad discussion of how a representative democracy should balance the obligations it owes its citizens with the fair treatment of non-citizens who live within its borders. The discussion turned out to be so fruitful that I decided to rethink my class to focus on the issues that Rome faced 2,000 years ago and that the United States is now struggling to solve.
I believe this is now the main work of a Roman historian. The Republic of the United States is a descendant of the Roman Republic, modeled on Rome by our founders. When our country began, Rome offered the most successful republic in history. Roman historians gain unique insight into how these two related republics successfully faced social and political issues, as well as the particular dangers they might face. My class is now focusing on these questions. We are discussing the rise of finance in Rome. We examine how Roman economic inequality increased in the mid-second century BCE in a way that resembles what has unfolded in the United States for the past 30 years. We recount the kind of corrupt inequality fostered in Roman political life. We study the Roman crackdowns on illegal immigration in the second and first centuries and how tensions over who deserved Roman citizenship ultimately escalated into violence that nearly destroyed the state. We analyze the political dangers posed by legislative obstruction and how this obstruction in Rome aided the rise of Julius Caesar and set the Republic on the path to becoming an empire. And, most importantly, we are talking about how threatening rhetoric, political violence, and ultimately civil war destroyed a Roman Republic that for centuries had been dominated by compromise and collegiality.
These examples are not abstract. When Donald Trump calls on his supporters to kick protesters out of a rally, it reminds me of how populist Roman politician Tiberius Gracchus used threats of violence as a political tactic. When Mitch McConnell uses parliamentary tactics to block votes on popular and necessary legislation, it reminds me of how the deadlock created by Roman Senator Cato led to the rise of Caesar. And when Democratic politicians call for retaliation against Trump and his associates, I think of the cycles of Roman political dysfunction that prepared Rome for autocracy by encouraging popular cynicism about the responsiveness of representative Roman democracy in the first century BCE. time.
At every moment, I stress to my students that the United States is no more Rome than I am my grandfather, but, as citizens of the constitutional descendant of the Roman Republic, we ignore the failures of Rome to our risks and dangers. While Rome cannot tell us our future, it does give us important ways to reflect on the possible consequences of the disorienting political events happening around us.
Until January 2017, I never imagined that the lessons of the fall of the Republic of Rome would resonate so strongly in the America in which I live. It alarmed me when they did. But now, 2 years later, I take courage. My students are trying to understand Rome’s mistakes and uncover the sources of its political resilience. The Roman past informs their efforts to shape the American future. With luck, they can use the Roman lessons to help stabilize and even improve our Republic.