Doing as the Romans Do

How classical inspiration fired modern upheaval

Alert students of the G.W. Bush era have long suspected that imperialist military adventurism and liberty-loving, rights-based, cream-puff republicanist rhetoric are not entirely incompatible. Actually, by now it is hard to imagine one without the other. But ’twas not ever thus. For decades, serious discussion of an “American empire” was restricted to Alfred Thayer Mahan, Gore Vidal and Denys Arcand: pro, anti and wistful. September 11 changed that as the neoconservatives, impatient with worldwide wussiness, embraced the idea of empire as a convenient way to be simultaneously brutal and benevolent. Thus Cheneyites and Chomskyites alike could revel in imperial analogies, and their bipartisan terminology has lately attracted countless starry-eyed Realists, who have been churning out “decline and fall” pieces at a fearsome rate since the financial crisis of 2008. It is hard to believe that the now-common phrase “American empire” just yesterday evoked the 1890s and/or Mr. Vidal’s Tiresian forebodings.

Which is to say, one is prejudiced in favour of Edward G. Andrew’s thesis, in Imperial Republics: Revolution, War and Territorial Expansion from the English Civil War to the French Revolution, that “republicanism and imperialism are not antithetical”; in fact, one finds it blindingly obvious. Only in political science departments, perhaps, has theory been so outpaced by events that Andrew’s book will come as an urgent corrective. Notionally, his principal targets are Philip Pettit, Quentin Skinner and Maurizio Viroli, three theorists who have pictured republicanism as inherently non-coercive and non-imperial; cast as railroad-track–bound damsels to Andrew’s locomotive, Messrs. Pettit, Skinner and Viroli (spoiler alert!) are not rescued in time.

There is far more to Imperial Republics than easy polemic, however, since it is mainly a work of intellectual history: specifically, a history of how political events of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC dominated the political thinking of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries AD. We look over the author’s shoulder as he rereads English, French and American thinkers’ and statesmen’s countless passionate self-identifications with the various factions of Cicero’s republic.

Fortunately for them, the toga came in several sizes. Keen on territorial expansion but suspicious of the mob (a popular category)? You can play Cato! Determined to right wrongs with your uncivil sword? You’re Caesar! Skeptical of empire, rather nostalgic? Be Tacitus! Renaissance and Enlightenment education featured Rome, Rome and more Rome: in particular, the aristocratic character of the surviving literary sources glorified resistance to ambitious Caesars, proto-socialist land reformers like the Gracchi and treasonous Catilines. Few schoolboys had not heroically defended the Roman Republic, at least in their own imagination, before they hit 16. Such adolescent toga-donning had two effects: first, it turned everyone from Oliver Cromwell to Cardinal Richelieu to Pitt the Elder into a republican when it suited them; second, it turned naked aggression, a Roman specialty, from a crime against God into a patriotic virtue.

Mission accomplished, cries Machiavelli. Andrew locates the apostle of shrewdness as the key apologist for Rome as a model of post-medieval imperialism. Machiavelli felt that the rapid expansion of Roman territory before Augustus was proof of that state’s virtue, while its Aristotelian equilibrium after Augustus was a symptom of decline. To that end, “Machiavelli emphasizes the positive features of class conflict,” applauding the Roman Senate’s reluctance to share the spoils of war with the people, since “the enforcement of an agrarian law [for land distribution] would diminish soldiers’ desire to live by plunder and thus the imperial character of the Roman Republic.” This was not the attitude of the actual Roman aristocrats who had opposed agrarian reform: they had simply wanted more power, land and wealth for their own class. If Machiavelli’s influence proved decisive for the modern reuse of Roman experience, therefore, it was not because he taught would-be republicans how to manage their state most effectively; rather, his portrait of early Rome helped property holders in early modern Europe to identify their own greed for imperial spoils with the patriotic virtue of Roman aristocrats. For elites on the make (often, in those days, graduates of the humanist curriculum), this made both imperialism and republicanism intellectually attractive.

Enter the English Whigs. By 1689, the Glorious Revolution had deposed James II and installed a new, Protestant king from Holland: the Athenian outbursts of the English Civil War were history and the feudal-minded Tories were lying low. The ascendant Whig Party was left free to despise both its imported monarch and the disenfranchised commons, with the incorruptible Cato the Younger, patron saint of Roman Stoicism, as mascot. From the martyred politician Algernon Sidney (“the English Cato”) to Addison’s tragedy Cato, which was later performed at Washington’s behest in Valley Forge, to Trenchard and Gordon’s ultra-Whiggish Cato’s Letters (1720–23), Cato modelled a new state-based patriotism centred on the propertied Senate.

The consequences were far-reaching—across the pond. Faced with an even greater emotional distance from the Crown, American Whigs celebrated libertas, the slogan of the Roman aristocracy, as they defied not merely the monarchy but the British government in toto. “Death and taxes may be inevitable,” Andrew writes, “but people will not fight and die for rising taxes, unless the issue is cast as a matter of liberty or slavery.” Neo-Romanism became the defining ethos of the Revolution: Congress met on the Capitol, Latin mottoes abounded (“Sic semper tyrannis,” Brutus’s cry as he stabbed Caesar, was Virginia’s), the Roman eagle became the new national bird, a creek in Washington DC was renamed the Tiber and various Revolutionary orators actually dressed up in togas. “An estimated half of the pseudonyms of revolutionary writers derived from Rome.” The lines between theatre and ideology, and then between ideology and policy, disappeared: Andrew notes that

as the Americans and their allies got the upper hand in the war with Britain, the negative idea of empire as military oppression was transformed into a positive idea of extending the liberties for which Americans fought into new territories.

But the imperial founders went further than the ecumenical Romans. Jay, Jefferson and Monroe together dreamed of a continent filled by “a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar law; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture of that surface.” But where “the Roman Empire was violent and oppressive … the American empire would be free and republican,” albeit with a freedom imposed at gunpoint.

It would be unfair to describe Anglo-American neo-Romanism as one long orgy of oligarchy and imperialism, however. As Andrew shows, some 18th-century writers, chiefly Tories, had emancipated themselves from the aristocratic prejudices of their classical sources. Instead they praised the Gracchi, Rome’s frustrated land reformers of the 2nd century BC: Nathaniel Hooke protested that “Liberty and the Republic are cant-words, where the bulk of the people have no property”; Gibbon criticized “the avarice of the nobles” in Rome; the “highly eccentric” Edward Wortley Montagu denounced the “injustice of the Patricians.” In fact Montagu condemned the very idea of Empire: “All those splendid conquests which shine so much in history,” he exclaimed. “In their true colours, they will appear to be nothing more than fraud and robbery, gilded over with those pompous appellations. Did not every nation that makes a figure rise to empire upon the ruin of their neighbours?” Dr. Johnson’s Tory verdict was still more emphatic: “I do not know why any one but a school boy in his declamation,” he intoned, “should whine over the commonwealth of Rome, which grew great only by the misery of the rest of mankind.”

In the New World, agrarian reform went from historical analogy to actual program in the government of Georgia, where Tory General James Oglethorpe banned slavery from 1735 to 1750, plantation slavery and republican small-plot yeomanry being incompatible. But support for a more progressive politics was minimal: the rebellion of Daniel Shays in 1786, on behalf of small-scale farmers, was backed only by Jefferson. To a man, the other founders attacked Shays as a monstrous neo-Gracchus.

Overall, then, Whiggery, imperialism, oligarchy and Catonian republicanism went together, opposed to Toryism, anti-imperialism, agrarian reform and anti-Romanism.

Whiggery is one thing, the guillotine is something else. The all-time champions of neo-Roman rhetoric were the French. In the 16th century, the Huguenot François Hotman invoked Brutus alongside his royalist Catholic opponent, Jean Bodin, who invoked Caesar; both extolled La République. In the next century, the Frondeurs, who were trying to limit the powers of the monarchy, “saw themselves as heroes of the Roman Republic,” while “fittingly, Louis XIV styled himself as Augustus Caesar, having defeated the Roman senate and Republic.” The Roman analogy proved especially fruitful under Absolutism, when it was safer to attack the Senate than the titled classes of the Second Estate. D’Argenson, Madame de Tencin, Fontenelle, Montesquieu, Mably, Barthélemy and Rousseau all weighed in on the suddenly red-hot topic of politics in the 2nd century BC. Likewise, fervid allegiance to la patrie in Roman republican terms became a safe alternative to personal allegiance to the Bourbons. David’s celebrated painting of The Oath of the Horatii, in which three Roman sons swear to fight to the death for the state, appeared in 1784, several years before the dawn of La République. Twenty years later, French women were actually dressing like Roman women, rococo architecture was out and neoclassicism was in, the king had been replaced by an emperor and eagles guarded the empire’s frontiers; in the meantime, Brutus had come and gone as the paragon of civic virtue, tyrannicide having had its ups and downs. Agrarian reform had gone some distance until curtailed by the Directory. But now the new emperor was launching the citizenry against external enemies, as defence of la patrie morphed into continental conquest: Machiavelli would have approved.

This brisk summary gives some idea of the scope of Imperial Republics. The reader shuffles through a forest of fruit trees, their branches weighed down with ripeness and thus rather difficult to navigate. The author conclusively proves that 17th- and 18th-century writers had a lot to say about Rome and generally admired it. The resulting close ties between republicanism and imperialism in this period are convincingly demonstrated. But it is hard to draw a larger historical conclusion from so many different sources. My final impression was that a graduate of the humanist curriculum in those centuries naturally thought in terms of the totally Roman political theory and totally Roman rhetoric he had absorbed in school: these he would simply deploy to suit his argument, knowing they would resonate with his readers. Thomas Hobbes, as I learn from Andrew, agreed, holding that “the schools and universities that taught students to read Greek and Roman writers were one of the leading reasons for the English Civil War”; one recalls Mark Twain’s remark that the main cause of the American Civil War was Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

This is not to trivialize the importance of such allusion. Quite the contrary: allusive systems that can inspire three revolutions and limitless self–sacrifice are of the utmost importance, especially when (as with Andrew’s subject) the aftershocks of such rhetoric are still able to wreck the international order today. For us, however, who are by and large ignorant of the Roman metaphorical universe and eager to draw connections across epochs, individual allusions likely seem weightier than they were meant to be. But those wishing to discover what a flexible system of historical allusion (i.e., one that does not reduce everything to comparisons with the Nazis) is like in action —can read Andrew’s book for instruction.

Let me finish on a note of profound skepticism. While works like Imperial Republics are valuable contributions to intellectual history, they are also monuments to the folly of our inherited political vocabulary. We insist on using words like “republic” and “empire” and “democracy” and “tyrant” as abstract principles, when in fact they are both historically and linguistically alien to our direct experience as modern anglophones. For example, the conceptual opposition between a “Roman republic” and a “Roman empire” reflects a totally post-medieval spin on ancient terminology. Roman writers continued to speak of the “res publica” (“the state”) under the Caesars, just as Augustus boasted of having “liberated the state” (rem publicam … in libertatem vindicavi). The condition of “a state not dominated by an emperor,” such as might equate to what these early modern, Enlightenment and contemporary theorists seem to mean by “republic,” was indicated by the Latin libertas (or communis libertas), the freedom of citizens from lawless coercion. The “Roman Empire” (imperium Romanum) was the territory controlled by the Romans, before and after Augustus; it was not an imperium because it was dominated by an imperator (“generalissimo” or emperor) but because the Romans collectively exercised “the power of command” (imperium) over that territory’s peoples and cities. These terms, it may be argued, have changed their meaning; but just how they have changed, what they once meant and what they mean now form a very tangled web, historical and theoretical as the fancy takes each theorist. Perhaps the first step back toward political sanity today would be to follow Confucius’s advice, “rectify the language” and cease to use these historically contextualized, and thus now obscure, terms to describe our central institutions of government. For while we are pondering their scope and relevance, others are using them as a smokescreen for lawlessness. In that, at least, we may well still feel a deep affinity for Cato’s Rome.