Dr. Gregory Aldrete’s take
on past and present events
Can we compare the politics of the late Roman Republic and the United States today?
By Irwin Rapoport
August 24, 2023
Classical scholar Dr. Gregory Aldrete, Professor Emeritus of History and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, is an authority on Roman and Greek history. In an article entitled We should not ignore the lessons of history, he stressed the importance of the lessons learned from the classical world. When I asked Dr. Aldrete if he would feel comfortable commenting on the overall political situation in the U.S., making references to the politics of the late Roman Republic and how common sense is going the way of the dodo and becoming hyper-partisan, he replied:
“I get asked variants of this question a lot, usually seeking comparisons between the Roman Republic or democratic Athens and contemporary American politics, and I am always a bit hesitant to make direct parallels. It’s easy to point out what looks like obvious similarities, but the problem is that both ancient societies also had enormous and fundamental differences that make such comparisons incomplete and sometimes deceptive.”
… one of the things that undermined the institutions of the Roman Republic was when various politicians started making really important and consequential policy decisions that were motivated… by what was good for them personally or that furthered their careers, even if that decision was clearly bad for the Republic.
“On the other hand, one of the main things that history is supposedly useful for is to observe past mistakes and learn from them, to avoid making them again. I do think it is possible to point to patterns of past behaviour and conclude that they were harmful and then say, ‘These are things we probably want to try and avoid.’ For example, one of the things that undermined the institutions of the Roman Republic was when various politicians started making really important and consequential policy decisions that were motivated, not by what was good for the Roman state, but instead by what was good for them personally or that furthered their careers, even if that decision was clearly bad for the Republic.”
“Other problems in the Late Republic with potential modern analogs were a growing factionalism in politics, and an increasing use of violence to settle political disagreements. Also, all states, especially ones with democratic or representative forms of government, tend to have a set of informal norms of behaviour that government officials are expected to adhere to. These often serve as guardrails to prevent harmful behaviour by state officials. Sometimes these are codified in law, but unfortunately, often they are not.”
“During the Late Republic, another significant development was how people like Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, Pompey, and Caesar began to push at the limits of these longstanding norms, stretching and eventually outright breaking them. This undermined the institutions of the Republic and led to its downfall. In recent years, there have been several instances where certain norms that had been generally observed by politicians have been stretched, abused, or broken. Much of the dysfunction in Congress over the last decade stems from this sort of issue. For instance, even though there are expectations for when Supreme Court justices should recuse themselves from cases, there are no formal laws about this, leaving it up to them to self-police. This is a problem.”
“Turning to Athens, in his history of the Peloponnesian War, the historian Thucydides highlighted several flaws of democracy that are still relevant today. Using incidents such as the Melian Dialogue, the Mytilene Incident, and the debates about the Sicilian Expedition, he pointed out that democracies tend to be vulnerable to demagogues who stir up the citizens using emotional appeals and get them to vote for policies that are against their self-interest. He showed that democracies sometimes have trouble maintaining consistent long-term policies, that voters can be fickle and flip-flop on policies, and that democracies can be prone to moral arrogance and self-righteousness.”
‘… all states, especially ones with democratic or representative forms of government, tend to have a set of informal norms of behaviour that government officials are expected to adhere to… Sometimes these are codified in law, but unfortunately, often they are not.’
“These are all things that could be seen as relevant or troubling when observing recent politics. Of course, Thucydides is also the source for classic statements about the potential positive characteristics of democracy, such as innovation, economic strength, boldness, concern for justice, equality, egalitarianism, promotion by merit, and so on, but his evaluation is a balanced one that also includes the potential weaknesses.”
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Dr. Aldrete raises some excellent points, which brought up additional questions:
WM: In one of his letters, Marcus Tullius Cicero described political violence on the streets of Rome, and how he and a friend had to hide in a building while partisan political mobs roamed the streets. During the attack on The Capitol, rioters who stormed the building sought to hang Mike Pence and attack House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others. We also had a plot that was thwarted to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan and, in New Mexico, according to a January 2023 NPR news report: “Solomon Peña, who unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat in New Mexico as a Republican last November, was arrested Monday in Albuquerque for allegedly paying four men to shoot at the homes of four elected officials, police said. They say Peña paid $500 – and that he took part in one shooting himself.” Based on what happened in the Late Republic, is there a serious possibility that political violence could become accepted behaviour in the U.S.?
Aldrete: That is certainly a serious concern, and the current rise in politically motivated violence can absolutely be interpreted as a warning sign that things are on the wrong track. In standard explanations of the decline of the Roman Republic, one of the aspects that are usually pointed to as a clear indication that the Republic was in its death throes was the normalization of organized violence between rival political factions.
In the 50s BC, just before the outbreak of civil war, there was violent skirmishing between the gangs organized by Milo and Clodius representing, respectively, the optimate and populares political factions. I don’t think that we are at that point in the U.S., but the willingness of individuals and groups to use violence against their political opponents is something that should give everyone pause no matter what part of the political spectrum they are on. When we stop talking and compromising and start hurting or killing one another, we are betraying the democratic and moral principles that the country was founded upon.
‘In standard explanations of the decline of the Roman Republic, one of the aspects that are usually pointed to as a clear indication that the Republic was in its death throes was the normalization of organized violence between rival political factions.’
WM: We are also witnessing a decline in the quality and substance of political dialogue at the federal, state, and municipal levels, including school boards. This is also becoming a problem in Canada. There are individuals, especially on the Republican side, who are uttering comments that are full of hyperbole and extreme views to maximize the fortunes of their parties and causes. Was this a problem in the Late Republic and should this concern Americans and those living in democratic countries today?
Aldrete: Political parties of all stripes have always engaged in extreme verbal rhetoric against their opponents. I recall hearing back in the 1980s – which is now viewed as a time of consensus government between Republicans and Democrats – about how each party would send out lists of positive and negative adjectives to their members and urge them to attach a few whenever they used the name of either one of their own party or the opposition. That sort of rhetorical trick is straight out of the oratorical handbooks written by Cicero and would be familiar to politicians in almost any historical era. The speeches of Cicero are loaded with all sorts of truly vicious and manipulative political invective in a way that makes modern political rhetoric seem tame by comparison. Just look at his orations against Catiline or Mark Antony as examples. On the other hand, Cicero lived in a system on the verge of self-destruction, so this is probably not a good sign.
Ultimately, I’d say political discourse has unfortunately always been an arena particularly prone to simplification, emotional manipulation, misrepresentation, and invective, despite its potential for destructiveness and its toxic effect on reasonable discourse. What might be a significant change recently is the way that there is no longer a consensus about facts. Politicians have always tried to slant interpretation to favour their side, or to put a desired “spin” on events, but now we have a fundamental disagreement about basic factual information. It’s impossible to engage in meaningful dialogue if one side is completely delusional about reality.
WM: The Late Republic had a limited voter base and did not have a news media that covered politics the way it is today. Roman citizens did have access to news via the minutes of the Senate and through political leaders and their local operatives and political patrons had obligations to their client base. Based on what you are seeing, is the American public taking advantage of the media available to them to inform themselves on the political scene and how do you think average Roman and Athenian citizens would react to the media we have and the political system that manages the U.S. and other established democracies?
Aldrete: As I indicated earlier, the current lack of a news source that is trusted by all members of the political spectrum and our inability to even reach a consensus as to basic factual events is a huge problem that greatly impedes any sort of meaningful discourse. While the rise of the Internet has in some circumstances helped to make information more broadly available, it has also had a corrosive effect on people’s trust in what should be legitimate sources of information. The proliferation of unfounded conspiracy theories and what I perceive as a decline in the ability to critically evaluate sources are extremely detrimental.
‘… the current lack of a news source that is trusted by all members of the political spectrum and our inability to even reach a consensus as to basic factual events is a huge problem that greatly impedes any sort of meaningful discourse.’
The whole question of how to disseminate information in a society and the related issue of how openly citizens should be able to criticize their government are tricky ones. Debates about censorship, free speech, and “cancel culture” are nothing new. In ancient Athens during the 5th century, playwrights writing both tragedies and comedies had enormous latitude to openly and sometimes quite harshly mock contemporary politicians, generals, philosophers, and other public figures. They could challenge or criticize state policies. Admittedly this was often done in a slightly veiled way through allegory or stories about mythological characters, but everyone would have gotten the contemporary allusions. This freedom of expression was allowed even though the main religious festival at which new plays were premiered was organized and funded by the state itself.
Even when Athens was at war, playwrights were allowed to write plays that had strongly anti-war messages. Such actions were not seen as unpatriotic, but instead were valued for raising worthwhile questions and provoking debates. For example, Aristophanes‘ comedy, Lysistrata, has as its premise the notion that the women of Greece are understandably upset that their sons, husbands, and fathers are dying in the war, so they decide to hold a sex strike until the men make peace and stop the war. The tone of the play is slapstick and absurdist, but at heart, it is an anti-war play. It was staged in Athens at a time when the city was engaged in a bitter war for its very survival with Sparta, yet Aristophanes was allowed to stage it. Within my lifetime, I can recall vitriolic debates among Americans over movies or songs that were perceived as being anti-war or critical of U.S. policies, and many people condemning their makers and calling for them to be censored. The ancient Athenians believed that allowing such cultural products was essential to a healthy democracy.
WM: The politics of the Late Republic did not have official political parties, but they did have factions with loyal supporters and individuals with serious influence with specific elements of the public. In your view, is there a danger that the supporters of the Republicans and Democrats are becoming more intransigent, and is the number of registered independents declining? Also, are compromise and pragmatism becoming dirty words, and are political factions drowning out civil discussion to help solve crucial problems?
Aldrete: This is really a question for a modern political scientist or a contemporary American historian to answer. What I can say is that the hard-core members of what we sometimes call “political parties” in ancient Rome were almost entirely drawn from the elites, so they represent more of a struggle among those who already possessed power in Roman society, rather than the allegiance or opinions of a large segment of “average” or poor Romans. Certainly, the politicians who identified as populares would often posture that they were representatives of the people, or that their motivations were to better the lives of the average Roman. At times, this may even have been true. Scholars are still debating, for example, to what degree the Gracchi brothers, who proposed several popular reforms, were motivated by altruism versus self-interest.
‘… two things that I think history indicates are that, on the one hand, democracies are often very fragile institutions, but on the other, the essential ideals that they embody are extremely resilient. I can only hope that our institutions prove as durable as the ideals seem to be.’
Even if the Gracchi were sincere in their motivations, there were plenty of Roman politicians who clearly were not and were merely seeking personal power. One can certainly see parallels with any number of modern politicians who seem to care much more about getting re-elected or their careers than the well-being of the people they supposedly represent.
WM: From your perspective, could the media do more to cite examples of political unrest and civil strife in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Weimar Republic to educate the public to have voters demand better of their elected representatives and political institutions, and themselves?
Aldrete: Yes, we should look to history and see how extremely destructive things like the factional strife of the Late Republic were to that state’s institutions and how it contributed to the collapse of the Roman Republic. History is there for us to learn from, and we need to take advantage of what it can teach.
WM: Based on your knowledge of Greece and Rome, what do you foresee in terms of American politics in the next five years if the current situation persists?
Aldrete: I don’t feel qualified to guess and, honestly, I wouldn’t have much confidence in anyone who claims to know what will happen in the future. Looking at the past, however, two things that I think history indicates are that, on the one hand, democracies are often very fragile institutions, but on the other, the essential ideals that they embody are extremely resilient. I can only hope that our institutions prove as durable as the ideals seem to be.
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor’s degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.