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American Presidents and Roman Politicians

Luca Fezzi

In the creative chaos of the reflections on the first election campaign won by Barack Hussein Obama in 2008, a daring parallel emerged between the newly elected president and the Roman orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero, for their status as well-learned politicians and excellent speakers. The article was “The New Cicero,” published in The Guardian on November 26, 2008, by Charlotte Higgins, graduate in classics and director of the cultural page of the newspaper. This was not the only attempt to bring Obama and Greco-Roman antiquity together. In fact, the Huaenstein Center for Presidential Studies had organized a conference in May 2008 called President Barack Obama and the Lessons of Antiquity. But Higgins’s proposal enjoyed the most success.

The tendency, in politics, to refer to the ancient is still prevalent. The historian of Rome Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp explains,

The ongoing international discussion about presuppositions, conditions, and characteristics of politics, policies and policy making gloriously proves that Ancient History after—and even, horribile dictu, to a certain extent, rejuvenated by—the “cultural turn” is and remains a modern, thriving, and not only merely academic discipline at the beginning of a new century.

In fact, it couldn’t be otherwise. Even today, democracies, starting from their modern model, the American model, are based on examples, concepts, and practices from the Greek and Roman world, although reinterpreted according to the time and situation. Also for this reason we must be careful: beyond the lessons that even today’s leaders can receive from ancient exemplars, drawing historical parallels between different characters who embody different eras is always wrong. Doing so risks diminishing the tragic greatness—for better or for worse—of the protagonists of antiquity, and in particular of that central and dramatic period that was the end of the Roman Republic.

The tension during this period was extreme. It was when the concept of “civil war” materialized, not in the sense of a struggle between citizens, but between armies of citizens. The effective political power was in the hands of a ruling class that was experiencing tragic tensions and bloody internal substitutions. In Mario and Sulla’s time, the opposing members of the ruling class fell not only in combat, but also as a result of proscriptions.  

The military element was central to the tensions. Rome was an imperial power that dominated the entire Mediterranean. This meant, first of all, that the socially humblest sections of the population, represented by the nobiles who had a popularis sensibility (to simplify, the “progressives” of the time), were not unfavorable to military adventures. An army, voluntary and professional, paid by the commanders even with spoils of war, guaranteed not only the soldiers’ well-being, but also that of a plebeian population that often lived on public subsidies. Also the optimates (to simplify, the “conservatives” of the time), often landowners, saw in the wars an opportunity to increase the slave market at low cost.

The tensions also involved citizenship. Slaves, politically, held no weight whatsoever. Only the adult male citizen could fight in the legions, and likewise he was the only one who could vote—a very narrow segment of the population in a city swarming with people from every corner of the world then known. The citizen voted the laws, in a system that today we would call “referendum,” and elected the magistrates, the rulers. He could do so only in Rome, a republic but also a city-state; the inhabitants of the Italic peninsula, who after a terrible and bloody revolt had received citizenship in 89 B.C., had to go to Rome to exercise their rights. The Republic based in Rome had all the power.

Starting in 88 B.C., however, something began to go wrong. The first “march on Rome,” conducted with an army of citizens, was the work of Sulla, who drew the resistance of the city and conquered it. Other marches on Rome followed. In January 49 B.C., however, the conflict decisively escalated, a qualitative leap marking the beginning of the end of the Republic and the birth of the Empire.

Caesar, already a protagonist of political life following the shaky alliance with Pompey the Great and Crassus (improperly called the “first triumvirate”), now back from the conquest carried out in Gaul, crossed the Rubicon, the border of the Italian territory, which could not be crossed with an army in arms without senatorial authorization. He did so in order to be able to present himself at the consular elections of the following year, for reasons of prestige but also practical: all the elected magistrates were, for their year of office and for the following years of promagistrature, immune from legal proceedings, which, as often happens, were used for political purposes. Caesar feared perhaps the accusation of electoral fraud that he had committed in the distant 60 B.C.

The qualitative leap was, in our opinion, not so much due to Caesar, but to Pompey, charged by the Senate to defend the Republic and Rome. As soon as he heard of Caesar’s entry into Italy on January 17, 49 B.C., he gave a shocking order to senators, magistrates, and soldiers: to leave the city. While Pompey urged the senators to follow him, because “the res publica is not closed by walls,” Cicero challenged that it was “in temples and hearths.” Caesar, on the other hand, apparently had a still different idea: “nothing is the res publica, only a word without body or semblance.”

In fact, for every citizen—originally also a soldier—the Republic represented much, if not everything. In a world without parliamentary representation and, of course, supranational bodies, those who could be present in Rome at the time of the vote had the perception of their own importance. The panic resulting from this abandonment—albeit with solid strategic-military reasons—was the origin of the domino effect that led the inhabited centers of the Peninsula to surrender one after the other to the invader.

History would have given support to Caesar, the winner of the long civil war versus the “republicans,” the dictator and one of the models of any future autocracy. In a different way, history would also prove Cicero right. Republic was not only an idea; it was a place—it was Rome, with its urban boundaries, its walls, its temples, and its hearths. After its abandonment, the coming of the Empire and the end of the republican freedom were imminent, and perhaps also Pompey was aware of it and willing to become princeps.

The tragedy of the Rubicon and the civil war confirms our reflections on the incorrectness of biographical parallels (Cicero and Obama, in the case). The rapidity of the Caesarian victory, at the same time, must make us understand how sudden the collapse of a political system can be, even of a system that, despite going through dramatic moments, had resisted for about 460 years.

Luca Fezzi is professor of Roman history at the University of Padua and author of numerous books in Italian, including The Corrupt: An Inquiry by Marcus Tullius Cicero.

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