“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” – Winston Churchill
This quote is shrouded in different interpretations, certainly Churchill expressed this idea many times, but that makes this phrase impregnated with irony: did he actually say this as presented?
It is true, by the way, what he may have said: we can only interpret pre-modern history through the dominant narratives and articulations which we receive, whether intact or in portions. We only see a reflection of the truth, passed down from generation to generation as the past is consumed by time. Our modern age with, all its sources and documentation, with its news articles, analysis, commentary, its partisan discord and interpretation, is distorted by every single person living on this planet. This represents a complete break from the distant past and only through finalities do we see, or think we see, the whole arc of stories; and those stories even become replete with portents and foreshadowing. The spotlight of history illuminates while it conceals, and our modern era is particularly susceptible to the revelation of only that information which serves our biases.
Here, now, in America, we again look to the Ancient World for knowledge, and with that knowledge we come, not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. American political consciousness is made radiant by the glow of Ancient Rome. Desire to look to that period as a source of divination for our own political future is therefore natural, but fundamentally flawed, with comparisons to this history degraded by a multitude of factors.
The Roman Republic is seated at an honored position in the table of American history. We took many of our forms and terminology of government from that ancient State, including, of course, the most basic structure of our government. The Senate, the Fasces (the bundle of sticks in the Senatorial seal representing the authority and sovereignty of the Law), the fear of the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the minority — all are derivations of the Roman Republic or the analysis of the Roman Republic. America inherited and debated these ideas from the past because of the quirks of the forking paths which channeled the information from antiquity to the present. The Founding Fathers were well educated, and large servings of that education were obtained from the surviving writings of Roman authors. The Roman senator, author, playwright, philosopher, and lawyer Cicero was one such gentleman. Cicero carved his place in civilizational history through his writing and speeches – and the most important historical event in his life was the suppression of the Catilinian conspiracy.
The detail from the Cesare Maccari’s fresco at the top of this post is a likeness of the Roman villain Catiline, an aristocrat and general killed for his attempt to seize control of the Roman government (the aforementioned Catilinian Conspiracy). I use the word “villain” intentionally, as his name became a byword for evil in Renaissance and Classical literature over a thousand years later.
This detail of a photo (from Flickr user: TheUnseen011101) is of Jake Agneli, the so-called “QAnon Shaman” – a man whose presence at the Jan. 6th incident at the Capitol was rather conspicuous. I doubt his name will be used as byword for villainy a thousand years from now, but he is notorious nonetheless.
Early examination of the online cult from which Agneli received that moniker, QAnon, took a mocking tone, connecting the conspiratorial cult to “Pizzagate,” another conspiracy which prefigured QAnon with its followers’ conviction of the existence of pedophilic conspiracies in the Democratic Party. The apotheosis of Pizzagate occurred when one individual went into the pizza shop at the center of the conspiracy armed with a gun looking for a non-existent sex dungeon. Occasionally dangerous because of its appeal to the deluded, but not a serious threat to the fabric of society – that was the perspective on both Pizzagate and QAnon. Now, with a lengthened perspective, QAnon is seen as something much more alarming.
The Storming of the Capitol on January 6th was an event that changed the narrative arc of QAnon in media. But it also changed perceptions of the Trump Presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic, and ideas of free expression in the age of social media – from a deplorable curiosity to a present danger.
It is a favored pastime to claim that present events were inevitable, or were obviously going to occur with knowledge derived from the foreshadowing of previous events. This sentiment is a trick of time and storytelling, and we love trying to use the map of the past to predict our path in the present, often through analogies. Present fears of political polarization, wealth inequality, disastrous wars, and rising rival powers have inundated us with comparisons to the collapse of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. This comparison is problematic, moving across time and space for 2100 years to equate with our circumstances in the United States of America.
And although there are logical issues with using those events as one-to-one comparisons with our present day difficulties, that does not mean that examination of the past is void of useful information. There is specific use in knowing the range of outcomes that are often associated with certain classes of events and movements, and useful knowledge in examining the failures and victories of leaders in crisis – but what we really want is to be entertained or have our anxiety soothed.
History is just a story, and the stories of history are full of Dramatic Irony: we, the observer/audience, know the outcomes, but the actors do not. Despite revulsion toward journalists and the elite news media, it’s not that the first draft of history is unreliable, it just hasn’t had its ending written.
Dramatic Irony is a literary device (a type of manipulation of a text or artistic work created to evoke an impact on the reader or audience) which was originally described by Aristotle in his Poetics some 2400 years ago. Tragedy can be wrung from irony, the inevitable downfall of a character preceding from their missteps or bad fortune while the audience is engaged in the artifice of the story: the audience knowing all along that the character will fail.
History is full of almost literary tragedies: Neville Chamberlain, appeasing Hitler to prevent the apocalyptic war that came anyway, Abraham Lincoln dying at the close of the Civil War, Gandhi murdered by a homegrown radical after leading the Indian independence movement, and on and on. And of course, the archetypal tragedy of the Rise and Fall in history is that of Ancient Rome.
The crisis of Roman democracy (if you can call it a democracy) took place over the course of approximately 130 years, and included civil wars, coups, riots, slave revolts, and conflicts with other societies. Here, we come to a fatal flaw in the Roman Republic/USA analogy: only with the telescopic effect of history can this all be included as one coherent crisis. Another serious flaw: many claims made about the history of the Roman Republic are disputed because we are only left with unreliable narrators and the texts that have survived, with almost no objective or empirical knowledge of events. When people compare the situation in the US to the fall of the Roman Republic, they are comparing current events to a version of a story received to us through two mirrored reflections: one of time, and the other of the composers of the narratives which have survived.
There were four major events or incidents that are often tied together in the historical record as successive crises leading to the end of the Roman Republic: The Gracchi reforms and uprisings, the Civil Wars of Sulla, the Catilinian Conspiracy, and the Crises surrounding the rise and fall of Julius Caesar. A theme running through the 130 years of these crises in the Republic is the tension between the aristocracy and the mass of citizenry of Rome. The Gracchi brothers (who were both killed) were especially synonymous with populist reforms, attempting, perhaps, to violate the Roman constitution to impose new land and labor laws. Anyone appearing willing to cede more wealth and power to commoners was viewed as seditious by the entrenched Roman aristocracy. This was (one) of Catiline’s (apparent) sins as well. The Catilinian Conspiracy is a good point of focus because we have so much documentation surrounding it and is useful to examine in the context I’ve raised because it occurred decades before the final collapse of the Roman Republic.
The Founding Father favorite, Cicero, publicly denounced Catiline in the Senate of Rome for his conspiracy to seize control of the Republic. In the beginning of his first speech condemning Catiline, he mentions the Gracchi brothers in a manner that places their “assault” on the Roman Constitution firmly in the past as a successful suppression of crisis, not in the same lineage of crises that led to the potential coup he was railing against:
“You [Catiline] should have suffered the gruesome fate you have all this time been plotting for us all. The noble high priest, Publius Scipio, though he held no magisterial position, slew Tiberius Gracchus for tampering slightly with the constitution. Shall we, consuls, tolerate Catiline, whose aim is to destroy the entire world by fire and sword?”
Highlighting that our perception of these events is woefully skewed even further: this printed speech by Cicero may not be what was actually said in the Senate chamber, and the Conspiracy may not even have actually existed in the manner in which he details (Selected Works of Cicero, Classics Club, 1948 – note: Mary Beard’s “SPQR” also discusses these themes at length).
Cicero’s story ends in tragedy, with his own actions in suppressing the conspiracy (via executions ordered in haste without due process) leading to tensions that resulted in first, his exile, and then, his death. This is the dramatic irony: Cicero saved the Republic (at least, according to Cicero), only for his actions to lead to his own political and physical doom, and to justify future lawlessness with his use of violence outside of due process. In the middle of the conspiracy, Cicero’s actions looked like they were saving the sovereignty of the People in the Republic of Rome. To an observer now, the events of the Conspiracy appears more like another crack in the foundation of Roman Republic. Just as QAnon looks different before and after the attack on the Capitol, Cicero and the Catilinian Conspiracy look different before and after the Fall of the Roman Republic.
It is this bias on the observer’s part which is difficult to weight, how much did Cicero’s actions (if they happened as he alleges) contribute to the downfall of the Republic, and what useful information can we derive from this perceived knowledge?
Stories do provide useful meaning though – they provide frameworks for which we can try to understand and interpret the world. Totalitarianism, poverty, war, all of these terrible extremities are unlikely to occur as a result of a “coup” or a dictatorship in the United States, but that doesn’t mean there is zero chance. Isn’t it best to know how to deal with a worst-case scenario?
Every new political crisis, every new riotous mob, every new cult should be examined with the idea in mind that it can explode well beyond what appears to be its original scope. The new perspective wrought by the rapidly shifting sequences of digital mobs places seminal (and trivial) occurrences in recent history in an orderly procession. Bitcoin, ISIS, QAnon, White Replacement terrorists, the GME short squeeze, Tesla’s relentless stock price-appreciation, Anti-Vaxxers, the Great Meme War of 2016, the Ice Bucket challenge, and every manner of viral video, online cult, online video game, and moral panic now appears to be part of a story of mass movements given explosive power through the internet. Though they may be specific, general, absurd, serious, deluded or incisive, all are part of the new digital populism enabled by the internet generally, and social media specifically.
Natural checks on the spread of ideologies, manias, riots – mass movements – no longer exist. In the Roman Republic, a conspiracy was naturally small in nature, Catiline had a small army camped outside of Rome and supporters within the city, but he did not have millions of people spread across the Republic seething and agitating to see him as dictator.
The Senate and the People of Rome would never have recognized their own tribulations as precursors to the “tragedy” of the fall of the Roman Republic in the moments in which they experienced them. It is easy to be gloomy: “All of these disruptions to power structures will lead to the collapse of American hegemony and American democracy!” But what if it leads to greater equity and shared prosperity? In 20 years, what appears a disaster when the QAnon-crowd stormed the Capitol may appear as the catalyst for a renewal of America. And then in 100 years it may look like an event that legitimized mob violence which led to the dissolution of the government. What sources will historians read and how will they weight their opinions? It is all impossible to say.
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, or the day after, or a hundred years from now, but I do know the stories of the villains and protagonists are being sketched by figures now, just as Churchill and Cicero wrote their own stories, and will fashion a great tragedy for posterity. We can only understand the constituents of the story after the arc is complete, giving the events of history the appearance of drama.