John L. Micek, 1/19/2016 [Archive]

American Politics a Reflection of Ancient Rome

By John L. Micek

Are we Rome?

Back in the early 'Aughts, when the wheels were starting to come off the economy, America's legions were fighting not one, but two foreign wars. With overseas prestige on the wane, the nation's political and chattering classes looked back to our toga-wearing forebears for some clue to the nation's own future.

In his 2007 book asking that very question, Vanity Fair's Cullen Murphy sought to untangle the common threads we shared with our ancient ancestors.

They included, among other things, a mutual sense of exceptionalism, an overstretched military supported by contractors, and an increasingly elite political class that had lost touch with the nation's foundational values.

Despite ongoing prognostications of its collapse, the American empire, such as it is, continues to totter, at times blunderingly, at times eloquently, across the world stage, its sense of its own exceptionalism still intact.

"All the talk of America's economic decline is political hot air," President Barack Obama trumpeted during his final State of the Union Speech last week. " ... so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. Period."

With all it's contributed to western culture, Rome is just familiar enough (and alien enough) for it to serve as a screen onto which America can project its fantasies and insecurities.

So it's fitting that English author Robert Harris is wrapping up his trilogy of novels on the ancient Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Cicero, as Americans go through the quadrennial convulsion of a presidential election, wrestling with both their sense of themselves and their place on the world stage - to say nothing of their place in history.

Harris' final volume, "Dictator," finds Rome in transition between Republic and Empire, culminating with the rise and fall of Julius Caesar. That's also fitting, given the not-unjustified accusations of an imperial presidency that Obama has had to endure -- particularly these last few weeks.

Throughout, Harris' meticulously researched work finds its characters asking questions that are strikingly current, and wrestling with dilemmas that wouldn't seem out of place in a conversation about our own politics.

It's not too hard, for instance, to imagine a divided Supreme Court debating, as Cicero did, whether "a constitution devised centuries ago to replace a monarchy, and based upon a citizens' militia, [could] possibly hope to run an empire whose scope is beyond anything dreamed of by its framers? Or must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth inevitably destroy our democratic system?"

Romans took their politics seriously: Choosing the wrong horse could not only result in personal ruin, but also death - usually in the most gruesome way imaginable.

Reflecting that commitment to public service, Harris' narrator, Cicero's slave and wingman, Tiro (who actually existed and wrote a multi-volume biography of his boss), kicks back hard against a cynical electorate.

"How easy it is for those who play no part in public affairs to sneer at the compromises of those who do," he wryly notes at one point in an admonition that could apply equally to today's nay-sayers.

Nor have the tactics of campaigning changed much over the millennia.

"Cicero asked me to perform small services for Milo during that campaign," Tiro notes of an especially rough consular race. "For example, I went back through our files and prepared lists of our old supporters for him to canvass. I also set up meetings between him and Cicero's clients in the various tribal headquarters. I even took him bags of money that Cicero had raised from wealthy donors."

That beats a $500,000 loan from Goldman Sachs any day.

With a couple of candidates on the trail this season who have seemingly imperial pretensions, it's worth remembering that Cicero remained committed to the Roman Republic to his dying day.

And while we're far from being Rome, Cicero's warnings about the risks of sacrificing too much power to a single person are just as current now as they were more than two millennia ago.


©Copyright 2016 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at

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