47 Rome and America, Rome(in) America, Roman America

by James Gernstein

This is probably the most excited I have ever been to write about anything. Rome and America are so intertwined, politically, culturally, and morally. I think this discussion is worthless without context especially because I’m trying to reach more than just a purely academic audience. I want this to be entertaining. I will be poking fun and reverence at this topic. This in fact will be a judgement piece. Don’t worry, I intend to back up my judgement with facts. Personally, I find anybody who writes an article from an “objective” point of view is lying. What is the point of writing something without contextually putting it in history? Honestly that is one of my biggest beefs with Classics as a whole. If we treat this as static, un-opinionated entity no one will care. Public perception is infinitely more important than the objective truth. Who cares whether or not Aeneas was a real person? Why not discuss what percentage of the population knew the story and how pervasive it was in policy making? Whether or not Caesar was accurate in his descriptions of battle is irrelevant when the citizens of Rome could have no idea whether or not he was lying. In order to make this paper more concise I will focus on the comparison between George W. Bush and Gaius Julius Caesar. I feel I have an obligation to announce my biases. On that note, I hate both of these men. They are both deplorable and prime examples of the failures of the institutions they were brought up in. Also. I am a 21 year old white man who has enjoyed the privileges of a private education my entire academic experience. I want to announce this as one of my biases. It’s not me trying to come off a superior. It is simply the lens I am examining this topic through.

Gaius Julius Caesar is undoubtably the most famous Roman in history. He expanded Rome’s territory from the Alps all the way to the English Channel, and he started the process which dragged Rome from a Republic to an Empire. He was assassinated on the floor of the Senate and changed Roman politics forever. Shakespeare wrote a play on his life and he invented an ancient version of trench warfare. Germany had a Kaiser and the Russians had a Czar. Napoleon invokes him by name in his battle planning. His idioms such as “I came, I saw, I conquered” or “The die has been cast” still reverberate around the world.   At the time of his invasion of Gaul, Caesar was a wildly successful general known for his aggressive tactics and almost cult-like following amongst his soldiers. He was part of an old patrician family which had recently been down on its luck politically. He framed himself as an ally to the common man, but he was an aristocrat through and through. He definitely ruffled the feathers of the conservative Roman senators. If the Romans love anything it’s tradition, so when Caesar was gaining power and popularity amongst the common people, they were threatened. In order to keep moving up the political ladder Caesar needed money in order to bribe the right officials. This practice was commonplace amongst the Roman elite, Caesar just did it so brazenly. The idea was to at least appear as if they had a real republic. The best way to make money as a Roman official was to become a governor of Roman territories because you could exploit the local population to your hearts content while you lounged around in a fancy ass villa in the countryside. For his work as a general Caesar was awarded the governance of Cisalpine Gaul or Northern Italy. So, how does Bush fit into all this?

George W. Bush is part of what I like to call the American Royal Family. Career politicians who are trained from birth how to best flex their political and monetary value in order to gain control of large swaths of this country. These politicians are part of an infinitesimally small group of people who singularly decide on the direction of our country. I’m not disagreeing that we have honest elections like some members of the modern political spectrum. Sorry Sydney Powell and Donald Trump, I’m not planning on encouraging your conspiracy bullshit. On the other hand, pretending that everyone in this country had an equal opportunity to be president is equally fictious. Family’s like the Kennedy’s, Clinton’s, and Bush’s have had their grimy fingers all over this country’s politics for decades. George W. Bush showed himself as this kid who grew up in midland Texas outside of a Houston which is known for its immigrant population and blue-collar workers. He was a politician of the people. Of course, he was born in New Haven, Connecticut and attended both Yale and Harvard. The Republican party has done a brilliant job both appealing to the wealthy wall street elite and the common blue-collar worker. Bush is a prime example of that. He enlisted in the Texas national guard and attended the most prestigious law school in the world. This dichotomy was essential to his rapid ascension of power in the American Political machine. They simultaneously hold people from their “American Dream” while blaming poor people and immigrants for the country’s woes. The Roman elite also blamed poor people for the demise of their country. In Rome’s case, they would blame their slaves. The elite grew their wealth exponentially while the common people would suffer lower wages. This accumulation of wealth in a very small percentage of the population brought the end of the Republic more than slaves of immigrants ever did. This similar accumulation of wealth is currently occurring in our own country. The pandemic has just quickened that process.

Caesar was ambitious almost to a fault, but in his own words he was lucky. Up until this point of Roman history Rome had shown no issue with taking over other territories for personal gain. This was how money was made, with plunder and taxes. Caesar was assigned as a governor of Northern Italy, so how could he not see the territory directly to his north ripe for the taking. He just needed an excuse. Gaul was split up into multiple tribes, one of which was called the Helvetii. While Caesar was the governor of Northern Italy the Helvetii were migrating west because the Germans were encroaching on their territory. Caesar sees this act as aggressive and attacks the tribe. Caesar needed to maintain support for a sustained Gallic campaign, so he began to write about his exploits in a series of writings called “De Bello Gallico” or “The War in Gaul”. Caesar sent copies back to Rome every couple of weeks, so people could be informed of his triumphs and the trickery of the Gauls. Reports would be made on the floor of the senate house and in the forum. Both plebians and patricians were given insider knowledge on Caesar’s movements and tactics (Rigsby) This was the only form of media the Romans had about the Gauls. Caesar had complete power on the public perception of the Gauls. He wasted no time painting them as barbarians which threated the very safety of the Roman republic. His propaganda worked brilliantly. He eventually gained enough adoration from the common people that the senate could not keep his power in check. Roman aristocrats had never really worried about the support of the common people until Caesar. Of course, he would happily dispose of the threat much to the joy of the Romans. Caesar kept up his war in Gaul for a decade growing exponentially more wealthy and powerful while his political allies kept his seat warm. Roman conservatives looked for ways to knock Caesar from his perch, but every avenue they pursued ended in a dead end (Goldsworthy).

One of the ways Caesar portrayed the Gauls as savages was their religion. The descriptions were vague and uncommon, but he made sure to talk about their love for human sacrifice. A researcher must keep in mind that Caesar was the only source of information on this subject. Give the masses little bit of information, and let their imaginations run wild. Caesar knew the Romans were already a superstitious people, so this information cemented the fear of the Gallic people (Rigsby). It’s much easier to hate a group of individuals if you can make them appear uncivilized and less than human. The United States used that tactic to scare its citizens about extremist Islam post 9/11.

After Al-Quade attacked the United States and destroyed the World Trade Center in September of 2001, the American people were angry and wanted vengeance. The leaders of this country were happy to give the American People what they wanted. The rhetoric that came out of the United States at this point was warmongering and calling for swift retribution. As a result, there was a massive uptick of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States. Members of different religions such as Sikh were also targeted because they were Middle Eastern in appearance (Bush). The animosity did not dissipate with time. Bush’s cabinet made sure of that. Of course, they had a solution. The invasion of Iraq was brought before congress, and it was overwhelmingly supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

The United States invaded Iraq in March of 2003 starting what is now referred to as the “War on Terror”. Most people would agree at this point over seventeen years later the war has been an unmitigated failure. Now, I obviously cannot put this all on President Bush. At the end of the day however, we invaded under his order. Perhaps it was hubris based on our success in Operation Desert Storm or just plain arrogance and greed. Like Caesar though, Bush needed a reason to start a war. This is certainly not the first war America started under suspicious circumstances and definitely was not the last. The United States government and population was in support of this war. The rhetoric used to justify this war was remarkably similar to Caesar’s. Bushed claimed the preemptive strike was necessary to ensure protection for the American people. At the beginning, the army went in with clear objectives. Famously, we were searching for hidden weapons of mass destruction that could wreak havoc on the world. The Unites States was going to free the oppressed Iraqi people (Bush) Saddam Hussein was shown as an evil dictator who would do anything to destroy America. As the war progressed and it became clear that the weapons of mass destruction did not exist the language changed. An emphasis on more abstract ideas such as democracy, freedom and terrorism were pushed. As support for the war soured, the government did not admit mistakes or apologize. We doubled down on our hatred of terrorism, and how it was our duty to help other countries. The war expanded to other countries and new enemies emerged in the media. One of these enemies was extremist Islam. The effects of this distrust and hate towards Islam are still seen very much today in this country.

Comparisons between Rome America started before America was founded. Founding fathers sat around about the government they wanted to form, and it kept coming back to Rome. Regardless of how the love started, it is no surprise America has always held Rome in high regards. Latin and Greek were taught in school as the expectation to be learned. Rome has been revered during the entirety of the United States existence. During the revolutionary war tired and desperate soldiers were shown the play of Cato the Younger (Rigsby). He was a staunch supporter of the Roman Republic until his death and actively attacked tyrants such as Caesar. The founding fathers were quick to draw comparisons to the ancient Romans and their respect for freedom and independence. Famous authors such as Livy and Horace write about their admiration for an agrarian lifestyle where farmers provided for themselves and their families. In the 1800s most of the American population lived in small rural towns spending a vast majority of their time farming. The founding fathers also respected the Republican form of government which the Romans used. Of course, this love was not independent to America. During the Enlightenment wealthy youth were schooled in both Latin and Greek across Europe. This admiration guided the United States possibly more than they intended. Americans have definitely leaned towards the ideals of freedom and honest work, but they also brought the oligarchical style of the Roman aristocrat. Rome placated the lower classes with promises of power and government assistance while keeping people in power continuously in power. The founding father upheld the defenders of the Roman Republic like Cicero and Cato while demonizing tyrants such as Caesar. The comparisons have since shifted to more imperialistic versions of Rome. Statues of emperor’s litter elite college campuses such as Brown. White supremacists mimic the same rhetoric about immigrants as the Romans. They are blamed for a lower quality of life amongst the working class. At the beginning of the empire Augustus implemented the concept of a “proper Roman family” and how they should carry themselves. The far right does a similar thing (Goldsworthy). They preach about how the left is attempting to destroy the nuclear familiar. To them a man should be strong and emotionless. Women should be timid and caring for the children. Children should be raised to learn about the greatness of America and how it is our responsibility to share our wealth with the world. Rome and the United States both invaded other countries to spread their wealth and their “superior” ways of life.

Latin is still taught in modern curriculum, but on a much smaller scale than it used to be. The study of Latin has fallen off but the influence is still clearly felt. Take the AP curriculum for example. Both required texts are imperialistic in nature. On one hand we have “De Bello Gallico” as prose which we’ve discussed in length already. The other required text is Vergil’s “Aeneid” which was written under the direction of the first emperor Augustus. The AP syllabus leaves very little to no time to discuss the context of both of these works. I was taught how to translate them not critically think about them. It was memorizing and reciting passages while recognizing grammatical rules. I had what I would describe as a very progressive Latin teacher in high school who did an amazing job at keeping us attentive with our work. I mean clearly, she did something right, because I am still here arguing about Ancient Rome as a Classics major. Of course, these problems are not just the fault of the AP curriculum. If that were true these problems would be exclusive to the small percentage of the population that decides to take AP Latin. The first memory I have of learning about Rome was in fifth grade. We were learning about the dark ages. The textbook taught us that the Romans and their authoritarian rule were missed in their former territories because of the stability they provided. It makes sense that our education system paints the colonization of other territories as an only positive aspect.  For a country that prides itself on individual freedoms we’re shown how governing other territories is beneficial to both quite frequently.

I’ve spent the last multiple paragraphs bashing everything about Caesar and the AP curriculum, so what is the point of studying this man? Why not let his memory die and we can start Classics anew? Whether we like it or not this man’s rhetoric has crawled his way into American life and political policy. Well that question was supposed to take an entire paragraph, and I kind of answered in a few sentences. I guess I’ll combine my talking point for my next paragraph into this one. How should we study Classics and Caesar? Should you be able to teach a Latin class without at least breaching the influences Rome has on our political spectrum? I am definitely idealist for saying no, but I’ll stick to my guns. This paper is quickly turning into a call for a teardown of the entire education system of this country. Of course, I do not have answers to all of these problems I am pointing out. If I did, I think these problems would have already been solved a longtime ago. At the very least, we should not shy away from these conversations though as Classicists and Academia in general. We need to let the people studying Caesar see the atrocities that occurred under his reign. He killed over one million Gauls and enslaved another million. That was never taught to me in my almost seven years of Latin education. The Gauls were not savages; they had a complex form of government and a religion which permeated across millions of people (Rigsby). Why do put the Romans on top unequivocally in the Ancient Mediterranean? Their only challengers in modern popularity in this country are the Greeks. The Greeks were a small collection of city states that were unified for only a handful of years. The great city of Sparta was a small village and the Athenians executed women for attending sporting events. Maybe we should re examine why the West has held these civilizations in such high esteem. What about the Etruscans? They were accomplished bronze workers, and portrayed their seminars with women present. That alone would have been unthinkable to both the Greeks or the Romans. It’s almost as if the founding fathers were all old white men. That’s how Roman senators and Greek philosophers were shown. Stop attributing the pervasion of Greek and Roman influences to their perfection. Those empires fell, and the American empire will fall as well.

For too long Classics has hid behind this barrier of both superiority and irrelevance. Its irrelevance has allowed itself to remain unchallenged by these calls for antiracism. Other fields of study such as history have been brought to the forefront of this conversation. It is time for Classics to do the same. Hopefully through this essay, I have shown some of the ways that American politics cannot be discussed without touching a concept that originated with the Romans. Instead of blindly celebrating these revelations let’s critique them. A complete reexamination of this field of study is imperative if Classics is to survive into the future. We are at a crossroads as a country. We can use 2020 as a jumping point for progressive ideals that protect all of our citizens instead of just the rich. Classics remains an incredibly important field of study, but it should be used as a cautionary tale for our country instead of an ideal for us to reach.


Works Cited    

Full Text: Bush’s Speech | US News | The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/18/usa.iraq. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.

This is the record of George W. Bush’s famous speech in which he announced the United States government was going to invade Iraq.

Riggsby, Andrew M.. Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words, University of Texas Press, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ccl.idm.oclc.org/lib/claremont/detail.action?docID=3443185.

This book gives a fairly detailed account of how the Romans viewed the Gauls before Caesar’s invasion. It also explores Caesar’s tactics in Gaul and how brutal they really were.

Summer 2007, Adrian Goldsworthy. “Julius Caesar’s Triumph in Gaul.” HistoryNet, 17 May 2007, https://www.historynet.com/julius-caesars-triumph-in-gaul.htm.

This article is some background information on Caesar’s war in Gaul and the struggles he faced. The author also cautions against comparing Gaul and Iraq which I clearly did not listen to.


Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Rome Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book