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What Americans Might Learn About Political Collapse from the Classical Greeks and Romans

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787

It’s no secret that the teaching of history in the United States has become a flashpoint in the culture wars. But as I finish a semester of teaching a course on “the classical Mediterranean” at a boarding school for girls in upstate New York, what hits me hardest is how much support my students need; how misleading and damaging the culture wars are; how badly we, Americans, prepare future citizens; how little attention most of us pay to the culture, ideas, and history, that have shaped us, no matter where our ancestors come from, no matter the color of our skin; how far most of us are from a self-aware relationship to the American experiment; how deeply American educators and students need common sense approaches to studying the past, to explore who “we” are, where “we” come from and where “we” want to go; and how even a high school introductory survey course is enough to show that the classical Greek and Roman experiences of downfall land uncomfortably close to home. 

From January until June of 2022, my students and I started with Paleolithic hunters and gatherers and followed the transition to agriculture and urban civilization. We finished with the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity. Mostly, we focused on classical Greece and Rome.

Although early in their histories the ancient Greeks and Romans did away with their kings, concentrations of wealth and power persistently led to political instability and conflict—as well as continual efforts to to redistribute land and power. Solon and Cleisthenes succeeded as reformers in Athens and set the stage for The Athenian Golden Age. In Rome, The Struggle of the Orders led to constitutional revisions that increased the power of the Plebeians and established the right of Plebeians and Patricians to intermarry.

The conditions for limited self-government, though, remained fragile. The people of Athens sentenced Socrates to death basically for asking questions. Plato, a witness to the trial, rejected democracy and put his faith in Philosopher Kings. Aristotle believed that active participation in civic life was essential for the good life even though he spent most of his own life as a foreigner in Athens without the rights of citizenship. He also believed in the critical importance of the diffusion of property—of conditions of relative equality—for self-government. After doing an empirical survey of Greek city states, he created a typology of governments: monarchy and aristocracy are rule by the one or the few when they operate in the interests of the common good; when single rulers become corrupt, it is tyranny; when the few become corrupt it is an oligarchy. For Aristotle, democracy was a corruption of an ideal, tempered, form of self-government that we translate into English as “republic.”

After the Greeks unified to defeat the Persians, Athens turned into an imperial power and spent decades fighting the Spartans and their allies, which weakened both sides and made it easy for Phillip of Macedon—Alexander The Great’s father--to conquer the Greeks.

In 457 BCE, Cincinnatus, a man of the Patrician class who earned his livelihood farming a few acres, was elected dictator of Rome for a term of six months in order to fight against Rome’s enemies. After leading his army to victory, Cincinnatus resigned his office and returned to his farm in little more than two weeks.  But Rome’s military successes over generations were accompanied by growing concentrations of land and wealth which made it impossible for small farms, such as the one that Cincinnatus owned, to survive. This broke the backbone of a citizen’s army, which was replaced by a professional army and by mercenaries. Americans of his day often compared George Washington, who voluntarily relinquished power and went home, to Cincinnatus; there is a famous statue of Washington as Cincinnatus.  But in ancient Rome, as in the United States centuries later, the spoils of empire proved enticing. Republican virtues were difficult to keep in the midst of such wealth and such inequalities. Writing in the time of Julius Caesar, the Roman historian Sallust contrasted the “good morals” of the early Roman republic with the Rome of his day. The Roman Republic, he argued, was corroded from within.

The Roman general Sulla seized control of Rome in a way that would have been previously impossible because the social conditions, the order of society, had changed. Not long after, Caesar made himself dictator for life. The Brutus who plotted against him claimed descent from the Brutus who centuries earlier killed the last Roman king. But after they stabbed Caesar to death underneath a statue of his rival, Pompey, this second Brutus and his co-conspirators were surprised to discover how popular the dictator had become with the people. Where Julius Caesar grabbed for power quickly, his heir, Octavian (Augustus) Caesar, patient, with more time, engineered his election to a series of traditional Roman offices. He took the title of “First Citizen.” Even as he consolidated power in himself, he maintained a façade of continuity.

In 430 BCE, during the Great Peloponnesian War, a plague killed off about one third of the Athenian population. Centuries later, the Antonine Plague (165-180 CE) killed off millions across the Roman Empire and through trade spread all the way to China. It probably killed Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “five good emperors” who, a devout Stoic, came as close as anybody to becoming a Philosopher King.

At its heyday, the Roman Empire succeeded where the Greek city states failed in large part because Rome was open and welcoming. Roman citizenship was continually extended to people across the empire. Former slaves and their children could become wealthy citizens, great poets, and political leaders. But The Empire, too, was eaten away from within. What we call “The West” is what grew from the ruins of the Western half of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, in the hills of Judea, a new religion grew from the political ferment against the empire, with visions of a new political order, a messianic age.

Political institutions crumble; political states appear and then vanish over time; borders are constantly rearranged. Cultures continue even as they change. Americans communicate with the letters bequeathed by the Romans; our language is filled with words that come to us from classical Greece and Rome; we use the calendar, more or less, that Julius Caesar imported from Egypt; our doctors continue to take the Hippocratic Oath. The American democratic experiment draws from these classical traditions, as we can see from our founding documents, the correspondences of the nation’s founders, the name of our upper house of parliament, the architecture of the national capital, how we are called to jury duty, what is etched in stone and into our legal codes.

My struggle as a teacher this past semester was to spark interest within the painfully awkward young people who walked with masked faces into class each day. I celebrated when they expressed in their quiet voices even a tentative idea or emotion. Gradually we became human together. One of them talked of her love of horses, another of her love of dystopian fiction. I asked them about the difficulties of being a teenager today.  I tried to alleviate their anxiety about grades. We read out loud excerpts from “The Trial of Socrates.” Once we broke down how much time they each spend daily on their phones. I counted it a great victory when they facilitated their own dialogue about Plato’s “Parable of the Cave.” One of them came into class the next day and told me with excitement that she had been thinking about the difference between “truth” and “opinion.” In a few words, she articulated what I wish more Americans would reflect upon as we watch the January 6th hearings unfold.  “They are not the same thing,” she explained.