Ancient History in the Age of Trump: Time for the Media to Update their Classics

Ancient History in the Age of Trump: Time for the Media to Update their Classics

Since Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as President of the USA, several articles have appeared in mainstream media in which journalists try to make parallels between Trump’s autocratic ruling style and the ancient world, especially the Roman Empire. On January 25, the Guardian published an article of Jonathan Jones entitled « To understand Trump, we should look to the tyrants of ancient Rome ». Should this article have been a school paper, Mr Jones’ uncritical, floppy use of primary evidence would no doubt have deserved him the same as what Donald Trump would have gotten if his Black History month speech had been submitted in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 7-th grade classroom. The conclusion is a gem in itself :

The Romans did not see tyranny as a single fixed set of symptoms. Tiberiua [sic], Caligula, Nero, Commodus and the many freakish rulers thrown up by later Roman history are all different, all singular. When we look at Trump, when we try to get the measure of the world’s most powerful man, we could compare him with these odd and extremely dangerous characters. You don’t have to be a Hitler to threaten democracy and peace, a look at Roman art and history reveals: a Caligula or Commodus is equally scary.[2]

How could the Guardian publish such a mediocre, incoherent article? My colleague Roberta Mazza has already written what she thought of it, and showed that such sensationalist, elitist and, therefore, utterly simplistic uses of ancient history stem from imperialist, essentially male and white gazes and that, accordingly, they cannot be deemed historically viable anymore. I completely agree with her. As Phiroze Vasunia has recently highlighted in this blog, postcolonial and social approaches to Roman (and ancient) history are becoming increasingly normalized within our fields. Yet for some reason, and despite the efforts of Mary Beard, this academic shift has still not been properly integrated in “popular” representations of the ancient world. Thus, perhaps, the current journalistic trend.

I’m not trying to sugar coat what the ancient Roman world was about. Of course, the vast majority of the Roman Empire’s inhabitants remained non-citizens until Caracalla’s universal grant of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire in 212 CE (a measure that most probably stemmed from financial rather than humanist reasons). Of course the ancient world was one where slavery was a normalized fact of social life[1]. Of course episodes of religious scapegoating, racist stereotyping and misogyny abound in the written sources. Of course wars of conquest led to horrible acts of violence against non-Roman peoples that, in the case of Caesar’s Gallic wars for instance, have been qualified as genocide by some scholars. Of course we should not simply copy and paste ancient data into our current world in order to understand what’s going on and where we are heading. Of course, in sum, the Roman world was very different from ours. But provided that they are properly contextualized, these ancient « stories made of true events », to paraphrase Paul Veyne, can contribute to broader reflections on human nature, societies, and the ways in which certain sociological and geopolitical patterns tend to (re)appear. It is, I believe, in such ways that ancient history can and must contribute to current debates and actions against the rise of xenophobic, racist rhetorics of the sort that are now promoted by the ruling powers in the USA and UK, as well as by many parties and groups elsewhere in the world.

In order to lead by example, here is a short reflection that starts from the currently widespread populist discourse according to which the « greatness » of a « nation » comes from a supposed state of original demographic purity. According to this reasoning, the economic challenges encountered by this « great nation » are caused by the infiltration within the nation’s territory of « others » who, attracted by the greatness of the nation in question, are trying to move in and get their share of the cake. This trope is now being used in the USA, UK, and many other countries in order to justifiy the scapegoatings of immigrants, especially (but not exclusively) non white and muslim ones, whose containment, exclusion, or elimination is seen as the best way for the nation to find prosperity and, therefore, be « great » again. Easy peasy. Except that it couldn’t be more disconnected from human reality. And history.

In his first-century monumental work dedicated to the history of Rome, the Latin writer Livy narrates how Romulus, the founder of Rome and descendant of Trojan warrior-turned-refugee Aeneas, managed to find a male population for his new city :

In order that the enlarged city might not be empty or weak, he resorted to the time-honoured fiction of city founders that the lowly and ignoble folk they attract are children ‘sprung from the earth’. He therefore selected a sight for an asylum […]. A motley mob from the neighbouring peoples flocked to the spot, with no distinction made as to whether they were free or slave, and all eager for a new start in life. These men were the beginning of the real strength of the city. (Livy, The Early History of Rome 1.8, Luce 1998 transl.).

The story has it that contrary to Rome’s first male settlers, women did not migrate there voluntarily. For Livy also explains how, to the peoples living in the vicinity of the newly founded Rome, and notably the Sabines, whose presence in the region was more rooted in time, Romulus’ « asylum » and its heterogeneous set of newcomers were cause for distrust and concern. Confronted by disdainful neighbours who were not willing to marry their daughters to his settlers, who were from mostly low and varied backgrounds, Romulus had no choice but to use cunning in order to abduct women from the nearby Sabines. This violent episode came to be known as the « Rape of the Sabines » (Livy Hist. 1.9-13).

Livy’s testimony, which was written at the time of Augustus, obviously contains its share of distortions, mythical elements, and historical retrojections. The last category is precisely what interests me here, for these retrojections offer us some clues as to how Livy, his sources, and his contemporaries viewed what, or rather who, Rome and its Empire were about. Beyond the violence-infused nature of Romulus’ story, which no doubt echoes the atrocities of the late Republican civil war, what is striking here is the idea that Rome was an asylum made of newcomers « with no distinction made as to whether they were free or slave, and all eager for a new start in life ». This way of peopling one’s city with refugees, poor, and vulnerable peoples of different origins corresponded, specifies Livy, to a « time-honoured fiction of city founders that the lowly and ignoble folk they attract are children ‘sprung from the earth’ ». By saying so, he shows himself aware that the notion of autochtony is nothing but a convenient foundation myth, aimed at producing a sense of shared belonging to a group of originally disparate and all-but-glamourous settlers. Given the Imperial might Rome enjoyed in Livy’s lifetime, Rome’s diverse origins appear not only as a fundamental characteristics of the city’s history itself, but also as the root for its exceptional success.

In fact, later Romans were very proud of how open the society of archaic Rome was. After all, they had been ruled by kings who were not only of Latin origin, but also Sabines, Etruscans, and even slave-born. A great testimony of this enduring pride, and of its direct impact on Roman imperial policies, can be found in the Lyon Tablet (CIL 13 1668). As its name indicates, this bronze tablet was found in emperor Claudius’ native city, Lyon (Roman Lugdunum). It contains part of the transcript of a speech given by Claudius to the Roman senate in 48 CE. During that speech, the emperor tried to convince the reluctant crowd of senators that allowing wealthy and deserving Gauls into the Senate was the good and, considering Rome’s early, multicultural history and the more recent initiatives by Augustus and Tiberius, the logical thing to do. A longer and different version of the speech is also provided by Tacitus, who has Claudius use his own family ancestry to make his point:

Of my own ancestors, the most ancient, Clausus, was of Sabine origin, but he was accepted at the same time both for Roman citizenship and for membership in the patrician families of the city. Those ancestors therefore urge me to follow the same procedure in the administration of state policy, bringing here all that is excellent anywhere else. (Tacitus, The Annals 11.24, Yardley 2008 transl.)

These words echo recent speeches by the Mayor of Boston, Martin Walsh, and the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, both of whom strongly condemned Trump’s seven-nation and refugee ban by highlighting how they themselves, like most Bostoners, New Yorkers, and Americans, come from families of migrants. In both cases, the message is the same : Diversity is strength, and integration rather than exclusion is the key to prosperity and success.

Livy’s account and Claudius’ speech also highlight one of the fundamental characteristics of the Roman State : By essence, and contrary to the Greek conception of citizenship, Roman citizenship was not a blood-based status that was, apart from a few exceptional cases, enjoyed by a close community of individuals. It was rather an inclusive mechanism, which was granted to communities, families, individuals, and eventually all free inhabitants of the Empire, for a variety of reasons, without any consideration for the gods they worshipped, the languages they spoke, the colour of their skin or the place they came from. This openness permeated the highest levels of the political and military sphere, as is testified to by the fact that Roman emperors and their families included Roman citizens from Spain, Libya, Syria, and the Balkans for whom, in some cases, Latin was not their first language, and whose dearest gods were not the members of the Capitoline triad. And if we recognize the use of the title Augusta by Palmyra’s queen Zenobia as evidence of her wish to rule the territory under her control within the Roman imperial structure of her time, Rome also had a female empress.

The Roman use of citizenship as an integration tool is also, according to Claudius, what set Rome well above Athens and Sparta:

What else was it that spelled destruction for the Spartans and the Athenians, militarily powerful though they were, if not their segregation of conquered peoples as foreigners? By contrast, our founder Romulus showed such wisdom that he regarded numerous peoples as his enemies and then as his fellow-citizens on the very same day! (Tacitus, The Annals 11.24, Yardley 2008 transl.)

In many ways, the founding myth of the USA is rooted, like that of ancient Rome, in the idea of a population made of « numerous peoples » that had become « fellow-citizens », and historical evidence amply show that these representations reflect the very early multicultural nature of both these societies. Seen in this light, the populist, exclusivist, and racist rhetoric currently promoted by Trump, May, Le Pen and many other politicians and public figures represents a denial not only of history, but also of what humanity is fundamentally about: movement and cultural diversity.

Non-elitist and decolonized approaches to ancient history contribute way, way more to our reflections on the roots and significance of what is happening in the world these days than the Gibonnian, elitist fetichising of « good » over « bad » emperors or the simplistic reflections on the « rise » and « fall » of the Roman Empire[2]. We need more nuanced and inclusive scholarly voices to speak beyond academia. It is not only critical to current, public debates ; it is also essential to the very survival of our discipline(s)[3]. If you are one of these voices and feel like speaking up in Faces and Voices or Everyday Orientalism, feel free to send your contribution to Roberta or to me.

Katherine Blouin


I wish to thank my colleague Seth Bernard for having read through a draft of this post and provided me with much useful feedbacks.

[1] Although the grant of citizenship to descendants of freed slaves was already commented on as a strange institution by Philip II of Macedon (see IG 9.517 (SIG3 543; ILS 8763)).

[2] See for instance https://qz.com/677380/1700-years-ago-the-mismanagement-of-a-migrant-crisis-cost-rome-its-empire/

[3] See for instance Edith Hall’s June 2015 article published in The Guardian, which focuses on the case of Greek history and language: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/20/classics-for-the-people-ancient-greeks

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One thought on “Ancient History in the Age of Trump: Time for the Media to Update their Classics

  1. Florence Dupont a écrit un livre formidable sur les origines des Romains, doubles: ils ont deux patries, Rome et leur cité d’origine, tout comme Rome vient d’ailleurs (Troie, Lavinium). Cf. “Rome, la ville sans origine”.

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