Perhaps the most striking thing about Tom Holland’s fine and interesting article in this week’s New Statesman on ‘Why Empires Fall: from Ancient Rome to Putin’s Russia’ is how far it ignores, and even at times rejects, the promise of the title. What the casual reader might expect to find under such a heading is a general theory of the imperial life-cycle, perhaps drawn primarily from Rome as the archetypal empire and the paradigm of decline and fall, that can be applied to the present (focusing on Russia for a change, rather than the usual debates about the USA as an imperial power). Instead, Holland offers a range of narratives of different imperial collapses, emphasising the complexity of events and the plethora of competing interpretations, and also identifying the great counter-example of China; it’s all thoroughly historical and historicist, eschewing the kinds of social-scientific theorising that one might find in Michael Doyle or Michael Mann or in a typical ‘Empires Ancient and Modern’ op-ed. What does persist through time, in his account, is not a universal principle of imperial destiny but the belief in the paradigmatic status of Rome, regularly revived as model, ideal – and awful warning.
The article doesn’t go so far as to state clearly that the real problem with trying to learn from the past is the persistent belief that we can do this because the pattern of future events has already been set in the past. Indeed, there are a few points where Holland does actually seem to imply that the Roman or Byzantine examples could be useful for understanding the present, without exactly explaining how (one speculates idly about the possibility of worried emails from NS: “Hi Tom, love the piece, but is there any chance you could push the relevance angle a bit more..?”). In the absence of clear direction from the author, given the title of the article and its appearance in a magazine of current affairs, readers are not so much left to identify analogies for themselves but implicitly invited to do so. Whether Holland wrote this piece in a very different manner from usual, it’s certainly likely to be read differently in this non-historical context.
This reminds me a bit of Thucydides (granted, these days craft beers, knitting and the collected works of Mogwai remind me a little bit of Thucydides). As is well known, having set up the expectation in his introduction that the events he’s about to describe have some sort of exemplary and/or predictive character, Thucydides then steps behind the scenes for the rest of his account and just narrates the events, without offering any guidance as to how we should find the narrative useful or relevant. It’s left to the reader to recognise his or her own situation in different episodes, and this happens time and again, in quite different ways; to take just the Corcyrean civil war as an example, this has been firmly identified as, among other things, the mirror image of the C16-17 wars of religion, the archetype of the French Revolution, the progenitor of Newspeak and the model of present-day discourse about foreign policy in the US. Likewise, in the absence of authorial direction, the example of the Roman Empire can equally well be linked to the United States, Russia, China or the EU (single currency! bloated bureaucracy! waves of barbarian immigrants!), and conclusions then drawn from the past about likely developments (all empires will fall, in the face of the yellow and purple insurgency!).
In many cases, such analogies (most obviously in the case of the ubiquitous X=Hitler line, most recently trotted out by Charles Windsor with respect to Putin) play the comforting role of the pantomime villain: we know that we have to boo them, they’re nicely predictable (always plotting to kidnap the heroine or annex the Sudetenland) and we know that good will triumph in the end, provided that decent men step up to the mark. If the EU is the Roman Empire, it’s obviously a bad thing and must be opposed before we’re all forced to give up our woad. If Putin is a would-be Roman emperor, it’s obvious that he will seek to invade Ukraine if no one stands up to him. Analogies simplify the past (offering a single, simple image of Rome and its history, rather than the complex system that changed over time that Holland seeks to convey) as a means then of simplifying the present, ignoring complexity and the specifics of the situation. The risk of a piece like this NS article is that, while the author keeps his hands clean by eschewing any such crude simplifications or analogies, it nevertheless provides material for those who will seek to draw out such lessons and examples for present political purposes, and offers a certain amount of implicit legitimation for this practice.
It’s customary in these sorts of discussions to quote Marx’s line about history repeating itself as tragedy and then farce, a line that’s often interpreted as a warning against any attempt at learning from the past. On the face of it, that’s rather paradoxical, given how far Marx’s general theories are thoroughly grounded in historical analysis; but his point is that the future is open (one thing history teaches us is that things change, including things like economic and political systems), which doesn’t stop us using analogies and comparisons between past and present to make sense of the latter. Analogies are useful as a first step in understanding underlying continuities and principles (imperial systems may indeed have important things in common, hence their patterns of development may resemble each other, hence studying Rome may indeed help us make partial sense of present-day geopolitics); they are misleading or downright dangerous when they ignore, or work actively to obscure, the equally crucial differences between past and present and between different situations and contexts.
This also means that the tendency of historically-informed people to be struck by analogies and comparisons need not automatically ring alarm bells. When, for example, Charlotte Higgins invokes ancient Roman custom in her discussion of the BBC (“Like the aristocrats of ancient Rome, who revered the imagines maiorum, the wax masks of their forefathers that hung in the atria of their mansions, directors general need to invoke the right ancestor figures”), it’s because her classical knowledge brought to mind a clue to understanding the role of tradition in the workings of this modern institution, rather than necessarily implying that Broadcasting House is a nest of scheming, back-stabbing vipers, full of noble rhetoric about their virtues and glorious past as a disguise for naked self-interest and ambition, destined to descend into outright civil war and blood-letting. Probably. The point is that it’s a starting-point for thought, rather than an Answer.
While I spend a lot of time on this blog making disparaging remarks about crude evocations of Thucydides as underpinnings for Grand Theories of Inevitable Developments in World Politics, I’m as prone as anyone to finding that certain passages resonate now and again with current events – once you’ve read the Corcyra episode, it’s difficult not to find echoes of it in Ukraine or Syria, in the tendency towards faction, the escalation of rhetoric (the other side are terrorists or fascists) and of violence, the destruction of any basis for compromise. I’m not even immune to the tendency to use the past to set up pantomime villains: at the risk of someone thinking that I’m imputing Periclean qualities to Tony Blair, can I be the first to point out the resemblances between Nigel Farage and Cleon, not least the destructive effect of his populist rhetoric on political culture in general?
There are ways in which such an analogy could be more than snark: it raises questions about the relationship between political leaders and the people (albeit in a very different political system), about the limits of rationality within democratic deliberation, about the roles of fear, prejudice and ignorance in decision-making. Likewise, the zombie-like nature of Rome as the archetypal empire could nevertheless suggest important ideas about the workings of complex multi-ethnic polities or the role of honour, prestige and self-image in modern global politics. For such analogies to be genuinely useful, however, we need both the attention to historical detail and specificity exemplified by Holland’s piece – and a more explicit engagement than he offers with the question of how the past could and should be used, and can’t and shouldn’t be, to illuminate the present.
Update: I have several piles of essays and papers to mark by some time last week, so don’t have time to comment properly on this now, but a fascinating example of the use of Rome as pantomime villain has cropped up in the surprising context of a lecture on thr Edward Snowden revelations and their implications for freedom etc., given by Prof Eben Moglen at Columbia Law School, reprinted in the Grauniad today (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/27/-sp-privacy-under-attack-nsa-files-revealed-new-threats-democracy). This opens with a series of claims, drawing mainly on Gibbon but with a bit of Cicero, about the all-pervasive nature of the Roman emperor’s control of communications (as if Keith Hopkins had never offered a critique of the Fergus Millar model of the all-controlling emperor) and hence the destruction of liberty, which is then paralleled in the United States’ attempts at total surveillance. If you set aside the persistent references to the tyranny of Rome, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking lecture, but that use of analogy is just bizarre. Even if we were to believe that the Roman state had such power over the whole territory and population of the empire, which strikes me as implausible (not least at that level of technology), it’s problematic that Moglen assumes without question that this automatically boosts his case, and that the best way to open a lecture on the modern surveillance society is with a bit of Gibbon. It takes for granted that everyone will see Rome as without question the villain, hence as an example that must be avoided at all costs; if the US looks a bit like Augustan Rome, it must be doing something very wrong. But one could equally well seize upon Gibbon’s claims about the second century CE being the happiest in human history, and the Romans’ claims to have brought peace and stability to the whole Mediterranean world and beyond; if that’s what a system of control of communications can achieve, three cheers for the Panopticon! I don’t agree with any of that for a moment – but I can’t see how Moglen could stop the analogy being used against his arguments in that way. It would be a complete red herring, but one that he’s invited, just so that he can quote Cicero…