We do seem to be having a Roman moment. To the numerous comparisons, both positive and hostile, between Trump and miscellaneous Roman emperors, the ‘hordes of Visigothic economic migrants overwhelming the frontier’ claims of Arron Banks and the numerous flattering interviews of David Engels on right-wing websites, we can now add the historical musings of Douglas Carswell in the Grauniad, explaining how Brexit is going to be a wonderful liberation but not at all nasty or populist, because Rome. Apparently.
Throughout history oligarchy has emerged in societies in which power was previously dispersed: in the late Roman republic, and in early modern times in the Venetian and then the Dutch republics. Each time, the emergence of oligarchy was always accompanied by an anti-oligarch insurgent reaction. Many of today’s new radical movements aren’t oligarchs, but an anti-oligarchy insurgency. Trump is no American Caesar about to cross some constitutional Rubicon.
Erm, didn’t the Roman republic have oligarchy baked in from the beginning? I suppose it’s possible that this is a reworking of Fergus Millar’s arguments on the democratic elements in the Roman constitution. More likely, Carswell means ‘autocracy’, though in that case I can’t actually work out what the Roman “anti-autocratic insurgent reaction” would be. Then again, I can’t work out what the “anti-oligarchic insurgent reaction” in the original version would be either. But at least Trump isn’t Caesar this time.
Yet such insurgents often ended up unwittingly assisting the oligarchs. In Rome the Gracchi brothers, with their Trump-like concern about cheap migrant labour, caused so much civil strife that an all-powerful emperor seemed a better bet.
Okay, so if the Gracchi are the Roman anti-oligarchic resistance movement, fighting against the way that a small group of neoliberal globalisers had seized control of the previously democratic Roman state, but undermined the stability of society to the point that they are directly to blame for the rise of Caesar and Augustus a mere 70-80 years after their murders..? No, I give up, this is simply twaddle, even before we get onto the idea that the main plank of the Gracchan programme was taking back control of immigration in the face of cheap migrant labour – does he mean slavery? Really?
The point of the article, insofar as it makes any sense at all, appears to be the distancing of both Carswell and Brexit from chaotic angry insurgents and their populist rhetoric. Well, I suppose that incoherent yet pretentious references to Roman history are a fairly clear anti-populist marker, while at the same time keeping a safe distance from any of those nasty experts and their pedantic objections. I do wonder whether this is evidence that UKIP, given its roots in nostalgic fantasy, is going to tear itself apart not on the basis of raving ego and personality clashes but about divergent historical interpretations…
Still, what is going on? Why is Rome the go-to analogy for politics at the moment? I’ve just published a piece in Eidolon, arguing that we can draw on Marx’s analysis of classical reception in ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ to see how we have become trapped in the inherited idea that these inherited images of antique glory will help us make sense of the world. They worked once – but now they distort our understanding and prevent us from grasping what’s really happening in the world around us. Carswell’s article suggests that people are grasping for Roman analogies even when they make no sense whatsoever, in the belief that they will help or that this is what will speak to the moment; Banks’ and Engels’ prophecies of doom and crisis are somewhat more coherent and effective, if no more historically valid, and therefore more dangerous.
There’s obviously a case to be made for just ignoring these people, on the basis that no one will take them seriously; I know that, before I signed up to co-author our article on Engels’ arguments, Roland Steinacher approached a number of other ancient historians who declined to get involved on those grounds. But plenty of people did take Carswell, Farage, Banks, Johnson et al seriously enough to vote Leave; unlikely that their occasional references to antiquity (or frequent references, in the case of Johnson) play much if any role in the process of persuasion – but they still run the risk of tainting the entire subject with right-wing associations. Roman History? That’s all about barbarian invasions, isn’t it, like the migrants today? And emperors like Trump, and the crisis of western morality, and the failure to stand up to hostile cultures out of the east?
Competition time: what’s a good bit of shorthand for idiotic, gratuitous, ill-informed and frequently manipulative analogies with Roman history?
[Update 7/3: oh dear lord. It turns out – Carswell responded on the Twitter, not directly to me but to Thomas Blank – that this article is merely a taster for the forthcoming book: http://headofzeus.com/article/rebel-how-overthrow-emerging-oligarchy-douglas-carswell. So, we shouldn’t prejudge his argument about the Gracchi until we’ve read the primary source. I do not think that means what you think it means… Anyway, one more data point for the depressing theory that Roman comparisons are weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living…]