The scenes at the Capitol on January 6 were remarkable for all sorts of reasons, but a distinctive fall-of-Rome flavor was one of them, and it was hard to miss. Photographs of the Capitol’s debris-strewn marble portico might have been images from eons ago, at a plundered Temple of Jupiter. Some of the attackers had painted their bodies, and one wore a horned helmet. The invaders occupied the Senate chamber, where Latin inscriptions crown the east and west doorways. Commentators who remembered Cicero invoked the senatorial Catiline conspiracy. Headlines referred to the violent swarming of Capitol Hill as a “sack.”
Outside, a pandemic raged, recalling the waves of plague that periodically swept across the Roman empire. As the nation reeled, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the role of a magister militum addressing the legions, issued an unprecedented advisory that put the sitting ruler on notice, condemning “sedition and insurrection” and noting that the inauguration of a new ruler would proceed. Amid all this came a New York Times report on the discovery and display of artifacts from the gardens of Caligula, an erratic and vengeful emperor, one of whose wives was named Milonia.
Ever since Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the prospect of a Rome-inflected apocalypse has cast its chilling spell. Britain’s former American colonies, which declared their independence the year Gibbon’s first volume was published, have been especially troubled by the parallels they discerned. The Founders feared the stealthy creep of tyranny. Half a century later, the narrative progression of The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole’s allegorical series of paintings, depicted the consequences of overweening ambition and national hubris. Today, as ever, observers are on the alert for portents of the Last Days, and have been quick, like Cato, to hurl warnings. And of course there are some Americans— including the January 6 attackers— who would find national collapse momentarily satisfying. “Sack Rome?” a barbarian wife says to her husband in an old New Yorker cartoon. “That’s your answer to everything.”
The comparisons, of course, can be facile. A Roman state of some sort lasted so long— well over a millennium—and changed so continuously that its history touches on any imaginable type of human occurrence, serves up parallels for any modern event, and provides contradictory answers to any question posed. Still, I am not immune to preoccupation with the Roman past. A decade and a half ago, I published a book called Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, which looked closely at the age-old Rome-and-America comparison. The focus was mainly on themes that transcend partisan politics, but it was also written at a particular moment, and reflected certain brute realities: The country was mired in Iraq and Afghanistan; fear and suspicion of foreigners were on the rise; and public functions of all kinds (maintaining highways, operating prisons, providing security) were being privatized. All of this had echoes in Rome’s long story.
It’s not as if the themes I wrote about then are obsolete. But they have a new context. The comparisons that come to mind now are not only about realities on the ground but about unrealities in our heads. The debasement of truth, the cruelty and moral squalor of many leaders, the corruption of basic institutions— signs of rot were proliferating well before January 6, and they remain, though the horde has been repelled.
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