I teach ancient history at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. One question I’m often asked when I tell people what I do is whether or not America is falling apart like Rome did long ago. They want to know what Donald Trump’s victory means for our country and if the Romans can teach us anything about why Trump was able to pull off one of the most stunning political triumphs in American history.
Professors hate to give short answers, but there are some disturbing parallels between Rome and modern America, especially in the presidential election of 2016.
Rome was a civilization of haves and have-nots. It was a republic in which every male citizen could vote, but the elections were dominated by an aristocracy that routinely manipulated the process so that they kept power for themselves. The masses were bought off with promises of bread and circuses, while the wealthy dined at lavish banquets and ran the affairs of state.
“The Roman people, in the end, simply decided that they would rather have food than freedom.”
On occasion, the common people would rise up in rebellion and demand a bigger share of the pie, but they were placated by handouts or beaten into submission by hired thugs. The nobility rarely took seriously the plight of the poor, though there were, on occasion, members of the elite who harnessed popular discontent to seize political power. Nobles such as the Gracchi brothers, Clodius and of course Julius Caesar were masters of reading the mood of the crowd and manipulating it for their own purposes.
We like to imagine Roman civilization falling to sweaty barbarians storming the gates of the city and slaughtering the citizens while they took refuge in the temples of the gods, but it didn’t happen like that. The Roman people, in the end, simply decided that they would rather have food than freedom. When, after a century of civil strife and economic turmoil, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and took over the state as dictator for life, the crowds cheered and welcomed him. The nobility couldn’t understand what had happened. Had the plebeians lost their minds? No, they were simply tired of being overlooked by an elite who didn’t care about them. Maybe Caesar would be better. He certainly couldn’t be any worse.
I live in a small town in rural Iowa ― one of those red flyover states that progressives on the coasts routinely dismiss as irrelevant to their lives (except when they want to eat). My neighbors who put up Trump signs during the election are good people whose families are hurting and who believe, with good reason, that no one in Washington cares about how hard their lives have become. With rare exceptions, they don’t hate immigrants or minorities, and they cringed when Trump bragged about abusing women.
“My neighbors who put up Trump signs are good people whose families are hurting and who believe, with good reason, that no one in Washington cares about how hard their lives have become.”
But so many here have lost their jobs in a changing economy that they don’t know where to turn. Walk around my town and look at the signs in store windows of families advertising bake sales to pay soaring medical bills. My neighbors don’t go to jazz brunches on Sunday mornings; they go to church and pray from their hearts for a better life. Like the people of ancient Rome, they were willing to take a chance Tuesday on anyone who would offer them hope.
It’s too easy to say that Donald Trump is a rising demagogue who will do to America what Caesar did to the Roman republic. History lessons aren’t that simple. But if you want to understand why my neighbors voted as they did this election, you can learn a lot from the people of ancient Rome.