Mary Beard's history of ancient Rome, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus), offers disturbing lessons for 21st century America. Efforts to draw direct parallels can be too forced. But as countless commentators since Santayana have pointed out, failure to learn from history quite often guarantees repeat of its mistakes.
Ancient Romans were powerful above all others, class-structured, dismissive of their early republican principles and institutions, arrogant, increasingly ridden by power struggles, overly focused on leadership images and cults, and finally destroyed by internal corruption.
In the final decades of the Roman Empire, following erosion of the Republic, the caliber and quality of leaders -- emperors -- declined dramatically. After the long reign of Augustus, there followed a series of small-bore egomaniacs, all mentally and morally challenged, all dismissive of the ideals upon which the original republic was founded.
The third century CE saw emperors come and go like presidential primary candidates.
There were exceptions, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius among them. But the overall trend was downward.
During the decline of the empire, documented by Edward Gibbon, except for the elites who had fortunes at stake, there was a steady decline in participation in public affairs by middle class Romans who tended to keep their heads down during repeated turbulent leadership and party struggles.
Professor Beard writes:
"Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it."
It is possible to discuss Senatus PopulusQue Americanus if by Senatus we understand not only our Congress but our entire governing structure. Even admitting that parallel-drawing is problematic, similar patterns exist and we neglect them at our peril. As Professor Beard concludes: "many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed ... in dialogue with the Romans."
Today's political realities demand self-examination. Like serious individuals, nations profit from constructive introspection.
Are our qualities of leadership declining, and if so why? Have our parties, and the fractious factions that now dominate them, become simply trampolines for individual egos? Why do angry citizens not vote? Are those advocating military adventurism merely distracting us from the failure of economic institutions to create opportunity and distributed wealth? Why are those who do vote electing representatives who refuse to maintain and rebuild our nation's foundations?
If Professor Beard is right, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire offer valuable lessons in political nature, the responsibility of citizenship, the values of the political class, the failure of economic fairness, and a great deal else. History constantly changes. But basic human nature has changed very little.
Our challenge is for SPQA to learn from SPQR.