Caesar and Our World: A Book Update and Questions for Ricochetti


Some of you have just received a lot of the post below in the form of a batch of updates from GoFundMe. But please keep reading, because I have questions for you at the end!

I wanted to share my progress as the book enters the final lap. I sent to everyone who’s contributed, so far, some of the flap copy, the Table of Contents, the book’s introductory paragraphs, and a bit of sample material — enough so you can envision what it would be like to pick this up in a bookstore and thumb through it (or skim through it on Amazon), trying to decide whether it interests you enough that you might buy it.

I also wanted to express my gratitude, again, to every one of you. Some of you have contributed to this book specifically; others haven’t, but every one of you has offered me so much food for thought, and offered it so generously, in the comments of Ricochet. Your comments, even when you’ve sharply disagreed with me, have helped to shape this book more than you’ll perhaps ever know.

To those who contributed to the book campaign: I’ll never know how properly to thank you, both for the honor — and it was an honor to find that so many of you trusted that I’d be able to write a book worth reading — and for giving me such a priceless luxury: time. Virginia Woolf thought that to write, women needed a room of their own. Yes, that’s probably true — but they also need time, and these days, that’s much harder to find. I used that time to read, to reflect and length, and to write — not only about what we’re now seeing in the world, but about what I saw personally, especially in Turkey. There’s been great catharsis in doing that. Of course, writing a book is not about catharsis. In the final draft, I hope, there will be no hint of these emotions. I write for the benefit of my readers, not as a form of psychotherapy. That doesn’t change the fact that I found it valuable, emotionally, really to reflect upon, and try to make sense of, everything I’ve seen in the world since the end of the Cold War. Thank you for giving me that time. That helped me, personally.

Now to the book. (Some of you have seen this already in the mailing from GoFundMe. Just skip down to the questions, below)


FLAP COPY. So imagine you’re picking this book and thinking, “Hmmm. Should I buy this?” Would this grab you?

THE PAST DECADE has seen a global authoritarian revolution. In the West, a very particular form of authoritarianism is triumphing — an entertaining but empty form of democracy denuded of everything that makes democracy meaningful.

This is the New Caesarism, so-called because it arises in circumstances reminiscent of those that destroyed the Roman Republic. The founders of the United States, avid students of classical history, knew intimately the story its downfall. They fully understood that democracy and freedom were not identical, and indeed in tension. They grasped the implications of this. Contemporary Americans do not grasp this, and this has had grave consequences. “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics,” Alexander Hamilton warned, “the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” What Hamilton feared is precisely what is now happening to established constitutional orders the world around — including ours.

Claire Berlinski argues that this is a genuinely new species of Caesarism, however, one even the founders could not have imagined. We have been slow to recognize the threat it poses because in some respects it is unlike anything humanity has seen before. We are confused because these regimes are genuine democracies, where rulers enjoy real popularity. But the rights and freedoms that Americans associate with the word “democracy” don’t exist — and the ruler’s popularity is based on a system of total surveillance and thought control, one we have made possible through the invention of the 21st-century’s revolutionary new communication technologies.

The New Caesars are learning from each other. The Internet has made their ideology — and yes, they do have a real, coherent ideology — virulently contagious. Such regimes, Putin’s in particular, harness formidable state security apparatuses to spread their form of governance. The New Caesars employ similar, almost stereotyped, strategies to gain power and keep it. This book will tell you what those strategies are and how to recognize them.

In the global war between liberal democrats and the New Caesars, Europe is the critical battlefield. Authoritarian movements and political figures now endanger Europe’s democracy and its long postwar peace, the basis of the postwar global order. We take this order, the only world our generation of Americans has ever known, for granted. But we cannot flourish, and may not survive, in its absence. The battle to control Europe’s future urgently demands our attention.

Understanding these events in Europe is the key to understanding what is happening to us, now. But the daily news cycle and its associated culture encourage us to understand these events and their relationship to our recent experiences poorly and superficially. This book makes the relationship clear: It places the headlines that flicker incessantly over our cell phone screens in their wider historical and global context.

The author’s understanding of New Caesarism as a distinct political phenomenon was profoundly shaped by the decade she spent reporting from Turkey on the rise and consolidation of the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkish politics tend to strike most Americans as distant, alien and irrelevant to them, but they are not: Erdoğan followed a template pioneered by the ur-Caesar, Vladimir Putin, and used by aspiring Caesars around the globe. Millions have recently lived through a similar authoritarian cascade in a long list of countries from Hungary to the Philippines.

The author has personally lived through every stage of the transition to New Caesarism, and she warns that America is not immune. Our constitution, culture, and geography are safeguards — they are what will save us, if we can be saved — but we cannot repose in them all our confidence. Turkey, too, had strong constitutional, cultural, and geographic safeguards. They failed.

To understand what is happening to us, we must begin looking, again, at the rest of the world. That is where we will find the insights we need to meet the 21st century’s challenges. If we fail to do this, and to draw the right lessons — we too are at risk of losing our freedom and meanly losing the last best hope of earth.


What do you think, would you keep thumbing through that book?



Introduction: What the Hell?

Chapter 1. The Crisis of Liberal Democracy

Chapter 2. The Aquarium

Chapter 3. Old Caesarism

Chapter 4: New Caesarism

Chapter 5: Caesar, Globalization, and the Internet

Chapter 6: American Caesarism

Chapter 7: European Caesarism

Chapter 8: Russian Caesarism

Chapter 9: Caesars, Muslims, Migrants, and Myths

Chapter 10: A Tour of Caesar’s Europe

Chapter 11. How to be a New Caesar: A Case Study

Chapter 12. What is to be Done?

Conclusion: Against Despair






Here are the opening paragraphs:

WHEN THE BERLIN WALL fell, scholars spoke seriously of the End of History: the terminus of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universal adoption of liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Thirty years later, things are not as we had hoped. The structures that made Western countries the world’s most envied, powerful, wealthy, free, and decent have been hollowed out from within and attacked from without. Authoritarian governments are coming to power not through coups or revolutions, but through the ballot box.

What does this mean?

An astonishing array of kooks, many cultivated and financed by the Kremlin, have gained prominence and power, from Ukip in Britain to Syriza in Greece, from the Corbynite wing of the British Labour Party to Spain’s Podemos, from Jobbik in Hungary to Golden Dawn in Greece, from the Northern League in Italy to France’s Front National Front. A race would seem to be upon the West to embrace history’s most comprehensively discredited ideologies. Adherents of these movements inhabit a morally inverted world where the European Union is the USSR and Vladimir Putin is the Moral Custodian of the West—even as Russia, relying on unreconstructed Soviet organs of statecraft, literally invades Europe …

Would you want to keep reading?


And here’s some sample material, something you might come across as you’re thumbing through, trying to decise whether this interests you. It comes from the chapter called New Caesarism:

POLITICAL SCIENTISTS HAVE TERMED the period from 2006 to the present the “decade of decline.” What is in decline is freedom. According to every index that may be tracked, the world is becoming more authoritarian—and strongly so, and quickly.

Freedom in the World, an annual and highly reliable report on political rights and civil liberties published by Freedom House, has shown that crucial measures of freedom have declined in each of the ten years in question. This is the sharpest and longest democratic recession since Freedom House began collecting data.

“Democratic recession” is their term, not mine. The phrase is poorly-chosen. It is a symptom of our confusion. By Freedom House’s count, more than 60 percent of the world’s countries are electoral democracies. This is anything but a recession; to the contrary, it represents a massive increase in democracy: In the late 1980s, fewer than 40 percent of the world’s nations were democracies. Nonetheless, as Freedom House show, 105 countries have, in the past decade, suffered net declines in freedom. Countries that were authoritarian to begin with became even more repressive. And a “parallel pattern of institutional erosion” has occurred among established democratic states, “pushing them into the category of ‘illiberal democracies.’

The category, under their definition, compasses countries where elections are held regularly, under reasonably fair conditions.

“But the state, usually under the control of a strong party or leader, applies much of its energy to the systematic weakening of political pluralism and the creation of a skewed electoral playing field. Opposition parties are often impotent, freedom of the press is circumscribed, and the judiciary tends to be dominated by the ruling party. Countries that fit this description include Hungary, Bolivia, Ecuador, and, if recent trends continue, Poland.”

This is the New Caesarism. There no other single, widely-recognized term for this form of governance, although political scientists have studied it extensively. Other terms in vogue include hybrid regimes, partial democracy, low-intensity democracy, or empty democracy; others have personalized it, calling it Putinism, Orbánism, or Erdoğanism. We now have a wealth of evidence about the way these regimes arise, their common characteristics, and what it is like to live in them. Most Americans are unfamiliar with this evidence. They do not realize how relevant it is to our own recent political experiences. They have no reason to be conversant with the academic literature about this regime type. They may sense that something unites the regimes in Russia, Turkey, or Hungary, but they will not know quite what it is.

What unites such regimes is that they are democracies—real ones—where rulers derive their legitimacy from elections and the public’s widespread support. But they are democracies where citizens do not enjoy the rights and freedoms Americans associate with the word “democracy.” Such regimes come to power, and stay in power, in a very particular way.

Russia’s Putinization was the ur-Putinization—the template for New Caesars everywhere. The Kremlin is now endeavouring energetically to spread its form of governance throughout Europe. In many places, it is succeeding. Illiberal movements have gained enough power in Europe to pose a severe threat to established liberal orders. The New Caesars have conquered Europe’s periphery and they are making steady inroads on its heart. …

And now, here’s where I need Ricochet’s help.

The chapter that’s still undeveloped — the one that’s holding up the works — is the chapter before this one, the chapter called Old Caesarism. I’ll bet many of you would have interesting things to say about this subject, or suggestions for further reading that could help me make this chapter what I really want it to be.

I argue in this chapter that the forms of authoritarian governance and political moods now sweeping the world have ancient historical antecedents. Critics often evoke the fascist movements of the 1930s — and they’re not wholly wrong. But I argue that fascism is not the most relevant historic precedent, nor will studying it give us the insights we need to understand what’s happening. The more relevant precedents, in my view, are older — much older

The phrase “Caesarian democracy” comes from the great European historian Lewis Namier. It evokes, as it is meant to do, Roman imperial decay. I argue that to understand the new Caesarism, we must look, literally, to the old Caesarism — specifically, to the Roman Republic at the close of the 2nd Century BC.

Caesarian democracy has since reappeared, at regular intervals, in in Western history. As Namier wrote,

Such morbid cults have by now acquired a tradition and ideology, and have evolved their own routine and political vocabulary. … Napoleon III and Boulanger were to be the plagiarists, shadowy and counterfeit, of Napoleon I; and Mussolini and Hitler were to be unconscious reproducers of the methods of Napoleon III. For these are inherent in plebiscitarian Caesarism, or so-called “Caesarian democracy,” with its direct appeal to the masses: demagogical slogans; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political parties and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism; gigantic, blatant displays and shady corruption. Panem et circenses once more and at the end of the road, disaster.

In this chapter, I’m looking at notable historic examples of such “morbid cults” — their similarities, and the circumstances under which they have emerged. And I explore the theme of America and Rome.

As of course you know, the American founders were avid classicists. They consciously imitated Rome. So perhaps, I argue, we shouldn’t be so surprised that modern constitutional democracies are afflicted with Roman problems? I tell the story of the destruction of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire — a story with which, alas, far too many Americans are now unfamiliar.

But the problem is that I am not, myself, as familiar with that story as I ought to be. And here’s where you might be able to help. I’m not a classicist. I don’t read Latin. But I do believe we have among us some first-rate classicists, no? Or perhaps some enthusiastic amateurs? What books have proven most useful to you in understanding Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire?

And what books, in particular — or documents, or resources — have helped you better to understand how the Founding Fathers viewed these events? I want to know what they thought was the moral of this story, what lessons they drew from it, and how this shaped the world in which we now live.

Next, I wonder if any of you have read a 1958 book by a French scholar, Amaury de Riencourt, called The Coming Caesars. I read it for the first time recently and thought, “This is the most interesting thing a Frenchman has written about the United States since de Tocqueville.” When it was published, The New York Times said, “A few decades from now, some later historian may dig out this book and proclaim him a prophet.”

Well, here I am.

Here’s his prophecy:

Our Western world is threatened with Caesarism on a scale unknown since the dawn of the Roman Empire. It is the contention of this book that expanding democracy leads unintentionally to imperialism and that imperialism inevitably ends in destroying the republican institutions of earlier days; further, that the greater the social equality the dimmer the prospects of liberty, and that as society becomes more equalitarian, it tends increasingly to concentrate power in the hands of one man. Caesarism is not a dictatorship, not the result of one man’s overriding ambition, not a brutal seizure of power through revolution. It is not based on a specific doctrine or philosophy. It is essentially pragmatic and untheoretical. It is a slow, often century-old, unconscious development that ends in the voluntary surrender of a free people escaping from freedom to one autocratic master.

Doesn’t that sound just a bit too eerily accurate to you?

If you’ve read the book, what did you think of his arguments?

De Riencourt likened Europe to ancient Greece and the United States to Rome. Not only did the United States have a Roman culture, he argued, it had a Roman future:

With Caesarism and Civilization, the great struggles between political parties are no longer concerned with principles, programs and ideologies, but with men. Marius, Sulla, Cato, Brutus still fought for principles. But now, everything became personalized. Under Augustus, parties still existed, but there were no more Optirnates or Populares, no more conservatives or democrats. Men campaigned for or against Tiberius or Drusus or Caius Caesar. No one believed any more in the efficacy of ideas, political panaceas, doctrines, or systems, just as the Greeks had given up building great philosophic systems generations before.

Abstractions, ideas, and philosophies were rejected to the periphery of their lives and of the empire, to the East where Jews, Gnostics, Christians, and Mithraists attempted to conquer the world of souls and minds while the Caesars ruled their material existence.

Doesn’t that sound eerily familiar, too?

I’m wondering what caused Reincourt, in 1958, to make these predictions? Was it really baked into the cake as early as 1958? Why do you think he noticed what his contemporaries didn’t? (Mostly, the reviews dismissed him.)

I’d like to understand this better, because I think it may be the key to understanding a lot about our era that puzzles me. So I have some specific questions for Ricochet.

  1. If you’ve read him, do you think I’m right to him prophetic and relevant? If so, why?
  2. If not, why not?
  3. Do you think I’m right in saying that the process by which liberal democracies (including, but not limited to ours) are succumbing to authoritarian temptations in the 21st Century evokes the end of the Roman Republic? If so, how exactly?
  4. Who among the Founders, do you think, were most keenly aware of the example of the Roman Republic?How do you think this awareness shaped their views about how America should be safeguarded from the same fate?
  5. Who should I read, in your view, better to understand all three of these periods: The transition of Rome from Republic to Empire, the influence of the classics on the Founders, and the relevance of both of those epochs to ours?

Are you curious about this book, based on what I’ve shown you above? If not, I need to rethink the marketing. (It might be too late to rethink the book.) Please don’t be too harsh in the criticism, though: Constructive criticism is very welcome, but being totally depressed and demoralized for days probably wouldn’t be … so helpful.

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  1. RightAngles Member

    Chuckles (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    He’s a place holder until the Establishment of both parties get it through their heads that we are fed up.

    When do you suppose that will be? Obviously you think they will figure it out within the next few years, but how? They clearly aren’t getting enough phone calls, enough letters, to concern them – Republicare proves that, the budget proposal proves that.

    They know that I’m still gonna vote R no matter what. And that makes me, I suppose, part of the problem.

    I hope that when traitors such as Corker and the aptly named Flake are gone, and Trump keeps on doing the good things he’s doing, everyone will calm down and stop freaking out. I hope there isn’t a new party formed, which would only split the vote. And here I will add my usual disclaimer that I wasn’t a Trump fan at first, and didn’t vote for him in the primary.

    • #61
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Hang On (View Comment):
    Putin, Erdogan, etc. are very different people with very different agendas that are often in conflict with one another

    This point has caused me many sleepless nights. I’m well aware of it. I do talk, in the book, about this concept being a useful but not a perfect one.

    • #62
  3. Zafar Member

    Did the Romans have that Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace thing going on?

    • #63
  4. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron

    Zafar (View Comment):
    Did the Romans have that Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace thing going on?


    Whoever coined the phrase Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace either didn’t understand the concept Perpetual Peace (most likely) or was just using the words because they sounded good. I will be forced to assign homework if this continues. Remember, the Metaphysics of Morals is less exciting to read than many computer language manuals I’ve read. You are warned.


    • #64
  5. Zafar Member

    Hi Jim – it’s more an economic theory, but I feel that I would only benefit from any suggestions you made.  Regards.

    • #65
  6. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron

    Zafar (View Comment):
    Hi Jim – it’s more an economic theory, but I feel that I would only benefit from any suggestions you made. Regards.


    No, it has nothing to do with economics. Kant was actually weak on economics. That is something I’m working on (and many other things) in a project of my own. Perpetual Peace is an outgrowth of a full understanding of Right. Right is the underlying ethical concept that forms governments. Kant states clearly in the Metaphysics of Morals that Perpetual Peace is most probably unattainable. However, it is an a priori idea that will form in the minds of everyone. It provides an ethical target to aim at not a frozen plan. For example, a Marxist globalism could never enhance Perpetual Peace. Marxism starts by destroying the Right of its individual citizens. No fantastic claims of a magical perfect world can justify this Wrong (opposite of Right) first premise.

    Now, where was that manual on C+++ that I could never get through?



    • #66
  7. Zafar Member

    I think this is what Vidal was talking about:

    I am pretty sure the term is not used kindly.

    • #67
  8. Sisyphus Member

    Zafar (View Comment):
    I think this is what Vidal was talking about:

    I am pretty sure the term is not used kindly.

    Vidal and kindly cannot be used in the same sentence with tearing the fabric of space and time.  Oh, oops, my bad.

    • #68
  9. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Zafar (View Comment):
    I think this is what Vidal was talking about:

    I am pretty sure the term is not used kindly.

    Okay, I just read through it. I confirmed to my satisfaction that I’m not missing anything by overlooking Gore Vidal.

    • #69
  10. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Anthea (View Comment):
    I’ll be reading your book summary to my 13 and 16 year olds to see if they can relate.

    Fascinating! I’d love to know how they reacted. Can you give me a quick summary?

    • #70
  11. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    I Walton (View Comment):
    I think our founders looked to these risks rather than other classical attributes, e.g. the risks of popular demands and of concentrated power such demands can lead to, and I think they were right.

    Can you tell me what, exactly, you’re thinking of when you say “I think our founders looked to these risks rather than other classical attributes?” I ask — and this is a general question for everyone — because recently I’ve been poring over the Federalist Papers and other documents that might give me insight into the way the Founders viewed Rome, what lessons they took from the Roman Revolution. If you’re thinking of a specific founder, and a specific allusion to Rome, could you share it with me?

    My understanding of this is still pretty much down-the-line what they teach in history class. I’ve found nothing yet to suggest that the way the founders viewed the risks in such modern terms as you propose, but I am totally open to learning that I’m wrong: My views about this are really malleable right now because I’m so aware that I don’t know this period well. What writings or comments have suggested to you that the Founders were focused on those risks above the other ones that we know preoccupied them? You could very well be right, and I’d love to find out that you are. That would be very interesting material to include in the book.

    • #71
  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Gaius (View Comment):
    I will say as one of the (very) amateurs you’ve alluded to, that I’ve found Syme to be very helpful in understanding the role of faction in the transition from republic to empire. I tend to think that mass immigration in the west today plays a similar role as Rome’s decision to integrate the cities and towns of Italy after the social war. Rome grew overconfident in its ability to effectuate e pluribus Unum, in the face of historical resentment and forgot to pace itself. Also there is Syme’s assessment of the oldest of the patrician families who, unlike the stalwart plebian nobles of the republic, had survived one monarchy and assumed they would survive another (they didn’t). I’m not q

    What an interesting comment. I’m aware of Syme, but haven’t yet read him. (This is what I mean when I say, “I really don’t know this period well,” because I know enough to know that his work is considered classic, but not enough to have actually read it..) But now I will, on your recommendation.

    The idea that mass immigration could be seen as analogous to Rome’s post-social-war strategy simply hadn’t occurred to me, because I’d always thought of that strategy as pretty much a success. I would really like to read this article, which might fill in the details of this period for me more usefully, but they’re charging $42 to download it, which is just too much. I wonder if anyone has access to it and could let me borrow it?

    (As a side question, what do people here think about the ethics of asking for that kind of favor? I fully understand that copyright is sacred — I’m a writer, after all — and that JSTOR needs to make money out of this or they won’t have any incentive to do it at all. On the other hand, I also think public libraries are an immense social good. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing a book from a library or a friend. If I were a researcher affiliated to a university, of course I’d have access to it. Some of you may have access to it. Is it wrong to ask those of you who have access to send it to me? I’m genuinely unsure.)


    • #72
  13. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Gaius (View Comment):
    On second thought I wonder if a better title for your thesis might be “The New Catalinarians.” Formerly respectable political establishments supporting crazed demagogues who dishonor their tradition out of a fear of becoming a minority in their own country certainly describes the relationship between Cataline and his supporters in the optimates. Replace Cicero with judge Curiel and Sallust’s speech for Cataline sounds downright Trumpian at times. After all Orban, Pen etc. are creatures of the European right while Caesar, to the extent we can analogize, was of the Roman left. He comes later, for us, I fear, as well as for Rome.

    Another great comment. You made me look up the “Against Cataline” speeches (all here, for anyone who wants to join — I don’t have the knowledge to say anything about the quality of the translation). They do have an almost eerie, contemporary feeling, don’t they?

    Shame on the age and on its principles! The senate is aware of these things; the consul sees them; and yet this man lives. Lives! aye, he comes even into the senate. He takes a part in the public deliberations; he is watching and marking down and checking off for slaughter every individual among us. And we, gallant men that we are, think that we are doing our duty to the republic if we keep out of the way of his frenzied attacks.


    Amazingly, when I was force-fed Cicero as an undergraduate, I thought he was a bore. If you had told me I’d be reading him some 35 years later and thinking, “My God — he’s speaking for me,” I’d have looked at you with total incomprehension.

    I don’t think “The New Catalinarians” is a phrase upon which I’d want to rely, first because too few people know who Cataline and Co. were — especially now, because those essential courses we all used to take – “Ancient History 101, Medieval History 101, Modern History 101” are no longer a required part of the curriculum. (O tempora o mores.) So I suspect we’d have no name recognition. Also, it’s a mouthful. But I think your point here is so good, and so apt, that I’m going to try writing about it and see what happens if I introduce it to the chapter. Maybe it would work.

    With book-writing, a lot of things sound as if they’d work until you try them, then you realize you’ve taken a time-wasting detour. I don’t want to waste two weeks trying to weave Cicero and the Catalines into a book that’s basically not about them. But a sub-section of this chapter devoted to this — to showing how old and familiar these phenomena are — might really be good.  So I’m going to devote a few days to trying it. Thanks for a great idea. More like that, please!

    • #73
  14. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Anthea (View Comment):
    Americans have ceased to care about virtue people as necessary for democracies to function, especially virtue

    Yes, definitely this was among the Founders’ great concerns, and definitely, Rome was very much on their minds. And we also know that they believed a classical education to be critical to sustaining a virtuous populace. Here’s a wonderful blog post on the subject. I  don’t know who Dr. Joe Wolverton II is, but I’d love to talk to him. From him I learned about the Scotsman Donald Robertson, who sounds like the figure to understand if I want to understand how the Founders viewed Rome:

    Many future luminaries were enrolled in his school: James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John Tyler and George Rogers Clark, among others. Robertson and teachers like him nourished their charges with a healthy diet of Greek and Latin, and required that they learn to master Virgil, Horace, Justinian, Tacitus, Herodotus, Plutarch, Lucretius and Thucydides.Further along in their education, students were required to translate Cicero’s Orations and Virgil’s Aeneid. They were expected to translate Greek and Latin passages aloud, write out the translations in English, and then re-translate the passages back into the original language using a different tense.

    I find it fascinating that the founders believed a classical education to be the key to sustaining virtue. My own education in the classics is severely deficient, and I truly regret this. It makes it impossible for me to say whether they were right, although I suspect they probably were (they tended to be right an awful lot).

    I don’t like this video — I could do without the music. I’d rather just have a transcript of the script so I could look up the quotes in their full context. But I’m an impatient adult. Maybe if you’re covering this period with your kids, they’d enjoy it?


    • #74
  15. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    John Hendrix (View Comment):

    @claire, with respect to the U.S. I’ve been having this is like the last days of the Roman Republic feeling for some time now.

    Yes, but as you say — it’s not taking place over a period of a thousand slow years. We’re in some kind of free fall. Which is genuinely a new phenomenon in history, because only Rome was a power that could be likened in its impact on the world to the United States — there’s no other analogy that makes sense — but Rome didn’t collapse in a day. We’re collapsing way, way faster than I would have thought possible.

    Recently, however, it appears that that pace of collapse is increasing. This doesn’t bode well. As an engineer I am familiar with the phenomena of the rate that a failure mode causes damage suddenly increasing just prior to total catastrophic failure. Seeing the increasing rate of damage to our institutions gives me a queasy feeling that I am about to witness something worse happening to my country.

    Exactly. I couldn’t agree more that this is the way I feel. Of course, feelings aren’t fact.: We may be misunderstanding this; it may be that future historians look back on 2017 and find it notable for how disproportionately gloomy and hysterical Americans were, given that their greatest century or centuries lay ahead of them.

    Teddy White, I think it was in his Making of the Presidents book, criticized California’s referendum system because it removed the buffer between popular emotion and governmental action. Creating a buffer between popular emotion and governmental action is the entire point of a representative republic and its institutions. I believe removal of such buffers are is a key factor in the rise of the new American Caesarism you’ve identified. Often our institutions perform a buffering role. (This is also exactly why American institutions are under constant Leftist attack, but that is another rant.)

    This is a point I stress repeatedly and emphatically in the book: Our founders understood that democracy and liberty were in tension, and that too much of the former jeopardized the latter. We don’t seem to grasp this.

    Put crudely, the point of having elected representatives essentially sequestered in a remote capitol is to enable them to deliberate without continually receiving pressure from constituents. Changes since the beginning of the twentieth century have exposed our representatives to increasing pressure from their constituents, and increasingly in real-time.

    Agree completely. This is really a big theme of my book.

    primary elections. Our political parties switching to a sequence of primary elections so as to select a nominee made things worse. Previously politicians had to win the approval of their party’s leaders, who’s experience, one would hope, would have disabused them of at least some their earlier fallacies. In contrast, under our primary system politicians are essentially performing before an amateur audience. Trump would have been immediately rejected by the old system. So would a politician with Obama scanty record of accomplishments. (You want more Trump? Well, under our primary system you will get more Trump. In fact, you could only get Trump under this system.)

    Yep! Too much democracy, which we’ve venerated as an unalloyed good — and which the Founders would have seen as insanity.

    Old Media and Social Media. A recent Constitutionally Speaking podcast pointed out that FDR’s fireside chats made it possible for a President to spin-up a the population into a sort of virtual flash mob to pressure their congressman into supporting FDR’s policies. This had never happened before because we didn’t have the technology in place to do it before. FDR’s fireside chats were the beginning of the end of our representatives’ sense of being sequestered from popular emotions and impulses.

    And, of course, Twitter and all the rest of social media means that we’ll never have to worry about our representatives thoughtfully deliberating over contentious issues ever again.

    Yep. I discuss all of this in the chapter called “Caesar and the Internet.” (I do get worried when I see you saying this because it makes me wonder, “Is this so obvious and known to everyone that I don’t need to write a book about it?”)

    An obliviousness to the point of institutions.The Left using the Judiciary to enact their preferred policies instead of just interpreting the Constitution is just one example.

    Yep. And I could extent the list of examples … to the length of a book. And have. We’re on the same page about this. I sure hope we’re wrong, but it does remind me, quite a bit, of the way Rome met its fate.

    • #75
  16. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    One general question, for everyone. Has anyone read any of the books on this list? If so, what did you think — worth buying? They’re all awfully expensive, so I don’t want to order one that isn’t really worth the time.

    • #76
  17. Percival Thatcher

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    Amazingly, when I was force-fed Cicero as an undergraduate, I thought he was a bore. If you had told me I’d be reading him some 35 years later and thinking, “My God — he’s speaking for me,” I’d have looked at you with total incomprehension.

    The problem with Against Cataline was (for me, history tyro) that he was rising in defense of a system that was already broken and wasn’t likely to be fixed by the Senate. The Marian Reforms of the army had the unintended effect of raising the legions’ loyalty to their local commanders (who were the ones who would obtain the lands that they would receive in exchange for their service) over the Senate. The only tool outside of the persuasion of sweet reason that the generals had to fix their problems was the hammer of military force, and that made the Senate a nail.

    • #77
  18. Ontheleftcoast Inactive

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    Some of you may have access to it. Is it wrong to ask those of you who have access to send it to me? I’m genuinely unsure.)

    I think that if the research in a paper done at an institution funded by taxpayer dollars it is outrageous to keep the contents of the paper from the public. I think that what the humanities need is something like PLOS.

    Here is an interview with Michael Eisen, co-founder of PLOS on the topic of open source research as it pertains to science.

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    Our founders understood that democracy and liberty were in tension, and that too much of the former jeopardized the latter. We don’t seem to grasp this.

    I might qualify that statement:

    “We have one party that is actively hostile to liberty and actively corrupts the democratic process in order to seize all power while leaving a temporary facade of democracy.

    We have another is very imperfectly (at best) in favor of liberty. While this party’s  most principled politicians grasp the need for more than one center of power, its worst see little of value save their own tenure in power and are all too willing to work in a bipartisan fashion to corrupt democracy and destroy liberty.”

    • #78
  19. genferei Member

    Don’t forget that the inculcation of virtue and liberty are in tension, too. Indeed, the idea of virtue and the enlightenment are in tension. It’s tension everywhere! And always has been. To think that our present age and stage is more prominent in such matters than all others strikes me as deeply ahistorical.

    Of course, “Don’t Panic, It’s Nothing Special” is hardly the sort of thesis to inspire a book.

    • #79
  20. Gaius Inactive

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    One general question, for everyone. Has anyone read any of the books on this list? If so, what did you think — worth buying? They’re all awfully expensive, so I don’t want to order one that isn’t really worth the time.

    Years ago when I was writing my undergrad thesis, I relied pretty heavily on “The Founders and the Classics.” Richard’s concept of a classical partition was the only framework I could make sense of for understanding how the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians could both think they were being good Romans despite having markedly different visions for the republic.

    • #80
  21. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Gaius (View Comment):

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    One general question, for everyone. Has anyone read any of the books on this list? If so, what did you think — worth buying? They’re all awfully expensive, so I don’t want to order one that isn’t really worth the time.

    Years ago when I was writing my undergrad thesis, I relied pretty heavily on “The Founders and the Classics.” Richard’s concept of a classical partition was the only framework I could make sense of for understanding how the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians could both think they were being good Romans despite having markedly different visions for the republic.

    This sounds like an excellent recommendation. Doesn’t look outrageously expensive, either.

    • #81
  22. SkipSul Inactive

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    Yes, but as you say — it’s not taking place over a period of a thousand slow years. We’re in some kind of free fall.

    Maybe, maybe not, but…

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    Which is genuinely a new phenomenon in history, because only Rome was a power that could be likened in its impact on the world to the United States — there’s no other analogy that makes sense — but Rome didn’t collapse in a day.

    Neither are we.  But the Republic did implode very quickly, well before Caesar.  From the time of the Grachi onwards, you can arguably make the case that the Republic was already rapidly becoming a dead letter.  By the time of Marius or Sulla, it was a dead letter, but one to which the government still paid a lot of lip service and made at least a formal pretense of supporting.  One need only look at the pretenses and formalities of Augustus and his successors up until Diocletian to see how long the myth of the The Republic was perpetuated, even as it was long dead and buried.

    So it is with us – from the time of Wilson even, and especially since FDR, we have been in a twilight era where our politicians still pay homage to The Republic That Was, while disregarding what it actually was with ever increasing regularity.  With the proclamation that the Constitution is a “Living Document” subject to the whims of current whimsy and fashion, with the Warren Court’s abolition of the ability of states to govern themselves internally (Warren’s obsessive striking down of state legislatures that were not absolutely apportioned according to population), with racial handouts and affirmative action, with the stretching of laws beyond their written scope (Obama’s declaration that the Clean Water Act allowed them to regulate any and all water), and with a thousand small cuts delivered over many many decades, our Republic has long been little more than a formality.

    If we seem in free-fall to you, I can only suggest that this is because even the pretenses can no longer be supported or ignored.  Our massive government, with agencies galore that operate in nearly full independence from Congress (the recently added Consumer Financial Protection Bureau being the latest and most egregious example, as it operates now independently of both Congress and the President), has not been a Republic in many meaningful sense for longer than my own lifetime now.

    The American populace may not be able to articulate it, but it knows darn well what has happened – it feels it, lives it, and breathes it every day.

    • #82
  23. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    The American populace may not be able to articulate it, but it knows darn well what has happened – it feels it, lives it, and breathes it every day.

    Skip and all,

    Is anyone interested in arguing for Shakespeare’s position? Shakespeare is suggesting that Ceasar (Julius) is doing the heavy lifting for the Republic. He is defending its borders and enforcing its trade/tribute. He does not have the ambition to hold a hereditary crown. It is the Patrician Roman Senate that is either paranoid or just jealous. They overreact to Ceasar’s success and glorious entry into Rome. Their murder of Ceasar brings down the Republic, not Ceasar’s actions.

    The motivation of the Patricians in the Senate is very old. They see Ceasar as a crude outsider who has chased after glory and is incapable of upholding their class standards. Imagine for a moment the reaction in Boston and New York Patrician households to Abraham Lincoln. Old Abe “the rail-splitter”!! Can you imagine the reaction of people who never held an axe in their hand once in their entire life? I suggested in an earlier post that when General McClellan was fired by Lincoln this was the last straw for these Patricians. They conspired with elements inside the military to throw the battle of Gettysburg and force Lincoln to either accept the South’s secession or lose the 1864 election probably to McClellan running as the Democratic candidate. General Meade the odd duck who was never with the in-crowd was to be the fall guy. Instead, Meade stopped Lee cold at Gettysburg and the conspiracy was broken up.

    Class hatred for the successful outsider is an old story. Maybe Shakespeare had the right idea.



    • #83
  24. SkipSul Inactive

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    Class hatred for the successful outsider is an old story. Maybe Shakespeare had the right idea.

    I have no doubt that is also a factor.

    • #84
  25. Gaius Inactive

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    Class hatred for the successful outsider is an old story.

    James Gawron (View Comment)
    They see Ceasar as a crude outsider who has chased after glory and is incapable of upholding their class standards.

    Caesar was of the oldest patrician aristocracy. Being a popvlares involved practicing a certain style of politics, which had little or nothing to do with ones own class status, and was by no means exclusive of the political advantages of an illustrious family tree. It’s true that the caesares had fallen on hard times in the previous generation. In theory that meant something but in practice it meant very little. Sulla who was of a similar background suffered exclusion from noble circles early in life though that was mainly from having lived among actors and publicans, many of whom he continued to associate with all his life. Caesar’s poverty was never so acute. To put things in perspective Caesar’s main rivals in the contest for the republic were Cicero, a novus homo from arpinum, Pompey, a first generation noble of the Italian elite and Crassus a moneylender and a plebian noble, as was Cato and the prominent Marcellus clan. Of the major figures of the era only Brutus could not be described as Caesar’s social inferior in one sense or another. Caesar was an insider’s insider and cultivated relationships with all sections of the Roman elite. When it comes to class standards it’s important to understand that Caesar was as transgressive as he was and no more so. While assuming lifetime dictatorship and taking up with the queen of Egypt might facially have been his greatest infractions, it was the quality of clemency, which he cultivated from a young age which set him apart and from his peers and eventually lead to his murder. A Roman aristocrat could accept Sulla’s proscription lists, but never Caesar’s pardons which were the acts of a monarch toward his subjects. In most other ways, however, Caesar was a man of his class; he wept at the death of Pompey and grew outraged at the treatment of a man who had been a Roman consul. Compare Caesar to Sulla the consummate aristocrat and more religious than any leading member of the subsequent generation who had written on his tombstone “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full” but also to Octavian, the middle class equestrian dictator who never questioned the centrality of the old elite, but who was sufficiently removed from their ethic to do the bloody work of establishing a new regime. Octavian would have accepted Pompey’s head with a cold grin.

    • #85
  26. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Hmmm. Is anyone else having problems with quoted text? I’m trying to respond to Dr. Jeckyll’s wonderful comment, but it won’t replicate itself here. Just me?

    • #86
  27. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    @guruforhire, May I just thank you for those videos from the bottom of my soul? Cleared up this whole confusing period for me and, I’m sure, for everyone else. I plan to appeal to them in the book. How would you suggest I footnote them?

    • #87
  28. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.


    Thanks so much for your enthusiastic comment. I saw it last week but missed it over the weekend when I was trying to reply to the comments on this thread. Obviously, your background makes you the perfect person to ask these questions — not least because you probably have a very good sense of what Americans know already. I don’t. I don’t know what an “average reader” will already know about Rome: I don’t want to bore people by telling them things they learned in high school, but don’t want to make allusions that will go over most of my readers’ heads. You could help me a lot by giving me a sense of what you imagine an “average, curious, educated but perhaps not academic American reader” would already know about this period. Would he or she know, for example, that there was both a Republic *and* an Empire, and roughly how one became the other? Would he or she understand that the Republic was organized around certain principles that would be familiar to Americans now? I just don’t know, and you could really help.

    “My first reaction is that my better students could handle a book at this level and might be quite interested by it, therefore, change the title of the introductory chapter [“What the Hell”] to something I could sell to Christian Administrators and Parents.”

    None of the chapter titles are fixed in stone, but if that language is a hard sell for parents, the book might be, too: I do discuss in it, for example, questions related to modern sexual licentiousness, and in some places use graphic (quoted) language, so perhaps it wouldn’t be appropriate — although I personally don’t believe in sheltering high-school age students overmuch from life; we’ve already delayed adulthood and over-protected them more than enough, I reckon. But that’s easy for me to say.

    I happened on that chapter title when talking about this with my father. He had been trying to help me figure out what I meant to convey — somehow the tone of several original drafts wasn’t quite right — and I said that what I meant to convey was *incredulity* — that the political forces now at work in the world are *astonishing,* that I never expected in my lifetime to see such things, that I am, to say the least, dismayed that we now again have Nazis — real ones — to contend with in Europe. And I think I said to him, re. one such thing (I don’t recall which), “I mean … what the hell!” And he said — “There. That’s what you mean. Say so.”

    So, I appreciate that it at first seems a vulgarity, but it’s not: It is correct and accurate to say that the rise, for example, of Nazi movements in Europe is hellish, a spectacle genuinely from hell. If I were saying, “What the hell?” about something trivial — a missing sock, for example — it would be blasphemous. To say it in the context of Nazism and similar movements is accurate. But I am open to the idea that my sensibilities here are anomalous; do you find the phrase off-putting no matter the subject of the chapter? Honestly, despite what I wrote above, I feel ambivalent about high-school students reading about these things: I don’t know that this is an appropriate age to introduce students, for example, to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which unfortunately has made a grand comeback, and which I must thus unfortunately discuss in this book.

    “In the end, my ‘market’ is small, and you might lose as many readers by surrendering to what will be deemed prudery, as you would gain in this market but you did ask…”

    No, I think your “market” — sensitive, moral, people who might flinch at vulgarity — is precisely the market I’d like to reach, so I take this suggestion seriously.

    “I am sure that I will not be the first to mention his name, but Mike Duncan has just published a book called the Storm before the Storm which focuses exactly on the topic at hand. I just finished his book and he comes up short of addressing Caesar himself, but details the narrative history from the Gracchi Brothers to the death of Sulla. Mike Duncan attempts to fill the space between the general public and hard scholarship, but he has done some thinking about how the history of the late republic applies to the present American moment. Our times are nothing like the chaotic violence of the late Republic and yet there are useful parallels to be sure.”

    (There’s something wrong with the “quote” function, so I’m putting your comments in quotation marks manually.) Glad you mentioned Mike Duncan’s book and give it a thumbs-up, because I’ve already ordered it. As I’ve written above, these books are awfully costly, so I don’t want to invest in them unless they come highly recommended. I’m glad this does. It should be here soon!

    “In reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton some years ago, I read that an interaction between Hamilton and Jefferson before their rivalry dominated our early republic wherein each man was asked what historical figure inspired them. Hamilton chose Caesar and made a lifelong enemy of Jefferson in so doing. This might be an interesting line to follow.”

    Indeed. I hadn’t known of Chernow’s biography; perhaps I’ll put that on my wish list. Does he discuss this at length? Is the book otherwise worth reading? (Keep in mind that my budget requires me to prioritize, so perhaps I might be better off with one of the other books I’ve seen that treat the subject of the Founders’ relationship to Rome.

    “The final bit I will contribute is to quibble with the word democracy.”

    No need to quibble with me. One of the *main* theses of the book is that we’ve come to use the word “democracy” to signify a whole host of concepts that the word does not mean, and in doing so, we have gravely confused ourselves about politics and what is desirable in a political system. This is one of the book’s central theses, so certainly I very much understand what you’re saying and fully agree with it. Did I use the word “democracy” in the OP to mean something beyond its strict definition? If so, I was very careless, because I’m becoming more and more sensitive to the degree to which our use of the word as a grabbag for “everything desirable in a political system” has caused us huge confusion, and a confusion that has in no way been trivial in its effects: We have gone to war to “bring democracy” to whole countries, or at least, this has been part of the rationale; we have not thought enough about whether “democracy” in itself will result in a desirable political outcome, and often, it does not. Democracy and liberalism (classically conceived) are *in tension,* not synonyms.

    • #88
  29. Percival Thatcher

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    I don’t know what an “average reader” will already know about Rome: I don’t want to bore people by telling them things they learned in high school, but don’t want to make allusions that will go over most of my readers’ heads.

    Always tricky. I was getting the phone number of someone at work today, and remarked that it would be easy to remember as the last four digits were the year of the (much more recent) battle of Hastings.

    It was news to them. It is tough to underestimate the historical knowledge of anyone anymore. I would have thought that they would have learned that in high school. I did.

    • #89
  30. genferei Member

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    Democracy and liberalism (classically conceived) are *in tension,* not synonyms.

    Probably. It depends what “liberalism (classically conceived)” means. Lots of things, really.

    • #90
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