Are We Not Romans?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Vlahos Professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs and adviser to the Kiernan Group

Steely Dan would say: "And they wrote it on the wall," inscribed like the stone stele of Daniel 5:1-31. The words tell us when we will leave.

But how to decode these obscure, fateful words?

Americans like to compare themselves to old Romans, especially those martial neocons-of-the-soft-hands and their adder-tongued women. But hearken: It may be a fair analogy.

Susan Mattern's Rome and the Enemy shatters our wool-dyed clichés of old Rome. The legions did not conquer for land: As if they were throwback Victorians lusting for cartographic dominion colored on a map.

Romans went to war and invaded others for five reasons:

  • The image of Rome
  • The glory of victory
  • Prestige of the emperor
  • The moral dimension of discipline
  • Righteous vengeance

Imago. Rome saw itself as exceptional -- unique among nations -- and thus for Romans, remorselessly, "foreign relations were a competition for honor and status between Rome and barbarian peoples; by proving its superior force through war and conquest. Rome extracts deference from other nations, who then remain submissive."

How perfectly this captures the contemporary rhetorical orbit of a renewed American mission in Afghanistan, which is less about what happens to them than it is about how they make us feel about ourselves. As the President declared on Tuesday:

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. What we have fought for - and what we continue to fight for - is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

What we have done there for us thus saves the world and also, American reputation within its sacred narrative. When the President declares that "we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future" -- he is not talking about their future but rather the future we demand of them -- The future that salves and salvages the image of Rome ... or America. In the Roman Way of course we will achieve this though battle -- more legions.

Victoria. But for Romans the greatest consolation of battle was the certain realization of victory. The exceptional nation always demands, and receives, the affirmation of success. "Winning" was as big to Romans as it was to Lombardi's Green Bay. This existential neediness pervaded Roman public life: it was embedded in identity like air itself. Why else did Romans build so many triumphal arches and erect so many passionately inscribed lofty columns?

So how then to account for the sackcloth-and-ashes lamentations of O'Reilly and the crew over our President's lack of passion this Tuesday? In their blazing rhetorical nimbus his was an oration not only flat and anemic but morally handicapped. It never invoked the holy word: "Win."

Like old Romans we relentlessly celebrate America's "eternal victory." Think about the thousands of war memorials gracing our town squares, or the "hallowed ground" of a hundred and more sacred national battlefields. Think for a moments about our Saints' Days across the calendar -- Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, Pearl Harbor Day, Flag Day, 9-11, Independence Day -- all invocations of American struggle, sacrifice, and triumph.

For Americans, winning is not simply a marker of our national progress: It is a constant looming judgment on our moral standing. Are we still living up to expectations of forever greatness? We cannot flag. Hence the former President's rush to land on USS Lincoln to consummate a ritual "Victory" just as soon as he possibly could.

Hence our president's fear, so vocalized by establishment media yet everywhere visible: He will be harshly judged by our American Pantheon if he does not deliver Victory.

Here is the deep problem of the prestige of the emperor.

The God Augustus. When Rome ceased to be a republic it increasingly looked to the emperor (at first just an honorific title, like Commander-in-Chief) to serve as a replacement touchstone for vital national identity. If the social institutions of Senate, Tribune, and Consular order could not do this, a new leadership of the imperial state offered the framework within which Roman identity might be advanced and realized.

So later Rome made its collective sense of prestige -- and its identity -- inseparable from the individual prestige of the imperial person. As Mattern relates: "It is therefore not surprising that many emperors are supposed to have undertaken aggressive campaigns purely or mainly in order to enhance their own prestige."

So people came to expect that their emperors would take on the Roman enterprise of maintaining and enhancing their identity, by leading the wars against Barbaricum that were each in their own way glistening tokens of Roman worth and value.

So our president in his great speech takes on this geas for us. He is our collective voice, our guide and leader. He tells us what we must do:

Let me be clear: none of this will be easy. The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly ... It will be an enduring test of our free society, and our leadership in the world ... America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars ... we are passing through a time of great trial. And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might.

Whether we wish to see it or not, the institution of the American Presidency has become an office of Sacred Kingship (with all ancient antecedents included). Our fortunes now rise and fall on the most intimate public nuances of a Presidential video performance (hence the Right's certain renunciation of Tuesday's speech) and our national enterprise seems to be wholly vested in the personal emotional effectiveness of our sacred king.

For Romans this expectation over time weakened the effectiveness of the state. As increasing troubles beset the globalized Roman world, emperors felt the push to personally lead their armies against Barbaricum -- and Romans were left behind.

Even now we can still recall similar pressures on our former American president, such that he donned an aircrew jumpsuit and always, always in every later speech, appeared in demi-uniform among his soldiers as one of them. This strange yet growing expectation of a militarized president as national norm has even captured even our current "commander-in-chief." So compelled is he by this new imperative American sacred kings that he also must go to a military audience for any big defense speech.

Virtus. But as Rome shows, all is not just about the Emperor/President. Roman wars were also equally about the virtuous discipline of all Romans. Vegetius says it all:

It is evident that the Roman people have subjected the world by no other means than the exercise of arms ... What indeed could the small number of Romans have accomplished against the multitude of Gauls?

Hence we are not only exceptional but also morally superior. An indefinable elixir called American virtue -- is above all a predominantly martial virtue. Hence O'Reilly's icy revel on Wednesday, roiling in the self-indulgence of Nixon's favorite movie, Patton:

All real Americans love the sting of battle Americans love a winner . . . and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war . . . because the very thought of losing . . . is hateful to Americans.

We are always striving to prove ourselves in our wars. Battle is in part about our proving martial prowess, but also in part about displaying the inevitability of the American Way. Moreover in granular terms it is just as essentially a litmus test of whether American virtue will continue under the stern gaze of unmoving ancestors.

Try this out for yourself. Go the History Channel or the Military Channel on cable. 24/7 they reconvene in canonically massaged and loving scripture the sacred narrative. There is no escape here. Every effort we make in the world must of necessity both bow and passionately live up to -- and if possible, surpass -- the deeds of stone-cast ancestors.

Vindicare. Yet a virtuous people will be all the more moved by transgression against them. Romans prided themselves that they never invaded anyone save on provocation, that they always tried the path of peace first. Romans invoked ancient Neolithic fetial law -- which looks a lot like our hallowed rituals (going back to the Mexican War) and the rehearsed run-up to Iraq.

All the cultural pieces that made Rome what it was in late imperial times -- its abiding virtue, its eternal victory, its sacred king, its necessary world prestige -- required that any upstart and any defiant resistance must also necessarily be punished to submission.

Did we not seek immediate vengeance in Afghanistan? Did we not extend a certainty of righteousness to Iraq? Romans would be proud. But they would scowl at wavering.

For Romans nothing less than submission was allowed. Imperial Romans as world leader were terrified of what seemed to them the only alternative: That any advance by resistant Barbaricum would indissolubly constitute a loss of their authority.

Meaning: weakness. Meaning: a betrayal of mythic trust. Meaning that the generation of the evanescent present is the possible end of Roman greatness itself. Thus all Roman strategy was about demonstrating for all history that Rome was strong and that its enemies were weak: "To be the first to offer peace communicated weakness and humiliation" ...

And weakness by existential definition, could never be Roman. Even if it meant defeat, Romans would without regard to their collective welfare pursue the path of aggressive strength. Hence all enemies were evil in their provocation and transgression against Roman peace, and to prove Roman strength, they must be punished.

Or as our former president declared: "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." Or in more classically Roman language: "We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of this great nation." Trajan himself could not have done better.

This new president cannot shrug the geological burden of American ethos, with its accreted layers of human stone. So on Tuesday he accepted the sacred mantle and took his place among our people's kings.

So in this embrace, of the American Sacred King accepting his duty, our future is foretold -- in 1080dpi.

Here it is. It is no deadline (a Federal and Confederate prison camp origin) -- but rather a steely, and then perhaps increasingly desperate search for symbolic markers that will properly fulfill the essential ritual function of what Afghanistan really represents for Americans.

Plain English, not Roman: What does this mean?

Right dominates because Right knows. They may have "Early Man" brainpans but they know American identity. Dems are resolutely clueless, cowed, and supine. The predictable result:

Forever War. It's what's for dinner.