By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” “A Republic, if you can keep it.” –Answer attributed to Benjamin Franklin in 1787.
As readers know, I’ve been doing a bit of travelling this summer, and when I travel, I like to have something exciting to read on the bus or the train. For this trip, I picked up Mary Beard’s SPQR, a history of ancient Rome beginning with the Cataline conspiracy in 63BCE and ending with Caracalla’s extension of Roman citizen to “all free inhabitants of the Empire” in 212. (SPQR was published in 2015, so I’m a little late to the party.) I wouldn’t call SPQR a — dread word — popularization, since it’s clearly informed by vast scholarship, but it’s not, perhaps, a work of scholarship; there are no footnotes, so we have to take Beard’s sources on trust. Beard also deploys a contemporary, almost breezy style; SPQR reads almost like a podcast, as spoken word. SQPR is very accessible, a quick read, but dense with information; wisdom, even.
Beard is a well-known Cambridge Don and a public figure in the UK; the New York Review of Books has this to say about SPQR:
[H]er opening sentence bluntly asserts, “Ancient Rome is important.” Her title is the standard ancient abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “the Senate and People of Rome,” and as she points out, it still adorns manhole covers and rubbish bins in Rome today. No one could doubt that what she has written has contemporary relevance. Her history evokes a past that visibly impinges upon the present, as modern travelers in Europe, the Balkans, Anatolia, North Africa, and the Near East are constantly made aware.
By the time Beard has finished, she has explored not only archaic, republican, and imperial Rome, but the eastern and western provinces over which it eventually won control. She deploys an immense range of ancient sources, in both Greek and Latin, and an equally wide range of material objects, from pots and coins to inscriptions, sculptures, reliefs, and temples. She moves with ease and mastery through archaeology, numismatics, and philology, as well as a mass of written documents on stone and papyrus.
The London School of Economics summarizes the central thesis of the work:
In ‘Chapter 10: Fourteen Emperors’, Beard takes a novel approach to the study of empire. , the author argues. While much has been written about each individual emperor (many of whom had colourful reputations), their characters in fact mattered little, as the means of their rule and the day-to-day lives of their citizens remained relatively unchanged.
They all followed the precedent of Augustus, the first emperor, in measuring their success: through building grandiose works, flaunting their generosity to the people and displaying military feats. This was the standard by which the emperors were admired and criticised, and by which they judged themselves. For instance, the Colosseum, now one of Rome’s most memorable monuments, combined these three aspects for the Emperor Vespasian. It was a grand construction project, the celebration of a victory over Jewish rebels and an obvious mark of munificence to the Roman people.
The emperors, however, also inherited Augustus’s problems: namely, an unclear method of succession, which generated family intrigues as well as military coups and was sometimes overcome by strategic adoptions; an uneasy relationship with the Senate; and a confusion in how their power might be represented and defined. Were the emperors gods? And if so, were their family and friends, if they declared them to be? Beard here makes a persuasive case for her approach of focusing on the structure and patterns of power, rather than individual personalities.
In this post, I’ll tease out one structural aspect of contemporary politics — succession — using the method Beard herself employs. From page 535:
I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans — or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilization. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in Western Asia might be ill-advised.
(Here I pause to remark that Graham Allison’s popularization of “The Thucycides Trap,” so-called, does exactly what Beard recommends avoiding. See Naked Capitalism here.)
But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amound to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — b engaging with the history of the Romans… Since the Renaissance at least,
In this post, I hope to understand a little more about our own legitimacy crisis — which takes the form of liberal Democrats challenging the legitimacy of a Presidential succession — by engaging with a similar structural issue faced by the Romans. (Yes, this is a view from the armchair at 30,000 feet, but if you want to survey the terrain, you’ve got to get up high. Eh?)
Beard summarizes the issues of imperial succession as follows (pp 414-415):
Despite the impressive survival rate of the emperors (fourtee rulers in almost 200 years is one testament to stablity), …
Note that if you frame the Beltway as an imperial court, as opposed to the capital of a Republic, Trump’s jarring insistence on the importance of “loyalty” — even if derived from his own weird corporate environment — doesn’t look so out of place.
The names, dates, and details change, but the story remains the same. Some said that Livia poisoned Augustus to ease Tiberius onto the throne; Tiberius was widely believed to have been poisoned or smothered to make way for Gaius [as professional historians call Caligula]; Agrippina is supposed to have dispatched her husband Claudius with some poisoned mushrooms in her successful bid to make her son emperor; and some said Domitian had a hand in the early death of Titus–contrary to a hopeful story in the Talmud which claims that after Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, a gnat flew into his nostril and gradually ate away his brain.
(If anybody here reads Kos, please let me know if the story that “a gnat flew into his nostril and gradually ate away his brain” turns up in a secular imprecatory prayer in re: Donald Trump. It’s certainly worthy of doing so!)
And now Beard employs a media critique:
. It takes a lot to believe that the elderly Livia would have painstakingly smeared poison on figs still growing on a tree, then tricked her husband into eating them. But true or not, .
How like the stories in the media appropriate to our own day! Beard goes on to describe the imperial court (page 416):
These uncertainties about how to establish a legitimate claim to rule also help to explain the peculiarly murderous image of the Roman court, where danger seems to have lurked on every fig and such an atmosphere of suspicion prevailed that .
That’s about as Beltway as you can get, although of course today our reflections are not merely visual, but digital. And the transmission of power (page 416-417):
, every relative counted as a potential rival of the emperor or of his likely heir… There were alternative routes to power. One was exactly what the first Augustus had tried to preclude: elevation by the army….
Roman emperors and their advisors never solved the problem of succession. They were defeated in part by biology, in part by lingering uncertainties and disagreements about how inheritance should best operate. . The moment when Roman power was handed on was always the moment when it was most vulnerable.
At this point, we recall the instant reaction by the dominant liberal factions in the Democrat Party to their humiliating defeat — and loss of their third, and final, branch of the Federal government, most states already having been lost — in the Clinton debacle of 2016: They sought to revise the “agreed system for the transmission of power.” In rough chronological order: Liberal Democrats sought, through a “faithless elector” strategy, to give the intelligence community veto power over the post-election selection of a President; they advocated the abolition of the electoral college and its replacement by a popular vote; they advocated a “regent” as a new institutional and extra-Constitutional check on the President; they advocated secession, which amounts to Civil War (with Californians being the “fire eaters” of the 21st Century).
All of these tactics have a common thread: Hitherto, the United States and the political class have regarded the “agreed system for the transmission of power” as a solved problem. Liberal Democrats now wish to unsolve, or, better, dissolve this system so that electoral results accord with the desires of their party faction. (I’ll skip over how unhinged it is for an out of power faction to try this!) I think that engaging with Roman history, as presented by SPQR, must compel any fair-minded reader to be less than sanguine about such a systemic change. When Franklin said “If you can keep it,” he was not kidding. Specifically, a system of government where unelected intelligence officials can veto a President’s selection based on information withheld from voters — explicitly advocated by liberal Democrats in their “faithless elector” strategy — is no longer a Republic. Be careful what you wish for.
 The Atlantic: “It’s possible [Trump] truly did not realize that the FBI Director is not the equivalent of the security chief at a large corporation.” Perhaps one beneficial result of the Trump administration will be that the noxious meme that “government should be run like a business” — exemplified by [genuflects] Al Gore’s reinventing government initiative under the first, and so far only, Clinton administration — will finally be laid to rest.
 Some reviews don’t think much of Beard’s media critique:
It’s a weakness of “SPQR” that Ms. Beard seems more eager to tell us what historians don’t know than what they do. She is so subtle, hedging every bet, that the ceiling fans sometimes cease to circulate the air.
You push past this book’s occasional unventilated corner, however, because Ms. Beard is competent and charming company.
The New York Times. Of course. Other reviewers consider Beard’s skepticism healthy (here, here, and here). (And I love “charming company,” as if Beard were a beshawled and white-haired Agatha Christie, say, with a more elevated style.)
 Rather than sucking it up and figuring out how to appeal to more voters than they did; the Democrat post mortem for 2016 still remains secret.
 The impeachment effort pushed (so far, only) by liberal Democrats is an agreed mechanism for removing a President, regardless of the case being made for it, and hence out of scope for this post. As Gerald Ford said: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office.” Political, yes. But “agreed” the mechanism is.