Myths of Decline that Destroy the Present: Rereading Roman History

The decline is real. The fall is real. But what's remarkable is that the idea of Roman decline is always there, even when Rome is expanding, even when its society is getting stronger.

Transcribed from the 25 August 2021 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

What we see is that nativism is there in Rome—it’s there for most of Roman history—but the people who are “Roman” change. This is really important for us to understand when we see nativist rhetoric that invokes things like the Roman empire.

Chuck Mertz: The Roman empire is often invoked to rationalize and justify many policies that may not otherwise be accepted. By simply connecting whatever your issue is with the Roman empire, whether that comparison is historically accurate or not, gives the idea an air of authenticity and even righteousness. So why does the Roman empire still have such sway over political rhetoric to this day?

Here to help us understand is historian Edward J. Watts, author of The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea. Edward’s writing often appears at the LA Review of Books; his most recent article there, posted last month, is entitled “Has America Lost its First Principles?

Welcome to This is Hell!, Edward.

Edward J. Watts: Thank you so much.

CM: Thanks for being on the show. You remind us that “On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump’s inaugural address laid out an apocalyptic scene of ‘American carnage,’ amid ‘poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, and a faltering education system.’ Then Trump pivoted, saying, ‘From this day forward a new vision will govern our land. Together we will make America strong again, wealthy again, proud again, safe again, and yes, together we will make America great again.’”

You add, “The American carnage speech, as it’s known, draws upon a deep tradition of manufacturing the perception of widespread decline in order to destabilize the present. The approach is not unique to the United States.”

Is this kind of destabilizing talk more than anything about undermining or ending recently won freedoms and expansions of democracy? Is the idea that the problem with the world is that it has become too free and too democratic?

EW: The most interesting thing about this is that the process of making a better society, making a more inclusive society, and making a more democratic society, is something that makes people uncomfortable. When people are uncomfortable about these sorts of things, the real challenge that we face is politicians who try to weaponize that discomfort. What the American carnage speech does is highlight not so much a reality of decline as a sense that things are moving too quickly for certain parts of the population.

What Trump intuitively sensed was that this was an opportunity for people like him to come in and do things that otherwise wouldn’t be acceptable. When you mobilize people’s discomfort and create a sense that their discomfort is grounded on actual changes, actual realities that make conditions worse, you have the opportunity to remake society in a way that otherwise would be impossible. The American carnage speech is a very good example of a reaction to a society that has been moving in a specific direction, and the discomfort that it causes.

CM: So why does the invocation of the Roman empire work so well at rationalizing the unwillingness to accept societal change?

EW: What Rome offers us is a society that’s incredibly dynamic. The history of the Roman empire is something that lasts for almost 2200 years. This is a state that starts basically in the Bronze Age and ends with gunpowder and cannonballs in 1453 AD. It’s around for a very, very long time, and no state can survive that long without changing.

The way that Rome changes, in many fashions and at many moments, comes about from both territorial expansion as well as an inclusiveness and an expansion of its citizen body. Each time Rome brings in new people, and brings in new influences, and brings in new languages or religions, there’s a reaction. Because people who were already there feel like their status as members of a polity that has been successful is now being challenged by people who really didn’t have enough to do with the success of that state.

What Roman politicians realized is that discomfort is a mobilizing tool if you can tap into it. Across those 2200 years there were frequently politicians in Rome who stepped forward and said, “These changes that are making you uncomfortable are bad, and the only way to address these things that make you feel uncomfortable are radical steps that really shake up the system.” When Rome was a republic, almost every year there was a politician of some sort coming forward and saying, “What you’re upset about is real, and only I can fix it, because only I am not invested in this system and I can overthrow the things that you’re uncomfortable with.”

Once Rome becomes an empire, the stakes become even more serious. In the republic, if you are a change candidate, what you’re doing primarily is replacing somebody through an election. But when you’re in the empire, you do not replace people through elections because there are no elections. Instead what you’re doing is probably killing a reigning emperor or executing people around that emperor.

The changes are always there, and the consequences of people pushing this kind of change became even more serious as Rome moved from a democracy to a more authoritarian state. But they never go away.

What we begin to see is that sometimes the decline is completely made up. It’s completely manufactured.

CM: Is nativism grounded in the Roman empire? Do nativists often employ the Roman empire to rationalize their beliefs?

EW: Absolutely. This was in Roman propaganda as well. But the interesting thing about the Roman story is the nativism that we see changes, in such a way that some of the people who are initially framed as the outsiders who are overthrowing the Roman way of doing things become the ultimate insiders. The first time that we have a record of someone’s actual words when they are using this nativist language in Rome occurs in the second century BC, when the Roman politician Cato the Elder asks for Romans to rise up and expel Greeks from the city of Rome. There had been a relatively significant immigration of Greeks into the city of Rome at the point; the interesting thing is when the empire actually ends in 1453 AD, almost 1700 years later, the people who are Romans and call themselves Romans and are described by everybody in that world as Romans are Greek speakers who live in Constantinople.

What we see is that nativism is there in Rome—it’s there for most of Roman history—but the people who are “Roman” change. This is really important for us to understand when we see nativist rhetoric that invokes things like the Roman empire. The people who are the “natives,” the people who are the center or the core, the people who possess what is seen as the legitimate identity—that is not a stable group of people. The people who are at one point outside of that core group can become part of that core group over time.

What Rome shows more clearly than maybe any society is the people who were initially attacked as outsiders become the people who carry on Roman tradition and carry on the Roman state after the state is no longer in Italy.

CM: You point out how in the Philippines, “president Rodrigo Duterte responded to the perception of widespread crime and drug use by tolerating or even encouraging more than twelve thousand extra-judicial killings. The murderous spree has only increased Duterte’s popularity. Prominent Duterte critic Walden Bello told the Atlantic, ‘I don’t know if Filipino lives are actually better than before, but perception is that they are. They are pro-Duterte because they feel he’s cleaned up the place.’”

You add, “Bello here points to something important: descriptions of decline often require very few supporting facts. They are emotional things, driven by stories rather than data.”

How sustainable are stories compared to facts? Do politics or perceptions based on stories inevitably become challenged by facts and eventually fail?

EW: If you asked most people in the West that question ten years ago we would say that facts win out. What we’re seeing is facts can win out, but we have to be very aware of the reality that facts need a story behind them. Just data points do not persuade people. Data points are not things that you become emotionally invested in.

What Bello points to is really important. Emotional investment is something that gives you a stake in an interpretation of reality, and simple facts do not eliminate that stake you have in the interpretation of the world around you. But facts that are combined with a story can do that. The challenge that we’re all facing now is these stories that have been coming up in the last five to ten years are really compelling for certain people in our population. Those stories explain something that they can’t otherwise explain.

Facts by themselves cannot overcome that. But getting people invested in a story that gives meaning to those basic facts can overcome that. That’s the challenge that everyone who’s a backer of local democracy really needs to face. We need to explain why liberal democracy matters; we need to explain what the story is that gives the embrace of truth a power that we need to respect.

That’s one of the things that a lot of us are struggling with: what is the story that we’re telling that can counteract these stories based on almost a mythologizing idea of the past and present? What is the way that we can factually ground a story that is compelling and people can get emotionally invested in? We’re struggling to do this.

CM: Do the stories of Rome’s decline and fall reflect more the time they were told than they do any evidentiary reality-based history? Are they more about the time within which they were told or the time they’re supposedly talking about?

EW: This is the great challenge. This is what I really confronted when writing the book. Rome does fall. Rome does decline. It goes from a society that at one point controlled all the territory from Scotland to Saudi Arabia, all of the Mediterranean basin—if it were a country now it would be the fourth-largest country in the world, and it contained a quarter of the world’s population—and it doesn’t exist anymore. Objectively this is a place that declined and fell.

As a historian you have to acknowledge that. The decline is real. The fall is real. But what’s remarkable is the idea of Roman decline is always there, even when Rome is expanding, even when its society is getting stronger, even when its economy is growing. There is a balance we have to strike between the stories that are told and the reality that a society can—and in Rome’s case does—collapse.

What we begin to see is that sometimes the decline is completely made up. It’s completely manufactured. In the second century BC when Cato the Elder is saying the Greeks are bringing Rome down—this is made up. There is no reality there at all. But there are also moments when there are real problems that need solutions. What Rome shows is there are two ways to approach real problems that need solutions. One of them is very destructive: that’s to say we have a real problem, and it’s this person’s fault, so this person needs to pay the penalty for causing that problem. That approach makes you feel good, but it doesn’t fix the problem.

For us, the fall of Rome becomes a tool to highlight not how we can recover from a problem, but how the problem can kill us, how the problem can eliminate our society.

There’s another approach that we’ve already hinted at: Romans can acknowledge there’s a problem and then someone can bring the society together to try to address that problem. That’s the lesson that we can take away from the vast extent of Roman history: when people come together to address a problem, we have a new story. We have a story of a society that’s functional. We have a society that’s able to collectively acknowledge what issues it confronts, and come up with ways that bring everybody on board to try to solve those problems.

This is the way you create that new narrative; this is the way we can acknowledge reality, acknowledge facts, but also get people invested in a process of fixing the issues that really do confront society. Not the made-up issues that somebody has created to try to gain political authority, but the real issues that are affecting people’s livelihoods, people’s freedoms, and people’s property. When a society can come together to do that, you create a story that says, “We, as a society, work. Our world works, our polity works, and we as citizens can come together to solve the real problems we face.” That’s a better story than a story that says there’s something wrong and it’s these people’s fault. Because it’s true.

CM: Why is Roman history so malleable and able to be shaped to whichever time and circumstances it is being told in? Is it simply because of the vastness of Roman history that we can pick and choose what we’d like to use and exploit for our own argument?

EW: The vastness is an important part of that. Romans were able to draw upon that vast history repeatedly. When the Roman empire is about to collapse in the fourteenth century AD, there’s a very small recovery that they enjoy. The people who were writing the materials that celebrate this recovery start comparing the Roman emperor (who in effect conquered a couple parts of what is now modern Greece) to Scipio Africanus and to some of the great leaders of the Roman republic who conquered vast swathes of territory around the Mediterranean. They can do this because that’s their history. There is a continuum that links that emperor to people from sixteen hundred years before.

When the Romans do this, it gives us liberty to do this as well. If you can live in the fourteenth century AD and say “I am directly connected to this person who lived in the third century BC,” why is it that we, six or seven hundred years later, can’t say the same thing and say we’re connected to this Roman history as well? So the Romans themselves give us liberty to pick and choose elements from this really long history of this really enduring society, and pick what we want from it, to make a point that we want to make.

But there’s a different thing that we can do, that Romans didn’t do. Romans, when they introduced these stories from their past, they saw their history as a kind of cyclical thing. Rome endures some kind of crisis and then recovers from it. When you have 2200 years of history, you can always find a crisis that kind of looks like what you’re looking at right now and chart a recovery that is similar in some way to what you want your society to do.

What we have instead is a story that comes out of Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century that focuses on the fact that Rome is no more. So for us this isn’t about recovering from crisis, instead it’s a crisis that leads to the end of something—something great, something that achieved tremendous things but eventually no longer existed. For us, the fall of Rome becomes a tool to highlight not how we can recover from a problem, but how the problem can kill us, how the problem can eliminate our society. That’s even more dangerous than what the Romans were doing, because we’re not promising recovery at all. We’re instead highlighting a really serious societal consequence that comes about if we don’t address whatever problems someone has identified.

CM: Have those who use the rhetoric of the decline and fall of the Roman empire known that their rhetoric contributed to divisiveness and decline and done it anyway? Is the point to incite divisions and decline? Does that contribute to the end of the current political project that they’re trying to warn people is declining?

EW: Absolutely it does. In some ways that’s the point. What this rhetoric does is undermine contemporary conditions. It says in essence that the world around you is worse than what came before it, and because it’s worse, and you feel uncomfortable, you need to do something about it. That means that the way things have functioned in the past and the status quo is something we cannot endure, because it will be fatal to our political project.

There is a very real understanding from people using this rhetoric that it is designed to undermine basic social conventions; it’s designed to undermine the understanding that we have about how rights and laws and citizenship should function. It’s designed to be radical. It’s taking a set of problems that exist in a political system and saying in essence that the political system is too broken to fix them. The examples that they draw from Rome are examples when the political system struggled to address real problems, and Rome becomes then the metaphor for the consequences of the failures of our system to address the real issues that people are concerned about.

In the United States, this is a rhetoric that we have seen over and over again in the last fifty years. It’s been used by the right, it’s been used by the left. But it’s used frequently to try to challenge basic conventions about how society works so that something radical that otherwise wouldn’t be possible can be brought forward as a potential solution.

The rhetoric of decline frequently allows us to create these projects where we claim we’re rebuilding something that’s connected to the past but really what we’re doing is destroying the present.

CM: About using this rhetoric of the decline and fall and blaming others, you write, “That was not the general response in the 160s and 170s of the Common Era. Marcus Aurelius reacted to the deaths of so many soldiers from plague by recruiting slaves and gladiators to the legions. He filled the abandoned farmsteads and depopulated cities by inviting migrants from outside the empire to settle within its boundaries. Cities that lost large numbers of aristocrats replaced them by various means, even filling vacancies in their councils with the sons of freed slaves.”

So did Rome succeed when it confronted challenges through inclusion and collaborative working, and fail and fall when it reacted to societal changes with divisiveness? And, is that the story for our times while we are suffering with COVID?

EW: I think Marcus gives us a very important way to think about how we recover from the real damage that COVID has done in our world. The plague in the 160s was smallpox, so it’s much more serious than COVID. It was smallpox hitting a population that had never seen smallpox before. The death tolls were really dramatic. We estimate between ten and twenty percent of the Roman population died from this. It was a really significant problem.

What’s interesting is when later historians write about the reign of Marcus Aurelius—a reign when there is not only this massive death from plague but there are all sorts of other problems too: along the frontiers, the military is struggling to maintain Roman control of its territory; there is political upheaval in the 170s. And yet our historians write about the age of Marcus as a golden age. It’s not because it was a wonderful time to be alive. The historians who were writing this lived through it. They know how bad it was. But what the historians are saying is that Marcus understood that in a moment like that, he could blame other people but he chose not to.

Marcus himself writes how he addresses this problem. Marcus went and identified all the people who had potential contributions they could make, he asked them to do only what they were capable of doing, and then he celebrated the things that they achieved. He didn’t focus on their failures; he didn’t ask them to do things that were impossible or things that they were not capable of doing. Instead he identified their capacities and he brought society together in such a way that everybody contributed to Rome’s recovery from this plague to the best degree that they were capable of contributing. They weren’t asked to do things they were incapable of doing, but they were celebrated for doing the things well that they were able to do well.

The golden age of Marcus is not an age of material prosperity. The economy shrinks. It’s not an age of good feeling. People are terrified of dying of plague. It’s not an age of military achievement; the empire was struggling to maintain its frontiers. Instead it’s an age of Rome coming together and feeling like everybody across this vast empire is doing something to address these problems.

What Marcus shows us is the power of creating this story that we’re going to address the issues around us to the degree that we are capable, collectively, and we are going to celebrate everybody’s contribution, and celebrate their successes rather than their failures. This is how you create a society that’s inclusive. When you’re bringing people in from outside of the Roman frontiers and settling them in Rome, and giving them a stake in helping Rome recover, you’re binding them to society in a very tangible way. You can see the results of their efforts.

What Marcus understood was that inclusion needs to actually be inclusive. There has to be a project that everyone is working on; that helps facilitate a process of inclusion, a process of bringing people in and making them invested in the success of the society that they are joining—and also it makes the Romans who were already there understand the importance of that inclusiveness.

CM: You write, “The Roman legacy particularly energized nineteenth and early twentieth century Italian politicians. Giuseppe Mazzini, one of the leaders of the revolution that briefly forced Pope Pius IX out of Rome in 1848, believed that a Roman state ‘alone could rise, die, and rise again with a new mission.’ Rome, he wrote, was the ‘verb of history’ that had twice unified the world—first in the Rome of the Caesars, and again as the Rome of the Popes. Even though Mazzini countenanced violent revolution, he could not have imagined the level of violence that the idea of a revivified Rome would later inspire from Benito Mussolini and other Italian fascists.”

Why does an invocation of the Roman empire so often lead to fascism or fascistic tendencies? What is it about the Roman empire and its decline and fall that fuels fascism instead of—as Mazzini hoped—liberalism?

EW: The path from Mazzini to Mussolini is really fascinating, because Mazzini really did believe that what Rome created was an integrative society, a way forward that unifies people. Mussolini, of course, did not see things in the same way as Mazzini. Mussolini was able to capitalize on a different idea of what Rome was. His idea of Rome is of a violent, conquering society. Mazzini’s idea of Rome was as an enlightened and integrative society. Rome was both of these things. The challenge is that both of these things can be invoked to talk about Rome.

For our founding fathers, Rome was the model for a representative democracy that could include the voices of everybody across this very big and diverse landmass that would eventually become the United States. They understood that a Roman-modeled republic was something that could expand along with the country and integrate people along with the territorial expansion of the country. But other people looked at Rome as an expansionary imperial power—and that also works for American history, and it works for what Mussolini was trying to do.

Before Gibbon, Rome was primarily interacted with as a successful representative democracy and an inspiration for how you can incorporate people and give political rights and stakes in decisionmaking to a group of people who are citizens but not dictators.

Both of those versions of Rome relate to aspects of the Roman past, but both of them also misrepresent the complexity of that society. That leads us both to the inclusive idealistic view of Mazzini and the imperialist idealistic view of Mussolini. Both of those are really radical, selective interpretations of what Rome was, and you can use elements from the Roman past to point to both of those ways of thinking. But to say that Rome was the same thing as fascist Italy misrepresents what Rome was. It becomes in a way a tool for Mussolini to justify doing things that otherwise no one in Italy would have accepted.

Some of the violence that Mussolini did is very well known. The invasion of Ethiopia is a horrible example of imperialism taken to the worst extensions that it can go. But some of the things that Mussolini did in the city of Rome were also incredibly destructive. He destroyed entire neighborhoods to excavate what is now the areas around the imperial Forum and the areas around the theater of Marcellus. He displaced thousands of people and destroyed houses that had been there for centuries, simply in the idea that exposing this area made ancient Rome more connected to the modern city, and enabled his regime to make this claim of Roman renewal.

We need to see that Rome is both more complicated than we imagine, and also because of that, a tool that can be used in this simplistic way to justify things that otherwise people would not tolerate at all.

CM: To what degree was this remaking of Rome under Mussolini—where he destroyed neighborhoods to reveal ancient archaeological sites—not only an unveiling of the past but an erasing of the present? Because that seems to go along with the idea of the decline and fall of the Roman empire not necessarily having to have any evidence of actual decline taking place.

To what degree is this an erasing of the present as well as a revealing of the past?

EW: That’s exactly what Mussolini believed he was doing. If you read some of the materials written by the fascist architects who created this space—if you go to the Forum now, you see all of this empty space; there’s a giant road that goes from the Coliseum down to the middle of the remains of the Forum. That road was created by Mussolini as a giant triumphal procession area, and when the conquest of Ethiopia was completed, the fascist troops walked down it in a celebration like a new Roman Triumph. The fascist architects who did this said, in essence, “What we are trying to do is expose the past so that people can walk through it and be reminded of what it was, but then also be reminded of what the fascist present and future is going to be like.”

For Mussolini, revealing the past was in a way charting an interpretation of the present and a path for the future. But it’s completely fictionalized. In some cases what Mussolini did was terribly ill-conceived. The mausoleum of Augustus was a concert hall in the city of Rome, and Mussolini stripped the entire place out to get back to what he saw as the ancient core of that building. All that was left was some brick work, and it just sat there empty because this space went from something that was completely useful to something that is completely useless.

In some ways that’s a great metaphor for what Mussolini was doing. He was creating a space that was supposed to bring back the glory of Rome, but in many ways it emptied out a lot of the vibrancy and cultural dynamics of modern Italy. The idea of embracing and revivifying the past is something that also simultaneously destroyed a lot of the twentieth century Italian present. Mussolini was comfortable with that. We can look back and say this was not a project of rebuilding so much as it was a project of using the past to destroy. And the rhetoric of decline frequently allows us to create these projects where we claim we’re rebuilding something that’s connected to the past but really what we’re doing is destroying the present.

CM: You write, “At the beginning of the fifteenth century, a different way of thinking about Roman decline began to emerge. Starting with the work of Renaissance Florentines like Leonardo Bruni, the completed story of the empire emerged as a tool that enabled contemporaries to understand the particular moment in which they were living. Bruni did not just point to the moment when the empire ended; he also identified the onset of its decline. Bruni explained, ‘The decline of the Roman empire ought to be placed at the time when, giving up its liberty, Rome began to serve the emperors, and when liberty departed, so did virtue.’”

Was this a view that looked up to Roman culture but also recognized the failures of empire, both embracing the artistic contributions while understanding that imperialism is flawed? And how slippery of a slope is it to have appreciation for cultural contributions during the Roman empire to become an admiration of imperialism?

For Reagan, Rome represents a kind of fortunetelling. He’s putting his finger on all the things that conservatives in the 1960s were upset about, and saying they are undermining the things that make us strong, and in fifty years we’re going to see the results of this, so let’s stop it now.

EW: This is a great point. When Americans and people in the twenty-first century think of Rome and think of the fall of Rome, we think of Edward Gibbon’s model. The high point for Gibbon is the empire. But for people before Gibbon, everyone from Bruni to Montesquieu, the high point is the republic: the high point of Rome was representative democracy, and imperialism, by eliminating the dynamics of representative democracy, was what ultimately led to the decline of Rome, for them.

Gibbon gives us a story that focuses on imperialism, it focuses on the empire. It says that Rome actually was better under the authoritarian rule of the first emperors than it was under the dynamic rule of the republic. But what Bruni and Machiavelli and Montesquieu and a whole host of other people from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries point to is the idea of political freedom as the thing that made Rome great. For them, the legacy of Rome that is most important is the legacy of a free democratic republic, of representative democracy.

For them, the contribution that Rome makes is cultural, but it’s also quite tangible. It provides a way to think about a free society, a society that is not dominated by a king or an emperor or an authoritarian leader but instead a society that is governed by its people. For them, the story of Rome is a story of the power of representative democracy. Bruni is talking about this in Florence when the Florentine republic is struggling in many ways to beat back challenges to its representative democracy. Montesquieu is writing this a couple generations before the French revolution, when it’s very clear to him that the political structures that he’s living under are not working in the way that the French people need them to work.

They are idealizing a view of representative democracy that Rome embodies. They are fully aware of, and extremely uncomfortable with, a society that becomes authoritarian. For them, Rome is a cautionary tale of what happens to a dynamic society when it becomes authoritarian and it loses that dynamism. In that way, we have another interesting way to interact with Rome. We have been, for the last 250 years, interacting with this society as a successful empire. But before Gibbon, before this work in the eighteenth century, Rome was primarily interacted with as a successful representative democracy and an inspiration for how you can incorporate people and give political rights and stakes in decisionmaking to a group of people who are citizens but not dictators.

CM: You write about Reagan’s Eisenhower College speech, where he makes allusions to Rome, specifically pointing out Rome as a reason to push forward his policies. Of all that historical evidence he gave, you write that none of it was true. How can a speech that makes a historical comparison that is inaccurate be a “piece of genius,” as you call it? Why does historical evidence not matter, to the point that Reagan can simply dismiss it out of hand?

EW: That speech is incredible. Reagan never read Gibbon. He read someone who read Gibbon. That’s where he gets the ideas for this speech. In 1970, Reagan is saying that in Gibbon’s narration, Rome did really well for about two hundred years and then issues start arising: people not learning things but learning to be critical, people challenging the way that Romans wore their hair and dressed, and starting to use cosmetics, and not wanting to fight anymore. This is not based in Roman history at all. It’s based in somebody interpreting Gibbon that Reagan read.

But he says that at this moment in Roman history, about two hundred years into the history of Rome, these things were all there but the empire was still strong. What Rome shows, in Reagan’s interpretation, is that all these features of the American present that you see around you, that make you uncomfortable—they aren’t making our society collapse right now, but they will make our society collapse. Rome had all these things, and it was about two hundred years old too, and it was still strong. And it ignored these things because it was strong, but all of these things about bad public education and people dressing in strange ways and people not wanting to fight in wars undermined Rome so that, over time, those conditions eliminated the power of the Roman state to do the things that it was doing well.

What Reagan is saying is: you see all these things; you don’t like them; our society is still strong; and we can keep it strong if we address these problems right now. And if we don’t address these things that make you uncomfortable right now, fifty years down the line things will be catastrophic, and Rome shows us this. For Reagan, Rome represents a kind of fortunetelling. He’s putting his finger on all the things that conservatives in the 1960s were upset about, and saying they are undermining, very subtly, the things that make us strong, and in fifty years we’re going to see the results of this, so let’s stop it now. Rome is the way that he justifies that preemptive attack on things that make him uncomfortable.

CM: Edward, thank you so much for being on our show today.

EW: Thank you, this was a lot of fun.

Featured image: when Celts revolted against colonial domination. “Sack of the Temple of Claudius, Colchester” by Peter Froste.

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