Reading Mary Beard on Rome and Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading SPQR: a history of Rome by Mary Beard (2015) and simultaneously dipping into the classic The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (1951). Hannah Arendt in much slower going and about halfway into SPQR I became so engrossed I just binge read to the end.

Mary Beard covers what she calls the first thousand years of Roman history from around 753 BCE, the traditional date of the founding of Rome by the mythical Romulus and Remus, through to 232 CE when the Emperor Caracalla made every single free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a full Roman citizen. Unlike many histories which focus on the so-called decline and fall of the Roman Empire during the following period through to around 476 CE, when the Gothic Odoacer deposed the last Emperor and declared himself King of Italy, Beard attempts to examine the question of how one tiny and unremarkable Italian village became so dominant a power over so much territory in three continents.

How and why did Rome grow and sustain its position for so long, and why did its political and military organization transform so profoundly from the early “King” period to the Republican period (the Senate, the people, and the elected consuls) and then to the one-person dictatorship of the Emperor period?

My mother was a scholar of Latin and Ancient Greek, and for many years taught Latin in high schools. I grew up with the myths and legends and the historical tales of ancient Rome. But I never developed a detailed knowledge of Roman history before the period in which Julius Caesar rose to power, and most of my reading of Roman history focused on the early Emperor period, and particularly to lives of some of the most interesting Emperors (Julius Caesar, Claudius, Augustus, Constantine, Justinian etc), on the decline of the Western Roman Empire and the history of the Eastern Roman Empire through to its fall to the Ottomans in 1453. Many histories of Rome essentially start with the Civil War period of the first century BCE when Julius Caesar, Pompey, Marc Antony and others vied for power and control of th Empire. I just came across a book on my bookshelf this morning which graphically illustrates this. The Roman Empire: Rise and Fall by Stephen Kershaw (2013) devotes less than one page to the period from 753 BCE to 63 BCE, the birth year of Octavius who became the first Roman Emperor.  The rest of the book, from page 2 to 422 is entirely devoted to the period from the civil wars of of the 50s BCE through to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. Much of my interest has also been in the immediate post-Roman period in Britain (the Arthurian period) and Europe (the Merovingians and others), the so-called Dark Ages.

So I found Mary Beard’s SPQR fascinating and illuminating. Apart from the growth of Rome to an Empire, she also closely examines the factors involved in the transition from rule by Kings in the earliest 250 year period from 753 BC to 509 BCE when the last Roman King was overthrown and the Roman Republic established. And later the factors involved around 450 to 500 years later in the overthrow of the Republic and the establishment of one-man rule by Emperors. Some reviewers have criticized her for not doing the usual blow-by-blow descriptions of historical events and personality, and accused her of making too much of very limited source material on the earlier Roman centuries. Others like me have loved her focus on the larger drivers of the transformations of Roman and its governing structures as it grew from one tribal village among many to an empire spanning three continents. I also very much enjoyed her critical reading of the Roman historians, who were also looking back hundreds of years and often projecting current Roman structure and beliefs onto earlier times, as well as her use of the available and in many cases recently discovered archeological evidence to test the claims of the Roman historians. I found her analyses very relevant to the challenges facing us today.

While Rome was never a democracy in the modern sense, the decline of the Republic and the concentration of power in fewer hands and ultimately in autocratic one-man rule had quite a few features in common with current trends in the developed countries. Particularly the rise of authoritarian populists associated with increased inequality and concentration of wealth, the undermining of accountability and the classic fascist characteristics of wanting to return to a mythical golden age (MAGA) via persecution of those races and groups deemed “other” and seen as a threat to the real citizens. While the Soviet bloc countries of the 20th century started with an ideology of class struggle, most of them rapidly became totalitarian states. We are now watching the rise of neofascism in the USA and Europe, and the undermining of democratic institutions in the name of excluding those not considered of the right race, religion or sex from full citizenship or rights.

At the same time, reading Hannah Arendt on the rise of totalitarian fascist and Communist regimes in the first half of the 20th century, I kept coming across sentences and paragraphs that could have been describing the current world situation.  Arendt’s book has three major sections focusing on (1) anti-semitism, (2) imperialism and (3) totalitarianism.  Her writing is much denser and more academic, not a light read. And for me, much of what she has to say about all three of these topics is not novel, as it has been built on and expanded ever since in later works that I have read.  But she was the first to identify the factors involved in these issues and deserves the reputation she now has.

Something that was new to me was her identification of two main types of ideology in the 20th century:  one that explains and understands history in terms of class struggle and the other than views all conflict as arising from racial differences. She saw imperialism as largely race-based and argues with evidence that racial ideologies arose in the eighteenth century when the so-called white races of Europe started the colonization of Africa.  And also makes a point that was so obvious once pointed out, that the introduction of slavery in the Americas was the first time that slavery was race-based. While the Roman Empire was as brutal as any of the Imperialist era, they were equal-opportunity slavers. The relevance of this to what is happening in both Russia and the USA today is obvious.

While Arendt’s main examples are the Bolshevik regime of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and she rightly see these not as extremes on the left-right spectrum but two sides of the same coin, it has much to say that is highly relevant to thinking about current regimes across the world. It also provokes some disturbing recognitions about fascist nature of the populist/nationalist movements growing in many democratic countries, and in several cases gaining control of government and undermining democratic systems and rights.

Back to Rome. Beard mixes a critical and revisionist approach to Roman history with a big picture analysis that is compelling, in a way that I haven’t really come across in previous reading on Rome. Very readable, fascinating, and highly recommended. Both books together, as well as binge watching “The Boys” Seasons 1 and 2 on Amazon Prime have left me acutely concerned about the direction the world appears to be heading, and pessimistic about the likelihood that humans are actually capable of working together to address the existential crises facing us today, rather than destroying the fragile gains in human rights and freedoms that have been made in parts of the world.

Is freedom increasing or decreasing?

Last week, Freedom House released its 2020 annual report on global freedom. The report documents trends in every region of the world of declining political and civil freedom: “In every region of the world, democracy is under attack by populist leaders and groups that reject pluralism and demand unchecked power to advance the particular interests of their supporters, usually at the expense of minorities and other perceived foes.”

The report compiles a freedom index for countries based on an average of two indices for political rights and civil liberties, composed of numerical ratings and descriptive texts for each country. The 2020 index adds to a time series for countries that extends back to 1972.  I’m interested to see to what extent the time series upholds the view of Stephen Pinker that there has been sustained long-term improvement in both political rights and human rights globally and this will continue (Enlightenment Now, Chapters 13 and 14).

The graph below shows time trends for the number of countries falling into three broad categories of the freedom index, labelled as Free (green shades), Partly free (orange shades) and Not free (purple shades). The graph includes 185 countries. 11 very small countries with populations less than 90,000 in 2015 are not included.

Trends in numbers of countries by broad freedom category

Continue reading