Opinion: Will America Produce a Caesar to follow Cataline?

By Raphaela Gold ‘21, Editor-in-Chief

In his 63 BCE speech against Roman politician Cataline, Cicero, the then consul of Rome, asked “Ubinam gentiam summus?”, which roughly translates to, “What world are we living in?” This was the first thought that crossed my mind when I heard about the riot in the Capitol, coincidentally during my last-period Latin class, in which we were studying Cicero’s speeches. The myriad comparisons between the conspiracy that predicted Rome’s downfall more than 2000 years ago and the events of January 6th are prevalent and certainly not reassuring. 

Lucius Sergius Catilina, a Roman scion born to aristocratic parents, viewed being the victor of the consular election as his birthright. When in 64 BCE Marcus Tullus Cicero won instead, Catiline refused to accept the results of the election and called upon his supporters for redress, plotting to seek revenge and kill Cicero. Despite the election results, Catiline’s supporters were numerous, mostly comprising oligarchical senators, the lower class, and foreign criminals. They trusted that Catiline was the answer to their problems and would be their savior. After Rome defeated Carthage, its own version of the Soviet Union, it remained endlessly at war. At that point in its history, Rome had created systemic crises outnumbering its reformers and structural solutions, creating a fertile climate for unscrupulous politicians like Catiline to take advantage of people’s legitimate grievances for their own advancement. Catiline used the courts to threaten people. To Catiline’s loyal street gang, the laws were meaningless and Cicero’s victory illegitimate. They wanted to test how far they could take their revenge. 

Donald Trump, an American business mogul born to wealthy parents, was convinced that winning the 2020 presidential election was his right. When Joe Biden won instead, Trump contested the election results and accused Biden of stealing the election from him, raising a slew of unsubstantiated legal claims. He called upon his supporters for strength, inciting their rage and violence. Despite the election results, Trump’s supporters are numerous, including many Republican politicians, members of the American working class, and even Russian criminals who tampered with the 2016 election. They trusted that Trump was the answer to their problems and formed a cult of personality around him. Since 9/11, America has remained endlessly at war. A global pandemic, economic crises, and the systemic issues ingrained in our government created a fertile climate for inexperienced politicians like Trump to use the people’s grievances to their advantage. Trump used the courts to threaten people, leading chants of “lock her up” (in reference to his opponent in the 2016 election, Hilary Clinton) throughout his presidency. To some of Trump’s followers, Biden’s victory was illegitimate. On January 6th, extremists tested how far they could take their revenge.

The comparisons are plentiful. But it is perhaps the differences between the Roman Senate’s handling of the Catiline conspiracy and our own government’s response to the January 6 insurrection that is most worrisome. Cicero easily outsmarted Catiline, taking numerous preventative measures before his mob could enact any harm. The uprising was a failure. In his speeches against Cataline, Cicero successfully proved Catiline’s guilt and turned the entire senate against him and his cause. Overall, the Roman senate house was well protected and its systems of justice and incarceration operated smoothly in the face of Catiline’s challenges. Not so with America. When rioters mobbed the Capitol building, the police were anything but prepared. Though there had been warnings of potential violence prior to the protests, these warnings were dismissed by federal officials. Trump supporters entered the Capitol and even made it to the Senate chamber, supposedly one of the most secure locations in the country, with relative ease. There they remained for hours. Not only did President Trump refuse to denounce the rioters, he incited and encouraged their actions; it was Vice President Pence who eventually called the National Guard. This delayed response, in stark contrast with the swift and violent police response to peaceful Black Lives Matter protests last year, points to systemic issues in our democracy even deeper than in Rome’s. Many of the insurrectionists were armed, but most left the Capitol entirely unharmed and continue to face no concrete consequences for their actions. 

The poorly planned and recklessly executed Catiline Conspiracy failed. Yet the equally poorly planned and recklessly executed “Trump Conspiracy” in many ways succeeded, which makes the comparison to Rome all the more terrifying. Catiline’s failure resulted in his removal from Roman society and decline in public approval, yet he exposed weakness in the very foundations of the Roman republic, establishing a platform on which the wiser and more prudent Julius Caesar could carefully dismantle the system and bring about the end of the Republic three years later. As we grapple with the gravity of Americans successfully wreaking havoc on the Capitol, it is difficult to avoid confronting the weaknesses that have been exposed in our foundations and ponder what sort of precedent we have set for the future. Despite the mob, order has been restored and Biden’s election was ratified.  But I am still left with the question: if Donald Trump is our contemporary Catiline, who is our Caesar and when will our Republic’s seemingly inevitable downfall come about? 

According to Roman historian Mike Duncan, author of The Storm before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, and British classicist Mary Beard, we must be cautious when drawing parallels between Ancient Rome and contemporary America. In a 2016 interview, Beard explained, “I don’t think Rome has got any direct lesson, I’m happy to say, for the United States. And we shouldn’t be too certain what kind of crisis we’re in, or even if we’re in a crisis.” Though Beard’s words are comforting, it’s undeniable that America has changed perhaps irrevocably since 2016. According to Duncan, “If the United States is anywhere on the Roman timeline, it must be somewhere between the great wars of conquest and the rise of the Caesars.” The Catiline Conspiracy happens to fall on exactly this segment of the timeline. However, Duncan warns, “I don’t think we should stop looking for something that’s at least similar enough that it can be a torch to light our way as we wander blindly into the future, but nothing is ever perfect… this is not a Battlestar Galactica situation where we’re just reliving the same period of time over and over again. That’s not actually how history works.” While the similarities between Trump and Catiline are striking and intriguing, it doesn’t automatically augur that Trump will inspire the next Caesar. The natural entropy of the world may lead to the decay of our Republic at some point, but there is no telling how soon that will be. 

The analogy isn’t always useful, but historians agree that we can learn from Rome’s history and employ that knowledge in future considerations for our modern day republics. Duncan advises, “If the system is adaptable enough and the leaders who happen to be in power at any given moment are able to see a longer term future that integrates people rather than rejects them, you can keep going.” It is my hope that the next administration will not produce a Caesar but prove to be one that successfully integrates people, addresses our country’s systemic issues, and enacts progressive solutions to our contemporary grievances which the previous administration took advantage of. The success of invading the Capitol has indeed exposed America’s fragility, but we can recognize this fragility and take the unique opportunity of these next four years to repair and strengthen our Republic, learning from Rome rather than reliving it.

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