Yesterday was the farewell lecture of Fik Meijer as professor in the history of the ancient world at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
The lecture was at the big lecture hall of the university, formerly the Lutheran church of Amsterdam.
The big hall was crowded, showing the public interest in this lecture.
Fik Meijer is the best known author about ancient history in the Netherlands. Over 85,000 copies of his books have been sold. Which is many, considering that on a world scale, not that many people read Dutch. And history of very long ago is often said to be not as ‘sexy’ in attracting attention as, eg, Paris Hilton. Some of Meijer’s books have been translated into other languages, like English and Turkish.
Fik Meijer started the lecture, which included slides, saying that he had been asking himself for a long time which would be the theme of this his last lecture at the university. Finally, he had decided that the title would be De nieuwe Romeinen; The new Romans. It was about politicians, long after the fall of the Roman empire in 476 AD. Yet, politicians modeling themselves on Roman emperors; or compared by others to those emperors, and their good and bad sides.
The clearest example, Meijer said, of a twentieth century politician modeling himself on an emperor of two thousand years earlier, was the fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini.
To Mussolini, an emperor like Augustus, the first ‘Princeps’ of the Roman empire, was not just an inspiration, but an identification.
Like Augustus, Mussolini claimed to bring order after chaos, and to restore moral values. Like Augustus, Mussolini ordered a lot of building activity in the city of Rome as propaganda for the new ruler. Augustus’ saying: “I found Rome as a city of bricks; and I left it as a city of marble”, was the inspiration here [photos of Augustus' palace are here. Rome's Temple of Apollo, built by Augustus: here]. Mussolini had a big road built, Via del Impero, Empire Road. After the defeat of Mussolini’s ‘new Roman empire’ in 1945, the name of the road changed to Via dei Fori Imperiali, Emperors’ forums’ road. Mussolini glorified war, which was also a tendency in ancient Roman state ideology. Mussolini’s favourite statue was the Prima Porta statue, showing Augustus as victorious military commander.
However, the second world war brought Mussolini (like his ally Hitler) defeat, not victory. That defeat made it a lot more difficult for politicians to openly model themselves on ancient Roman emperors. Here, I might add something: that Hitler’s Third Reich also modeled itself partly on the Roman empire, for lack of a Germanic empire in antiquity. Examples of this are “neo classicist” nazi architecture; and the standards with eagles of Hitler’s SA and SS paramilitary forces, modeled on Roman legion standards.
So, post 1945 politicians were usually less open about modeling themselves on Romans. Here, in his lecture (not in the printed version in his book De oudheid is nog niet voorbij), Meijer gave as an example Silvio Berlusconi. He compared Berlusconi to Julius Caesar. Caesar, though he was not yet an emperor, is widely seen as the dictatorial gravedigger of the Roman republic which preceded the empire. Both, he said, were vain. Both had balding heads. Caesar tried to hide that with his way of combing his hair. While Berlusconi had an operation, though he officially denied that. Also, before becoming the most powerful politicians, both tried to become popular by organizing games. Gladiator games in Caesar’s case. And the soccer club AC Milan (and games on Berlusconi’s TV stations, one might add) in Berlusconi’s case.
After this Berlusconi comparison, Meijer continued his lecture with the United States and its foreign and military policy, especially under George W. Bush.
Meijer quoted Cullen Murphy’s Are we Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. In that book, Murphy described the arrival of George W. Bush at Shannon airport in Ireland. It reminded Murphy of ‘a Roman emperor traveling around his empire. Special officials had prepared his journey. While traveling, he was permanently guarded by his special bodyguards and legion soldiers’.
Meijer contrasted this with the Founding Fathers of the USA in the eighteenth century. The leaders of the American revolution then abhorred the Roman empire; and much prefered the Roman republic preceding it. One of their Roman Republican heroes was Cincinnatus. According to tradition, Cincinnatus was a farmer. When things went badly in a war with Italian enemies, Cincinnatus was made dictator of Rome. Soon, he managed to beat the enemies. Then, he immediately went back to his farm, much preferring it to being a soldier, a commander, let alone a dictator (by the way, right into the nineteenth century, the word “dictatorship” was primarily supposed to denote a temporary situation during an emergency; also the sense in which Karl Marx used the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat”). United States Founding Father George Washington was compared to Cincinnatus; and also depicted as him, giving back the sword of war.
As Meijer said, the US Founding Fathers knew that the Roman republic, which they glorified, had also its weak sides. They had not missed the point that in the third and second centuries BCE, the countries around the Mediterranean had mostly fallen in Roman hands; and that the vanquished nations had been massacred by Roman armies, or had been oppressed by governors, and had been exploited by high taxes. Whatever the cost, the founders of the USA wanted to prevent their country from becoming imperialist. However, they did not think that the chances of that happening were big, as the USA as a former British Empire colony had felt itself what oppression was, and they would not soon make others suffer from that oppression.
“However, times have changed in America”, Meijer added. “Presidents of this powerful country do not seem to care anymore for the ideals, once admired so strongly, which made the Roman republic great. They prefer to model themselves on the way in which the Roman emperors related to the people and the armed forces”.
Meijer added that there are differences, like the United States constitutional tradition and the United Nations, which exist now, but not in Roman times. Still, the basic ideas of both forms of expansion of power are not essentially different. Not by accident, in the west wing of the White House, there is a plaque with the words of President Theodore Roosevelt [not to be confused with later President Franklin Delano Roosevelt]: “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords”.
Meijer added that both with the Roman emperors and in the USA of George W. Bush, religion played an important role in justifying government policy. “In the fight between “good and evil”, as George W. Bush and his neo-conservative supporters call the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, God is not neutral, but is on their side.”
The Romans, according to Meijer, “always kept up the appearances that their wars were just wars; though, in their hearts, they must have known that the truth was often different … US presidents have often acted with the same tactics. … The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are in a long tradition of armed US American interventions, dating from the early twentieth century; both close to home in Haiti, Mexico, Cuba, and Grenada and far away in Vietnam”.
“Defeated opponents often had to hear from the Romans that they should be happy that they were subjected … Without the [Roman] presence, there would only be chaos, disorder and civil war. The subjected often had different views about this and started resistance … Those in power in the USA have a similar line of thought”. Meijer continued to quote a speech by George W. Bush on 21 May 2003 to soldiers of the Coast Guard Academy:
we are the nation that closed the torture chambers of Iraq. (Applause.)
What a remark, knowing that today, more torture chambers have been added in Iraq, as Saddam Hussein’s were not big enough.
In a part of his lecture which is not in the version which had been printed earlier, Meijer noted that US rulers should have studied what had happened to Roman leaders who had waged military aggression in what was then called Mesopotamia, today Iraq. Crassus, the richest man in the late Roman republic, aiming at a position of dictatorship by himself, wanted military glory. So, he attacked the Parthians in Mesopotamia. However, the Parthians’ guerilla tactics gave Crassus’ legions much trouble. The Romans were defeated, and Crassus was beheaded in 53 BCE.
Centuries later, Emperor Valerian again tried a military invasion of Mesopotamia, then ruled by the Sassanid Persian empire. Valerian was defeated and taken prisoner of war. According to tradition, the Persian victors humiliated Valerian by using him as a human footstool for their king Shapur.
Meijer continued his lecture with a quote from a United States diplomat [John Brady Kiesling]. When he resigned in protest against Bush’s policies, that diplomat wrote in his resignation letter to Colin Powell, then Secretary of State:
Has oderint dum metuant really become our motto?
Oderint dum metuant; Let them hate us, as long as they fear us, is a saying of the insane Roman emperor Caligula (37-41 AD). The letter did not literally call Bush a second Caligula. However, Meijer noted in his lecture (not in the printed version) that cartoonists and others went further in their conclusions than Kiesling in his letter.
This video is called Bush Caligula. It says about itself:
A short slideshow with audio (the title should be a hint of what that is) about Bush and the Iraq war (let’s be honest it was an invasion with many layers of revisionist history being used to distract the public…remember those WMD’s?) and the carnage unleashed because of his actions. Has a few graphic pictures.
“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and therefore I am…..a God.”
Bush and his mission from god complex are, to say the least, highly disturbing.
Here is this beauty:
“According to Abbas, immediately thereafter Bush said: “God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them.”
Now that Bush is apparently going to “surge” the troops in Iraq even though the public doesn’t want it, it appears he really does think he is emperor.
Fik Meijer continued to note that George W. Bush had inherited a big treasury surplus from his predecessor. However, his wars like in Iraq and Afghanistan have converted that into a very big deficit.
Like Emperor Augustus’ aggressive wars had also caused a big deficit in Roman government finances. Maybe Bush’s future successor should look at the example of Augustus’ successor, Tiberius. Tiberius withdrew the armies from across the river Rhine and stopped with aggressive military policies. This way, he converted Augustus’ deficit into a surplus. This policy change, Meijer said, showed real courage in Tiberius.
However, later emperors started again with aggressive policies. That finally led to the fall of the empire, also through economic problems. In the United States today, “corruption is still much bigger than ever in the Roman empire. The financial debts are incomparably high, if one compares them to the financial deficits which vexed the Romans. … The growing inequality in the USA between the big ”working class”, whose income has hardly risen at all, and a small, extremely rich group at the top, paying few taxes, is very worrying.”
Meijer continued to note that fewer and fewer young US Americans want to serve in the armed forces. In 1956, 450 out of over 700 recent graduates of Princeton University joined the armed forces; in 2004, that was just eight out of 1100. Because of this, more and more, the US forces are becoming dependent on foreign nationals; like the Roman empire in its later stages.
Meijer concluded that the United States would not necessarily go the way of the Roman empire. “If future government leaders will be conscious of the fact that they are not Romans, but Americans, and will look open mindedly at their own society and at the world outside, then it will be certain that their country will not have the same fate as Rome. However, if they will forget the lesson of Rome and will over-estimate themselves, then strange things might happen.”
After the farewell lecture, and after speeches by an ancient history colleague, Meijer’s publisher, and Meijer’s daughter Karlijn, there was a reception at the Allard Pierson museum.