America’s love of the ancient republics has had military consequences in the present
If you’re 40 or older and I ask you to think back to the worst moments of your life as a schoolchild, memory will probably take you straight to Latin class. Remember how it was taught by a wizened old beak in a faded gown, who favoured merciless drilling, responded to grammatical errors with a rap of the cane, and squeezed the fun out of even the most heroic Roman tales? Latin has largely disappeared from English schools and I dare say that 19 out of every 20 among you don’t miss it.
By contrast, it is thriving on the other side of the Atlantic. Eager young teachers offer Greek and Latin classes in a growing number of schools, public and private. The kids make cheery Latin videos, playing the parts of centurion, plebe, senator and slave. At weekend and summer camp meetings of the Junior Classical League they dress up in togas, re-enact Socrates’ colloquies in the agora, hold debates in Latin, run seminars on the Spartans’ battlefield tactics, cook tasty Roman treats, and relive the last days of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Americans have always been keen on the classics. George Washington modelled himself after one of the great Roman heroes, Cincinnatus, who was called from the plough when the republic was in danger, won a great victory over the Volscians, then returned to his farm. Washington was proudest of his own conduct in surrendering power, first when he gave up command of the Continental army at the end of the Revolutionary war and later, in 1796, when he gave up the presidency.
Washington also staged Addison’s Cato (1713) for his troops in their winter quarters at Valley Forge. Seeing themselves as liberty-loving republicans, fighting for their lives and freedoms against King George, they loved it. Cato follows the last hero of the Roman republic, incorruptible, facing certain defeat at the hands of the tyrant Julius Caesar. It also includes several lines made famous by other Americans, such as Patrick Henry’s ‘Give me liberty, or give me death’ and Nathan Hale’s ‘I regret that I have but one life to give for my country’.
As the United States became more explicitly democratic in the early 19th century, it developed a new enthusiasm for ancient Athens, which in turn prompted a Greek revival in architecture. Benjamin Latrobe, the ‘father of American architecture’, favoured Greek models. Hundreds of churches and synagogues built between the 1820s and the 1850s borrowed the pillars, pediments, friezes and other characteristics of Greek architecture. Stroll down the Washington Mall, between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by Greek and Roman temples.
Classical enthusiasms have not abated even in our own day. Think of Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy (2004), Gerard Butler as King Leonidas in 300 (2007), and Liam Neeson as Zeus in Clash of the Titans (2010), three Hollywood versions of the ancient world that spice up those tales with state-of-the-art special effects.
Who could argue with keeping alive the memory of the men and women whom we honour as the founders of Western civilisation? But do the classics provide us with useful guidance on contemporary dilemmas? Some of the most energetic advocates of an aggressive American foreign policy say yes. Donald Kagan, a professor of classics and ancient history at Yale University, argues that war is the normal human condition and that peace, a rare achievement, is the anomaly that has to be explained. Thucydides is one of Kagan’s heroes, and he echoes the ancient historian’s recognition that men fight for many reasons: from fear, from self-interest, and for honour. Finding ways to prevent war is therefore arduous and comes only from strength. Kagan’s great history of the Peloponnesian Wars (431– 404 bc) depicts a ruinously destructive era of bloodshed that dragged on because no single participant was able to dominate.
The lesson Kagan draws from this history, and from the events of the 20th century, is that the strongest nation (read: America) should play an active role in world leadership. After the Cold War, he and his son Frederick co-wrote While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today (2000). After the 9/11 attacks they were enthusiastic supporters of military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and remained enthusiastic despite the evanescence of the WMD and the difficulty of restoring political stability. Frequently, Kagan quoted Pericles on the need for steadfastness.
Equally gung-ho is Victor Davis Hanson, a classics professor at California State University, Fresno, and now a fellow of the Hoover Institution. In Carnage and Culture (2002) he argued that the rise of Western civilisation sprang from its military successes, which in turn came from the superior fighting ability of men who knew what they were fighting for. In the Greek city states the soldiers elected their own officers, debated the pros and cons of going to war, developed effective tactics, then put them into practice. The Greek phalanx and the Roman legion, as he depicts them, were made up of self-motivating individuals who understood the need for discipline. Hanson, like Kagan, insists on the importance of will power, ruthlessness once war has begun, the constant search for superior weapons and tactics, and the mobilisation of open economies to create them. All these qualities, he says, have their origins with the Greeks.
Kagan and Hanson are thought-provoking writers but they certainly have not carried the day among all their colleagues. On the contrary, both have fought intense intramural battles with other classicists, who deny their conclusions, deplore their emphasis on warfare, depict the ancient world as a dystopia of violence, misogyny, slavery and wretchedness, and insist that the battles of Cannae and Thermopylae do not imply the need to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s always tempting to believe that ‘the lessons of history’ can guide us. The reality is more complicated because every historical event yields multiple lessons, many of them contradictory. Still, history is all we have, and mining it for guidance is still much better than attempting to move forward with no guidance at all. No nation employs as many historians as the United States, listens to them so deferentially, or tries harder to make the analogies persuasive. Nowhere else are the classics pursued with such energy. Americans, even as they disagree over the lessons the ancient world has to teach us, still love to think that ideas alive in Athens and Rome millennia ago are still alive today in Washington, Missouri and Texas.