Cricket and Roman Rhetoric
Written by: Ayelet Haimson Lushkov
Studying Authority in Rome...and Today's Sports
Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, the author of Magistracy and the Historiography of the Roman Republic, offers an inventive look at the concept of leadership in the Roman Republic: through parallels with the 2014 English cricket team.
Proper disclosure: this post is about cricket, but my book is not. My book is about the literature of the ancient Romans, and more specifically about what that literature has to say about the magistrates of the Roman republic, the people who held elected public office, led the armies, and generally ran the show. None of this makes me competent to distinguish a hook shot from a cover drive, but it did make me sit up and take notice when the England captaincy became the center of the summer’s cricketing narrative. While most political and sports commentators dwell on economic indicators, win-loss ratios, and – that most unmeasurable of qualities – leadership, I prefer to focus on the language and rhetoric that the Romans – and we – use to talk about authority figures. Because – and this is what I argue for in my book – that language tells us a lot more about what’s really going on in these debates about who’s the right person for the job and what exactly the job is in the first place.
Cricket provides a wonderfully concise example. This summer’s narrative went more or less like this: England played well when its captain, Alastair Cook, played well. Or, more precisely, its reverse: Cook’s poor form caused England’s poor form, and removing the former would improve the latter. Now as a story, as an explanation, this is a good one as far as it goes, but it also ran in parallel with another version, which held that England’s form dipped because the principal bowlers – Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson – were off their lines, or tired, or injured, or all at once. And another less ventilated account held that the dip in form was due to poor batting all around. And yet another one that held that England simply weren’t that great, and wouldn’t the Aussies laugh come the Ashes in 2015?
Of course, they were all true to some extent, and they were each part of a bigger story, about workloads and professionalism and the spirit of cricket and, as ever, a bit about empire. But what held them all together was the debate over the captaincy, and every pundit’s individual opinion about what it means to be Captain of England. Why should that matter? One of the things I argue in my book is that these stories are highly interactive. They respond to topical concerns – votes, runs, Gallic invasions – but they ultimately engage much bigger questions.
My Romans tend, as a rule, to worry about the rules of a political system that balances individual performance and collective performance, often precariously. They also worry about crises of leadership, mostly because they felt a close kinship between leadership and national identity: when consuls failed, Rome failed, which was, among other things, embarrassing.
This ought to sound familiar and should encourage us to turn the picture on its head. Why focus on leadership? Because leadership is a narrow frame with extraordinary explanatory capacities: someone to admire and someone to blame in one neat package. So the long saga of Captain Cook ought really to be seen not only against the background of his own dressing room, but against all the other talk of Englishness this summer has thrown up, from an underwhelming world cup appearance to the Scottish referendum.
So now there’s more pressure on England to succeed (since they’ve recently been successful while their footballing brethren have not) and Cookie has to be the leader that we all wish we had in other (more meaningful) venues. A good thing he has ‘inner steel’; the Romans would sympathize.