As I was working on Roman Political Thought: From Cicero to Augustine, a political theorist asked a by-now familiar question: Why the Romans? The question is pregnant with unstated assumptions. For decades political theorists have largely ignored the Romans. The Romans seemed to lack the imagination and creativity of the Greeks. Their oligarchic and often violent politics seemed to have little to offer in thinking about the contemporary challenges of democracy and democratic citizenship. Their texts, with the bewildering array of names and places, are not particularly inviting. And for those who did look to the Romans, it was in order to recover something: civic virtue, for example, or particular conceptions of liberty.
What the Romans provide, and this extends all the way to Augustine, is a drama of power, one that is more riveting the more it is understood. But however obnoxiously confident the Romans were in broadcasting their power, they convey a profound sense of its frailty, of how easily it can slip away. Lucretius, though often treated as an outlier (both as an Epicurean and Roman), speaks to this undercurrent in Roman political thought: Everything that had been built could collapse and be forgotten.
What the Romans provide is a drama of power
There is no shortage of instances in which one sees this reflection on the frailty of power in a way that never appears with the Greeks. And I think no small part of it is conveyed in Rome’s myth of its own origins. Foundation stories are first-and-foremost about identity; about how a people came to be who they are. As much as Cicero may have wanted a tidier founding, one with a more philosophic Romulus that is not mired in fratricide, it is Livy and Virgil, reflecting on the collapse of the Republic, who capture this Roman sensibility. Rome’s founding is not of a people who spring from the earth, nor even of an ethnically homogenous or chosen people; it is of criminals, exiles and wanderers who have lost their homes and who carry in their imaginations the shock of this loss. Virgil’s founding is every bit as violent as Lucretius’ universe: the collapsing walls of Troy, the unrecognizability of once familiar forms, the incomplete or imperfect attempts at subsequent foundings, even the violence that some see as marring the end of the poem. Out of that destruction a community can be created. And out of such heterogeneity a people can be united. But whether we are talking about Sallust, Lucretius, Cicero, or Virgil, they are describing an entropic universe that always tends toward disorganization and decay.
There are several aspects of Roman political thought that grow out of this sense of decay. First, the sense that there is nothing natural about their community gave Roman politics a near obsession with power. The variety of words attests to the view of a universe saturated in power: vis, potentia, dominatio, auctoritas, potestas, regnum, imperium, facultas, even (as I have argued), libertas. Politics is less a constitutional system that balances power than an ongoing contestation and negotiation of types of power, sometimes expressed institutionally, sometimes extra-institutionally.
Second, as known as the Romans were for laws and procedures, on the one hand, and the visible display of violence, on the other, what stands out in their political thought is what Augustine refers to as “faith in the invisible.” For Augustine that is God. But Augustine’s language resonates with and grows out of the Roman tradition of which he is a part. What binds strangers — and even for Augustine his pilgrims are Vergilian wanderers — is fides, trust that turns strangers into cives, citizens with a common destiny.
Finally, there is acceptance of the imperfect. Roman political thinkers lived the experience of Roman power. Cicero chuckles about Cato the Younger speaking like he was in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’ cesspit; Livy pokes fun at Plato’s (and Athens’) creation myth of an autochthonous people; even Marcus Aurelius, the closet there is to a philosopher king, says there are no Republics. Their lament, as Cicero evinces in the Tusculans, was not Plato’s yearning for a philosophic city; it is the loss of what they cared for, of what had been cultivated, even (or maybe especially) recognizing its imperfections. This world matters.
The Romans present us with a different type of political theory, one embedded in practice. By that I do not mean that Roman political thought is “practical” in the sense of providing a how-to approach to politics. Rather, it is embedded in the here-and-know: in the ambiguity of mores and traditions, the fragmenting effects of violence, the impurity of action, and the incompleteness of laws and institutions. What the Romans offer is not a model of perfection but an exploration of the dynamics of power by which politics is both imperfect and possible.