Over the years I have become increasingly fascinated by the relationship of ancient Rome to the United States, not as the source of particular institutions or a political vocabulary, but as revealing unresolved questions of identity that derive from their shared founding myths. That founding is neither located in a constitutional moment nor organized around a people united by ethnicity, race, religion, language, or land. Rather, the founding takes form as a myth replayed in the cultural imagination of Strangers who are thrown together in a journey, dislocated from their own past and place, to form a new future.
The exceptional aspect of these founding myths is that potentially anyone can become part of the community. But there is a lingering, unresolved question: If anyone can potentially be Us, then who are We? There is a corollary question: Who are They?
I have framed these questions of identity around the idea of the Stranger. The defining symbol of the founding myth is of a journey of Strangers dislocated from their own histories and homes who come to a Strange land inhabited by Strangers.
But in the attempt to answer who We are, another type of Stranger emerges, one who exists within the society, is actually part of or potentially part of that society, but is seen as unsettling the background assumptions by which individuals understand themselves, their relationship to others, and their relationship to their past. Who is defined as a Stranger and why is a fluid category that is constructed as a counternarrative by which individuals shape their own identities and notions of belonging as cultural members and social actors.
Set against a Roman past, America’s different attempts to resolve this question of identity are brought into relief. Virgil’s Aeneid, like the American western, The Outlaw Josey Wales, replay the myth of dislocation. W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Charles Eastman each attempt (unsuccessfully) to position their narratives within this myth. The desire to situate in time a people dislocated from their own histories gives rise to Cato the Elder, Cicero, Varro, and Noah Webster’s attempts to construct a pure genealogy of bodily dispositions and language against the impurities of Greek and European history. Nineteenth century Native American policy, like the Roman conquest of the Samnites, juxtapose the tamed body to the wild body. Professional gladiators and the rise of bare-knuckle boxing blur these boundaries, recalling a founding body that is valorized for its violent wildness. And both the Roman Republic and American democracy face the return of the community to Strangers who do not see themselves as sharing the same past or future.
Beginning with and growing out of a shared founding myth, the Roman experience provides a different lens to view America’s own struggle (and Rome’s own struggle) with identity that departs from traditional questions of constitutionalism, republicanism, Lockean liberalism, or the ideological categories that have dominated our current discourse.
There is not law but violent wildness. A We is not borne of deliberation but shaped through the conquest of land and people, a wild space transformed to a place through the sheer physicality of labor.
The boundaries of belonging are not defined by formal categories of citizenship but by the construction of two types of dangerous Strangers among a community of Strangers: the corrosive Stranger who brings their own history and the wild Stranger who threatens to return the community back into wildness.
The marks of the Stranger – the fissures of race, status, and class – are mapped onto the bodies of gladiators and boxers, as though civilization can be affirmed by safely confining the violence to the arena. But efforts to cleanse the founding identity of its rusticity and violence and replace it with ideals of cultivation and progress are continually frustrated by these spectacles that valorize the Strangeness of these rugged bodies as founding bodies.
These are untidy histories that recall the dislocation of both those who immigrated and those who were here, the attempts to overcome the humiliation of origins, the centrality of violent conquest over humans and nature in affirming identity, the spectacle of the physicality of rugged and wild (rather than reasoning and civilized) bodies, and the inability to resolve the anxieties of a nation comprised of Strangers.