Thomas Cole (British, 1801-1848), The Course of Empire - Destruction, 1836, oil on canvas, 39.5 × 63.5 in, New York Historical Society, New York. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

January 11, 2021   7 mins

Historic events invariably encourage people to look to history. Last week’s invasion of the Capitol by a marauding mob of Trump supporters was no exception. How was the shock of it properly to be calibrated, except against the scale provided by the traumas and calamities of the past? Unsurprisingly, then, even as rioters were busy roaming the halls of the Capitol, stealing lecterns and taking selfies, suggestions for historical parallels were already flooding in thick and fast.

It was the most serious riot since the time of the Vietnam War. It was the most shameful day in the history of the United States since the Civil War. It was the worst desecration of the great citadel of American democracy since the British had torched it in 1812. The stunned invocations of these episodes reflected the degree to which Americans, far from living solely in the present, as the stereotypes so often have it, are in truth profoundly conscious of the distinctive character of their past. For Trump is being judged — by both his supporters and his enemies — at the bar of how Americans, over the span of their country’s existence, have understood what it means to be the citizens of a free republic.

In the immediate aftermath of the storming of the Capitol, no one articulated this perspective more powerfully than the senior senator from Colorado, Michael Bennet. Only a few hours after he had been bundled to safety by anxious security agents, he returned to the Senate floor, and there, surrounded by the wreckage of the day’s attack, gave a speech in which he placed the scenes of chaos in the broadest possible context. “One of the things I was thinking about today,” he said, “is something I often think about when I’m on this floor, which is that the Founders of this country, the people that wrote our Constitution, actually knew our history better than we know our history.”

Specifically, Bennet went on to say, they had laboured to fashion a republic in full awareness of the fact that they were not the first to embark on such a project. The existence of a senate and a Capitol in Washington speaks as loudly today as it did back in 1800 of the particular model at the forefront of the Founding Fathers’ minds. The neo-classical splendour of the Capitol – columns, marble portrait busts and all – was consciously designed to evoke the example of ancient Rome.

The parallels, of course, are not entirely reassuring. If Rome has always provided the West with the supreme archetype of a great empire, then so also does it serve us as the exemplar of an empire that declined and fell. Photos of Trump’s goons carrying spears and sporting horns have had all the greater an impact for the gilded marble that provided them with their backdrop. It gave to the invasion of the Capitol a flavour of a sword-and-sandals epic. Selfie after selfie was touched by a hint of the menacing flavour that, from Hollywood to Las Vegas, has long been a feature of how Americans popularise ancient history. Here, it seemed, was a Visigoth climbing the pediment of a statue; there a Gaul slouching on the seat of a senator. To look at them was to imagine that the rioters had not merely invaded the Capitol, but – in the manner of authentic Vandals — put it to the sack.

Except, of course, that the rioters were themselves Americans. More than that — they were Americans who had invaded the Capitol in the conviction that, by interrupting the business of the Senate, by hunting down the enemies of the President, they would be helping to make America great again. It was this reflection, when Michael Bennet looked about him from the Senate floor, that turned his thoughts to Rome. It was not the fall of the Roman empire, dismembered by invaders, that perturbed him. The senator was looking back much further in time.

Originally, in its earliest days, Rome had been a monarchy; but then, freedom-loving, patriotic and resolute, the people had risen up and expelled their king. Liberty — the liberty of a people who had no master — had duly been consecrated as the birthright and measure of every Roman. The freedom of one was the freedom of all. Only by seeing himself reflected in the gaze of his fellows could a citizen truly know himself a man. Public business — res publica — came to define the kind of state that Rome had become. This, in the wake of the American Revolution, was the model of a republic most familiar to the classically educated men who drafted the Constitution.

Yet the history of the Roman Republic, even as it provided inspiration, also served as a warning. For many centuries, the great ideal of shared citizenship had encouraged the Romans to temper their competitive instincts for the common good. To place personal honour above the interests of the entire community was seen as the behaviour of a barbarian — or worse yet, a king. Gradually, however, over the course of the centuries, this taboo began to lose its hold. The more of a superpower the Roman Republic became, and the richer the potential pickings on offer to its most powerful men, so the more it began to totter under the weight of its own greatness. The bonds of shared citizenship stretched, then frayed, then snapped. Rome imploded into civil war. The venerable edifice of her republican system of government was reduced to rubble. And in its place an autocracy emerged: the rule of the Caesars. The lesson offered was a sombre one, and weighed heavily on the minds of the Founding Fathers. Last week, as he spoke to his shell-shocked fellow senators, and sought to rally them to a consciousness of their place in history, it weighed as well on the mind of Michael Bennet.

It was hardly surprising, in the wake of an armed attempt to frustrate the legal election of a President, that the senator should have focused on one particular dynamic in the troubled final decades of the Roman Republic: the readiness of rival factions to whip up mobs. This, it turned out, was a game that anyone could play. In 121 BC, the attempt by an elected official, Gaius Gracchus, to push for radical reforms in favour of the poor, and recalibrate the balance of power between the elites and the people, was met by conservatives with a murderous display of violence. Twelve years after an attempt by Gaius’ brother to push through similar reforms was foiled by his assassination, Gaius himself was clubbed to death with a stool-leg. His corpse was decapitated, and lead poured into his skull. In the wake of his murder three thousand of his followers were executed without trial.

It was to prove a fateful step. Conservatives were soon finding that they had won a pyrrhic victory. Since political divisions in Rome were a matter less of policy or ideology than of style, there were plenty of senators who preferred instead to address ‘deplorables’ over the heads of the traditional elite. These populares, as they were called, tended to be no less wealthy or aristocratic than their opponents; but they did, almost by definition, display a talent for speaking the language of the common man. This enabled them, in the wake of the murder of the Gracchi, to follow where conservatives had led.

It is no coincidence that Julius Caesar, the most successful of all the populares, also proved the most effective at intimidating rival senators. Mobs were employed to empty buckets of excrement over them; to howl them down whenever they tried to speak; to drive them into exile. The most charismatic of the mobsters employed by Caesar to serve his interests, an aristocrat-turned-plebeian named Clodius, blazed a particularly flamboyant trail. Shrugging aside accusations of incest, sacrilege and cross-dressing, he displayed an innovative talent for organising rioters into paramilitaries. His enemies were forced to do the same. Rome became the scene of endless street battles. Clodius’ murder in one of these clashes brought them to the very heart of the Republic. His followers, outraged by the fall of their hero, went on the rampage. They invaded the Senate House, plundered all its records, then set it on fire. The flames consumed not only the Senate House itself, but also Rome’s first permanent law court. The Capitol, seen in the light of such history, can be reckoned to have got off lightly.

Naturally, America is not Rome. The chasm of difference that separates the two republics is immense. Any parallels drawn between them are bound to be hazy at best, and at worst grotesque. The United States may boast senators, but it has none of the consuls or praetors mentioned by Michael Bennet in his speech. Was what he had to say on the floor of the Senate, then, merely tendentious? Not at all. This was because, eloquently and appropriately, it drew attention to the way in which, from the very beginnings of the American Republic, there has always been an element of role-playing about its politics.

None of the rioters who invaded the Capitol last week, not even the QAnon shaman in his buffalo horns, was more strikingly dressed than the sculpture of George Washington that back in 1832 was commissioned by Congress to mark the centennial of the first President’s birth. Horatio Greenough’s statue, now in the National Museum of American History, originally sat in the Rotunda of the Capitol, and portrayed Washington as the physical intersection point of twin republics: the American and the Roman. His wig is off-set by a toga; his raised right finger by the sword he holds in his left hand. It is comical, but also oddly moving.

To play at being a Roman was not, for the Founding Fathers, mere affectation. “Soon as this great work was done,” wrote Parson Weems, author of the first biography of Washington, “he took an affectionate leave of his gallant army and returned to cultivate his four acres.” Weems, when he wrote this, was not describing Washington but a Roman. Cincinnatus, a statesman summoned from his plough to save Rome, and who, after his duty done, laid done his office and returned to his fields, was a figure who served his countrymen as the very archetype of civic virtue. Gruelling and implacable though the contest to excel in Roman politics always was, there could be no place in it for ill-disciplined vainglory. The example of the past created a sense of responsibility that prevented a Roman’s sense of competition from degenerating into mere selfish ambition.

America’s Founding Fathers, looking to the nobility of this political tradition, did their best to transplant it to a continent undreamed of by the Romans. The desire to root it deeply so that it would not succumb to the blights of mob-rule and autocracy was indeed, as Senator Bennet said, what they “were thinking about when they wrote our Constitution”. Yet so accustomed are we to associate America with excess that it took the events at the Capitol to bring home to many of us that its political culture has, above all, always been marked by the acknowledgement and acceptance of limits. Those limits were what Trump, impatient with anything that frustrates his vanity, so heedlessly sought to trample down last week.

Fortunately, he is no Caesar, and the American republic is not the Roman. If anything, the attack on the Capitol, precisely because it was so shocking, has served Americans as a bracing reminder of just how fortunate they are to enjoy the political traditions that they do. The greatest punishment inflicted on Trump is likely to be, not a second impeachment, not prison, not even banishment from Twitter, but one far more enduring: to serve as an object of obloquy, and a standing lesson, in the annals of American history.

Tom Holland is a writer, popular historian and cricketer. He is not an actor. His most recent book is PAX