January 19, 2013

The fall of the Roman Republic

I have a degree in modern history from the University of Oxford: that will give you the wrong idea of what I studied though. Oxford took modern history when I studied there to have begun with the acclamation of Diocletian in 285AD as Emperor of Rome: whatever you would conventionally think of  modern history, whether its industrial history, the history of democracy, of total war or even of nuclear war, I doubt you would start with the tetrarchy. I'm not being trivial here- periodisation within history matters. We identify something common about the centuries or decades or even years that we group together- and we use periods to make polemical points. One of my favourite books about history is John Pocock's Machiavellian Moment in which he groups the thought of early modern Englishmen and Americans by their allegiance to the Florentine Republican across a span of two centuries- a moment!

You can see the impact of periodisation by looking at the Roman Republic. In a wonderful history of the Roman republic Harriet Flower argues that there was not one but several Republics. She describes the early history of Rome in fascinating detail- leaves the middle years around the second punic war- and then advances into the late Republic. What's so interesting about her treatment of the late Republic is that she discards the conventional narrative. That narrative perpetuated by dozens if not hundreds of historians sees the Roman Republic ending with the demise of Julius Caesar, the rise of Octavian or a number of other markers in the 40s and 30sBC that mark a transition to Principate. At one point the Republic had fallen, at another the Principate had risen to replace it. The space from consuls to Princeps could be measured in milliseconds! Flower discards this image. She argues, convincingly, that what actually happened was that the REpublic ended in the 80sBC. From 80BC onwards custom after custom was discarded. Sulla attempted to reinvent the Republic in the 80s and it is the fall of his invention that we are watching as we watch Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, Cicero, Caelius, Cato and the rest battle on the streets of Rome and cross their individual Rubicons.

This matters because it reorientates our explanations for the fall of Rome's Republic. That matters because the fall of the Republic is the foundation myth of our own democracies- I will come later to what I think this means for our thinking about why democracies end. Rome's Republic was killed in the final analysis not in the 40s but in the 80s: the implications of this are vast because they tie Rome's fall to an existential crisis in the late Republic (130-100). This crisis was dual. On the one hand Rome had to work out whether its citizenship criteria should make it a city (Rome for the Romans) or a representative civilisation for the entire Italian Peninsular. This conflict broke into actual war in the Social Wars (91-88BC) but was a deep contradiction at the centre of Rome's incarnation as a European Empire. Secondly in the 100s, external military crisis- the invasion of the Cimbri and the Teutones and the war against Jugurtha- forced Marius the great general to widen the recruitment of the army. His military reforms meant that Rome's army changed in nature at the same time as Roman citizenship fluxed. Furthermore the failure to cope with invasion without reform of the military system indicated something was deeply wrong with the traditional structures of power. The Republic fell.

Lastly Flower tackles the Sullan effort to reform in the 80sBC. She argues that the republic that Sulla created was inherently unstable. She argues this because it was based on the rule of law not the rule of custom: it was brittle to the touch. Politicians like Cicero began to use extra legal mechanisms to attempt to shore up the rule of the Senate: when Cicero proclaims Catiline an enemy of the state and murders him, he follows in the line of previous aristocratic murderers (from the Gracchi brothers down!) in a practice of illegality which proclaimed the Republic ended. Put another way- the rule of law is useless without the rule of custom. Secondly she suggests that the key thing which undermined the Sullan republic was not so much the instability of its arrangements as the fact that by the end of its rule, nobody knew what freedom and republicanism actually meant. This insight is as old as Tacitus. Rome's Republic fell because its citizens had forgotten what it was to be Republican: as Tiberius strode into the senate, there was no Brutus because noone could remember a time before either anarchy or tyranny.

January 15, 2013

Remembering Cuba


John F. Kennedy's response to the Cuban missile crisis has become one of the icons of the Cold War. The film 13 days captures it well: Kennedy stood against the Chiefs of the Defence staff, along with his staff, and argued against an invasion of Cuba. At the last moment, the Americans received two messages from the Soviet leadership: in one the Soviets wrote that they did not want to go to war and asked the US for a guarantee of Cuban independence- after which they would withdraw their missiles. The next day, before the US had a chance to respond, the Soviets issued a second message over Moscow radio: this public offer was for a trade, Soviet missiles would leave Cuba if the Americans would withdraw their missiles from Turkey. On the night of the 27th, Kennedy and his colleagues came to a decision: they stood resolute and decided that they would ignore the second message, and respond to the first- they responded and the Russians decided to leave Cuba. This account is now under serious attack from historians: most notably Sheldon M. Stern who works on the papers surrounding the Cuban missile crisis.

Stern's arguments are based on the transcripts of the Excomm meetings in October and November 1962. They are interesting I think because they reveal something about the crisis and about the nature of memory. Stern's vision of the crisis sees JFK much more on his own: arguing not just against his military men, but also against people that previously we've seen as his supporters- people like his brother Robert Kennedy or his Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. Dean Rusk emerges in Stern's story as a far more important character than in the conventional story. Of course the difference between the two, according to Stern, comes down to the sources that they are using. Stern uses the actual words that were spoken- whereas most modern historians have relied upon the accounts from Robert Kennedy and others of those conversations. The differences between the two are fascinating: because they imply to me at least that the entire fabric of who took the decision, who said what and what was said is wrong.

Stern argues that some of this is down to lying: Robert Kennedy wanted to sell an image of himself in 1968 as a conciliator who would oppose Vietnam. Robert Mcnamara comes through Stern's book as one of the most Machiavellian operators of all, concerned with preserving his own image. Both reflected that those outside the Kennedy circle- Ambassador Adlai Stevenson or Secretary of State Rusk were insignificant. Neither wanted to acknowledge a difference with John Kennedy himself. That seems plausible to me as an account of why they might have construed the story- but I think it misses something important. The story that Stern tells is not one that is completely straightforward: he shows that members of the committee veered all over the place during their high level discussions. Rusk for instance advocated both invasion and conciliation. You would expect this- they were under massive stress. It is natural therefore that when politicians came to write their memoirs- they made the process look simpler and more straightforward and they also remembered the attitude they had taken that had turned out correctly.

Stern also suggests that the denouement of the crisis was diametrically opposed to the conventional account. Far from rejecting the second letter, Kennedy rejected the first letter and went to negotiate on the back of the second. The outcome- that America secretly withdrew its missiles from Turkey in exchange for a Soviet withdrawal from Cuba- might look the same but the clever acceptance of the first letter never happened. This is not a field that I am in any way expert on- and the reasons he gives for the US initial position on this (the lie about the letters) is important: Kennedy wanted to win the midterms and not to be seen to be soft on communism. Again though one wonders about the quality of memory- once you start repeating a story, does it become your story, once you start creating history, does it become history?

The Cuban missile crisis is something that occurred relatively recently: and yet its only due to the existence of these tapes that historians and others have not, according to Stern, made a major mistake about the course of the crisis. That makes me reflect upon the other events that we may have got wrong.   We don't have tapes for most of the crucial meetings of history: but if McNamara and Sorenson and Kennedy got the meetings of Excomm wrong, how likely is it that others back in the past recorded their meetings inaccurately? How sceptical should we be about our own sources? How sceptical about our own memories?