Ronald Syme wrote that the focus of history is on those who have freedom of action. This was not a back-door defense of the Great Man theory of history. It’s an explanation of it.
Born in New Zealand, Syme (1903-1989) was the 20th century’s greatest historian of ancient Rome. I bring him up because our country’s situation today reminds me of 69 — the year Rome had four emperors fighting for power after the reptilian Emperor Nero killed himself, whining, because he couldn’t bear to face the tortures he had inflicted upon so many others.
Glen Bowersock, another eminent historian, wrote of Syme’s magnum opus, a two-volume biography of Tacitus: “It is hard now to imagine just how refreshing, how truly exhilarating it was to open a book that declared, ‘The Roman constitution was a screen and a sham.’”
Are you with me? Do you understand what I am saying?
Is our own Constitution a screen and a sham? It is becoming so, due to the cowardice of Republicans and Democrats alike, cowering under our modern Nero — a preening pervert corrupted by inherited power and money, exacting retribution upon imagined enemies who dare to comment upon so much as a single artificial hair upon his Styrofoam© head.
In an obituary in Proceedings of the British Academy, Bowersock wrote: “Syme encouraged all who knew him, students and colleagues, young and old, to work at the highest level of which they were capable and in their own way. He always preferred to give positive comments rather than negative ones. He was never a destructive critic: his criticism took the form of a call for greater clarity. He never blocked the publication of interesting research on the grounds that it was not quite ready. He never wasted time in refuting those few scholars he judged incompetent.”
Surely, that was wonderful for students. But if you consider the president of the United States a teacher or role model for our children today, well … Contrast and Compare.
This will count on the Final Exam.
In another review of Syme’s work, in The New York Review of Books, Bowersock wrote of the founder of the Roman Empire, Octavian Caesar Augustus: “Instead of the Augustus who rescued Rome from anarchy and designed a beneficent Augustan peace, there emerged a cruel and duplicitous politician who deliberately destroyed the Roman republic while announcing that he was restoring it.”
Mark Twain, a student of ancient Rome and modern politics, wrote that “history does not repeat — but it rhymes.”
Syme wrote: “In the Rome of the Caesars it was perilous to have a dynastic connection, a name known in history, or any conspicuous talent.”
We see today that anyone with “any conspicuous talent” who was hired by accident is booted from the White House tout de suite, for diverting the cameras from Nero.
Better for Nero, in his own mind, to staff the place with mediocrities: lickspittles in eyeglasses.
Syme’s analysis of the Emperor Galba, the first to succeed Nero in the year of the four emperors, applies today: “Galba was a fraud. The wrong words had been used. Men praised him for prudence. It was lethargy.”
What can we plebeians do about this? Just one thing: Get out there and vote.
The winner of the 2020 presidential election will be determined by turnout. Period.
If more Republicans turn out to vote, we’ll get the dark side of Zoroastrianism for four more years.
If more Democrats turn out to vote, the Democrats win.
It has nothing to do with your political convictions, government policies or anything else. It all depends on turnout.
So let us remember, if we ever knew it at all, the concluding words of Syme’s preface to his magisterial biography of Tacitus: “It is good fortune and a privilege if one can consort for so many years with an historian who knew the worst, discovered few reasons for ease or hope or confidence, and none the less believed in human dignity and freedom of speech.”