Issues in Philosophy Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 1)

Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 1)

The aim of this series is to provide APA members with a platform to discuss how philosophy can inform political debate, from a variety of sources and perspectives. If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.  

by Chris Barker

The elder Cato ended each of his speeches with the call to destroy the city of Carthage: Carthago delenda est. It made some sense at the time. Roman losses during the 2nd Punic War (218–201 BCE) were horrifying. According to historian J. Rufus Fears, in one day of battle at Cannae the expanding republic lost one in every four military-aged men in Roman Italy. But as a meme describing anything in American domestic politics today, and especially the candidacy of Donald Trump (Trump delenda est), the expression is a disaster. It brings back memories of the proscription lists of those to be murdered. 4700 citizens’ names were added to the list by Sulla in 83 BCE, after Marius’s bloody killings over the preceding years. 300 senators and 2000 knights were marked for death by the 2nd Triumvirate (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) in 43 BCE.

Trump is a generationally bad candidate, but to adapt a phrase from Lloyd Bentsen, Donald Trump is no Carthage. The parade of high-casualty, no-surrender battles from Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae terminated in the overwhelming Roman victory at Zama, ushering in a fifty-year hiatus in the Punic wars. The Eastern verge of the Roman Empire was later established by Roman defeats to the Parthians, but, just as Pisa later became republican Florence’s second Carthage, Carthage played the alter ego to Rome. Arguably, Rome needed Carthage in order to remain unified and to preserve its constitutional order. The foreign “other” helps to create the domestic “us.” As the familiar story goes, in the absence of a powerful counterbalance to bring out its best self, Rome destroyed itself through factionalism.

For all the dangers it posed, Carthage was a republic (see On the Republic II.23 and Sabine and Smith). Like Rome, its structure was aristocratic, with two annual magistrates that resembled the Roman consuls; a 300-member senate that resembled the Roman senate; and a popular assembly that met largely to decide differences of opinion between the monarchic and aristocratic elements of the constitution. Cicero favorably compares its blended constitution with Sparta’s and Rome’s. As Eve Adler brilliantly argues about Virgil’s Aeneid, Carthaginian gold and science are every bit the match for Roman arms and piety.

Carthage was utterly destroyed in 146 BCE by Scipio Aemilianus. This was a tragedy for two reasons. These are outlined in Polybius’ History XXXVI and in Dexter Hoyos’s recent book. First, the cause of war was trumped up. The large indemnity levied on Carthage since the 2nd Punic War had been paid off. Since the “ultimate golden egg” had been laid by 151 BCE, Rome now had an incentive to transform Carthage into the seat of a new African province or to renew hostilities. When Carthage defended itself against its neighbors, in contravention of its peace treaty with Rome, it was forced by Rome to surrender anew. The disarmed city was then besieged and ultimately destroyed. The survivors were enslaved. The ground was infamously salted. That in itself was enough to elicit the tears of Scipio Aemilianus, who wept for the transience of all human power and prestige. More importantly for Rome, the freedom of secure borders allowed ambitious Romans to turn against each other, first in disagreements over land reform and the scope of citizenship for Roman allies, and then in outright civil war.

Rome’s struggle to define the scope and meaning of citizenship may sound familiar. We share Rome’s problems and even the Roman geopolitical context of the Near East and Mediterranean worlds. If the Soviet Union was our Carthage, as it was in the mind of one Cold War observer, it is to be hoped that the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall are not looked upon as a brief era of good feelings after years of conflict and sacrifice, leading quickly to the escalating infighting of the Clinton impeachment, disagreements about security and citizenship, economic populism, demagoguery, and more thorough factionalism than we have seen in decades. The rhetoric of destruction will not help to heal that factionalism.

How can Roman philosophy help us to address the question of faction and domestic dissatisfaction? I address this question in my next post.

Other posts in Chris Barker’s series can be found as follows:

Chris Barker teaches political thought at Southwestern College. He has previously held positions at Ohio University, Boston College, and Harvard University, and recently completed his first book manuscript on John Stuart Mill’s liberalism.

Image: Pietro Perugino | Cato | Wikimedia Commons


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