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Of all the comparisons to ancient Rome...

The NY Times takes a fiction author's thoughts a bit too seriously

All too often, historians seem desirous of opportunities to apply their knowledge of the past to the present and future, both in predictive and in allegorical settings. Perhaps it is an exercise in relevancy; perhaps, steeped in the study of the past as they are, events really do seem to them to be directly cyclical and repetitive.

Regardless of the thought process behind it, this is a dangerous undertaking as, while history appears to repeat itself in loosely-defined cycles (especially on a large scale), events and people are never exact duplicates of their forbears, and situations are never directly repeated.

If the attempt to use history as a predictive method is risky in the hands of those who actually know history, though, then the danger of such an attempt grows when carried out by someone ignorant of historical fact – and, I would argue, is even greater when the pontificator has only partial knowledge of past events, for in that case the gaps can be filled in (and other details left out) both at will, and with great amounts of creativity.

Such is the case with Scottish novelist Robert J. Harris, author of Imperium and Pompeii (as well as Fatherland, and alternative-history novel in which the Nazis were victorious in World War II). Harris penned an op-ed, entitled “Pirates of the Mediterranean” (also published as “The ‘war on terror’ that ruined Rome”), for the Sunday, October 1 edition of the New York Times, in which he compared “President Bush’s War on Terror” to what he characterizes as a Roman overreaction to a pirate attack on the Roman port of Ostia in 68 BC which ultimately, in his view, led to the end of the Roman Republic.

Unfortunately, Mr. Harris falls into the third category discussed above – he appears to be ignorant of just enough facts that he can play fast and loose with those which suit his purpose, ignore those that don’t, and maintain plausible deniability for the woeful inaccuracies in the information he creates to fill in the gaps in his knowledge.

Harris begins:
In the autumn of 68 B.C. the world's only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome's port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.
The novelist begins by treating this as a book or film, with time, character, and location consolidation. Ostia, the port at the mouth of the Tiber, seven miles from Rome, was in fact attacked in 68 BC by pirates who had been terrorizing the Mediterranean for years.

However, the “senators” in question (who were referred to as legates by Plutarch, and as praetors, or magistrates, by other sources – not senators) were actually kidnapped 370 miles from Rome, on the road to Brundisium, on the southeast coast of Italy.
One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself. Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: No nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack. …But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights.
Harris has stumbled across a truth here, but his embellishment clouds the prospect of his full understanding of just what it was he got right. An attack on Rome’s infrastructure would have been a blow to Roman confidence and security – because of Rome’s food-import situation. By this time, Rome was a complete buyers market with regard to grain; shipments were constantly coming in from around the Mediterranean, and any threat to that food supply would not only worry Rome’s governors, who needed it to maintain grain distribution to people “on the dole,” but would foster immediate panic in the famine-fearing citizens of the great city. (An excellent example of this is the riot caused in Rome by the mere rumor that shipments of grain from Carthage might be delayed, or even halted).

However, the 68 BC sack of Ostia was not such a blinding threat to Rome’s food supply. Nearly two centuries from acquiring a protected harbor, Ostia was not yet a major port for the city of Rome; rather, it was utilized for the trans-shipment of goods being transported up the coast from the key ports in the Bay of Naples. According to one classicist, “sacking Ostia was not a main concern of any Roman worried about the piracy that was rampant in the Mediterranean at the time.”

Indeed, Plutarch’s account of the pirate threat, the Lex Gabinia, and Pompey’s offensive neglects to even mention the attack on Ostia – a fact which reveals the overall unimportance not only of this specific attack, but also of the port itself.
The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But an event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty.
Harris’s last sentence in the above paragraph is representative of the type of embellished or fabricated information and terminology used by the historically ignorant (especially those who do not necessarily know that they are historically ignorant) to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of actual history.

In actuality, there was no Roman “Constitution.” Rome was not governed under anything which we would recognize as a constitutional document; likewise, there was no underlying guarantee or acknowledgement of inalienable rights such as those recognized by our Constitution. The Roman code of morality and citizenship was governed by its traditions and customs – known as the mos maiorum – and by its laws. Never was there a thought of a Constitution as we might recognize it – a situation which possibly contributed to the destabilization of the Republic, as the public trust and tradition were increasingly subverted by leaders in the late days of the Republic.

Similarly, there wasn’t “democracy” in Rome any more than there is democracy in America. The Greek-originated word, which literally means “rule by the people” (from the Greek demos, “people,” and kratos, “rule”), is a misnomer for nearly every government to which it has been applied, including both America and Rome. The Senate, the Consuls, the Tribunes, and the Popular Assembly – all were governing positions or bodies, separate and with different powers of governance. Direct democracy was not a factor in the daily governmental decisions of Rome, neither when it was a Republic nor when it was an Empire. The Popular Assembly had a say in legislation, but it was more often than not doing the bidding of one interest group or another. Rome, in actuality, was very much an aristocracy.

Harris continues:
What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome [note: again, there was no such thing] had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of "Civis Romanus sum" - "I am a Roman citizen" - was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.
And the sky was always blue, the birds were always singing, and the water turned to wine whenever we liked!

Or, better yet, reality: The period from 133 to 27 B.C., beginning with the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus and ending with Augustus Caesar, was a marked 106-year period of republican decline. It has been called by some historians the "Period of the Individual," as many aristocrats were competing at the time for individual supremacy not only over each other, but over the whole of Rome.

The Roman Senate by the early 2nd century BC was no longer the effective governing body it had once been. The Gracchi, Gaius and Tiberius, had instituted popular reforms, granting land, both in Rome and in the provinces, to the people, while also weakening the Senate and giving the great unwashed a greater say in the governance, and ability to hold office, in Rome.

Further, in the early 1st century, strongmen Marius and Sulla, when not putting down rebellion in Africa Proconsularis, were fighting a civil war against each other, which ended with Sulla's supporters slaughtering the followers of Marius – both real and suspected – and Sulla’s taking up the post of Dictator, which offered no check on his legislative or judicial abilities, as well as no limit on his term of rule.

Sulla did institute his own brand of reform, empowering the Senate once again (after its weakening under the Gracchi) and doubling its number to 600, while reducing the tribunate to what historian Velleius Paterculus called “a shadow without any substance” (2.30), and restricting the Plebeian assembly. The "reforms" of Sulla were by and large in the form of restricting the powers of the populace, and returning them to the aristocracy in the form of the Senate – and attempting to ensure that that was where it would remain, lest the great unwashed have a say in their own governance.

The greatest soldier in Rome, the 38-year- old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the Great) arranged for a lieutenant of his…to…propose an astonishing new law, the Lex Gabinia.

"Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone," the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. "There were not many places in the Roman world that were not included within these limits."

Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury to pay for his "war on terror," which included building a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented.
The Lex Gabinia, named for Pompey’s legate Aulus Gabinius, who proposed the law, was passed in the Roman popular assembly in 67 BC. The people of Rome were overwhelmingly in favor of this order, which elevated Pompey to the equality with, but not superiority over, all other Roman proconsuls; however, it was fiercely debated and its passage was in doubt all the way up to the final vote due to opposition among the aristocrats in the Senate.

The Gabinian law granted Pompey an “extraordinary command,” of three-year duration, for the purpose of subduing the pirates in question. He was not the first general to receive this command against the pirates; in 74 BC, Marcus Antonius, father of Mark Antony, received from the Popular Assembly the same type of extraordinary command that Pompey received in 67 BC; however, Antonius failed to achieve victory against them (as did his father, also Marcus Antonius, in 102). Likewise, Publius Servilius in 78 BC had attempted unsuccessfully to rid Rome and the eastern Mediterranean of the pirate threat.
Once Pompey put to sea, it took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean. Even allowing for Pompey's genius as a military strategist, the suspicion arises that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could hardly have been such a grievous threat in the first place.

But it was too late to raise such questions. By the oldest trick in the political book - the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as "soft" or even "traitorous"…
Due in part to the resources he was afforded, as well as to his skill in leadership, organization, and military affairs, Pompey was ultimately – and quickly – successful in fulfilling the terms of his command.

Had Pompey been desirous of this command in the first place? Almost certainly; he likely maneuvered as much as possible behind the scenes to gain it, as well, for, like any aristocrat of the day, Pompey was constantly in search of fame and glory, both military and political. However, far from being contrived, the pirate threat in the Mediterranean was both persistent and real. According to Plutarch, in his Life of Pompey, by this time the pirates’ numbers had grown to over one thousand ships and over four hundred captured cities, and they were not only attacking shipping and cities, but also plundering sacred areas and temples around the Greco-Roman world.

“This power extended its operations over the whole of the Mediterranean Sea, making it un-navigable and closed to all commerce,” wrote Plutarch (Pompey, XXV), and it was a great service to Rome and her Italian allies that Pompey finally rid the area of them.

Likewise, there is no evidence that Pompey or his allies accused dissenting voices of being “soft” or “traitorous.” There was fierce opposition to the passage of the Lex Gabinia, but, again, it was not from the populace, who overpoweringly favored the order (Plutarch says that they received it “with excessive pleasure”) – rather, the opposition came from the Senate, and was mounted largely for personal political advantage, rather than out of a sense of patriotism, or of concern for the threat to a nonexistent constitution.
…powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.
This last is a combination of multiple orders and historical events in order to drive a fictional narrative. In fact, the extraordinary command bestowed upon Pompey by the Lex Gabinia lasted only as long as the threat against which it was issued continued. The claim that “powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned” is simply not true, for not only did the people have the authority to authorize such a command as the Lex Gabinia, but, as one Classicist and Ancient Historian points out, “Pompey's exercise of those powers did not hinder, reduce, or subvert the power of the popular assembly” – for, “when Pompey subdued the pirates, his authority under the Lex Gabinia ceased.”

Pompey’s further activity in the East was carried out under an entirely separate order, the Lex Manilia (so named for the man who proposed it, tribune Gaius Manilius), granted by the popular assembly (again, as was their right) in 66 BC for the purpose of waging a campaign against King Mithridates of Pontus – a campaign which had no relationship whatsoever to the pirate threat, or to the authority granted Pompey to subdue the pirates.

The only thing Pompey’s conquest in the East which was even remotely related to the Lex Gabinia was the fact that, without overwhelming success in defeating the pirate threat, the second order probably never would have been issued. As it was, Pompey showed, through his conduct in the campaign authorized by the Gabinian law, that he could accomplish what others before him could not – and he showed it once again from 66 to 63 BC in the Mithridatic war through his success in broadening the influence of Rome, establishing dependent provinces, and defeating a king who had fought against Rome for nearly three decades.
It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case. But the disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened the process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything remotely comparable to Rome's democracy - imperfect though it was - rose again
The Republic may well have been doomed “in any case”; by this point, it had been declining for nearly seventy years, since Tiberius Gracchus’ consulship. The populist reforms of the Gracchi, and their reversal by Sulla after his battle with Marius, the continual effort by the aristocracy to subvert the populace for their own gain, the growing expanse of Rome’s provinces, combined with its innate inefficiency, and, yes, the lack of a written Constitution or anything similar, all contributed to the undoing not of “Rome’s [nonexistent] democracy, but of the Roman Republic.

However, the only effect the reaction to the raid on Ostia had on this chain of events – inasmuch as the raid itself served as an impetus for the passage of the Lex Gabinia – was that it provided Pompey with yet another decisive victory, allowing him to climb one more rung up the ladder of power in Rome, and setting the stage for his defeat of Mithridates and triumphant return to Rome, army in tow, and in possession of greater riches than any had imagined.

Upon his arrival in Italy, though, rather than marching on Rome and seizing power (as Harris would have us expect), Pompey simply disbanded his army and made two requests: that the senate ratify his provincial arrangements in the East, and that his veterans receive land on which to settle – not exactly a chief catalyst for the end of a Republic.
An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.
In this, Harris is correct on both counts – and so would the American and Roman in question, as there has been no “destroying” of the American constitution, and there was little or no damage done to the Roman Republic by a law which was active for the length of a three-month campaign against Mediterranean pirates.
The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: It fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate [referring to the “vote by the Senate…to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of "serious" physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy”] does not have the same result.
Beyond the careful effort to remain within the law and the Constitution while simultaneously protecting Americans from a clear and present danger to their security presented by a very real terrorist threat, if the United States experiences the same fate from this Senate vote, and this War on Terror, as that which Rome experienced as a direct result of the Lex Gabinia – an order which lasted for the duration of Pompey’s three-month campaign against the pirates, and then ceased – then we shall then we shall be in very good shape, indeed – despite the disingenuous efforts of Robert Harris and other pseudo-historians to convince us otherwise.

The publication of this “fuzzy-history” op-ed appears to be further evidence of the New York Times’s prioritizing of their criteria for publishing and reporting as narrative first, factuality distant second (if there).

Harris’s op-ed received a poor response from those who actually possess an academic knowledge of the events he so skews in the retelling. “Harris should stick to what he knows…writing historical fiction,” said one Classicist and Ancient Historian. Said another Classicist – and this can and will serve as the last word – “Harris is stretching really far for his parallels, and they fail – to me as a professional classicist and student of things Roman, as well as an American citizen – to convince in any way. He has certainly ignored, could even be said to have abused, the major ancient sources of information; in the attempt to draw a specious parallel with current events, he merely ends up misleading by reference to ancient events that he does not seem to understand.”

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