Recently a trend on Tik-Tok had its fifteen minutes of click-fame. It seems that some women are asking their men how often they think about the Roman Empire. The usual suspect experts were consulted, and of course they conclude that this interest in Rome reflects modern males’ angst over, or nostalgia for a time when patriarchy dominated, and manly deeds defined the male sex––the original “toxic masculinity.”
There’s nothing wrong per se with thinking about ancient Rome. Since Edward Gibbon’s magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the history of Rome has been a cautionary tale of how great empires collapse. Given the abundance of empirical evidence––invasions of unvetted migrants, our geopolitical enemies’ increasing challenges, a looming fiscal apocalypse, and suicidal social and cultural corruption––our country may be experiencing Rome’s fate, making its history deserving of our attention. And one place to start is reading what one brilliant Roman thought about the then new empire.
There’s no greater witness than the poet Virgil, who came of age during the last years of the Roman Republic, a century when social disorder, civic violence, and civil wars between Roman generals and their legions were chronic. Virgil’s Aeneid (19 B.C.) tells the story of Rome’s beginnings in the invasion of Italy by Trojan refugees, and also explores the tragic costs of civilization, and the lofty idealism that some great empires have claimed to represent.
That theme is what makes Rome and its fate so significant for us Americans, who are watching a floundering foreign policy lurching between appeasement and half-hearted interventions abroad.
Virgil has several scenes that make Rome’s imperial idealism explicit. One dimension of Rome’s greatness was its virtue: not just courage, the most important virtue for every civilization, but also pietas, the duty and responsibility one owes to family, the dead, the gods, and Rome itself. Virgil’s hero Aeneas is known for this virtue, hence the honorific pius attached to his name.
Early in the epic, Virgil uses a striking extended simile to highlight the political importance of pietas. When Neptune calms the violent storm incited by Juno, who hates the Trojans, Virgil writes,
“Just as, all too often, some huge crowd is seized by a vast uprising/the rabble runs amok, all slaves to passion,/rocks, firebrands flying. Rage finds them arms/but then, if they chance to see a man among them/one whose devotion and public service [pietas] lends him weight,/they stand there, stock still with their ears alert as/he rules their furor with his words and calms their passion.” (Robert Fagles translation)
For Romans who had lived through the bloody chaos of the dying Republic, this scene would have been all too familiar. Note the idealism that all free governments are predicated on: persuasion should trump force, words should replace blood. But Virgil’s and his readers’ knowledge that such a scene of leadership had rarely happened in the decades-long death of the Republic, challenges the idealism.
This prizing of language over force has also characterized a century of our foreign policy of moralizing internationalism, the idea that non-lethal diplomacy can defuse conflict and restore peace. Only we predicate its efficacy more on rational technique and transactional negotiations, rather than on the virtue of a great leader. And that noble idealism has also failed, as we are witnessing today with the Biden administration’s feckless appeasement of Iran, making this idealism about diplomatic engagement yet another milestone on our road to decline.
The second, more important expression of Virgil’s qualified idealism comes when Jupiter calms down his daughter, and Aeneas’ mother Venus’ angry grief over Juno’s violence against her son and his fated future glory. The “father of gods and men” assures his daughter that the glorious civilization, the Roman Empire, will indeed happen: “Then will the violent centuries, battles set aside,/grow gentle, kind,” and force be replaced by laws and a higher civilization.
This “new world order,” moreover, as we’ve been calling it since the Versailles settlement, will create lasting peace: “the terrible Gates of War with their welded iron bars/will stand bolted shut, and locked inside the Frenzy/of civil strife will crouch down on his savage weapons,/hands pinioned behind his back with a hundred brazen shackles,/monstrously roaring out from his bloody jaws.” The Pax Romana that will rule the world, and that created the foundations of the West.
This idealistic hope for the Roman Empire was expressed much later in Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace,” and Norman Angell’s 1914 prediction in The Great Illusion that global trade and the expansion of the West would make war obsolete. Both of these boons of our “rules-based international order” idealism of course have not materialized, any more than did Virgil’s predictions of Rome’s universal peace.
But notice how Virgil describes this peace as contingent not on material improvements and progress, but on great leaders controlling the permanent passions of men––greed for honor and wealth, vengeance for dishonor, the lust for power––passions that can be locked away for a while, but without virtue, fealty to the gods, and moral vigilance will break out again.
The third example of idealism that for Virgil will characterize the Roman Empire, takes place in the underworld, where Aeneas’s father Anchises, who had recently died, parades before his son the greatness of Rome with a procession of the souls of great Romans who will be born over the next 1200 years. He finishes with a statement of Rome’s moral destiny.
The Greeks may surpass the Romans in art, science, or oratory, Anchises concedes, “But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power/the peoples of the earth––these will be your arts:/to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace,/to spare the defeated, but break the proud in war.”
These idealizations were not flattery of Augustus and his new empire. Virgil knew the cost in blood the creation of Rome exacted––not just from the enemies like the Gauls, a million of whom by his own count Julius Caesar killed or enslaved, but from Romans slaughtering Romans in a century of civil wars and civic violence. And he knew that Octavian had waded through blood to become Augustus.
But in the final lines of the Aeneid, Virgil shows the permanent reality of human nature that challenged his idealism. The last half of the epic describes the brutal wars between the tribes of Central Italy and the newly arrived Trojans, in effect a civil war since Romans would arise from the merging of the Latins and Trojans. The wars end with the death of Turnus, a leader of the indigenous resistance, at the hands of Pius Aeneas, who inflamed with vengeful rage forgets his father’s injunction “to spare the defeated,” and instead kills Turnus even as he kneels in submission and begs for mercy.
With this ending, we are reminded of Rome’s original sin of fratricide in its famous foundation myth, the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus. No matter how noble our intentions, how brilliant the civilization we create, how sophisticated and expansive the empire we rule, human nature never changes, and ruthless violence always must be the cost of our idealism.
Yet this probe of Roman idealism should not imply that Rome’s influence was completely malign. As the old saying had it, the Romans brought with them “peace and taxes.” Most of the lands the Romans conquered were scenes of endless wars and bloody competitions over power, resources, and slaves. Roman peace and her legions mostly put an end to that disorder.
But Rome also brought an advance civilization that was open to all, Roman or not: aqueducts, sewers, stone roads, arenas, theaters, magnificent temples and public buildings, villas, public art and sculpture, not to mention public laws and citizens’ rights. The ruins of all this civil and cultural infrastructure are still visible today, from Scotland to North Africa, the Danube to the Euphrates. And all these advances were defended with utmost ruthlessness, something our idealism today scorns and avoids.
This lesson in impossible idealism is why we should think about the Romans, for we still cling to the foreign policy idealism that has driven our foreign relations for a century. Our “rules-based liberal order” and technocratic hubris have claimed that through greater knowledge and material improvement, human nature also can be improved, and conflict resolve through diplomacy and global institutions.
Moreover, we assume that a complex diversity of peoples want to live just like us in a Pax Americana, once their illiberal and tyrannical leaders are neutralized. They will then embrace our political idealism of tolerance and unalienable rights, and discard their own ambitions for dominance and power. But those passions remain, and without a credible threat of force to deter them, they will erupt into violence against our arrogant tutelage. The Middle East since World War II illustrates this tragic reality, as does Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, one fueled by Putin’s dreams of correcting the “geopolitical disaster,” as he described the collapse of the Soviet empire, and restoring the ethnic Russian Empire.
Thinking about Rome, especially through Virgil’s eyes in his brilliant epic, is not about “toxic masculinity” or “patriarchy,” but rather our own dangerous idealism that threatens our security and interests.