Rome and America: Communities of Strangers, Spectacles of Belonging
By Dean Hammer.
Cambridge University Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 262 pages, $110.00.
Reviewed by Jesse Russell.
Since its inception, America has been many things, but, in a certain sense, it has always been Roman. The American Founding Fathers envisioned America as a restored Roman Republic. As America expanded and grew, Roman and classical architecture began to dot American cities, small towns, and college campuses. As America further developed into a world power in the twentieth century, there were frequent comparisons between the Pax Americana and the Pax Romana. In our own battered twenty-first century, America’s decline and Rome’s fall are often compared.
In his recent work, Rome and America: Communities of Strangers, Spectacles of Belonging, Dean Hammer, John W. Wetzel Professor of Classics and Professor of Government at Franklin and Marshall College, presents an extended and original meditation on the notion of Rome and America as being a collective of strangers bound together by common experiences of exile. Such a “nation of immigrants” approach to the United States is simultaneously both wrong and right. As Samuel Goldman notes in After Nationalism: Being American in An Age of Division, America has been many contradictory things throughout its history. There is a sober reading of America as liberal Anglo-Saxon Protestant country that absorbed many immigrants. As Goldman further points out, America can also be read as being a creedal nation that has always been diverse, changing as it has progressed through time. What makes Rome and America unique is its analysis of cultural artifacts and historical phenomena in depicting America as a unity of variant peoples, classes, and cultures.
In his first chapter, Hammer compares the Roman poet Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid with the 1976 Clint Eastwood western The Outlaw Josey Wales. Hammer notes that The Aeneid and Josey Wales both depict a ragtag band of refugees fleeing the carnage of war. Eastwood’s Josey has lost his family to post-Civil War vigilante violence and journeys to the American West with other misfits such as the Navajo woman Little Moonlight, a seemingly crazy family who is about to be sold to an Indian chief named Ten Bears, and Jamie, a guerilla fighter. Each of the figures in Josey’s band is wounded in some way, and this band is guided through hostile territory by the gruff and taciturn Civil War veteran. Hammer compares Josey’s motley posse to the collection of Trojans and others led by Aeneas to Italy in The Aeneid. As Hammer notes, like the “nation of immigrants” reading of American history, Rome was formed by a host of various people that settled on the Italian peninsula. Like Rome, America is, in Hammer’s view, a gathering of diverse people, wounded by the past and carrying their wounds and memories and identities with them. This is one of Hammer’s strongest points: those who traveled to America—whether the earliest English, Scots, and other settlers or later generations of immigrants—brought their histories with them, becoming something new in the “New World,” but still remaining haunted (and gifted) by their past identities.
In another fascinating chapter in which Dean Hammer demonstrates his classical erudition as well as his knowledge of American history, Hammer compares the cultural significance of gladiators in ancient Rome to bare knuckle boxing in nineteenth century America. Gladiators were simultaneously outcasts and adored celebrities in ancient Rome; they were usually criminals or foreigners. Thus gladiators were stuck in a form of slavery and did not have the coveted Roman libertas. However, they were paradoxically viewed as being emblems of Roman virtus, or manliness. Hammer notes that Roman virilitas, or virility, was associated with both aggression and self-control, and both qualities were frequently demonstrated by the gladiators. In fact, sometimes members of the Roman aristocracy would fight as gladiators to gain either wealth or prestige. Hammer’s key point is that Roman identity was at least partially and paradoxically located in and drawn from the gladiators’ lower class and brutal activity. In a similar fashion, boxing in the eighteenth and nineteenth century often drew members of the working class—either immigrants or Anglos—or slaves. Hammer fascinatingly contrasts the roughness of early American boxers—which was, like that of the gladiators, both feared and admired, with the gentility of the early American patrician class. Hammer notes that, as with the Romans, American notions of hardihood, endurance, and physical strength were located in and drawn from the lower class and rough and tumble world of boxing.
Hammer’s final chapter in Rome and America is his most contentious and the one with which conservative readers might take issue. Hammer’s central thesis is sound. He argues that America is experiencing a crisis in democratic and republican values, not unlike that which precipitated the slow decline of the Roman republic into autocracy. Although he rightly argues that the decline of democracy in America is a process that did not begin with the presidency of Donald Trump, Hammer controversially lays much of the blame on the former president whom Hammer labels as being an emergent (at least attempted) autocrat in a manner at least analogous to Julius Caesar’s rise. Hammer notes that near the end of the Roman Republic the republican institutions were stagnant and there was an increasing divide between the ruling class and the common people—similar to the divide that exists in the United States between “fly over country” and the “coastal elites.” Just as Julius Caesar attempted to woo the plebs against the senate, so too did Donald Trump attempt to court the American people against the establishment. While he does note anti-democratic actions of previous administrations, Hammer has a very strong animus against Trump, which, for some readers, may be off-putting. There is no question that there is a crisis in American government; however, it may be that both Republicans and Democrats (and a host of both progressive and right wing agitators) are to blame.
Rome’s fall had no shortage of causes. There were economic issues related to inflation and the devaluation of currency. There were issues of immigration—there was the sense that the Germanic peoples who eventually conquered Rome were being assimilated into Rome and were too primitive to overthrow the mighty empire. There was also the problem of overconfidence mixed with decadence and an ironic sense of fatigue and cultural and military exhaustion. All of these points (and more) have a clear resonance with the current state of America in the third decade of the twenty-first century. As he writes in this fascinating but controversial book, Dean Hammer has hope that America will not suffer this fate, and the strength of American liberal democracy will prevent a fall into either chaos or anarchy.
Jesse Russell has written for publications such as Catholic World Report, The Claremont Review of Books Digital, and Front Porch Republic. His book The Political Nolan: Liberalism and the Anglo-American Vision is forthcoming from Lexington Books.
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