Trump & co: From populism to Caesarism

Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Viktor Orban already are. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and a long list of others really would like to be. What? Little Caesars. Because Caesarism sooner or later grows naturally out of populism. And that is a threat to our Western understanding of republican liberty.

That, at least, was my hypothesis when I was invited to a delightful format of intellectual discussion in Berlin called Politischer Eintopf. It means “political stew”, and you literally get a bowl of stew while you listen to a guest speaker. Then you discuss.

This discussion was lively and good. Because it struck a chord. In Europe, we are about a month away from a populist effort to get Britain out of the European Union. In America, a long, slow-surging wave of populism has washed up the figure of Donald Trump. In Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Spain, Greece, and … even Germany there are now populist movements afoot.

But why would I even pose a question about Caesarism in this context? Here is why.

Phenomenon I: Populism

Populism (like so much else) originated in the late Roman Republic. The word populism comes from populus, “people”. During the last century of the Roman Republic, two political styles (not parties!) emerged in Rome. They were called Optimates and Populares

The Populares included some famous people:

The Optimates also included some famous people:

  • Cato the younger
  • Cicero
  • Brutus

It’s important to understand that their differences were not about content, or “policies”. Instead, they were about a style of power–about how to attain power and whence it springs.

The Populares went directly to the populus, the people, in Rome’s various assemblies, through what we would today call referendums. They wanted to circumvent the elites in the patrician families of Rome as represented in the Senate. It was (then as now) ironic but not contradictory that the Populares were usually themselves members of the elite they were trying to outmaneuver.

The Optimates in turn wanted to keep power concentrated in the elite, especially in the Senate. For that was part of their idea of liberty. History had taught them that populism sooner or later yields a tyrant and thus a threat to the republic.

What features did populism already have then, that it still has now?

  • anti-elitist rhetoric. Today that can be (especially in America) anti-intellectual or (as also in Germany) anti-PC, meaning against political correctness. That could also mean anti-“mainstream media”.
  • polarization and personalization: populists want to get people riled up and angry. And they want to reduce problems from issues to people. A personality cult usually ensues. If only there were a “strong leader”….
  • Degradation first of language, then of institutions. Violence metaphors enter language. Soon taboos are broken. Violence becomes physical. People (starting with the Gracchi brothers) are killed.


Phenomenon II: Caesarism

Caesarism eventually arises naturally out of populism. It requires 1) a few cycles of populist softening of republican values through (the aforesaid) coarsening, polarization and personalization and 2) a charismatic leader. That leader promises at last to bring “solutions” to “problems” that the republic with its tedious processes had no answers for. The populus loves it.

Sometimes Caesars go too far too fast. The first Caesar encountered a Cato, a Cicero and a Brutus, and got himself stabbed. Who would be Trump’s Cato today? Perhaps Paul Ryan?

Other times Caesars are more skillful. The second Caesar was. We know him as Octavian in his youth and Augustus in his prime, but his official name was that of his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar. He never officially abolished the republic he ended, just as Hitler never formally scrapped the Weimar constitution. Instead, Augustus became not king but princeps, “first head”, first among equals. The Senate and all other republican institutions were conspicuously maintained. Only they were now hollow in all but appearance.

America’s founding fathers, above all James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, had this example in their minds as they worried about their young nation’s constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. They feared that a future president could become another king in all but name. An anecdote about Ben Franklin sums up the worry. As he left the negotiations in Philadelphia, a lady asked him: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The meaning is all in the second clause.

The founding fathers’s main answer was based on an idea by the Frenchman Montesquieu. It was the separation of powers. He had in mind what we today call the three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. But in time the West has recognized other powers, above all that of a the media. Today’s Little Caesars (such as Putin or Erdogan or Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński) usually try first to take out the free press.

The problem with checks and balances is of course that they slow things down. Everything becomes a process: tedious, complicated, frustrating. Problems seem not to get swift solutions. The populus gets cranky. If only somebody understood us little people, talked as we talk, solved our problems!

Another French philosopher, Joseph Marie de Maistre, once said : “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Many of us the West will in the coming years find out just what we deserve.

Hannibal’s lifetime path: the map

Copyright David Lindroth

Look at this beautiful map. It depicts the dramatically simplified life path that Hannibal probably took. And you’ll find it in the beginning of my book.

The mapmaker and copyright owner is David Lindroth, a cartographer who seems to specialize in historical, educational, fictional and other unusually interesting maps.

I first came across David’s name when I saw a different version of this map by him in The Ghosts of Cannae, a great book about Hannibal by Robert O’Connell. (It came out last year, after I finished my manuscript, so it was unfortunately too late to be one of my sources.)

So I called David and he made this map for me. We put in some of the battle sites and other places of interest in the book, including Hannibal’s sketchy meanderings in the eastern Mediterranean in his final years.

Anyway, you know I like maps. Enjoy.

The story of Cicero, told well

I just devoured Robert Harris’s Imperium, the first book in what will be a trilogy of historical fiction, or fictional biography, about Cicero. I read it in a couple of sittings, hardly able to put it down. It may be the best way to learn about that great man and that fascinating time, a turning point in world history. I’ve just ordered the second book in the trilogy, and I can’t wait for the third to come out.

In terms of themes that show up a lot here on this blog:

  1. Storytelling: Wow. Harris has Cicero’s slave and confidante Tiro tell the story from his point of view, which works well. All the details of Roman life and of the characters (Crassus, Pompey, Caesar etc etc) come to life.
  2. The “impostors triumph and disaster”: Cicero embodies them (though not quite as perfectly as Hannibal and Scipio do, which is why I myself chose them to tell my own story. ;))
  3. The tension between mobs and elites, republican and democratic power sharing, what ought to be and what is.

Among other things.

In any case, if you like The Hannibal Blog, you’re likely to like not only Hannibal and Me in January but also Imperium right now.

Hannibal v Rome, the game

One of you (Thank you!) has pointed me to Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, a game for connoisseurs of this sort of thing (available on Amazon, too). You can replay Hannibal’s strategy … and tactics, apparently. Cannae could go to the Romans, Zama to Carthage. (And we today might all have Carthaginian, instead of Roman, government buildings.)

Aside from all that, just savor the rather different visual interpretation of the general, vis-a-vis the one Riverhead expressed on the jacket cover of my book. 😉 Now that’s what I call a Carthaginian!

And for the history geeks: You notice the Hannibal above has both of his eyes. And the Alps are behind him. When he came out of the Alps, he did indeed have them both. He lost one of them to conjunctivitis seven months later, while wading through a fetid Etruscan (= Tuscan) swamp.

My Elephantine mistake

Copyright: Shoshani and Tassy 2004

I’ve been telling you something very wrong about Hannibal’s elephants all this time. Not deliberately, mind you.

Almost three years ago, when I wrote my post “about Hannibal’s elephants“, I was really just kidding around, as I was in the early stages of research for my book. The levity, I thought, was abundantly obvious from my treatment of the subject. I did not mean to imply that I had any idea of what I was talking about (although I sort of do now).

I was, you see, a blogger! (Ie, I was more interested in thinking out loud, and getting readers to correct me, than in pontificating authoritatively.)

To my surprise, that particular blog post keeps getting a lot of traffic. In fact, its traffic is increasing. I have no idea why, so I must guess that the Google gods are sending people its way (which should cast aspersions on Google’s algorithms, not on my post). Those of you who blog may have made the same discovery: those posts you think are most valuable are not at all the ones that attract the eyeballs, and vice versa.

So I will set the record straight in this post. But first, I’m delighted what the earlier post has already done: It has brought me many of my readers (mostly the silent, non-commenting type). One of you has even (hush, hush) hinted that you might write a children’s book about Hannibal’s elephants — and I have voluteered my own kids and me as the first readers.

Now: The first question is how many elephants Hannibal brought with him when he left Iberia to cross the Alps and attack Rome. I’ve read the number 37, but Serge Lancel, the late French historian who seems to know best, says 27 (on page 63 of his book). So I’m going with that. Personally, I don’t really care about the real number. It changes nothing in the story and the drama.

The second question — and the one I answered wrong — is: which kind of elephant?

The correct answer is the African Forest Elephant, or Loxodonta cyclotis:

Click for attribution

As it happens, we very recently (last year) discovered that these elephants were an entirely different species (as opposed to just a sub-species) of elephant. So you should imagine the (older) genealogical tree at the top with another twig on the third branch from the right, as this blog post explains.

The discovery comes via DNA analysis from Nadine Rohland, David Reich, Swapan Mallick, Matthias Meyer, Richard Green, et al., who summarize their findings here:

Our data establish that the Asian elephant is the closest living relative of the extinct mammoth… We also find that savanna and forest elephants, which some have argued are the same species, are as or more divergent in the nuclear genome as mammoths and Asian elephants, which are considered to be distinct genera… The divergence of African savanna and forest elephants—which some have argued to be two populations of the same species—is about as ancient as the divergence of Asian elephants and mammoths…

So it is those forest elephants that Hannibal brought with him. They were quite a bit smaller than the savanna elephants of Africa. So artists have, for millennia, exaggerated their size.

Or have they? Generations of boys reading about Hannibal must have imagined them just as the young Roman legionaries perceived them, which is roughly thus:

Gabrielle Giffords, American Gracchus

Gaius Gracchus

The Roman republic was 375 years old — more than 1½ times as old as the American republic is today — when, in 133 BCE, something unprecedented and indeed hitherto unimaginable occurred: domestic political violence.

A populist politician had got himself elected tribune by the citizens of Rome, in exactly the sort of democratic process that Rome was proud of. His name was Tiberius Gracchus, and he was ambitious, idealistic and perhaps somewhat naive. (He was also the grandson of my hero, Scipio Africanus, the nemesis of Hannibal.) This elder Gracchus — he had a younger brother named Gaius — then proposed reforms to improve the lot of the people. Many patricians in the Roman Senate did not like that.

It had never, up to this point, mattered that Senators and Tribunes, plebeians and patricians, Optimates and Populares (those were the names of Rome’s political factions) disagreed on matters of policy.

Of course they disagreed! Peaceful disagreement, in which the more persuasive arguments prevailed over time, was what the Roman republic was about. It was the reason Romans loved Rome.

Rome had withstood existential threats — a sack by the Gauls, near-extinction by Hannibal — without ever sacrificing its founding ideals: inside the city walls, there was no place for violence in politics.

But on that day in 133 BCE, a group of senators and their supporters made their way toward a popular assembly in progress. They beat Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters to death.

Yes, Rome was shocked. Of course it was. This incident had to be an outlier. The exception that proved the rule.

But it seems that a taboo had been broken, a precedent set. Something unthinkable had become thinkable: Political violence.

A decade after Tiberius’s murder, Gaius Gracchus (pictured above) followed in his brother’s footsteps. He, too, got himself elected tribune. He, too, intended to launch reforms.

And again, a mob of senators and their supporters came for him. Gaius fled to a grove and killed himself, as the attackers murdered his supporters.

Another outlier, they told themselves. An exception. Never to be repeated.

And yet, it was repeated. Over the next century the Romans — a people always well-armed, often for the right reasons — began flashing blades to intimidate other Romans in any disagreement. The tone of debate changed. The incidents of political violence became more frequent, and worse.

A taboo once toppled is difficult to re-erect.

Marius, Sulla, Pompey, the Caesars….

Violence, or the threat of it, now prevailed in Rome.

Rome would remain a superpower for much longer. But no longer a republic. Not the Rome that the likes of Scipio Africanus had ever fought for. Not the Rome they considered worth preserving and defending.

Competitive Christians on poles


The Roman emperor Constantine (above) caused a counterintuitive problem for early Christians.

By converting to Christianity and making it the official religion of the Roman Empire in about 313 AD, Constantine made it impossible for early Christians to be either confessors or martyrs.

  1. To be a confessor meant to acknowledge openly to the Roman bureaucracy that you were a Christian. This carried the risk of martyrdom.
  2. To be a martyr then meant actually going through with the process and dying for your faith.

Why was this a problem?

Because these were the two main ways in which early Christians competed for religious kudos — and those Christians were (are?) a competitive bunch. Both confessing and martyrdom constituted a sort of second baptism and suggested spiritual excellence.

Being martyred, in particular, was surprisingly difficult, since the Romans (with rare exceptions, as under Diocletian) did not actually want to kill anybody because of religion. Historians have recovered trial transcripts that show how eager the Roman administrators were to accommodate Christians. The administrator might ask the confessor whether he might, please, consider a small sacrifice — not to any pagan gods but merely to the Emperor. No? OK, how about a pinch of incense just to acknowledge the Emperor? No? OK, how about….

But when the Roman Empire officially became Christian, this form of Christian achievement came to a complete and screeching halt.

Christians had to find some other way to excel….

(What follows is based on Lecture 5 of Philip Daileader’s excellent course on the Early Middle Ages.)

The first monk

In perhaps the strangest psychological twist in human history, the most competitive Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries AD responded by, in effect, martyring themselves (ie, attacking their own bodies).

Perhaps the most famous to do so was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. Early in his career, when it was still possible, he tried and failed to get himself martyred in Alexandria. When that didn’t work, he went far into the desert to live as a hermit.

He was, in Greek, a Monakhos, a lonely one (as in mono, one; and of course monk).

He ate nothing, slept little, did everything to punish the human senses. (No sex ever, it goes without saying.) When that made him delirious, he imagined that demons and Satan himself attacked him, but he despatched them heroically. Here is Michelangelo’s depiction of that cheerful anecdote:

Word of Anthony’s self-torture got out, and other Christians traveled to the desert to see him. Anthony, of course, wanted to be a Monakhos, so he moved further into the desert to lose his groupies. Eventually, he gave up and accepted that his followers were going to live together in the desert near him, in a sort of … monastery (not that lonely anymore, obviously).

Anthony’s fame soon spread west and throughout the Roman Empire. The reason was that a man named Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and a publisher with a sense of Zeitgeist, wrote a book called Life of Saint Anthony, describing what Anthony got up to in the desert.

From the book’s title, you notice that Anthony is now a “saint”. And thus a new genre is born: the hagiography. (Greek hagio = saint, as in Hagia Sophia; graphe = writing.)

To put this in contemporary perspective, Life of Saint Anthony was the Eat, Pray, Love of the late Roman Empire. Everybody suddenly wanted to try it out…

Grazers, fools and stylites

The result was a competitive free-for-all, as Christians tried to one-up each other in search of spiritual kudos.

  • The Grazers, for example, ate only grass and shoots and chained themselves up as barnyard animals.
  • The Holy Fools behaved as though they were insane, or tried to be insane. The most famous of them once paraded into the women’s bathhouse and disrobed, at which point the women, suspecting that he might be less foolish than he pretended, beat and ejected him.
  • The Stylites lived on top of pillars (Greek stylos) or poles.

The most famous Stylite, named Simeon (above) and also sainted before long, lived on top of his pole for some 40 years. (He reminds me of some tree sitters in Berkeley that I wrote about in The Economist once.) People sent food up to him via ladders and pulleys and presumably received and disposed of Simeon’s detritus by the same method.

Simeon became a tourist spectacle. Crowds watched from below as he performed painful exercises. He once touched his feet with his head 1,244 times in succession.


Let’s sit back for a moment, perhaps with a glass of sensual Cabernet Sauvignon and a cavalier mindset, and reflect.

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog already know that I have a recurring Diogenes fantasy. Diogenes was the guy in classical Greece who lived in a barrel like a dog (the first “cynic”).

But Diogenes did that to be free, not to compete with other barrel-dwellers. He was an eccentric.

You may also recall that I admire Patanjali and his contemporary, the Buddha. Many yogis and Buddhists also (then as now) practice asceticism.

But, like Diogenes, they also do so in search of freedom. (The Sanskrit word for this kind of freedom is moksha, which is achieved at the highest stage of yoga, which is called kaivalya or detachment.)

For them, asceticism is a way to reclaim our peace of mind from the oppressive push and pull of our desires (appetite, lust, jealousy, et cetera). It is a path toward clarity, serenity and humility.

Somehow, this kind of freedom seems not to have factored as a motivation for the pole-sitting Christians.

A seconds difference:

Christianity soon turned lifelong asceticism and total chastity into a virtue.

By contrast, asceticism in antiquity and in Eastern philosophy was a temporary effort, practiced at a certain stage of life.

Vestal Virgin

The Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome, for example, were expected to remain chaste while serving the goddess of the hearth (Roman Vesta or Greek Hestia). But only until they were 30! Then they were expected to do the natural and healthy thing, which was to get married and start a family.

Hindus and yogis first make a living, marry and have sex, start a family, and then, at the end of life, withdraw into asceticism to contemplate the absurdity of it all. (This is called sannyasa, and it is the last of the life stages, or asrama.)

So, asceticism has a place in many spiritual traditions.

But what were these early Christians up to? Were their stunts not huge ego trips?

Worse, did they not begin what Nietzsche would later consider the ultimate perversion of nature — by slandering every one of nature’s instincts to be evil? Were they not fundamentally … sick?

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How Muhammad created Europe

Historians are still arguing about why and how (and even when) the Roman Empire fell — and by extension why, how and when the “Middle Ages” and “Europe” (ie, northwestern Europe as we understand it) began.

One theory is that the answer is to be found, somewhat surprisingly, not in northwestern Europe but on the opposite side of the former Roman Empire. This story-line involves Muhammad, Islam and the Arab conquests in the century after Muhammad’s death in 632. The stages of those conquests you see in the map above.

In this post, I want to introduce that thesis to you and the one it tried to replace.

I do this not in order to endorse either thesis, but in order to celebrate the elegant and imaginative beauty of the thought processes of the two historians who produced them.

These two thinkers are

  • Edward Gibbon and
  • Henri Pirenne,

and I am hereby including them into my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers.

(Which reminds me: Scientists and philosophers are currently over-represented on my list, so I am also retroactively including the historians Herodotus, Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. Thucydides is already on the list.)

And at the end of the post, I’ll ponder what this eternal debate about Rome tells us about intellectual theorizing in general.

My source, besides the books of Gibbon and Pirenne, is Philip Daileader’s excellent lecture series on the Early Middle Ages.

I) Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon

Gibbon was a typical specimen of the Enlightenment. He hung out with Voltaire, considered religion (and especially Christianity) a load of superstitious poppycock, trusted in human reason and was enamored by the classics.

Being a man of independent means, he was able to devote all his time and energies to investigating what he considered the great mystery of antiquity. Why did the Roman Empire fall?

The result was an epic work of beautifully written English prose called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The first of its six volumes came out in the year of America’s Declaration of Independence.

The book was so powerful that its thesis turned into what we would call a meme. Ask any semi-literate person today why the Roman Empire fell and he is likely to answer something like this:

Barbarians invaded → Rome fell

Gibbon’s thesis in more detail


In brief, Gibbon believed that the Roman Empire was

  1. in part a victim of its own success, having prospered so much that its citizens had become soft, and
  2. in part a victim of Christianization, which replaced the pagan warrior ethic with an unbecoming concern for the hereafter.

As Gibbon famously said, Rome’s

last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister.

This corrosion of morals or values, according to Gibbon, left the Western Roman Empire (Diocletian had divided it into two halves, east and west, for administrative purposes) vulnerable to the blonde hordes from the north.

And thus, federations of Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine and Danube and ransacked the Roman Empire, eventually sacking Rome itself and deposing the last (Western) Roman emperor in 476.

The Ostrogoths and Lombards took Italy, the Visigoths took Spain and the Franks took Gaul (→ Francia, France).

Within a few generations, one Frankish family, the Carolingians, seized power. Under Charlemagne (= Carolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse, Charles the Great), the Carolingians then united much of western Europe, an area that happens to overlap almost perfectly with the founding members of the European Union.

In the nice round year of 800, Charlemagne, the king of Francia, became a new Emperor. He sparked a small cultural and economic recovery (the “Carolingian Renaissance”), but his descendants bickered about inheritance, and the Carolingian empire split into what would become France, the Low Countries and Germany.

And there we have it: “Europe”.

II) Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne

Like Gibbon, Henri Pirenne was a man of his time. But that time was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Historians now felt that “moral” explanations of history were a bit woolly and preferred to think in terms of impersonal, and primarily economic, forces rather than great individuals or events.

And this led Pirenne, a Belgian (and thus a Carolingian heir), to a very different, and extremely original, thesis. The title of his monumental book, Mohammed and Charlemagne, essentially says it all.

The Pirenne thesis begins with a view that, first of all, nothing noteworthy “fell” in 476. Who cares if an emperor named, ironically and aptly, “little Augustus” (Romulus Augustulus) was deposed in that year? Roman civilization went on exactly as before. To most Europeans, nothing whatsoever changed.

That civilization was

  1. urban
  2. Mediterranean and
  3. Latin in the West

The Germanic tribes in fact came not to destroy but to join this civilization. They had entered the Roman Empire long before 476 to live there in peace, but were forced repeatedly to move and fight. When they eventually deposed the Romans, the Barbarians settled in the Roman cities and gradually adopted Latin (which was by this time, and partially as a result, branching into dialects that would become Catalan, Spanish, French etc).

Most importantly, the Mediterranean (medius = middle, terra = land) remained the center of this world, and trade across its waters enriched and fed all shores, north and south, east and west.

So what changed?

What changed was that Muhammad founded Islam, united the Arabs and then died. Suddenly, the Arabs poured out of the desert and conquered everything they encountered.

Look again at the map at the very top. In effect, the Arabs conquered the entire southern arc of the former Roman Empire until Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) stopped them near Poitiers in France.

The Arabs thus split the Mediterranean in two. Suddenly, the “Mediterranean” was no longer the center of the world, but a dividing line between two worlds.

Ingeniously, Pirenne then inferred the rest of his thesis from archaeological finds: In the years after the Arab conquests, papyrus (from Egypt) disappeared from northwestern Europe, forcing the northerners to write on animal hides. Locally minted coins disappeared, too. Gone, in fact, was everything that was traded as opposed to produced locally.

The Arabs, Pirenne concluded, had blockaded and cut off northern Europe from the rest of the world. Europe thus became a poor, benighted and involuntarily autarkic  backwater.

This, finally, amounts to the “fall” of Roman civilization in northwestern Europe. Roman cities, administration and customs disintegrated. Europe becomes a small and isolated corner of the world.

It is within this then-forgettable corner that the Carolingians rise and create “Europe”. As Pirenne famously said:

Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.

III) So who was right?

I promised to ponder what this debate might say about intellectual theorizing in general. Well, here goes:

1) Nobody needs to be wrong

As it happens, neither Gibbon nor Pirenne have ever fallen out of favor. Both are still considered to have got much of their interpretation right. The caveat is merely that their theses are considered … incomplete.

We encountered such a situation when talking about Newton and Einstein. Einstein in effect proved Newton “wrong”, and yet we have never discarded Newton, just as we won’t discard Einstein when somebody shows his thinking to have been incomplete.

2) Progress = making something less incomplete

Although both Gibbon’s and Pirenne’s theses were incomplete, they add up to an understanding that is less incomplete, so that others can make it even less incomplete.

This, in fact, is what has been happening. Subsequent historians have wondered why, if their theories were true in the West, the Eastern Roman (ie, Byzantine) Empire did not fall for another millennium.

Regarding Gibbon: The East, too, faced Barbarian invasions (from the same tribes). And the East was even more Christian than the West. So something must be missing in Gibbon’s explanation.

Regarding Pirenne: The East, too, was cut off from the south by the Arab conquests (though perhaps not as much).

IV) One possible omission: depopulation

So, even though both Gibbon and Pirenne, may well have been right, that there had to be at least one more factor: disease.

Perhaps it was smallpox arriving from China, and later plague. Perhaps it was something else. (The theory of massive lead poisoning is now discredited. Again: They had lead pipes in the East and the West.)

Whatever the disease(s), the population of the Roman Empire collapsed. And the West, which had fewer people than the East to begin with, became largely empty.

Its cities were deserted. Rome’s population was 1 million during the reign of Augustus but 20,000 by the time of Charlemagne. People used the Roman baths of northern cities as caves. New city walls were built with smaller circumferences than older city walls.

Fields and land lay fallow, too. We know this because taxes were levied on land (not labor), and tax revenues fell due to agri deserti, “abandoned fields”.

Viewed this way, both the Germanic invasions that Gibbon focussed on and the Arab invasions that Pirenne focussed on were perhaps not a cause but a symptom of the fall of Rome. It seems likely that the Germans and Arabs showed up because there were few people blocking their way, and conquered for that same reason.

If we ever find out the complete answer, it will be because Gibbon and Pirenne pointed us in the right direction.

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Roman Jefferson v Carthaginian Hamilton

Thomas Jefferson

I’ve mentioned a few times just how much our Founding Fathers were influenced by — and saw themselves as heirs to — republican Rome. That’s why both our federal and state buildings tend to look like Roman temples.

Two excellent books I’ve been reading lately have brought home to me just how direct that influence was for specific Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson. Not only did Jefferson “inherit” certain Roman political ideals (as he understood them) but he also adopted the hatreds and propaganda of republican Rome. This meant:

  • Rome = good = America
  • Carthage = bad = Britain

Here Jefferson talks about Britain (from Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed):

Her good faith!The faith of a nation of merchants! The Punica fides of modern Carthage.

Punica fides means Punic faith. The Romans and Jefferson used the term ironically to mean faithlessness.

The Romans looked down on the Carthaginians (who were Phoenician traders) as merchants, and Jefferson inherited that attitude as well. (Napoleon, too, condescended to the English as “shopkeepers.”) Romans and Americans, Jefferson implied, were above such corrupt Carthaginian and British habits as commerce and banking.

Alexander Hamilton

When Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and other “republicans” (they deliberately named their faction to evoke republican Rome) began their hysterical conspiracy to bring down Alexander Hamilton, who in their fantasies had British and monarchical leanings, one of Hamilton’s friends warned him thus (from Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 391):

Delenda est Carthago, I suppose, is the maxim adopted with respect to you.

Delenda est Carthago means Carthage must be destroyed. It was the infamous phrase with which Cato the Elder ended every speech he gave until Rome indeed decided to destroy Carthage.

So to Jefferson, Hamilton was a sort of Hannibal?

Much more about all this in later posts. But you can already infer where my sympathies would have lain in this Founding Father soap opera.

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My 12-minute “book teaser”

If you’re taking a 12-minute cappuccino break, watch me give this “teaser” about my book at our (The Economist‘s) recent innovation conference in Berkeley.

(You’ll also find most of the other sessions on video now, including those with Arianna Huffington, Jared Diamond, Matt Mullenweg, et cetera.)

I’m not good at “teasers” or “elevator pitches”, especially since I tried to tell a story in my book that would keep you reading for 100,000 words. But I’m constantly being told that I now have to practice condensing that story into two seconds for some occasions (cocktail parties, elevators), two minutes for other occasions, 10 minutes for yet others, and so on.

So, er, I’m practicing. (Even while determined not to give too much away yet.)

Your feedback would be welcome. Do I snare your interest or do you say ‘so what’? Are there howling non sequiturs, or does it make sense? And so forth.

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