Ancient Rome's Influence

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If you study this, you’ll know what can go wrong, and maybe you’ll be able to prevent it
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

Tune in to your local public radio or join the 1776 Club to hear this episode of What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

Listen to this week's episode.

The following is a rush transcript.

DS: 00:01 Good day, citizens, and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who is seated across from me now. Good day to you, Mr. President.

CSJ as TJ: 00:15 Good day to you, citizen.

DS: 00:17 Mr. President, we got a letter from Dan Grubb of Richmond, Virginia, right in your neighborhood, sir. And he is asking about the founders who read the histories of ancient Rome and how they use that knowledge when deciding how the American government should be structured. Could you answer that, sir?

CSJ as TJ: 00:38 Yes, it's a rich topic and the more we talk about it, the more we can understand my generation, the founding fathers, what we intended, what we, what we feared. So all of us were well educated in the ancient world. It was the center of any curriculum then and this involved the Roman republic from its beginnings in 509 BC to its end during the reign of Julius Caesar, the civil wars that ended the republic and then the coming of the Roman empire and all that that meant. And then the collapse and fall of the Roman Empire. You know, Gibbon's book, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was one of the most important books of the 18th century. He was my exact contemporary and the first volume of that book appeared in 1776. So this was our obsession and what you can learn from it as a couple of things. First of all, it takes character to lead a great nation. If you read Plutarch's Lives, they're about character, and people like Solon in Greece or Cato and Cicero in Rome, but the notion is that it takes a person of extraordinary virtue and a Commonwealth vision and moral courage and a deep understanding of what's at stake to lead a nation. And so all of us, all of the founding fathers were trying to pattern themselves in one way or another after characters out of Plutarch's. So there's. There's one element to it. Another is that the Roman republic was the, wasn't a democracy in anything like a modern sense of the term, but it was the only culture of the ancient world that really tried to understand that the people had sovereign rights and that the people mattered. That the people's will must somehow be enacted and the Roman republic collapsed and so when we were building our own republic back in 1776 or 1787, we understood what could go wrong because we'd seen it in the pages of Cicero. We'd seen it in the life of Julius Caesar. We saw it in the rise of Augustus, the first of the autocrats of the Roman Empire. And so we had this kind of mirror, this ancient mirror that was held up to us and it said, if you study this, you'll know what can go wrong and maybe you'll be able to prevent it by building in more checks and balances and a better constitutional system for yourselves. And so. So for us, the ancient world wasn't just something that's interesting that happened a long, long, long time ago. It was the most important lens through which we could look at our own experiment.

DS: 03:11 He asks if you perhaps looked at it through rosy colored glasses, sir, or did you understand the Roman problems of poverty and brutality that, that we do today.

CSJ as TJ: 03:37 Of course we understood this because that part of ancient history is written about brilliantly by a range of different authors. Livy, the greatest of the Roman historians, as I say, Plutarch and, Plutarch's Lives, are about good leaders and bad leaders, corrupt leaders, and virtuous leaders. People for whom power becomes too intoxicating. People that are warmongers, people that have great ideas but don't have the intellectual courage or the moral courage to see them through. So it's not just a kind of a rosy view of a, of a world that was, um, that never existed. We understood the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman republic very, very well indeed. And we understood mob rule and the lack of true representation and the economic problems of distribution that just rocked the Roman world. So we were not in any way naive about this. I think you could say this, we were naive perhaps in believing that there was a one to one parallel between what happened back then and what was happening to us. After all, Rome was a city state on a peninsula in the Mediterranean. We are America with a West that goes on and on and on to the Rocky Mountains and probably to the Pacific coast.

DS: 04:37 So you would encourage Americans of my time to study Roman history?

CSJ as TJ: 04:42 Yes. And uh, the way to start is to read the lives of the Roman leaders in Plutarch. They're short, they're highly entertaining, and they are a tremendous window on the nature and problems of leadership.

DS: 04:54 Thank you very much, Mr Jefferson.

CSJ as TJ: 04:56 You are welcome, sir.

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