The Second Fall of Rome

The Second Fall of Rome

Michael Lind

Ancient Rome's long reign over the Western imagination ended in the 19th century with the elevation of the Greeks--an error we should reverse, the author says.  

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1m 38sec

The reputation of Roman civilization in the Western world has never been lower than it is today. To a remarkable degree, the cultural and political legacies of both the Roman republic and the Roman Empire have been edited out of the collective memory of the United States and other Western nations not only by multiculturalists attacking the Western canon but by would-be traditionalists purporting to defend it. Western democracy is usually traced back to Athens rather than the Roman republic, something that would have astonished the American Founding Fathers and the French Jacobins. The Roman philosopher-statesman Cicero--perhaps the most important historical model in the minds of early modern European and American republicans--has been replaced by the Athenian leader Pericles as the beau ideal of a Western statesman. The art of rhetoric, once thought to be central to republican culture, has come to be associated with pompous politicians and dishonest media consultants. As for the Roman Empire, it is often thought of as an early version of 20th-century Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, or, if the emphasis is on decadence, as a rehearsal for the Weimar Republic.

The reputation of Roman literature has fared no better than that of Roman government. Roman authors such as Virgil and Horace and Seneca and Plautus are often dismissed as second-rate imitators of the Greeks. By common consent, the three greatest epic poets of the West are identified as Homer, Dante, and Milton. Even though the epic was a Roman specialty, Virgil, Statius, and Lucan are demoted to a second tier or ignored altogether. In two and a half centuries, Virgil has gone from being the greatest poet of all time to a feeble imitator of Homer and, finally, a paid propagandist comparable to a hack writer in a 20th-century totalitarian state. The Roman playwright Seneca, once revered as a tragedian and a philosopher, is no longer taken seriously by students of literature or philosophy.

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About the Author

Michael Lind is the Washington editor of Harper's Magazine and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Vietnam: The Necessary War.

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