Streetwise Professor

May 28, 2024

Bogus Historical Lessons From the BBC

Filed under: History,Politics — cpirrong @ 2:03 pm

I watched a three part BBC show about Julius Caesar with low expectations. Give credit to the BBC–they not only met but exceeded them!

I figured that it would use Caesar’s story to give Big Lessons about the dangers of populism in the West, and in particular about the mortal threat to “democracy” posed by Trump. Call me Carnac the Magnificent.

Most of the talking heads (not all) repeatedly intoned that Caesar demonstrates the dangers populism poses to democracy. The irony about all this pontificating and chin pulling in the telling of a historical story was its utterly ahistorical content.

Yes, of course Caesar applied a death blow to the Roman Republic. But to take up the story in the 50s-40s BC and insinuate that Caesar was a sui generis destroyer is a complete distortion of history. Caesar just delivered the coup de grâce to a dying republic. He was far more of a symptom of its terminal decay than its cause.

The Republic had been disintegrating for at least 100 years. The Gracchi brothers–the proto-populists in Roman history–were completely unmentioned in the BBC program, as was their fate. The supposedly virtuous Senate was so threatened by Tiberius Grachhus’ attempts to empower the great unwashed populace that they beat him to death with chair legs and stones. His brother was also assassinated by the Senatorial elite some years later when he attempted the same.

And even if you say, well, Tiberius flouted Roman political norms (e.g., by attempting to stand for re-election as a Tribune in order to circumvent Senatorial attempts to stymie his legislation), that only shows that these norms were cracking long before Caesar arrived on the scene.

Also completely missing from the narrative was Sulla. Sulla who had become dictator decades before Caesar. Sulla who had marched on Rome, not just once, but twice. Sulla who had killed thousands of political enemies in his Proscriptions. (Caesar’s main criticism of Sulla is that he gave up the dictatorship. Notably Caesar did not engage in such bloodletting when he became dictator, though after his assassination Marc Antony and Octavian did).

Particularly ironic is that Sulla engaged in these autocratic acts to empower the Optimates faction that the BBC talking heads adore, and to crush the Populares that Caesar represented and the talking heads deplore. (Caesar had been on Sulla’s proscription list, but was spared after appeals by family and friends).

The omission of the Gracchi and Sulla is particularly stunning given the talking heads’ frequent paeans to “democracy.” Uhm, Republican Rome was hardly democratic. Indeed, the Senatorial elite was extremely hostile–literally murderously hostile, as the Gracchi would tell you–to democracy, and to giving greater political power to the non-elite. The whole idea of an Optimates party was that the better thans should rule (hence the name), and that the people were a mob who needed to shut up and be ruled by their betters. The Gracchi attempted to give more power to the people, and were killed. The whole thrust of Sulla’s “reforms” were to reduce the political influence of the people, e.g., by sharply reducing the power of the Tribunate (which was intended to be the representative of the people). Meaning that if you favor the Republic of the Optimates, you are necessarily anti-democratic.

This entire context that is vital to understanding Caesar, populism in Rome in the mid-first century BC, and the civil war in which Caesar eventually prevailed. Caesar was popular among the masses precisely because Rome was profoundly undemocratic, ruled by an oligarchic elite that was hell-bent on maintaining its power (in large part due to its belief in its own superior virtue and intellect) and depriving the people of power. And the people resented this.

So you can make arguments for and against Caesar, but one thing one cannot do and retain a shred of intellectual credibility is to assert that Caesar’s enemies–Cato and the Optimates–were the defenders of democracy, and that Caesar was the enemy thereof. Caesar was a threat to a self-styled republic that limited power to a highly narrow oligarchic elite convinced of its own superiority, and which disdained the hoi polloi. Yes, Caesar was probably cynical in his appeal to the masses, but in doing so he was not destroying democracy. He was destroying an oligarchy.

And that’s no doubt why the talking heads and those who take them seriously are so threatened by Trump and other “populists.” For the talking heads and their confreres are part of an oligarchic elite convinced of its own superiority, and which disdains the hoi polloi. And which is tremendously insecure in the face of broad popular discontent–which is itself the product of the manifest failures of an “elite.”

Once one understands this, one can also understand the what has to be the deliberately de-contextualized, ahistorical telling of the Caesar story. Because a full and honest telling would hit far too close to home.

So what is instructive for modern politics in this program is not the lesson the talking heads attempt to impart; it is that they are so keen to try to impart it. The late Republic rhymes with current western politics (far more than the late Empire does), but not for the reason that the BBC et al express, namely that Caesar is an avatar for Trump, but because the first century BC Optimates are avatars for a failed and flailing 21st century elite.

It’s hard to say which of the talking heads is most annoying, but my choice would be British politician Rory Stewart. If he had a time machine, he’d use it to go back to 50 BC so he could get a room with Cato. (I made that as clean as I could!) But he is merely the most condescendingly clueless of a group so lacking in self-awareness that they don’t realize that a more accurate telling of the history that they presume to relate would condemn them as much or more than they condemn their bêtes noires Julius Caesar and Donald Trump.

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  1. Slight correction: Gaius Gracchus likely committed suicide in order to avoid being killed.

    Comment by cpirrong — May 28, 2024 @ 2:17 pm

  2. It wasn’t a million years ago when every educated man knew this stuff – and many of the girls too.

    I don’t mind that this is no longer the case – there’s more important stuff to learn at school. But to be unable, or too lazy, to look it up is disgraceful.

    Comment by dearieme — May 29, 2024 @ 4:55 am

  3. @dearieme–Alas, I would bet that fewer than 1 in 1000 Americans know this now. Wouldn’t be surprised if the ratio in the UK is pretty much the same.

    What’s disturbing is that the talking heads certainly did know this (all are faculty at UK or in one instance US universities). And no doubt the program’s writers and producers. Yet they deliberately omitted these material facts in order to make their tendentious points. Omitting important facts is as deceptive as stating outright falsehoods.

    However, the ignorance of the current viewership (consisting mainly of people who aren’t fossils like us 😉 ) allows them to get away with it.

    Comment by cpirrong — May 29, 2024 @ 10:02 am

  4. Isn’t history always being rewritten to support, or undermine, contemporary arguments? The shift over time in how the same events are interpreted is the interesting part because it tells you something about popular consensus. That and the idea that just because something is old it contains some form of universal truth, irrespective of context, but this is true of people on all sides of the discourse.

    Comment by lundenwic — May 30, 2024 @ 2:10 am

  5. Rory Stewart didn’t used to be annoying; he has an interesting background and has done brave things like hike across Afghanistan. But, possibly anticipating a Labour government, Rory has been tacking left for a while now and is fairly obviously lobbying for a quango chairmanship under Keir Starmer.
    His podcast with Labour spin-meister A Campbell is meant to be about disagreeing amicably but the generally falls into a soft-left line.

    Comment by Bespectacled — May 30, 2024 @ 3:11 am

  6. [In 2014] ‘A Cumbrian MP is urging people to hold hands along Hadrian’s Wall to prevent Scotland voting for independence.
    Rory Stewart is calling for an event on 19 July to “show the love that exists between the four nations of the union”.’

    It’s worth noting that Hadrian’s Wall has never, in all its history, constituted a part of the Scotland/England border.
    The probability of Rory not knowing that is zero. But he probably reckoned that the Wall would at least attract the TV cameras.

    Comment by dearieme — May 30, 2024 @ 9:09 am

  7. SWP – I agree. Trump has always seemed like more of a Gracchus figure, today’s verdict certainly not undercutting that view. A symptom of a dysfunctional political system in its death throes. The course from here is increasing chaos, gridlock, and political violence. The fissures are too deep and the embedded partisan rancor to great due to vicious cycles (well, they did that horrible thing so we have to get them back! They’re threats to democracy and have to be kept from power at any cost! They’re extremists who want to destroy America!).

    A transition to overt dictatorship seems unlikely. Instead, I expect a ‘super CFPB’ to emerge as elite consensus coalesces around the idea that the democratic system isn’t working (it’s not far from there today!) and that more power needs to be put into technocratic hands beyond the cut and thrust of day to day politics. Blend say the Fed, FBI, CIA, SEC, EPA, and a few other agencies, add independent taxation and budget authority, broad censorship authority (sorry, responsibility for combatting misinformation), and de facto if not de jure exemption from court review. Elections will go on, but it won’t really matter and almost all power will sit with that super agency and its head. It’s Augustus model – take real power out of democratic hands (of course the Republic was never that democratic) but keep the old facade so people can pretend things aren’t too different.

    At this point, where Trump or a successor to take office or attempt to change the course, it will merely hasten America on that path. Try to shrink the administrative state, and it will be evidence of why a powerful administrative system beyond presidential oversight is required. Don’t try and check the growth of the administrative state and you’ll end up at the same place anyway!

    Comment by Livy — May 30, 2024 @ 7:42 pm

  8. Stick with the genealogy prof.
    The BBC puts on this stuff only to show it’s adhering to its charter to inform as well as entertain. It has no interest in actually informing anyone and would much prefer to stick to a diet of cake making, undressed bimbos and global warming.
    If you want to be pedantic you could drive a coach and horses through the historical inaccuracies of I, Claudius, the classic 70s series.

    But we don bovver. For us, Ettubrute is some efnik rapper, innit.

    Comment by philip — May 31, 2024 @ 5:03 pm

  9. Fair play to Craig I guess for slogging through all three episodes. I only managed the first half of the first episode before dialling out. And yes, Rory Stewart is a lightweight.

    Question is, what crimes and misdemeanours did Julius Ceasar attempt to cover up during his ascent to power? Didn’t he pay off Incontinentia Buttox (Bigus’s wife, for all you history buffs)??

    Comment by David Mercer — June 1, 2024 @ 5:31 am

  10. @Livy–Thanks, and agreed. Ironically right before rescuing your comment from my (apparently randomized) spam filter, I wrote a post predicting exactly “[t]he course from here is increasing chaos, gridlock, and political violence.” Not happy thoughts, but I can’t see it working out any other way.

    Comment by cpirrong — June 4, 2024 @ 3:08 pm

  11. K.Kisin seems to see the same perspective
    But that’s nothing new, Dems followed this trajectory for years, it only accelerated in the last 4yrs. Now events will be happening with higher and higher speed, what was unthinkable just a few months ago will be boring routine…See Weimar-> 1930s. [yes, I’m watching Babylon Berlin, apart from mandatory lefty themes and glamorizing the Reds, there are some surprising things we are not used to hear, from Hollywood)]

    Comment by Tatyana — June 5, 2024 @ 6:45 pm

  12. (Clicked submit too soon).
    One of the steps in this old-made-new musical is the “suddenly” unleashed Jew-hatred. Like someone gave a command, flood gates opened and antisemitism became fashionable again. Not that it was ever dead, but it became a valve for the orchestrated rage-of-the-masses.

    How predictable.

    Comment by Tatyana — June 5, 2024 @ 6:52 pm

  13. @Tatyana–Yes. Kisin also shows that it is not limited to the US. And regarding the trajectory, the objective of leftism from the time leftism appeared has been to undermine and then control all traditional and conventional social institutions and norms. The French Revolution was the prototype. But the totalizing nature of leftism has never stopped or even slowed down. If anything, it has accelerated (as you say).

    Comment by cpirrong — June 6, 2024 @ 2:04 pm

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