BMCR 2023.05.13

Parallel lives: Romans and the American founders

, , Parallel lives: Romans and the American founders. London; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. 208. ISBN 9781032030746



The authors, both historians at universities in Texas, Poston as an Americanist, and Baughman a Classicist, emulate Plutarch in comparing notable statesmen of different eras and cultures. Their goal is not just comparison for its own sake, but also a search for political insight, to “investigate the accomplishments, mistakes, and challenges republics have faced through the centuries” (183). The choice of Plutarch as a model also involves literary ambition, since “Plutarch’s method of comparing monumental figures from the past continues to inform and entertain readers” (187). The figures are indeed monumental, a duetted Rushmore matching seven pairs, including Julius Caesar and George Washington, Cicero and John Adams, and Augustus and Thomas Jefferson. In the era of the bestselling 1619 Project and the hit drama Wednesday (which centers around the satisfactions of blowing up founders’ statues and blasting their zombie avatars into oblivion), it is hard to imagine a less fashionable project. Yet such lives contain fascinating and consequential stories, and Lin Manuel-Miranda is not the only one who could conjure with these names. The assessments of the great men here assembled are balanced, reasonable, and well-informed. Unfortunately, the lack of engaging storytelling will probably make the volume unappealing to its intended audience, and many of the points of comparison will strike historians as puzzling.

Some of the pairs make clear sense. There is a clarifying effect to directly confronting the careers of Julius Caesar with George Washington. It helpfully illustrates some key differences between Roman and American political and military values. Both men had to function alternately in military and civilian spheres, and the authors do a good job of summarizing their careers and efficiently explaining the relevant context. Caesar was more dynamic than Washington, Washington defter as a politician. Both used the power of appointments to consolidate power. Both inspired loyalty among subordinates. Caesar’s downfall was his personal ambition: “Ultimately, Caesar chose Caesar” (36), though the authors charitably allow that his lack of a galvanizing Republican ideal “shin[es] a light on the inadequacies of Rome herself as much as on Caesar” (37). John Adams of course emulated Cicero, and their careers have interesting parallels. Both shot to prominence in initially unpromising sides of causes célèbres, Adams defending the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, Cicero prosecuting Verres. They had similar views about the need for a mixed constitution and an educated citizen elite to temper the excesses of democracy. Both were marginalized later in life by political change.

Other comparisons are more far-fetched. The chapter on Catiline and Hamilton is titled “Parallel Conspirators,” though they admit later that, “for Hamilton, the better word may be intrigue” (96), and then weakly point out that “Hamilton’s reliance on the military as part of his grander scheme was slightly similar to that of Catiline and of Romans in general” (99). Sometimes, the urge to press a weak comparison leads to strange emphasis, as when they labor the point that Augustus would not have become Augustus without Agrippa’s military skill, and that Jefferson would not have been as effective without Madison’s moderating influence. Evidently the point is the obvious one that no “great man” is great by himself, though this is not spelled out. In some cases, the result of comparison-hunting leads to outright distortion. To make a contrast with the anti-aristocratic bent of Jefferson, Augustus is held to have been motivated by a desire to reinforce the privileges of the senatorial elite, which is only true on a very selective reading of the evidence. The authors write at length about how much better it would have been if Sulla had simply negotiated and compromised with Marius, as Madison was willing to do at the constitutional convention. True enough, but not illuminating of Sulla’s world.

The latter example typifies the political side of the book, the lessons for republican government. Here the message is clear: the Americans were much better at it than the Romans. Caesar craved sole rule where Washington stepped aside; Cato was a rigid traditionalist whose cause was no longer viable, Franklin a pragmatic forward-thinker; Cicero and Adams were both elitists, but at least the American founders managed to master the peaceful transfer of power; Jefferson had some hair-brained political ideas, but Augustus “had no vision of a republic in any sense of the word” (178).

Unlike Plutarch, who wrote self-standing biographies and then separate comparisons, the authors jump straight into the comparisons and oscillate back in forth to fill in the relevant facts. No prior knowledge of American or Roman history is assumed. This leads to much Wikipedia-like precis, but without the benefit of hyperlinking, so there are labored explanations of terms such as aristocracy, and identification of things like the Rubicon River or the Federalist Papers (undersold as “a competent and concerted defense of the constitution and its federal system” 101). Such explanation is not a bad thing in itself, and simply implies a readership of those without prior knowledge. The main problem is that, unlike Plutarch, the authors seem to have no interest in the entertaining, humanizing, or revealing anecdotes that would draw such readers in. The frequent insertion of dates and a penchant for abstraction and tired metaphors result in sentences like, “[Cicero] served briefly during the Social War (91–89 BCE), but unlike virtually all Roman heroes, he did not make his name through feats of combat. Cicero came to glory through the use of his pen, not his sword” (63). There is much needless repetition, and a fog of vagueness sometimes descends: “Slavery is probably one of the most paradoxical images concerning Jefferson’s enduring legacy” (174). Sometimes the pursuit of a far-fetched comparison results in near-impenetrability: “Much like the propaganda circulated by Octavian against Antony, Alexander Hamilton played Cicero to Burr’s Antony, accusing Burr not only of being a Catiline but adding a contemporary fear.” (126) We get prosaic bathos (“These are valid concerns”), needless neologisms (“Biumvirate,” “retrocede,” “unnecessity”), and confusing punctuation errors that any competent copyeditor should have caught. Opportunities for vivid narrative are routinely passed up.

As a sometime enjoyer of books about the American founders, a lover of Plutarch, and an admirer of the work on American classicism by Carl Richard and Caroline Winterer, I am sympathetic to the project of this book. Unfortunately, despite some apt and thought-provoking comparisons, the execution is inadequate to the potential of the subject matter.