Design a site like this with
Get started

The Similarity Between the Change of an American President and a Roman Emperor

In the midst of the current upheaval, an interesting observation from Peter Salway’s Roman Britain (Oxford History of England).  In his discussion of the relationship between the Roman Emperor and his provincial governors, he says the following:

It is easy to become so absorbed in the career of the hundreds of individuals whose appointments are known in great detail from the thousands of inscriptions surviving throughout the empire, that we assume ‘standard careers’ and forget that there was little to stop a capricious emperor from interfering with the system.  In some ways the death or fall of an emperor or his favourite adviser was not unlike a change of president in the United States, where vastly more appointments are a matter of party and indeed of one man and his personal advisers than in Britain today…Patronage ran through the Roman system from top to bottom, and Rome cannot be understood without grasping the fact.

The Founders’ debt to democracy and Greece is well understood; less understood is their debt to Rome, and especially Republican Rome, which the Empire followed.  OTOH, it has been the Progressive ideal from Woodrow Wilson onward to replace this reality with a more “professional” system, as many countries in Europe (and some working on getting out) have done.  To attempt to superimpose a rule by bureaucrats on a system such as ours is unworkable; not grasping this has been one of the left’s many weaknesses, one which they may rue before too long.


20 Replies to “The Similarity Between the Change of an American President and a Roman Emperor”

      1. Don,

        I think cartoonist Adams, a very bright young man, is struggling to back up his lucky call that Trump would win.

        His argument that Trump’s actions are merely stong opening demands in canny nogotiations would only be credible if Trump had ever beeen a successful negotiaor. The fact is he has never made a penny in business, losing $900 million by his own dubious accounting.

        He has spent a great deal of money, one of the great American fortunes, inherited from his hard-working father, plus a great deal borrowed besides.

        To understand Trump the total loser, I suggest that you and our readers Google up “Trump, Plaza hotel.” That and any balanced set of follow-ups you choose will show you the wanty, incompetent little boy, loose in FAO Schwartz with his daddy’s credit card.

        He has also had a successul, though easy, career in television. I say “easy” because the part he acted was merely himself, a bossy blowhard with a nasty sense of humor very reminiscent of Stalin’s at the Central Committee table. The character he acted was a grotesque imitation, unlike anything in genuine business life, as I’m sure you know.

        His present financial position is unclear, but I would not be surprised if it is very heavily negative.

        Best wishes as always,



      2. As I noted here, Lu Xun, the famous Chinese author, makes an illustration of people in a dark room. He says that, if you propose to cut some windows, you’ll get opposition, but if you propose to take the roof off, you’ll get agreement on a more sensible solution.


      3. Don,

        Lu Xun supported the Communists before they came to power. He didn’t live long enough to hear Chairman Mao say of him, during the supposed Cultural Revolution, “A great man. He was lucky he died, because if he hadn’t we should have had to kill him.”

        Had he lived to see Mao in power he might have considered the irritation of having the roof actually taken off.

        His proposal that you quote, Don, supposes that someone actually has “a more sensible solution” for people to agree on.

        As with Chairman Mao, there is no evidence that serial bankrupt Trump has any clue what a sensible solution, anywhere, to anything, might look like.

        Wretched excess is his only skill. He doesn’t do sensible solution. Just destructive, demeaning, or distasteful wretched excess.



      4. If there’s one thing the American left has never learned from the likes of Mao, it’s that, to achieve historical determinism, you have to make it happen.

        They had eight years. They could have put single-payer in instead of the kludge of Obamacare. They could have sent George W. Bush to war crimes trials, which would have been a “shot across the bow” at any other power challenger. They could have broken the back of institutional Evangelical Christianity through hard application of the tax code. (They actually tried that with the Tea Party, and they were partly successful.) They could have done many things that would have eliminated the result we have now. And I actually suggested some of these at the time. They would have done all this to the applause of the world and, I have no doubt, you.

        But they didn’t. Their Leader preferred going on holiday and playing golf to keeping after the cause, and his minions (especially the likes of Cass Sunstein) were content to “nudge” the process along. And I don’t doubt that he continued the activity that brought him his first executive position: leader of the “Choom Gang” in Honolulu. They thought that history, to say nothing of demographics, were going their way.

        They went into the 2016 campaign thinking it was theirs to lose. They were right. They nominated a person with an enormous amount of baggage whom they themselves rejected eight years earlier. They were shocked when things didn’t turn out the way they wanted, just as was the case in 2000. Personally I think that Bernie Sanders would have done better, at least he would have motivated the Millennials.

        Now everyone (on this side of the border at least) is looking at this thing apocalyptically. My, my, I thought such thinking was restricted to the Evangelical right. But it isn’t. It’s as American as apple pie, and in some way the secular left is better at it than we are. But the result we have is what happens when you have an entitlement mentality, and now we all must live with the consequences, good or bad.


  1. Don,

    You’re from the ultra-seleno-montane regions. Bladders shaking and telescopes reversed, you think President Obama gets a capital L on leader, and runs a left. A man who tries to name a dead-center Justice Garland is a vindictive lefty, and making it easier for a chicken shop to discriminate against gays is suddenly a religious issue. I think you need a new writer.

    That’s not politics, Don. You’re just having fun with a silly hobby, and I’ll leave you to it.

    I did enjoy the bit where you thought the Democrats were going to be in power for a generation and the Republicans a regional curiosity. Those will probably be true in time Some of the GOP’s people are as silly as you hobbyists, and who knows, the Federalist Society may turn out to have a member or two who believe in one effective vote per citizen. Stranger things have happened.

    In the meantime, though, we have nothing much to talk about. I’ll look you up if I ever see you writing about American politics, but this isn’ the day, clearly.



    1. “ultra-seleno-montane”


      ” I’ll look you up if I ever see you writing about American politics, but this isn’ the day, clearly.”

      You do that. Politics is for keeps, especially in a country as polarised as this one and with the system we have (which was the real topic of this post.) I’ve never liked American politics, would much prefer this kind of system, and if you don’t, then you’re the one in the wrong country.


  2. Ultramontane, but the mountains in question being more than mere continents away from the Earth I live on.

    Your attitudinizing is pretty tiresome, Don, which is why I leave you on your field, strutting. Your anchor above leads me to your odd delusions, e.g. that Gore did not acccept the result in 2000 — when he clearly did.

    You make childish allusions to people with guns, and seem to suggest that they gave him no choice. Yet oddly you make a point that I agree with, that the police and armed forces outgun the very few hundred freaks of the militias who think they are the NRA. Odd how you drift in and out of reality.

    Over and out, with fond best wishes. You’re right on the important stuff, e.g. nuclear power vs. coal, after all.




    1. You sure do read a great deal into what I say that isn’t there.

      1) I didn’t say that Gore didn’t accept the 2000 result, just that he and others were surprised at it. I remember when Gore formally gave up, and in doing so put his finger on a serious problem he had: he lost his home state (TN.) Had he won TN, FL wouldn’t have been relevant and we would have been spared the hanging chads and the SCOTUS decision.
      2) “You make childish allusions to people with guns…” What are you talking about? I do remember our discussions on the militarisation of our police.

      I think you’re conflating me with others.

      You’ve stormed off this stage before.


      1. Yours of 21st October: “First: it’s not the first time the results of a Presidential election in the U.S. haven’t been accepted. Al Gore certainly did not, and the left never has accepted the results of the 2000 election.”

        Not storming off. Just tired of your delusional drone.



      2. Reasonable catch. But there are still “sore tailed bears” from that experience, and doubtless will be from our last election cycle.

        You’ve never addressed the main point of that piece, i.e., that we’d be better off with a parliamentary system like you have in Canada. I find that reticence very strange in a Canadian.


  3. Don,

    I wasn’t thinking of “catching” you. You seemed genuinely and innocently oblivious to the fact that you were lying to yourself. I was just trying to be helpful, rather as one would warn a friend who was about to bump into a chair or something.

    My thoughts on Parliamentary systems are somewhat like yours. I admire Jeffersonian democracy in the abstract, but think of it as an unattainable ideal. It is a blessing that America’s rough approximation of it has lasted reasonably well. Now, as in the 1820’s, 1840’s and 1860’s, it faces interesting times again.

    The Constitutional monarchies seem to me the most successful of the governments we’ve seen so far. The sad exceptions might be the Ugandan, Gold Coast, and Chinese cases of the Victorian era, all of them more advanced than the vulgar European colonialists who crushed them in the middle stages of their developments.

    The great virtue of these governments is that they supply the mass of the people a nominal authority, the Crown, the Chair, the Log, the Emperor (preferably facing south and shutting up), together with a myth of government that works. The People are united in demanding their rights from The Authority. The Speaker then goes and gives the Sovereign its marching orders, safe in the knowledge that The People control the purse and the army.

    When you don’t have this myth, in the republican forms of government, your people, sir, become a great mob. Governance becomes the war of all against all. A republic has no loyal opposition because if has no government to oppose. It has an administration offstage someplace perhaps, but in the realm of politics there is nothing but politics. This is a fine way of running a barnyard, not such a good way of running a human society.

    America has done as well as it has when it has had the benefit of parliamentary forms, don’t you think? Modern media and big money seem to promote the barnyard model.



    1. A Presidential system such as ours requires an enormous amount of consensus to work properly. When that breaks down, things get ugly, as they did in 1860. It’s the central contradiction of our experience: we have free speech, but if we use it, the “go along to get along” required in a system like ours comes under attack, and everybody gets nervous. That leads to the “kabuki theatre” aspect of American politics: everybody knows what the real issues are, but no one wants to say it. But since you’ve spent more time in Japan I’ll leave it to you about the theatre.

      These days many of those “real issues” are coming to the forefront, and it’s ugly.

      We don’t have a parliamentary system, we have Montesquieu’s misinterpretation of the British system, combined with elements from Republican Rome.


  4. Don,

    What “real issue” do you believe underlay Mitch McConnell’s eight years of unthinking automatic opposition to everything?

    What “real issue” do you believe underlay the Republicans’ refusal to take up the nomination of Justice Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court?



    1. Before I get into those questions, a stipulation must be made.

      We need to stipulate that a) there is a serious bifurcation in American political life and thought and b) both sides of that have a legitimate place in the political life of the nation. It’s not hard to see (a); to deny (b), however, is to basically say that democratic process, such as it is on this side of the border, is, to use one of my father’s riper phrases, a wart on the ass of progress. That’s the battle being fought (literally, at UC Berkeley) on our college campi these days (and some of yours.)

      If we agree on both of those stipulations, then we can proceed.

      Mitch McConnell, as the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, is charged with forwarding the agenda of his party. That agenda was opposed to that of Barack Obama, the President. It’s therefore his duty to lead that opposition and to forward the agenda that he sees is correct. That opposition was moulded (your phrase “unthinking automatic opposition” is a sweeping generalisation, and thus logically fallacious) by Harry Reid, one of the most unbending, petty, mean and pugilistic leaders the Senate has seen. He ran the “greatest debating body in the world” as a tyrant, only bringing things up for a vote which were to his taste. His most lasting legacy is weakening the filibuster for nominations, which those he left behind are already regretting.

      It should be noted that McConnell didn’t have any more appreciation from some factions of his own party than he did from the Democrats. Many of same Republicans called for his ouster. I felt (and still feel) that McConnell played the hand he was dealt about as well as he could.

      As far as Merrick Garland is concerned, the Republicans, rightly in my opinion, felt that they needed a more conservative nominee on a Court which is as politically polarised as the country at large. So they pigeonholed the nomination. It was something of a crapshoot because it depended upon a Republican victory at the Presidential level, which they got. Had they lost, they would have done well to confirm him, but that is a moot point. And, of course, we have the “Biden Rule” on the subject. I have never understood the appeal of the maladroit Joe Biden.

      Well, that’s my answer. Had you wanted to steer American politics in a direction more to your taste, you would have stayed on this side of the border. But I suspect that both of us have had better things to do with our time.


  5. Don,

    I don’t know how I missed your good note, above, back in February. In part I’m George Bush the elder with the TV clicker around all these different damned WordPressy things, and just overwhelmed by it all. Perhaps I forgot to check the box at the bottom of my previous note to you.

    I’m a little surprised by your argument that Harry Reid’s preservation of the filibuster justifies McConnell’s refusal to give advice, let alone consent, to a sitting President’s nomination. Now I suppose you reach back to have it be the reason for McConnell’s abolition of it?

    Right now I’m reading Henry Clay and Hamilton. This makes today’s more sedate politics easier to take, I would guess.

    May I ask, are you relieved by Trump’s incompetence? And how do you feel about Steve Bannon calling himself, with his usual self-inflation, a Leninist?



    1. Those who live by the nuclear option die by it.

      Donald Trump wasn’t my first choice but, for the moment, he’ll do.

      You see where Steve Bannon’s career is going.


      1. Don,

        Do you think you can persuade both him and the stunningly ignorant Peter Navarro — who shares his move-making style fairly precisely — to go back out west and waste some more rightwing money on their C-flicks?

        It’s amusing to see Bannon saying he’s an admirer of Leni Riefenstahl, with the implication that he is in her league. She was of course a pure Nazi, but you don’t see these nitwits suggesting they are von Brauns.

        As with Trump his majestic self, I guess they weave in and out of the delusional state.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: