What is it about politicians that encourages them to make absurd pitches for power? During the EU Referendum campaign we saw ridiculous promises, based on dodgy assumptions, made with a confidence and certainty that defied reality. In the USA we see it in Donald Trump's campaign slogan: 'Make America great again.'

No definition of 'great'. No real definition of 'America' – by the time you've excluded all the people Donald doesn't like, it isn't clear who is left to enjoy the 'land of the free'.

Anyway, I am only thinking about this because on holiday earlier this month I read five books (including Elvis Costello, Tom Wright and Sam Wells), two of which haunt me: Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'Romulus der Große'. I have already written very briefly about the first (brilliant book), but it is the latter that comes to mind just now in the context of Trump and other matters.

Not many Brits have heard of Dürrenmatt. A Swiss novelist and playwright, he describes 'Romulus der Große' as an “ungeschichtliche historische Komödie” (an unhistorical historic comedy). Written in 1950, it shows the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, with the action taking place during the day of (and the day following) the Ides of March, 476. The Empire is about to collapse under the invasion of the greatly feared Germans and Romulus awaits its – and his – demise calmly. His family, ministers and courtiers try to force him to act decisively against the catastrophic and imminent Germanic invasion, but Romulus prefers to stay at home breeding domesticated chickens and doing nothing in response to the threat.

The ending is surprising and very civilised.

It is very clever, very funny, and needs to be rediscovered nearly seventy years after its initial production. Written in the aftermath of the German catastrophe of the twentieth century, it has much to say to us today in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan, Brexit and America. Here are a few quotes (my translation as I only have the text in German):

Even the worst news sounds quite pleasant when spoken by someone who has rested well, has bathed and shaved, and has had a good meal.

It is not about the content of the language…

ZENO: “Now we must save our culture.” ROMULUS: “In what way is culture something that can be saved?”

Echoing elements of George Orwell's 1984, Romulus and Zeno (Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and escaped from Constantinople) come up with slogans they might use to counter the German invaders:

“For freedom and servitude!” “For slavery and justice!” “For caprice against barbarism!”

Rea, the daughter of Romulus, argues with her father that he must give everything to save the fatherland:

REA: “Our unconditional love for the Fatherland is what made Rome great.” ROMULUS: “But our love did not make Rome good.”

Which is where Trump comes in. Has greatness solely to do with power? Or success? Or self-protection? Where does “making America good” come in? Or the UK, for that matter?

I could quote other bits that resonate still, but that will do for now. Read the play – it isn't long. I have no idea if it is available in English, but the German is powerful even today. Under the humour and the satire there is a powerful punch.

 

Every government should fire one advisor and appoint one historian. I have remarked on this before, especially when reviewing Christopher Clark's study of the origins of the First World War, 'Sleepwalkers', and noting how Angela Merkel's cabinet famously read it and took a day out to discuss it with the historian directly. It is no wonder that history repeats itself so regularly when decision-makers fail to be reminded of history – that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, “there is nothing new under the sun”.

Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' is the book I have been waiting for. Unforgivably ignorant of the broad sweep of Roman history, the narrative drives on dramatically, and the book is hard to put down – even at the beach. Now I have the five Caesars in some semblance of order in my head: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, with bits of others thrown in. It is a wonderful read of a horrendous story.

But, what it evokes is the sense that some things never change. If Blair and Bush launched a war in Iraq before considering how to win the peace when the big guns stopped firing, they clearly didn't look back to the Caesars. If we take for granted in Europe the seventy years of peaceful coexistence, a reading of history would remind us that empires come and go, that people get bored of peace, that memories are shorter than a couple of generations, that hubris-fuelled violence is never far away. Civilisation is thin – fragile. A century of hard-won pax under Augustus can quickly subside into the cataclysm of a Nero.

So, it is the resonance with the contemporary that makes Tom Holland's book go deep. It is a brilliant read, its funniest line being the observation on the post-matricidal Nero that “Comet or not, there could be no doubting who was the real star” of the subsequent mass crowd-pleasing festivities (p.363).

(I will also remember the recorded wisdom of Claudius to the Senators: “Everything we now believe to be the essence of tradition was a novelty once.” (p.371))

 

The best way to see Rome is clearly to get up early and get out before the Germans have woken up. (We learned our lesson the other day when a million of them got on the same bus as us…) We got the bus over to the Colisseum yesterday morning and were amazed by the sheer scale of the place. It is immense and puts into perspective any pride in modern engineering. This was built – probably by slave labour – 2000 years ago and was obviously intended to last for ever.

Rome 2 007

The exhibition is certainly worth seeing before actually going into the place itself, but it also left me with a feeling of some disquiet. Classicists are about to discover just how ignorant I am when I explain why.

Most of the exhibition is a eulogy to the Emperor Vespasian who had the place built. I could find no reference to the labour force that put stone on stone and brick on brick. The civil magnanimity and democratic generosity of Vespasian were lauded at every turn, but there was only a casual reference to (a) his brutal suppression of Judea, (b) the siege and slaughter of Masada, (c) the brutality of Roman suppression of local uprisings across the empire and (d) the cruelty that was at the heart of executions.

What did become clear was that the pagan empire had little respect for human life per se. What it did have respect for was rank, status and particular notions of human value according to role in the state.

Rome 2 017It is sometimes trendy for people to dismiss the rise of Christianity as a form of cruel imperialism, but Christianity also cultivated the soil for great sacrifice, human value and great art – despite its terrible aberrations which can also be seen in the history of the Church in Rome. It is sometimes convenient to forget just how cheap life was in the pagan world.

The other thought that occurred to me was the fact that what are now called ‘back stories’ are always complicated. What I mean by this is simply that history is a mess of contradictions and inconvenient truths. Yesterday’s scandalous brutality becomes today’s intriguing curiosity. We read over centuries of oppression and cruelty as if it were somehow interesting but not quite real. We read of gladiators who fought and died in the service of entertainment; of people fed to animals in the service of entertainment; of people wiped out by disease and conflict; and we don’t relate to them as people with families and relationships. And we don’t stop long enough to ask where God was for them in the midst of their human lot.

Rome 2 016When Rome declined, was the hubris of its imperial golden age seen as a bit of an embarrassment – the transience of hubristic power? Is our contemporary valuing of the ancient imperial power simply a reflection of our contemporary hankering after power and hubris?

I love what I am seeing of Rome, but it also pushes me to think beyond (or beneath?) the camera-clicking sights and try to perceive the human stuff that was going on – in ordinary people’s lives and deaths.