10 Things I Learned About Ancient Rome

I just got back from a vacation to Rome! I don’t have any pictures or souvenirs because this vacation was more imaginary than real. Thanks to my student loans, I was only able to explore the great city and the history of the Roman Empire through my most recent book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. I won’t bore you with the details of the Roman Empire because I think my last few posts have been a little dry. I do have a funny anecdote and a short list that may pique your interest in Roman history. First the anecdote. I was reading this book at 8:30 in the morning outside the Secretary of State. The doors were locked until 9:00 am but the gracious staff members had allowed people to queue just outside the main seating area. This small vestibule was packed full of people and the well-structured line that had originally formed soon morphed into a large blob. This DMV-amoeba was made up of young and old who were anxious for the doors to open – so they could get on with their day. I had my book and was trying to read when a large woman answered her phone. This phone conversation was not meant for the waiting vestibule of the Secretary of State – most people began to shuffle their feet when her voice began to rise.

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I tried to focus on my book but I thought of something right at that moment that really brought ancient Rome to life. I was reading a book about a city in which there was probably a similar scenario over 2000 years ago. It made me think about Romans and their own frustrating moments – allowing me to see the humanity of a long lost society. Eventually, the doors opened and we shuffled in as if entering the Colosseum itself. This is a simple antidote but it is important to remember that when we read about the past we forget that people lived fairly routine lives that are often times looked over. I guess my point is that we can’t look over the details of the Secretary of State waiting room – those details sometimes teach us more than a book. Below find nine interesting thoughts about Ancient Rome.

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  1. The letters SPQR stand for “The Senate and the Roman people” – the war cry of the expanding empire.
  2. The founders of Rome were Romulus and Remus who were abandoned as infants and survived by sucking on the milk of a wolf – another name for a wolf in early Latin was a prostitute.
  3. Roman public baths were a regular source of infectious diseases and many Roman dignitaries died from infection after visiting them.
  4. Rome itself was ridden with malaria because of its location next to the water and the humid climate – disease killed more Romans than any invading barbarian horde.
  5. The Roman law laid out best practices for killing infants who were not desired.
  6. Rome was the first city in the world to reach a population of 1,000,000 people.
  7. Rome was founded in the 8th century BC – a simple town for many years before it began to control rival towns on the Italian Penisula.
  8. The city of Rome’s population in the first century BC was estimated to be 40% slaves – all different races and ethnicities.
  9. Emperor Caligula was supposed to have made his horse a consul and priest.
  10. Emperor Tiberius was supposed to have trained small boys to swim underneath him while in a pool and nibble on his genitals.

I hope these facts piqued your interest and help you appreciate a future vacation to the city of Rome or maybe just give you something to think about while waiting at the Secretary of State.

The Last Founding Father vs. Donald Trump

It seems to be another hectic week for our President – Donald Trump. A government shut down never looks good for the leader of the government. I heard this news from my Dad who was quite upset – not at Donald Trump – but at Democrats. See, my Dad is not an anomaly. Whenever our views are attacked, our elephant instincts kick in. We “react” first and “rationalize” later – usually, that rationalization is far from sensical. My Dad and I like to bump chests politically, but in the end, we always just sit on the couch and watch sports. However, our discussions about politics are not zero-sum gains. Trying to understand another person’s views takes time, patience, and empathy. My Dad and I have learned a lot from each other and our conversations keep getting more civil – our tandem elephants are becoming more docile.

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As an extension of last week’s post about James Madison, I am going to further question what it means to be “presidential.” Time will tell how Trump does over the next years but how can we truly judge his performance? We need to know how other Presidents have done in the past so we can have rationale conversations into the future. To achieve this goal, I am reading every US President’s biography and writing about them for your enjoyment – here is a list of all the previous posts: George Washington, John Adams (coming next week), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. This week I read about America’s fifth president – James Monroe – The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger.

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James Monroe was the last founding father to be President and was actually born shortly before the American Revolution in 1758. Monroe was raised in Virginia, but unlike Washington, Jefferson, or Madison he did not own substantial plantation property. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was actually with Washington in the Battle of Trenton when the famous crossing of the Deleware River occurred; he was wounded in the battle but eventually recovered. The military at the time had a glut of officers, so Monroe was never able to receive a position of command. Upon National Independence, he took up law to begin supporting himself and his wife, Elizabeth Monroe.

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Throughout this time, Monroe was mentored by a fellow Virginian – Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson pushed Monroe to join him in politics and Monroe initially split his time between law and the Virginian House of Delegates. He would go on to serve in the Congress of the Confederation and help ratify Virginia’s Constitution. His political career took off when he became Ambassador to France during the French Revolution, Ambassador to Britain and Minister to Spain – negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, land treaties, and peace negotiations while overseas. He would go on to be the Governor of Virgina for four terms, US Secretary of State, and US Secretary of War. While Secretary of War, he virtually ran the government because Madison was inept during that period of conflict. He would go on to be the most popular President since George Washington.

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Monroe committed over 40 years of his life to public service and served in more public posts than any American in history. While President, he pushed for Western expansion and acquired more land from the Spanish in modern-day Florida. He protected American interests at a time in history when European powers could quickly take advantage of the young country. The Monroe Doctrine was a masterpiece of diplomacy for the Western Hemisphere and allowed independence for myriad nations in Central and South America. Monroe was described by friends and foes alike as having plain and gentle manners. He was a bold and robust leader in times of war and peace and fought for the Bill of Rights and against secrecy rules in Congress – opening the halls of Government for the first time in history.

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Monroe established the first state-supported public schools and pushed the development of public roads and canals to further commerce. Monroe was secretly an excellent President who accomplished more than I had ever thought. He transformed a fragile nation into a glorious empire – by making the United States impregnable to attack and rich in natural resources. He allowed Americans to expand westward and gain a democratic vote through the ownership of land; his Presidency saw the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of history. Monroe was so popular that there were no political parties during his presidency; he was able to bring people together and put his country first. James Monroe indeed achieved “presidential” status during his Presidency – unfortunately, Trump is nowhere close to his level at this point…but I’m hoping he will pull through.

James Madison vs. Donald Trump

How would you rate Trump in his presidency? I don’t watch the daily news, but I do hear about the significant events through the grapevine; the most recent “Shit Hole” remark is not entirely surprising and falls in line with Trump’s previous propensity to say unpresidential remarks. But what does it mean to be “presidential?” Since I am fully immersed in Plato right now, my brain is constantly scanning for the root definitions of words. According to Plato, to be “presidential” would require one to be a “statesman” – a position of power which disseminates the knowledge of the “good.” What is the knowledge of the “good?” In a sense, it is the correct understanding of human morality and virtues.

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The question, however, gets more complicated because Plato argues we can never entirely obtain knowledge of the “good;” we have to try our best to seek out knowledge throughout our lives through dialogue and personal revelation. So does Trump seem to be on a lifelong journey of wisdom? To follow Socrates example, we’ll leave that question unanswered. Another component of understanding true “statesmanship,”  is to understand past examples in history. How can people honestly know what a good President looks like if their only comparisons are those of living memory: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr, Ronald Reagan, etc. To further add to the conundrum, how many of these Presidents have been personally studied – what do you actually know about their intrinsic virtues and morals? In an attempt to get to the base of understanding “good” leadership, I am reading all the United State President’s biographies. My most recent is on James Madison – James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Next week I will post on James Monroe.

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James Madison was born on March 16th, 1751 to the Virginian planter class. He grew up accustomed to slavery and didn’t do much to further its abolition – less than George Washington and John Adams. Madison suffered from epilepsy at a time when epilepsy was thought to be a personal weakness, and he was a frail man in general – barely breaking the 5-foot barrier. Because of his health conditions, he took to erudition and became a prominent Virginian politician after attending modern-day Princeton. He was mentored by Thomas Jefferson and was close to leading figures of the Revolutionary War.

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Madison championed religious freedoms in the Virginian Constitution and cherished Enlightenment ideas. He was the father of the United States Constitution which was his political Magnum Opus. To push ratification of the Constitution, he partnered with opposite party member – Alexander Hamilton – to publish the famed The Federalist Papers.  Madison straddled party lines for the sake of his country and in the end, helped America form a stable central government while maintaining individual freedoms through the Bill of Rights. He would go on to serve in Congress, as Secretary of State, and as the 4th President of the United States.

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Madison was by far a not a perfect President and did not make satisfying decisions with respects to the War of 1812. His leadership skills were weak when it came to acts of force, and he had difficulties inspiring fellow cabinet members. By the end of his presidency, his successor James Monroe was practically running the government in his place. Madison’s gifts were behind the scenes, and he is most responsible for the United States withholding the Constitution we hold dear today. A Constitution which he designed to be changed according to ultimate liberties – the abolition of slavery to name one. Without Madison, the United States would never have had a Government which could defend itself from foreign attack while simultaneously preserving the rights of individual citizens.

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While in office, Madison had many opponents and is actually credited with forming the first political party with Jefferson. He was a scholar who believed in himself even though many people pushed him to the side because of his physical impediments. Was Madison “Presidential?” He is by far not the best President I have read about, but I do appreciate his quest for compromise and his pursuit of genuine liberty – a liberty that had to balance between the British Monarchy and French Jacobins. His virtues seem to be cooperation, determination, flexibility, and idealism. So how does Madison compare to Tump? I’m going to pull a Socrates again and let you ponder that question.

Thomas Jefferson – Donald Trump Please Read

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.
-Thomas Jefferson

Who is your favorite president? I always ask this to random people on President’s Day and usually get responses like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, or George Washington. My favorite president by far is Theodore Roosevelt but I think Thomas Jefferson might make my All-Star Team.

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Jefferson is a complicated man and the only thing I knew about him was that he authored the Declaration of Independence. I wanted to learn more about this formidable founding father so I read his biography – Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia on April 13, 1743 and was the son of a popular local leader. Jefferson, from birth was raised to be a leader of men and to control the world he lived in. As a youth he was educated in the manners of the South: well learned with a cool, calm, and collected demeanor.

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He quickly took to all the sciences and was able to absorb Enlightenment philosophy during his first year at college. He was an insatiable learner who believed knowledge was a valuable possession which raised man from his “self-imposed immaturity.” By his 20’s he was the epitome of the renaissance man – farmer, violinist, scientist, philosopher, politician.

He was elected to the House of Burgesses at the age of 25 and lived a paradox as a politician – drawn to the spotlight but distraught by criticism. He was not a vocal man like John Adams but rather expressed himself best through writing. In 1774 he published the Summary View which argued for colony rights and became a rallying cry for the rumbling revolutionaries. The Summary View brought Jefferson to the Continental Congress and he quickly became the prime candidate to author the Declaration of Independence at the age of 33.

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The revolution quickly unfolded and Jefferson was elected as Governor of Virginia. As Governor, he trumpeted religious freedoms but fell short as a military hero – fleeing from the British when they came knocking. Nevertheless, with the end of the Revolutionary War, he was still esteemed and was sent to France as a delegate to promote the interests of America. While in France, he furthered his Enlightenment beliefs and helped Lafayette write “The Rights of Man.”

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Upon his return to America, he became the first Secretary of State and almost won the second presidency – ending up as the Vice President under John Adams. It was during his Vice Presidency that party politics first took a stronghold among the American public. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton (Federalist) were open to a stronger “monarchical” government while Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Democratic-Republicans) were against anything that mirrored the old structure of hereditary power. With rising distrust of Federalist power, the people elected Thomas Jefferson as President.

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As President, Jefferson was a pragmatic philosopher who understood the need to compromise. He wanted a limited government except when the nation was best served by a more expansive one. In 1803, Napoleon sold Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase which more than doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson was extremely popular for this and was reelected to a second term. During his final four years in office, there was the high potential for war with Britain but Jefferson pushed for peace at all costs. By the time he had left office in 1809, Jefferson had put in place a heavy embargo which began to cripple the American economy and eventually the United States would go to war with Britain in 1812.

The Rotunda with a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.

Jefferson, throughout his career, fused Federalist and a Democratic-Republican ideologies – realizing that different tools were required for different jobs. In retirement, he would go on to found the University of Virginia and build his estate at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams,would end up dying on July 4th, 1826 – 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was a man with flaws but he was a man who left America and the world a better place. I especially like him as a President because he saw the merits of knowledge and was always on an eternal quest for wisdom. Jefferson for sure made bad decisions – he owned 600 slaves in his life and did little to fight for their freedom; siring many children with his mulatto slave – Sally Hemings.

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He was a man of his time in many ways but in other ways he was far ahead of the field – pushing for education, religious freedom, and  democracy when many wanted a King to rule. The United States would not be the same without Jefferson and I respect his beliefs of compromise that helped a country move through it’s precarious infancy.