A Conversation between John Batchelor and Michael Vlahos
JB: The question we have been pursuing for years is: Are we now in a civil war? Two thousand years ago the Romans invented civil war, and then spent the next century reflecting upon it.
We go back and forth between the current events in America and our reading about how the Romans dealt with turmoil and disruption and factionalism. I pose to you that it is no longer adequate to just stay in our 18th or 19th century American mental maps — one called the Revolution, and one called the Civil War — but we must look to our Roman analogy.
Our last conversation turned on the Roman civil war, from approximately 130 BCE to the rise of Octavian, who became Augustus the emperor. In these last days before the election, we are looking at two factions.
One faction is very much in keeping with the pattern of the senatorial class, the Optimates — that would be Mr. Biden, of the Senate, of the Vice Presidency, a man who represents the interests of the center, Rome or Washington — the other, a billionaire, a developer in Manhattan, who we would have to say represents populism, the Populares. Are you satisfied that you have the frame correct for these last days before the election?
MV: The Roman framework works, in part I feel because it captures a kind of dualism in what we call civil war, but which we could just as well call revolution. In other words, there is an ideological struggle over the nature of society and of leadership, and of the institutional fabric of our American world.
But there is also, more hidden, thus in a sense occult, a struggle in which the dominant, aristocratic or elite class seeks to cement its hold over society: To have full control over the direction of society, and, of course, a framework of rule that protects their wealth.
This is in fact the dual story of Rome in the last century of the Republic, and it tracks very well — or rather, we track very well — with the transformation going on today — and it is a transformation. The essential heart of the Roman Revolution and its many subsidiary civil wars was that the entirety of society that had existed in the second century [BCE] and before, the society that had defeated Hannibal, against all odds, a society that was so resilient and so balanced — in the sense that different groups and classes were effectively integrated together — that society emerged at the end of the Roman Revolution and civil war under an emperor-system, and a totally dominant elite class.
This was a new world, in which the great landowners, with their latifundia [the slave-land source of wealth], who had been the Big Men leading the various factions in the civil wars, became the senatorial archons that dominated Roman life for the next five centuries — while the People, the Populares, were ground into a passive — not helpless — but generally dependent and non-participating element of Roman governance — and this sapped away at the creative life of Rome, and eventually led to its coming apart, and then a second transformation in the 5th century and after.
I think this passage is very much in contrast with the short and spasmodic civil wars of Modernity, which are very often upheavals that didn’t last: The French Revolution lasted less than a generation, while the Russian revolution wore itself out and disintegrated in three [excruciating] generations.
What I think what we are seeing here is more profound, so that the American society coming out on the other end of this passage is going to be completely different — and frankly it already feels different. It already feels, as it has felt for the past four years, that we are in a rolling civil war norm now, in which deep societal strife is now the normal way in which we handle transfers of power, in which various issues are [momentarily] resolved, and through which the path of society will be [painfully] staked out. It all is to be done through violent conflict, and it is likely to be our path for decades ahead.