by David D. Horowitz.
History is not a guidebook or oracle one can consult to confidently predict the future. There are as many histories as there have been individual beings and things. The future is in the past, to be sure, but it often lurks in the cracks and crevices and shadows, in the unexpected complexities that defy clear narratives.
I recall how in August 1983, during my first week as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, I referred in conversation to “the Civil War.” A native white southerner took prompt umbrage: “You mean the War of Northern Aggression!” I didn’t concede my preference for “Civil War,” but I appreciated my perspective was not everyone’s. Later during my Nashville years a different native white southerner told me proudly there were many anti-slavery white southerners before and during “the War Between the States.” He hated how northerners stereotyped white southerners as racists and wanted me to know the complex history of his region. He also taught me about violent episodes after the war between pro- and anti-slavery white southerners. These I had never heard about. And he told me of Judah Philip Benjamin, one of the first Jewish senators in United States history—and, later, Jefferson Davis’s Secretary of State for the Confederacy. I learned of numerous published slave narratives; of the disparate numbers of slaves in eastern, central, and western Tennessee; and about why to this day Memphis is largely black and Knoxville largely white. I was learning, in essence, local details and divergent narratives that defied a tidily simplistic “official version.”
And this is true for many such periods and regions! For example, there was much religious and political dissent during the Middle Ages in Europe. Not everyone bowed happily to papal and monarchical authority from 476 to 1517 CE, especially after 1100 CE. Whatever the merits or flaws of the Cathars, Waldensians, Brethren of the Free Spirit, Hussites, Wycliffites, and the rebels of the 1381 Peasants’ Rebellion, our cherished First Amendment traces its roots to these and other largely forgotten dissenters.
The years of the European Middle Ages were indeed complex. Most of what we now call “Spain” was governed by Arab Muslims and was called “Al-Andalus.” It was the most educated, tolerant, and advanced society in medieval Europe. Elsewhere, China gloried in T’ang Dynasty artistic achievement, only to see fifteen percent of the world’s population die in the An Lushan Rebellion of the late 750s and early 760s. And how many know that in what is now “Iraq” one of history’s greatest slave revolts began in 869 and lasted fourteen years? Indeed, in 869 African slaves revolted against Arab masters of the Abbasid Caliphate in what is called the “Zanj Rebellion.” So, the years of the Middle Ages featured much rebellion, not simply obedience to theocratic authority.
Ancient Rome, which so deeply and dangerously mirrors the contemporary United States, offers its surprises, too. Many students learn of Julius Caesar and the wars immediately following his assassination that yielded governance by an emperor. Far fewer know of the battles between the brothers Gracchi and the senate between 133 and 121 BCE; the violent conflicts between the followers of Marius and Sulla about forty years later; and the bloody factionalism of the 60s and 50s BCE which helped bring Cicero to public prominence and ultimately led to his demise. The transformation of Rome from an ostensible constitutional republic to a “Principate” took over a century. And it was messy, bloody, and unscripted.
And almost no one knows of those few brave dissenters who resisted the Principate (i.e., rule by an emperor with some lip service still paid to senatorial power) long after it was established. Some of the more honorable members of the Roman senate, in particular, felt loyal to the ideals of a constitutional republic or, at least, the freedom to disagree with the emperor (or “Princeps”). Dozens of these senators were murdered on orders of various emperors, such as Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. By the late first century CE, only a few Romans dared challenge the emperor’s authority. One of these was “Helvidius Priscus,” a Stoic philosopher and government official who refused to disavow his loyalty to constitutional republicanism. The emperor Vespasian is said to have remarked that Priscus was like a barking dog in his insistence emperors be as legally accountable as any other Roman citizen. Indeed, Priscus is recorded in Epictetus’s Discourses as telling the emperor Vespasian that he would rather Vespasian kill than silence him. Shortly after this exchange, Vespasian in fact did order his execution. A biography of Helvidius Priscus written after his death was confiscated and destroyed and its author put to death upon orders of the emperor Domitian.
Consequently, we don’t know much about Helvidius Priscus. Yet, I remain forever grateful for the example he set. I consider him far more heroic than the emperors who persecuted him. The United States might resemble Ancient Rome, but if it is the Rome of Helvidius Priscus, we might wind up in good shape after all.