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Matters of the past mattering today

The past can be very important for those living in the present. My research experiences as an archaeologist have made this very apparent to me. Echoes from the distant past can reverberate and affect the lives of contemporary communities, and interpretations of the past can have important ramifications. Varied contemporary issues related to politics, cultural heritage management, tourism, development, sovereignty, and ethnogenesis can all be tied to reconstructions of the past.

This kind of dynamic is evident across many countries today, particularly those that have experienced recent histories of conflict, regime change, or newly gained independence. One does not need to look very far to see poignant connections between the archaeological past and the politics, lives, aspirations, and agendas of different communities. Millennia after Roman imperial domination, the appropriation of a Celtic past in parts of Europe has been significant in efforts to construct national identities. In Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, monuments stand today to commemorate Celtic tribal leaders who challenged Roman hegemony, even though knowledge of these leaders is sometimes based on sketchy history and scant archaeological evidence. After independence from French colonial rule, successive regimes in Cambodia each emphasized real or imagined links to an ancient and glorious Angkorian Empire. On the Korean Peninsula, professional archaeology began during the Japanese annexation period and in the ensuing years, after independence and civil war, tremendous weight was placed on the origins of a Korean ethnic identity. From these and countless other examples, it is clear a distinct connection exists between the symbolic capital of the ancient past and the variegated social and political needs of the present.

My current research on ancient Vietnam can be viewed against this backdrop. Like elsewhere, the past here has been closely connected to national identity. With a long history of complex interactions with numerous Chinese regimes throughout the past two millennia, capped by colonial encounters with the French throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is little wonder that concerns over nationalism and postcolonial identity would come to have such a powerful effect on the constructions of a Vietnamese past and cultural identity.

Statue of Cao Lo at Co Loa, commemorating the legendary military advisor or holy man that produced the mythical crossbow for the Au Lac king. Photo courtesy of Nam C. Kim, used with permission.

Ask anyone in Vietnam to name the geographic crucible for Vietnamese early history and civilization, and the answer is Vietnam’s northern region, that of the Red River Valley. Being adjacent to southern China, the history of this region and of embryonic Vietnamese civilization is thus inseparable from that of China. The two civilizations share a long and complicated history of interaction. One particularly impactful era began at an ascribed date of 111 BCE, when the imperial Chinese Han commenced a process of annexation over this region and precipitated what are known as the periods of Chinese domination. A Chinese authority would hold power here almost continuously until the tenth century CE. After independence from China and throughout the ensuing millennium, Vietnamese royal court chroniclers and scholars sought to describe a deep Vietnamese history, one with roots firmly planted in the Red River Valley prior to Han annexation. As part of these efforts, various folk tales and traditions were officially recorded.

A prominent feature in these folk tales is the ancient capital city known as Co Loa. Romanticized accounts tell of its emergence as the seat of power for the legendary Au Lac Kingdom at 258 BCE. According to legend, the king possessed a magic crossbow that could vanquish all enemies, not unlike Excalibur in Arthurian tales from the UK. Analogous to Camelot, Co Loa holds significance within a Vietnamese collective imagination, and its remains still sit on the landscape today outside Hanoi.

I have had the great privilege of collaborating with Vietnamese archaeologists at Co Loa, the largest site of the region. Our ongoing research has not yielded indisputable proof of the Au Lac Kingdom’s existence, at least not in my estimation. Nevertheless, for me, questions about the existence of legendary kingdoms, while truly fascinating, may not be the most important. Perhaps the most significant aspect of our research is that we have vital new data indicating Co Loa emerged sometime around the third century BCE, predating a Han imperial footprint in northern Vietnam. This allows us to conclude that a local and powerful society did indeed exist in this time and place, adding a vital case study to knowledge about emergent civilizations in Southeast Asia. Just as importantly, the evidence confers a measure of cultural power upon this archaeological story, replete with artifacts, remnant architecture, and sacred landscapes. The archaeology amply shows us that today’s Vietnamese cultural identities are complex products of cultural interactions and development that began thousands of years ago.

Popular notions of archaeology conjure up images of ancient relics and sites, but archaeologists are very aware that the material record of past lifeways is composed of more than just artifacts and ruins. Powerful meanings can also be heavily inscribed in landscapes, making certain locations culturally important, perhaps even sacred. For the Vietnamese today, the site of Co Loa – along with its assemblage of surrounding landscapes, remnant architecture, and artifacts – all serve as a wellspring of cultural potency for contemporary matters related to ethnicity, identity, and heritage.

In the end, I have been fortunate to be both participant and witness for an elaborate dance between the worlds of the living and the dead. As archaeologists, we give voice to the peoples of the past and need to be mindful in how our theories, interpretations, and reconstructions can be consumed, reconstituted, and repurposed by others. Artifacts, ancient monuments, and landscapes can all undergo transformations into cultural capital. The past, whether real, tangible, embellished, or imagined, can be a particularly powerful and alluring source of symbols, narratives, and ideas.

Featured image credit: An entrance to the innermost area of Co Loa. Currently, this area is the site for the temple, known as Den Thuong, dedicated to the Au Lac king. Photo courtesy of Nam C. Kim, used with permission.

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James Madison and Tiberius Gracchus on representative government

In Federalist 63, Madison pointed out that the principle of representation was not exclusive to modern republics. In the Roman Republic, Madison thought, the Tribunes of the plebs were “annually elected by the whole body of the people, and considered the representatives of the people, almost in their plenipotentiary capacity.” Representation was not unknown to the ancients. The “true distinction” between ancient constitutions and American governments, Madison thought, was “the total exclusion of the people” in the latter. Ancient and modern republics both knew representation, but modern republics severely diminished the role of the people.

Historians, ever suspicious of anachronism, are skeptical of Madison’s claim that representation had played a role in classical antiquity. But Madison may have been on to something; there is clearly a sense in which the ancient Romans regarded the ten Tribunes of the plebs as representatives of the Roman People.

In 133 BCE, the Tribune Tiberius Gracchus clashed with a fellow Tribune, Marcus Octavius, who had vetoed Gracchus’ agrarian bill. Tribunes could constitutionally veto legislation by other magistrates. After Octavius’ veto, Gracchus asked the popular assembly to depose Octavius, an unprecedented move that was widely considered unconstitutional. The assembly followed Gracchus and proceeded to depose his colleague Octavius, but there must have been second thoughts: according to Plutarch, the unprecedented dismissal of a Tribune by the People was “very displeasing, not only to the nobles,” but even “to the multitude.”

Gracchus had to justify his course of action before an informal popular assembly. The challenge was to explain why the deposition of a fellow Tribune did not amount to the destruction of the power of the tribunate and of popular rights. Gracchus argued that a Tribune was “sacred and inviolable because he was consecrated to the people and was a champion of the people.” However, if a Tribune should “wrong the people, maim its power, and rob it of the privilege of voting,” he “by his own acts deprived himself of his honourable office by not fulfilling the conditions on which he received it.”

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was a Roman politician of the 2nd century BC and brother of Gaius Gracchus. Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was a revolutionary theory of representation. By exercising his constitutional veto against Gracchus’ agrarian bill, Octavius had employed his power “against the very ones who had bestowed it.” Octavius had “robbed” the People of the “privilege of voting” and had thus forfeited his office. Gracchus claimed that by vetoing the bill, Octavius had effectively ceased to be Tribune. If it was right for Octavius “to be made tribune by a majority of the votes” it must be “even more right for him to be deprived of his tribuneship by a unanimous vote.” The Tribune is conceived to act on binding instructions from the popular assembly; failing to do so will depose him. This is of course directly opposed to Madison’s “plenipotentiary” view of the tribunate.

It is instructive to compare Gracchus’ with American ideas of representation. One strand of political thought adheres to a “plenipotentiary” or “pre-Gracchan,” view (also called the “trustee conception” of representation by political scientists). According to this view, representatives are separated from those who elected them and autonomous in their decisions. This “autonomy gap” between people and representatives allows for representatives to act according to their personal judgment and conscience. Representatives are not bound by the will of their electors but free to reach the conclusions and compromises they see fit. They enjoy Madison’s “plenipotentiary capacity.”

A second strand of political thought is closer to Gracchus. The British thinker Edmund Burke famously called this the “ambassador” idea of representation. Here the representative acts on binding instructions, resulting in a much closer connection between representative and electorate. In recent U.S. politics, Grover Norquist’s famous “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” and Tea Party aspirations provide examples for this “Gracchus model” of representation—pledges and oaths are supposed to hold members of Congress on a short leash, committing them to policy and diminishing their bargaining options.

The tension between Gracchus and Octavius—between representatives as agents with a mandate or plenipotentiary trustees—played a prominent role in the debates of the American Founding. Before the Revolution, colonial legislatures adhered to an “ambassador” conception of representation where closeness was prized. In the debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists these opposing conceptions of representation were again at stake. For the Anti-Federalists, the House of Representatives was not sufficiently alike those it represented and not sufficiently close to them—representatives were bound to be too independent from their electorate, separated by an autonomy gap.

The Federalists admitted that their conception of representation opened up such a gap. Indeed, they were adamant that representatives be insulated from the people, and they even thought the Constitution allowed for a “natural aristocracy.” For the Federalists, such insulation would only contribute to the quality of government. In Federalist 57, Madison welcomed representation by an elite. Degeneracy of this elite would be prevented by constitutional constraints such as term limits. During their term, however, representatives would enjoy the plenipotentiary capacities of Tribunes before Gracchus.

In 1788, the Federalists won, but throughout American history, Tiberius Gracchus’ view reasserted itself. It is tempting, but would indeed invite anachronism, to look at this contest of representational ideals as Madison himself did: through the lens of the history of the Roman Republic. One important reason for the Federalists’ take on constitutional representation was of course their interest in the crisis, civil wars, and collapse of that ancient Republic. This crisis was precipitated—or so the Federalists were led to believe by a prominent Roman tradition—by Gracchus’ unconstitutional deposition of Octavius.

Featured image credit: Cicero Denounces Catiline by Cesare Maccari, 1889. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Horace’s pulp fiction? Rediscovering the Epodes

When it comes to Roman poets, most have heard of Horace (Horatius Quintus Flaccus). Horace is the freedman’s son who, against all odds – impoverished circumstances, fighting on the losing side at the Battle of Philippi (42B.C.) – secured the patronage of Maecenas, Augustus’ right hand man. He is the poet of a multi-book lyric work, the Odes, which gave us the well-known cliché carpe diem! (C.1.11.8) and which inspired its parody, carpe noctem, often a popular name for bars, clubs, and other establishments.

But while most people have at least a passing acquaintance with Horace’s most famous work, few have bothered to read, or indeed have heard of, his iambic Epodes. The Epodes are a pugnacious little collection of seventeen poems, at times witty and smutty, but more often than not, a verbal slap in the face. Today all but the most hardened tend to steer clear of this slim yet challenging collection. But this wasn’t always the case. Horace’s version of pulp fiction, or trash aesthetics, not only appealed to the masses of his own times, but spawned characters such as the wicked witch of Rome, Canidia, who remained a well-known figure up until the end of the 19th century. What happened, then, to make Horace’s Epodes fall off the best-sellers’ list?

Horace published his Epodes some time in 30 or 29 BC, some five years after the publication of his first book of Satires (36/35BC). As a collection of iambic poetry, Horace’s Epodes are firmly rooted in the iambic tradition of Greek writers such as Archilochus and Callimachus, whose biting invective poetry aimed at lampooning (directly or indirectly) various figures of their own day. The collection proved popular, at least to Horace. At the start of his Epistles 1.19, published some time in 20BC or 19BC, Horace makes the claim: ‘It was I who first showed Latium Parian iambics (Parios ego primus iambos/ ostendi Latio).’ No matter that Horace is playing fast and loose with the truth here – iambic in fact already had a long history in Rome and was the meter of Comedy and Tragedy – by stating the primacy of his Epodes, Horace was staking his claim to have created something innovative and worthy of attention.

Painting of Horace by Adalbert von Roessler. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Horace. Oil on canvas by Adalbert von Roessler. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, however worthy of attention the Epodes might be, they have been overshadowed by his more popular works. The Epodes are often viewed by scholars as a warm-up act in Horace’s career before he sat down seriously to compose his Odes. In part, this response is due to the position that the Epodes occupies in Horace’s literary corpus: caught between his informal hexameter poetry, the Satires (Book 1, 36/35BC; Book 2, 30/29BC), and the more elevated tone of his celebrated lyric Odes (Books 1-3, 23 BC), readers of the Epodes have often found themselves looking either forwards or backwards, and rarely giving their undivided attention to this little collection. Recent scholarship has tried to give the Epodes their due, and to focus on this collection of poems as a work worthy of attention in its own right. But it would be wrong to assume that the Epodes languished in obscurity from ancient times onwards until contemporary scholars in a fit of Horatian fervour decided to switch on the light.

True, for the majority of the 20th century few people had heard of the Epodes, but their popularity within the Anglo-speaking world for at least three centuries prior to this has just now come to light. Evidence shows that they featured as an important part of the curriculum in many English schools, albeit in sanitised form with the more scandalous Epodes (notably 8 and 12) removed. From the 17th century onwards, they were often published in translation alongside the Odes serving as a worthy companion piece.

Finally, there is Canidia, the witchy star of the Epodes, who was so well known in literate circles from the 17th – 19th centuries that she often appeared in texts without any direct reference to the Epodes. The transformation of this mythological hell-raiser to obscure nobody during the 19th century is symptomatic of the Epodes’ fall from grace during this period too. Both text and witch were probably victims of historical events: the advent of the First World War which signalled huge societal upheaval and the loss of ‘Classics’ on the school curriculum. Popular culture continued to perpetuate the legacy of a Hercules and a Spartacus, but the witchy Canidia had lost her invective bite. Thankfully for Canidia, and the rest of the individuals who populate the world of Horace’s Epodes, Horace’s smallest collection is staging a come-back. It remains to be seen if it can ever recapture the attention of writers to the extent that it once did.

Headline image credit: Carpe Diem by pedrik. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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The classics and the Constitution: The smokescreen of republicanism and the creation of the Republic

What role did the Greek and Roman classics play in the making of the American Constitution? Existing scholarship has put the main emphasis on the political theory of republicanism. In his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, Gordon Wood described a shift from classical republicanism to a more democratic post-Constitution Republic. In the 1998 edition, Wood points out that his book had been pulled into the vortex of the debate about the role of republicanism that followed in the wake of Bernard Bailyn’s 1967 Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and J. G. A. Pocock’s 1975 Machiavellian Moment. In 1998, Wood writes that he may have pictured 18th-century American republicanism as too “severely” classical, and he now seeks to soften the opposition between republicanism and democratic liberalism.

Wood now acknowledges that 18th-century republicanism was more Lockean than he had allowed. It was a “modernized” republicanism, which in its “updated” version was less anti-commercial and more liberal. What had originally drawn communitarian philosophers and legal theorists to Creation, namely the prospect of an anti-commercial alternative to Louis Hartz’s interpretation of the Founding, turns out to be no such thing—Wood’s 1998 republicanism suddenly looks a lot more Hartzian than it did in 1969.

However, even in his recent work, Wood holds on to his original interpretation of John Adams—a holdout who even after 1787 kept talking about politics as a classical republican. Adams thus emerges as a striking exception, an oddity out of step with the spirit of the increasingly democratic United States.

But there is a problem with the very concept of classical republicanism. There was never a coherent tradition of Greco-Roman republicanism in the sense Pocock, Wood, and their followers have argued. Aristotle was indeed singularly concerned with virtue in his political theory—but this is because he viewed the state as an educational machine designed to enable men to be virtuous and lead the good life. Machiavelli also focused on virtue—because he considered (martial) virtue the means to expand the republic and achieve glory. For Aristotle, the polis is an instrument to achieve virtue and the good life. For Machiavelli, virtue is an instrument to achieve glory and political success.

Finding an explanation for and a remedy to the collapse of the Roman Republic was of crucial importance to the American Founders. Apart from the English constitution, which was interpreted as a republic in disguise, there was no more consequential model than the Roman Republic. The Roman writers of the last century BCE who witnessed the Republic’s collapse had diverging explanations for the breakdown. Some, such as Sallust, put forward the idea that luxury and the corruption of virtue were responsible for the Republic’s demise. This is the view that is commonly captured with the term “classical republicanism.”

“…the Federalist and [John] Adams relied on a long tradition of writers, from Cicero to Jean Bodin to Trenchard and Gordon to Montesquieu, who were fascinated by the crisis of the Roman Republic…” The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. In Two Volumes. (1st ed.) This copy is from the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But there had always been a competing, no less influential interpretation: according to Cicero, John Adams, and many others, the crisis of the Republic was a constitutional crisis, and an explicit constitutionalism could have provided its remedy. This tradition focused on an institutional analysis of the fall of the Republic in juridical and especially constitutional terms.

Neither Adams nor the authors of the Federalist Papers were classical republicans in either the Aristotelian, Sallustian, or Machiavellian sense of the term. In a way you could say, therefore, that the political theory of the Constitution and the ratification debates left classical republicanism behind. But the Federalist and Adams relied on a long tradition of writers, from Cicero to Jean Bodin to Trenchard and Gordon to Montesquieu, who were fascinated by the crisis of the Roman Republic and who drew similar conclusions from its fall—namely, that virtue could not be relied upon for stable government, and that the solution would have to be institutional.

The solution, they thought, should be sought in what the Founders called a “compounded republic.” Virtue and self-denial, by contrast, were considered “cant-words” (Cato’s Letters). Adams agreed: it was “by no means” luxury or ambition which had brought down the Roman Republic, but lack of constitutional entrenchment and the usurpation of constitutional rights. Adams very much doubted that “any people ever existed who loved the public better than themselves,” and he based his Ciceronian constitutionalism on an Epicurean political psychology (borrowed from Polybius, Cicero himself, or Hobbes).

Cicero and Livy had shown that the seeds of this constitutional solution could already be found in the Roman Republic. The history of the Republic was littered with legal arguments contesting the validity of laws and the actions of magistrates, and these arguments hinged on a distinction between legislation (leges) and higher-order, entrenched constitutional law (ius). Cicero turned this inchoate constitutionalism into an explicit constitutional program.

Bodin, the Commonwealthmen, and Montesquieu drew on this tradition of Roman constitutional thought. It was this set of ideas, developed as a remedy against the demise of republican government and military despotism, which the Federalist proponents of central government, constitutional checks, and a bicameral legislature applied when they debated the Constitution in 1787-88.

The fascination of the Founders with the fate of the Roman Republic has often been written about, but the smokescreen of “classical republicanism” has obscured the crucial differences between those, writing in a Sallustian vein, who were interested in virtue, and those, following Cicero, who discounted virtue and thought that constitutionalism was the remedy to republican decay. The novelty of the constitution-making in the States and at Philadelphia can therefore be seen, paradoxically, in its application of ideas drawn from the collapse of an ancient political order.

Featured image: “Scene at the signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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The legacy of ancient Greek politics, from Antigone to Xenophon

What do the pamphlets of the English Civil War, imperial theorists of the eighteenth century, Nazi schoolteachers, and a left-wing American artist have in common? Correct! They all see themselves as in dialogue with classical antiquity, drawing on the political thought of ancient Greek writers. Nor are they alone in this; the idea that Western thought is a series of “footnotes to Plato,” as Alfred Whitehead suggested in 1929, is a memorable formulation of the extensive role of ancient Greece within modernity. Further reflection, however, will show that the West does not have an unbroken connection with ancient Greece, as knowledge of both language and culture declined in the medieval period – even the great Renaissance scholars sometimes struggled to master their ancient Greek grammar and syntax. Once the West does recover a relationship to ancient Greece, is its own role confined to writing “footnotes” under the transcendent authority of Plato? Perhaps we can reconstruct more varied forms of intellectual engagement.

One thing to remember is that the political thought of ancient Greek was not itself monolithic. The democratic experiment of classical Athens, the idealistic militarism of Sparta, the innovative imperialism of Alexander – such plurality of political forms gave rise to a wealth of commentary that ranged across the ideological spectrum. Moreover, texts that are not only political but have other identities too, like Athenian history or tragedy, also involve sustained reflection on the organisation of society and the workings of power. So the political writings of ancient Greece are not confined to Plato, or to Plato and Aristotle, and they offer a range of political positions.

Xenophon in Thomas Stanley's History of Philosophy (1655). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Xenophon in Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy (1655). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Conversely, Western thought does not simply accept the authority of Greek texts, despite the huge cultural clout that the classical world undoubtedly wielded during much of European history. Instead, we can see later writers using the classical past as a partner in dialogue, to be variously embraced, rejected, modified, and sometimes transformed out of all recognition. For instance, recent research has shown how Xenophon has been understood as forerunner of Romantic exploration, American militarism, and Nazi ideology. From the opposite perspective, an appeal to the classical past has often shaped and altered the discourses of modernity, calling its basic assumptions into question. The study of this complex kind of engagement is currently undertaken by scholars in classical reception and The Legacy of Greek Political Thought Network enables classicists, historians, and political theorists to learn from each other how the classical past has been debated, interrogated, and contested in post-classical political writings.

The Network is interested particularly in studying the political work of ancient Greek writers other than Plato and Aristotle, and we also want to move away from debates about democracy to investigate how ancient writers have been deployed to pursue many other arguments. Topics studied recently range from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, taking in republicanism, colonialism, pedagogy, Aesop and Antigone. Pamphlets from the English Civil War include reflections on Sparta as ideal democracy, which challenge our current understanding of Spartan politics and imperial theorists of both Britain and France focus on Athens as paradigm of imperial power and decline, with considerably less interest in the city’s democratic identity. German pedagogues in the 1930s drew on Xenophon for characterisations of political leadership that they applied to the autocratic politics and culture developing in their own society, while Aesop provided a way of figuring radical politics for Hugo Gellert, an artist in 1930s New York. New readings of Antigone, via political philosophy as well as drama, enable further consideration of the relations between classical reception and political thought. The current political context presents challenges both relatively familiar and wholly surprising, but we can expect a dialogue with antiquity to continue.

Image: Plato’s Symposium – Anselm Feuerbach. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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