Repeating History

In the flurry of final deeds marking the exodus of the current administration from Washington, D.C., (by the time I publish this former) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in which he stated that multiculturalism is ‘not who America is.’ Besides the obvious fact that the earliest European settlers of the North American continent were not Pompeo’s Italian ancestors (or indeed Trump’s German grandfather, or two of his three foreign-born wives), multiculturalism is exactly what America is, and always has been. The proverbial melting pot, accepting the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ the country of all creeds and colours, is a fundamental concept for the history of the U.S. Ask any school child… it was drilled into us. This, of course, does not mean we have historically been very good at it, and intolerance has always thrived in contrast to the desire to represent that elusive idea of freedom. Irish need not apply, no Blacks, no Italians, speak English, build the wall. This rhetoric is exactly why people like Pompeo make statements as they do. There is an obvious contradiction here in the lack of acceptance of foreign or different from people not all that far removed from immigrant ancestors – Marco Rubio and Priti Patel spring to mind as prime examples. That switch from one generation (more or less) to the next is a stunning example of losing sight not only of history generally, but of your own past and ancestry.

By sheer coincidence, I have been reading Laurens Tacoma’s Roman Political Culture (2020) today. In a discussion of the Apocolocyntosis, a text in which Claudius’ right to deification is debated by the gods, he examines the charge that the emperor Claudius admitted all and sundry to Roman citizenship, with the goal ‘to see everyone in a toga’ (Apoc. 3.3). In other words, one of the arguments used for the basis of the rejection of Claudius’ deification is that he let too many foreigners become citizens. Despite the fact that this is, as far as ancient historians can determine, grossly exaggerated (according to demographic studies and the results of the census taken during his reign approximately 10% of the population of the Roman Empire held citizenship), the idea that Claudius was pro-multiculturalism held. Cassius Dio (60.17.5-7) even goes so far as to state that citizenship could be purchased from Claudius’ first wife Messalina and his imperial freedmen.

In the record of a speech Claudius gave before the Senate in regard to the extension of citizenship to Gallic aristocrats, known as the Lyons tabulae, he points out what the Senate (and coincidentally, Mike Pompeo) have forgotten: Rome has always been made up of foreigners.

‘Of course, breaking with the past, the deified Augustus, my great uncle, and my uncle Tiberius Caesar wished the whole flower of the colonies and the municipalities everywhere, that is, the men of worth and wealth, to be in this senate house. But what then? Is not an Italian senator to be preferred to a provincial? When I begin to obtain approval for this part of my censorship, what I feel about this matter I will reveal to you. But not even provincials, provided they can be an ornament to the senate house, do I think ought to be rejected.’

(CIL 13.1668 col 2 ll. 1–8)

File:Lyon-TableClaudienne.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Romulus was, after all, the descendent of Aeneas – an illegal immigrant who fled his war torn country looking for a new home. Upon founding the city that bore his name, Romulus sought to increase its population, and did so by inviting foreigners to settle within his newly erected walls. Livy (I.8.5-6) tells us:

‘It had been the ancient policy of the founders of cities to get together a multitude of people of obscure and low origin and then to spread the fiction that they were the children of the soil. In accordance with this policy, Romulus opened a place of refuge on the spot where, as you go down from the Capitol, you find an enclosed space [6] between two groves. A promiscuous crowd of freemen and slaves, eager for change, fled thither from the neighbouring states. This was the first accession of strength to the nascent greatness [7] of the city.’

The first women of Rome were stolen from a neighbouring state, the city expanded over time, slowly subsuming a multitude of native Italic peoples, then moved across the region to include Gauls, Germans, Greeks, Britains, Egyptians, Syrians, and others. Rome was, for all intents and purposes, the original melting pot. The Senate, and indeed many of the Italians as provincial territories grew, had a habit of forgetting that Romans and peregrini were only a few generations removed in name. Perhaps then, in a true example of repeating history, its no wonder that many Americans do the same.

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