Riencourt's book makes the argument that America is literally the second coming of Rome. In this, he follows the views of many of the American founders. I stumbled on this idea when I was reading about Cincinnatus, the Roman who was twice elected dictator, and twice resigned his imperium. One of the books I read was a detailed study of the art and iconography of revolutionary and post-revolutionary America, and it was pretty clear the Americans saw themselves as Romans.
Also, the form of government selected by the founders was a republic, in imitation of Rome. The founders saw a republic as a mixed government, following Polybius, blending monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Of course, the Roman Republic eventually became the Roman Empire, which is the transition everyone is interested in, including Riencourt.
In 2003, this book was out of print, but now a new edition is available. In this book review, John talks about keeping track of Spengler's successes and failures at predicting the future. Spengler had a pretty good track record, although some of his successful predictions might have surprised him.
I think the same is true of John. Here is an interesting prediction: American political parties are less ideological constructs than vehicles for charismatic personalities seeking office.Interpret as you will.
Table of Contents
The Coming Caesars
By Amaury de Riencourt
Jonathan Cape, 1958
384 pages; Out of Print
Since Oswald Spengler first published The Decline of the West at the end of the First World War, a main attraction of the comparative study of civilizations has been the prospect of predicting the future. As more and more of that future has passed, this attraction has only increased. It's not that Spengler was a perfect prophet. Even when he was right about the future, he was right in ways he did not foresee. Still, though taking Spengler too literally has never done anyone any good, there is something to be said for keeping track of the successes and failures of the great doomsayer.
The Coming Caesars was published just 40 years after the first volume of The Decline appeared. It was much discussed by the intelligent Right in its day, perhaps in part because Arnold Toynbee's Study of History was still on people's minds. However, The Coming Caesars does not even mention that enormous work. The author, a Frenchman with extensive experience of the United States, adheres closely to Spengler's views and methods. There is one big difference. Spengler hoped that Germany would play the “Rome” of the future. Riencourt makes the most detailed argument I know for the proposition that America does not just have a Roman future, but an essentially Roman culture.
This review was written about as long after the publication of The Coming Caesars as that book was published after The Decline of the West. Surely it's time to take another look. Whatever the book's merits as prophecy, what we have here is the finest collection of alleged American mental problems since Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
From Culture to Civilization
The Spenglerian model is only incidentally about wars, revolutions, and the evolution of the international system. The transition to what Toynbee called a “universal state” is only one aspect of the general turn of a society toward its final forms. “Civilization,” in Spengler's usage, is the “late” phase in a society's life. It follows the period of “Culture,” when society creates its characteristic science, religion, art, and politics. The French Revolution is roughly the cutoff point for both Spengler and Riencourt between Culture and Civilization in the modern West. In Greece, the Revolution was less localized, since democracies tended to replace oligarchies everywhere. The important comparison is that Napoleon and Alexander the Great are “contemporary” as transitional figures in their civilizations' histories.
The transition to Caesarism began in the Victorian Era, which Riencourt identifies in part with the Hellenistic Age. Both were “the beginning of bad taste and ostentation, of insincerity in art, of pomposity, of grand and ornate pseudostyles”; yet also of “city planning, hygiene, and comfort: of modern pavements, and improved sewers, aqueducts…fast-expanding networks of world-wide economic relations”; not to mention “pedantic scholars, critics, grammarians, commentators, and editors.” The age of Plato passed to the age of Aristotle, as the age of Kant passed to that of Hegel.
Culture is pioneering, aesthetic, and fertile. Civilization is sterile, extensive, practical, and ethical. They are related as systole and diastole. Riencourt multiplies oppositions like that, but here are the important ones: Greece was the youth and maturity of Classical civilization; Rome was its old age. Similarly, Europe was the youth of the West, and America is its old age.
There are complexities here. For the purposes of macrohistory, apparently, America and Great Britain are the same country. Riencourt lays great stress on the fact that America developed, not just under the influence of British ideas, but behind the shield of the British Navy. It is impossible to imagine the United States developing as it did during the 19th century if the country had not been, in effect, a protectorate of the British Empire. In the 20th century, the relationship began to reverse. After the Second World War, Britain has functioned as America-in-Europe.
In outlining the transformation from Culture to Civilization in the political dimension, Riencourt often sounds like many another member of the French Right since 1789: “[E]xpanding democracy leads unintentionally to imperialism and…imperialism inevitably ends in destroying the republican institutions of earlier days…the greater the social equality, the dimmer the prospects of liberty…as society becomes more egalitarian, it tends increasingly to concentrate absolute power in the hands of a single man.”
Riencourt is not forecasting the appearance of a mere Anglophone Napoleon, however. Modernity has a terminus quite different from that of the ancien règime: “Caesarism is not dictatorship, not the result of one man's overriding ambition, not a brutal seizure of power through revolution…It is a slow, often century-old, unconscious development that ends in a voluntary surrender of a free people escaping from freedom to one autocratic master.”
Note that, although this language is cast in terms of a general law of history, it simply restates the history of the Roman Republic. Spengler himself took care to elaborate parallels with other civilizations, where democracy had never been an issue. Except in an Appendix and a few asides, The Coming Caesars treats of parallels only between the ancient and modern West. The bulk of the book, in fact, is a history of the United States, spiked with more or less apt references to supposedly comparable events and persons in Roman history. Riencourt is particularly interested in the evolution of the office of tribune in ancient Rome and that of the American presidency, but we will get to that presently.
God, Space, & Law
Every book about America has to deal with religion, and this one is particularly concerned with the American mutations of Calvinism. (Was there a Roman “Reformation”? Indeed there was, in the form of Orphism, which culminated in Pythagoreanism. Go ask Spengler.) According to Riencourt: “But Calvin's doctrine as applied at Geneva was based on a spiritual legalism, mechanical, stern, without compassion and without appreciation for art, inhumanly practical, and in many respects iconoclastic. In Geneva were sown the spiritual seeds of what was to become the New Rome of the West.”
This is not to say that American religion itself has retained these harsh features. After the collapse of metaphysical theology, American religion became notoriously emotional and sentimental. Prayer was replaced by good works, not as payment for salvation, but as a sign of election.
The secular versions of the Calvinist virtues became the bases for American politics and commercial culture. Thus, no matter their confessional affiliation, Americans are like the Biblical Jews: suspicious of beauty, with a characteristic tension between the knowledge of God's will and Man's inadequacy. Similarly, Rome's gods, like Rome's later civilization, were austere and impersonal, unlike Greece's warm pantheon. (Spengler discountenanced this opposition, by the way. He pointed out that the peculiar cult of each polis was darkly numinous rather than colorful. The “Greek Pantheon” was late and literary.)
In addition to religion, every study of America has to consider the role of space. Both America and Rome, in Riencourt's telling, were “frontier” societies, on the rim of civilization. America, famously, could dispense its dissidents to the west. Rome could do likewise, to the north, into the Po Valley and Cisalpine Gaul. In both cases, easy expansion into a sparsely peopled hinterland facilitated political stability at a time that, elsewhere, was an age of revolution and counterrevolution.
The English-speaking world in general is characterized by a tradition of compromise under law. This legalism, like Rome's, is the product of a remarkable sense of continuity. It's not that American's are particularly law-abiding; they are law-minded. Combined with their ancient Biblicism, they have turned the Constitution into a sacred text. The system works because the scripture of the law requires interpretation. Lawyers are hierophants, interpreting the mystery of the law. The effect is conservative: unlike the legal codes of Europe, mere logic is not enough.
America and Rome were both “urban” from the beginning, despite the fact both had overwhelmingly rural populations for much of their histories. Their farmers were not peasants, but citizens. This was somewhat less true of Virginia, with its attempt to transplant England's gentry. However, southern culture was eventually overwhelmed, ideologically and economically. Perhaps more important was that Virginia set the pattern of a conservative, aristocratic east, versus the democratic frontiersmen of the west. The east demanded enough centralization to keep the polity together. The west acquiesced, but only if they were allowed freedom of action: “thus started the fateful, unintentional, and unplanned expansionism which, in less than two centuries, was to establish the frontiers of American security well into the heart of the European and Asiatic continents.” He makes the same argument about Rome's expansion, starting from central Italy.
Unlike the rest of the Classical world, Rome had a knack for the judicious extension of citizenship rights, which Riencourt compares to America's power of assimilation. Rome did suffer the “Social Wars,” conflicts with its Italian allies about the franchise, just as America suffered lapses like the Civil War. He also makes the interesting suggestion that the importation of slaves into Italy was a real immigration. Manumission was normal in the Roman world, so that slave families often became citizens after a generation or two. In contrast, slavery in America resulted in a caste system that has yet to be dismantled.
The American Psyche
The key to American psychology is the position of America in world history: “America's destiny is conditioned by the fact it is an old and not a young nation, as far as essential age goes…America represents, in world history, the old age of Europe…This essential oldness is rooted in an eighteenth-century atmosphere where optimism still survives in America and wears the mask of youth, but has disappeared in Europe as outdated.”
According to Riencourt, Americans are naturally conformist, compared to Latin peoples. He even says that Americans are “natural socialists.” In many ways, America is like what Americans say about Japan: “a far higher average than in Greece and Europe, and yet an almost complete absence of great creative personalities.” He says there is an American saying: “To be different is to be indecent.” Americans are self-disciplined; even more so than the Germans, who at least have the option of intellectual “inner migration.” The key to America's tribal collectivism is to be found in the fact that America has come almost full circle in social development. Foreigners often note a strange similarity between Americans and Russians. That is because the Last Man of Civilization resembles the First Man of the pre-Cultural period, which is the state of Russia in comparison to the West.
Freedom in America does not mean what it means in other places, or what it meant in the West in the past. American freedom is a legal notion, unlike the French liberté. “Where, then, does freedom reside in America? Mostly in the fact that the individual American is physically more independent of other human beings than anywhere else in the world.” Americans are notably lacking in jealousy and resentment. Conversely, the rich are rapacious, but not selfish.
There is an upside to this. Americans can make good use of individualistic philosophies, such as that of John Locke, which created chaos in continental Europe. Atomistic English economism, with its emphasis on property rights, soon made the English-speaking world the most conservative area on earth. It is a progressive and enlightened conservatism, however, a sure defense against both revolution and reaction.
None of this should suggest that Americans are gullible or obtuse. “American Civilization is successful because of the remarkable American gift for psychological understanding…When they choose political or business leaders, Americans do so on the basis of their general human qualities rather than their technical proficiency.” Americans have an expert's distrust of all experts.
The author makes a remarkable equation of Americanism with Classical “Romanitas.” Both value organization, efficiency, and earthly success. Also, “in a chaotic world where sensitive men are baffled and often despair, [Americans] are not easily baffled and never despair.” The American mind is not cultural or aesthetic, but moralistic. It deals with extension rather than depth, especially temporal depth, but it eschews abstraction generally: “Americans think in pictures.”
Despite America's non-metaphysical cast of mind, it is far from mere materialism. Riencourt establishes the point with a fine display of non-falsifiable dialectic: “Since every coin has two sides, the necessary counterpart of an extreme utilitarianism bent on concrete achievements is an equally extreme idealism of a more abstract nature than any put forth in the Old World.”
Riencourt returns again and again to the topic of Americans' essential conservatism, for which he finds an explanation in gender dominance: “It is this fundamental conservatism that gives Americans in the modern world a position almost identical with that of the Romans, a conservatism bolstered by the complete ascendancy of the conservative-minded sex – women.” The author makes a great deal of this point: “All this links up with the best-known characteristic of American life: the hen-pecked nature of American men…the childish desire for love that Americans display in their contacts throughout the world is a direct consequence of the absolute predominance of the female principle…[I]ntimacy, familiarity, lack of reverence have become the dominant themes of American life. Nothing leads more implacably to Caesarism than these traits.” Noting that the emancipation of women was also a feature of the late Roman Republic, the author asserts that a democratic electorate tends to become “feminine,” emotional, eager for leadership. A feminine public opinion looks for a virile Caesar.
Russian & Communism
In the 19th century, during the age of high imperialism, practically the whole world was controlled by European powers or European settler-states. Again, the Hellenistic empires in the east, and the Greek settlements in southern Italy and Sicily, are often cited as analogies. Riencourt, following Spengler, says that the Greeks did not properly distinguish between the different classes of barbarian societies. Some, like the Egyptians, belonged to ancient, fossilized civilizations. Others were mere primitives. Yet others, in the east, belong to a “young” Culture that would eventually overwhelm the Classical world. Much the same thing happened in modern history: “The Nemesis in the Classical world was the rise of Parthia and the…war against Mithridates – in the context of our won [20th] century, the rise of Soviet Communism and World War II.”
Communism in Russia was a western import that was part of the “pseudomorphosis” of Russian culture, comparable to the superficial and transitory Hellenization of the east that occurred after Alexander. However, the effect of the Soviet Union was to drag Russia back to its Mongolian-Byzantine roots. The origins of the Soviet and Parthian threats were similar, too. The Romans helped to overthrow the Hellenistic empire of the Seleucids, but then simply withdrew, allowing the unhellenized east to recover. This was pretty much what America did after the First World War and the collapse of the Habsburg and Czarist empires. However, this new class of threat is not merely military, and not merely external: “This deep-rooted antagonism that springs outside the area of a given Civilization always coincides with a social disintegration inside it – with a period of revolutions and social upheavals that always accompany the collapse of a Culture and symbolizes the loss of that precious self-confidence of former times.”
The Coming Caesars repeats familiar conservative critiques of FDR's policy toward the Soviet Union: the sick old man was duped by Stalin's oriental cunning. Additionally, since the American mind is analytical rather than synthetic, American statesmen were slow to see the need for a grand strategy to counter the Soviet Union. However, even with the best negotiator and a coherent worldview, the outcome of Yalta and Potsdam might not have been different: “Behind the armed might of Soviet Russia lay another active force in the realm of ideas and passions, the religion-like force of Marxist philosophy extending from France to China…And behind Marxist philosophy a deep distrust of Western Civilization as such. In this the rustic patriotism of the Russians joined the widening revolt of Asia's crippled civilizations against the West.”
Riencourt rather doubts that the West will ever be free of the Russian menace. Though the Roman Empire at its height was perfectly secure against Parthia, the East nonetheless eventually overwhelmed the fossilized Classical civilization. On the other hand, a Third World War is far from certain; there really is progress, and the modern world is less brutal than the ancient world.
The Necessity of Empire
The coming universal state is not founded on mere degeneration. Speaking of the world after World War I, Riencourt says: “The problem, which no one could as yet formulate, was that the Western world was longing to get beyond an outdated nationalism and a vague internationalism that solved nothing, longing for a new political conception of organic cooperation that would preserve what was best in local patriotism, but transcended it at the same time.”
Sometimes the author equates the 20th century with the 2nd century B.C. In those days, when Rome had no serious rivals but wanted nothing more than to be left alone, it sent commissions all over the world to mediate disputes: Carthage and Numidia, Egypt and Cyrene, plus any combination of Greek states. Since Romans took no responsibility, their efforts often made things worse. When, in the 1st century B.C., Rome finally established regular structures of governance, “Roman domination at first was heavy and harsh, but it was a crude world that could respond only to crude treatment. Our twentieth century is far more sophisticated and the reorganization of our own world has to be carried out with a far greater discretion.” The model imperial official would resemble Douglas MacArthur. Not simply occupiers are needed, but statesmen committed to a long-term, conservative, social revolution around the world.
America had yet to understand its full vulnerability, the author implies. Rome was terribly dependent on the world outside Italy for manpower and grain. America might seem self-sufficient, but in 1955 “the United States absorbs 10 per cent more raw materials than she produces, whereas at the turn of the [19th to 20th] century she produced 15 percent more than she needed.” He suggests that much future history might concern access to Malaysian tin and Arabian oil.
Reviewing Europe a little over ten years after the end of the Second World War, Riencourt is much impressed by the success of the Marshall plan. In contrast, he finds the idea of independent European unity chimerical: “If unity is to come, it will have to be from extra-European sources and take place within a much larger framework. It will have to be based on the only unity that has any concrete reality: the Atlantic Community, the geographical unit of Western Civilization.” Noting the extent to which American and European bureaucracies interdigitated during the postwar emergency, he suggests that something similar might happen in the future: “European political structures will not be brutally abolished; they will simply atrophy and die.”
Obviously, there is considerable opposition to this outcome in Europe, both political and psychological. Riencourt finds it anachronistic: “Instead of looking upon America as she is – the New Rome – the puzzled and embittered Europeans prefer to see a new Carthage – soulless, exclusively dedicated to the pursuit of wealth, vaguely hypocritical, the land of sharp and ruthless Yankee businessmen. They fail to see that America today, and alone in the world, has the necessary ingredients of a stable civilized order: moral ideals and ethical purpose.”
World order is an old dream, the author notes. Different versions of it appear in different civilizations: the Caliphate of Islam; “All under Heaven” in China; and of course the Roman ideal in the ancient West. In the modern West, a new version is likely to have something to do with the United Nations, starting with a universally valid international law.
Before the First World War, the world still had regional empires with universal pretensions. When they disappeared, chaos followed. The League of Nations failed to end the chaos, but it was an instructive failure. The United nations, which followed, was largely an American initiative; certainly it was designed with an eye to American constitutional history. It quickly became paralyzed between two international blocks. The UN, after all, was supposed to institute democratic procedures on a world scale, but one of the opposing blocks did not believe in liberal democracy at all. The fundamental flaw with the UN, however, is that it embodies the parliamentary system in an age that is becoming sick of parliaments. What the world needs, and wants unknowingly, is an international presidential system. This could be democratic: rights under international law would be extended to individuals, even if that diminishes state sovereignty.
According to Riencourt, the UN will probably become the second layer of the “Roman” commonwealth of the future. The core will be the Atlantic Community. Such a world system will work, if the masses are given sound administration. Just as important, the system must give the world's elites full scope for personal development.
Sometimes Riencourt suggests that the final phase of Western Civilization is, in some sense, the final act of history. He points to the similarities between the apocalyptic anxiety of the early nuclear era and of the Mediterranean world around the time of Christ. In both cases, he suggests, people were onto something: “Man…is not merely going through a change of historical phase but…in the coming centuries, he will be stepping out of history altogether into a new 'geological' age…He is becoming, for the first time, a planetary phenomenon.”
Tribune, President, Emperor
Riencourt emphasizes the conservative nature of the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers were “men of the transition, a last link to the past, conservative engineers of a healthy reaction.” What would have surprised them was the evolution of the presidency they created, an essentially weak office, into an organ of popular sovereignty.
The mass politics of the Hellenistic and modern eras is a struggle between the people and Big Money. In that struggle during Roman times, the tribunes were created to protect the people. Over time, however, the struggle becomes less and less about class, or even economics. What begins as the struggle of the Populares against the Optimates becomes a contest between the Caesarians and the Pompeans; that is to say, a conflict between personal parties, mere cults of personality and systems of patronage. In contrast to their European counterparts, American political parties were already more like vehicles for personalities seeking office than like ideological organizations.
There was in fact no precise counterpart to the presidency in the Roman constitution, but the office of tribune showed the ability to evolve in that direction. The tribunician power included personal inviolability, the right to summon the Senate and to direct its debates, the right to nominate candidates for some offices, the right to arrest even consuls, and, most famously, the right to veto the acts of all magistrates. This list of negative rights ensured positive power when combined with some other source of authority, such as military command, or even mere popular approval. The tribunate was the legal basis for the office of emperor.
No doubt inspired by the characterization of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a "traitor to his class," the author observes: "Rome's outstanding democratic leaders, from the noble Gracchi brothers to Caesar [a period of about 90 years], whose ancestry was as old as the dawn of Rome herself, were all blue-blooded aristocrats who turned against their narrow-minded peers and led the aroused people against them…Thus, what made the democratic evolution of America relatively peaceful was the self-immolation of the founding oligarchy."
In America, politics are aggravated by a public opinion that is volatile on matters of foreign policy. Thus, American policy lurches from crisis to crisis, throwing up a strongman to meet each new emergency. But again, the authority of the Caesars is only incidentally military. Speaking of the Grant Administration, but with perhaps a glance at Eisenhower's, Riencourt notes that "professional soldiers are not the stuff that Caesars are made of." He characterizes Franklin Roosevelt, the first proto-Caesar, as “like another typical American creation, the master-mind sports coach who bosses his team, devises its tactics and strategy, switches players and substitutes at will.”
Riencourt attributes the role of the presidency in American politics in part to a growing "father complex" in America, though he also observes that, throughout the West, publics are increasingly disgusted with parliamentary incompetence.
To a large extent, the Roman Republic was destroyed by a change in political psychology. The early Caesars kept trying to give real authority back to the Senate, and the Senate kept refusing to take it. Responsible people lost the knack of operating a republican system. Candidates no longer presented themselves for important offices. Finally, all posts were filled by appointment, and became part of the imperial bureaucracy.
After its founding, the politics of the empire will have a predictable trajectory: “The transition from Sulla to Caesar and from Caesar to the absolutism of Vespasian was partly the result of the growing orientalization of Rome and the decline in the prestige of elective institutions. In the modern instance, it is clear that 'democrat' Roosevelt was not half as much repelled by Stalin's views on strong executive power and the absolute supremacy of the great powers as 'conservative' Churchill was.” In the author's telling, the Caesars became monarchs in Rome because they were monarchs abroad. Caesar Augustus, for instance, because he was also the titular King of Egypt, did not dare retire. The Egyptians would tolerate being ruled by him, but not by some bureaucrat in the name of a faceless “republic.”
When the Future Becomes the Present
Speaking of the would of the late 1950s, the author judges that Russia and America were evenly balanced; they were the tiger versus the shark, each safely dominant in its own domain. Inevitably, he cites Tocqueville's famous prediction that the Russians and the Americans each seemed destined to “sway the destinies of half the globe.” He remarks: “Tocqueville would have been unable to forecast the complex state of the world as it was in 1926, yet he was able to prophesy what it would be in 1946, 20 years later.”
That is almost precisely my experience of this book. I first read it in 1982; my marginal comments say that this or that trend will have to reverse if the author's thesis is to hold up. Writing this in 2003, I see that many of them did reverse. Doubtless they could all reverse again. Meanwhile, some new ones arose that he did not foresee. I know of no book that illustrates the limits of prediction better than The Coming Caesars. It bears rereading, at suitably long intervals.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly