The Life of Roman Republicanism by Joy Connolly
Book Review by caldrail
What does the Roman Republic mean to you? A few might admit they've never heard of it. For others it's merely a long period of ancient history before the Romans invented orgies and interesting tyrants. Yet it appears that the system of government adopted by the Romans between the rejection of monarchy and the acceptance of autocracy is something very inspiring to some of us. Time and again writers refer to the Roman world seeking some sort of guidance for their own goals and motives, something I find somewhat ironic because Roman Republicanism was never set in stone. Instead it was cast in bronze, malleable, demanding continual polishing, and ultimately good for material when the original vessel was no longer holding water.
Joy Connolly has written The Life Of Roman Republicanism to engage with the works of Roman writers and find usuable templates for our own time. How does a writer use Roman political methods and mindset to provide a better socio-political framework for the contemporary world? Those ancient forms are nothing new in political debate - the United States of America has a system of government almost ripped from the pages of Greek and Roman history, and deliberately set out that way, to reject European monarchy and domination in parallel with the events surrounding the rebellion of the Roman people against their tyrannical king, Tarquin the Proud.
Of course Joy Connolly does not set out to overturn the establishment. This book is not some anarchistic call to arms, nor any kind of manifesto. Her discontent with the modern world is probably no worse than any of us. We see news broadcasts and documentaries that are tragic, dramatic, terrifying, or infuriating, but the demands of daily life and the remoteness of the media presentation mean we soon get on with eating, sleeping, and paying bills. In other words, our gripes and concerns are not enough to bring the population to gates of public buildings demanding the overthrow of government and the formation of a new egalitarian Republic, a theme that has returned time and again in history.
Nonetheless, wouldn't it be nice if the world was a better place? Joy Connolly uses a number of Roman writers as inspiration for her own answers to gripes, concerns, and optimism for the future. Yet for all the positive tone and references to active debate it is impossible not to notice the number of concepts and arguments that do not ring true.
For instance the author tells us early on that politics exists to give people without influence a voice in human affairs. That simply isn't the case. Politics is a ritualistic solution to social order within the tribe, no different in essence to the barred teeth and colourful displays that the animal kingdom uses to avoid actual violence when settling who is in charge and who gets to have sex. You need only observe the ridiculous drunken posturing outside a saturday nightclub to realise that human beings like pecking orders as much as monkeys or wolves. Ultimately there are plenty of political systems that deny people a voice because it suits the guy in charge.
She draws comparisons between the commonality of English in our time and that of latin in the Roman world, failing completely to appreciate that the lingua franca of that ancient world order was Greek and would remain so into the early medieval period. For all her insight, which is not inconsiderable by any means, Joy Connolly keeps grabbing hold of themes rather than facts. In that way, her arguments fail to grasp the emotional part of us that agree with her concerns about human behaviour. Her point is largely obscured by the complex pattern of debate and reference. Perhaps the author really does have something important to say about world affairs and the use of ancient forms in creating new social order. Some seem to think so.
But isn't this the exact problem with intellectual debate? There's nothing wrong with having a brain and the will to express ideas, assuming the social system of your country does not make it a criminal offence, and I personally will always defend the right of an individual to make up their own mind no matter how much I despair of their conclusions. Yet this sort of free thinking changes nothing. It never will, because it only seeks to discuss the issues, not act upon them. All the famous essays and influential commentaries the author refers to are no different to art. You might enjoy it, appreciate the value, but art only reflects the world and mindset of the creator, not the society, nor does it ever connect with the world at large in the way that artists and authors like to claim.
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Sadly I found it impossible to care by the end of this book. The Roman Republic for me personally was a child of its time and that time has gone. The world has developed and grown beyond the limits of Roman experience. I just wish humanity would catch up with it. So does Joy Connolly as it happens.
As much as she demonstrates an enviable sympathy with Roman thought and expression, I'm just not convinced her book makes any significant difference. If an ancient Roman template is the way forward, then why does she question the modern western superpower that based its politics upon classical ideas? Worth a read for the analysis of philosophy and history, but otherwise a testament to optimism.