The Curse of Heroism

It was foggy as Roman barley-soup. In the early hours of morning, on a cold spring day in 197 BC, Titus Quinctius Flamininus looked out into the battlefield… and saw little. He had to rely on his messengers for any information relayed, as a chaotic-yet-unseen battle was unfolding. Soon however, he would make history. The disorganized battle of Cynoscephalae would see his nimble legions crushing the rigid Greek Phalanxes of Philip V of Macedon, and tip the balance of military power in the mediterranean for Rome for the next five hundred years.

Flamininus would return home a hero, and be given a massive triumph in Rome. This political tradition anointed him as a temporary god, paraded him behind a long train of captives, loot, and slaves, all while the population of the city looked on and celebrated his military accomplishments. For a day, his personal glory was the immortal glory of Rome.

Good thing they voted for him – it all would have been for naught. Flamininus is surmised by many historians to have considered calling the whole war off in Macedon, if he could not get his triumph. Depending on the appointment for second term, he would likely have negotiated an early peace and gone home. The events of 197 BC in Macedonia, and the final the battle itself, were dependent the political machinations in Rome of 196 BC. Flamininus’ greatest fear was that, on the cusp of victory, someone else would routinely be placed in charge of the Greek military expedition. This proud Roman citizen general was looking out for number one – for his own glory, and he had been delaying the confrontation with Philip around his consular elections to ensure that he would be the hero to deliver the final death blow in Macedon.

Heroism is a funny characteristic. Its great figures sit on top of gilded or granite pedestals, in public and in myth; like any ancient society’s paragons of virtue. A tribute to authority, history, myth or religion – those old immortal likenesses serve to orient people towards the future as well as the past. Flamininus wanted to be worshiped like the military heroes before him. Great generals’ likenesses were placed among statues of the gods in the Forum. This ostentatious example could be cynically broken down to be a kind of public service – inspiration for military sacrifice, or honest civic duty, reverence for the status quo, preservation of the current order for instance. Especially while at the time ‘really big statue’ was the most cutting-edge technology available, they served like an ancient form of propaganda and advertising. Those public statues are antiquity’s constant notifications to be good, and worship Caesar.

As example, they might keep a population docile and on nice behaviour; as an inspiration they might bring out the best of us in the heat of battle. But somewhere in between, at the point of personal attainment – where you yourself just might be able to get your place among the timeless civic gods – you might foresake all that is sacred just to get that scared place. Heroism’s cult can ultimately undo the very societies that nurse them to greatness. Flamininus causally forestalled a peace for the sake of that civic reverence; a hundred years later, two other Roman generals would envelop their mother-city in bloodshed for the sake of that same glory.  Marius and Sulla ripped apart a republic to cap their longtime military rivalry; a generation later, after the first bloody purges, the drama would play out again in crimson with Caesar and Pompey, and finally with Augustus and Marc Antony – the great civic republic finally dissolved into autocracy. The worship of the conquering one enabling the government by one.

The collapse of the Roman republic has been done to death. It has causes numerous, and its tomes abound; there’s no end to analyzing the myriad factors at work. But one that should not be overlooked, and in fact can illuminate even the present day, is the cult of hero-worship. Marius famously did to Sulla in 88 BC what Flamininus feared in 187 BC – he stole the regional command of Greece, and with it the latter’s chance for glory. The slight was so great that Sulla turned his troops around and marched on Rome that same year. Upending tradition in the name of ambition, he brought his armed troops into the walls of the city, and one more crack appeared in a Republican tradition.

Before even then, though, cracks were still numerous, and would-be-heroes were constantly worming their way through old republican laws to find a place on a pedestal. Both military generals like Marius and popular demagogues like the Gracchi brothers were overstepping the sacred traditions of office well before Sulla. All done, presumably, for their glory and power – but a culture of public glorification is what enabled their rise. Breaking the legitimation of tradition, they replaced it by the legitimation of their popular heroism. Discontent with the senate, the destitute masses huddled under luxuriant palaces happily signed up to their new god – like another figure among the legends of Rome, these ambitious climbers donned the mantle of a hero of the people. Hundreds of years of republican practise were substituted by the singular republican icon.

Often times, to assume this role, the modest beginnings of such figures were either emphasized, or edited into posteriority. Marius was likely born into a very wealthy family, but famously characterized himself as a the son of a mere farmer – a stone’s throw from the austere character of another legend, Cinncinnatus. This is no different from the common American politician staking claim to humble beginnings on the campaign trail. In order to win the people over to your side, you cast yourself as one of them. So the meritocratic cycle is completed, by having a peer of the lowest rung ascend to the highest, a hero for all.

This collapse of Roman political tradition could be painted as this story of how rising meritocratic popular partisans – those supposedly modest-beginning heroes – loomed so large as to not merely join the top ranks, but eventually displace all other forms of political legitimacy. This meteoric ascent was matched of course by a system in stagnation. While the senate dithered, and the democracy deadlocked, the void was filled with the only political force left – those glorious statues of generals in the forum. The same society founded on the martial virtue of its heroes, from Camillus riding into ranks of Gauls, or Scaevola burning his hand to scorn king Porcenta, would eventually demolish its own institutions for the elevation of the one original pillar that was still standing – military glory of the hero.

This might taste like cold soup for those that bemoan the current state of America as an analog to Rome becoming undone. It is clear that the victorious generals returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan are not a Caesar or a Marius, with billions of plunder and legions that will follow them to strike at the heart of DC. Nevertheless, often times the democracy of the US deadlocked, denigrated and seen as out of touch – not a far cry from the moribund Roman senate. But while Americans are not victims of an over-vaulting pantheon of military heroes, there is a counterpart today that might serve some explanation as to why things fall apart Roman style: American celebrity worship. The popularity – or perhaps merely the branding – of their latest teflon president exists in a similar grey power vacuum of political legitimacy.  Does fame alone have the power to buoy someone high enough to seem presidential? While the congress and the senate sit at historical all-time-lows for favourable opinion, US voters can rightly see their representatives as tools of wealthy donations and corporate lobbying. So as this old column of popular accountability in its elected assemblies starts crumbling in the eyes of the American public, what is left standing?

The decline of democracies into demagoguery and tyranny plays out across history. If the one statue left standing is a military general or a TV celebrity, it seems besides the general point.  Popular politics can and will inevitably devolve into the elevation of one figure to fight the few – be it ancient aristocracies or modern corporate oligarchies. Less-emphasized is the role that a culture of meritocracy plays in building up the one.

Merit-based systems appointments can do so much good in clearing rot and corruption from any political system, yet at the same time, the entrenchment of individual accomplishment at its heights can work at the final iteration to displace entire political traditions.

Never before has multiple-bankruptcy seemed like a mere stepping-stone to high political office. Today, actual accomplishments seem half as important as merely the prospect of ‘making it big’ culture elevates the hype and fame around wealth and celebrity. Can we take the combination of celebrity-worship, fame, and an incessant news cycle of celebrity scandal and somehow displace the standing tradition of a restrained executive? Yes, we can.

In opening politics and military rank to those of novus homo or common blood, Rome – in a manner like enlightenment revolutionaries – threw off the notion of inherited political legitimation. We commonly see that as a good thing. Yet in throwing off the familial yoke, the logic inevitably applied that even the highest offices of power should be open, and the final criteria is not traditional networks, nor an aristocracy, nor inheritance, but simply excellence. Likewise in America, fame alone now stands as a platform to run with when parties consider possible outsider candidates. Oprah for president. Experts are incredulous, but should they be so sceptical? Should we simply take these observations and draw the conclusion that a merit system whose heights reach the masses might itself carry the seeds of its own demise – be it military excellence, or fame.

Heroism is indeed a funny thing. On the one hand, the ranks of commanders, performers, athletes or orators inevitably lead up to comparative great heights, placing atop the very greatest of pedestals those singular individuals that the rest of us should worship. The results are infinitely preferable to a society based on something other than merit – the olympics of noble bloodlines would seem quite absurd. Yet by the same hand, for those of us whom such glory might be within reach, it can inspire the worst. The dangling carrot of heroic posteriority can obscure the sacred traditions that held the whole system together in the first place. When Marius sought his seventh consulship, it came at the cost of the Republic.

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