“Clothe Yourselves in the Morals of the Toga”

After the fall of Rome — but before Justinian could sweep away her people and her infrastructure — Theoderic the Ostrogoth used this line, and reference to Roman foundational values generally, to prop up his reign as an invader-king. It strains credulity to think the heroes of Rome’s past would’ve easily suborned a foreign presence, or a king, much less the combination of the two. Nevertheless, Theoderic’s over-the-top affiliation with Rome’s past — to the point of adopting a Roman nomen (Flāvius Theodericus), minting solidi in the old fashion, etc. — indicates that he believed, rationally, that defining himself by foundational values would help solidify his hold over Gothic Rome.

Theoderic understood what today’s tea part movement seems to understand, too: foundational myths are abnormally squishy, potent, and steady-state, or regressive. One is rarely asked to honor his forbears by disturbing the status quo. For our example, look no farther than Glenn Beck’s conscious attempt to co-opt the history of America’s founding at this past weekend’s “Restoring Honor” rally.

The remarkable line that defines his overarching thesis is this:

We’ve got to start at the beginning and look at the patterns [in early history]… the first thing they did was pray together.

This is probably true, actually. But while the Founders built a culture permeated by God, they built a government in which He had no official place. Jefferson, exemplifying the Founders’ views towards the blending of church and state, refused to offer prayers ex cathedra for fear that future generations would read his example as a mandate. These men may have invoked divine favor in their ventures, by praying together, but they did not invoke it to write their laws. This is not a trivial distinction.

But it’s one that Beck can easily elide, without drawing too much criticism, because of the traits that make founding myths unique. Due to their importance, the events surrounding them are abnormally well attested. This same importance gives rise to a need to mythologize. Particulars are created and destroyed in the collective memory, for their ability to add to, or detract from, a compelling narrative, one that supports the State.

The result, naturally, is prismatic. Depending on how deep you want to look — only superficially, at the story that emerged, or to the details, first those emphasized, then those discarded — you can create a different story, one that supports your reading of the history. Here, Beck emphasizes particular points from the cultural history of the era, but omits the background and depth that give them meaning. You might as well photograph a shadow.

We — Democrats, liberals, non-theocrats, what have you — are quick to blame the right, and usurpers like Beck, for their acts of historical theft. But we should be quicker to offer our own version of events. In our quest to build a better world — one where gays can marry, where Muslims aren’t blamed for the crimes of terrorists who share their faith in name only, etc. — too often, we succumb to the temptation to treat history as an enemy. Because our forbears enslaved, discriminated and excluded, what can they possibly teach us? But this avoidance accepts as true the right’s narrow premise, that the Founders gave us a static nation. To the contrary, our founding story, unique in human history, is meant to challenge us to build a better future, rather than comfort us with memories of a better past.

We need to be more honest and forceful about what we believe and why. We trust in a “living Constitution,” not because some law professors dreamed it up as a way to legitimize gay rights, but because the document is explicitly a charter of expanding liberty. The liberal account of the founding supports our modern causes, makes a good story, and has the virtue of being a truer account. If we are honest with ourselves, Theoderic’s trick shouldn’t work here. But it will, if we let it.

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11 comments

  1. I think you’ve read too much Gibbons, Ames. A much simpler and more likely explanation for Theoderic’s policies is that he thought of himself as just as perfectly Roman as the people and the power structure he replaced, and simply did all the things a good Roman leader was supposed to do. Clovis in Gaul and the Visigothic kings in Aquitania did precisely the same thing. All considered, ethnicity in the late Roman period is an extremely nebulous concept.

  2. Haha that’s fair. Even if he thought of himself as Roman, though, it would be in the eastern sense (wasn’t he educated in Constantinople?), and his subjects likely wouldn’t have agreed.

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  4. I don’t think the Roman cultural sphere had yet been that fractured by the early 6th century. The Western Empire had seen some fairly diverse people in power throughout the whole 5th century – Stilicho, Aëtius, Ricimer and Julian all come to mind – and it was still quite possible to ‘transfer’ between Constantinople and Ravenna or wherever else the center of power happened to be in the West that week. I’d say it was probably not until the mid or late 6th century that the conection between the two parts was really severed, and that probably happened precisely because both the rulers and the people even in the former Imperial heartlands stopped thinking of themselves and behaving as Romans and became primarily Goths or Franks or whatever instead.

    But there is this transitional period during the 4th to the 6th century, or popssibly even longer, when the whole concept of ethnicity and ‘romanitas’ seems to be in a state of flux. Even as far as the Roman elite itself is concerned – you get both people who try to cling to the old ideals and scoff at the idea that a barbarians could be a proper Roman, and on the other hand people who seem to have no problem with turning to the new Gothic or Frankish rulers for offices and patronage once the emperors in Italy cease to be a reliable source.

  5. Who cares about Rome, the Fenno-Scandinavian cultures were the only European ones worthy of respect.

    1. Seriously though, for all that I agree with you that there’s a serious problem with (social) conservatism’s goal that everything remains as it never was (which is a kick-ass song, by the way), I really think there’s something to the argument that a “living Constitution” defeats the purpose of having a Constitution to begin with and is thus self-contradictory.

  6. It’s not contradictory if you conceive of the document, as I think one should, as a floor and not a ceiling. Beyond setting that floor, the document offers nontrivial guidance as to how the rest of its mandates should expand, if at all.

    1. The document is the blueprint for a system of government, nothing more, nothing less. If its mandates are to have any meaning, and the designed government any stability, the provided (and drastically under-utilized) amendment process in Article V should be the only give or malleability it has. It’s not about “guidance” and aspirations or floors and ceilings. It’s about the document that dictates the national structure, and like any set of building plans, it needs to be absolutely static except for formalized revisions.

  7. Then what’s “equal protection” mean? What is a “republican form of government”?

    1. Because they’re crappily drafted blueprints, those aren’t answerable to the necessary degree of specificity without resorting to tautology. There’s only one appropriate way to define those terms, though. The solution to our underdefined Constitution isn’t to leave the definitions flexible, it’s to set a definition and leave it.

      1. But the constitution leaves the definition to the courts. The courts act based initially on English Common law but now on previous precedent of the courts. The founding fathers knew this at the time. The idea of a “living constitution” gives a name to something that was already happening.

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