September 28, 2003

CHRISTOPHER LYDON is comparing Wesley Clark to Hadrian, and George Bush to Trajan. I’m not sure that this works (in fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t), but you can read it and decide for yourself.

A few angry readers have asked what I like about Howard Dean. I thought I was pretty clear about that. It’s that Dean recognizes (at least he says he does, and he seems sincere to me) that bailing out isn’t an option in Iraq — we have to succeed, or the backlash will be far more damaging than the backlash from our timidity in response to Beirut, Mogadishu, and Tehran.

UPDATE: Reader William Lemmon emails:

As a big ol’ Roman history geek and a fan of historical comparisons to current events, I was fascinated by the blog you linked to last night in which Christopher Lydon equates Wes Clark to Hadrian and President Bush to Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan.

You write that the comparison doesn’t work, and I would agree that it doesn’t work in the sense that the author thinks it does. However, it may be apt in a way that Mr. Lydon doesn’t intend, and wouldn’t like.

Mr. Lydon seems to assert that Hadrian’s consolidation of the Empire’s borders and cessation of expansion was unquestionably beneficial. But this interpretation is far from unassailable.

The Roman Empire was always at its strongest when it was on the offensive, pushing its borders ever further into barbarian territory and carrying the benefits of civilization with them, just as President Bush asserts that America can only triumph in the war on terror by staying on the offensive and bringing the fight to the enemy’s heartland. There’s no reason to believe that the Democratic strategy of going on the defensive (by focusing on homeland security rather than regime change in hostile nations) will work any better for America than it did for Rome, which found it difficult to maintain static borders against the constant encroachments of barbarian tribes (again, just as our porous borders would be almost impossible to seal against terrorist infiltration).

In fact, it’s arguable that Hadrian’s reforms contributed to the eventual fall of the empire by sapping Rome of its drive and ambition for expansion, leading inevitably to decadence and decline. It’s hard to avoid drawing unfavorable parallels to Democratic pacifism and provinicialism.

All in all, I think that Hadrian, with his passion for reform and centralization, his ivory-tower intellectualism and his weakness for sensual pleasure (for which he was widely mocked and derided in his own day) compares rather closely to too many of today’s Democrats. Perhaps more to Wes Clark’s patron, Bill Clinton, than to Clark himself – although, happily, Bill didn’t erect hundreds of statues of Monica, as Hadrian did of his (male) lover Antinous.

For that matter, Bush as Trajan – a man of action from a province considered somewhat backwater by the Roman elites – is a pleasing comparison as well.

Trifle with history geeks at your peril.