David Bouchier: In The Footsteps Of Zeus

Feb 16, 2020

On this Presidents Day I suspect that those of us who are not distracted by the sales, will be thinking more about the unknown president of the immediate future than the semi-mythical presidents of the past. Yet the past is full of lessons, messages, hints and metaphors that still give food for thought, if only we stop to think about them.

The role of modern presidents is not unlike that of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. They were insulated from the ordinary population by layers of lesser gods. At its most imperial, the role of the president corresponds to that of Jupiter or Zeus, the chief god of the ancient world, whose symbol was the eagle and who was very fond of casting thunderbolts and otherwise throwing his weight around. The founders of this Republic were classically educated. Most of them, apart from George Washington, could read Latin. They knew their Roman history, and they never quite forgot the imperial idea or the hierarchy of the gods, even as they created democratic institutions.

This may be why Washington, D.C., looks and functions so eerily like Imperial Rome, and it may explain the extraordinary executive order, recently reported, that future federal buildings should be built to resemble Roman temples and palaces as far as possible – the so-called classical style. That period of history is strangely appealing to some people in Washington. The Roman government consisted of an all-powerful emperor, a wealthy aristocratic Senate completely subordinate to him, and elected popular assemblies rather like the House of Representatives that could be and were ignored until they eventually disappeared. This political model was the mirror image of the Roman religion, with the emperor representing Zeus and dominating the lesser gods, who in their turn controlled the lives of ordinary mortals.

Just because we have Roman Imperial architecture doesn’t mean that we have to model our government on a gang of capricious Roman gods from two thousand years ago. But we have inherited the uneasy political compromise of 1787, which in turn was inherited by the Founding Fathers from shadowy memories of the Roman Empire. Our president, our Zeus, is expected to be amiable and Olympian, democratic and commanding, all at the same time. It’s impossible. Real life presidents tend to wobble from one extreme to the other, from democratic to authoritarian.

However, on Presidents Day 2020, I don’t think we have too much to worry about. The study of subjects like history and Latin has almost vanished from the schools, so nobody is likely to remember or conceive a new version of the Roman Empire, in spite of all that monumental, in-your-face architecture. The Roman gods were not elected. They had permanent positions, rather like civil servants. So they didn’t have to answer to the voters, and they didn’t even try. What saves us from this kind of celestial dictatorship is good old-fashioned democracy, our ability to exchange one Zeus for another, or even choose a completely different kind of role model for our leader. So we can look around the Parthenon and choose, perhaps, Minerva Goddess of Wisdom, just for a change.

Copyright: David Bouchier