Wednesday, 3 October 2018

A Map of Futures Past

The elections of 134 B.C. marked a point of no return. That summer the People’s Assembly of Rome chose Tiberius Gracchus as its representative in the Senate, where the rich and powerful drafted legislation on behalf of the Roman people. Tiberius had campaigned on a promise to enforce the laws that protected smallholding farmers—a reasonable proposal, given the economic situation at the time. But what stands out in the historical record is the explosive controversy surrounding his term of office.

That Rome had elections at all is perhaps not so widely known as it once was. That a general crisis in the Roman electoral system began in 133 B.C. and led, within a few generations, to the downfall of that system and the rise of a permanent military dictatorship, deserves much wider attention. In the days of Tiberius Gracchus Rome was a Republic, the original from which our modern idea of statehood derives. Founded in the same year as the famous Athenian democracy, it had for several centuries enjoyed a degree of political stability that was the envy of the Greeks.

The man who would tip the balance of the Republic irrevocably, the historian Plutarch informs us, was gentle and agreeable in demeanour, but capable of profound and compelling eloquence when moved by a just cause. Though the Gracchi were a wealthy and politically prominent family, Tiberius was modest in his manner of living. To all appearances he had both the qualities of leadership and the political connections to effect much-needed reforms. It is surprising, then, that he took on his role as people’s champion in the way that he did.

As Tribune of the Plebs, the office he stepped into in January of 133, Tiberius’ duties included both advocating for the rights of the common people before the Senate and ratifying the Senate’s legislative proposals in the People’s Assembly. But in his first month in office he brought his land reform bill directly to the Assembly and had it voted into law without consulting the Senate, in effect legislating by plebiscite. While this was technically legal, it was hardly a strong show of collegiality.

The Senate, alarmed by what it saw as an abuse of the tribunicial powers, induced another officer of the Assembly to block Tiberius’ bill. When Tiberius had this man formally removed from office, the Senate responded by blocking funding for his land reform commission. Back-room negotiations failed to break the stalemate, and government ground to a halt, its day-to-day transactions frozen. Desperate to get his commission up and running, Tiberius turned to his friends among the wealthy businessmen of Rome and family connections abroad. In short order the money was found and the land commission began its work.

Whatever his support among the governing class may have been up until this point, Tiberius had now firmly positioned himself as an enemy of the status quo. The Senate denounced him publicly as a mob-panderer and aspiring tyrant, but they seemed willing to wait out his one-year term of office before taking steps to punish him. Tiberius, for his part, might not have come to grief if he had shown greater restraint, even this late in the game. But as the summer elections drew near, he announced his intention of standing for a second term. Like his earlier maneuvers, this was technically legal, but so far outside convention that it at last roused his senatorial colleagues to action.

At the next meeting of the People’s Assembly, fighting broke out between the supporters and opponents of Tiberius. (The latter were almost certainly farmers from surrounding regions of Italy, who occupied Roman lands but lacked full citizenship, and who stood to lose land or patronage to Tiberius’ reforms). A runner brought word of the disturbance to the Senate House, and a senior statesman took the floor and called on his peers to save the Republic by destroying the tyrant. As he left the building he drew his toga over his head in the unmistakable sign of a priest about to offer a blood sacrifice. On the way to the Assembly a crowd gathered behind him, armed with rocks and improvised clubs. They met Tiberius and his supporters on the Capitoline Hill, and in the ensuing chaos three hundred people were beaten to death. Later that night the bodies were thrown into the river, Tiberius Gracchus among them.

In the spring of 1917 a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor writing by candlelight in a Munich slum put the finishing touches on the book that would launch him into the heart of a very different kind of controversy. Passed over for military service due to a weak heart and acute near-sightedness, he had spent the last six years labouring under the influence of an idea that he was convinced would alter the entire outlook of Western civilization. His name was Oswald Spengler, and he was re-writing the history of the world.

The confrontation at Agadir between France and Germany in 1911 had brought home to him the nearness and the inevitablity of massive conflict between the rival empires of Western Europe. More importantly, his intuition told him that the approaching World War represented not a ‘chance configuration of armies and alliances,’ but a watershed moment in the history of the West: a moment of destiny. With the appearance in 1918 of his book, The Decline of the West, he announced to the world that he had discovered the key not only to understanding the course of Western history, but to predicting its future as well.

As a university student Spengler had immersed himself in Greek philosophy and the natural sciences. Goethe was his intellectual hero, and from the older scholar’s anatomical studies of vertebrae and flowering plants Spengler had learned the discipline of morphological thinking. Unlike Darwin’s explanations of biological cause and effect, which Spengler found reductive and trivial, morphology is the comparison of forms without regard for causation. Its concern is to map out structural patterns and interrelationships. The configuration of bones in the human skull, for example, can be shown to be analogous to the configuration of simple vertebrae, without any need to explain the origin of either. Simply put, morphology is analogical rather than logical thinking.

Spengler’s aim in The Decline of the West was to pioneer a morphology of history. By closely comparing the development of classical Greece and Rome, on the one hand, with that of Western Europe since the Middle Ages, on the other, he claimed that he could draw parallels between the two cultural trajectories that revealed striking insights about both. The timing of his work lent it an urgency it might not otherwise have had. Unlike most European leaders and thinkers anticipating a general war between the great powers, Spengler believed that the coming conflict would be massive and decisive, a true parallel to the devastating series of wars between Rome and Carthage in the third century B.C. known as the Punic Wars. On that basis he predicted that the victor of the coming pan-European struggle would dominate the remainder of Western history politically, and that it would bring the artistic, philosophical, and spiritual growth of Western culture to a close.

The first volume of The Decline of the West was published in July 1918, just as the Allies were turning back the last great German offensive on the Western front. With an initial run of 1500 copies from a minor publisher, an author with no previous works to his name, and a convoluted theory that seemed to imply that Germany would become the next Roman Empire, the book might have been expected to vanish promptly. But in the general mood of devastation and disillusionment in post-war Germany, the idea of cultural decline had suddenly moved beyond the preserve of dour intellectual elites. The book sold well, and then very well, and soon translations were being prepared.

Then there were the critical attacks. If The Decline of the West’s sprawling scope made it difficult for the average reader to grasp in its entirety, the same trait made it an easy target for specialists of all stripes. At one point an index of refutations of Spengler’s thesis was compiled; some four hundred scholars had weighed in against him in Germany alone. In response Spengler revised the first volume in 1922 and then released the second in 1923, insisting that none of the inaccuracies of detail claimed against him altered the validity of the whole.

But perhaps the most enduring critique was of Spengler’s style. H. Stuart Hughes, reviewing the book with cautious approval in 1952, shied away from its ‘breathless atmosphere of metaphysics’. Northrop Frye, though he acknowledged Spengler’s gifts of insight, added that the Decline had ‘all the faults of a prophetic style: harsh, prejudiced, certain that history will do exactly what he says…’ In the end, whether you take The Decline of the West seriously depends to a large extent on whether you think the metaphysical and the prophetic have anything to say to our time.

Years after his death, Tiberius’ younger brother Gaius told the story of how Tiberius had first become convinced of the need for agricultural reform. As a young man he had travelled through the Roman countryside on a military tour of duty, and was deeply moved by what he saw. The Republic had been founded and upheld by citizen farmers, each working his own land and contributing his own body to the defence of the state. But now, instead of a patchwork of small, independent farms, Tiberius found himself in a landscape of vast estates worked by slaves or sharecroppers, many of them producing wine for export rather than grain to feed the homeland.

The defeat of the smallholding Roman farmer, ironically, had come about because of a victory for the Roman Republic. In the days of Tiberius and Gaius’ grandfather Rome was locked in mortal combat with Carthage, a rival city-state in what is now Tunisia. What began as a minor dispute over the two powers’ respective spheres of influence in the western Mediterranean escalated into a decades-long struggle for supremacy or annihilation, a series of conflicts fought on land and at sea that came to be known as the Punic Wars.

From their homelands in Italy and North Africa, each side mobilized for total war, launching naval engagements that could leave tens of thousands dead on both sides. In 213, at the height of the Second Punic War, nearly one third of Roman males were under arms, and by the war’s end one in ten Roman men had been killed in battle. Roman victory at Zama in 202 left Carthage vanquished and crippled, bound by the terms of surrender never to arm itself again, even for its own defence. Rome was now the leading power in the Mediterranean world, and world leadership was to transform it utterly.

With the coming of peace, wealthy Romans discovered extravagant new business opportunities in seized Carthaginian colonies in Spain and North Africa. Enterprising senators, sensing the rise of a new and generous class of citizens, hastened to offer them legislative assistance. Soon the Republic was developing serious economic interests in all parts of the Mediterranean, even intervening militarily in quarrels among the Greeks. International finance gained the upper hand in domestic politics, for wherever the legions went, Roman businessmen followed.

As the rich grew richer, the poor grew poorer. The new economy, though highly profitable to those with enough capital to trade as far as Phoenicia or Mauretania, was tilted against the smallholding farmers who had been the backbone of the Republic. Farmland was bought up for investment, and speculation was rife. A booming slave trade meant that labour was cheap and easily replaceable. For far too many poor Romans, adaptation meant selling their ancestral farms and moving to the city, where they struggled to find dignified work.

By the time of Tiberius’ tribunate, seventy years after the end of the Punic Wars, the plight of the landless had grown too serious to ignore. But thus far the few modest proposals for redistribution or reform had made little headway in the Senate. Though there were laws on the books limiting the amount of land a single citizen could own, these had been largely overlooked. The difficulties facing any senator willing to break with the political consensus become clear when one takes into account the fact that most senators owned large land holdings themselves.

These men, the educated and politically mobile, thought of themselves as the Optimates, a Latin word meaning ‘the best men,’ those most suited to guide the state and uphold its traditions. Theirs was a world of literature, philosophy, and lively political rivalry held in check by the commitment that none should rise too far above the others. This commitment, the balance of powers upon which the Republic rested, was summed up in their highest ideal, libertas, or liberty. In their handling of the Tiberius Gracchus incident, the Optimates seem to have believed that by destroying the man they could destroy the threat to their libertas that he represented. But the course of events was to prove them very wrong indeed.      

If, as Spengler believed, it is possible to construct a morphology of history, such a theory could serve as a map of time, affording us clues as to what might lie over the next hill, or which underground river might find its way to the surface and when. Morphology, after all, as the study of form, is not limited to biology. Geomorphology is the study of landscapes; folkloristic morphology is the study of cultural forms. The Decline of the West returns again and again to the idea of form, or gestalt in the original German. In its English usage, the word ‘gestalt’ refers to a meaningful pattern that can’t be reduced to the sum of its parts: either you take in the lay of the land all at once, in a single sweeping view, or you remain lost in the valleys, lacking the perspective that could set you on a meaningful path.

Literature too works on morphological principles. Jan Zwicky has shown that good poetry involves the creation and recognition of gestalts—of resonant structures of meaning—not merely through metaphor and simile, but by bringing the reader to a recognition of congruence between the structures of meaning on the page and the lived experience of the reader. Spengler’s work could thus be alternatively described as a poetics of history. If history, as he believed, not only rhymes but unfolds stanzaically, expressing recognizable themes in morphologically resonant motifs, then the point is not to quibble over grammar but to get a sense of the metre.
For its first few decades in print The Decline of the West’s popularity waxed and waned as economic boom, depression, war, peace, and cold war in turn seemed to presage cultural decline or regeneration. But these passing moods had little relevance to the scale on which Spengler was working. The Decline deals with thousand-year arcs of growth and decline, and a human lifetime is not long enough to observe the changes it describes. Only now, one hundred years after its publication, is it possible to read the Decline not as prophecy but as hypothesis, and to assess whether a poetics of history can point toward scientific truth.

It’s a simple matter to extend Spengler’s system of historic parallels by a hundred years, date for date, to encompass the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. If you draw two timelines, one for Greece and Italy between 1200 B.C. and 0, one for Western Europe between 900 and 2100 A.D., the pattern emerges visually in a rather pleasing way. Both timelines begin with agrarian societies organized around ties of kinship and personal loyalty to a military chieftain. With the growth of settled states governed by a landed aristocracy, both reach a cultural high-water mark in Athens under Pericles and in France under Louis XIV. Alexander the Great and Napoleon mark the overthrow of the aristocratic balance of power and its replacement by an accelerating financial economy, marked by fierce rivalry among colonial empires. This period of competitive expansion comes to a head with the Punic Wars and the World Wars, which usher in new hegemonic orders centred on Rome and Washington, respectively.

Spengler believed that once a culture completes its initial thousand-year development it reaches the limit of its creative possibilities, spiritually, artistically, and politically. At that point the structures of meaning that define the culture achieve their final and enduring forms. Though the mature civilization retains the capacity for material success and even for periodic cultural renewal, its inward development is complete. Years after the publication of his masterwork Spengler suggested that the word ‘fulfillment’ would have better expressed his sense of where the West was heading than ‘decline’. The ancient Egyptians reached this point around 1200 B.C., the Chinese by 200 B.C., and the Greeks and Romans shortly before the beginning of the Christian era. The West, if all goes according to plan, will reach its fulfillment sometime around 2100.

Yet cultural decline was an important part of his account, and according to him it sets in long before the creative possibilites of a culture are completely exhausted. When the Greeks of Alexander’s time looked back to the glory days of Homer or of Pericles they complained that in their own age there was no longer any scope for further achievement in the arts, only elaboration. The Romans, who carried on the legacy of the Greeks just as America carries on the legacy of Europe, were masters of law, statecraft, and military organization, but their art forms tended either toward the vulgar or toward outright imitation of older Greek works. Exotic motifs from subjugated territories like Egypt and Syria provided fresh inspiration to a cosmopolitan populace, just as Western music in our time draws much of its vitality from influences rooted in Africa and Latin America.

A culture may be cut off in full flower, as were the Aztecs, or dominated in its early years by an older culture, as were the Arabs before they broke out of Rome’s shadow, but if the morphological theory is correct, no accident of history can fundamentally alter the inborn course of development. Germany may win the World War or the U.S., but the West will fall under the sway of a single economic superpower regardless. Tiberius Gracchus may be killed or he may not, but the moment must come when the Optimates are outflanked by one of their own number willing to step into the gap between the policies of the elites and the realities of the poor. Even technology is of little account, if its novelties turn out to serve only the same old purposes on a grander or fiercer scale. What we can hope for from a map of history is not a way out of the wilderness, but a clearer sense of how to navigate the part of the landscape in which we find ourselves. The first step is simply to figure out where in time we are.

The most curious aspect of Tiberius’ legacy may well be the unresolved controversy surrounding his character. If we believe the propaganda of his political opponents, he was a savage tyrant who aimed to corrupt the Republic and rule it as his own private kingdom. If we believe his brother Gaius’ speeches during Gaius’ own campaign for the tribunate a decade after Tiberius’ death, the elder Gracchus was a people’s hero and a martyr. Even today it is easy to find accounts of the brothers Gracchi in Latin and in English falling on one side of the debate or the other. They seem to have embodied all the contradictions of their day: wealthy politicians who were champions of the poor; a just cause harnessed to questionable personal ambitions.

But from the viewpoint of historical morphology, questions of individual motivation and intention dissolve. From this perspective, we may take it as simply a sign of the times that during his term of office Tiberius showed himself capable of running affairs of state through his business connections at home and abroad, not to mention his vast personal fortune as the scion of an old landowning family. We may also note his willingness to play off poor citizens against non-citizen immigrants in his drive for economic reform. But perhaps most indicative of the mood of the times was the change in public discourse from the Gracchan period onward; even Plutarch, in an otherwise glowing biographical account, makes mention of the coarseness of Gaius Gracchus’ speeches, and of his tendency while addressing the people to become fiery and abusive in his language.

It is from this period that the term ‘Popularis’ has come down to us, meaning rabble-rouser or mob-panderer. It was the word coined by the Optimates to describe those who took up Tiberius’ tactics against them. Yet even after Gaius too had fallen beneath the clubs of the Optimate mob, new aspirants to the role of Popularis continued to appear. As long as the problem of the landless remained unresolved, their grievances were fuel for the ambitions of the ruthless. And as the legal framework of the Republic proved more and more pliable under the pressures of money and sloganeering, the populist groundswell begun by the Gracchi grew into the tidal wave upon which the Republic shattered.

Without farmland from which to raise a living, there can be no economic independence for the citizen, no libertas to counterbalance the weight of greed and ambition tilting the Republic toward its final phase. Those who lack the means to grow or buy food will sell themselves, and in any civilization advanced enough to have a standing army, the poor find a ready buyer. As the political forms of the superpower begin to degenerate into a struggle between the haves and the have-nots, war, endemic among the economic colonies, becomes the most important of all growth industries. Finally, those military leaders able to provide for their soldiers more reliably than the factionally paralyzed Republic become the leaders with the power to secure the loyalty of a new kind of state.

 Plutarch’s account of the Gracchi ends with the common people bringing offerings to their commemorative statues as though to a shrine. Had the Optimates been the ones to write the history of those years they would surely have had it otherwise, but the writing of history is not the prerogative of the vanquished. It would fall instead to Julius Caesar, military genius, most skillful Popularis of them all, ultimate heir to the Gracchan legacy, to pen the definitive account of the Republic’s final years.

As a historian, Caesar had the benefit of first-hand knowledge: it was he himself who had finally overcome the corruption of the Optimate elites, he who had distributed land to his soldiers out of his own personal fortune and those of his fallen enemies, and it was to him and his heirs, the Roman Emperors, that the Roman people owed their eternal gratitude. Never a man to waste words, his remark while surveying the Optimate dead after his victory on the battlefield of Pharsalus may well be the best summary we have of the Republic’s fall and the Empire’s foundation: ‘Hoc voluerunt,’ that is, ‘They willed it thus.’ It expressed both the tragedian’s deep sense of a fate long foreseen and the gangster’s public avowal that his enemies had been asking for it.

It can be humbling, even awe-inspiring, to suppose that our wills are not in fact the drivers of history, but that on the largest scale human affairs seem to obey a hidden pulse of unwilled, organic necessity. If this is the case, then it is not enough to think of civilizations as complex organisms whose life cycle is a known quantity, or to imagine that one day history may be considered a branch of the natural sciences: we must go farther, and contemplate the possibility that in the nature of human culture there is something that metaphysics alone can reach at; something like destiny. Maybe in another hundred years we’ll know for sure.


  1. Thought provoking and a pleasure to read.

  2. Thank you Kleymo, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Really interesting and well-written stuff. Spengler's "Decline" is a fascinating study.

    1. Glad to hear it, Troy. I'm hoping to stir up some more interest in the Decline now that we've passed the centennial mark.

  4. Well organized. Insightfull and refreshing read when procrastinating. I wonder if there might be some interesting relationships between Spengler's work and theorems examined in mathematical morphology...don't feel like I have a good enough grasp of it to really explore that idea though - any math/history profs out there?

    1. Joshua, thank you. Next time you're procrastinating you might want to check out cliodynamics, a field of study which attempts to model historical processes mathematically. I haven't looked into it very deeply myself. There are only so many world histories one can digest in a day, after all.

  5. I have been struggling with Spengler's book for a while, and I appreciate anything anyone can give me to help me understand it. That was a great essay. I have previously been focused on his concept of "pseudomorphosis", but there is so much more there. Thank you.