Misapplied History...


I confess that I am a great fan of Applied History. Theoretical arguments and conceptual frameworks are, ultimately, nothing but distilled, crystalized, and chemically cooked history. After all, what else could they possibly be? And it is very important to know whether the distillation, crystallization, and chemical cooking processes that underpin the theory and made the conceptual frameworks were honest ones. And that can be done only by getting good historians into the mix—in a prominent and substantial way.

But if this is what "Applied History" is to be, AY-YI-YI-YI-YI-YI-YI!!!!

Niall Ferguson: Fetch the purple toga: Emperor Trump is here: "Think of Harvey Weinstein, the predator whose behaviour was for years an 'open secret' among precisely the Hollywood types who were so shrill last year in their condemnation of Donald Trump for his boasts about 'grabbing' women by the genitals...

...“Women should never be talked about in that way,” declared the actor Ben Affleck a year ago, after the release of Trump’s “locker room” exchange with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush in 2005. However, Affleck became “angry and saddened” about his mentor Weinstein’s record of assaulting and harassing women only after it was splashed all over The New Yorker. This was too much for Rose McGowan, apparently one of Weinstein’s many victims, who told Affleck to “f--- off”—whereupon other actresses claimed Affleck himself had groped them.

In my experience few things enrage ordinary Americans more than the hypocrisy of the liberal elites.... At least Trump does not pretend to be a feminist. Weinstein raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In January he joined the anti-Trump Women’s March in Park City, Utah. In May he sat next to Clinton at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, America’s biggest provider of birth control products and procedures, including abortion....

The brilliant Tom Holland... his book Rubicon: _The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, “censoriousness was the mirror image of a drooling appetite for lurid fantasy.” Yes, that does sound familiar.... [In] Holland['s] telling, the [Roman] Republic dies too imperceptibly to be mourned. Superficially its decline was the result of recurrent civil war. But the underlying causes were the self-indulgence and social isolation of the Roman elite, the alienation of the plebeian masses, the political ascendancy of the generals and the opportunities all these trends created for demagogues. Reading Holland’s description of the libidinous orgies and extravagant cuisine of Baiae, the fabled Roman resort on the Gulf of Naples, it is impossible not to be reminded of present-day La La Land....

Congress was meant to be the dominant branch of government.... Progressives pressed for reform of what Woodrow Wilson disparagingly called “congressional government”. The 1900s saw the first presidential programmes—the Square Deal, the New Deal, the Fair Deal—sold to the public through newspapers and later radio and television. The 1960s brought presidential primaries and caucuses. With the advent of the internet the system took a further step down the road to direct plebiscitary presidential rule. The result was President Trump, king of the Twitter trolls....

Imperceptibly, the foundations of the republic have corroded. In Rome no one quite noticed that Octavian—or Augustus as he was renamed in 27BC—was becoming an emperor, for the outward forms of republican governance endured. Yet the symptoms of corrosion were all around, not least in the decadence of the Roman elite. I have never been persuaded by those who fear an American fascism in the style of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. None of the protagonists in today’s American drama would look well in a brown shirt, jackboots and tight breeches. But togas? I can’t imagine a garment better suited to Weinstein and the president-emperor he both reviles and resembles.

Back up. Even Ferguson admits that for the Roman Republic "its decline was the result of recurrent civil war". However this, he says, is only "superficially" the case. So let's look at the Roman Civil Wars.

According to Plutarch—who is appallingly close to being our only source for this stuff—they began in 133 BC when:

Blossius of Cumae... said it would be a shame and a great disgrace if [the Tribune] Tiberius [Sempronius Gracchus], a son of Gracchus, a grandson of [P. Cornelius] Scipio Africanus, and a champion of the Roman people, for fear of a raven should refuse to obey the summons of his fellow citizens; such shameful conduct, moreover, would not be made a mere matter of ridicule by his enemies.... Many of his friends on the Capitol came running to Tiberius with urgent appeals to hasten thither, since matters there were going well.... As soon as he came into view the crowd raised a friendly shout, and as he came up the hill they gave him a cordial welcome and ranged themselves about him, that no stranger might approach.

But after Mucius began once more to summon the [Assembly of the] Tribes to the vote, none of the customary forms could be observed because of the disturbance that arose on the outskirt of the throng, where there was crowding back and forth between the friends of Tiberius and their opponents.... Fulvius Flaccus, a senator... told him that at a session of the senate the party of the rich, since they could not prevail upon the consul to do so, were purposing to kill Tiberius themselves, and for this purpose had under arms a multitude of their friends and slaves. Tiberius, accordingly, reported this to those who stood about him, and they at once girded up their togas, and breaking in pieces the spear-shafts with which the officers keep back the crowd, distributed the fragments among themselves, that they might defend themselves against their assailants. Those who were farther off, however, wondered at what was going on and asked what it meant. Whereupon Tiberius put his hand to his head, making this visible sign that his life was in danger, since the questioners could not hear his voice.

But his opponents, on seeing this, ran to the senate and told that body that Tiberius was asking for a crown; and that his putting his hand to his head was a sign having that meaning. All the senators, of course, were greatly disturbed, and [Publius Cornelius Scipio] Nasica demanded that the consul should come to the rescue of the state and put down the tyrant. The consul replied with mildness that he would resort to no violence and would put no citizen to death without a trial; if, however, the people, under persuasion or compulsion from Tiberius, should vote anything that was unlawful, he would not regard this vote as binding.

Thereupon Nasica sprang to his feet and said: "Since, then, the chief magistrate betrays the state, do ye who wish to succour the laws follow me." With these words he covered his head with the skirt of his toga and set out for the Capitol. All the senators who followed him wrapped their togas about their left arms and pushed aside those who stood in their path, no man opposing them, in view of their dignity, but all taking to flight and trampling upon one another.... The attendants of the senators carried clubs and staves which they had brought from home; but the senators themselves seized the fragments and legs of the benches that were shattered by the crowd in its flight, and went up against Tiberius, at the same time smiting those who were drawn up to protect him.

Of these there was a rout and a slaughter, and as Tiberius himself turned to fly, someone laid hold of his garments. So he let his toga go and fled in his tunic. But he stumbled and fell to the ground among some bodies that lay in front of him. As he strove to rise to his feet, he received his first blow, as everybody admits, from Publius Satyreius, one of his [Tribunal] colleagues, who smote him on the head with the leg of a bench; to the second blow claim was made by Lucius Rufus, who plumed himself upon it as upon some noble deed. And of the rest more than three hundred were slain by blows from sticks and stones, but not one by the sword.

This is said to have been the first sedition at Rome, since the abolition of royal power, to end in bloodshed and the death of citizens; the rest though neither trifling nor raised for trifling objects, were settled by mutual concessions, the nobles yielding from fear of the multitude, and the people out of respect for the senate. And it was thought that even on this occasion Tiberius would have given way without difficulty had persuasion been brought to bear upon him, and would have yielded still more easily if his assailants had not resorted to wounds and bloodshed; for his adherents numbered not more than three thousand.

But the combination against him would seem to have arisen from the hatred and anger of the rich rather than from the pretexts which they alleged; and there is strong proof of this in their lawless and savage treatment of his dead body...

A decade later, in 121 B.C., the consul Lucius Opimius would seize upon the murder of his attendant Quintus Antyllius by partisans of Tiberius's brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus as a pretext for the Senate's passage of the Senatus Consultum Ultimum—"consules darent operam ne quid detrimenti res publica caperet" ("let the consuls see to it that the Republic suffer no harm") and then murder Gaius. Afterwards politicians who thought Rome should do more to subdivide public land engrossed by rich senators either thought better of proposing agrarian reform laws or recognized that they needed an army. And it turned out that they could raise armies that would be loyal to them rather than the constitution of the Republic. And so we have those twenty who raised and commanded armies loyal to themselves sometimes within but often outside the Republic's legal framework:

  1. Gaius Marius (cos. 107, 104, 102, 102, 101, 100, 86)
  2. Lucius Cornelius Sulla (cos. 88, 80; dic. 82-81)
  3. Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (cos. 89)
  4. Gnaeus Papirius Carbo (cos. 85, 84, 82)
  5. Quintus Sertorius
  6. Marcus Licinius Crassus (cos. 69, 54)
  7. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (cos. 69, 54, 51)
  8. Lucius Sergius Catilina
  9. Gaius Julius Caesar (cos. 59, 48, 47, 46, 45, 44; dic. 49-44)
  10. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (cos. 46, 42)
  11. Sextus Pompeius
  12. Gaius Vibius Pansa Caetronianus (cos. 43)
  13. Aulus Hirtius (cos. 43)
  14. Marcus Junius Brutus
  15. Gaius Cassius Longinus
  16. Quintus Caecilius Fabius Metellus Scipio
  17. Marcus Porcius Cato
  18. Marcus Antonius (cos. 44, 34),
  19. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (cos. 37, 28, 27)
  20. And, of course, the man named at birth Gaius Octavius Thurinus (cos. 43, 33, 31, 30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 5, 2)

All of these commanded armies loyal to themselves and not to the Senate (or to whatever rump of the Senate was sitting in Rome and issuing Senatus Consulta). None of these were both (a) victorious and (b) willing after victory to do what was necessary to make future armies loyal to the Senate rather than to their commanders in the future (although Sulla did try).

Thus it is no accident that the style of post-Republican rulers became Imperator—victorious commander—rather than king or dictator or something else.

Plutarch saw it as a chain of norm-breaking.

And I think he was right.

First, Scipio Nasica's faction broke the norm that the prosperity from conquest was to be widely shared, not least through ample and lavish land distribution and colonization. Second, Scipio Nasica's and then Opimium's Optimates broke the norm that Roman magistrates not be murdered in the streets. Third, Gaius Marius broke the norm that soldiers be recruited only from those whose household and kin had something of property to lose. Fourth, Gaius Marius broke the norm that magistracies be short-term and temporary. Fifth, Sulla broke the norm that commanders obeyed the Senate and people rather than marching on Rome to cow them with their soldiers. Sixth, Pompey broke the norm that commanders disband their armies after campaigns rather than hold them in reserve, even if demobilized. Sixth, Bibulus broke the norm that magistrates not filibuster—not declare that every day was inauspicious for public legislation. Seventh, Caesar broke the norm that magistrates respect the vetoes of their colleagues. Eighth, Pompey broke the norm that Roman politicians respect their peers as equals. Ninth, Caesar broke the norm that Roman politicians respect their superiors and the Senate, and crossed the Rubicon.

Why were these norm-breakings successful? Why did they proceed? Plutarch says it was out of the "hatred and anger of the rich" that led them to react to discontent at the distribution of land and spoils in a new way. Before, he said, there had always been compromise and adjustment and incremental change, "the nobles yielding from the fear of the multitude, and the people out of respect for the senate..." But Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica's generation changed that, both in their unwillingness to share the profits of imperial conquest and in their willingness to kill opposing political leaders.

Why did the ball keep rolling? Because increased maldistribution opened up further opportunities for norm-breaking. Male Roman citizens from 450 B.C. to 150 B.C. joined the legions, and got victory, loot, land, and honor at the hands of the Senate. It was a profitable and respected thing to do with your life. Afterwards, starting with the political ascendancy of Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica and his faction, while service in the legions would still get you victory and booty, it would not get the distribution of land to farm to you and your kinfolk—not unless your general kept his hands firmly on the reins of power, and for that to happen you needed to be willing to come back to the standards and fight against your fellow citizens, if necessary.

Theoretical approaches and conceptual frameworks to be derived from this historical episode? Many and important. Applications to today? No direct applications, but a lot of thoughtful ideas and questions raised, for history does rhyme.

But this questions, ideas, approaches, frameworks, and possible applications are not those that Niall Ferguson wants to draw. His version of "history" is not wie es eigentlich gewesen in the least.

At a rhetorical level, Fergusons' piece is something that will be, as Jacob T. Levy likes to say, an interesting piece for far-future historians at Radioactive Liebowitz Morlock University to decode. The villains are Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump—sorta, because at least he is not a hypocrite pretending to be a feminist, and hypocrisy is the big sin of the "Hollywood types who were so shrill last year in their condemnation of Donald Trump for his boasts about 'grabbing' women by the genitals"—Ben Affleck, Hilary Rodham Clinton, hypocritical "liberal elites", the celebrities of Los Angeles, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and the Internet.

This is a strange list of villains indeed.

And on an application level—Ferguson's reading of Holland's history of Rome sees the causes of the possible imminent fall of the American Republic and America as: "the self-indulgence and social isolation of the Roman elite, the alienation of the plebeian masses, the political ascendancy of the generals and the opportunities all these trends created for demagogues... the libidinous orgies and extravagant cuisine of Baiae, the fabled Roman resort... [that] remind[s me of] La La Land..."

Is this well-founded in the Roman experience? No. Ten thousand times, no. NO!!

Were the military-political powerful ones of the late Roman Republic able to raise and command armies loyal to themselves because of Ferguson's list of causes? Let's run through it:

  1. "the self-indulgence... of the Roman elite..."? Nope. An addiction to "Eastern", "Greek", or "Egyptian" vices was a propaganda accusation that members hurled against each other: self-control was a principal Roman virtue, and to be ridden by your vices and your addictions showed that you were unfit to hold imperium. But Gaius Julius Caesar's being "every woman's husband and very man's wife" did not seem to harm the loyalty of his soldiers or his political and military skill.

  2. "the libidinous orgies and extravagant cuisine of Baiae..."? Nope. See above.

  3. "the... social isolation of the Roman elite..."? Nope. Roman society was patterned in a strong patron-client network. You could not be socially isolated and remain part of the elite. And the fact that all elite factions had powerful social-network hooks into a population with lots of soldiers and ex-soldiers in it was what made the civil wars possible.

  4. "the opportunities... created for demagogues..."? Which demagogues? Gang leaders Titus Annius Milo and Publius Clodius Pulcher? But they were much more tools of broader political factions engaged in norm-breaking than independent actors. Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, Publius Sulpicius Rufus, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus? They had no armies. And so they were killed. So nope.

  5. "the political ascendancy of the generals...". Well, this is not a cause but an effect. This is the thing to be explained. This is the series of civil wars that Ferguson dismisses as "superficial", right? But it is the key question: Why would Rome's citizens in the fourth, third, and second centuries B.C. fight for and be loyal to the Senate and the consuls, while in the first century B.C. they fought for and were loyal to their generals?

  6. "the alienation of the plebeian masses..." Here we are indeed getting somewhere. But why were the plebeian masses alienated? Could it be that they thought they deserved... a fair share of imperial prosperity? A Square Deal, a New Deal, a Fair Deal? And did not the hubris of elites in seeking to engross the spoils of empire and stymie all reform call forth nemesis? That would be a better form of Applied History, I think, but it would not focus on hypocritical liberal elites, LA celebrity parties, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Theodore Roosevelt. It would focus on income and wealth inequality, and on those so eager to defend it.

Certainly Plutarch thought it was "the hatred and anger of the rich" which broke the probability of compromise "the nobles yielding from fear of the multitude, and the people out of respect for the senate" that started the ball rolling. And he was, if not there, our historian first responder able to talk to many and read much that is lost to us. Listen to him!

Applied History: "For some time, the majority of academic historians have tended to shy away from questions of contemporary interest, especially to policy-makers...

...but also of interest to students interested in policy issues. Previous generations were less shy of such questions. Writing in 1939, the great Oxford philosopher of historian R. G. Collingwood made the case for applied history succinctly. “True historical problems arise out of practical problems,” he argued. “We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act. Hence the plane on which, ultimately, all problems arise is the plane of ‘real’ life: that to which they are referred for their solution is history.”

If historians decline to address current issues, then those making policy will be denied the benefit of historical perspective. Writing in the Atlantic in 2016, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson made the case for establishing a White House council of historical advisers, analogous to the council of economic advisers. Their argument was that decision-making in Washington (and not only there) would be improved by a more systematic effort to take the lessons of history into account. 

In the hope that other historians share the view that there is more to be learned from history than merely “how to make new mistakes” (in A.J.P. Taylor’s phrase), we are holding what we hope will be a series of conferences devoted to applied history. What sort of questions will the conference address? The following are the ones to be addressed by speakers and commentators:

  1. What lessons can a modern democracy learn from the fall of Roman Republic?
  2. Are recent developments in American politics unprecedented, or is Trump merely populism revisited?
  3. Is deep economic or political reform possible in the People's Republic of China?
  4. Did the United States learn the right lessons from defeat in Vietnam?
  5. How far are major historical discontinuities explicable in terms of climatic change?
  6. Are cryptocurrencies likely to replace fiat currencies in the foreseeable future?
  7. How much of a Potemkin superpower is Putin’s Russia?
  8. What can we learn from past attempts to learn from the past?
  9. Can we learn anything of the Cold War that is relevant to the world in 2018?
  10. How might 20th-century globalization unfold?
  11. Does rising inequality matter?
  12. What does history suggest will come of the recent upsurge in Islamist-inspired violence?
  13. How can a country fight an ideology?

In each case, the paper’s author will seek to answer the question with the help of historical evidence, and in particular the use of analogies and comparisons. The conference is a joint venture between the Hoover Institution, the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, and the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The conference papers will subsequently be published in a book with the title Applied History.


  • Hoover Institution, Stanford University: With its eminent scholars and world-renowned Library and Archives, the Hoover Institution seeks to improve the human condition by advancing ideas that promote economic opportunity and prosperity, while securing and safeguarding peace for America and all mankind.

  • The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School: The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is the hub of Harvard Kennedy School's research, teaching, and training in international security and diplomacy, environmental and resource issues, and science and technology policy. In 2017, for the fourth year in a row, the Belfer Center was ranked the world's #1 University Affiliated Think Tank by University of Pennsylvania's Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program.

  • Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation: The Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation is a private foundation whose principal objective is to facilitate scientific research in general. The foundation has in particular chosen to benefit the liberal arts and the social sciences. It was founded in 1947 by the late Consul General Axel Ax:son Johnson (1876-1958) together with his wife Margaret, owner of the Nordstjernan group.

Day One—Friday, March 2, 2018

9:00 AM Welcome and opening remarks: Niall Ferguson

9:15 – 10:00 AM Session 1: Undead Rome: the Decline, Fall and Afterlives of the Roman Empire?
Presenter: Tom Holland Commentator: Peter Frankopan Chair: Niall Ferguson

10:00 – 10:45 AM Session 2: Is Trumpism Merely Populism revisited?
Presenter: Eric Rauchway Commentator: Daniel Sargent Chair: Niall Ferguson

11:15 – 12:00 PM Session 3: The China Story
Presenter: Frank Dikötter Commentator: Arne Westad Chair: Robert Zoellick

Discussion with Aaron O’Connell and Fredrik Logevall: Déjà Vu All Over Again? Vietnam, Afghanistan and the Search for Lessons in History
Chair: Graham Allison

1:30 – 2:15 PM Session 4: The Ecological Origins of Economic and Political Systems
Presenter: Stephen Haber Commentator: Ian Morris Chair: Peter Frankopan

2:15 – 3:00 PM Session 5: Kicking Away the Ladder? Cryptocurrencies in Historical Perspective
Presenter: Tyler Goodspeed Commentator: Barry Eichengreen Chair: Michael Bordo

5:45 – 6:30 PM Session 6: Is Putin's Russia a Potemkin Power? Leadership, Succession and Russian Foreign Policy
Presenter: Christopher Miller Commentator: Stephen Kotkin Chair: Amir Weiner

Day Two—Saturday, March 3, 2018

9:00 – 9:45 AM Session 7: The History of the Future
Presenter: Matthew Connelly Commentator: Christopher Clark Chair: Mary Sarotte

9:45 – 10:30 AM Session 8: Thinking Historically: A Cold War Historian's Reflection on Policy
Presenter: Francis Gavin Commentator: Marc Trachtenberg Chair: Arne Westad

11:00 – 11:45 AM Session 9: How Might 21st-Century Deglobalization Unfold?
Presenter: Stefan Link Commentator: Norman Naimark Chair: Marc Trachtenberg

11:45 – 12:30 PM Session 10: Same As It Ever Was: The History of Inequality and Mobility Presenter: Gregory Clark Commentator: Glen O’Hara Chair: Harold James

Discussion with Philip Zelikow and Robert Zoellick: Applied History in Washington since c. 2000

1:30 – 2:15 PM Session 11: Wine and Winning: From Muhammad to the Islamic State, a Tangled Relationship
Presenter: David Cook Commentator: Emile Simpson Chair: Sean McMeekin

2:15 – 3:00 PM Session 12: Defeating an Idea: What the Cold War Can Teach Us About How States Fight Ideologies
Presenter: Jeremy Friedman Commentator: John Bew Chair: Philip Zelikow

Ana Lucia Araujo: ALL-MALE HISTORY CONFERENCE: "ALL-MALE HISTORY CONFERENCE. This goes for the GUINNESS BOOK of the century! A team of 30 white male historians will discuss Applied History at @Stanford. What a shame..."

Ian Morris

Greg Clark