Known for his populist views that challenge conventional wisdom, author Michael Parenti presents a compelling account of ancient Rome–quite different from the one most of us studied in school– in his new, Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome (The New Press; 2003). Parenti, who received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale and is the author of over 250 articles and 17 books, maintains that the history of ancient Rome has not been fairly or accurately portrayed throughout the ages because the aristocratic scholars who recorded Roman history were promoting an elitist viewpoint. Moreover, he contends that most modern scholars and historians have accepted that viewpoint without challenging it.
The Online Review recently caught up with the prolific writer and discussed his new book with him. We also talked about the agenda of the mainstream news media and the questions surrounding 9/11.
OR: In your latest book you make the case that history is written from an elitist point of view because all the writers of the time came from the privileged class. Would you say all history has been written this way?
MP: Yes, as a matter of fact, I wrote another book called History Is Mystery with that very same theme. That is, the victors in history are the ones who write it, and the victors are usually the ones who are the dominant socio-economic interests of the society. They themselves may not write it, but their faithful scribes do, people in their employ.
OR: Which goes along with another theme in your book. Although you discuss Julius Caesar’s flaws and foibles, basically you see him as a social reformer who wanted to give more opportunity to average citizens. As a result, he made many enemies in the Roman Senate who wanted to get rid of him.
MP: Yes, Caesar was a much more democratic leader than Brutus or Cassius or any of the individuals who killed him. For example, he started rhetoric schools for ordinary people. These schools usually were the province only for the very rich, and he initiated a number of democratic reforms, strengthened the tribal assemblies, and took powers away from the oligarchic aristocracy in the Senate. When the Romans took over Athens during the first civil war, he re-instituted a democratic constitution for Athens. He also called for the public posting and publishing of the proceedings of the Roman Senate to expose what the Senators were saying and doing in order to make them more accountable.
OR: You also mention how the aristocracy in Rome, especially respected writers like Cicero, who many modern historians revere, view the mass public as nothing more than rabble. Do you think that was true of all countries and not just ancient Rome?
MP: I would say the aristocracy of every country looked down on the people whose backs they lived off, using words like rabble and scum to describe them. In other words, the conditions of their oppression were seen as manifestations of their own traits. For example, Cicero refers to the people as a starving, contemptible rabble. He admits they’re starving, but he doesn’t see that as symptomatic of oppression; he sees that as an inherent trait, which is their own fault, and part of their undesirable nature. Essentially, he blames the victims for their own oppression. The disturbing thing, of course, is that modern historians accept this viewpoint and segue way right into it, often times because of their own upper class background and training.
OR: Do you think this mindset is a carry over from ancient times when nobility believed they were descended from the gods?
MP: Yes, that’s true. Even Caesar’s family believed they were descended from Venus.
OR: Did they really? Or was it just as ruse to underscore their social position?
MP: I don’t really know what self-serving ideas were truly believed or to what extent they were cultivated to create advantage and an aura of invincibility. I suppose it was very much like it is today. In ancient Rome, some people truly believed and looked for comfort and guidance in God, some disbelieved outright and thought it was poppycock, and others may have had a conventional adherence to it.
OR: On page 58 of your book, you write: “In Roman constitutional practice there was nothing to prevent the Senate from passing any decree it so desired. The nobles protected the constitution-an unwritten one based on custom and practice-to the extent that it fortified their oligarchy.” You could probably say the same thing today with the way many of our politicians use the laws to their own advantage.
MP: Yes, I think so. We have leaders today who pay lip service to democracy, but when that democracy actually starts operating effectively to advantage the demos, the ordinary people, they immediately think of ways to undermine it and do it in.
OR: Which ties in with another point you make on page 65: “It is a time-honored tradition to blame ‘rash’ and ‘provocative’ reformers for the violence visited upon them by reactionary forces.” This applied to Caesar, but it could also apply to anyone who attempts to make serious reforms in society.
MP: Yes, I’ve made this point before in one of my other writings. I quoted an editorial in the New York Times that said that Salvador Allende brought it all on himself when the military overthrew him and murdered him. The essay claimed he was too rash, and he pushed too far ahead of the Chilean people, which wasn’t true. He had enormous popular support.
OR: This goes back to your point about who writes the history. If most Americans only read or watch the mainstream version of the news, they find it difficult to believe that our government or CIA could have instigated so many of the coups and atrocities that have taken place throughout the years in Third World countries like Chile.
MP: That’s right. Most Americans cannot believe that their country is anything but a force of virtue in the world. They think anyone who presents an alternative message is crazy.
OR: So how do we resolve this problem? If most people do not read or believe alternative news publications or sources, and simply believe what they are told by the mainstream media, who are primarily owned and controlled by the corporate elite, how do we ever get a populist message out to the mass public?
MP: Well, we don’t, and that’s the problem. There is one other avenue, however, besides the media, and that is through political action itself. And political action does impact, such as committees fighting over issues, or organizations championing causes, or big public demonstrations protesting government policy. These actions over time do impact. For example, there is an organization called Military Families Against the War that has been getting some notice and does have some influence over mass opinion. The Internet, too, provides a way of accessing not only other groups here in the United States, but all over the world, which makes it possible to organize massive demonstrations against the current war in Iraq.
OR: Speaking of war, there are some individuals who believe, and have reams of facts to support their position, that the Bush administration not only allowed 9/11 to happen, but may have even had a hand in planning it. What is your position?
MP: I don’t think the Bush administration programmed 18 Islamic radicals to commit suicide, but who knows? What we do know for sure is the Bush administration is not cooperating with the commission set up to investigate the events surrounding 9/11. They are not handing over documents, and they’re stonewalling. This in itself raises the question of what they have to hide, and I don’t think it’s a question of speculation. It’s an absolute fact that the Bush administration looked the other way. We have evidence of it. We have an FBI report about suspicious characters at flying schools that were learning how to fly aircraft. We have the CIA memo of August 6th that said there was going to be major hijackings and terror attacks, but Bush never informed the airlines about it. We have the fact that our airplanes didn’t scramble when they should have. We had Condoleezza Rice saying that we knew there was going to be a hijacking, but we thought it was just going to be a hostage situation. We know that the CIA had links to al-Qaida in the past. And that was even reported in the major media. So, although members of the Bush administration themselves may not have planned 9/11 or conducted it, there are many questions that still need to be answered. But they can’t get away with this type of thing again. If they try it a second time and there is a major catastrophe–
OR: Like right before the election.
MP: Yes, but it won’t bring the same political gold that the last one did because people are going to say, “You had three years to prevent this from happening again. What the hell are you doing?” So if they try something like that they are going to make a very big mistake.