The FBI raid on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence has fueled a multitude of assessments, analysis and conspiracy theories as America uncovers the circumstances that led to the investigation.
Among these are “deep state” theories, which essentially argue that elite powers within the government are covertly directing action against the former president.
One of the more esoteric interpretations came from Republican Congresswoman Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who delved deep into ancient Roman history to find an analogy that has proven strained at best.
In a tweet sent on August 9, 2022, Cawthorn claimed that the raid reflected the actions of Roman dictator Sulla, who led and won the first full-scale civil war in Roman history.
Part of Cawthorn’s comparison is that Sulla’s rise to power – and the subsequent overthrow of a group of powerful judges called the Tribune of Plebs – mirrored the action of “Biden’s FBI” in relation to the Mar-a-Lago raid.
The claim drew scorn from liberals and history buffs alike, with some accusing the North Carolina Republican of misrepresenting ancient events.
Without claiming to be experts on the history of the Roman Republic, news week spoke to several historians to see if they thought Cawthorn’s analysis was fair.
While some noted potential parallels, most disagreed with his assessment.
Among them was Dr. Rebecca Usherwood, Assistant Professor of Late Antique and Early Byzantine Studies at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, whose research focuses on the political history of the Roman and later Roman Empire.
dr Usherwood said it was “unclear” to which period of Sulla’s rise to power he was referring, whether it was the Civil War or his rule as dictator.
To be clear (as noted by Dr. Usherwood), “dictator” was an official office in the Roman Republic and was not understood as the word is interpreted today.
“Sulla was actually a conservative figure, so the Biden comparison doesn’t quite work, (although) I think he could argue that Biden represents the interests of the political elites,” said Dr. Usherwood.
“The tribune of the plebs was a powerful and destructive magistracy in the Roman Republic. There were several of them at the same time (4-10 depending on the era) and they were created to uphold the rights of the common people of the Republic against the political/economic dominance of the wealthier elite.
“Their most powerful tool was the Senate veto power, which could effectively block political activity.
“They were sacrosanct, so harming them in any way was a big taboo. However, this happened – most famously, the Gracchi brothers were killed trying to implement land reforms that would have deprived the elite of economic power.”
When Sulla came to power during the late Roman Republic, he was responsible for reforming the political apparatus and representing the Senate’s most conservative interests.
“He killed large numbers of aristocrats, but not specifically at the tribunes of the people. His reforms of 82-8 BC or kill,’ added Dr Usherwood.
“There were murders of tribunes, but the famous murders of the Gracchi took place decades earlier.”
A similar statement was made by Dr. Edwin Shaw, Lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol in the UK.
“The comparison is a bit historically convoluted – Madison Cawthorn has put a few different historical episodes together here.
“I think he means mainly the death of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. and Gaius Gracchus in 121 BC 80s BC.
“Even so, there are a few episodes of politically motivated tribune deaths during this period, so he kind of gets a pass there.”
dr However, Shaw said that Cawthorn’s description of “everyday” murders was an exaggeration.
“This underscores the main issue with the comparison, that Sulla’s actions came after a period of literal civil war, which involved armed clashes between Roman armies and their allies and led to Sulla’s entry into Rome at the head of an army,” he added.
“Sulla’s large-scale political assassinations (known as the ‘Prohibitions’) were practically the final stage in an attempt to quell political resistance and stabilize his position after this civil war.”
like dr Shaw explained, Sulla’s murderous attempt to consolidate his authority took place after the Civil War, in contrast to Cawthorn’s explanation, which indicated that this oppression took place as Sulla rose to the seat of power.
In addition, said Dr. Shaw news week that Cawthorn had drawn a “clearly reductive and emotional comparison in drawing a parallel between the limited application of the law on the one hand and political killings in the context of a civil war on the other”.
other historians news week spoken were much more emphatic.
Richard Alston, Professor of Roman History at Royal Holloway University of London, England, described Cawthorn’s characterization as “100% wrong” and “about as bad a version of Roman history as you can get”.
He said: “The traditional aristocracy, of which Sulla was a leading member, opposed Marius (whom Sulla fought in the civil war to claim the Roman Republic) because he was not in the establishment.
“Their opposition to the tribunes focused on those tribunes’ plans to redistribute land and protect civil rights.
“Sulla defended the rights of the very wealthy against those who threatened that wealth and the social and political privileges of Rome’s superelite.
“What the good senator has in mind is beyond me, but if I read correctly there is an assumption that Trump is the tribune of the plebs plagued by some kind of dictatorial state. This seems to be 100% wrong. “
Professor Shaw drew a comparison between the rise of Sulla and modern US politics; notably the January 6 attacks on the Capitol.
“Of course, all of these historical parallels are extreme. Trump has not usurped the powers of arbitrary executions: identifying enemies via Twitter attacks is, of course, on a different scale.
“Nevertheless, Sulla’s March on Rome served as a precedent for Caesar’s March on Rome, which served as a precedent for Octavian-Augustus in his end of the republic.
“These Roman parallels were also exploited by Mussolini in his March on Rome in 1922. There is an obvious close parallel with the attack on the Capitol.”
dr Carey Fleiner, Senior Lecturer in Classical (Roman) History at the University of Winchester, England, said that Cawthorn “has no idea, to put it politely, of Sulla as to what went on with the tribunes, or the history of the late Roman Republic in general.”
“To order a hit on a tribune, Sulla would have had to request the Senate to officially make that tribune an ‘enemy of the people’ in collusion with the Senate – and although he was ‘dictator’, Sulla was still very supportive and owned by the Senate and of the senatorial class – although in his spare time he preferred to mingle with common folk down in the tavern, for which his enemies ridiculed him.
“In short, Mr. Crawford has no idea what he’s talking about. Truly half-baked and half-remembered lessons from history.
news week has reached out to Madison Cawthorn for comment.
https://www.newsweek.com/madison-cawthorn-comparing-bidens-fbi-roman-leader-100-wrongexperts-1732607 Madison Cawthorn Likens Biden’s FBI to Roman Leader ‘100% False’ – Experts