Eran Shalev is an associate professor of history at Haifa University, Israel. The following is a guest post by Shalev in response to Varah Mehta’s review of Rome Reborn.
An author, as we know, has little control over a book once it reaches its audience. But an author should, I believe, attempt to rectify a gross misreading of his work. For this reason I address two of Varad Mehta’s claims in his review of Rome Reborn on Western Shores.
Mehta attributes to me unusual claims to the extreme, namely that revolutionary Americans “thought not only that they could emulate Brutus, but that the ‘American Brutus’ would actually be the Brutus, resurrected 1,800 years later”; not less bizarre is the assertion that I imply that the numerous Americans who were using classical pseudonyms wished to hoax their readers into believing that they were reading texts about America written by actual classical Romans. “Even to suggest that,” Mehta writes, “is to make fools and dupes out of the Americans, who knew perfectly well that such a possibility was nonsense…it also makes Hamilton, Madison, and Jay [who wrote the Federalist as the Roman “Publius”] look like fools for believing they could trick their readers into believing it (177).”
Mehta is of course right. But nowhere do I make such an absurd insinuation. No scholar in his senses would. Indeed, in the end of the paragraph from which Mehta quotes I explicitly write: “The Federalist Papers were thus defined by the conspicuously false pretence of having been written by the founder of the Roman republic.” Defined by their conspicuously false Roman identity, not an attempt to fool the American public. Needless to say, nowhere do I suggest that Americans expected the “real” Brutus to reemerge. Or any similar outlandish ontological claim (although contemporaries did identify numerous American Brutuses, and especially American Catos, first and foremost among them George Washington). I am truly sorry that a reader could read my book and come out with such a mistaken understanding of my position. I will only say that none of the dozens of the critical readers (among them the most esteemed historians of early America of our generation) who read my work in its different iterations understood my argument in such a manner.
Further, nowhere in the book do I claim that the classics were, in the reviewer’s words, “the primary, let alone the only, inspirations for the revolutionary generation’s understanding of them.” Indeed, I consciously steered away from participating in such an unproductive contest or comparison of perceived importance; not only would such an unqualified claim about the classics be probably wrong, but such a mode of argumentation always struck me as an unproductive way to think about history. Hence, never would I, again in the reviewer’s words, assume that there were “no other ways of looking at the past…available to Americans in this period.” An academic book dedicated to the influence of the classics on Americans’ understanding of their newly created republic cannot, alas, focus on other political languages to prove its point. That does not mean however that the book claims that other modes of intellectual operation were unavailable to, or unimportant for, historical agents.
I disagree with other claims that the reviewer makes, but those are legitimate scholarly disagreements and I will not respond to them here. It is interesting however that he conclusively asserts that revolutionaries “called their achievement a novus ordo seclorum because that is what they believed it was. There is no reconciling that conviction with the notion that they were the second coming of Rome.” Here lies the heart of our differing understandings of the Revolution. My book’s contention is that such a rigid position as Mehta’s is seriously flawed: what is fascinating about the American Revolution is the deep tension contained in the simultaneous contemporary understandings of the newly created republic as a new order of the ages and in terms of a new Rome.
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