By Andrew M. McClellan
Among countless images and videos of Trump rally-goers (and eventual insurrectionists and criminals) in Washington on Jan. 6 is a frightening exchange between two MAGA janissaries: “We can take that place,” says a rabidly focused man pointing toward the Capitol. His companion chimes in: “And then do what?” This invitation elicits a phrase familiar to those who study ancient Rome and its blood-soaked history of civil war, political insurrection, and tyranny: “Heads on pikes.”
The display of the severed heads was emblematic of the civil wars that rocked Rome’s Republic for decades as rival political groups, propped up by variously opposed demagogic strongmen, fought for control of the res publica. Tellingly, it was only the heads of political leaders and elites that were displayed. These were most recognizable and carried the most visual, symbolic, and monetary value.
This last part is worth stressing: under the dictator Sulla, a price was placed on the heads of those deemed hostes (“enemies of the state”). What followed was a purge of some 8-9,000 senators, equites, and their families in 82 BCE. Many of those “proscribed” to death were decapitated — the head offering sure proof of services rendered — their heads thrust on pikes at the Roman forum, the physical, political, and emotional center of Rome’s civic apparatus.
This grisly visual spectacle — what we can only call a form of domestic terrorism — in the context of civil war sets a dark precedent for subsequent abuses four decades later when another civil war and a second round of proscriptions again saw the forum heaped with impaled Roman heads. The most famous of these was the former consul, lawyer, and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose head and hands, at the order of Mark Antony, were severed and pinned to the rostra, the speaker’s platform in the forum from which the great rhetorician delivered his speeches over the course of a lengthy career. The Roman historian Livy’s account is harrowing and horrifying:
“Leaning forward from the litter and offering his motionless neck, [Cicero’s] head was cut off. This was not enough for the senseless cruelty of the soldiers: they cut off his hands too, blaming them for having written against Antony. So the head was brought back to Antony and, by his order, was set between the two hands on the rostra where that man, as consul and often as ex-consul, and in that same year [43 BCE] had been heard railing against Antony … The citizens, lifting their eyes wet with tears, could scarcely look at his severed limbs.”
Livy’s description is framed through the perspective of an internal audience frozen in paralytic stare. The juxtaposition between Cicero’s rhetorical performances “on stage” in front of an audience, and Antony’s cruel “staging” of Cicero’s fragmented body signals a frightening change in theatrical production. And this is surely the point: the impaled severed head — the singular symbol of Republican era civil war violence and insurrection in ancient Rome — is meant explicitly for audience consumption; it is a terroristic warning to others who might similarly seek to stand up to tyranny.
There is a warning in these grim reminiscences. Within a generation of the civil wars and their concomitant abuses, Rome’s Republic, which had lasted for nearly 500 years, would collapse and make way for a dictatorship led by the emperor Augustus. The new emperor — hands bloodied by his own direct involvement in the slaughter of thousands of fellow Romans – destroyed documents relating to his actions in the civil war and he avoided elaboration of the civil war in his sanitization of events in his Res Gestae (an account of his political achievements in service to the Roman state).
Augustus ruled for 41 years (27 BCE-14 CE) under the false-flag of a “renewed Republic,” cynically cloaking monarchism in the garb of long-standing Republican political trappings. His reign instituted a royal dynasty of familial succession that would last for nearly a century (to the death of the infamous Nero in 68 CE).
What’s particularly frightening about the attack in Washington is that the insurrectionists/terrorists were out for blood. Stirred by a populist leader to whom they claim unassailable fealty, the mob bombarded the Capitol with a rabid furor. Five people died, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick.
Jim Bourg, a Reuters photographer on the ground, reported that he overheard rioters plotting to find Vice President Mike Pence and hang him as a “traitor.” At the rally from which the attack was spawned, Trump suggested Pence was not doing his “job” appropriately. And pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood threatened Pence with a firing squad (the message, posted on Parler, was later removed for violating the company’s terms of service).
One of the rioters was photographed with zip-tie handcuffs, indicating he was hoping to take prisoners. Another had a semi-automatic rifle and 11 Molotov cocktails. Statues and walls in the Capitol were reportedly smeared with blood and feces. And DC Police found (and detonated) pipe bombs discovered near the Capitol building.
More could be said, but this paints a clear picture of the violent intent of these insurrectionists. It’s a miracle that the rioters — many of whom infiltrated the personal offices of numerous members of state — weren’t able to inflict more damage, and the explicit aim of head-hunting must not be cast aside lazily as “rhetorical hyperbole” (this was Lin Wood’s defense of his horrific Parler message after it was removed by the site) given the literal acts of aggression that rocked the Capitol.
Donald Trump (thankfully) is no Augustus. He’s a buffoonish, mentally and morally vacuous narcissist; but he wields enormous power among a base that will literally murder in his name. Astonishingly, according to a YouGov poll conducted after the attack, 45% of Republicans supported the invasion of the Capitol. What’s more disturbing is that the groundwork has been laid here for a shrewd, tactical tyrant to take the stage and effectuate an uprising that could shatter our democratic Republic (or what’s left of it) in a similar way the tactful and brilliant Augustus learned from his flawed dictatorial predecessors.
Capitol Hill in Washington takes its name from Rome’s Capitolium, and the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, the most important temple in Rome and the heart of Rome’s Republican core. The Capitolium was also the occasional site for meetings of Rome’s Senate, and it was customary that new consuls (the highest elected political office in the Republic) be inaugurated there. The temple was dedicated in 509 BCE, the founding year of Rome’s Republic.
The civil wars instigated by Sulla in 83 BCE brought not only heads on pikes, but also the destruction of the Capitolium which was engulfed in flames as a result of destructive insurrectionist mobs. Let this be a lesson. Let this be a warning to our own fragile state of the dangers of demagogues and false prophets, and their ability to inspire vicious uprisings in the name of spuriously claimed patriotism. I fear calls for heads on pikes. And so should you.
Dr. Andrew M. McClellan is the Stepsay Family Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics in the Department of Classics and Humanities at San Diego State University. He has published numerous works on violence and horror in ancient literature and culture, and the reception of ancient literature in modern society. His new book Abused Bodies in Roman Epic is available from Cambridge University Press.