Political Commentary from the Ancients, or, Musings During Election Week

America has been through a lot in the past week. One of the most consequential presidential elections resulted in waves of confusion, anxiety, bad-faith statements intent on poisoning democracy, the triumph of the Democratic challenger, and, my favorite, an ersatz press conference in the parking lot of a landscaping company in Philadelphia.

Through it all, I finally returned to reading something I had set aside back in September when work picked up: The Wars of Justinian, by the Late Antique Greek historian Prokopios. As I navigated his dense and detailed account of the Persian invasions of Eastern Rome during the sixth century, one particular panegyric caught my eye:

“He was the cleverest of men at speaking untruths, concealing the truth, and blaming his victims for his own crimes; he was also ready to agree to everything and ratify the agreement with an oath, yet much more ready to completely forget what he had just agreed and sworn. For the sake of money he would debase his soul to every act of pollution without any hesitation, a master at feigning piety in his expression and absolving himself with words from the responsibility of the act.” Wars of Justinian 2.9.8.

Here, in words written almost a millennium and a half ago about the Persian emperor Chosroes, was a description that seemed tailor-made to describe our current (soon to be former) president. Some, I’m sure, would see it as the epitome of everything that is wrong with his challenger. I couldn’t help but chuckle that the same language used to demonize an ancient Persian ruler could so naturally fit our current political climate, no matter what side of the aisle one chooses. 

Perhaps it’s comforting, that we share such sentiments and expressions as our forebears. Perhaps it’s depressing, that these vices have not changed for thousands of years, and neither have our ways of criticizing them. Either way, Prokopios’ words were the perfect end to a perplexing week.

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