Historians Dismantle Beck's Roman History Lesson


On both his radio and Fox News programs this week, Glenn Beck sought to show how the U.S. is " repeating the exact mistakes" that led to the fall of the Roman Republic. But according to Roman history experts consulted by Media Matters, Beck's history lesson distorted or fabricated key facts.

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Beck Points To Beginning of Roman Empire As Example Of "What's Happening To Us"

Beck: "We Are Repeating The Exact Mistakes of Ancient Rome." Beck said on the December 1 edition of his Fox News show, "Tonight, I will show how we are repeating the exact mistakes of ancient Rome and we are on the fast track to writing the next chapter of history titled "The Rise and Fall of American Empire and Man's Freedom." [Glenn Beck, 12/01/10, accessed via Nexis]

Beck: "This Is Where We're At. The Empire Begins." Beck said, "The fall of the Roman Republic and into an empire, because I think this is where we're at. The empire begins. We are not looking at the decline and fall of the American empire, because we're still a republic, but we're teetering." Beck added that "what they're trying to do right now is to convince you that communism and socialism is better than capitalism. They are doing everything they can to achieve their goal without you knowing it." [Glenn Beck, 12/01/10, accessed via Nexis]

Beck: "Obama Is Octavian." On the December 2 edition of his radio show, Beck said, "Barack Obama is Octavian. The first Roman, real, god. But he was the first citizen. He was the last guy of the Republic before it went into an empire. And he changed everything. He left the illusion of a republic but became a dictator. But he always claimed that he wasn't. This is what's happening to us." [Premiere Radio Networks, The Glenn Beck Program, 11/2/10]

Beck: Like Rome, We Are Doing "Land Grabs And Food Rations And Free Food." Beck said:

I showed you, as the Roman Empire begins decline, what do they do? They start land grabs and food rations and free food. And then, they change the republic and they don't let people know.

They just change it. They leave all the Senate in and everything, but it's all a scam so people can feel good. That is where we left it. Now, that is what we are doing here. And they are saying to us that state capitalism is where we are headed.

Well, I just showed you that is not state capitalism; it's national socialism. Soon, it will be global socialism. And they can't say "national socialism" now because everybody will freak out. They know what is. That's Mussolini and that's Hitler. [Glenn Beck, 12/01/10, accessed via Nexis]

Beck Ignores Years Of Slaughter To Claim Octavian Rose To Emperor "Without Violence"

Beck: Roman Citizens Became "Subjects Of An Emperor And It All Happened Without Violence, Without Votes Or Without Fanfare." From the December 1 edition of Fox News' Glenn Beck:

BECK: The people of Rome had gone from being citizens of a republic to subjects of an emperor and it all happened without violence, without votes or without fanfare. Didn't really even know and they were actually happy about it. Because they were bought off. Now, where are we seeing this today? [Fox News, Glenn Beck, 12/1/10, via LexisNexis]

Classics Professor Brennan: Transition Period From Republic To Empire "Was One Of The Bloodiest And Most Deeply Traumatizing In Rome's History." T. Corey Brennan, a classics professor at Rutgers University and current visiting faculty member at the American Academy in Rome, told Media Matters, "The triumviral period (from 15 March 44 BC down to Octavian's victory over Marc Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 BC) was one of the bloodiest and most deeply traumatizing in Rome's history." Roman history professor Ray Laurence, of the University of Kent, similarly stated by email: "This is way off. From 44 BC to 31 BC, entailed the most violent series of civil wars Rome had seen."

  • Classics Professor Peachin: "Augustus [Octavian] Began His Career As A Mass Murderer." New York University classics professor and Roman history expert Michael Peachin wrote to Media Matters:

Again, since this distorts so utterly so much, and in itself means absolutely nothing whatsoever, it is very hard to comment on. But just for example: "without violence" is absolutely incredible nonsense. Augustus began his career as a mass murderer - just think of Cicero, murdered, his hands cut off and tongue cut out, and these nailed up on the speaker's platform in the Forum. He was only one of thousands proscribed: i.e., their names published in lists hung up daily, announcing that these people were sought, and that anyone who brought the person, or the person's head, would receive a reward. And then, a series of horrific civil wars.

  • Historian Goldsworthy: "Octavian/Augustus Was The Last Man Standing At The End Of This Period Of Conflict." Adrian Goldsworthy, historian and author of several books about the Roman Empire, stated in an email:

From 44-30 BC there was almost constant civil war. When Antony, Octavian and Lepidus occupied Rome in 43 BC they introduced the proscriptions - effectively death lists to give legal justification to the murder of their enemies. Octavian/Augustus was the last man standing at the end of this period of conflict. People were grateful for a return to some form of peace. This made them a lot readier to accept the stability of the new regime. So he was fairly popular - having said that, nobody chose him - he just won the civil wars and then was a skilful enough politician to win the peace.

Beck Misleadingly Claims Roman Republic Was Characterized By "Freedom"

Beck: "It Was A Republic At First. There Was Freedom. Things Went Well." From the December 1 edition of Fox News' Glenn Beck:

BECK: It was a republic at first. There was freedom. Things went well. That's why they expanded. And, then, when freedom started to fall apart, that's when they became an empire. They went from freedom to feeding people to lions for sport.

Now, how do you go from a decent people that are expanding to taking people and feeding them to lions? I mean, logically, if we progress, if we are all so progressive, shouldn't it go the other way, you start feeding people to lions and then you don't? [Fox News, Glenn Beck, 12/1/10, via LexisNexis]

Peachin: Aside From The "Elite," Most Had Limited Freedom. According to Peachin, the "senatorial/equestrian elite" of the Roman Republic had "very nearly unlimited freedom," but "most everyone else" had "freedom only in a mildly to severely circumscribed fashion." As evidence, he pointed to Rome's "vast" slave population. By email, he told Media Matters:

The interpretation of Roman history here can hardly be discussed, since it is so preposterously nonsensical. But: Yes, Rome was a form of republic between (supposedly) 509 BC and the mid to late first century BC. Freedom: for whom, what kind, how much? For the senatorial/equestrian elite, yes: very nearly unlimited freedom (in various ways). For most everyone else: freedom only in a mildly to severely circumscribed fashion, or not at all (the slave population was, e.g., vast - and as the Roman lawyers put it, a slave was an "instrumentum vocale" - i.e., a "talking tool"). Things went well? What things? How well? This means nothing. I can't really comment on nothing.

Goldsworthy: "The Majority Of People Were Probably No Less Free Under The Empire." Goldsworthy told Media Matters: "It is also worth saying that the Liberty of the Roman Republic was mainly the freedom of the aristocracy to monopolize power, dominate public life, and enjoy the largest share of the profits of empire. The majority of people were probably no less free under the empire -- at least during the first and second centuries AD. In fact many of them were better protected by law which was harder to bend - at least if the emperor was a reasonably good one."

The Practice Of Feeding Slaves And Prisoners To Animals Existed Before The Establishment Of The Empire. According to Brennan, bestiarii (Roman gladiators who fought animals) "certainly existed by the latter days of the Republic. [The famous Roman senator] Cicero takes the practice for granted as early as 56 BC, i.e., some decades before the establishment of the Empire."

  • Ephraim Chambers: "Cicero Mentions A Lion Which Alone Dispatch'd 200 Bestiarii." A pre-Empire reference to bestiarii can be found in Ephraim Chambers' 17th-century Cyclopedia.[Cyclopedia, accessed 12/3/10]
  • Goldsworthy: "It Was Already Established Under The Republic." Goldsworthy told Media Matters:

The origins of throwing people to the wild beasts was to punish in a way that was especially demeaning. It was already established under the Republic - just like gladiatorial shows and beast fights (trained or semi-trained animal fighters taking on animals). Roman citizens would not be subject to such punishments, unless they were considered to have violated their standing as citizens by extreme behaviour, such as deserting and fighting for an enemy army. Punishments like this and crucifixion were normally reserved for slaves and foreigners. The scale of such punishments increased under the Empire, but did not start then.

Beck Incorrectly Claims That First Emperor Of Rome "Refused To Be Called Caesar"

Beck: "He Refused To Be Called Caesar. Remember, He Was The Adopted Son Of Caesar." From the December 1 edition of Glenn Beck:

BECK: Octavian's control over the armed forces made resistance futile. You couldn't resist. In keeping with his policy of maintaining the appearance of traditional republican government, republican as in "the republic," it was all still there.

He went a step further. He refused to be called Caesar. Remember, he was the adopted son of Caesar. No, he didn't want to be a dictator. No. Instead, he disguised himself, he was an autocratic ruler, he took the title of Princeps, which is "first citizen." [Fox News, Glenn Beck, 12/1/10, via Nexis]

In Fact, Octavian Embraced The Name Caesar. According to Erich Gruen, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley*:

Octavian, in fact, took the name Caesar immediately upon word of his adoption, and kept it throughout. He had very right to do so. Caesar was a family name and devolved automatically upon the son (or adopted son). It was not at this point a title. Octavian did shun the office of dictator to distinguish himself from Caesar. Princeps means "leading citizen" not "first citizen." Several leading figures received that designation in the Republic, but it was an informal one, never a title. Nor did Octavian ever use it a a title.

  • Goldsworthy: Octavian "always called himself Caesar." Goldsworthy told Media Matters:

Octavian is called Octavian only by modern scholars to avoid confusion. Born Caius Octavius, following his adoption in Julius Caesar's will (a fact not known until after the latter's murder), he became Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus. He did not use the name Octavianus, but always called himself Caesar. This was vital for his rise. Once Julius Caesar was deified Octavian/Augustus referred to himself as 'son of the divine Julius'. Mark Antony dubbed him a "boy, who owes everything to a name."

Ignoring Caesar, Beck Calls Octavian "The Last Guy Of The Republic"

Beck: Octavian Was "The Last Guy Of The Republic Before It Went Into An Empire" On the December 2 edition of his radio show, Beck said:

BECK: This goes to what I said last night on television and what we talked about yesterday on radio: That we are repeating Octavian. Barack Obama is Octavian. The first Roman, real, god. But he was the first citizen. He was the last guy of the Republic before it went into an empire. And he changed everything. He left the illusion of a republic, but became a dictator. But he always claimed that he wasn't.

This is what's happening to us. They are cutting out our system. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Glenn Beck Program, 11/2/10]

In Fact, Julius Caesar Was "Perpetual Dictator" Before Octavian Became Emperor. From Jacob Abbott's History of Julius Caesar:

The supreme power had been hitherto lodged in the hands of two consuls, chosen annually, and the Roman people had been extremely jealous of any distinction for any one, higher than that of an elective annual office, with a return to private life again when the brief period should have expired. They now, however, made Caesar, in the first place, consul for ten years, and then Perpetual Dictator. They conferred upon him the title of the Father of his Country. The name of the month in which he was born was changed to Julius, from his praenomen, and we still retain the name. He was made, also, commander-in-chief of all the armies of the commonwealth, the title to which vast military power was expressed in the Latin language by the word IMPERATOR.

Caesar was highly elated with all these substantial proofs of the greatness and glory to which he had attained, and was also very evidently gratified with smaller, but equally expressive proofs of the general regard. Statues representing his person were placed in the public edifices, and borne in processions like those of the gods. Conspicuous and splendidly ornamented seats were constructed for him in all the places of public assembly, and on these he sat to listen to debates or witness spectacles, as if he were upon a throne. He had, either by his influence or by his direct power, the control of all the appointments to office, and was, in fact, in every thing but the name, a sovereign and an absolute king. [History of Julius Caesar, accessed 12/3/10, emphasis added]

*A previous version of this item mistakenly attributed the quote to T. Corey Brennan.

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