ROME — “Déjà vu all over again” is a phrase attributed to Yogi Berra, the Yankee all-time great. He uttered it watching teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs repeatedly.
The malapropism was strangely apt as I walked through this Italian capital during a short holiday last week. It is a beautiful city, and one that I recommend highly for a break. Surrounded by the ruins of a 2,500-year-old culture, it got me thinking about our society and our democratic system.
We have a tendency in the United States to see ourselves as unique and exceptional. Different and better than all who came before. Yet spend some time wandering through the ruins of the Roman Forum, or the catacombs below the Coliseum, and you will realize we are not all that unique.
Everywhere in Rome, there are echoes of a highly advanced society similar to our own. Gladiators were backed by entrepreneurs, who trained them to triumph in the Coliseum. Romans lived in apartment buildings, and ate out at restaurants most evenings, because their apartments were small. The wealthy lived in mansions in exclusive neighborhoods. Engineers created vast systems of aqueducts, bringing water from the mountains. Merchants traded olive oil and other staples at home and around the globe.
In many respects the life of a Roman entrepreneur and merchant are ancient versions of our own lives today. Most likely, if you took a Roman businessman from 2,000 years ago and plopped him down in New York City, he would ultimately find his way around. The biggest difference between Rome and New York today is technology, and most of that only developed in the last 100 years.
Romans would also be very familiar with our politics. For 500 years Rome was a republic, with elected leaders — a structured society with paved roads, taxation and organized laws. As the republic aged, tensions between populists and landed classes became more pronounced. Senators elevated themselves through foreign conquest, and distributed patronage to their supporters. Cynicism against politicians raged. (Sound familiar?)
Eventually, a populist leader brought to Rome his personal charisma and a desire to be king. He crossed the Rubicon with his army and brought the Roman republic to an end. Julius Ceasar, Rome’s first emperor, brought a democracy as it was known then to an end with support from the populace. Ultimately, people sought change of the most draconian type, because they had lost confidence in the status quo.
Historically, the road was being paved for Americans to set an international political example.
Consider: from the end of the Roman republic to the American’ Declaration of Independence, the world did not have a functioning republican government. Imagine that, something that we and many other nations take for granted today, a representative democracy, didn’t exist for almost 1,800 years. Sobering when we think about American Exceptionalism. We were an experiment that changed the world, and the expectations of people around the world.
As an entrepreneur, the life I lead and the manner in which I live, has echoes in a culture a continent away two millennia ago. As a citizen, I am reminded both how exceptional and rare the American experience has been, and also how fragile a republic can be. Fallen columns in the Forum are reminders of a time that has passed, and the fragility of what we think of as commonplace.
It is not inevitable that our democracy will endure. We must continually reinvest in it, just like business people never stop their devotion to their business.
An ancient Roman standing in today’s America would probably whisper — warning us to “beware the Ides of March.”
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.