SPQR

This is “SPQR: The Sequel,” because I have already dedicated a blog to SPQR (aka SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS).  In it, I quote an appendix from my own book on the Roman Forum.  The appendix and the blog simply translate the Latin and provide a rough idea of why patriotic ancient Romans might have stood even taller when they heard or read those words.

But I did not provide enough context for SPQR – for several reasons.  First, because I lamely hadn’t thought much about it.  But once I did, I came to some interesting conclusions.  Second, I was worried about intellectual theft.  Paranoid?  No, it had already happened.  But that’s a different blog, providing my lawyers approve.

The Backstory of SPQR

So, let’s delve into SPQR and its deeper meaning both for ancient Romans and empires in general.  Romans coined the motto SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS in roughly 500 BC.  Why?  Just looking for a motto?  Nope, not that simple!  Romans had just exiled the Etruscan dynasty from Rome.  And with every revolution comes propaganda.  The old Etruscan kings?  Those power-hungry overlords!  They’re out.  We need something new…

Now, imagine Rome in roughly 500 BC.  Rome’s new political elite?  They’re shepherds turned bullies.  They just fought for and won their freedom from the Etruscan dynasts.  Thanks to their playground disputes, Roman gangs have taken a lot of their neighbors’ land.  And I’m not talking about land in Spain or Syria.  I’m talking about good pasture land next to Rome.  These baby steps in roughly 500 B.C. were crucial to Rome’s development.  Conquest was tangibly more lucrative than sheep cheese.

Need a visual?  Check out the map!  (I pirated it from this highly informative website.)  Rome in 500 BC is the deep red dot in the larger (but still small) reddish smear on the western side of central Italy.  The smear is 338 BC.  All the other colors come even later…   (And my apologies to the colorblind.)

The Birth of SPQR

So, the new rulers in Rome, the Senators, needed a motto.  One that defined their new form of government (the Republic) with pithy all-inclusiveness and a reverential reference to them.  So, there were those ex-shepherds, sitting in front of a big log cabin meeting hall in 500 BC.  They’re scribbling logos in the dirt with the ends of their staffs.  Their writing is cramped, and the whole procedure is laborious.

rape of the sabine women

One senator, who’s thinking about the good old days of Rome’s foundation, comes up with PLVS MVLIERVM SABINARVM OMNIBVS (More Sabine Women for Everyone).  (As an aside, that story inspired lots of bad art, like the fresco in the Capitoline Museums seen here.  Anyway…)  No favorable reactions.  More brainstorming.  And one fellow yells, PECORI FIDAMVS (In Sheep We Trust).  Sheep dogs sprawling near the meeting hall look up in total agreement, while the majority of their masters scratch their heads (explained by thinking or lice?).  Silence.  The shadows grow long, and yet no one has come up with an adequate motto.  How about SENATVI PECORIQUE FIDAMVS?  (In the Senate and Sheep We Trust.)  Not quite there…

Then some bright egg coined SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS (the Roman Senate and the Roman People) – SPQR!  Tired but satisfied, the senators strolled back to their modest masonry homes on the Palatine and other hills.  But little did they know, their motto was momentous.  Their descendants would use it for centuries!  Sure, the importance of the senate dwindled as emperors came to power.  But the slogan survived.  And it was a vital part of Roman nationalism from circa 500 B.C. to the end of the empire — for roughly 1000 years!

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the slogan continued to be used off and on for centuries – right down to the modern era.  This is an idea that we’ll explore in an upcoming blog.  So, in the end, SPQR is a 2500-year-old slogan.  I haven’t done the research.  But I have a sneaky sensation that no other nation has used only one slogan for that length of time.  Appreciate that for a moment.  And mull over the power of continuity.  When you’ve digested this idea, I’m going to discuss how this force of continuity is something that a modern empire lacks…

What’s in a Name — Or a Motto?

The Roman Republic – and the Empire that morphed out if it – ruled a fantabulously large territory for centuries, i.e. for roughly 500 years (depending on when Romans conquered certain areas and for how long Rome held political possession of them).  Ancient Romans had only one motto that I am aware of.  Well, not really.  They had two.  The second one occasionally showed up on Roman coins and temple inscriptions.  But it was no competition for the mighty SPQR.  So, for simplicity’s sake, until I write a follow-up blog on the second motto (EX S C), let’s agree that Rome’s only motto was SPQR.

And since I love Roman acronyms and abbreviations, I have added a photo of a coin stating SPQR OB C S.  SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS, it states, OB CIVES SERVATOS (the Roman Senate and the Roman People because citizens were saved).  And it’s a strange claim to fame, since Emperor Galba ordered the coin minted in roughly 68 AD — during the civil war of the four emperors.  Would it be safe to say that whoever was making a bid for power — especially in desperate times — had to flex his SPQR?

Ancient Roman coin SPQR relief

Now let’s look at the US, which we agree is an empire.  And let’s look at its mottos, slogans, catchphrases.  Right at the dawn of its conception, the founding fathers wrote poetry: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Straight to you from 1776, from the Declaration of Independence!  As a mission statement, it is very, very good.  So good that I get goosebumps.  But it’s too long to Tweet.  And it certainly can’t be turned into a winner acronym like SPQR.

The Simplicity of SPQR vs the More Slogans, the Merrier!

US slogans got messy immediately.  While politicians in powdered perukes penned the formidable “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” some fame-seeker dropped E PLURIBVS UNUM (Out of Many [States], One).  And it became the official motto on the US Seal in 1782.  Did the Latin make it sound more official?  Or was it a jiffy little catchphrase that you could fit conveniently on small spaces like seals and coins?  It is, after all, even pithier than SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS!  On the other hand, it was never abbreviated to EPU…  which we’ll admit does not have a ring.  (For more information about E PLURIBVS UNUM and its ancient roots, check out Dr. Wikipedia’s article!  This is the same site from which I cribbed the picture.)

E PLURIBUS UNUM OR SPQR

Then 1863 rolls around and… new catchphrase!  One full of punch and prepositions!  Yes, Abraham Lincoln.  Yes, the Gettysburg Address: a “government of the people, by the people, for the people…”  And, occasionally, “behind the people” – as the last several decades of US politics show.

But moving right along to 1892: “With liberty and justice for all.”  Oooh, the Pledge of Allegiance!  1892… that was only eighty years before I was born.  To put the catchphrase into perspective, Roman soldiers rallied to SPQR in 180 AD – when SPQR was celebrating its 680th birthday.

And what about “In God We Trust”?  It appeared on dollar bills in 1864.  But in 1956, President Eisenhower legislated that the US adopt it as its national motto.  (See this little article.)  Other Wikipedia articles suggest (although they do not include bibliographic references) that the new motto was chosen for strategic reasons.  Its blatant religiosity was heavy anti-Communist ammunition during the Cold War.  Sure, “In God We Trust” is insipid.  If only it had the ring of SPQR!  But it may inspire US citizens more than “Make America Great Again,” a slogan which divides people into three categories: those who laugh, those who groan, and those who like it but don’t say so in public.

SPQR vs MAGA…

Make America Great Again or SPQR?!

Strangely, of all the US’s mottoes, “Make America Great Again” may be the most bizarre.  Well, the most promiscuous.  Remember Ronald Reagan?  I don’t.  I mean, I was 8 years old when he ran for president in 1980 and coined MAGA for the occasion!  And then – freak out! – Bill Clinton used it in his 1992 campaign.  (Anyone who doesn’t remember that and wants footage should check out this youtube video.)  And then Hillary borrowed the motto, only to subvert it, in her 2008 campaign.  Just because she disliked her husband.  “We cannot make America great again,” she said.  “Because America never stopped being great.”  And then she said, “Take that, Bill!”  But that part was deleted from the video.  (Just joking.)  And, of course, guess who has been flirting with MAGA since 2016?

I sit at my desk stunned.  Am I stunned at myself for not having realized this until now?  Or am I stunned by how superficial US politics have become over the last several decades?  Or – as I cynically implied above – how stupid voters are?  “Make America Great Again” circulated in four (nearly) consecutive presidential campaign speeches.  A bit tired, it’s now a jingle more than a motto.

So, what’s in a motto?  Here are my conclusions: SPQR carried an empire for one thousand years.  Instead, the US has waffled, without committing to one, for the last 250ish years.  My questions become: How long can multiple mottoes (especially one with the appeal of an ad campaign) carry an empire?  How healthy is an empire that needs a new motto every forty years on average?

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