insurrection header by Victor Perry
January 13, 2022

Should Congress treat insurrectionists as the Romans did?

Priscus Attalus paid dearly for playing emperor; a UCR professor says the Jan. 6 instigators must also own their misdeeds

Author: J.D. Warren
January 13, 2022

The political divide that led to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection on the Capitol building has been perpetuated in discourse over how to properly address the role  of legislators who may have been involved. On the Jan. 6 anniversary of the insurrection, Michele Salzman, a UC Riverside history professor, published an opinion article in Zocalo urging lawmakers to look to the Roman response to another famous attack on another capital — the fifth century sack of the city of Rome by the Visigoths. Under pressure from the Visigoths, some senators supported a faux emperor, Priscus Attalus — albeit briefly — and sought to undermine the true emperor. Attalus fell and the Visigoth king Alaric took Rome, ransacking many of its most venerable sites. In a subsequent trial, Attalus was sentenced to lose his thumb and forefinger. As the congressional select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol continues to convene, we asked Professor Salzman to further explore the comparison.

Why is it important for congressional members tied to the insurrection to acknowledge responsibility?

A: Only if politicians are required to publicly acknowledge their responsibility, including spreading the “Big Lie” about the election, can we begin to heal our divisions. Without that, shared faith in our institutions will be badly damaged. If those who colluded do not acknowledge the truth of the attack and condemn what happened, electoral means should force them to leave the capital. If the facts of the events are not acknowledged, I do not see a way for the Senate to work together on matters related to the protection of our democracy.

Some U.S. congressional members have urged effectively shrugging off the insurrection in the interest of “keeping the peace” and “moving on.” Is there historical precedent that speaks to whether this approach works? 

A: The precedent the Romans followed speaks against the notion that ignoring the truth of what happened allows for the return of good government. The Roman emperor Honorius could have simply killed Attalus or exiled him from public view. The precedent that he chose was a public trial, physical punishment and exile. Honorius remained in power and died a peaceful death after having recovered his authority. The removal of Attalus’s thumb and forefinger were significant acts; these are the fingers that politicians used for gesturing when giving speeches. With their removal, Honorius silenced his opposition. He addressed Attalus from the tribunal, in an act of public justice. Just ignoring the attempted coup would encourage other senators to do the same.

Michele Renee Salzman

“If the facts of the events are not acknowledged, I do not see a way for the Senate to work together on matters related to the protection of our democracy.”

— Salzman

In Rome, senators did not defend the insurrectionist Attalus when he was paraded through the city to face punishment. Conversely, while few Republican senators publicly defend the insurrection, most have consistently been silent on the subject of Donald Trump’s and fellow legislators’ culpability. Are you troubled by the lack of universal condemnation?

A: I am deeply concerned that silence on the part of senators and congressmen will encourage another coup, which is why I wrote this essay. And silence suggests support for a lie about the events that happened. Unlike the Fall of Rome in 410 to the Visigoths which no one challenged, on January 6th we watched on our television and computer screens as the attack unfolded in real time. It was not difficult, literally, to see the truth of what happened. It should not be difficult to condemn the violence.

Attalus lost his thumb and his forefinger as punishment for his role in the insurrection. What’s the right response for Congress? 

A: Honorius removed his thumb and forefinger since they were the digits Romans used for gesturing while giving speeches. In essence, Honorius was silencing Attalus so that he could not speak lies again about his being an emperor. Congress should also silence and exile those members who continue to evade their responsibility to tell the truth about these acts. Censure and removal from powerful committees seem valid equivalents to the silencing and exile that Attalus underwent — with the approval of the senators in the Roman capital.

Photo Illustration: Victor Perry/UCR (Wiki/Getty Images)

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