A Warning From the Labors of the Past
September 24, 2020
In the entirety of human existence, the only example of democratic government that is equal in size and scope to that of the United States is the republic of ancient Rome. As political tensions rapidly rise in America today, there is value in understanding how the turmoil of the late Roman Republic developed and intensified. Such understanding can help shed light on plausible future realities for America.
In the middle of the first century BC, representative government, which had stood for some 450 years, was replaced by monarchy. Caesar was the ultimate catalyst for the fall of the Roman Republic, but his crossing of the river Rubicon in 49 BC was precipitated by roughly seventy years of events that ushered in a political and social environment that gave Caesar purpose and reason to march on Rome.
Though the history is somewhat complicated, what created the unsettled environment in which Caesar acted were four distinct factors that interplayed with each other in a vicious cycle:
Colossal disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor;
Incompetence and dysfunction in the government;
Greed, arrogance, and corruption among the aristocracy; and
The erosion of norms and dissolving of precedent.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
This toxic cocktail of political and social activity gradually intensified as competition from rival nation-states was eliminated through Roman military victories. As Rome’s wealth grew exponentially, a certain complacency of superiority took hold in Roman society. Gradually, norms, common interests, and fairness which had guided political activities in the Roman government, were replaced by deception, egotism, corruption, and political victory at all costs.
This gradual transformation of guiding principles of government was paralleled by increasing turmoil and strife. In the decades that preceded Caesar’s defeat of Pompey in 48 BC, Rome had seen civil war with top elected leaders seizing absolute rule, the fixing of mass proscriptions, and the murder of tens-of-thousands of citizens based on political allegiance.
The shift in guiding principles of government was gradual and developed primarily from geopolitical events. It was this change in the political environment that led to political violence and the erosion of representative government. But unlike the shift in guiding principles, the political violence has a distinct origin––there is a spark that ignited the fuse.
What started in 123 BC with a movement to reform agrarian laws to end the aristocracy’s illegal seizure of public lands that made the rich wealthier and kept the poor in servitude, ended with the murder of the populist leader Tiberius Gracchus and hundreds of his supporters by political opponents. This was the first political violence in Rome of such nature. It set precedent and ushered in a series of events that would lead directly to Pompey and Caesar squaring off in the ultimate political showdown less than a century later.
"Not to know what transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge."
- Marcus Tullius Cicero,
Rome's greatest politician
Though there is much that is different between ancient Rome and the United States of the 21st century, the number of factors in Roman society and politics that align with our current climate is reason enough to look at the history for insight. This does not mean the American Republic will necessarily follow the same path as the Roman Republic, it is to say that the unimaginable is something that needs to be considered so as to avert pain and dire outcomes.
Today, the American people enjoy unprecedented wealth, liberty, and security. One could argue that these riches have rendered a distinct feeling of complacency. Yes, there is poverty, inequality, injustice, and a host of other problems that plague our society, but compared to other eras, ours is one of great riches, peace, and a heightened sense of value.
We turn the faucet, clean water appears. We go to the supermarket, shelves are stocked. We say hostile things about our leaders, we’re free to repeat the next day. Our parents and grandparents defeated the Nazi cult, liberty and peace grew worldwide.
The idea that there could ever be a time where these foundations of society and self-image are replaced with routines, norms, and events that are more primal or tyrannical is unimaginable. And it is this inability to imagine that is the greatest danger to the American Republic today.
Even as tension among political actors in Washington grows, as unfairness is amplified, as norms are shattered, as legislative gridlock intensifies, and as violence within society becomes normalized, a majority of Americans haven’t thought about long term ramifications if things don't change––and change for the better.
Americans must realize that downfall is a true possibility. All that is taken for granted can disappear. If we cannot acknowledge this, if we should live in ignorance to the fact that self-governance is precious, we will one day awake to find our world a much harsher place.
There is all the evidence to suggest the guiding principles of American government have shifted. Where common bond, norms, and precedent helped to direct decision making, we now have operational codes dominated by inflated ideas of self-worth, addiction to power, and laws that literally sanctify corruption.
At some point, if the course is not corrected, the United States will have its own sparking event like Rome with Tiberius Gracchus. Whatever that event might be, it is likely to be painful but also distinctly possible that it is shrugged off by the citizenry because they are too complacent with their lives and do not understand that the problems they see on television are just the first in a string of events that will one day playout in their neighborhoods and wallets.
Rome existed long ago, and the stories from that time can seem fictional and alien. But the people that lived then were very real. And the emotions and feelings that motivated their actions are no different than ours today. The type of blindness that afflicted their judgment can also sweep over us.
Whether we as Americans avoid such blindness for one, ten, or a thousand years is largely dependent upon the citizens of today and each generation that follows.