All Roads Lead to Rome

Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini

The bloody assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE was followed by a civil war in Rome. At first, it pitted Marc Antony and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, against the conspirators Brutus and Cassius. Antony and Octavian won, only to fall out. Octavian prevailed, and his victory over Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE led to the creation of the Roman Empire. Octavian, now known as Augustus, became Rome’s first Emperor, ending a century of civil war and class conflict. Romans traded the liberties of the Roman Republic for the security of one-man rule under Augustus.

This familiar story is told by Edward Watts in Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny. But, Watts probes deeper into the past, noting that the Roman Republic had been in peril for decades, and he intends the exploration of Rome’s descent into autocracy as an object lesson for our times. Watts is not naive: He knows the past is never a literal guide to the present or future. Yet, he writes, the study of “antiquity can help us understand the challenging and occasionally alarming political realties of our world.” His book was written at a moment when the great experiment in American republicanism is under stress in a way reminiscent of the decline of the Roman Republic. The relevance of Rome to the United States is not just the coincidence of republican structures. Rather, the relevance is buttressed because the constitutional foundation of the United States was modeled on what the Framers knew of Roman governance. 

The Roman Republic lasted five centuries. What made the Republic work for so long was a tacit agreement among the citizens of Rome to abide by mutually agreed upon laws and to engage in compromise. Politicians in the era of the Republic never sought complete victory, but rather a consensus in which no one received everything but all were satisfied with the results. This process lasted for centuries because, as Watts points out, Roman politicians accepted the laws and norms of the Republic and were committed to solving differences within the political arena rather than in extra-legal and extra-constitutional ways. 

Marble bust of Hannibal

Rome’s system worked well until the later years of the third century BCE, when Rome’s eventual victory over Hannibal and the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War gave what had been a relatively small and insignificant city on the Italian peninsula great power and wealth. The Roman army, which had been manned by citizens who believed service was their civic duty, became professionalized, and the Army’s legions increasingly owed loyalty to their commanders rather than the Roman Republic. In addition, the population of Rome exploded amid a gaping economic inequality that the Republic’s leaders refused to remedy.

By the second century BCE, Rome was split into two classes — the super wealthy enriched by military conquest and the vast majority who endured a life of toil and who became poorer with each succeeding generation. The former were typified by Crassus, a man who in the early first century BCE made a huge fortune by unscrupulous methods and used his wealth to buy political influence. 

Tiberius Gracchus

Rome suffered no serious outbreaks of political violence until the last decades of the second century BCE when the Gracchi brothers — Tiberius and Gaius — attempted to redress widening inequality by pushing land reform in defiance of the Senate’s veto. The assassination of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 broke the taboo on the use of naked power for political ends. The Republic never recovered. 

The next century saw the Social War (socii is the Latin word for allies) when Rome’s Italian allies, who were denied the franchise, fought for equality. Next, a civil war within Rome itself led to the dictatorship of Sulla and appalling violence and revenge by Sulla’s followers against his enemies. Peace never fully returned to the Republic, with ambitious politicians such as Crassus and Pompey the Great attempting to use their vast wealth to achieve political power. All of this lead to the eventual dictatorship of Caesar, who had marched his legions into Italy proper in violation of law and custom, and while no one knew whether Caesar was bent on permanent one-man rule, clearly the conspirators feared he would seize power for himself. Thus, his assassination on the Ides of March and the subsequent turmoil that ended with the autocracy of Augustus.

The United States, fortunately, has not been beset by the kind of political violence which plagued the last century of the Roman Republic. Nor has the American Republic come to rely on a military that owes its allegiance to individual commanders. But, three things in the story of the end of Roman self-rule suggest contemporary American politics and society. The first is the growing inequality of wealth marked by a very small class of super-wealthy people intent on doing whatever it takes to maintain their economic dominance. Second is the deterioration of American politics in which some view the political arena as a zero-sum game wherein compromise is no longer possible and obstruction becomes the approved route for maintaining political dominance. And, third, Watts notes that at any point in the descent into tyranny, which occurred in a series of small steps, Roman politicians could have said, enough. But, no one did. Their silence is reminiscent of the silence of Republicans before the depredations of President Donald Trump. 

Trump has been president for only two years. He has demonstrated a lack of understanding of American constitutional norms and a penchant for autocratic rule. Political gridlock of the kind that occurred in ancient Rome has marked American politics for a much longer time than Trump’s presidency. The echoes of the past are too eerie to ignore. We would be foolish to disregard their lessons.

Posted February 5, 2019

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