The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind, for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see. In that record, you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models and base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.
Livy is appropriate to quote here, because the historical story I wish to talk about today is one that he witnessed with his own eyes: the fall of the Roman Republic. And the reason I want to talk about it is because I see surprising and worrying similarities between the collapsing Roman Republic of the 1st Century BC and the United States here in the early 21st Century, many of which have been put on display for all to see in the presidential election that has just concluded in our country.
In the 1st Century BC, the Roman Republic had the outward appearance of the most powerful state in the known world. It had risen to power on the Italian peninsula, despite numerous setbacks, between the 6th and 3rd Centuries BC. In a series of three brutal wars between 264 and 146 BC, Rome had crushed the power of Carthage and taken control of the western Mediterranean. In the decades following the destruction of Carthage, Rome had expanded into the eastern half of the Mediterranean, vanquishing the powerful Hellenistic states, defeating the mighty Pontic Empire, and securing its position as the unrivaled master of the Mediterranean world. Nevertheless, foreign wars continued; it seemed as though the more Rome conquered, the more people Rome had to fight. Even after becoming the world's superpower, a seemingly never-ending series of conflicts continued between Romans and assorted Germans, Gauls, Parthians, and other intractable enemies.
Inwardly, the Republic was becoming rotten to the core. Since the Romans had driven out the last king in 509 BC (according to legend, anyway), it had been governed under a system of laws and precedents that had generally served it well, the underlying principle being that no one individual should ever have enough power to subjugate the state. Two consuls held supreme executive power, but each was able to check the other and they held office for only a single year. A myriad of lower offices - praetors, quaestors, aediles, and the like - performed other duties. Everything was presided over by the Senate, ostensibly composed of the wisest and best citizens, buttressed by centuries of tradition. To check the power of the Senate, the people elected officials known as tribunes who had the power to veto legislation.
By the 1st Century BC, however, this system of government was beginning to break down. The Senate had degenerated from an august body of statesmen into a corrupt hive of ambitious and greedy men. The Roman army, once made up of patriotic citizen soldiers, morphed into a professional force more loyal to its commanders than to the state it served. Self-serving men, albeit men of ability and even genius, came to the fore to establish themselves securely in power. In the 130s BC, the Gracchi brothers, both tribunes of the plebs, sought to undermine the power of the Senate in pursuit of populist aims; both ended up assassinated, establishing deadly violence as a central feature of Roman politics. Then came the long struggle between Marius and Sulla, showing that Roman armies were happy to fight against one another if the reward being offered was sufficient enough. Finally, there was the bitter political and eventually military conflict between Julius Caesar and his enemies, in which Caesar emerged the absolute victor after a series of brilliant military victories. Caesar, as is well-known to every educated person, fell to the assassin's knife in 44 BC, paving the way for the emerge of Augustus as the first Roman Emperor and the final extinguishment of the Roman Republic.
We live in a rather cynical and pessimistic age ourselves, with many Americans feeling that their country is on a steady decline. Polling companies regularly ask people whether they feel the country is on the right track or wrong track; for the last few years, those who feel the country is on the wrong track always significantly outnumber those who feel the opposite. There seems to be a palpable feeling that American is decline, that our institutions are failing, that our global power is fading, and that there is nothing we can do about it. The cynicism and anger that characterized the recent election, and which have now propelled Donald Trump into the White House, are impossible to ignore.
Modern American naysayers often rhetorically compare our nation to the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, when it finally collapsed. In truth, they would do much better to look to the Roman Republic of the 1st Century BC for lessons applicable to our own nation in our own time. Allow me to lay out a few unsettling similarities between the United States in the early 21st Century and the Roman Republic as it existed in the 1st Century BC.
1. Government is gridlocked between two rival political factions, neither of which is concerned with the common good.
In the Late Roman Republic, it was the Optimates or "best men" - people like Cato the Younger, Cicero, and eventually Pompey the Great - and the Populares, those "favoring the people" led by Caesar. Generally speaking (and the membership of these factions was vague and loosely defined), the Optimates believed in aristocratic government by the leading families, ruling through the Senate and holding to traditional values, while the Populares asserted the rights of the common people and believed that the land of the rich should be redistributed among all citizens. The Optimates wanted to maintain the status quo in which the wealthy aristocracy ran the state. The Populares were generally ambitious demagogues who exploited the disenchantment of the common people as a vehicle for their own political advancement.
In our time, it is the Republicans, the so-called "conservative" party, and the Democrats, the so-called "progressive" party. As with the Optimates and Populares, both the Republicans and Democrats claim to have the best interests of the nation at heart, yet each seems interested only in amassing the maximum amount of power and influence for itself and thwarting the ambitions of the opposing party than anything else.
In Early 21st Century America, as was done in the Late Roman Republic, both political factions spend an enormous amount of time and effort creating committees designed to investigate real and imagined crimes committed by the other faction. People on both sides constantly try to haul members of the other faction into court. Both sides seem willing to sacrifice the good of the nation if, by doing so, they can embarrass the opposing party or score political points. Republicans have been perfectly content to shut down the government in petty disputes over the budget and cast blame on . Democrats have been happy to accuse Republicans of bigotry over things as trivial as wedding cakes, friend chicken, and which bathrooms people should use.
Nowhere can one find a sense of setting party loyalty aside from the good of the nation.
2. The electoral system has broken down amid massive corruption.
The integrity of the Roman Republic was based on annual elections. All the tribes of the Roman people gathered together on the Field of Mars and voted for the magistrates of the coming year: consuls, praetors, quaestors, and the like. Before each election, auguries had to be taken by priests, a special unit had to declare that the city was in no danger of attack, and other ceremonies had to be done and precautions taken, for elections in the Roman Republic were a sacred event.
By the 1st Century BC, however, elections in Rome had become a farce. Massive bribery was the rule of the day and whether you won or lost an election depending almost entirely on how much money you had and how willing you were to give it away. Financial supporters provided money to use as bribes in exchange for political favors. After serving as consul or praetor, it was customary to give a senator a "proconsul" or "propraetor" assignment as the governor of a province, during which they would tax the provincials to the limit in order to pay off the debts they had accrued getting elected consul or praetor in the first place. Cato the Younger, a man of ironclad integrity, refused to resort to bribery. It should come as no surprise that his one attempt to win the consulship failed miserably, for his opponents had no compunction against engaging in mass bribery. After all, that was just how things were done.
Are we that different? The voting system is indeed rigged, though not in the way President-Elect Donald Trump spoke about. Even before the disastrous Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court in 2010, special interest money was flooding into American political campaigns on an obscene scale. A politician promises to support the special interests, sometimes subtly and sometimes not to subtly, and the lobbyists for that particular interest chalk up the money to fund his election campaign. When the election is over, the office-holder then uses their legislative power to protect and advance the interests of their campaign contributors. Those who see our present system of campaign finance as anything other than bribery on a massive scale are deluding themselves.
Our corrupt campaign finance system is only part of the story, however. The practice of gerrymandering allows office-holders to choose their voters, rather than the other way around, thus making it quite easy for incumbents to remain in office, year after year. Independent candidates or those from third parties are systematically ignored by the media (which is perfectly happy with the status quo) and barred from participating in election debates, which, along with overly rigorous ballot access rules, essentially limits participation only to members of the Republican or Democratic parties. We also have the sickening spectacle of state governments passing laws clearly designed to make it more difficult for people to vote, under the reasonable assumption that fewer people voting works in favor of incumbents.
In other words, elections in the America of the early 21st Century are as much of a farce as elections were in the Late Roman Republic.
3. Populist rabble-rousers are largely driving the public debate.
In the late Roman Republic, there was a whole cast of ambitious seekers of political office who had been stymied in following the traditional path towards the consulship. Rather than accept defeat, they instead decided to ignore legal and constitutional norms and continue clawing for power and influence.
The most famous of these men was Publius Clodius Pulcher. He was a senator, but was disliked and seen as obnoxious, known mostly for a ridiculous sex scandal involving him dressing as a woman to gain access to a religious ceremony in which only females could participate. Unable to advance in the Senate, he bizarrely had himself adopted by a a younger flunky of his who was a plebian, thereby allowing him to run for the office of tribune of the plebs (only plebians could be tribunes). Once he had secured that office, he continually went over the head of the Senate and had legislation rammed through the popular assemblies, which was technically legal but went against all norms of how politics in the Republic was supposed to work. Clodius used his period of legislative dominance to pass legislation designed to destroy his enemies (Cicero being his primary target) and expand his own power until he was assassinated.
The election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States marks the triumph of populism in our own society. So, incidentally, did the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. While there is a vast difference between Trump and Sanders, in that one is a decent human being and the other decidedly is not, their support sprung from similar sources. Populism is the ideology of the disaffected masses, who have real or imagined grievances against the powers-that-be and look for would-be saviors to magically and painlessly solve all of their problems for them.
Trump's supporters said that they were angry about immigration, so Trump has promised to build a wall along the border with Mexico. They were angry about Muslims coming into the United States, so he has promised that he won't let them come in anymore. Whatever the perceived problem, Trump has simply promised to make it go away. He has never laid out any specific policy proposals, much less suggested how he would get such proposals through Congress or how he would pay for them. It is demagoguery at its clearest. I frankly expect him to be remembered by history as the American Clodius.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders hold more nuanced and less confrontational views, but they share with Trump supporters a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a willingness to believe that the problems they care about could be easily fixed if only their leader were placed in power. College education is increasingly expensive? Sanders promised to make it free. The Affordable Care Act isn't working as well as expected? Sanders promised to simply make healthcare free. Whatever the problem, Sanders told his supporters that he would wave a magic wander and the problem would be fixed. While Sanders never sunk to the xenophobia, misogyny, and borderline racism of Trump, in many ways his support stemmed from similar sources.
To fix the problems facing our countries, we need leaders like Cicero, not Clodius. That needs to be remembered next time we go to the polls.
4. There is a huge and increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
By the First Century BC, the old designations of "plebeian" and "patrician" had ceased to have much meaning in everyday life. A senator or wealthy man was just as likely to be one as the other. Yet Roman society was frightfully unequal. Whether they were plebeians or patricians, those who had money and family connections were in control of the government and economy. Those who didn't were expected to be quiet and do what they were told. While an occasional "new man" like Cicero might sometimes make his way up the political ladder in Roman government, it was exceedingly rare. The same small number of powerful families controlled the Senate and had for centuries.
Roman society had not always been like this. In its heyday, it had been largely a society of yeoman farmers. Indeed, no man could serve in the legions unless he met certain property qualifications, the thinking being that property-owners had the most to lose if Rome were ever defeated in war and so would fight harder than mere mercenaries. As its victories brought more and more territory under Roman control, however, most of the land fell under the control of the wealthy, who established enormous estates and worked them with slave labor. Small freeholders could not compete and gradually began losing their land, crowding into Rome and the other cities and being forced to live off the grain dole.
We are seeing something similar today. Powerful multinational corporations are slowly squeezing independently-owned businesses out of existence, while massive agribusiness entities have made traditional family farms a thing of the past. More broadly, the expanding economy disproportionately benefits those who are already immensely rich, with the status of the poor and the middle-class either remaining static or actually declining. Just as so many Romans became dependent on government support through the grain dole, millions of Americans no dependent on government welfare for their survival. It is no surprise to me that economic anxiety is infecting so much of America these days, creating opportunities in which populists like Trump can flourish.
5. The country is locked in foreign wars from which it can't seem to extricate itself.
As I write this, American warplanes are bombing ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria. American soldiers remain deployed in Afghanistan in a conflict that has been going on for a decade-and-a-half. Having withdrawn from Iraq in 2012, our forces are now being slowly drawn back into the country and are playing a crucial role in the ongoing fighting around Mosul. Special forces raids and air strikes are being mounted in Yemen and Libya. Our military is in the midst of increasing its presence in the Pacific to counter the threat of a rising China and in the Baltic region to counter the threat of a resurgent Russia.
In the First Century BC, Rome was also almost constantly at war. Caesar battled the Gauls and invaded Germany and Britain. In the east, Sulla, Pompey the Great and others battled assorted enemies, including the powerful Kingdom of Pontus that briefly threatened Roman power in the region. Wars against recalcitrant tribes seemed to never end in Spain. And mighty individual leaders rose up to challenge Rome. In Gaul, there was the terrifying chieftain Vercingetorix, the only man in the region who could match himself against Julius Caesar. In Pontus, there was the great King Mithridates, a man so ruthless that he ordered the slaughter of eighty thousand Roman citizens in a single day.
There are eerie similarities between these wars of the Roman Republic in the 1st Century BC and America's military activities in the early 21st Century. They were fought far from home, for just as Italy was never threatened by any of Rome's enemies during this period, so is there clearly no possibility for America to be successfully invaded in our own time. Yet taken together they formed a sort of "perpetual war" of the sort that George Orwell warned us about. A never-ending war served as a means of distracting the people from internal problems and helped the rich become even richer. It also slowly drained away the society's resources, like a cut that stubbornly refused to stop bleeding.
6. Old values of civic virtue are disdained.
The Romans during the glory days of the Republic believed deeply in virtus, which we might roughly translate into English as "civic virtue". People were naturally expected to pursue their interests and seek to enrich themselves and their families, but the idea that anyone would do so at the expense of society as a whole was an almost unthinkable concept. When Rome battled the fearsome Samnites and other Italian peoples, or warded off the terrible threats of Pyrrhus or Hannibal, Romans of all ages and classes served in the army and accepted heavy taxation in service of the Republic. Senators served in their various official positions without receiving pay. There was a common understanding that the good of the community required the collective sacrifice of everyone.
There once was a concept of civic virtue in America. Without it, we never would have won the Revolutionary War, held the country together through the fires of civil war, endured the sufferings of the Great Depression, or rid the world of fascism and communism. Yet it seems to have vanished like the smoke of an extinguished campfire. We have become a society in which everyone is quick to take offense at every perceived slight or "microaggression", where we cast our votes based on what will put the most money in our pockets rather than on what is genuinely good for the country, where we waste of time playing video games or consuming vacuous and inane pop culture products as if they were candy.
If 21st Century America is to avoid the fate that befell the Roman Republic in the 1st Century BC, it needs to rediscover the old civic virtue of the past. We need to turn off our televisions and video games and open our books. We need to remember the ideals on which the republic was founded. We need to again place the needs of our nation ahead of our own individual needs. Restoring our old sense of civic virtue is the prerequisite for fixing all of the other problems, for a virtuous people would choose wise leaders rather than run-of-the-mill politicians and casino moguls, would insist on reforming our broken electoral systems and on extracting us from perpetual war, and would insist on a fair economic system which was rigged for no one, in which everyone had an equal chance at prosperity.
Will we be able to do it? I don't know. It's up to the American people. But history has put these lessons before us and we would be foolish not to heed its warnings. The Roman Republic collapsed into the autocracy of the Roman Empire, but the United States of America still has a chance to save itself.