The Death of a Republic
“There once was an ancient city… The ancient city fell.”
- Virgil, The Aeneid
By Brendan Wilson
The fall of Rome conjures images of invading Gothic hoards sacking white marble monuments in the 5th century AD. But there was an earlier fall 500 years prior, when the nephew of Julius Caesar, Octavian, defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII at the battle of Actium in 33 BC. This victory marked the death of the Roman Republic and the rise of autocratic rule in the Eternal City.
Our government was modeled on the Roman Republic, which renders careful consideration of its decline so valuable. Our founding fathers received classical educations in Greek and Roman history and were well studied in the works of the historians of antiquity, including Publius, whose outline of Roman government heavily influenced the framers of our Constitution.
The dumpster fire that is American politics in 2020 has given rise to comparisons between the United States and the final years of the Roman Republic. “Personally, it’s like watching the decline of the Roman Empire,” lamented Mike Bradley, a Canadian mayor, referring to this election cycle. Unfortunately, he’s not alone. Violent social unrest, economic inequality, and the challenging of long-established political norms are omnipresent in our Apple News feeds. They were also prominent features of Roman politics in the 1st Century BC. To understand why the Republic fell, and whether we should be looking over our shoulders, we examine Rome before the fall.
The Roman Republic was founded after King Tarquin was deposed by Lucious Junius Brutus, the ancestor of the Marcus Brutus that would later lead the most famous political assassination in history. In the centuries that followed, this new form of government would oversee Rome’s transition from obscure backwater to Mediterranean power.
But the seeds of the fall were paradoxically sown by its success. In 146 BC, Rome decimated its rival Carthage in northern Africa and vanquished the Greeks in the east. The conquest led to one of the greatest transfers of wealth in history. The treasure from the world’s richest civilizations flowed into the coffers of the Roman ruling elite.
This had undesirable effects. As Edward Gibbon described in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “prosperity ripened the principle of decay.” Before the conquest, eligibility for military and government service was limited to land-owning elites. The sharp edge that motivated Rome’s ruling class was now dulled by excess and luxury, with many choosing a life reading Greek philosophy in a country villa to the rigors of a military campaign. In his book, Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts, Carl Richard reinforces this fact, “New found luxury undermined the traditional Roman values of frugality, discipline, honesty, and respect for law, the values on which the republic rested.”
The conquest also brought slaves back to Rome in staggering numbers. Small farmers could no longer compete with larger patrician farms manned by free labor. This drove tens of thousands of commoners into the city seeking employment. The combination of unevenly distributed war treasure and the influx of slave labor opened a chasm between Rome’s upper and lower classes that would lead to tensions that cracked the foundation supporting the Republic.
These tensions opened the door to ambitious demagogues. In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune and whipped up populist passions by advocating wealth and land redistribution to the distressed commoners. He quickly drew the ire of the patrician Senate by illegally impeaching a rival, threatening to obstruct all state business until his reforms were passed, and refusing to leave office when his term was up. The Senate, irritated by his disrespect for tradition and his radical, populist proposals, sent strongmen to one of his rallies. Tiberius was clubbed to death along with 300 followers; their bodies unceremoniously hurled into the Tiber.
This was the first instance of political violence in Rome and marked the emergence of two political parties: The Optimates, who favored the aristocratic tradition, and the Populares, who backed the poor. The bloodshed was only just beginning.
In 107 BC, Gaius Marius won fame and fortune with military victories, first against an unruly Numidian King, and then against two Germanic tribes threatening to march into Italy. Returning triumphantly to Rome, Marius became a champion of the Populares, picking up the mantle of land redistribution. Among his many populist reforms, he did away the requirement that soldiers own land, which opened the door for poor Romans seeking wealth through military service. His ranks swelled and he was easily elected and reelected to consul, Rome’s highest office, 6 consecutive times.
Around this time, the Senate sent Lucius Cornelius Sulla, an Optimate and Marius rival, to quell an uprising in Asia Minor. Irked by having been passed up for the honor, Marius entered Rome, violently murdered Sulla supporters, and had himself elected consul a 7th time. But after taking care of business in Asian Minor, Sulla broke strict Roman law by entering the city with his army in 82 BC. He routed Marius’s supporters and, in another unprecedented move, had himself named dictator for life. Sulla then packed the Senate with Optimate conservatives, limited the power of the plebian popular assembly, and posted a list of 1,500 “proscribed” names of Populare enemies of the state to be hunted down and killed. This unleashed a reign of terror that would kill nearly 10,000 Romans.
The civil war between Marius and Sulla further divorced Rome from the collectivist ideals that had held it together. Rome was now on a slippery slope, sliding uncontrollably toward tyranny.
In the 60s BC, a political pact was created between three of Rome’s most influential men, Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Crassus. The agreement, now called the first Triumvirate, was intended to solidify their collective rise in Roman power politics. Pompey was awarded Spain, which he governed in absentia from Rome; Crassus Syria, where he would meet his end when angry Parthians poured molten gold down his throat (see season 1 of Game of Thrones); and Caesar Gaul, which he would conquer to become the most renown general in world history. Caesar’s success unnerved Pompey and the Senate, who sent envoys requesting that he disband his army. Caesar, of course, refused, and in 49 BC, crossed the Rubicon, defeated Pompey, and named himself dictator for life.
In a last-ditch effort to save the Republic from monarchical rule, Julius Caesar was lured into a Senate meeting in 44 BC and stabbed 23 times in a plot led by Marcus Brutus, decedent of the man that removed the last king 500 years earlier. A final civil war ensued between Caesar’s general, Mark Antony, and his nephew, Gaius Octavian. The latter would emerge victorious and offer the promise of stability and peace to Rome if only the people submitted to autocratic rule. Wearied by decades of bloodshed and civil war, the people acquiesced. The Republic was dead, and from its ashes rose the first emperor.
Two thousand years later, the United States emerged victorious from WWII with the world’s largest economy. The postwar period was marked by rapidly rising GDP, but also saw the protestant ethic of hard work, thrift, and piety give way to materialism that led to the erosion of church attendance, the role of the community, and the value of public service.
In addition, the enormous gulf between the rich and poor grows every year. The Gini Coefficient, which measures economic inequality, has steadily increased since WWII, tearing at the thin fabric that holds our Republic together. The resulting resentment, in part, made the unlikely rise of Donald Trump possible in 2016.
Economic inequality, political polarization, and severe racial tensions have put enormous pressure on the laws and norms that we have taken for granted. In 2016, Mitch McConnell refused to consider Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice to replace the recently deceased Antonin Scalia. This summer, after unconstitutionally deploying military units against peaceful protestors outside the White House, the President drew criticism from former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who declared that we “must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace,’” During last week’s debate, Donald Trump refused to guarantee the peaceful transfer of power, offering only that “it’s a rigged election” and that “this is not going to end well.”
The left has also participated in this assault on our traditions by hinting their intention to eliminate the Senate filibuster by way of the “nuclear option," thus doing away with the Cloture Rule that requires 60 votes to end debate and move to a vote. They also openly advocate “packing the court,” or rebalancing the ideological divide on the Supreme Court by adding three more justices. These moves would further inflame partisan tensions and have escalatory effects when the Republicans return to power.
We now face an election that is being framed in extremist terms – either a “fascist” or a “communist” will emerge victorious in November. This naturally threatens an extreme reaction. “The threat of political violence after an election has never been higher in modern American history,” says Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The death of our own republic is not imminent. Our founding fathers created a government much more robust than the one that governed Rome. Cullen Murphy gives us hope in Are We Rome, “The genius of America may be that It has built “the fall of Rome” into its very makeup: it is very consciously a constant work in progress, designed to accommodate and build on revolutionary change.” But the story of Rome and its parallels with our tumultuous status quo serve as a cautionary tale. Ultimately, it is up to us to hold our elected officials accountable for protecting, not dismantling, our Constitution. The Roman historian Livy reminds us, “An empire remains in power so long as its subjects rejoice in it”
Daley, J. (2018, November 06). Lessons in the Decline of Democracy From the Ruined Roman Republic. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lessons-decline-democracy-from-ruined-roman-republic-180970711/
DataTrek Research. (1970, September 27). US Income Inequality: Latest Data. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from http://datatrekresearch.com/us-income-inequality-latest-data/
Murphy, C. (2008). Are we Rome?: The fall of an empire and the fate of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Richard, C. J. (2009). Greeks and Romans bearing gifts: How the Ancients inspired the Founding Fathers. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
WATTS, E. J. (2020). MORTAL REPUBLIC: How rome fell into tyranny. Place of publication not identified: BASIC Books.