By common consensus, 2013 was one of the worst years for American politics in recent memory, though it certainly got strong competition from 1998 and 1974, to list a few others. The palpable tension over what this year will bring, be it Obamacare, Iran, China, or whatever, is just a symptom of an increasingly disillusioned citizenry, cynical intelligentsia, and overwhelmed political class.
So, it may be a sanguine thought this week to consider that it was on New Year’s Day when Rome’s two consuls took their office for the year. Elected annually, and for centuries prohibited from serving twice in ten years, the consuls held executive authority (imperium) for their twelve-month period. Having two consuls was meant to serve as a check at the highest level of government, but they were also balanced by the tribunes of the people. A consul could veto the actions of his counterpart, and tribunes could do the same to the consuls. The system was designed to inculcate conservatism in policy, since radicalism and the disorder it engendered was the greatest fear of the Romans. Most consuls, maybe because they were not overly skilled or ambitious men, did not go in for dramatic changes or policies.
The system obviously didn’t work perfectly. Most of those running for consuls in the late Republic did so in order to get lucrative military commands in the post-consular year. Some were driven by their short term in office to try and push through just the type of radical reform abhorred by the aristocracy. Many authors, such as Anthony Everitt, see the Roman senate’s ingrained conservatism as a cause of the fall of the Republic — it refused to undertake vitally necessary reforms that ultimately led to greater radicalism on the part of men like Caesar. As the system broke down in the late Republic, multiple consulships by the same man, such as Marius, led to jealousy, suspicion, and ever more factional politics.
Yet for centuries, the consular system provided Rome with a general stability, even in times of crisis such as the Punic Wars. Unlike in America, where presidential candidates run on ambitious, visionary, and sometimes transformative platforms, the consuls for the most part eschewed such promises during their electoral campaigns. Americans expect dramatic actions by their presidents, are critical when they fall short, and often are disconcerted when significant change actually happens. Almost all recent presidents have been undone by the promises they made during their campaigns or their completely useless State of the Union speeches.
We obviously won’t scrap the Constitution and adopt the system of offsetting consuls. Yet, as we face political gridlock caused not by prudence but by increasingly partisan attitudes and governing incompetence, and as much of the country rebels against massive social-engineering programs like Obamacare, a dose of old-fashioned consular conservatism may be just what we need. A reduction in unrealistic hopes, an appreciation for continuity, and a willingness to work steadily toward reform is the tonic many Americans are looking for in 2014. Compared with today’s New Rome, the consuls of the Roman Republic don’t look so bad.