There is a certain Rome-derived political mythology and vocabulary about what a republic is, and what is antithetical to it. You were taught it as a child, when watching Star Wars, or when you asked about some civic symbol like the Virginia flag. Later on, when exposed to the words of a classic American orator or writer, you received it in a fuller form. The wages of empire. Bread and circuses. Liberty or death.
From the overthrow of the tyrannical king Tarquin—the original was no governor–in 509 B.C., Rome was a republic, and even when it had come to command most of Italy (by 263) and then most of the Mediterranean (by 148) it remained proudly so. But from 133 to 44 B.C., i.e., from the murder of the tribune Tiberius Gracchus to Julius Caesar’s initiation of the first civil war, the republic experienced a period that saw stark economic inequality, illegal alteration of and disregard for the constitution, large-scale vote purchasing, conspiracies to seize the government, mob violence in the places of assembly, and political murders. Despite all the disgraceful tumults that had characterized the first several centuries of the republic, such as those recounted in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (allow me to once again tout the awesome BBC radio version), official history records few instances of within-the-walls civic bloodshed until 133.
Of course, the most significant feature of the late republic’s turmoil was the illegal aggregation of power by the politician-generals Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, Mark Antony, and finally Octavian. Three civil wars followed Ceasar’s crossing of the Rubicon, eventually resulting in Octavian consolidating his hold over the government–under his new name of Caesar Augustus–in 30 B.C., and thus becoming the first real emperor.
Against these names, the republican tradition raises those of its most important heroes: Cicero, Marcus Brutus, and Cato. Each of these struggled against the general degradation of republican government, and against the open threat by each of the politician-generals from Pompey on to replace it with a monarchy. The end-point of the republic that is the truly irreversible one probably comes right where Shakespeare placed it, in 42 B.C. when Brutus and Cassius lost the battle of Philippi. Cicero had been slain by Antony’s men the previous year, Cato by his own hand in 46 B.C.
So this political history, the republic’s corruption, and the strange alteration of its regime and form—an alteration which in Pierre Manent’s telling reveals the only instance in human history in which a society shaped by the “political form” called City transformed itself into, rather than simply became ruled by, the political form called Empire—these topics ought to be what most interests us when we’re interested in the late republic. To explore these we must go to certain writings of Appian, Cicero, Sallust, Suetonius, and Plutarch. And as I argued in “Roman Meanderings,” the most helpful and engaging contemporary guide to this history is not the HBO series Rome, but Tom Holland’s book Rubicon.
For a variety of reasons, we are hearing more and more speculation these days, likely more than any time since the lead-up to and early years of WWII, about whether republican democracy is in serious decline. In America, this is happening especially among conservatives, often in a defeatist “it’s already over” tone, although some progressives are beginning to speculate in a similar mode themselves (see Matthew Yglesias’ take, which I stomped upon here). The last year has also seen several books and pieces from focused-on-institutions moderates, such as Francis Fukuyama in his Political Order and Political Decay, or the Economist writer-team Micklethwaite and Wooldridge in their The Fourth Revolution, that try to document and address republican democracy’s growing governing ineffectiveness, and which do so with a readiness to question basic features of contemporary constitutions.
The conservative version of this sort of speculation centers around the factors I laid out in several preceding posts. From them you can get a sense of how the nightmare works in my mind, as a possible interplay of a whole number of different factors, with the most important being those regarding deficits, bureaucratic corruption, executive legislating, judicial usurpation of democratic say, cultural polarization, a Democratic Party set on a collision course with religious liberty, etc. The posts are “Late Republic Studies: Three Scenarios for the Short Term,” followed by the three scenarios: “Marginal Republican Dominance,” “The Divided Government Scenario,” “The Legitimacy-Lacking Democratic Rule Scenario.”
My more pains-taking and multi-factor approach to this kind of speculation is superior to the more typical conservative (and liberal) doom-sayer’s tendency to hitch our republic’s possible destruction to one or two factors, to disregard countervailing factors, and then to talk oh-so-dramatically, yet really quite vaguely, about the republic’s imminent doom due to his pet factors being already upon us and having some irreversible character. In my posts, the way we might lurch near to democracy’s doom is much more specified: I offer three short-term scenarios, based on the outcome of the elections of 2016, and proceed from each to describe what could happen in the middle-term to bring us, in a long-term situation 25 years or so away, to a place where the republic has become immersed in a pattern of corruption, disregard for the constitution, and “democratic despotism” severe enough either to provoke serious secession and/or coup actions, or to have placed the nation upon an irreversible descent into statist tyranny. And of course, I also indicate what might bring us to a place where the republic is pretty much okay in 2050.
How ought late republican Rome figure into this speculation?
Well, just as our very understanding of “republic” took its baseline meaning from what the word meant to the Romans, even while in certain ways building upon it as witnessed in The Federalist Papers (#s 10, 39, and 55 in particular), our understanding of what republican government is like when degraded, deteriorating, and in danger of passing away, is inevitably much shaped by how late republican times did unfold in Rome. So on one hand, we inevitably tend to think about late republican times through the thought of our Founders. To understand the kinds of threats they needed their proposed constitution to guard against, they looked to how ancient republics, but especially the Roman one, deteriorated and fell. But on the other hand, our speculative thinking of how this might happen to us in the 21st-century has to be our own, however much it draws from our Founders’ understanding of Rome. After all, the threats we now face developed amid the very constitutional guards they put in place.
So what lessons might the late republican period of Roman history have for us? In my judgment there are four beneficial ones, but also three common ones that aren’t so insightful or helpful. I’ll be going through them in greater detail in another post or two.
Three Lessons of Questionable Usefulness:
1) In Terms of Increasing Vice, Empowerment of a Plebian-like Class, Mob-like Actions, and Violations of the Constitution, Our Republic Has Become Much Like the Late-Roman One.
2) Increasing Inequality Is Fatal to Republican Government.
3) A Republican Empire Is Fatal to Republican Government.
We are all against America becoming imperialistic, vice-ridden, socio-economically polarized, and dominated by a politics of have-nots trying to take from the haves. Of course. But as I’ll explain next time, several of the above lessons are either typically applied in very tendentious ways, or, they just can’t help us much, either now or if we do drift into late republican times. Several of them ignore some key difference between the Roman situation and ours that makes the application of the lesson false, or rather qualified. They all wind up being basically pat. They allow the American spouting them to sound like the Founding Fathers, without taking nearly the pains they did to understand their present situation.
Four Useful Lessons:
To repeat myself, America might not enter late republican times, and perhaps not even in this century. So, God willing, none of you will ever find use for any of these lessons, even if I think the last one to some degree applies at all times.
4) The Precise Point of the Republic’s Fall, and of Its Deteriorating beyond Rescue, Will Likely Be Hard to Determine.
5) At Times the Republic-Preserving Cause Might Have to Ally with Leaders Guilty of Past Crimes against Republicanism.
6) The Problem of When to Turn to Drastic Measures, Ones That Assume the Republic Will Fall in Its Present Form, Will Become a Live One.
Drastic measures? Collectively, I mean things like secession, “Ceasar-ism,” the strong version of the “Benedict Option,” and privately, things like “becoming apolitical,” or for conspiratorial or “philosophy-between-the-lines” reasons, seeming to.
7) Vague Doom-Pronouncement Is Defeatist Moral Failure, Because the Political Responsibility of Statesmen and Citizens Actually Increases During Late Republican Times
I’ll flesh these out soon.