Postmodern Conservative

Late Republic Studies: Unhelpful Roman Lessons

Picking up where I left off, we’re considering three lessons of questionable or limited usefulness that Rome’s late-republican period has for contemporary Americans, as they consider the possibility of their own republic entering similarly “late” times:

1) In Terms of Increasing Vice, Empowerment of a Plebian-like Class, Mob-like Actions, and Violation 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.


1) Actually, the thing that strikes you when reading either Tom Holland’s Rubicon, or Plutarch’s Lives, is how very much worse our situation would have to become to be at all like the Roman one.  Things were really a mess from Marius’s consulships on (107, and 104-100), and a strong case can be made that they were irreversibly messed up from the time of Sulla’s first march on Rome(88).  Consider simply this bit from the Life of Cato—the year is 62B.C., the year after Cicero “saved” the republic from Catiline’s conspiracy, and thirteen years prior to Caesar crossing the Rubicon:

But Metellus, coming into his office of tribune, began to hold tumultuous assemblies, and had prepared a decree, that Pompey the Great should presently be called into Italy, with all his forces, to preserve the city from the danger of Catiline’s conspiracy.  …the true design was, to deliver all into the hands of Pompey, and give him an absolute power. Upon this the senate was assembled, and Cato did not fall sharply upon Metellus, as he often did, but urged his advice in the most reasonable and moderate tone. …At this Metellus grew the more insolent, and despising Cato, as if he yielded and were afraid, let himself proceed to the most audacious menaces, openly threatening to do whatever he pleased in spite of the senate. Upon this Cato changed his countenance, his voice, and his language; and after many sharp expressions, boldly concluded, that while he lived, Pompey should never come armed into the city….

But when the day came for the people to give their voices for the passing this decree, and Metellus beforehand occupied the forum with armed men, strangers, gladiators, and slaves, those that in hopes of change followed Pompey, were known to be no small part of the people, and besides, they had great assistance from Caesar, who was then praetor; and though the best and chiefest men of the city were no less offended at these proceedings than Cato, they seemed rather likely to suffer with him, than able to assist him. …Cato’s whole family were in extreme fear and apprehension for him; some of his friends neither ate nor slept all the night, passing the whole time in debating and perplexity…

…soon as he was up, [Cato and Minicius Thermus] went together into the forum, accompanied by very few, but met by a great many, who bade them have a care of themselves. Cato, therefore, when he saw the temple of Castor and Pollux encompassed with armed men, and the steps guarded by gladiators, and at the top Metellus and Caesar seated together, turning to his friends, “Behold,” said he, “this audacious coward, who has levied a regiment of soldiers against one unarmed naked man;” and so he went on with Thermus. Those who kept the passages, gave way to these two only, and would not let anybody else pass. …Then going directly to Metellus and Caesar, he sat himself down between them, to prevent their talking to one another, at which they were both amazed and confounded. And those of the honest party, observing the countenance, and admiring the high spirit and boldness of Cato, went nearer, and cried out to him to have courage, exhorting also one another to stand together, and not betray their liberty, nor the defender of it.

Then the clerk took out the bill, but Cato forbade him to read it, whereupon Metellus took it, and would have read it himself, but Cato snatched away the book. Yet Metellus having the decree by heart, began to recite it without book; but Thermus put his hand to his mouth, and stopped his speech. Metellus seeing them fully bent to withstand him, and the people cowed, and inclining to the better side, sent to his house for armed men. And on their rushing in with great noise and terror, all the rest dispersed and ran away, except Cato, who alone stood still, while the other party threw sticks and stones at him from above, until Murena, whom he had formerly accused, came up to protect him, and holding his gown before him, cried out to them to leave off throwing; and, in fine, persuading and pulling him along, he forced him into the temple…

Metellus now seeing the place clear…thought he might easily carry his point; so he commanded the soldiers to retire, and recommencing in an orderly manner, began to proceed to passing the decree. But the other side having recovered themselves, returned very boldly, and with loud shouting, insomuch that Metellus’s adherents were seized with a panic, supposing them to be coming with a reinforcement of armed men, and fled… …Cato came in again…so that now the majority were…for deposing Metellus from his office. The senate also being assembled, gave orders once more for supporting Cato, and resisting the motion, as of a nature to excite sedition and perhaps civil war in the city.

Good times!  I especially like imagining the part where Cato’s friend clamps his hand over the demagogue’s mouth.  Say what you will about Eric Holder, but he doesn’t actually organize gangs of gladiators to occupy the House of Representatives, and whatever degree of unconstitutional infamy you want to ascribe to Barack Obama’s Big Amnesty, it can’t compare to an act that would have handed the government over to a general!  Yes, as distressing as it is to increasingly see citizens in our day being attacked by twitter and comment swarms, and to hear testimony from even liberal professors that “liberal students scare the $%@* out of me,” such “mobs” just can’t compare with the real stone-chucking thing, can they?

Our problems with “plebeian politics,” mob-like actions, and violations of the constitution are nowhere near those faced by the Romans in their late republican times. 

Now concern about citizen virtue is an aspect of republicanism in all times and places.  But do we have all that much to learn from the Roman case on this?  The measure of vice that matters most for us is the rate of birth to unmarried mothers.  The manliness-deficiencies and general luxury-indulgence that the Romans worried most about are vices that all modern societies, as Montesquieu and Rousseau showed, are inherently more subject to than ancient ones; but they are ones which we Americans have at least found ways to mitigate and compensate for in military matters, producing our fairly fearsome armies of  “Citizen Soldiers.” 

Philip Rieff on the triumph of the therapeutic, Mary Eberstadt and Walker Percy on the sexual revolution, Plato on the purist democratic idea of freedom, and Lawler and Tocqueville on individualism—all of these have much more to teach us about our society’s struggles with vice than do the worries of the late republic.  That is, understanding the threats posed to our society by vice requires far more work than grasping onto some true-enough but still rather pat “vice begets martial weakness and corrupt politics” formula.  By such a formula, our republic would have fallen decades ago, as we indeed know how to revel in vice. 

I will say this, however:  reading Montesquieu on the subject, one is struck by the idea that more fundamental to the “corruption of the Romans” than the vices associated with the hedonistic philosophy of Epicureanism, was the increase of dishonesty throughout Roman society, and particularly as it infected politics.  That’s a frightening thing to read in our era, when half our nation has resigned itself to be politically led by Obama, Gruber, Reid, and the Clintons.  Perhaps it won’t be the “sex” or the “videotape” that ruins us, but the lies. 

2) Increasing Inequality Is Fatal to Republican Government

Well, if it continues indefinitely, of course it is.  Even if none of us can think of neat solutions to the inequality problem we’re facing in our Average is Over situation, and many of us know that “democratic socialist” proposals would ultimately exacerbate the inequality more than mitigate it, conservatives should remember the basic truth here.  They should say nearly as loudly as the Gracchi did that our growing socio-economic inequality is a bad thing, even though their proposals to mitigate it, and its impact upon political power, will be much less radical.

I will note, however, that our potential “plebeian problems” are made fundamentally less severe than Rome’s by three factors.  First of all, we don’t have slavery.  That means the prospect of ramping up class-war politics to the next level by freeing a bunch of slaves is never a card our demagogues are going to have.  Second, there is no direct linkage between our purported class of plebeian-like citizens, you know, the 51% or whatever it is of the population who put less into its treasuries than they take out of it, and our military units.  This is huge.  Pompey, Caesar, etc., won the anti-republican personal devotion of their troops with promises of land, pay, opportunities for pillage, and other benefits.  Practically the main form of “class warfare” politics in the late republic was “support the troops” politics! 

Third, our poor are significantly divided by race:  black and Hispanic poor ally overwhelmingly with the Democrats, while the white poor, made wary by generations of Democratic race-pandering to non-whites, tend to gravitate Republican.  We can imagine more race-riots in America, easy.  What is very hard to imagine is the “Ferguson” crowd and the “trailer-park” crowd getting together to intimidate Senators on Capitol Hill.  But that’s what would be needed for our situation to match Rome’s.

3) A Republican Empire Is Fatal to Republican Government

This is everyone’s favorite chestnut, but it just doesn’t teach us much of anything that isn’t already obvious from considerations of morality and prudence in foreign policy.  It often serves as an excuse for going into tired (and often Lenin-derived) fulminating against imperialistic tendencies at work in American policy and culture, tendencies that well, either don’t exist, or which must be in large part classified as a form of imperialism distinct from the classic and 19th-century models. 

Whatever you might say about American behavior during our nation’s expansion, or in our seizure of Hawaii, the Philippines, and the Panama canal, or in our actions to contain communism and to diminish Islamist terrorism, or in the way our corporations dominate many a market, it generally doesn’t seem like the imperialism of the Romans. 

At certain points in reading Rubicon, you begin to wonder if you should even root for Rome’s republic to be preserved, so rapacious was its imperialism.  Carthage, Corinth—wiped out.  The acropolis of Athens, and the temple in Jerusalem—stripped.  Taxation of subject peoples farmed out to the “publicans” of St. Matthew fame, the better to make of it a sustained looting.  Person after person enslaved.  At times, the Romans even gave ol’ Sauron a run for his money:

The [Spanish] mines that Rome had annexed from Carthage…had been handed over to the publicani, who had proceeded to exploit them with their customary gusto.  A single network of tunnels might spread for more than a hundred square miles, and provide upwards of forty thousand slaves with a living death.  Over the pockmarked landscape there would invariably hang a pall of smog…from the smelting furnaces, and so heavy with chemicals that it burned the naked skin and turned it white.  Birds would die if they flew through the fumes.  …Measurement of lead in the ice of Greenland’s glaciers, which show a staggering increase in concentration during this period, bear witness to the volumes of poisonous smoke the mines were belching out.

You might say that the Romans deserved their eventual fate, of becoming de facto slaves to the likes of Nero.  In any case, the sort of political corruption that such massive exploitation operations brought in their wake probably doomed the republic more than anything else.  Again quoting Holland:

Increasingly, in return for providing investors back in Rome with docile natives, decent harbors, and good roads, the Roman authorities in the provinces began to look for backhanders.  The corruption that resulted was all the more insidious because it could never be acknowledged.  Even as they raked in the cash, senators still affected a snooty disdain for finance.  …The result was that Roman government increasingly began to mutate into what can perhaps be described as a military-fiscal complex. 

I.e., the apparently limitless wealth that Crassus, and many lesser Roman figures, used to create their shadowy networks of owed favors, and thus political power, came from somewhere.  As did the gangs of slaves that allowed richer Romans to gradually push the small Roman farmer, once the backbone of the armies that prior to Marius received no pay, off the best land and into steep decline.  Nearly no-one, apart from the Gracchi, called for reform of this situation.  And consider this lamentable thing:  a couple of the key reform proposals of the Gracchi called not for a lightening of the Roman yoke upon the provinces, but for a more egalitarian distribution of the booty squeezed from them!  

Well now, how about some American-style imperialism?  Sure, there were many ugly moments, and particularly with the Native Americans.  But there were also plenty of moments more characterized by the example of William and Nellie Taft during his stint as governor of the Philippines, a memorable picture of which is provided in the latest Doris Kearns Goodwin book, Bully Pulpit

In defiance of the established order, Nellie “made it a rule from the beginning that neither politics nor race should influence [their] hospitality in any way.”  …she could host parties for hundred in her spacious gardens.  “We always had an orchestra,” she recalled, “and the music added greatly to the festive air of things, which was enhanced by a certain oriental atmosphere, with many Japanese lanterns and a profusion of potted plants.” While Nellie’s insistence “upon complete racial equality,” marked a spirit of tolerance far ahead of military attitudes, her guest lists were nonetheless drawn from a narrow segment of the population—educated Filipinos of “wealth and position”—the very class Taft hoped to enlist in the new government.”

As for William Taft, he took pains to learn the steps of several Filipino dances, and was pretty good at them despite his heft, which did much to win over Filipino society.  Of course, that popularity was much more due to his fairly enlightened administration as Governor General, which sought to prepare the Philippines for home-rule as soon as practicable.  Oh I’m sure we could find some things about his policy that were flawed, racism-influenced, etc., but nonetheless, here was the reaction when Taft announced he had to leave mid-way through his term:

As January 10 dawned, he and Nellie awakened to the din of band music, as 8,000 Filipinos gathered in front of Malacaňan Palace, urging the governor to stay.  Stretched out for blocks…the ranks of people carried handmade signs and placards, some in English, some in Spanish, still others in Tagalog, but all bearing the same message:  WE WANT TAFT.

A mere eighty years later, in my home state of California, Anglo/Filipino dancing, romancing, and marrying had become fairly common.  What for Taft was a sincere but necessarily aspirational slogan, “our little brown brothers,” is now a fact of life for many white Americans:  a good portion of their younger relatives are mixed-race, with half-Filipino being one of the more common mixtures.   And in the Philippines itself there is a democratic republic, not the most exemplary of ones, to be sure, but one fairly confident that America would prevent China from attacking it, and that today’s Japan—the one substantially changed by an American occupation–would never even want to. 

Oh, that American imperialism!  If only we’d sober up, learn the lessons of Rome, and repent of our racism by reading the latest in post-colonial critical theory!

I joke, but I do know that despite the glut of “post-colonial” theorizing of low quality, that there are scholarly literatures of deserved esteem that theorize imperialism (I recommend Michael Doyle’s Empires, and the relevant chapter from Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World:  a Global History of the Nineteenth Century), as well as lines of theorizing even more interesting to conservatives, such as the McWilliams-ite revisiting of the Anti-Federalist critique of America’s extended republic, and the Manentian theory of empire as one of the main “political forms.”

Manent’s theory leads one to worry about both the American nation’s and the European Union’s penchant for thinking that it sets the world agenda and that it might in a sense “become the world.”  I certainly think the EU penchant is the stronger and more dangerous one, as it is more firmly linked to perennial desires for a world-society and world-government.  Another way of saying this is that the liberals and lefties so denunciatory of the imperialist inclinations and potentialities they detect in American “neo-conservatism,” ought to be more worried about how these are present in progressive globalism.  For the long term, a text like John Rawls’s The Law of Peoples is far more frightening on that score than George W. Bush’s second inaugural. 

Influenced by Manent, Solzhenitsyn, and Daniel Mahoney’s important critique of Bush’s second inaugural, I articulated my own opposition to every form of “American imperialism” in my essay “Globally-Conscious Americanism That Ain’t Globalist”:

America needs to limit itself, and that means reminding itself that even if it is the most unusual and important of nations, it still is a nation.  It means that America’s long-term goal cannot be either the one of nudging more and more of the world’s nations to adopt constitutional democracy until tyranny is no more, nor the one of working with international organizations to progressively develop and entrench a system of liberal world governance.  Nor can America’s goal be a combination of the two. 

So having said that, I think I’ve earned the right to say that 95% of those today who darkly warn America against its “imperialistic proclivities” are in fact touting tendentious and deeply harmful theories about the evil character of non-isolationist American foreign policy.  As Bret Stephens’ new book America in Retreat argues, the sickening consequences of that denigration of America’s efforts to defend liberty and civilization around the globe are now upon us big-time.  You don’t have to agree with Stephens—and I do not—about the proper way for America to reverse its retreat, to understand his basic point. 

That’s why 95% of the time you hear the “Beware the wages of a Republican Empire, oh America, lest you wind up like Rome” lesson, what you’re hearing is 100% useless.  The main Rome-like danger that an engaged “world-policing” foreign policy of the sort that Stephens recommends, is not that it will corrupt our government and society, but that it will corrupt the societies of our allies.  That is, we must not present ourselves to the Europeans, the Filipinos, etc., as so irrevocably bound to defend them that they lose all ability to do so themselves.  And the biggest danger to our own society by becoming the de facto military force for the world, is that the “world” might in turn convince us that they ought to have significant say regarding its deployment, contra our Constitution.

But otherwise, we have to admit that big-time “global policing” a la Bret Stephens, would, if by some disaster our public embraced it, pose few of the dangers to our republic that Rome’s imperialism did to its.  Since we wouldn’t be engaged in looting—sorry, “no blood for oil!” cranks, we wouldn’t be–, the corruption threat would be much lower.  Most importantly, since our troops and generals would be closely monitored by DC through modern communications, the entire dynamic of generals far from Italy doing their own thing would be eliminated. 

I’ll add a foray into counterfactual history to all this:  it is not clear that Rome couldn’t have preserved its republic, and thus run a “republican empire” for much longer than the century-and-a-half it did.  The republican rhetoric deployed by Cato and Cicero eventually did get under Pompey’s skin.  Even before he was turned to as the only restraint against Caesar, he was trying to rehabilitate his reputation, and prove himself a loyal republican.  Part of this was due to pressure from the plebeians themselves—they were not as dismissive of the constitution as you might think.  Had Caesar been a bit more like Pompey, or not backed into the corner he was, perhaps the republic could have developed a long-term policy by which to keep the generals who attained pro-consular authority over provinces balanced against one another.  Oh, and let’s not forget:  Caesar came close to losing the civil war.

And this points to an even more controversial idea:  it is not clear that republican empire is impossible, or that it must destroy republicanism.  Consider the case of Britain.  Had it not been hobbled by WWII, how much longer could the empire have gone?  India and Palestine would probably have proven impossible to hold, but say it had held onto the rest of its colonies going into the 21st century—would its own republican democracy at home have been threatened?  I don’t see it. 

As typical Americans tend to be, we should be against empire.  And we should be skeptical about Bret Stephens’ call for global policing.  But if the American republic does come crashing down, it likely isn’t going to happen due to its attaining something like an empire.  We can respect and understand why so many in our founding generation, especially among the Anti-Federalists, made a big deal of our government avoiding all aspects of empire, often referring to the lesson provided by Rome, but we should have contempt for the way so many leftists and liberals, Ron Paul libertarians, and a certain breed of conservatives also, have used such precedents in our day. The overdrawn “Roman lesson” about “imperialism” is precisely the one ISIS and other enemies of civilization would want us to take to heart.

Again, we do have important lessons to learn from the fall of the Roman republic, which I’ll go into next time.


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