George Washington depicted as a Roman emperor
Antonia Canova (1821)
It's difficult to read about any period of history without feeling an inclination to draw comparisons been past and present. And why shouldn't we? Yes, no two periods or situations are identical, but even when history is more rhyme than repeat, there is still the opportunity to gain perspective. After all, history is the experiment already run. Anyone still in the midst of shuffling the beakers labelled economy, security, and liberty would be wise to check previous results.

When reading about ancient Rome, this inclination to draw parallels practically becomes compulsion. Roman history offers all the tantalizing color of gladiatorial spectacle, depraved emperors, and the world's largest toga party. It features brilliant set-piece battles that defined military tactics for centuries, poems beloved by scholars (and hated by students) from Ovid's day 'til this, and lessons in the application of power that speak to every age. The British, the Germans... there may be no nation that has persisted longer than a mud puddle or controlled a space greater than that of a phone booth which hasn't seen itself as the new Rome.

Certainly Americans have drawn these connections. America's founders, educated on Virgil and Livy, were quick to adopt the mantle of the vanished republic. Images of George Washington garlanded with the laurels of a conquering Roman general were common for a century after the revolution, and many federal buildings deliberately recall their perceived Roman counterparts. The Senate itself was built along the model of the ancient Roman debating body. Whether it's pondering the burdens of empire, or aligning some modern moral failing with lurid descriptions of imperial debauchery, Rome offers a talking point, if not a deeper lesson, good for all occasions.

But while we appreciate the breadth of events in ancient Rome, we often fail to recall the depth of time that separates them. There's more space between Caesar crossing the Rubicon and Nero's fire than there is between the Civil War and Vietnam. More time between the end of the Republic and the Sack of Rome than there is between the landing of the Curiosity probe and the first landing at Jamestown. During those periods, Roman society was buffeted by as many events and as much change as American society over the same span of time. When we draw lessons from the experience of the past, we need to remember that it's hard to associate cause A and effect B if the space between can be measured in centuries.

That problem, losing something in time, is another connection we share with the Romans. They misplaced their republic, and most of them didn't realize it was missing until half a century after it was gone.

The Romans kicked out their last king around 509BC, and for most of the next five centuries, Rome expanded from a provincial town to continent-spanning empire under a government of representative democracy. The exact level of democracy, and the nature of that representation, changed over time. Rome's constitution, like that of the United States, was a tangled, deliberately vague, and much amended document; open to varying interpretations and easily twisted to suit any occasion. Not to say that the Romans were not fiercely wedded to the constitution. Changes usually came slowly, brought on only by generations of proof that some feature of the document was lacking. That constitution enshrined a number of freedoms, but (again, just as in America) those freedoms were not equally available. Women got few rights, especially in the early republic, and Rome's borders were home to massive numbers of slaves who got no more rights, and probably less respect, than a chair.

Even among male Roman citizens, there were definite levels of representation and participation. Those levels were originally related to a kind of familial aristocracy, but over time pure wealth became the bigger factor in determining who was eligible for office. At one point, to be a senator you first had to be a millionaire. The friction between the haves and have nots defined much of the structure of the constitution. Having appeared in rebellion against a monarchy, and having persisted as a Republic for 400 years, the Romans were sensitive to the ease with which the wealthy and powerful could upset the balance.  

There was such a web of offices in the Roman system, and veto power was present at so many points, that looking at it today we wonder that anything could be accomplished. However, the Roman system was designed to do more than just confuse twenty-first century browsers.  It's a system that requires compromise. The many points of check and balance built into the system were designed to address weaknesses that appeared over decades or centuries, and most of them had the same intent -- stop the most privileged in society from seizing complete power at a cost to the public good. In the end, they were not watching carefully enough.

Fifty years before Caesar’s exploits, Roman politics was increasingly divided between two informal factions.  One group claimed to be the guardians of the constitution, defenders of tradition values, and protectors of high moral standards. But in truth this “conservative” faction was primarily dedicated to seeing that the wealthy families of the patrician class continued to dominate the scene and were allowed to exploit weaknesses in the current structure. On the other side were those who championed the cause of the lower and middle class, demanding more rights for the masses, and a more equitable distribution of power. However, this group also included some who were more interested in using this “progressive” cause to upset the apple cart and further their own careers.

In this conflict, it was the conservative faction that took the most astounding and bloody action. Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a general and consul, marched his legions on Rome itself, revised the constitution to award even more power to the elite, and had over five hundred of his political opponents executed. You've reached a pretty definitive end to civility when the names of offending Senators are posted on the walls of the Senate, complete with rewards for their capture and execution.

However, after setting the ship of state back on the course he believed in, Sulla retired from public life.  The next time, it wouldn't be quite that simple. The next time it would be a “defender of the people” who took power, and he would not hand it back so readily. The next time it would be Caesar.

Though in your average movie or miniseries the interval between Julius Caesar leading his army across the bubbling Rubicon and a gasping “eh tu, Brute?” is no more than a couple of commercial breaks, the truth is a lot more complex.  Caesar dominated Rome for nearly twenty years, first in partnership with fellow generals Crassus and Pompey, later as the leader of a rebellion, and later still as “dictator for life.”  Through all of this Caesar, though enormously wealthy and powerful, enjoyed popular support and championed the cause of the average Roman.  He delivered his political opinions attached to a sword, but was just as likely to hand out cash to sway opinion. He played veterans against the Senate, senatorial factions against each other, and the crowd against everyone.

When Caesar died (five years and a couple of wars after first marching his army into Rome) it was his great-nephew and adopted son Octavian who, despite being a teenager at Caesar’s death, beat out more experienced rivals and ultimately consolidated power following a series of bloody and protracted internal conflicts. Even then, most Romans didn’t quite grasp what had happened. Certainly Octavian, eventually dubbed Augustus in respect for his leadership and accomplishments, wielded a great deal of authority and often held extraordinary combinations of offices along with special powers like the ability to veto anything, or to command armies in any province. However, almost without exception he obtained those positions through election or appointment, not naked grasping.  He was consul a half dozen times, Pontifex Maximus over the Roman religion, a general, the commissioner of roads and infrastructure — sometimes all at once. His above-and-beyond abilities were granted by a Senate and people grateful that for once the civil wars seemed to be at an ebb.

Surprisingly, despite his familial connections to Julius Caesar and the role that his connections to the vanquished dictator played in his first years, Augustus publicly aligned himself with those who wanted to restore the role and authority of the constitution. He positioned himself as not as a man who was destroying the republic, but as someone who was deeply concerned about public morality, the rule of law, and the traditions of the forefathers. From all the evidence, Augustus may even have believed that he was acting in the interest of returning Rome to constitutional authority, while he steadily moved beyond it day by day.

For most Romans, it wasn’t until Augustus’ death in 14AD that it became clear that the republic as it had been was never coming back. From now on, Rome would be under the thumbs of a succession of emperors, few of them showing Augustus’ concern about even the appearance of following the now toothless constitution. Somewhere, somewhen, their elections had become a farce and the law had become pretense, but no one could quite point out how it happened.

What parallels can we draw between our own time and the people who ran this experiment better than two thousand years ago? Well, perhaps its just that republics are a lot more fragile than they may seem. A lot more. And they've become no more robust with time. Rome's experiment ultimately fizzled, but it was more persistent than any that came after. Augustus may have been the first, but certainly wasn’t the last person to dismantle the mechanisms of democracy while holding an elective office, and even those governments painfully aware of the ease with which the will of the people can be set aside, are often caught flat-footed by those bold enough and powerful enough to take extraordinary action. It’s sobering to realize that destroying a republic in the name of saving it is a game that was old before America was a dream.

It may also be worth noting that the loss of the Roman republic was clearly aided by the way in which public service was in the hands of a private few. Lacking any permanent bureaucracy, Roman institutions were essentially owned by whoever was in power at the moment. This extended from the street department to the armies, and made it much easier for those in charge to tighten their grip without the insulation of any independent agency. Talk of "bread and circuses" may make it seem as if the Roman public was easily distracted by shiny baubles, but the truth was more "life and death." Even the Roman judicial system and religious institutions were handed over to the party in power, offering no assistance to those on the outside unable to pay their way back in.

One connection that's not complete at the moment: in the decades before Sulla, Roman politics became increasingly divisive. Traditions of decorum were eroded and discussions in the Senate and among other officials fell into shouting matches and threats. Roman politics entered a phase that went beyond verbal attacks and into violence, with the two sides trading bloody assaults and murders. Finally, even this wasn't enough, and hatreds spawned a back and forth that was measured in marching armies.

Let’s hope that is one Rubicon the American republic never crosses.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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