In 1776, the year that the thirteen colonies of the British Empire declared their independence and thus began the great experiment of our Republic, the English historian and member of Parliament Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his masterwork The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, he wrote:
The empire of Rome was firmly established by the singular and perfect coalition of its members. The subject nations, resigning the hope, and even the wish, of independence, embraced the character of Roman citizens; and the provinces of the West were reluctantly torn by the Barbarians from the bosom of their mother-country. But this union was purchased by the loss of national freedom and military spirit; and the servile provinces, destitute of life and motion, expected their safety from the mercenary troops and governors, who were directed by the orders of a distant court. The happiness of an hundred millions depended on the personal merit of one or two men, perhaps children, whose minds were corrupted by education, luxury, and despotic power.
Much has been made of the analogy between the current superpower status of the United States and the golden age of Rome. Some on the right warn of the moral collapse of Rome, such as far-right Rep. Tom Tancredo, who warns in his new book In Mortal Danger that America’s "moral decay" puts us at risk of the same fate as the Roman Empire, while some on the left believe that imperial adventurism on the part of the most dominant Republic since the Roman Empire which is leading us to risk encountering their fate.
But perhaps the most glaring warning that the history of Rome can provide us is not to its fall, in 476 AD when Romulus Augustus was deposed by Odoacer of the Foederati of Germany. The worrisome moment for Americans should not be the end of the Roman empire, but the end of the Roman Republic. And that came nearly five hundred years earlier.
Gabinius, one of Pompey's intimates, drew up a law which gave him, not an admiralty, but an out-and out monarchy and irresponsible power over all men. For the law gave him dominion over the sea this side of the pillars of Hercules, over all the mainland to the distance of four hundred furlongs from the sea. These limits included almost all places in the Roman world, and the greatest nations and most powerful kings were comprised within them. Besides this, he was empowered to choose fifteen legates from the senate for the several principalities, and to take from the public treasuries and the tax-collectors as much money as he wished, and to have two hundred ships, with full power over the number and levying of soldiers and oarsmen.
When these provisions of the law were read in the assembly, the people received them with excessive pleasure, but the chief and most influential men of the senate thought that such unlimited and absolute power, while it was beyond the reach of envy, was yet a thing to be feared. Therefore they all opposed the law, with the exception of Caesar; he advocated the law, not because he cared in the least for Pompey, but because from the outset he sought to ingratiate himself with the people and win their support. The rest vehemently attacked Pompey.
-Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Vol. V, The Life of Pompey
In 67 BC, Tribune Aulus Gabinius introduced the Lex Gabinia to the Roman Senate, as a response to the sack of Ostia, a seafront town at the mouth of the Tiber River which leads to Rome, by pirates. The law granted to Pompey Magnus the powers of proconsul, which was almost unlimited authority, in order to vanquish the pirates and secure the seas of the Mediterranean. As recounted by Plutarch and other period historians, the opposition to such a law in the Senate was fierce.
I, for my part, assert first and foremost that it is not proper to entrust to any one man so many positions of command one after another. This has not only been forbidden by the laws, but has also been found by experience to be most perilous. What made Marius what he became was practically nothing else than being entrusted with so many wars in the shortest space of time and being made consul six times in the briefest period; and similarly Sulla became what he was because he held command of the armies so many years in succession, and later was appointed dictator, then consul. For it does not lie in human nature for a person — I speak not alone of the young but of the mature as well — after holding positions of authority for a long period to be willing to abide by ancestral customs.
-Catalus’ speech to the Roman Senate, 68 BC, as recounted by Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book XXXVI
Catalus had good reason to be suspicious. The Marius of whom he spoke was Gaius Marius, a renowned general of Rome who had also been elected Consul an unprecedented seven times. The Sulla was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, another general who eventually contested with Marius for the control of the Roman legions in the First Mithridactic War, with the ultimate result being Sulla breaking the historic tradition of Roman Legions not fighting in Italy when he marched his legions to Rome to defeat Marius’ force of conscripted gladiators. Eventually, Sulla became the first dictator of Rome since the Second Punic War, and the first dictator ever to be granted such powers with no limit on his term in office.
Yet, after only two years in power as dictator, Sulla resigned his post, after crafting a series of laws meant to prevent the exact grab of absolute power that he himself had conducted. Yet, merely twelve years later, Pompey’s empowerment under the Lex Gabinia began the unraveling of those laws, and the fall of the Republic, which was completed under the reign of Augustus Caesar. Pompey’s ascendance would be eclipsed by that of Julius Caesar; the murder of Caesar would lead to another civil war with the emergence of Augustus and the end of the Republic forever.
These are deeply famous events; the story of Julius Caesar and Octavian and Pompey Magnus are part of our collective consciousness since at least Shakespeare. But lost in all of that is the moment in 68 BC when political opportunism unraveled the laws which protected the Roman Republic from the dictatorial ambitions of men.
We have a clear parallel in our nation’s history. After the resignation of President Nixon, and the exposure of the vast array of abuses of executive power that took place under his administration, there were numerous laws that were passed to attempt to make certain that no such abuses could again take place in our Republic. Some of those reforms have once again come to the forefront of the nation’s attention, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Other aspects of the work of the Church Committee and other Congressional organs which laboured to prevent the abuses of the Nixon era from being repeatable have been less noticed.
As we all know, those efforts have been targeted by the Bush administration. They have explicitly and openly declared their intention to restore executive power to the place it held before the reforms that took place after Nixon, and have in fact attempted to even exceed his use of authority. They have done so just as Pompey and Caesar sought the powers taken and then repudiated by Sulla. And just as Rome under those men, the threat is not to our nation, but to our Republic, and the injury can be permanent if we do not treat it rapidly.
One thing leads to another; and once set going, the downward course proceeds with ever-increasing velocity. There is the case of the ballot: what a blow was inflicted first by the lex Gabinia, and two years afterwards by the lex Cassia! I seem already to see the people estranged from the Senate, and the most important affairs at the mercy of the multitude. For you may be sure that more people will learn how to set such things in motion than how to stop them.
-Cicero, On Friendship
The famed orator and lawyer Cicero knew a great deal of what he was speaking; he lived to see and abet the rise to power of Pompey, to participate in the Senate’s rebellion against Caesar, and to be killed at last by Mark Antony before the ascendance of Octavian to his role as the emperor Augustus. But what he says here cannot be more true: there will always be more people who see the examples of tyrants and despots and who seek the lessons of how to achieve such powers for themselves than those who will see such actions and endeavor to find ways to stymie and defeat them. That is why this ground, this essential right of the freedom of our persons under the habeas corpus, must be held. It falls upon us to demonstrate not only to those who wish to rule with impunity now, but those who would rule our children and our children’s children that this downward course can and will be stopped in its tracks by the power of the American citizen.
After the passage of the Lex Gabinia, it took Pompey less than three months to decisively defeat the pirate menace that led to the granting unto him of nearly unfettered powers, leading many Romans to question whether the threat had truly been so grave if it was surmounted with such rapidity and ease. Sadly, we cannot hope in the present that our would-be rulers should be nearly so competent at executing the tasks from which they derived their rationale for the expansion of their authority. But less than twenty years after the Lex Gabinia, Julius Caesar led his legion across the Rubicon and the Republic died.
The Republic died, but the Roman Empire lived on for another five hundred years. And that is the peril we too face today. Not the end of America, but the end of our Republic, the legacies of Washington and Jefferson like those of Cicero and Cato to be replaced with those of leaders such as Caligula, Nero, and Titus. Unless we do something about it, and do not simply idle as the Lex Gabinia of our Republic rises up to consume it.