By this point analogies between the American republic and ancient Rome are cliched beyond measure, and usually far from justified. Americans of any means and demographic, however disadvantaged, enjoy a level of simultaneous liberty and opportunity that the average citizens of Rome at its peak would have considered utopian, and most of the dire threats to freedom appropriately condemned in this day and age were the status quo in the Roman world throughout its history. However, there is one parallel, stemming from the deepest roots of both republics, suggesting a very real systemic problem with long-term repercussions: Private financing of enormously powerful public functions.
In the Roman Republic (6th - 1st centuries BC), the military was not a standing army funded and regulated by political authority: It consisted of troops organized, financed, equipped, and commanded by wealthy property owners, who could legally do whatever they wished with their legions within the bounds of senatorial authorization. To command a legion was to be Imperator (dictator) over its soldiers and the territories they conquered - a designation that has given us conceptually related words like "imperative," "imperious," "imperial," "empire," and "emperor."
Once unleashed by the Senate on an enemy nation, a legion was virtually an independent totalitarian state in motion. The soldiers had no rights, and the generals no limits on their arbitrary will but what was expedient to maintain morale and unity among subordinates - and even that small restraint was nonexistent in their treatment of conquered peoples. But there were cultural, religious, and patriotic motives that kept the generals of the early and middle republic in check: First, war, though frequent enough, was not perpetual, so the opportunities for aggrandizement were limited to the emergence of real external threats.
Second, the aristocratic Romans were still very much culturally agrarian, and far more concerned with defending their property and gaining social status among their countrymen than imposing their will on society. Third (and this becomes very significant in the later republic), their private wealth was still small enough relative to the general condition of society that they were less inclined to confuse public and private interests. And both as a result and a reinforcing cause of these factors, powerful Romans sincerely believed their city and its laws to be sacred, and its political sanctity protected by the threat of divine vengeance against military treason.
But with each new external threat, the extent of territory and wealth under the direct control of military governors expanded. The distances involved made it necessary that a general could arbitrarily extend his conquests as he saw fit without additional permission from the Senate, since it might take weeks for an inquiry and response to make the round-trip between the camp and Rome. It came to be that Rome was a vulnerable, virtually undefended city surrounded by the giant, looming hulks of its own creation - legions with their own insular cultures, their own rulers, and a badly diminished sense of accountability to the Senate due to long years of operational isolation.
What had originally been citizen-soldiers who defended their country and then returned home became professionals - members of a special class who lived most of their lives in the camp, knew only the politics of obedience and subtle treachery, and experienced economics primarily as pillage in proportion to rank: They learned nothing other than how to make other people obey them, and how to clandestinely sabotage leaders they disliked without ever engaging in the open discourses of democracy. Every legion was a seedling of the dictatorship and monarchy that Rome would become.
As a result of this growing insularity, only one necessity guided the decisions of a Roman general: Providing enough action and spoils to keep his troops occupied and obedient - otherwise, the general himself would have to pay them out of his own holdings to avoid mass-desertion and political ruin. In this fact we see the worst of both worlds: Both freedom and accountability were absent - generals could do whatever they wanted as long as they paid their troops enough, and the troops could be unboundedly greedy as long as they were obedient to their masters.
Sooner or later it was inevitable that Rome would simply become another object of conquest by its erstwhile "defenders," because in reality all that balanced the ambition of one general was the ambition of the others: They refrained from invading Rome only because it would give rivals an excuse to destroy them and take their wealth and territories, all with the imprimatur of law and the appearance of patriotism.
The private wealth and power of the generals was so vast, and their personal experience of impunity so routine, that the republic was nothing more than a convenient pretext to be used or discarded whenever they pleased, and there wasn't much the Senate could do but appeal to other generals to rescue them. Hence the Civil War (49-45 BC) between Caesar and Pompey Magnus - two rich, powerful military leaders whose factions were determined more by the incidental details of their political fortunes than by any particular concern for or antipathy toward the Senate.
Rome, in other words, became merely a chessboard upon which rival dictators contended, and the "republic" as it once existed was little more than the venal mob who demanded only entertainment, and actually seemed to enjoy watching wealthy political figures murder each other for power. The obvious consequence was that the domains of an Imperator eventually covered Rome itself, with the obedience of the people being easily bought, and came to include all of its territories. We typically call this the beginning of the Roman Empire, even though historians make finer distinctions (e.g., the Principate beginning with Augustus), and even though Rome had possessed an empire long before itself becoming a possession of one.
Due to the inherently martial nature of Empire, every ruler who expected to win and keep power (and by the 3rd century, even to live more than a few months on the throne) needed to buy the approval of the military with increasing pay and prerogatives. A crass, bloodthirsty, lunatic tyrant might remain on the throne for over a decade if he kept the men-at-arms happy, but an "enlightened dictator" who was immensely popular with everyone but the military might be dead within a year of becoming emperor. Even the emperors most acclaimed by history for their governance (i.e., the Five Good Emperors) were merely able to balance the rapacious greed of their armed forces without making any substantial inroads against them.
So it was that a relatively innocuous detail of military organization from the deepest roots of Roman society condemned its later history to centuries of savagery, misery, and oppression. What they could have done differently to achieve a better outcome is a matter of academic debate, and beyond the scope of this discussion, but we can say that the ultimate lesson lies in not permitting the substance of public power to exist in private hands.
By the later period of the republic, the Roman legions, although legally bound to the authority of the Senate, were operationally and economically independent of the Roman state - in other words, sovereign in all but name. Cicero and his colleagues could rail and speechify against tyranny, but their resolutions could do nothing to directly impede the tyrant from crossing the Rubicon - had Caesar been the one to coin the phrase "I am the state," he would have been justified in saying so long before entering the city in arms. Every Roman general was a king with loyal followers, a territory, and an essentially independent revenue, and the best to be done against them was to beg for help from another one just like them.
Now, what is the parallel with the modern United States? Despite the common rhetoric of the left, I see almost no possibility of history directly repeating itself with respect to military dictatorship - it might happen in the distant future in brief interludes, but there is no operational basis for such a thing becoming the status quo: The US military command is far more complicated and transient, it has no independent economic resources, its impunity is limited even in active combat zones, and the financial compensations of military life are largely limited to top officers and are generally indirect (i.e., being hired by contractors after retirement). While this changed for a while in the afterglow of the Allied victory in WW2, ambitious people in today's America generally do not join the military.
So we must ask the question, what position do people seek in this country who want unbounded wealth, disproportionate political power, and virtual immunity from the rule of law? The answer is portentous: Corporate executive. The largest corporations transcend national boundaries, wield vast and virtually independent economic resources, interfere in elections and the legislative process with unfettered arrogance, expect (if not encourage) less than zero ethical restraint from their leadership, and reward executives with ever-escalating amounts of pillaged wealth from the economies of the world's nations. They teach their employees not how to be productive, but how to steal from consumers, conceal crimes, lie to and betray everyone around them, and become complicit in their own debasement with the hollow promise of becoming one of the elite.
As gradually as the legions became bloated, outsized instruments beyond the control of their origins, so America's corporations (and I call them American very loosely) have grown from private industry into gargantuan institutions of virtually sovereign economic power. Much as the arbitrary decisions of the provincial governor ruled the lives of far more Romans than the free assembly, so the mundane degradations of the corporate office hold greater and more immediate sway over the lives of Americans than the resolutions of our legislatures. For every right and protection of citizenship, a thousand petty business tactics are found to undermine, overwhelm, and erode it in daily life.
Americans are taught to outwardly obey and inwardly despise those above them in wealth and position, rather than working with people in a climate of mutual respect, common purpose, and assertive relationship. It would be difficult to miss how this has affected the national attitude toward government, as people of all persuasions have tended to view leaders either as objects of unreasonable, thoughtless contempt or totems of omnipotence - sometimes even both at the same time. The corporation teaches people duplicitous sycophancy in words, and selfish arrogance in actions, making them as useless as citizens as they are useful as employees and consumers.
We have always had such interests with us, but as in Rome there were initially social balances: Most Americans had no economic connection with large business interests, living on farms in rural communities and engaging in distant commerce only to purchase the occasional luxury or manufactured item - which might come from no further away than the main city of their own state, and have been produced by a small, privately-owned factory rather than a huge industrial empire.
In the 19th century, even though business interests were increasingly powerful and corrupt, average people could establish themselves independently by moving Westward and founding new communities. And in the bulk of the 20th century following the New Deal, a rigorous civil state was created through progressive taxation to inoculate the US against Stalin's intrigues and maintain a military capable of keeping Soviet ambitions in check - this much kept corporate power largely subordinate. But then the Cold War ended, and all that appeared to remain for Americans to do was retreat into self-satisfied private life, seek only pleasure and entertainment, and pay no attention as corporations took over our lives.
A Roman legion ultimately served only the greed of its soldiers and the ambition of its generals, and it seems increasingly clear the same relationship may hold for corporate investors and executives: Economic and political apparatus larger than the economies of most nations are erected for the sole purpose of generating money for private interests, smashing every obstacle of morality, ethics, law, or even reality (witness the mortgage bubble) that gets in its way.
The investor and the executive play the respective roles of the legionary and Imperator - the one pledging his resources for the chance of loot, even if ill-gotten or fictitious (they reason that they're smart enough to get out before other investors), and the other advancing in both wealth and power regardless of how the cannon fodder fare (e.g., multimillion-dollar bonuses going to CEOs who leave companies in ruins).
But these new legions are not destroying America by force of arms - they don't rape and pillage the American people directly, but by sucking the oxygen out of the economy: Industries are consolidated until people have no choice but to work for them, and protect their interests as their own. They grow like weeds into the foundations of communities, states, and entire nations until they are "too big to fail," and yet they have had so much time to insinuate themselves into government that there is virtually no question of public support coming with serious strings attached. They are regulated, if at all, by people they put in office, whose continued political fortunes depend on them, and against whom the corporate interest could hold jobs hostage: Regulate us, they say, and we will lay people off and blame you.
Perhaps the worst, most pernicious example of a corporate legion would be the financial industry: A system that long ago transcended the limits of economic complexity into a plain instrument of fraud. This industry no longer exists to provide money to the economy, but to steal money from it, and the individuals whose interests are most closely aligned with it tend to be the most arrogant (and successful) intruders into the people's business. They create nothing, and yet they hold implicit power over the ability of others to create - toll-takers on the path between the latent resources of the economy and those who would employ them to productive ends.
As were the legions, the banks are utterly indispensable, extraordinarily difficult to restrain from power-grabs, and virtually impossible to return to a previous state of legal accountability once they've successfully escaped it. In fact, their almost peremptory control over American politics make the financial sector analogous to a very particular branch of the Roman armed forces, although it didn't come into being until Augustus - the Praetorian Guard. Originally implemented as the bodyguards of the Emperor, they slowly evolved into institutionalized hostage-takers who regularly held the entire Empire for ransom unless they received ever-increasing amounts of money and prerogatives. It wasn't merely that they would kill an Emperor who went against them - they would kill an Emperor who merely failed to be as generous as someone else might be.
Eventually it came to pass that Emperors were, in effect, directly chosen by the Praetorian Guard and subject to their "dismissal" at any time. This sounds like a check on imperial power, but in reality it was worse than none: All it assured was that a gang of murdering parasites would be fed in perpetuity on the backs of the Roman people, and any restraint that a secure ruler might have exercised would be sacrificed to his own fear of the Praetorians. It was the worst of despotism and mob-rule combined in one endless cascade of horror, and though our current conditions are much less bloody, the operating principles are the same: Wall Street is basically ruled by an irrational, greedy mob who in turn rules Washington without respect to the national interest or humanity.
American politics is unlikely to become as Wagnerian as the Crisis of the Third Century any time soon, but it can't be denied that the financial industry wields more than enough power to effectively dictate the outcome of elections under most circumstances. Even our best and most effective leaders are forced to tread carefully around them: Regardless of what donations could be gathered by a wildly popular candidate, the financial industry could effectively print its own money to slander and sabotage them through thousands of simultaneously-coordinated print, radio, TV, and internet Hydra-heads, and even the most dedicated volunteer force might find it difficult to combat such a machine. In other words, we find a troubling precedent that America's leaders need the permission of these parasites to govern, and are unable to do so if they attempt to deviate from their interests too greatly.
There is one particularly infamous anecdote of Roman history that seems apropos: Following the murder of Emperor Pertinax by the Praetorians - he had tried to hold them mildly accountable, so they hacked him to pieces - the Praetorians held an auction for the Imperial throne. I'm not kidding: The largest empire the world had ever seen, totally encompassing the Mediterranean, stretching from Northern England to Mesopotamia, from modern-day Morocco to Armenia, was sold to the highest bidder by a few thousand thugs in a walled compound of one city. Granted, the idiot who was dumb enough to buy the throne (Didius Julianus) was soon killed by an ambitious military leader, but it illustrates the fact that these people were acting entirely from personal interest, and didn't care the slightest about their country: They were already behaving as feudal lords long before Rome fell.
As egregious as we think today's corporate interference in politics is, might there come a day when something as blatant as the Praetorian auction occurs, openly selling our high offices? Perhaps not - even the degenerate Romans of the time were shocked and appalled by having their fiction of sovereignty blatantly exposed as a fraud, and the military leader (Septimius Severus, founder of the Severan dynasty) who killed the buyer was happy to exploit that outrage to affirm his own claim to power. But then again, just because it would be disadvantageous to sacrifice the useful shroud of legitimacy doesn't mean such people won't do it - arrogance is the mother of many mistakes.
Still, It would seem there are advantages for civil society in a contest with corporations: Nobody is loyal to a corporation like soldiers were loyal to legions and commanders. But then again, it wasn't so much the loyalty of the soldiers to their comrades that ended the Roman Republic as the lack of loyalty among the degenerate, self-interested citizens opposing them - people who could all too easily be bought, who fled from danger, and who were eventually content with their private prosperity under a tyrant. So it isn't really the power of corporations that threatens us so much as the weakness of the citizenry - our general failure to serve as examples of what we wish to see in others; our preference for tactical argumentation over substantive discussion; the resources we waste on entertainment that could be devoted to the public good; and so on, and so on.
When I look at shining, state-of-the-art football stadiums surrounded by a sea of trailer parks and crumbling schools, it's difficult not to yield to the temptation of analogies to Rome, but it's just as important to understand that we have something they didn't: We can choose to want the same for others that we want for ourselves, and know from experience that it is not only possible, but brings out the best in a society. The Romans, inheritors of the ancient warrior ethic and the fatalism of their ancestors, had no basis to make such a choice - to them, doing your best meant conquering others, proving your worth by crushing them.
We know that this is not only a false dilemma, but a trap, and that the freest person is the one who lives surrounded by other free people - the richest, the one who cultivates prosperity in others. Kings and dictators are prisoners in their own private hell; aristocrats in a servile society are surrounded by servants who despise them, peers inwardly hateful and envious of them, and superiors who treat them with open contempt; but a free citizen can have just as much money, be at infinitely greater liberty to use it, and relate to other people on the only level that ever really matters - as human beings.
Of all the systemic causes of the Roman collapse, I think the most important is a philosophical one: They didn't know they had a choice. They believed in the blind hand of fate, and resigning themselves to the horror that followed, pursued the basest motives as if mandated to do so by some divine obligation. But there is no such mandate, and never was - there's just people making decisions, and the consequences that flow from them. Live as a free person, and you are free - it doesn't matter how other people respond to your freedom. Create, and you are prosperous - it doesn't matter how much money you get from it. The legions of degenerate Rome could no more have vanquished a free Roman republic than corporations could destroy free America - they can only move into a vacuum. And so long as you are there, choosing something better, there is no vacuum - America lives.