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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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Comment Preferences

    •  A very interesting essay. Thanks. (9+ / 0-)

      What I take from this is that republics should be little things. Once they become too big (empires) they become mostly ungovernable by democratic means.

      -8.38, -7.74 My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world. - Jack Layton

      by Wreck Smurfy on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:20:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That is, of course, exactly part of the (7+ / 0-)

        debate between the Antifederalists and the Federalists.  It's interesting to think how right the AFs were about the dangers in centralized power.

        •  But they identified the wrong danger (5+ / 0-)

          Having a reasonably strong central government is not the danger. Having a poorly designed central government that is harmed by the whim the rich is.

          The GOP is the party of mammon. They mock what Jesus taught.

          by freelunch on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:06:53 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Except that they argued that there was no such (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            thing as a reasonably strong central government.  Instead, they argued, such a central government would inevitably become one that was overly powerful and harmed by the whim of the rich.  Hence the lesson of Rome.

            •  Rome preceded industrialism and bureaucracy (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              Ernest Gellner wrote Nations and Nationalism which describes nationalism as the inevitable ideology of industrialization. Nationalism requires a strong central government to create the large markets that permit industrialism. But they can only exist with the institutional structure of bureaucracy.

              Bureaucracy diffuses the power of government down so that it can be controlled centrally, but that very process of diffusion also limits the power of the leaders of any central government. This, I think, it the problem China is running into right now. The leaders of the central government have to give up much of their power to obtain the benefits of industrialism. Keep in mind that large nations did not actually exist before large professional armies came into existence, and that required bureaucratic government to collect the taxes that supported the large professional military forces. Rome did not have those benefits. Everything was done small, on human scales.

              Bureaucracy forces the expansion of democracy. That's because departments and specialization cannot be totally centrally controlled. Industrialism (including the so-called power-industrialism) is built on that bureaucratic structure because it depends on microspecialization to create greater productivity. So industrialization and democracy of necessity go hand-in-hand.

              Francis Fukuyama published a very interesting book last year entitled The Origins of Political Order in which he states that the successful industrial nations will be those with strong central governments. I'm pretty sure he's right, and if the conservatives in America win they will prevent the central government from being strong. Other nations will be surpassing America in that case. But the existence of bureaucratic structures is new to modern nations. Great Britain showed how democracy, central government and industrialism grow up together. Look at the last 250 years of Parliament, the removal of power from the House of Lords and from the King, and the growth of British democracy. Those things all happened together.

              The problem is not centralized government. It is power wielded by a single individual or a small group that is dangerous, and in modern times no such group is capable of adequately running a large nation. Again, look at China. It's central power is being diffused away from the small group of top leaders who have run it since the Maoist takeover.

              The US Supreme Court has by its actions and rhetoric has ceased to be legitimate. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - over

              by Rick B on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 08:59:42 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

            •  The Roman Emperors went overboard on privatizing (0+ / 0-)

              state functions. They put most tax collection in the hands of for-profit tax farmers (publicani). This encouraged massive corruption and diverted state revenues into private hands.

  •  Romans - kept the mob distracted with (17+ / 0-)

    'Bread and circuses'. Today the mob is distracted with cheap fast food and big screen TVs. The best tactics are usually the old, proven ones.


    (romney)/RYAN 2012 - But what is Truth? Is Truth unchanging law? We BOTH have TRUTHS.... are mine the same as yours?

    by Fordmandalay on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:11:21 PM PDT

  •  The History of Rome podcast (13+ / 0-)

    You can find it on iTunes and it's free.  It's 74 hours in total and it's pretty awesome.  There are tons of parallels between Rome and the modern day.

    Can't we just drown Grover Norquist in a bathtub?

    by Rezkalla on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:13:32 PM PDT

  •  "We're in the middle of a battle between haves and (20+ / 0-)

    have-nots that was interrupted by WWII and the Cold War. We (liberals) thought it was over; it's just half time."

    /A friend's wise words a couple of weeks back ...

    When one puts a larger historic arc on what's going on right now, the importance of the current moment seems much more significant. IMHO, this stuff we're living through now isn't going to really hit a crescendo until the next GOPer presidency. There is a serious minority of people in this country that are not going to let go of their f#cked-up worldview, and they aren't going to let it go until the whole thing comes to a head.

    For the sake of the country, I would hope that that moment is a function of politics and not violence.

    •  You're more optimistic than I am. (5+ / 0-)

      I'm not convinced they're ever going to let it go.  They (or their ilk) may lie low, but that's different.

    •  A little appreciate difference between .. (11+ / 0-)

      ... the politics of the 1960's and the politics of the 1980's is the total flip in partisan backing of Big Oil. At one time, the oil millionaire ideologues like the Senior Mr. Koch were on one side of politics, and Big Oil backed the Democratic Party.

      And the reason comes down to simple self-interest. Oil prices were regulated by quotas in Texas. and so the path to more profit was rapid enough economic growth that the oil quotas were increased.

      But in 1968, we hit our domestic peak oil, in 1970, the Texas Rail Commission raised the quotas to 100%, and then in 1973 we all discovered that the pricing power for oil had passed outside of our borders.

      That broke the connection between full employment and oil company profits, and with it the political muscle that at one time was deployed in pursuit of full employment by the national Democratic party.

      ~ And here I am in Ravenna, but I see no Rubicon in sight ~ just the skinny headwaters of the Cuyahoga ~

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:49:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  It's already turned to violence. (4+ / 0-)

      We've had two terrorist shootings in the last couple weeks: One from the right wing against those who were allowed into the country by leftist policies and one that appears to be from the left against the promoters of the right wing agenda.

      It may get worse before it gets better.

      -We need Healthcare Reform... but i'm selfish, I Need Healthcare reform-

      by JPax on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:57:29 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Interrupted By the New Deal Thru Cold War. (10+ / 0-)

      Even though the ND didn't end the Depression, its regulations did give us stable growth for the only 50 year period free of the panics and depressions that our system produced for the entire rest of our history.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:58:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I think the crescendo was under Bush (8+ / 0-)

      The basic plan of the corporatists is a transfer of sovereignty from the republic, controlled by the people, to the oligarchs.  That was substantially achieved under the last Bush administration.

      Their rhetoric is makes it transparent that they view "the government" as something to be exploited or something to be attacked and destroyed.  

      The drug company's purchase of sovereignty is a good example of exploitation.  After they succeeded in creating mulit-billion dollar monopolies, they increased their prices so high that people could no longer afford their drugs.

      As a doctor-in-training in the early years of Bush, I had a great plan for a small government, free market solution to drug prices: ending monopolies and encouraging competition with imported drugs.  If the Republicans were small 'c' conservative, that's the plan they would have followed.  

      Instead, because all they care about is corporate sovereignty, they created a whole new entitlement program which feeds rich corporate monopolies with hundreds of billions of dollars of tax money every year.

      Any power that the government has that does not feed the monopolies is viewed by the corporatists as dictatorial.  

      I have decided that it is not the fault of the corporations that they are destroying our republic.  Corporations do not have the capacity to make decisions in the interest of the  public good, or to limit their monopolistic growth, and it is not fair that we expect that of them.

      It is the fault of corporatists politicians who are so eager to sell their souls to the rich.  And I include in that evil group the corporatist Democrats who sell out their country under the guise of being moderates, people like Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson and Max Baucus.  

      I concluded watching the health care debate in 2009, that too much power had been given away already by the corporatists over the past 10 years for our 'free' government to work on behalf of the people.  That time has passed.  I don't know how this will work itself out, but I don't have faith in the people to understand this.  What's the matter with Kansas?  No, the question is What's the matter with America?

      By the way, I have been reading Greek and Latin from high school, through graduate school, with a master's degree in classical languages, and I came to age politically instinctively making these parallels with the ancient world.  I say nice work to the diary author.

      •  trivia or not so trivia (4+ / 0-)

        What prominent American wrote this:

        We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end, but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and makes me tremble for the safety of my country.  As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working on the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.  I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war.  God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.
      •  "What's the matter with America?" (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Winston Sm1th

        The most sophisticated and comprehensive propaganda apparatus in all history. We call it "The Media." Every candidate for office gets vetted by Corporations first, those approved getting enough cash to pay the advertising fees set by... interlocked Corporations.

        Then, what is treated as meaningful, whether it is treated as good or bad, is decided by a corporate class which holds the same priorities and values in common. Plus, what isn't allowed to ever appear in public.

        Until the centralized mass-reach media gets broken up, we're stuck in a deteriorating situation, and there's no way to turn that around otherwise.

        The Internet is just the tail of the Corporate Media dog.

        by Jim P on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 08:32:45 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  No, we are in the conservative counterrevolution (0+ / 0-)

      The diffuse power centers around the nation are fighting back against the central controls that were being place on them by the federal government. The centralizing of power has always happened to nations at at war or threatened by war. The conservative powers of America began to rise as the Cold War ran down and really ran loose when the USSR collapsed and all credible dangerous outside power disappeared.

      A conservative win will destroy America's industrial effectiveness and permit other nations to out-compete America. That will last until any conservative power is removed. The conservatives want America to return to a class-based stable society which is based on a mostly agricultural and extraction (oil, coal, gas, etc.) economy. That's why the banks (one of the local power centers which lost power to the central government) have been so busy exporting industrial jobs tot he rest oft the world.

      The conservative counterrevolution cannot last more than another decade, two decades tops.

      An urban industrialized world cannot closely resemble the rural Roman Empire.

      The US Supreme Court has by its actions and rhetoric has ceased to be legitimate. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - over

      by Rick B on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 09:12:06 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  But is that too long? (0+ / 0-)
        The conservative counterrevolution cannot last more than another decade, two decades tops.
        But can the country outlast the conservative counterrrevolution?  That remains to be seen.

        See the children of the earth who wake to find the table bare, See the gentry in the country riding out to take the air. ~~Gordon Lightfoot, "Don Quixote"

        by Panama Pete on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 07:15:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  When you talk about parallels between (8+ / 0-)

    us and Rome, I can't help but to think of the "games" in the Coliseum and the state of our current media/ consumerism/ celebrity worship system.

    Great writing. Well done.

    I am reading Hedges' Empire of Illusion right now, which is why this leapt so quickly to mind. He really nails it.

    Vote Democrat! Because drinking piss is better than eating shit...

    by Tirge Caps on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:20:55 PM PDT

  •  irony =romans and greeks painted their statues (10+ / 0-)

    we admire their statues in their unpainted marble state

    The US and Europe have built many statues in neo-classical style

    yet the greeks and romans painted their statues

    Also the egyptians.  Heck the pyramids were covered in limestone and then painted

    If we saw the originals in their original states our modern eyes would be shocked and scandalized at how tacky they looked

  •  Your point about the passage of time is useful. (7+ / 0-)

    In the current mental environment, we think that if some prediction or idea has not "come true" within three months, it means that it is not valid, and the ideas that led to it are not valid.

    This goes on over and over, month after month, as recent history disappears over the receding horizon.  Difficult to think seriously in this environment.

    •  Present time and the long view of history are (6+ / 0-)

      often separated by poor memory, ignorance and compressing historical events.  Setting up unrealistic expectations of progress and individual power in a very big body of water infested with sharks.

      My very favorite UU minister, Art Curtis, had been a history professor for decades - from Kentucky to Beirut -when he made the midlife change. His sermons always included historical comparisons, that inevitably highlighted how much worse life was centuries and more ago, with little change in the nature of humanity.

      This is something of a reach for me.

      During those periods, Roman society was buffeted by as many events and as much change as American society over the same span of time.
      Not knowing for sure what a lot of the changes in Rome were, my belief has been that the WWI/WWII generations will probably never be equaled in terms of how much change occurred in their lifespans.

      I have thought the speed of those changes and the amazing technology that has been developed, contributed to the sense that we could speed up the process of change exponentially.

      Now we are faced with a reality no previous era of humanity has ever known: the climate disaster we have brought on ourselves.

      The repetition and rhyme are still with us, the perspective seems quite different exponentially,

      This has defeated me. SPQA?

      SPQA    Senate Productivity and Quality Award
      SPQA    Swiss Pharma Quality Association
      SPQA    Senatus Populusque Amstelodamensis (Latin: Council and People of Amsterdam; Dutch monument)
      SPQA    Supplied Product Quality Assurance
      SPQA    Swiss Pharma Quality Association
      Is there a poll for that?

      "People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone. " Audrey Hepburn "A Beautiful Woman"

      by Ginny in CO on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:25:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's an allusion (7+ / 0-)

        to SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus. The "A" would stand for Americanus. Just a guess.

        •  Actually (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ginny in CO, McMeier, Geenius at Wrok

          I'm guessing America would be a feminine noun of the first declension (based on the -a ending), so SPQA would expand to Senatus Populusque Americae.

          I'm not familiar with how the Neo-Latin declension of "America".

          •  Isn't it (0+ / 0-)

            an adjective, in which case the gender would agree with Populus? I really don't know. Never studied Latin, though I've meant to take a basic course for years now. Maybe this will provide the impetus (see what I did there?) to do so.

            •  It could be either (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              If SPQA is "Senate and People of America", then it would be Americae -- assuming it is a first declension noun. If it is "American Senate and People" -- "A" modifying both Senatus and Populus -- then it gets a little more complicated. IIRC, both Senatus & Populus are masculine nouns, so it would be either Americe or Americes, depending on which declension the adjectival form belongs to (1st/2nd or 3rd declension, respectively, according to this helpful table).

              Sadly, it is getting difficult even on the college level to find classes in Latin nowdays. :-(

            •  Yes, if it's an adjective, it has to agree (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              in gender with the noun.

              But I always thought R was Romanorum, which would be a noun (plural genitive) for Roman (meaning someone from Rome). Genitive is basically the same as what we call possessive in English. So:

              Senatus Populusque Romanorum = Senate and People of the Romans. = The Romans' Senate and People.

              If you treat "Roman" as an adjective, then

              Senatus Populusque Romanus = Roman Senate and (Roman) People.

              And if you want to make it translate as "of Rome" then I think you'd use:

              Senatus Populusque Romae = Senate and People of Rome (meaning the city/empire) = Rome's Senate and People. Romae is also how you spell the locative case, so it could mean "located in Rome."

              But the angle said to them, "Do not be Alfred. A sailor has been born to you"

              by Dbug on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 09:14:04 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Great explanation! (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                I do love everything related to grammar. I'm definitely inspired to learn more now.

                •  Here's a few more tidbits from Latin (0+ / 0-)

                  Adding the suffix -que means "also" or "and." So "Populus" means people. But "Populusque" means "and people" or "people, also."

                  In the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, buildings and monuments got labeled SPQR, which is an abbreviation. The modern equivalent for us here is either "U.S." or "U.S. Govt."  Like walking into a building that says "U.S. Post Office" tells you that it's something built by the government.

                  But the angle said to them, "Do not be Alfred. A sailor has been born to you"

                  by Dbug on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 09:18:34 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

      •  Play on SPQR (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        McMeier, Ginny in CO

        SPQR is the initials of the "motto" of Rome and was seen everywhere. It stood for "the Senate and the People of Rome"

        But R was changed to A.....

  •  Disheartening. (4+ / 0-)

    And our gigantic military with so much hardware to play with. Interesting times, I'm afraid.

  •  Another remarkable historical statement (10+ / 0-)

    on the front page, on the heels of the one earlier about Iran, but offering an entirely different answer to the question, "Why should we care about history?"

    Who said Americans were ignorant? :)

    I'm a fool for meta--I confess. That's why I love historical diaries.

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:25:28 PM PDT

  •  We'll see if the recent spate of shootings is a (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rat racer, karmsy, JPax, Only Needs a Beat

    trend or not. If people increasingly start shooting each other over politics, we're in trouble.

    •  Once is a tragedy (5+ / 0-)

      Twice is a coincidence.

      Thrice is a pattern.

      And whatever the reason for these public shootings, we're in trouble.

      Wish I had an answer, but the sole path to less gun shootings is, well, less guns - but that brings out the RKBA contingent, bent on ignoring the first half of the 2nd Amendment just as the last two SCOTUS courts have.


      * * *
      I like paying taxes...with them, I buy Civilization
      -- SCOTUS Justice O.W. Holmes Jr.
      * * *
      "A Better World is Possible"
      -- #Occupy

      by Angie in WA State on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:22:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  the issue of reproducing republican empire (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Only Needs a Beat

    is less a matter of parallels than the reproduction and revival of classical structures with their inevitable cultural transformations including mimesis and where the robustness of scale comes with a proportional level of dominance: For example, to argue for the Roman foundations of Anglo-American law is to also understand  the transformation of the concept of citizenship and rights that would make Citizen's United  rationalizable in interpreting the absolute nature of Roman law more important to the American Republicanism of the 19th Century, and  its critique of Gibbon's notion of fall and decline. "The mere notion of empire continuing to decline and fall for five centuries is ridiculous...this is one of the cases which prove that History is made not so much by heroes or natural forces as by historians." The interpretive Rubicon got passed during the moments of cultural reproduction across an empire still based on material resources and colonized labor that was the basis for the American war of liberation from Britain. The Iraq war allowed political Neocons and economic Neoliberlism  to move beyond the Tigris and the Rubicon and to make the notion of a republic not fragile but anacchroistic .

    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.

    Don't roof rack me bro', Now the brown's comin' down; Präsidentenelf-maßschach; "Nous sommes un groupuscule" (-9.50; -7.03) "Ensanguining the skies...Falls the remorseful day".政治委员, 政委‽ Warning - some snark above ‽

    by annieli on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:38:31 PM PDT

  •  In Imperial Rome (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annieli, Only Needs a Beat

    The Praetorian Guard was drawn from the middle class and was a check on the power of the Senate and Emperor. We are still at the mercy of the Roman mob for good reason.

    •  Huh? This is all wrong. Praetorians guarded the (0+ / 0-)

      Emperor, the Senate was a lapdog. The real threat came from the Legions. The Legions always beat the Praetorians in battle.
       What Roman mob? The mobs I remember were the gangs which followed various politicians during the Republic.

  •  I think it will be a miracle if our republic lasts (6+ / 0-)

    for 500 years.   I don't even give it 300.

    Actually the only way it gets to 500 is with such a significant rewrite of the Constitution that it's probably no longer the 'same' republic.  And that is best case, without some major discontinuity like a little (or not so little) episode of dictatorship.

    But the Second American Republic could end up being a lot more functional than the First.   Look at the French: it took them four republics...

  •  Thanks for the great diary, (5+ / 0-)

    but let's also remember that the Roman republic was only a republic for some--which is another parallel to the American republic.

  •  Excellent (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Only Needs a Beat

    Thank You!

    "Three things cannot be long hidden: The Sun, The Moon, and The Truth." Buddha

    by Grandson named me Papa on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:50:46 PM PDT

  •  What a fantastic essay! (5+ / 0-)

    Thoroughly enjoyed this, Mark. I've often thought of the parallel between the Roman republic and our own republic, with the British in the role of the ancient Greeks:  we use their language, their legal tradition, and so forth.

    I hope we don't lose our republic, but if the other side wins the coming election...we're doomed.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 05:52:25 PM PDT

    •  What I find interesting (0+ / 0-)

      is the the other side says the same thing.

      I hope we don't lose our republic, but if the other side wins the coming election...we're doomed.
      They (teapublicans) honestly believe and have believed since President Obama was elected to office that the demise of America was set in motion.

      Hard to put much credence in what they believe when their base is convinced the president is from Kenya and the birth certificate is a fake.

      As I have pointed out to those on the other side...we (liberals) may not be right about everything, but for hells sake, it helps if one is grounded in reality before making predictions about the demise of America.

      It falls on deaf ears and blank stares.

      "We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." Louis Brandeis

      by wxorknot on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 03:12:58 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Headline Today: Local Poll Finds 2/3 Believe We (4+ / 0-)

    can not discuss important issues with civility.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:01:28 PM PDT

  •  I took Latin for three years. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Only Needs a Beat

    He marked me down to a D every week. He and I knew that we both got a big benefit.

    I lived in Germany even longer. My English is better than average and many smart Germans wanted to take advantage of an occupation soldat.

  •  Thank you for a brilliant essay, (7+ / 0-)

    and a vivid retelling of some very pertinent history. Particularly poignant for me was this:

    They misplaced their republic, and most of them didn't realize it was missing until half a century after it was gone.
  •  I think that one lesson from both Athens and Rome (6+ / 0-)

    is that the middle class is the driver of greatness.

    Athens started on its remarkable run when Peisistratos reformed the government and broke the power of the aristocracy.

    Rome flourished as long as they were able to keep the aristocracy under control. It is sometimes hard to tell what was going on because history was written almost entirely by the aristocrats. But the more successful emperors were good at playing the factions off against each other.

    •  middle-class in Antiquity? do you have a cite? (0+ / 0-)
      Athens started on its remarkable run when Peisistratos reformed the government and broke the power of the aristocracy.

      Rome flourished as long as they were able to keep the aristocracy under control. It is sometimes hard to tell what was going on because history was written almost entirely by the aristocrats. But the more successful emperors were good at playing the factions off against each other.

      Don't roof rack me bro', Now the brown's comin' down; Präsidentenelf-maßschach; "Nous sommes un groupuscule" (-9.50; -7.03) "Ensanguining the skies...Falls the remorseful day".政治委员, 政委‽ Warning - some snark above ‽

      by annieli on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:15:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  By "middle class" I meant the group between (2+ / 0-)

        the aristocracy and the slaves. In Athens I think the citizens represented maybe half the men. These were people who had reasonable livings but weren't rich- Socrates for example. They were merchants, farmers who owned their own property, artisans, and so on. The aristocracy was much richer and based their wealth on inherited land and rent farming.  The laborers and slaves were at the bottom. In Rome most of the plebians were the same class as the average Athenian citizen.

        I don't have a citation, but this is standard stuff.  Read about the reformation of the Athenian democracy or the Social Wars and it is clear that they thought this is what they were fighting about.

        •  more "class" in the middle than middle-class /nt (0+ / 0-)

          Don't roof rack me bro', Now the brown's comin' down; Präsidentenelf-maßschach; "Nous sommes un groupuscule" (-9.50; -7.03) "Ensanguining the skies...Falls the remorseful day".政治委员, 政委‽ Warning - some snark above ‽

          by annieli on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 07:22:58 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Notice that Athenian democracy had its roots in (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Mark Sumner, Andrew F Cockburn

          siesachtheia-- Solon's nullification of debts, which halted debt enslavement and secured for polis democracy a broad social base of middling farmers, craftsmen, and small businessmen.

          The Hebrews also held to the principle of "jubilee"-- periodically cancelling debts en masse to guarantee that smallholders retained their land and freedom.

          Today crippling credit card debt, mortgage debt, health care debt, student loan debt are threatening the survival of the middle class-- and thereby endangering democracy. What America needs is a general Jubilee Year.

    •  Agreed...ergo my sig line. n/t (0+ / 0-)

      "We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." Louis Brandeis

      by wxorknot on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 03:15:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Any system will work if the people want it to. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I think that's the only conclusion that we can draw from history. People aren't electrons, so laws and political structures don't always have the effects and consequences as intended. People adapt to changes in the system. That's what's been happening. Unfortunately, at some point one group tries to prevent adaptation and that's when conflict occurs. I don't think that civil strife is the inevitable result of the structure of a republic, it's the inevitable result of any human endeavor.

    Even Christian eschatology, the one that talks about ending a reborn Roman Empire, ends with a messianic reign that only lasts about 1000 years before becoming corrupt and ending.

    -We need Healthcare Reform... but i'm selfish, I Need Healthcare reform-

    by JPax on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:09:34 PM PDT

  •  Rome's best days (0+ / 0-)

    were in fact during its Empire.  But they constituted only a brief portion of the history of Imperial Rome.  Rome had the good fortune of being ruled by a relatively competent and civic-minded emperor -- Trajan -- who appointed his successor based on that successor's competence and civic-mindedness.  This continued, through the homosexual Hadrian (so much for the empire's collapse due to homsexuality), through Marcus Aurelius, who ruined the whole scheme by having a dissolute son and passing on the reign by virtue of the kid's DNA.  

    Moral: Luck into a good dictator.  Hope for best.  AVOID DYNASTIES.

    I'm not sure there are lessons we can learn from this.

  •  Are We Rome? The Book (0+ / 0-)

    There is a recent book which does an excellent job of pointing out comparisons and differences between the USA and Rome.

    One thing that should give us hope:  We have changed more in the last 50 years than Rome did in 500 years.

    I'm as bewildered as anyone here about how we can restore the Constitution as interpreted by the Warren Court.  But I do have faith in our ability to change.

    Latin America also changes quickly, and there are plenty of cautionary tales there.

  •  I'm of the opinion that Brennus should have done (0+ / 0-)

    to Rome what Rome did to Carthage.

    He didn't go far enough with the whole Vae Victus thing.

    An Fhirinn an aghaidh an t'Saoghail. (The truth against the world.) Is treasa tuath na tighearna. (The common people are mightier than the lords.)

    by OllieGarkey on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:19:33 PM PDT

  •  Ironically it was Claudius, who claimed to be (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Hammerhand, Mark Sumner, wxorknot

    a Republican, that cemented the authority of the Emperors in the minds of the Roman people.  

    Augustus was viewed as exceptional--the type of leader who comes along once every few centuries that has the gifts necessary to rule absolutely and yet with fairness, advancing the public good.  His stepson and successor Tiberius was in many ways his antithesis, and by the end of his reign was almost universally despised by all Romans.  Tiberius's heir Caligula was short-lived, but his insane excesses while in power turned many against the rule of an emperor.

    So when the studious and ostensibly gentle Claudius was put on the throne by the Praetorians, those who advocated a return to the Republic believed they had their chance in him.  He was, after all, a scholar and historian who vocally cherished the days of the Republic.

    However, Claudius took the path of absolute authoritarianism, in no small part due to the conspiracies against him that led him to paranoia (the most famous one led by his third wife, Messalina).  But the greater damage may be that, at least for the majority of his reign, he was a supremely able and competent administrator.  While he was no Augustus, he gave Romans the idea that an Emperor could rule effectively.  So it is perhaps a bitter irony that Claudius inculcated Romans to the rule of the emperors by being good at it.

    •  That's Robert Graves' fiction. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      He even fantasized that Augustus was a Republican.
      The Republic was a mess and was not popular. The Empire was considered an improvement over the Republic.

      •  No. nothing to do with Graves. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        enemy of the people

        That's from Seutonius.

        It's also supported by the actions of the Flavian emperors, like Vespasian, who went to lengths to align themselves with Claudius as an example of capable administration that vindicated Imperial Rule.

        And I would never dispute your depiction of the late Republic versus the early Imperial age.  Rome had become an oligarchy and the Emperors were more often than not populist, that is true.

        •  Claudius had the 'common touch' and was better (0+ / 0-)

          than Tiberius, Caligula and Nero but that's not saying much.
          He's considered an undignified fool by Tacitus, he was a cuckold, married his niece, disinherited his son and married his daughter to Nero. He conquered Britain and built up Ostia.
          His administration consisted of his personal slaves Narcissus and Pallas rather than any system.
          Rome was more like 19th century classbound Britain than America. It was held up by later historians as an argument in favor of monarchy over republics. Similarly the French prefer the glory days of Napoleon versus the anarchy of the First Republic or the Directory.

  •  Rome was a classbound society. The Patrician class (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    corvo, GayHillbilly

    represented about 3000 families in a city of 1,000,000 people and an empire of 30,000,000. Only patricians could be Senators, legislation originated there, the plebians(non-elite Roman citizens)  mainly exercised power by their two tribunes who interposed vetos, though they could elect judges.
    I think the first non-patrician leader was Marius, a war hero about 100 years before the end of the real Republic with the Augustus becoming Emperor. The Senate as an institution but without real power  lasted until ~600AD.

    The Res Publica was government of aristocrats, called 'an assembly of kings'.
    Athens actually had a real democacy for a short while.

    People who hold up the Roman Republic as model don't know their history.

  •  Very nicely written and interesting piece, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    thank you.

    "Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." - John F. Kennedy

    by helpImdrowning on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:32:22 PM PDT

  •  So how worried should I be that PBS... (3+ / 0-) running con-man infomercials for a miracle diet?

    Kind of seems like a clear sign of the collapse of a formerly important institution...

    Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore

    by Minerva on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:33:28 PM PDT

  •  Excellent diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    helpImdrowning, GayHillbilly

    I really enjoyed it. Our Founders also had the British Enlightenment & a growing trust in science & reason. No shock that the right, using Christian fundamentalists, is working hard to to undermine that influence.

    "There ain't no sanity clause." Chico Marx

    by DJ Rix on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:49:26 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for this (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    A brilliant essay.

  •  Great essay - one quibble (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Stwriley, Mark Sumner

    The Canova statue of Washington (or the reproduction of it, since the original burned in the 1830s), sits in the Rotunda of the NC Capitol.

    I am reasonably sure it does not depict him as a Roman Emperor. He is depicted as a Roman General.  If it was a dictator, it would only have been the short-term 16-day savior of the Republic, Cincinnatus.

    "Man is free at the moment he wishes to be." - Voltaire

    by DrFrankLives on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 06:54:35 PM PDT

    •  I had the same quibble. (0+ / 0-)

      In fact, if you take a look at the images on the statue's pedestal, you'll find that the two images are [front] Washington accepting Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown and [back] Cincinnatus returning to his plow. That pretty much solidifies who we're supposed to identify Washington with. I think Canova threw the back one in just to make sure everyone got the references in the statue's dress and attitude (and the fact that the scroll he's holding is inscribed with the opening of his Farewell Address; by definition Washington's own moment of "returning to the farm".)

      For those unfamiliar with their Roman history, Cincinnatus was an early Republican-era (520-430 BCE) general who was given an emergency dictatorship to defeat an invasion (which he did) and afterwards refused further rule, turning power back over to the Senate and returning to his farm. He became a great ideological hero to many Revolutionary War officers, who saw themselves following in the great Roman's footsteps, with General Washington at their head.

      Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Sun Tzu The Art of War

      by Stwriley on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 07:28:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I suspect the Founder's figured the House (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mark Sumner, helpImdrowning

    would serve the function of the Roman Tribune of the People. Not foreseeing that monied interests would inevitably scheme successfully to gain the upper hand over Representatives, was a miscalculation.

    I guess they were living in an agricultural world, so Representatives by and large would be in constant contact with the population, thus guaranteeing their accountability to the people. Nor did they figure how to forestall factionalism, which many did foresee as a problem.

    Having Tribunes of the People on State and Federal levels would be the one Amendment I'd want to make to the Constitution.

    The Internet is just the tail of the Corporate Media dog.

    by Jim P on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 08:40:00 PM PDT

  •  Hmmm -- (0+ / 0-)

    "Senatus Populusque Americanorum" implies a shared responsibility among a people and their leaders (as clearly intended by the heading SPQR traditionally attached to Imperial decrees).  Could it be that we are responsible for the government and culture that we have?

    jwa13 in Colorado

    by jwa13 on Sun Aug 19, 2012 at 08:51:02 PM PDT

  •  It's Antonio (0+ / 0-)

    Anthony, Antonia is the feminine form of the same name

  •  Optime scripsisti (0+ / 0-)

    Americam Romae similem esse haud pauce dictum est, sed iterum iterumque dicere decet.  Aut historiae memini nobis oportet, aut errores patrum repetere.

    γνωθι σεαυτόν

    by halef on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 12:38:26 PM PDT

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