First, guess the nation:
The Republic is founded as a small state on the edge of the world adopting a new form of government that revives the traditions of representative democracy in an age when the great powers of the world are absolutist states, each ruled by one man. It was founded by refugees from the old world seeking autonomy, grew through the immigration and assimilation of diverse peoples, and its citizens developed a spirit of exceptionalism, believing that the Republic was the greatest nation above all others. The Republic grew until it became embroiled in a series of conflicts with the older, more prestigious nations of the world. Despite narrow victories, near misses, and the tremendous sacrifice required of its citizenry, the Republic emerged victorious from these conflicts and established hegemony over the known world. Within two lifetimes, the Republic went from a minor regional power to the world’s undisputed superpower.
This rapid ascent shifted the center of the world to the Republic, flooding its people with wealth, power, and influence. In response, the Republic, believing in its exceptionalism, spread its economic system, morals, and system of government to every corner of the world. It quickly became an industrial and technological powerhouse unrivaled by previous civilizations whose economy was the bedrock of the world economy. Its citizens were rewarded with the highest standard of living in the history of the world while its military grew into a global force unrivaled by any and all of the world’s nations. The Republic’s exceptionalism was undeniable.
What’s your guess?
The answer is both the United States of America and the Roman Republic. The rise of Rome from a backwater city on the Tiber River in central Italy to the center of the western world for centuries mirrors the rise of the United States from a group of Great Britain’s breakaway colonies to the world’s foremost military, economic, technological, and political power that it is today. Both nations were founded by immigrants, refugees, and criminals fleeing other much older states. Both embraced a long tradition of assimilation and multiculturalism during their ascendancy. Both claimed civic exceptionalism rooted in their history and representative form of government. Both became superpowers in a relatively short periods of time compared to the old powers that preceded them and did so by defeating those same traditionally powerful nation-states. Finally, both seemed unsure of how to handle their responsibility as global superpowers. This uncertainty then led to fundamental changes to the fabric of each nation’s social, political, and economic foundations. I believe there are lessons to be learned from history and the current political climate in the United States bears a striking resemblance to the late Roman Republic. The Roman Republic was a great state that created the foundation for the West as we know it, but despite its greatness (or perhaps because of) it was incapable of surviving self-induced political, social, and economic upheaval. The rule of the people of Rome lasted approximately 480 years, while the rule of the emperors which replaced the Republic lasted more than 1,400 years. The Roman Republic’s fall into absolutism provides a stark parallel to the challenges the United States faces today. Without a full understanding of these challenges and the required remedies, the United States risks following Rome down the same destructive spiral. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
The Roman Republic was founded sometime in the 6th Century BC, traditionally in the year 509 BC. While its beginnings are shrouded in mystery and legend, it is generally agreed that early Rome was a haven for criminals, debtors, and refugees from the other more advanced city states in Italy, Greece, and the Mediterranean world. The Roman government was sacred and presided over by a hierarchy of public officials drawn from the wealthy class but elected by the common people. The Republic (res publica – “of the people”) was the first of its kind and differed greatly from the direct democracies of Ancient Greece and ultimately became the model for the government created by the American Constitution. Key to this government was that no one man should hold too much power, lest they become a monarch, and strict term limits coupled with traditions of honor and public service prevented any one person from attaining power greater than the Republic itself. By the mid-3rd Century, Rome had expanded into a regional power with suzerainty over most of central and southern Italy. In 164 BC, Rome clashed with the North African trading empire of Carthage, then one of the preeminent powers of the Mediterranean world, over the independence of Sicily. This conflict resulted in the three Punic Wars over the next 120 years and ended with the utter destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, though at great human cost to the Rome. By conquering Carthage, all of the Western Mediterranean came under Roman rule. While Roman was fighting Carthage, she was also slowly gaining control of the Greek peninsula through a series of proxy wars that established client states. The city of Carthage was burnt to the ground in 146 BC, and in that same year, the Greek city-state of Corinth was sacked, ending the last Greek resistance to Roman rule. Thus, in a little over 120 years, only two generations, Rome grew from a regional power to the unquestioned ruler of the known world (at the time!), destroying the historic power of Carthage and subjugating the Greek city-states of antiquity in the process.
The United States had a similarly meteoric rise. Consider that it was only 125 years between the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and the end of the Cold War in 1990. In that time period, the United States expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, developed into an industrial powerhouse, doubled in population 4 times over, weathered the Great Depression, fought two world wars, sent a man to the moon, outlasted the Soviet Union in an arms race, and became the undisputed global power. Today our country is the richest, safest, healthiest, and most technologically advanced nation-state in the history of the world; just as the Roman Republic was in her time. However, Republican Rome quickly declined after the destruction of Carthage and was ultimately destroyed from within by a political class that no longer had an enemy to fight so fought amongst themselves. Caesar Augustus outlasted two generations of civil war to transform Rome from representative Republic to autocratic Empire. Arguably, it was the successes of the Roman Republic that contributed to its downfall and Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire.
The Romans, like Americans today, attributed their success to their own exceptionalism. They believed that their dignitas, industria, veritas, and pietas (dignity, industriousness, virtue, and dutifulness) made them unique among the civilizations of the antiquity and, thus, their ascendancy was preordained and naturally to the benefit of the entire world. Sound familiar? Americans today, both millennials and their parents, have a similar attitude about their own exceptionalism. While T-shirts declaring America as the “back to back World War champs” are topically funny (in a har-har, never thought about war as a championship game way), they also do a disservice to the genius of our founding fathers and the sacrifices made by those who fought in the America’s wars that were actually the great enablers of American success. These attitudes also subtly underline the thought that the United States of America is great because it is the United States of America, not because of the genius and sacrifices of generations past. The ideals that made America the greatest nation in the world are eroding in the generations that grew up after that greatness was achieved. In the last century BCE, the Romans developed a similar sense of invulnerability and entitlement and it was one of the major factors that destroyed the social fabric of Roman society and its ruling institutions.
The example of the Roman Republic is perhaps the most cited example of how the greatest nations fall. No regional or global superpower was ever destroyed by outside influence; they are always destroyed by themselves. In the afterglow of their ascendancy, Roman society became safe, rich, and the envy of the world. An increasing share of the Republic’s wealth became concentrated in the upper classes who inherited their place in the Senate, the top of Rome’s government. At the same time cheap slave labor from defeated nations abroad flooded the Italian peninsula, undercutting the wages of Roman citizens. During the Republic, the ideal Roman citizen was a family man who tilled the soil during times of peace and fought with the legions during time of war. Military service was also determined based on land holdings. Thus when money flooded into the Roman aristocracy, they purchased small family agrarian holdings and combined them into enormous latifundia farming plantations staffed by slave labor. This shattered the the land-based economy, long the bedrock of the Roman citizen’s identity and economic foundation. Accounts whereby Roman citizens conscripted into the army returned after campaigning to find their farms sold or bankrupt and their families evicted were widespread. Ironically, these citizen-soldiers returned from their military service to find themselves homeless and therefore ineligible for service in the same Roman legions that led to their eviction.
These kind of economic shocks changed the fabric of Roman society. Since service to the Republic and your standing in society was predicated on your land holdings, the redistribution of land holdings destroyed the agrarian class’s standing in the hierarchy of the Roman world. Instead of working the land and supporting the state, the recently dispossessed migrated from the countryside to the city for food and jobs, shifting the agricultural countryside from subsistence farming to commercial farming while filling the cities with the destitute. The large influx of slave labor combined with these economic changes also led to a number of slave revolts throughout Italy between 135 BC and 71 BC. The most famous uprising saw a gladiator named Spartacus and his 100,000+ man slave army defeat a Roman legion in Southern Italy. Another legion was recalled from abroad to put down the rebellion and approximately 6,000 surviving slaves were crucified on the road from Rome to Capua. Regardless of this appalling warning, armed conflict between Romans continued for the next 50 years because the root cause of the revolts, economic inequality, was never addressed.
At the same time as economic changes were challenging the Republic, political changes were discarding age old Republican traditions in favor of protecting the wealthy landed class.In the 130s and 120s BC, the Gracchi brothers championed land reform efforts that attempted to reverse the economic displacement of Roman citizens. The elder, Tiberius, was murdered by agents of the Senate in 133 BCE, while his brother fared slightly better, but ultimately met the same fate at assassin’s hands in 121 BCE. Land reform was not enacted for any meaningful number of Roman citizens and politics devolved from discourse to bloody class warfare. A decade later, a general named Gaius Marius was elected to his first of six consecutive terms as consul, one of the two executive leaders of the Republic. Traditionally, and perhaps legally, a citizen was barred from holding the consulship twice within the space of ten years. The whole idea of the Republic was prevent one individual from accumulating too much power, but Marius’ reform of the army (where the urban poor could now serve), his generosity to the urban class, and his military successes abroad made him much more popular than the boring constitutionalists shouting about Republican traditions. Cracks began to appear in the foundation of the Republic as Marius ignored tradition and precedent and his supporters fought for political representation to lessen their economic burdens.
Marius’s reform of the army and the nature of Rome’s military force abroad meant that soldiers drawn from the urban poor became more loyal to their commander than to the state. This led to no fewer than twelve civil wars during the 60 year period from 91BC to 31BC. First, the Roman’s fought their Italian allies in the Social War, then Marius fought a rival general named Cornelius Sulla over political differences when Sulla became the first Roman to attack the city of Rome with Roman troops. Sulla’s victory over Marius led to horrific purge of his political enemies when he executed half of the Senate membership. After Sulla’s death, the threat of armed conflict among Romans continued until Julius Caesar (Marius’s nephew) and Pompey the Great led Roman legions against each other to resolve political differences. After Caesar’s assassination, his great-nephew Octavian led Romans against Brutus and his fellow assassins and then finally against his former ally Mark Antony. 60 years later, Octavian was renamed Augustus and became the princips, “first citizen,” of the Roman state – the de facto emperor. During this bloody and tumultuous period, the Republic died a quiet death amongst the cacophony of Roman fighting Roman while Augustus Caesar became the first ruler of the autocratic Roman Empire. The Republic died somewhere among the civil war and bloody streets – very few contemporary Romans noticed and even fewer cared.
Today’s America seems to be in the throes of economic and political upheaval similar to those that destroyed the Roman Republic . Our nation’s rapid rise in the post-World War era and the collapse of the Soviet Union as our only real rival has left us with no competition for world’s superpower. Our country is wealthiest in history. However, our governing institutions are decaying. Congress is gridlocked by indecision, politics, and partisanship while the Presidency relies on supra-Constitutional executive orders to achieve political goals that cannot be passed by the elected House or Senate. Partisanship has infected the judiciary, who overcompensate for their legislative counterparts’ inaction by legislating from the bench via court opinion, usually tarnishing or abolishing legal precedent in the process. The constituents of elected representatives at both state and federal levels are hand picked by the political parties to create the safest possible electorates through gerrymandering. Political contributions by the super rich decide elections to a greater degree than ever before and economic equality between the top and the bottom of society is at an all-time high. The least popular presidential candidate ever was just elected to the highest office in the land despite a spate of scandals, lack of political experience, and no desire to govern. Today’s party politics is only effective as an opposition party and not as a governing party. The governing institutions that sustained America’s rapid rise to the top, are now incapable of effectively operating as they were intended.
As I hope I’ve made clear above, these are similar circumstances that faced the Roman Republic in the last 100 years before its transformation into Empire. The traditional roles and institutions of government were slowly eroded until the barriers that prevent political crisis were discarded. Like cracks in a foundation, there was not one single destructive act, but the compounding effect of hundreds of fissures eventually brought the entire building down. While I doubt the end of the United States will devolve into the bloody class warfare, it is vital that we understand the damage that our current crises can cause to our political institutions and how civilizations just as great as our own were destroyed by these very same crises. As institutions continue to fail, fewer and fewer will rise to defend them.
What was the Republic, after all, if not a community bound together by its shared assumptions, precedents and past? To jettison this inheritance was to stare into the abyss. – Tom Holland, “Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic”
Thus, the Republic is only as strong as the citizens’ willingness to fight to preserve it against those that would tear it down over small political victories. Marcus Agrippa, Caesar Augustus’s most loyal friend and greatest commander, described the descent into civil war that led to the end of the Republic thus, “Harmony enables small things to flourish – while the lack of it destroys the great.” The United States is able to debate about the small things because our country is so rich we do not need to worry about the big things. However, we cannot let these disagreements on comparatively minor issues destroy our great institutions. To do so ultimately leads to the death of our Republic.