The End of the (Roman) Republic

One of my biggest disappointments about studying foreign affairs at my current degree program is that we don’t study the classics at all.  For some reason, no one thinks Rome or Carthage or Alexander the Great have anything to teach us.  I think this is a mistake, but I understand why it’s not covered in modern classes.  After all, much of what we “know” about the ancient world is based on sources of dubious quality which makes drawing actionable conclusions difficult.  That said, as I wind my way through Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, I can’t help but notice several broad developments that have a lot of relevance to the United States today.  In particular, the theme of political rejuvination plays a significant role in the transformation of the republic into the empire and holds several lessons for Washington today as it struggles with partisan gridlock.

2120 years ago, Rome faced an existential crisis.  A migrating band of Germans almost one million strong, having defeated three Roman armies, threatened to overrun the Italian peninsula.  In Rome, this produced a profound political crisis.  Outraged at the loss of over 100,000 Roman and Italian Allied soldiers due to incompetent noble commanders, reformers such as Gaius Marius pushed through changes to Rome’s political system that took power away from the Senate, allowed non-property owning citizens to serve in the military, and upended the traditions of the cursus honorum, Rome’s unwritten political framework.

Marius and his allies saved Rome, but it wasn’t easy; conservatives within the Senate fought Marius and his supporters every step of the way.  For the conservatives, it was more important to protect the traditions of Rome’s political system (especially its class foundation) than to defend the country from invasion.  What was the point of saving Rome from the Germans, they argued, if Rome gave up everything that made it special just to survive?  There’s some logic to this, but only to a point.  Besides the practical question of crucifying oneself on a cross of ideals, the nobles’ assertion begged the question of what, exactly, was Rome?  Was it a political system defined by an inherited aristocracy and restrictive access to citizenship as they suggested, or was it something else entirely?  The debate over this question would lead to the slow unraveling of the Republic, decades of civil war, and the eventual rise of the Empire.

Some of this conflict was inevitable.  Rome had grown substantially since its conversion to a republic and was struggling under the administrative weight of its responsibilities. Corrupt governors were bleeding provinces dry, leading to discontent.  Allied states complained over Rome’s withholding of citizenship, and planned insurrection.  And most importantly, the failure of the traditional political class to manage successive crises both within and outside Rome undermined their authority.  The whole system was like a forest that hadn’t seen rain in years; it was ready to burst into flame at the smallest spark.

What the situation called for was a change in the political economy of Rome.  The system that had gotten Rome to that point was no longer sustainable and needed updating. However, due to internal disagreements over policy and method, compromise was elusive and conflict spiraled out of control.  The result was no one got what he wanted and the republic was destroyed.

This story is a cautionary tale for the United States.  We share a lot more in common with Rome than just the design of our government buildings and the names of our representative bodies.  Like Rome, we have a republican system of government fashioned around a separation of powers.  This system has helped us achieve remarkable things, but not without considerable tweaks along the way.  Today, we face a situation that is generally similar to what Rome faced 2100 years ago.  Disagreements over policies and methods have paralyzed Washington, while threats and responsibilities mount abroad. Public faith in government and elites has plummeted, and the American people doubt whether the system is truly responsive to their needs anymore.  Allies abroad question our staying power and complain about our surveillance practices.  In other words, things are not great.  This is not to say the US faces the threat of civil war if reform doesn’t occur – our political system is far more resilient than Rome’s ever was – but the depth of dysfunction and despair in our government suggests that change is needed to revitalize our country.

Everyone acknowledges that businesses need to innovate to survive.  Those that don’t and instead rest on their past accomplishments get overtaken by competitors.  The same is true of governments.  Institutions of governance, norms of public administration, economic philosophies – in all these areas and more, the West innovated and developed an advantage over its foreign competitors.  Yet, none of these issues have permanent “right” answers.  They must evolve with the moral, technological, and practical realities of the time.  The Constitution is an incredible document, but we’ve had to amend it 27 times in 225 years.  Clearly things must change for the system to survive.  Otherwise it calcifies and loses legitimacy.

The key question, of course, is always how much change to implement.  Reasonable people from all walks of life will disagree on this issue, but the level of discontent with Washington suggests that something needs to be done.  Possible targets for reform could range from the systemic (congressional gerrymandering, the electoral college, filibuster, and term limits) to the political (tax reform to combat inequality, entitlement reform to benefit future generations, etc).  The toughest part will be getting the political class, which benefits from all these flaws in the system, to vote for their improvement.  And this is where studying the ancients can help us recognize the broad similarities between our two civilizations and learn the lessons from their failures.  An educated public and politicians can make all the difference.

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