America vs the Roman Republic (wonkish)

Why Nathan Pilkington Is Wrong

The following appeared in the Washington Post on December 2, 2016. Professor Pilkington is a professor of history at Columbia University, and wrote on five myths about the decline and fall of Rome, and he should not go unanswered because he is, well, simply willfully wrong on at least the first two (the last three, meh, the late empire and not all that important for my purposes).

Here is his first assertion, with my response following:


America is going through what republican Rome did.

These comparisons are common. Former Supreme Court justice David Souter has said that embracing an all-powerful figure who promises to solve the nation’s problems is “how the Roman republic fell.” Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, ended democracy “because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved,” Souter said in the 2012 quote, which resurfaced during this fall’s campaign. Along those same lines, a Huffington Post headline claimed: “Rome Had Caesar. America Has Trump. The People Were and Are Desperate.”

But such comparisons are light on scholarship. Simply put, most experts believe there is little to compare. Yes, the United States has seen a rise in populism, but it hasn’t experienced a microgram of the violence that accompanied the fall of the Roman republic. The end came only after numerous civil wars over offices and honor, decades of gang violence in the capital, and waves of sanctioned political murder. By that measure, Trump is no Caesar.

I guess all of this depends on how you view and define political violence. Arguably our own Civil War was a part of a larger malaise in American society born out of the racism, slavery, and genocide that attended this country’s foundation, after which violence against African Americans has continued with varying degrees of ferocity. There was the horror of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, segregation, and general widespread discrimination. There was the KKK, church bombings, water cannons, jailing, assassination, and the excessive use of police violence against people of color that exists to this day. Is not all of that a part of our political discussion? To that we could add the violence visited on abortion providers, against LGBT people, and armed threats, usually against the government in general. Is it as acute as what occurred in Rome – no, not yet anyway. But I would argue that the killing of people of color has long been as much a political as it is a racial issue, and that this seemingly insurmountable problem is part and parcel of our political life – this is what allowed the president elect to politicize BLM and other racial issues during the campaign.

As for the numerous civil wars he cites – these include acute episodes of political violence from 91-88, 83-82, and 49-46. There were also ominous rumblings in 78 and then in the 70s, until 74 or so, was the break away Roman general in Spain, Q. Sertorius. But constitutional government survived until the last war in 49-46 (I exclude the war between Antony and Octavius, later Augustus, because I frankly believe the Republic was a dead letter after Caesar).

And this brings me to a couple of willful omissions: he does not even touch on the extra-constitutional behavior of Roman politicians and the damage it did to Roman political life and the state. There is no mention of the increasing accruing of power by the executive in the form of the consul, no discussion about the disregarding of curbs put on the power of the office of the consul and how these were, over time, disregarded, no discussion of the general sense of emergency that the state faced as it was besieged on all sides by a series of what, at the time, were global challenges: Mithridates’ invasion of the Roman province of Asia, no discussion of the Germanic invasions that forced military reforms that ultimately proved calamitous to the checks and balances on the Roman constitution, no discussion about piracy which ultimately led to a terror attack on Rome and the call for what was, for all intents and purposes, dictatorship. The six consecutive consulships of Marius; the extraordinary powers granted to Pompey for suppressing piracy; Pompey’s sole consulship, and his governing of a province in absentia via legates. All of this laid the groundwork for the imperial system and violated the Roman constitution, laying the foundations for Caesarism.

Nor is there any discussion of how demoralized the society was by the time we reach the period of Pompey and Caesar – how public virtue had collapsed. Money ruled all and public virtue was absent (see my post below, Moral Causality). The larger point being, you do not need precise parallels to draw apt analogies. The Roman republic will never be repeated; that does not mean that you ignore some of the more salient, broader lessons that it imparts about how societies can divert themselves from traditions of constitutional governance through a republic and ultimately embrace a more authoritarian one. It is clear our edifice, like that of the Roman republic, was and is rotten, and it takes little, once that is the case, to topple it.


The republic collapsed because of class conflict.

In a recent article in the Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry claimed that “what historians now refer to as the crisis of the Roman Republic had a deeper, class-based component.” And as in Rome, he wrote, in modern-day America “there is definitely a patrician class and a plebeian class” that are “at loggerheads.” In the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky also found an analogue for America’s turbulence under Trump in Rome’s past: “The patricians and the plebeians had clashed for decades,” he wrote. “It was a class struggle pure and simple.”

But the struggle between patricians and plebeians took place more than 250 years before the republic’s collapse. During an early republican period known to historians as the Conflict of the Orders , between 494 and 287 B.C., plebeians won the right to have their own magistrates — the tribunes — and to hold their own assembly to make laws for the entire Roman state. Patricians were excluded from this assembly but bound by its laws. Plebeians also gained election to the consulship, the highest office in Rome. After 366 B.C., normally one of the two consuls was a plebian.

Patricians and plebeians were not “classes” in the modern sense of the term. According to Roman myth, the patricians were descended from the original senators appointed by Rome’s founder, Romulus, to assist him in decision-making. Patrician status was inherited, and plebians made up the rest of society. After the Conflict of the Orders, many plebeians became wealthy and powerful, while certain patrician families saw their fortunes decline and disappeared from history. Pompey the Great, for all his riches and power, was a plebeian from an area colonized in the 3rd century B.C. Emperor Augustus was born a plebeian; it was only when he was adopted by Julius Caesar in his will that he became a patrician.

This is just silly, and rests on simple nomenclature. Yes, the plebs had long since held high office and broken into the Roman government by Caesar’s day, and plenty of Romans of good name had plebeian ancestry. But no matter what you call them, that does not mean that Rome was not full of poor and desperate people in the late republic. It was, and they were used and manipulated by ambitious and unscrupulous politicians, such as Caesar. These were the faeces Romuli – Romulus’ scum – that made up the gangs of thugs that ruled Roman streets in the 50s. These were the landless poor, who, desperate of any opportunity, joined the Roman army in the hopes of gaining a grant of land at the end of service or some other emolument; these are the men that were used by Caesar and others to make war against their political opponents and the state.

How you disjoin a class element from this, even if not formally named, is a mystery to me that perhaps Prof. Pilkington could elucidate. Prima facie I believe he is simply incorrect. As those of lesser education and means tended to cast a vote in the president elect’s column, so too did those of no means – the bankrupt, the ne’er-do-wells, the adventurers – cast their lot with Caesar. To dismiss class and the dangers of the inequality is absurd.

University of Maryland




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