The Fall of the Roman Republic, Reconsidered

The empire created the emperors, not the other way round.
Mary Beard, SPQR

In popular mythology, the fall of the Roman Republic is credited to Julius Caesar; an ambitious man who leveraged the mob to build a lasting dictatorship. Perhaps, by focusing on the wrong drama we’re missing a more powerful message beneath that familiar tale.

The genius of the Roman Republic was its talent for channeling popular will into policy. In the centuries between the kings and the emperors, Rome was not formally a democracy, but its complex, ever evolving matrix of representative institutions constantly expanded the scope of public participation in government. By basing its legitimacy on representative institutions, the Republic encouraged citizens to consider the interests of the nation as an extension of their own interests.

For the first few centuries of the Republic, each new internal challenge to the authority of the Republic was resolved by expanding the circle of representation. As it grew from a city, to a people, to a nation, its institutions came to incorporate the will of a wider and wider swath of the governed.

By the second century BC Rome was a city, governing a nation, governing an empire. With borders stretching from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, the institutions that had for centuries allowed the Republic to incorporate the opinions of the citizenry were badly strained.

There were simple logistical aspects to this challenge. How could a citizen in North Africa participate in elections? By what means could an illiterate pleb working on the docks make intelligent political decisions on the basis of any factor more sophisticated than a bribe?

These technical challenges may have been daunting, but they could have been resolved. When America embarked on its republican experiment it possessed far worse communications infrastructure than the Romans, a much larger land area surrounded by hostile forces, and a population no better informed. It succeeded and thrived.

People who built roads, aqueducts and temples that function today could have overcome a mere logistical challenge. The real danger to their institutions was the growing concentration of power among a narrow elite. That concentration would dangerously unbalance the complex machinery of the Republic.

Victories in war brought vast new territory and piles of stolen wealth into the hands of the city’s tiny patrician class. With wealth so wildly out of balance to the citizens around them, they could buy political outcomes, challenged only by the competing interests of other wealthy families. They skirted the law to keep captured land for themselves, developed private security forces, and slowly ground away the republic’s power to protect its citizens.

Matters came to a head in 133 BC when Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune. As a military commander, for years he had watched legionaries detained on long deployments losing their farms in bankruptcy. Conquered land, which legally belonged to the state, was falling into the hands of a few well-connected rich in Rome who worked their estates with slaves. Displaced peasants and discharged soldiers with nowhere to go and no means to survive flowed into Rome.

Tiberius and his brother Gaius launched a campaign of reforms aimed at curbing the worst abuses of the patrician class and expanding representation. For his efforts, Tiberius was murdered by the Senate along with hundreds of his supporters, the first major outbreak of civil violence in the Republican era. Gaius, continuing his dead brother’s campaign, was driven from Rome by the Senate in another spasm of mass violence. He took his own life in 121 BC.

Why did the Gracchan brothers fail to expand the representative institutions of the Republic where so many others had succeeded? The Republic succumbed to simple political physics.

Fueled by vast new wealth from conquests a privileged minority could thwart reforms and reverse the steady expansion of public power that had marked the republic for centuries. By the late second century BC, they were strong enough to bend Rome’s traditional institutions away from their previously inclusive character and leverage them instead to close off threats to their own interests. Instead of expanding the government’s base of legitimacy, they were able to replace Republican institutions with raw force. Once the Republic ceased to be a credible avenue for popular representation, it was little more than an empty slogan. Julius Caesar didn’t destroy the Republic, he unmasked it. In the decades after the Gracchans, the average Roman understood that the game was fixed.

When Caesar used his military command to turn the tables on the patricians, they appealed to the people to protect liberty. The people shrugged. For ordinary Romans the rise of a dictator claiming absolute power just meant that their oppressors now had a rival.

Power, from that time on, was based on violence rather than popular will. For the remainder of Roman history, the mantle of authority belonged to whoever could control the legions. Almost every transfer of power required civil war and murder. Legitimacy, as a pillar of representative order that maintained civic values and respect for law, could not survive a massive concentration of wealth.

It is hard to build a dictatorship in a healthy society. Where public institutions are open, strong, supportive of fact-based debate, and flexible enough to evolve with social changes, there is little fuel for a tyrant. When wealth and power are highly concentrated and political institutions can be perverted into fear-based, winner-take-all arrangements, liberty shrivels.

The Caesars of the world only arrive when the ground has been prepared for them.

23 Comments

    1. I came here to mention just that. This is another one of those exasperating moments where the Republicans are being the actual, literal, statist socialists they’ve spent four decades demonizing.

      They better pray good and hard that hell in no way resembles Dante’s vision of it, because if it does, they are 100% destined to walk forever in back-breaking robes made out of lead* — if they’re lucky. The chiefs among them who most embrace this utter bullshit will of course be nailed by stakes to the ground, and trod over by the rest.

      * From the pipes of Flint, Michigan, har har.

  1. Another object lesson on why the Dem’s will lose again and why the Repub’s will win again, even without a rigged election, provided by Jason Spencer. The fascists know to never surrender, never back down, never show any shame or weakness, while the Dem’s fall all over themselves to cut down their own.

    While any decent human being would never make the comments and act like Spencer on Cohen’s show in the first place, they would also resign in shame once outed. Not with this bigot.

    Until Dem’s understand the rules, or lack thereof, they will continue to lose. And if they ever wake up, it will be too late, and democracy will have fallen.

  2. I’ve started following Marcy Wheeler’s blog, “Empty Wheel.” I like her thinking, writing, and commentators’ contributions. Today’s post syncs with this one from Chris, so I’d like to quote from it. (Note: this post is being treated as an open thread so comment away!)

    “Perhaps the real problem is the decades-long right-wing propaganda which denigrates reasonable, achievable political solutions to real problems average Americans face as radical and socialism as something we haven’t already accepted and relied upon within our existing social safety nets like Social Security and Medicare.

    Perhaps the real problem is the same absolutist propaganda which has uniformly characterized any and all Democrats, even moderates, as “hippies”, “liberal bigots” and worse rather than see them as fellow Americans who believe in the Constitution and also believe the U.S. can do more for the common man through reasonable and distributive economic justice.

    Is it really all that radical to want to form a more perfect union by establishing economic and social justice, insure domestic tranquility by ensuring every American has food and shelter, provide for the country’s common defense by promoting American’s general welfare?”

    https://www.emptywheel.net/2018/07/20/radical-socialism-or-clear-eyed-realism/

  3. This will be quick. The US is headed for extreme oligopoly, which must be rectified before it is too late. Stephen, Creigh and many others are correct. Oligopoly is the achilles heel of capitalism. The US had its best years when extreme wealth was controlled and limited.

    1. Hard to believe, but the original Rollerball and Soylent Green, both from the 70’s, quite presciently described the future social and economic scenario of the U.S. and most of the planet. They take Chris’ insights and conclusions on this blog post to their natural conclusion.

      In Rollerball, the corporations and ultra-rich control every facet of society and economy, including all knowledge and education that is disseminated to the masses. In Soylent Green, the social and economic stratification is portrayed so well. For those that believe the food shortages due to overpopulation and global warming described in that movie are unreal, I urge you to read about the dead zones in the oceans today, the bleaching of coral reefs worldwide, and the migration of fish stocks to colder climes (read as north and south), which is now measured in 10’s of miles every year.

      https://e360.yale.edu/features/feeling-the-heat-warming-oceans-drive-fish-into-cooler-waters

      But hey, when the Dem’s win back the House in November, that will save humanity from the path that it on, right? The same Dem’s who every day demonstrate their incompetence with infighting and lack of spine.

      The reason the fascists keep winning is they are ruthless, understand the game, and for the most part have a united front. The only time they infight is when a “traditional” Republican is challenged by an extremist. And we see how most of those fights end up.

      1. I cosign, Soylent Green is the most realistic description of the future so far rendered in cinema, even down to the production design — construction and athletic equipment appropriated by police forces for crowd control because public works aren’t developed anymore. The horrors of the movie are normalized for the main character, as he skips over people literally starving to death on his stairs and berates a woman for being conniving because she’s stuck in a form of sexual serfdom in order to stay in an oligarch’s apartment far above the starving masses. Yet the movie is poorly remembered for its spoiler, which I read as really more a joke — that in the face of horrific oppression, the thing that upsets the dude is the future’s only form of recycling.

  4. I have said it before, will say it again…actually I won’t. I am sure many more every day are accepting the unassailable logic and inevitability of my opinion.

    Now, that option will only stave off for a short time until another tyrant arises. Like Chris accurately details, the conditions are set for the rise of tyrants, worldwide. I understand that, but in the meantime, perhaps the civilized world would gain some breathing room, some time to think, to regroup.

    On another note, I have come to believe that the puppet tyrant’s performance in front to the cameras, and the subsequent 3 days of chaos of doing 180’s and then 180’s again, is not one of malicious intent. In this incredibly rare, perhaps unique case, it is one of utter incompetence.

    The puppet tyrant has been on a worldstage before, many times, and acted like the wrecking ball he is. But he has never been exposed, alone, in front of those cameras, with only a translator in his ear, alone with his puppet master.

    Yes, he has been with May, Merkel, Trudeau, Macron, Kim, side by side, with no notes, no support, only reporters in front of him. But I think he finally grasped the magnitude of the stage he was on. With Kim, it was essentially a photo op and gone. The others, friendly turf and allies he thought he could bully.

    This time, he was with someone he recognized as his equal, likely superior. This is the puppet tyrant’s hero. He was visibly cowed, and rattled, which resulted in what we witnessed in Helsinki. A scared little man trying to bluff his way through, unaware of what he was sounding like.

    That, or he is truly mentally incompetent.

    Take your pick, he is criminally incompetent, insane, evil, or some combination. It really does not matter. We are not even halfway through his first term, let alone 2 terms. The country, the free world, cannot withstand 4 years of this, let alone 8.

  5. The open corruption and the GOP tolerance of said corruption are a couple of things that worry me greatly. Scott Pruit is finally out- too little too later there, and plenty of other grifting continues. I just read a story about Trump charging the taxpayers $70K for his past weekend in Scotland. In a hotel he OWNS. Just another theft to add to the pile.

  6. Adam Smith wrote about capitalism. It has lifted more people out of poverty than any other invention. But it has it’s own seeds of destruction. The tendency of capitalism is to concentrate market power , wealth and political power into the hands of a few. Without a mechanism always government to keep markets open and barter power more or less equal among participates it self destructs . In very libertarian societies the cheaters run amok until people’s trust is eroded to the point commerce is severely hindered. Capitlism and government are in a symbiotic relationship. Those who make statements like make government small enough to drown in a bath tub are not capitalist but old school fedualist. Ultimately severe wealth inequality destroys democracy. Senator Warren is a old fashion Republican in her political philosophy. Believes in capitalism but with some quide rails to keep markets open and fair. That she is painted as a wild eye socialist shows how much the GOP has gone off the rails. Sadly our best hope is the Democrat Party despite it’s plentious problems.

      1. I agree.

        Worldwide, capitalism as-practiced is destroying us.

        Whole countries in Africa are without economic opportunity for their citizens, who are willing to face death to get to somewhere, anywhere, they can eke out a living.

        In the states, employers say they have problems hiring people with expertise but they won’t raise their goddam wages.

        I hope we’re strong enough to solve this.

      2. I concur with Bobo and Stephen. I make this statement from the vantage of one whose husband was a successful small business owner who exemplied the opportunities of capitalism properly practiced. He treated his employees well – not because government required him to, but because it was the right thing to do. He paid them competitive market wages, offered health insurance to all, and he understood the value his employees contributed to his company’s success. They knew he respected their work and them individually. We were not “rich” but we were financially secure, happy and proud of our company’s success. Those who worked for us shared in this bounty. Capitalism worked for everyone who was a part of our company because people were respected and fairly rewarded for their contributions.

        Things are different now. Employers today seem to have lost respect for the contributions of the people who work for them. An inordinant amount of emphacis is placed upon personal gains that accrue to owners (management, shareholders) . This is exemplified by the 2018 tax cut which was and is obscene in light of what is happening in our country with stagnant wages, widening gap between income levels, and the opportunity for working people to be upwardly mobile through individual effort. Capitalism as an economic model is not inherently bad, as my family’s direct experience affirms, but when profit goals are achieved by sacrificing so many other vital areas of our country, unchecked by sufficient government control, it becomes a tool of deprivation not achievement.

        We are living in a very self-centered time, and the people who are in positions of power are responsible.

      3. Agree with all of you! One of the things we can do beyond voting and plugging into our local communities is to be selective about which companies we do business with as best we can. It takes a level of work and no one will ever be perfect since, as consumers, we often come up against competing interests.

        If you really want to kill a dragon, best to stop feeding it while you’re figuring out how.

    1. Stephen-
      I would consider myself a firm capitalist (even as a wide-eyed Bernie bot :-). But IMHO, in public discourse, terms like capitalism, socialism and communism have lost any economic meaning. Anything that’s successful is deemed capitalism. Anything that’s being proposed is deemed socialism. And anything that fails is deemed communism. It’s almost become a tautology.

      Is communist China, with massive state-run enterprises guided by Beijing Mandarins, and with no legal concept of private land / property rights, a “capitalist” economy merely because it’s successful and has higher growth rates than other “capitalist” countries? Were the colonial practices of European powers, which literally gave rise to the entire concept of pooled-capital corporations, but which impoverished the entire continents of Asia and Africa, shrunk China’s and India’s share of global GDP from >50% (before colonialism) to <10% (after colonialism), not capitalist?

      Capitalism as a general word is meaningless. Tell me the specific policies you support, I'll tell you mine, and then we can debate which specific policies are best for reducing poverty and improving living standards. But the term capitalist these days is a marketing term at best.

      (BTW, I also believe this about the term "free trade". There is no such thing. There are a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements between nations that governs the flow of goods and services between their borders, defined by thousands of pages of regulations & treaties, and enforced by government bodies. There is nothing "free" about it. To label some of those laws as "free trade" and others as "protectionist" is mere marketing. Otherwise, why are intellectual property restrictions considered "free trade" but advocating for uniform environmental and labor laws "protectionist"?)

      Mary-
      Robert Reich (Bill Clinton's former Labor Sec'y) once said "there are 2 types of companies: those that view their employees as assets to be developed, and those that view them as expenses to be cut". Looks like your husband was the former, while current businesses are definitely the latter.

      1. Thank you, Creigh. Tommy valued his employees individually and their contributions to his company’s success. I believe it helped him be successful in his business and I know it brought him personal satisfaction. He was a special man.

      2. Mary, I want to 2nd WX’s comments. I’ve found that the businesses that value their employees are far more pleasant places to work and tend to have higher productivity.

        That was very true in my profession of consulting engineering. I initially worked for a firm that was a partnership, though a large regional firm. It was fairly successful and valued their employees. I then worked for a publicly owned firm that was solely driven by the stock price. That was not a pleasant place to work. Subsequently I worked for firms that were both. In recent years, the industry has consolidated and most firms are publicly owned and are managed to maximize the return to the stockholders. In general the industry has become very cutthroat and there is little employee satisfaction.

        In a larger sense, I believe that the current business practice of maximizing returns for the stockholders and not considering the other stakeholders (employees, community and society as a whole) is one of the reasons that there is so much disaffection in American society. I believe that there would be much less disaffection if businesses once again valued the larger realm of the stakeholders.

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