This is a guest post from New Deal 2.0.
With rampant corruption and elitism, America could be following the path of the Roman Republic.
“But, as statesmen, even these better aristocrats were not much less remiss and shortsighted than the average senators of the time. In presence of an outward foe the more eminent among them, doubtless, proved themselves useful and brave; but no one of them evinced the desire or the skill to solve the problems of politics proper, and to guide the vessel of the state through the stormy sea of intrigues and factions as a true pilot. Their political wisdom was limited to a sincere belief in the oligarchy as the sole means of salvation, and to a cordial hatred and courageous execration of demagogism as well as of every individual authority which sought to emancipate itself. Their petty ambition was contented with little.”
– Theodor Mommsen, History of Rome — the quote describes the political class of the Roman Republic’s last decades.
A century ago, Theodor Mommsen was globally renown for his history of the Roman Republic. For some reason, the book went out of print around WWII and never came back. Which is unfortunate, for Mommsen’s chronicles of the last decades of the republic are extremely relevant history for contemporary Americans. Remember, the Roman republic flourished from 500 BC to 50 BC, when it fell at the hands of Caesar. Of course today, if ever an American thinks of Rome, they undoubtedly think of Imperial Rome, the age of the emperors and its inglorious fall chronicled by Gibbon. Yet, Gibbon’s history begins where Mommsen’s ends. The fall of the Roman Republic was well known to America’s founders and its lessons well contemplated, for unlike Imperial Rome, the Republic fell at the height of its economic and military power. By the end, Rome’s politics were eminently corrupt and the weight of the empire that was conquered collapsed the unique system of self-government that had been created.
With most recent examples of the health care bill, the financial industry bill, the continued electoral buying and selling of our elected officials, and the growing ineptitude and corruption of our government agencies (the most recently reported in the MMS) who are responsible for regulation of the oil industry, it is obvious for all who care to look, we are on the same path of the Roman republic. And just as Rome, our political class’ petty ambition is content with little. Mommsen wrote history’s cold verdict on the republic’s fall:
“But, when a government cannot govern, it ceases to be legitimate, and whoever has the power has also the right to overthrow it. It is, no doubt, unhappily true that an incapable and flagitious government may for a long period trample under foot the welfare and honour of the land, before the men are found who are able and willing to wield against that government the formidable weapons of its own forging, and to evoke out of the moral revolt of the good and the distress of the many the revolution which is in such a case legitimate. But if the game attempted with the fortunes of nations may be a merry one and may be played perhaps for a long time without molestation, it is a treacherous game, which in its own time entraps the players; and no one then blames the axe, if it is laid to the root of the tree that bears such fruits. For the Roman oligarchy the time had now come.”
In his last years, Mommsen gave a series of lectures on Rome’s early emperors. When asked why he didn’t put them together in a book, he declared, “It’s too depressing.” The Roman republic’s decline took course over seven decades, from the Gracchi, maybe the republic’s last true reformers, to Caesar. The real question for us is, unlike the Romans, will we stand up and reform our unique system of self-government that has provided so much to us all? Or as Rome, will we simply succumb to a neo-Caesar? I’ve come to empathise a great deal more with the Republic’s last great defender, Cicero. I used to consider him completely politically inept, but over the years, through experience, I have developed a much greater sympathy for the environment in which he toiled. Cicero wrote,
“Long before our time the customs of our ancestors moulded admirable men, in turn these men upheld the ways and institutions of their forebears. Our age, however, inherited the Republic as if it were some beautiful painting of bygone ages, its colours already fading through great antiquity; and not only has our time neglected to freshen the colours of the picture, but we have failed to preserve its forms and outlines.”
Joe Costello was communications director for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign and was a senior adviser for Howard Dean’s effort in 2004.