Our current political and economic situation compels us to look at history’s example for useful lessons. Some people look to the Sons of Liberty in the 1770s; others, to the reforms of Franklin Roosevelt during the 1930s. Personally, I like to look back to ancient Rome—to the collapse of the republic in 44 BC—as a marker of things to come.
Like Americans, the Romans rid themselves of a monarchy and created a republican government. In 509 BC, the Roman people threw off the yoke of tyrannical King Tarquin and created a balanced constitution with power vested in the people. The Roman Senate and two executive consuls governed Rome with the cooperation of popular assemblies. These citizen assemblies appointed magistrates and administered justice. Individual qualities of civic virtue, honor, duty, and dignitas or prestige were celebrated. Our own Federal Constitution and the idealized qualities of our founders are modeled on the Roman example.
Then, from 264 to 146 BC, Rome battled its arch-rival Carthage for national supremacy during the Punic Wars. Rome defeated the fierce Carthaginians and found itself with new territories and peoples to govern. Wealth poured into Rome. New money and “new men” or novus homo soon corrupted the republic’s earthy virtues of simplicity and civic duty. The middle class declined economically and politically. Unemployment rose. Corruption was rampant. Elections were openly bought and sold. Politicians were beholden to wealthy interest groups. The Senate was unable to solve the most trivial of problems. Good government ground to a halt. They even had a terrorist problem with Mediterranean pirates.
Two factions rose up to address these issues: the Populares and the Opitmates. The Optimates were the traditional conservatives who wanted to limit the power of the assemblies and extend the power of the Senate. The democratic Populares wanted more power vested in the assemblies. The Populares addressed the problems of the poor and wanted to extend benefits to the peoples of the newly acquired territories. The conservative Optimates sought to restore the old ways of their forefathers. The more progressive Populares looked to the novus homo to take Rome into a new age of economic prosperity and order.
The inability of these two factions to find a political solution to Rome’s problems eventually led to a destructive civil war and the institution of a dictatorship in 27 BC under Octavian Augustus. Augustus scrapped the republic in favor of rule by an all-powerful imperator or emperor who governed at the head of an emasculated Senate and popular assembly.
Yes, history does indeed give us plenty to think about, and the lessons we take from it can have profound implications in our own day. The Roman example teaches us that extreme partisanship and extreme social inequalities are detrimental to a republic. Indeed, consequences await a people who govern by rigid principles and not principled compromise. It’s unlikely that Americans will plunge themselves into another civil war as the Romans did, but should we continue to ignore the lessons of history and fail to adequately address the problems we face today, who knows what the future might bring.
--Author Matthew Poteat teaches European and American history in the Virginia Community
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