Rome's Republic Imploded -- So Could America's
Omnia Romae venalia sunt—all the Romans are for sale. This was the historian Sallust’s judgment on the Roman Republic’s moral climate in the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE as it careened through disintegrating norms of public behavior, faltering institutions, civil wars, and the rise of the empire of the Caesars. I fear the same judgment increasingly applies to our American Republic—that our political and social institutions risk a parallel descent into chaos and authoritarianism.
Sallust put his grim judgment in the mouth of Jugurtha, a North African king who resisted Rome at the end of the 2nd century BCE with guerrilla tactics and bribes to Roman leaders. The Jugurthine War, subject of one of Sallust’s two histories, lasted from 112-106 BCE and was one of a series of military adventures that saw Roman legions in near-constant action across the Mediterranean. The costs of these wars were borne by rank-and-file Roman citizens through taxes and open-ended military service (not to mention by the pillaged and enslaved local populations). The benefits accrued to victorious commanders, politicians sent to govern the new provinces, and their private-sector cronies; all had carte blanche to squeeze taxation and loot from the provincials.
These Roman conquests deepened economic fissures between a small elite and the bulk of the citizenry. Senators, other officials, and their business allies plundered new provinces for anything of value, using this booty to acquire control over vast tracts of land in central Italy, including acreage nominally owned by the Roman state. This displaced and impoverished the small farmers who had been the backbone of the Republic and were pushed into Rome and other cities. These economic refugees formed mobs ripe for manipulation by ambitious demagogues. Panem et circenses—the bread and circuses doled out by political adventurers like Julius Caesar—replaced the values of dignity and independence that the Republic had stood for.
Sallust’s other history, The Conspiracy of Catiline, records the efforts of Lucius Sergius Catiline, a demagogue and dissolute patrician, to foment populist revolution in 65-63 BCE. Catiline recognized that “poverty does not cost much and cannot lose much,” and he developed a large following among penniless plebeians. Promising to repudiate all debt and to slaughter the Senate and other enemies (a vigorous way to drain the proverbial swamp), Catiline raised a secret militia of some 10,000 men and sought support from Rome’s adversaries. The plot was quashed when leaked information convinced the Senate to vote emergency powers to the consuls. Catiline and his militia were annihilated in battle with loyal troops; other suspected ringleaders were summarily executed. This restored a semblance of republican order for a few years, but civil war between Caesar and senatorial factions ultimately left Caesar in uncontested control of the vestiges of the Republic.
America’s founders knew this history well, and they designed our Constitution with the goal of avoiding the corruption of morality and subversion of institutions that Sallust described. If Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and others were to wake up today, I think the parallels between 21st century America and the final decades of the Roman Republic would leave them heartsick.
- Influence in our political system is wide-open for purchase by latter-day Jugurthas. Consider the lobbying wars for influence in the Trump Administration between the feuding (not to mention neo-feudal) petro-monarchies of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. This is of course a bipartisan affair; for every Republican Paul Manafort pimping for Putin’s Russia, there’s a Democrat Tony Podesta selling national virtue to other sleazy foreign powers.
- Inequality is undermining institutions of self-government. A small minority has sucked up most of the new wealth the country has generated over the past few decades. New technologies and new trade patterns have created disruptions that have erupted into social discontent that 21st-century forms of bread and circuses—entertainment apps and opiods—do nothing to allay. Just like the Russians and oil sheikhdoms, the well-connected buy influence to tilt tax laws and regulations to their benefit, while confused, angry have-nots form a made-to-order audience for any demagogue who might promise to make Rome America great again.
The burden of endless war in the Greater Middle East is straining America’s institutions just as it did the Roman Republic’s. Congress ducks its constitutional responsibility for authorizing military deployments, which are financed by soaring national debt (currently about $21 trillion and growing by nearly $1 trillion a year) that we will never pay off. The burden of the actual fighting falls on a small group of volunteers, while the rest of us do little more than ritually thanking them for their service.
These symptoms of dysfunction in our American Republic are serious but, as far as I can judge (and hope), not yet fatal. If we understand their causes and consequences, we can start the long, hard process of fixing them and returning to the vision of Madison and Hamilton, Washington and Jefferson. It’s here that we can benefit from Sallust’s reflections on how his own Republic lost its way some 2,100 years ago. With reflection, good will, and good luck, we can keep the American Republic’s future from repeating—or even rhyming with—the Roman Republic’s history.