Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

The fall of the republic?

England, France and the Anatolia of antiquity: Each has left its marks upon the customs and constitution of the American republic. But none is its prime model. From the language on our currency to the procedures (and indeed the name) of our Senate, from the etymology of the law to the administration of our far-flung, loose-reined empire, everything that defines us bears the indelible stamp of old Rome.

Feeding corruption

Feeding corruption: Some kinds of avis need to be rara.
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That should worry us, if we cherish the republic we have built.

For some two centuries, the Roman republic throve and grew. But in the first century BC, its foundations began to crumble, even as the citizens at its heart distracted themselves with spectacles and scandals. The first shocks emanated from Gaius Marius, the New Man whose successes on the battlefield — in particular, stopping migrating hordes of Germanii who moved a million strong south towards the fertile fields of Italy, where the Senate’s favorites had all failed — won for him the adulation of the masses and propelled him to the first of seven consulships.

How the conservative majority in the Senate hated Marius! To them, he was the apotheosis of evil: He was a commoner, not a member of any of the old Famous Families from which a tradition-hedged Rome preferred to draw its leaders; he championed the plebs against the aristocracy of the Senate; he won his way to power not by the mos maiorum (“the customs of our ancestors”), but by wealth gained from industry, much of it abroad, and from the vast clientele his wealth and generalship had secured to him; and, worst of all, he was conspicuously successful and could not safely be gainsaid.

Thus, when Marius went abroad to fight Mithridates, the Senate seized its chance. Demagogues among the conservative Optimates swayed enough people of power to cancel Marius’ recent legislation, to strip the Tribunate of the Plebs of all real authority and vest all power in the Senate, and to recall Marius from the commission to resubjugate Pontus and Armenia Parva in favor of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, an aristocrat who rose to the Senate from poverty with funds inherited from the rich aunt he was rumored to have murdered.

Sulla dispatched eastward, Marius returned — at the head of an army that marched upon Rome and reinstated Marius as consul. But Marius died in office early in his seventh term, leaving a vacuum into which Sulla, in turn, injected himself, also marching on and occupying Rome after easily defeating Marius’ successors Gaius Norbanus (Flaccus) and Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiagenus (after the death by mutiny of Lucius Cornelius Cinna). Sulla, made Dictator by popular acclaim under the admonitory eyes of his soldiers, then proscribed all of Marius’ followers and awarded their property to anyone who killed them, cancelled Marius’ legislation a second time, and nominally restored the authority of the Senate — although in practice all power belonged solely to Sulla. (This may have given the later Augustus some of his ideas for the post-republican period.)

For decades thereafter, Rome passed through various hands: the First and Second Triumvirates and more or less chaotic interregna. Meanwhile, the ruling aristocrats had won the essence of their desires: No more were the plebs to wield power; all was restored, in name, to the old order. And the conduct of governors and tax farmers in provinces throughout the empire went on according to corrupt custom; laissez-faire ruled the day, the plutocrats waxed fatter, and the republic’s coffers were drained in a thousand private intrigues.

Presently Julius Caesar rose to primacy, and led until 44 BC. Then it was that a cabal of assassins, putatively afraid of his ambition, murdered him in the Forum and set off the civil war that was to end in the obliteration of the republic and the fatal rise of Octavian — completed by his victory over Marcus Antonius at Actium in 31 BC — to the imperial palace.

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Armies have not yet marched on Washington, but the governors and tax-farmers wax richer, deplete the treasury and erode the customs, values and institutions fundamental to our republic. And our Senate acts not for us, the plebs, but for its paymasters among the aristocracy; ours is but to eat the bread and watch the circuses, while our pathocratic self-proclaimed betters decide for us what is to become of our country.

Let us, then, tread warily, lest our republic follow its Roman predecessor into oblivion.


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