The collapse of the Roman republic in 27 BC has significance today for the United States, which took many of its key political principles from its ancient predecessor. Separation of powers, checks and balances, government in accordance with constitutional law, a toleration of slavery, fixed terms in office, all these ideas were influenced by Roman precedents. John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams often read and spoke of Cicero as an inspiration to them. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, writing in the Federalist Papers in favor of ratification of the Constitution, signed their article with the name Publius Valerius Publicola, the first consul of the Roman republic.
The Roman republic, however, failed to adjust to the unintended consequences of its imperialism, leading to a drastic alteration in its form of government. The militarism that inescapably accompanied Rome’s imperial projects slowly undermined its constitution as well as the very considerable political and human rights its citizens enjoyed. The American republic, of course, has not yet collapsed; it is just under considerable strain as the imperial presidency — and its supporting military legions — undermine congress and the courts. However, the Roman outcome — turning over power to an autocracy backed by military force and welcomed by ordinary citizens because it seemed to bring stability — suggests what might happen after Bush and his neoconservatives are thrown out of office.
Obviously, there is nothing deterministic about this progression, and many prominent Romans, notably Brutus and Cicero, paid with their lives trying to head it off. But there is something utterly logical about it. Republican checks and balances are simply incompatible with the maintenance of a large empire and a huge standing army. Democratic nations sometimes acquire empires, which they are reluctant to give up because they are a source of wealth and national pride, but as a result their domestic liberties are thereby put at risk.
These not-particularly-original comparisons are inspired by the current situation of the United States, with its empire of well over 725 military bases located in other people’s countries, its huge and expensive military establishment demanding ever more pay and ever larger appropriations from a supine and manipulated legislature, unsolved anthrax attacks on senators and newsmen (much like Rome’s perennial assassinations), Congress’s gutting of the Bill of Rights through the panicky passage of the Patriot Act — by votes of 76-1 in the Senate and 337 to 79 in the House — and numerous signs that the public is indifferent to what it is about to lose. Many current aspects of our American government suggest a Roman-like fatigue with republican proprieties. After congress voted in October 2002 to give the president unrestricted power to use any means, including military force and nuclear weapons, in a preventive strike against Iraq whenever he — and he alone — deemed it “appropriate,” it would be hard to argue that the constitution of 1787 was still the supreme law of the land.
My thinking about the last days of republics was partly stimulated this past summer by a new book and an old play. The book is Anthony Everitt’s magnificent account of the man who had his head and both hands chopped off for opposing military dictatorship — Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (Random House, 2001). The play was a modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, seen at San Diego’s Old Globe theater. The curtain opened on a huge backdrop portrait of Julius Caesar looking remarkably like any seedy politician with the word “tyrant” scrawled graffiti-style beneath his face in red paint. At play’s end, after Octavian’s hypocritical comments on the death of Brutus, who was one of the republic’s most stalwart supporters (“According to his virtue let us use him. . . .”), the picture of Caesar drops away to be replaced by one of Octavian — soon to become the self-proclaimed god Augustus Caesar — in full military uniform and bearing a marked resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, Octavian’s military rule did not actually follow at once after the suicides of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi (42 BC) and Shakespeare does not say it did. But that is what the play — and the history — are all about: killing Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC only prepared the ground for a more ruthless and determined successor.
THE ROMAN REPUBLIC is conventionally dated from 509 to 27 BC even though Romulus’s founding of the city is traditionally said to have occurred in 753 BC. All we know about its dim past, including the first two centuries of the republic, comes from the histories written by Livy and others and from the findings of modern archaeology. For the century preceding the republic, Rome had been ruled by Etruscan kings from their nearby state of Etruria (modern Tuscany), until in 510, according to legend, Sextus, the son of the king Tarquinius Superbus (“King Tarquin”), raped Lucretia, the daughter of a leading Roman family. A group of aristocrats backed by the Roman citizenry revolted against this outrage and expelled the Etruscans from Rome. The rebels were determined that never again would any single man be allowed to obtain supreme power in Rome, and for four centuries the system they established more or less succeeded in preventing that from happening. “This was the main principle,” writes Everitt, “that underpinned constitutional arrangements which, by Cicero’s time [106 to 43 BC], were of a baffling complexity.”
At the heart of the unwritten Roman constitution was the Senate, composed by the early years of the first century BC of about 300 members from whose ranks two chief executives, called consuls, were elected. The consuls took turns being in charge for a month each, and neither could hold office for more than a year. Over time an amazing set of “checks and balances” evolved to ensure that the consuls and other executives whose offices conferred on them imperium — the right to command an army, to interpret and carry out the law, and to pass sentences of death — did not entertain visions of grandeur and overstay their time. At the heart of these restraints were the principles of collegiality and term limits. The first meant that for every office there were at least two incumbents neither of whom had seniority or superiority over the other. Office holders were normally limited to one-year terms and could be reelected to the same office only after waiting ten years. Senators had to serve two to three years in lower offices — as quaestors, tribunes, aediles, or praetors — before they were eligible for election to a higher office, including the consulship. All office holders could veto the acts of their equals, and higher officials could veto decisions of lower ones. The chief exception to these rules was the office of “dictator,” appointed by the consuls in times of military emergency. There was always only one dictator and his decisions were immune to veto; according to the constitution, he could hold office only for six months or the duration of a crisis.
Once an official had ended his term as consul or praetor, the next post below consul, he was posted in Italy or abroad as governor of a province or colony and given the title of proconsul. It is absurd for journalistic admirers of the U.S. military today to pretend that its regional commanders-in-chief for the Middle East (Centcom), Europe (Eucom), the Pacific (Pacom), Latin America (Southcom), and the United States itself (Northcom) are the equivalents of Roman proconsuls.1 The Roman officials were seasoned members of the Senate who had held the highest executive post in the country, whereas American regional commanders are generals or admirals who have served their entire careers away from civilian concerns and risen to this post by managing to avoid making egregious mistakes. After serving as consul in 63 BC (the year of Octavian’s birth), for example, Cicero was sent to govern the colony of Cilicia in present-day southern Turkey, where his duties were both civilian and military.
Over time this complex system was made even more complex by the class struggle embedded in Roman society. During the first two centuries of the republic, what appeared to be a participatory democracy was in fact an oligarchy of aristocratic families that dominated the Senate. Not everyone was happy with this. After 287 BC, when the constitution was more or less formalized, a new institution came into being to defend the rights of the plebs or populares, that is, ordinary, non-aristocratic citizens of Rome. These were the tribunes of the people, charged with protection of the lives and property of plebians. Tribunes could veto any election, law, or decree of the Senate, of which they were ex officio members, as well as the acts of all other officials (except a dictator). They could also veto each others’ vetoes. “No doubt because their purpose in life was to annoy people,” Everitt notes, “their persons were sacrosanct.” Controlling appointments to the office of tribune became very important later to generals like Julius Caesar, who based their power on their armies plus the support of the populares against the aristocrats.
The system worked well enough and afforded extraordinary freedoms to the citizens of Rome so long as all members of the Senate recognized that compromise and consensus were the only ways to get anything done. Everitt poses the issue in terms of the different perspectives of Caesar and Cicero; Caesar was Rome’s, and perhaps history’s greatest general; whereas Cicero was the most intellectual defender of the Roman constitution. Both were former consuls: “Julius Caesar, with the pitiless insight of genius, understood that the constitution with its endless checks and balances prevented effective government, but like so many of his contemporaries Cicero regarded politics in personal rather than structural terms. For Caesar the solution lay in a completely new system of government; for Cicero it lay in finding better men to run the government — and better laws to keep them in order.”
Imperialism provoked the crisis that destroyed the Roman republic. After slowly consolidating its power over all of Italy and conquering the Greek colonies on the island of Sicily, the republic extended its conquests to Greece itself, to Carthage in North Africa, and to what is today southern France, Spain, and Asia Minor. By the first century BC, Rome dominated all of Gaul, most of Iberia, the coast of North Africa, Macedonia (including Greece), the Balkans, and large parts of modern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. “The republic became enormously rich on the spoils of empire,” Everitt writes, “so much so that from 167 BC Roman citizens in Italy no longer paid any personal taxes.” The republic also became increasingly self-important and arrogant, believing that its task was to bring civilization to lesser peoples and naming the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum (our sea), somewhat the way some Americans came in the twentieth century to refer to the Pacific Ocean as an “American lake.”
The problem was that the Roman constitution made administration of so large and diverse an area increasingly difficult and subtly altered the norms and interests that underlay the need for compromise and consensus. There were several aspects to this crisis, but the most important was the transformation of the Roman army into a professional military force and the growth of militarism. During the early and middle years of the republic, the Roman legions were a true citizen army composed of small, conscripted landowners. Differing from the American republic, all citizens between the age of 17 and 46 were liable to be called for military service. One of the more admirable aspects of the Roman system was that only those citizens who possessed a specified amount of property (namely, a horse and some land) could serve, thereby making those who had profited most from the state also responsible for its defense. (By contrast, of the 535 members of Congress, only seven have children in the U.S.’s all-volunteer armed forces.) The Roman plebs did their service as skirmishers with the army or in the navy, which had far less honor attached to it. At the beginning of each term, the consuls appointed tribunes to raise two legions from the census role of all eligible citizens.
When a campaign was over, the troops were promptly sent back to their farms, sometimes richer and flushed with military glory. Occasionally, the returning farmers got to march behind their general in a “triumph,” a victory procession allowed only to the greatest conquerors that was the most splendid ceremony in the Roman calendar. The general himself, who paid for this parade, rode in a chariot with his face covered in red lead to represent Jupiter, king of the gods. A boy slave stood behind him holding a laurel wreath above his head while whispering in his ear “Remember that you are human.” In Pompey’s great triumph of 61 BC, he actually wore a cloak that had belonged to Alexander the Great. After the general came his prisoners in chains and finally the legionnaires, who by ancient tradition sang obscene songs satirizing their general.
By the end of the second century BC, in Everitt’s words, “The responsibilities of empire meant that soldiers could no longer be demobilized at the end of each fighting season. Standing forces were required, with soldiers on long-term contracts.” The great general Caius Marius undertook to reform the armed forces, replacing the old conscript armies with a professional body of long-service volunteers. When their contracts expired, they expected their commanders, to whom they were personally loyal, to grant them farms. Unfortunately, land in Italy was by then in short supply, much of it tied up in huge sheep and cattle ranches owned by rich, often aristocratic, families and run by slave labor. The landowners were the dominant conservative influence in the Senate, and they resisted all efforts at land reform. Members of the upper classes became wealthy as a result of Rome’s wars of conquest and bought more land as the only safe investment, driving small holders off their property. In 133 BC the gentry arranged for the killing of the tribune Tiberius Gracchus (of plebian origin) for advocating a new land-use law. Rome’s population continued to swell with landless veterans. “Where would the land be found,” asks Everitt, “for the superannuated soldiers of Rome’s next war?”
DURING THE LAST CENTURY before its fall, the republic was assailed by many revolts of generals and their troops, leading to gross violations of the constitution and on several occasions to civil wars. These included the uprisings of Marius and Sulla and of the failed revolutionary Catilina. There was also the Spartacus slave rebellion of 73 BC, put down by the immensely wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus, who in the process crucified some 6,000 survivors. Crassus was a member of the First Triumvirate, along with Pompey and Caesar, which attempted to bring the situation under control by direct cooperation among the generals. Everitt writes, “During his childhood and youth Cicero had watched with horror as Rome set about dismantling itself. If he had a mission as an adult, it was to recall the republic to order. . . . [He] noticed that the uninhibited freedom of speech which marked political life in the republic was giving way to caution at social gatherings and across dinner tables. . . . The Senate had no answer to Rome’s problems and indeed sought none. Its aim was simply to maintain the constitution and resist the continual attacks on its authority. . . . The populares had lost decisively with the defeat of Catilina, but the snake was only stunned. Caesar, who had been plotting against Senatorial interests behind the scenes, was rising up the political ladder and, barring accidents, would be consul in a few year’s time.”
Caesar became consul for the first time in 59 BC enjoying great popularity with the ordinary people. After his year in office, he was rewarded by being named governor of Gaul, a post he held between 58 and 49 during which he earned great military glory and became immensely wealthy. In 49 he famously allowed his armies to cross the Rubicon, a small river in northern Italy that served as a boundary against armies approaching the capital, and plunged the country into civil war, taking on his former ally and now rival, Pompey. He won, after which, as Everitt observes, “No one was left in the field for Caesar to fight. . . . His leading opponents were dead. The republic was dead too: he had become the state.” Julius Caesar exercised dictatorship from 48 to 44 and a month before the Ides of March had arranged to have himself named “dictator for life.” Instead, he was stabbed to death in the Senate by a conspiracy of eight members, led by Brutus and Cassius, both praetors, known to history as “principled tyrannicides.”
Shakespeare’s recreation of the scenes that followed, based upon Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, has become as immortal as the deed itself. In a speech to the plebians in the Forum, Brutus defended his actions. “If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I lov’d Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and all die slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?” However, Mark Antony, Caesar’s chief lieutenant, speaking to the same audience, had the last word. He turned the populace against Brutus and Cassius, and as they raced forth to avenge Caesar’s murder, said cynically, “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”
The Second Triumvirate, formed to avenge Caesar, ended like the first, with only one man standing, but that man, Caius Octavianus (Octavian), Caesar’s eighteen-year-old grand nephew, would decisively change Roman government by replacing the republic with an imperial dictatorship. Everitt characterizes Octavian as “a freebooting young privateer,” who on August 19, 43 BC, became the youngest consul in Rome’s history and set out, in violation of the constitution, to raise his own private army. “The boy would be a focus for the simmering resentments among the Roman masses, the disbanded veterans, and the standing legions.” Cicero, who had devoted his life to trying to curb the kind of power represented by Octavian, now gave up on the rule of law in favor of realpolitik. He recognized that “for all his struggles the constitution was dead and power lay in the hands of soldiers and their leaders.” In Cicero’s analysis, the only hope was to try to co-opt Octavian, leading him toward a more constitutional position, while doing everything not to “irritate rank-and-file opinion, which was fundamentally Caesarian.” Cicero would pay with his life for this last, desperate gamble. Octavian, allied with Mark Antony, ordered at least 130 senators (perhaps as many as 300) executed and their property confiscated after charging them with supporting the conspiracy against Caesar. Mark Antony personally added Cicero’s name to the list. When he met his death, the great scholar and orator had with him a copy of Euripides’ Medea, which he had been reading. His head and both hands were displayed in the Forum.
A year after Cicero’s death, following the battle of Philippi where Brutus and Cassius ended their lives, Octavian and Antony divided the known world between them. Octavian took the West and remained in Rome; Antony accepted the East and allied himself with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt and Julius Caesar’s former mistress. In 31 BC, Octavian set out to end this unstable arrangement, and at the sea battle of Actium in the Gulf of Ambracia on the western coast of Greece, he defeated Antony’s and Cleopatra’s fleet. The following year in Alexandria Mark Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra took an asp to her breast. By then, both had been thoroughly discredited for claiming that Antony was a descendant of Caesar’s and for seeking Roman citizenship rights for Cleopatra’s children by Caesar. Octavian would rule the Roman world for the next 45 years, until his death in 14 AD.
On January 13, 27 BC, Octavian appeared in the Senate, which had legitimized its own demise by ceding most of its powers to him, and bestowing on him the new title of Augustus, first Roman emperor. The majority of the Senators were his solid supporters, having been handpicked by him. In 23 BC, Augustus was granted further authority by being designated a tribune for life, which gave him ultimate veto power over anything the Senate might do. His power rested ultimately on his total control of the armed forces.
ALTHOUGH HIS RISE TO POWER was always tainted by constitutional illegitimacy — not unlike that of our own Boy Emperor from Crawford, Texas — Augustus proceeded to emasculate the Roman system and its representative institutions. He never abolished the old republican offices but merely united them under one person, himself. Imperial appointment became a badge of prestige and social standing rather than of authority. The Senate was turned into a club of old aristocratic families, and its approval of the acts of the emperor was purely ceremonial. The Roman legions continued to march under the banner SPQR — senatus populus que Romanus, “the Senate and the Roman People” — but the authority of Augustus was absolute.
The most serious problem was that the army had grown too large and was close to unmanageable. It constituted a state within a state, not unlike the Pentagon in the United States today. Augustus reduced the army’s size and provided generous cash payments to those soldiers who had served more than twelve years, making clear that this bounty came from him, not their military commanders. He also transferred all legions away from Rome to the remote provinces and borders of the Empire, to ensure their leaders were not tempted to meddle in political affairs. Equally astutely, he created the Praetorian Guard, an elite force of 9,000 men with the task of defending him personally, and stationed them in Rome. They were drawn only from Italy, not from distant provinces, and were paid more than soldiers in the regular legions. They began as Augustus’s personal bodyguards, but in the decades after his death they became decisive players in the selection of new emperors. It was one of the first illustrations of an old problem of authoritarian politics: create one bureaucracy, the Praetorian Guard, to control another bureaucracy, the regular army, but before long the question will arise Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchers?)
Augustus is credited with forging the Roman Peace (Pax Romana), which historians like to say lasted more than 200 years. It was, however, a military dictatorship and depended entirely on the incumbent emperor. And therein lay the problem. Tiberius, who reigned from 14-37 AD, retired to Capri with a covey of young boys who catered to his sexual tastes. His successor, Caligula, who held office from 37-41, was the darling of the army, but on January 24, 41 AD, the Praetorian Guard assassinated him and proceeded to loot the imperial palace. Modern archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Caligula was an eccentric maniac, just as history has always portrayed him.2
The fourth Roman emperor, Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54, was selected and put into power by the Praetorian Guard in a de facto military coup. Despite the basically favorable portrayal of him by Robert Graves (I, Claudius, 1934) and years later on TV by Derek Jacobi, Claudius, who was Caligula’s uncle, was addicted to gladiatorial games and fond of watching his defeated opponents being put to death. As a child, Claudius limped, drooled, stuttered, and was constantly ill. He had his first wife killed and married Agrippina, daughter of the sister of Caligula, after having the law changed to allow uncles to marry their nieces. On October 13, 54 AD, Claudius was killed with a poisoned mushroom, probably fed to him by his wife, and at noon that same day, the sixteen-year-old Nero, Agrippina’s son by a former husband, was acclaimed emperor in a carefully orchestrated piece of political theater. Nero, who reigned from 54 to 68, was a probably insane tyrant who has been credited with setting fire to Rome in 64 and persecuting some famous early Christians (Paul and Peter), although his reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years as a patron of the arts.
After Augustus, not much recommends the Roman Empire as an example of enlightened government despite the enthusiasm for it of such neoconservative promoters of the George W. Bush administration as The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, The Wall Street Journal’s Max Boot, and The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol. My reasons for going over this ancient history are not to suggest that our own Boy Emperor is a second Octavian but rather what might happen after he is gone. The history of the Roman republic from the time of Julius Caesar on suggests that it was imperialism and militarism, poorly understood by all conservative political leaders at the time, that brought it down. Militarism and the professionalization of a large standing army create invincible new sources of power within a polity. The government must mobilize the masses in order to exploit them as cannon fodder and this leads to the rise of populist generals who understand the grievances of their troops and veterans.
Service in the armed forces of the United States has not been a universal male obligation of citizenship since 1973. Our military today is a professional corps of men and women who join up for their own reasons, commonly to advance themselves in the face of one or another cul de sac of American society. They normally do not expect to be shot at, but they do expect all the benefits of state employment — steady pay, good housing, free medical benefits, relief from racial discrimination, world travel, and gratitude from the society for their military “service.” They are well aware that the alternatives civilian life in America offers today include difficult job searches, no job security, regular pilfering of retirement funds by company executives and their accountants, “privatized” medical care, bad public elementary education systems, and insanely expensive higher education. They are ripe, it seems to me, not for the political rhetoric of patrician politicians who have followed the Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School route to riches and power but for a Julius Caesar, Napoléon Bonaparte, or Juan Perón — a revolutionary, military populist with no interest in republican niceties so long as he is made emperor.
Given the course of the postwar situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may not be too hard to defeat George Bush in the election of 2004. But regardless of who replaces him, he will have to deal with the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, our empire of bases, and a fifty-year-old tradition of not telling the public what our military establishment costs and the devastation it can inflict. History teaches us that the capacity for things to get worse is limitless. Roman history suggests that the short, happy life of the American republic is in serious trouble — and that conversion to a military empire is, to say the least, not the best answer.
1. See, for example, Dana Priest, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military (New York: Norton, 2003).
2. Shasta Darlington, “New Dig Says Caligula Was Indeed a Maniac,” Reuters, August 16, 2003.
This commentary first appeared on TomDispatch.com, a weblog of The Nation Institute.