Saturday, August 04, 2007

SPQR I: Res gestae - Things done

A nation grown suddenly great, enlarged by war, troubled by disturbance abroad and contention at home.
A people divided, made complacent by wealth and power yet enervated by political strife and economic uncertainty.
A government given over to the wealthy, whose vicious infighting consumes their ability to make sound choices for the betterment of the People, or the nation.
A military made hard, and indifferent to democratic ideals, by decades of professionalism and unremitting war.
An economy dominated by great corporations, relentlessly pressing down the opportunities for the individual and the small company.
An increasingly ruinous deficit, and the taxes needed to feed it.
Even the very structures of civilization itself crumble as, it seems, the nation both implodes and explodes.
The United States, 2007?
No. Rome, 33 years before the birth of Christ.
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I want to start looking at the difference and similarities between the Late Roman Republic and our own, because I believe that we are similarly citizens in a moribund Republic and that the footsteps of Caesar can already be heard in the corridors of power. Perhaps a hard look at what killed the original “republic” can help us do something to save our own. In particular, it can be difficult for people to draw lessons and ideas from thinking about causes and ideals but, as Tacitus reminds us, the example of others is nearly always illustrative:
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33.1 "Nam cunctas nationes et urbes populus aut primores aut singuli regunt: delecta ex iis et conflata rei publicae forma laudari facilius quam evenire, vel si evenit, haud diuturna esse potest. 33.2 Igitur ut olim plebe valida, vel cum patres pollerent, noscenda vulgi natura et quibus modis temperanter haberetur, senatusque et optimatium ingenia qui maxime perdidicerant, callidi temporum et sapientes credebantur, sic converso statu neque alia re Romana quam si unus imperitet, haec conquiri tradique in rem fuerit, quia pauci prudentia honesta ab deterioribus, utilia ab noxiis, discernunt, plures aliorum eventis docentur."
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(33.1 For all nations and cities are ruled either by the people, or by leading men, or by single individuals: a form of state selected and conflated from these is easier to praise than to happen or if it does happen it cannot be long-lasting. 33.2 Therefore, just as when formerly the common people being strong or when the senatorial fathers had power, the thing to understand was the nature of the masses and the means by which they might be controlled temperately and those who had most thoroughly learned the inner talents of the senate and the optimates were credited to be shrewd assessors of their times and wise, so the state of affairs having changed and the Roman thing being virtually no different than if one man were to give the orders, it will have been ad rem that these things be collected together and handed down, because few men distinguish honourable things from worse things, useful things from noxious, by intelligence, but many learn from the things that happen to others.)
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So to introduce my theme, let’s look at the end of the Roman Republic. What the heck happened?
1. Late Republican Rome had grown well beyond her original size, largely by aggressive war. In particular, the Roman economy began to change, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few powerful clans and causing political tension within Rome. Much of the newly conquered territories were seized by the wealthy. The old, freeholding middle-class that had been the strength of the Roman Republic and the soldiers of the Roman Army was being destroyed, replaced by the very wealthy senatorial class at the top and the landless “capti censi” at the bottom. Resentment - "class warfare" - was spreading through Roman society.
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2. This produced a series of opportunistic revolutions. The first was called the Revolt of the Gracci (133BC) - two brothers seriatim tried to lever political power out of the hands of the wealthy. Specifically, the Gracchi fought for "land reform" by attempting to limit the latifunda that were driving the middle class small farmers off their land. After this the Catiline Conspiracy (63BC) pitted economically wounded nobles and veterans fighting for debt cancellation against the landowning class. As the Senatorial representative of the nobiles, Cicero beat back yet another attempt to derail Roman progress towards an oligarchic system. Though the Catilines had been defeated without war, the manner in which the Senate dealt with the crisis demonstrated the Senate’s reactionary tendencies to secure its own interests first. This move away from a policy of compromise to self-interested reaction was a key shift in Roman politics which would in the long term contribute to the final collapse of the Republic.
3. The selfish politics started by Cicero in response to Catiline only got worse. While factional strife had always been part of Roman political life, the stakes were now far higher; a corrupt provincial governor could acquire unbelievable wealth; a successful military commander needed only the support of his legions to rule vast territories.

4. A slave economy became central to the Roman state. Greek and Roman societies had always been slave-owning cultures. But the sheer number of slaves flowing in from conquered provinces began to crowd free labor out of the marketplace. Few, if any, work could not be done cheaper by slaves.
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Formerly middle-class soldiers would return from years of campaigning to find themselves landless, unable to support their families, and ironically, unemployable because the successes of the Legions made slaves a much cheaper source of labor. By 133 BC the economic imbalance was too acute to ignore, but the wealthy patricians and old families in the Senate had a vested interest in preserving the status quo. The economic misery and social resentment went a long way to firing both the social conflicts of the Gracchi and Catiline mentioned above as well as the terrible and terrifying Servile Wars.
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5. The “Marian reforms” ended the citizen Army and replaced it with a professional force, mostly of landless “head count” soldiers. These reorganized the tactical structure of the Roman legion, and allowed the recruitment of poor and landless Roman citizens into the legions, at state expense. This would profoundly change the nature of the legions, as legionaries would from this point on be professional soldiers fighting for their "pension", and the general who would obtain it for them, as much as for the "Senate and People of Rome".
6. A brilliant and unscrupulous politician appeared on the scene: Gaius Julius Caesar. He used the resentment of the plebs against the senatorial and elite class while enacting legislation that favored his faction. He was voted governorship of Cisalpine Gaul by the Senate and immediately launched a series of military campaigns - his “Gallic Wars”, and even raided into Germany and across the Channel. For nine years Caesar prosecuted these technically illegal wars (as Caesar had exceeded his authority, supposedly limited to his provinces, in launching the invasions) but in Rome no one except his enemies in the Senate was worried enough about his personal power. They were getting slaves and tribute and that’s all that mattered to a Senate glutted with money and a people bored and delighted by military victory. Not until Caesar, fearing for his life when his term of office ended, chose not to end that term and instead marched on Rome and seized political power did the Senate and People understand the implications of their inaction.
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It's popular to blame Caesar for the Fall of the Republic, and no doubt without his energy for adventure and power the moribund Republic might have tottered on a bit longer. But as we've seen - Caesar wasn't the disease. He was the symptom. We'll look at this nasty little syndrome as it relates to our time in a little bit...

7. Caesar then launched a series of civil wars and ended up the last man standing. Caesar was too far “outside” the Republican system to be allowed to remain in place. Rivals for power, or republicans trying to overthrown the new Tarquin, were bound to attack him and they did. The next four years saw campaigns across the Roman domains, with Caesar pursuing his enemies until they were dead or exiled, and Caesar as “consul” the new king of Rome.
8. Although he was assassinated, his example provided Octavian the means to become Princeps and effectively end the Republic. The Senate and People, exhausted by the seemingly endless wars, first Caesar’s and then Octavian’s, were willing to relinquish the rule of the Senate and popular assemblies in favor of a temporary security. By 27 BC the transition, though subtle and disguised, was made complete. In that year, Octavian offered back all his extraordinary powers to the Senate, and in a carefully staged way, the Senate refused and in fact titled Octavian Augustus — "the revered one". He was always careful to avoid the title of rex — "king", and instead took on the titles of princeps — "first citizen" and imperator, a title given by Roman troops to their victorious commanders.
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Well, that's the history, the record of things done.
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What does it mean for us? What can we learn from it?
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That’s for next time.

1 comment:

Project Ni Hao said...

So many parallels...

I've talked about some of the comparisons in many discussions, but you've laid them out so well. It would be fascinating if it wasn't so, so frightening.