Ours is a Roman state, modeled on the Roman Republic, and our Republic subject to the same stresses that destroyed its model in the second and first centuries before Christ. The names “Capitol” and “Senate”, the classical style of the building set upon the hill, are Roman in form, but so is the horrifying spectacle of a mob whipped up to violence by a ranking politician, and of the three highest ranking politicians in the Republic after the president all hiding from the mob. But the parallels are not immediately clear.
Our Republic itself was modeled on Roman institutions. The Founders drew heavily on Polybius’s analysis of the branches of Roman government. The monarchical principle, represented by the consuls at Rome, they embodied in the presidency. The aristocratic principle, found at Rome in the Senate, they embodied in our Senate, at first not a popularly elected body.
Finally, the democratic principle, resting at Rome in the popular assemblies, they embodied in the popularly elected House of Representatives. This was the origin of the separation of powers in our government, and it is no surprise, then, the Constitution showed so little concern for the organization of the federal judiciary.
The Republic’s Long, Slow Death
The primary cause of the long, slow death of that Republic began towards the end of the second century. Until that time, only landholders could serve in the Roman armies. The ordinary Roman legionary was a peasant farmer, and therefore had a stake in the state. But endless foreign summer campaigns meant these peasant warriors could not cultivate their holdings properly, while the riches gained from conquered states went primarily to the aristocracy.
As peasant land holdings declined, the wealthy bought them up to form vast farms called latifundia. Consequently, fewer and fewer men were available for military service, until the Senate, in desperation, changed the law, and began enrolling landless men. These men had no real stake in the Republic.
The Senate was desperate, because it had already obstructed proposals for land redistribution promoted famously by the Gracchi brothers, who belonged to families of great senatorial prestige. In fact, a mob raised by the Senate had murdered one brother in 133, and the other committed suicide to escape murder by another mob in 121. Greed, of course, was at the bottom of the violence. The aristocrats did not want to give up any land.
So, by 100 B.C., Rome was badly divided between the haves and the have-nots, the latter being economically and politically dispossessed. The aristocracy was divided against itself between the advocates of the wealthy and the advocates of the poor. Most alarmingly, the armies were becoming loyal to the successful generals who led them, and sliding closer and closer to breaking law and tradition on behalf of these ambitious men. And finally came the Rubicon.
In our Republic, we still have armed forces loyal to the Constitution. No general can call out thousands of his veterans to march on Washington. Indeed, our generals are not even part of the political elite in our Republic, as they were in the Roman. We would seem to be safe from the civil wars and proscriptions of first-century Rome.
Rome and America
But think of the underlying causes of Roman collapse. Three parallels are obvious. The haves and the have-nots in America have grown very far apart, leading to the dispossession of many Americans, who, we know, have felt they had a savior in Donald Trump. Second, American elites are now divided between advocates of the rich and of the poor, though the dividing line does not run neatly between the Republican and Democratic parties anymore. Third, fringe elements of the major political parties use mob violence, and major politicians incite their followers to riot. The tinder is ready.
And there is a fourth cause, not so obvious but crucial. While many ordinary white Americans feel newly dispossessed (black Americans have felt dispossessed for generations for their own reasons), American elites share a critical moral failure with the Roman aristocracy: they no longer believe that Republican institutions and traditions are big enough to contain their ambitions.
In the early second century B.C., Scipio Africanus was content with the prestige he had as princeps senatus, chief man of the Senate, though the appointment carried no political authority. A century and a half later, Caesar Octavianus gathered that title as well as several others into his own basket, and ruled as emperor.
During the intervening decades, the Roman aristocracy learned by experience that their traditions and institutions were fragile, and depended on the faithful obedience of every citizen. But if a man were willing to use his money and mob violence and military power for his own ends, setting aside the needs of the Republic, then he could indulge dreams and ambitions that were simply beyond the minds of previous generations.
The Ambitious Senators
We have now reached that mental Rubicon. I’m not talking here primarily of Donald Trump.
I’m thinking of men like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who, for the sake of their ambitions, have promoted Trump’s delusions. I do not doubt that Democratic politicians exist who have crossed the same Rubicon, but it is Republicans who have provided the most egregious recent examples. And these examples provide the most frightening and suggestive parallel with ancient Roman history. It looks like the beginning of our end, too.
Richard Upsher Smith, Jr., was until his retirement professor of classics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is a contributing editor of the New Oxford Review.