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Notes from the Fall of the Republic

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Thomas Cole, “Destruction,” 1836 (from “Course of Empire” series)

Mike Duncan has a sobering piece in Made by History this week on lessons from the fall of the Roman Republic.

In 146 B.C., Rome completed its conquest of both Greece and Carthage and emerged as the most dominant power in the Mediterranean. There was no power left to challenge the legions, and over the course of the next century, Rome enveloped the rest of the region on its way to becoming the greatest and most enduring empire in the ancient world.

But as a result of this imperial triumph, the republican system under which the Romans lived collapsed. Since 509 B.C., Rome had been famous for its system of cooperative and participatory government that combined executive magistrates with an aristocratic Senate and democratic assemblies. For centuries, the republic persisted, and no single man ever seized power. But within 100 years of Rome’s imperial victories in 146, the republican system would be dead. The triumph of the Roman Republic was simultaneously the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.

His diagnosis: it was all about the “skyrocketing” economic inequality:

As a result of Rome’s military conquests, the wealth of the known world was brought back to Italy in the baggage trains of the victorious legions. And as Rome became the great center of the Mediterranean, the trade networks that linked cities and kingdoms from Spain to Syria now revolved around Rome. But this flood of new wealth was not shared equally — it instead concentrated in the hands of a small clique of aristocratic senatorial families who now controlled fortunes on a scale unimaginable to their austere ancestors.

And while the rich got richer, the poor got poorer. Lower-class Roman families — small citizen-farmers who had long been the backbone of the republic — faced a dire economic crisis. Prolonged military service had left many of their farms ruined. Unable to compete with growing estates of their senatorial neighbors, small freeholders were bought out by rich families. This began a century-long process that transformed Italy from a patchwork of small farms to a handful of huge commercial estates. The poorer Romans were reduced to being landless peasants or moving to the cities in search of wage labor. Either way, they were dislocated from their traditional ways of life and not very happy about it.

It will surprise no one that the entrenched elites in the Roman Senate then refused to reform the system that was keeping them at the top.

This stubborn resistance to change opened the door to a darker side of popular resentment at the elites. When reasonable attempts at reform failed, populist demagogues were able to exploit the resentment, anxiety and desperation of burdened families. They promised to take land from the rich and redistribute it to the poor, offered free grain to the urban population and promised to prosecute senators for corruption. But these demagogues were much less interested in actually following through on these promises. It was not social reform they cared about but rather the acquisition of power. They saw popular anger simply as a means to an end.

This line bears repeating:

It was not social reform they cared about but rather the acquisition of power.

This meant that social and political norms broke down:

This combative and increasingly toxic atmosphere led to the collapse of all of the unspoken rules of political behavior. Without these constraints, as the years passed, the issues at stake ceased to be as important as winning feuds built on mutual escalation and cycles of vengeance.

Duncan warns us that the clock is ticking: it took about a century for Rome to transition to autocracy. Meanwhile,

[T]he seeds of American decline were sown not in the past 15 years of war and recession but in the 1970s, when economic inequality began to rise, a process that has only accelerated in recent years.

Duncan also offers some hope that we can still veer off this course:

It did not have to be this way. After the imperial triumph of 146 B.C., reform was necessary. Had the Senate acted with foresight in the 130s and 120s, the republic might not have fallen a century later. Julius Caesar and Augustus both introduced a raft of reforms designed to do by autocratic fiat what the once-cooperative republican government had failed to achieve. Far from resisting such an autocratic takeover, many Roman citizens were thrilled the deadlock was broken and relief was on the way. One can only hope that we do not repeat the mistakes of history.

So, for the USians reading: make sure you vote. The future of our Republic is in your hands.

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