Lessons in the Decline of Democracy from the Ruined Roman Republic

Tidewater

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This is an interesting article from Smithsonian Magazine
Jason Dailey, the author of the article (which is eighteen months old now) writes about a 2018 book by an historian at UC San Diego, Edward Watts: Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny.

From the article: "Watts chronicles the ways the republic, with a population once devoted to national service and personal honor, was torn to shreds by growing wealth inequality, partisan gridlock, political violence and pandering politicians, and argues that the people of Rome chose to let their democracy die by not protecting their political institutions, eventually turning to the perceived stability of an emperor instead of facing the continued violence of an unstable and degraded republic."

I would add a lack of respect for constitutional traditions when actors found them inconvenient. Both sides did it: e.g., the Gracchi as tribunes vetoing every government action until they got land reform; the Optimates murdering the Gracchi (plebeians had sworn to kill anyone who laid a hand on a tribune); Marius succeeding himself as consul instead of the customary five years between holding office; Sulla becoming dictator and publishing his proscription list, Gaius Julius Caesar bringing his army into Italy.

Watts seems to emphasize Rome being thrust onto a global stage as a major contributor. I would attribute some of the degeneracy to the loss of a serious outside competitor (Carthage).

Sallust lived through the demise of the republic: "Before the destruction of Carthage, the senate and people managed the affairs of the republic with mutual moderation and forbearance; there were no contests among the citizens for honor or ascendency; but the dread of an enemy kept the state in order. When that fear, however, was removed from their minds, licentiousness and pride, evils which prosperity loves to foster, immediately began to prevail; and thus peace, which they had so eagerly desired in adversity, proved, when they had obtained it, more grievous and fatal than adversity itself. The patricians carried their authority, and the people their liberty, to excess; every man took, snatched, and seized what he could. There was a complete division into two factions, and the republic was torn in pieces between them."

Sound familiar?
 
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TIDE-HSV

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This is an interesting article from Smithsonian Magazine
Jason Dailey, the author of the article (which is eighteen months old now) writes about a 2018 book by an historian at UC San Diego, Edward Watts: Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny.

Watts chronicles the ways the republic, with a population once devoted to national service and personal honor, was torn to shreds by growing wealth inequality, partisan gridlock, political violence and pandering politicians, and argues that the people of Rome chose to let their democracy die by not protecting their political institutions, eventually turning to the perceived stability of an emperor instead of facing the continued violence of an unstable and degraded republic.

I would add a lack of respect for constitutional traditions when actors found them inconvenient. Both sides did it: e.g., the Gracchi as tribunes vetoing every government action until they got land reform; the Optimates murdering the Gracchi (plebeians had sworn to kill anyone who laid a hand on a tribune); Marius succeeding himself as consul instead of the customary five years between holding office; Sulla becoming dictator and publishing his proscription list, Gaius Julius Caesar bringing his army into Italy.

Watts seems to emphasize Rome being thrust onto a global stage as a major contributor. I would attribute some of the degeneracy to the loss of a serious outside competitor (Carthage).

Sallust lived through the demise of the republic: "Before the destruction of Carthage, the senate and people managed the affairs of the republic with mutual moderation and forbearance; there were no contests among the citizens for honor or ascendency; but the dread of an enemy kept the state in order. When that fear, however, was removed from their minds, licentiousness and pride, evils which prosperity loves to foster, immediately began to prevail; and thus peace, which they had so eagerly desired in adversity, proved, when they had obtained it, more grievous and fatal than adversity itself. The patricians carried their authority, and the people their liberty, to excess; every man took, snatched, and seized what he could. There was a complete division into two factions, and the republic was torn in pieces between them."

Sound familiar?
Yes, but only if Carthage had managed to suborn the senate and the consuls and had them under their secret control...
 
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Padreruf

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This correlation has been made many times over the last 50 years...and i cannot say that it is without merit due to the fact that most empires decline after a period of time, usually a couple of hundred years or less. Edward Gibbons' The History and Decline of the Roman Empire is the best I've consulted...though I have not come close to reading all 6 volumes! We are in decline...have been for about 50 years imho, and whether we can resurrect ourselves still is to be determined. I'm more negative than some...I think we're doomed and just living out the string for about 75-100 more years.
 

TIDE-HSV

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This correlation has been made many times over the last 50 years...and i cannot say that it is without merit due to the fact that most empires decline after a period of time, usually a couple of hundred years or less. Edward Gibbons' The History and Decline of the Roman Empire is the best I've consulted...though I have not come close to reading all 6 volumes! We are in decline...have been for about 50 years imho, and whether we can resurrect ourselves still is to be determined. I'm more negative than some...I think we're doomed and just living out the string for about 75-100 more years.
You just reminded me that I have read all six volumes. I'm not sure how much I remember right now... :)
 

Tidewater

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This correlation has been made many times over the last 50 years...and i cannot say that it is without merit due to the fact that most empires decline after a period of time, usually a couple of hundred years or less. Edward Gibbons' The History and Decline of the Roman Empire is the best I've consulted...though I have not come close to reading all 6 volumes! We are in decline...have been for about 50 years imho, and whether we can resurrect ourselves still is to be determined. I'm more negative than some...I think we're doomed and just living out the string for about 75-100 more years.
I am not one of those who believes history repeats itself. I do believe it echoes and rhymes at times.
There are enough dissimilarities that matter. The U.S. are a federated republic. Rome (by the late republic) was a metropolitan empire with citizens among the subject and allied city states. The United States have near universal citizenship (I would guess that 90%+ of the people living in the U.S. are citizens).
Still, becoming an empire does change the polity (Watts' point). Having a serious external enemy does help focus the population (Sallust's point).
 
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Tidewater

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You just reminded me that I have read all six volumes. I'm not sure how much I remember right now... :)
For all the prestige that work brings, his central argument (that the superstition of Christianity inter alia ruined the empire) seems passable until one remembers that during the period of Rome's greatest expansion (the third and second centuries BC), Roman generals would consult "the sacred chicken" before deciding whether the fight a battle, the "superstition" argument holds less water. The Roman republic was pretty superstitious before Christianity.
 

TIDE-HSV

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For all the prestige that work brings, his central argument (that the superstition of Christianity inter alia ruined the empire) seems passable until one remembers that during the period of Rome's greatest expansion (the third and second centuries BC), Roman generals would consult "the sacred chicken" before deciding whether the fight a battle, the "superstition" argument holds less water. The Roman republic was pretty superstitious before Christianity.
You mean the way they used calculus... :)
 

Padreruf

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You mean the way they used calculus... :)
For all the prestige that work brings, his central argument (that the superstition of Christianity inter alia ruined the empire) seems passable until one remembers that during the period of Rome's greatest expansion (the third and second centuries BC), Roman generals would consult "the sacred chicken" before deciding whether the fight a battle, the "superstition" argument holds less water. The Roman republic was pretty superstitious before Christianity.
Interestingly enough, for the USA I believe having a dominant religion, i.e., Christian Protestantism, was a cultural unifying factor. Catholicism was small but grew with immigration and a large birth rate; Judaism was/is small but very strong in its presence. In the 1950's through the 1980's many Protestant churches used a national Bible Study schedule in Sunday School as well as their pastors following the Revised Common Lectionary for sermon texts. At the proverbial water cooler on Sunday people could compare notes on what they had heard at their churches, i.e, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and so forth. This was a powerful unifying force if you ask me.

Now, we have a huge diversity that reduces this "unifying" power. As the presence of non-Christian religions have grown (including the "nones,") along with the growth of non-denominational and Catholic churches we have seen that unifying factor greatly reduced. Whether this is a cause or a result of our cultural demise I cannot say...they are probably too close to separate.
 

81usaf92

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I tend to agree with the idea of not having a rival made the republic inevitably fall. After they salted the earth after the Third Punic War (though it could be argued the Second was the true end of Carthage) Roman greed among the patricians from the spoils of war and the inequality of the plebs who fought the wars really became a pressing issue. Cults of personality like Marius and Caesar infected the minds of the plebs to revolt against the rich senate, and effectively tore down the republic.
 

TIDE-HSV

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Interestingly enough, for the USA I believe having a dominant religion, i.e., Christian Protestantism, was a cultural unifying factor. Catholicism was small but grew with immigration and a large birth rate; Judaism was/is small but very strong in its presence. In the 1950's through the 1980's many Protestant churches used a national Bible Study schedule in Sunday School as well as their pastors following the Revised Common Lectionary for sermon texts. At the proverbial water cooler on Sunday people could compare notes on what they had heard at their churches, i.e, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and so forth. This was a powerful unifying force if you ask me.

Now, we have a huge diversity that reduces this "unifying" power. As the presence of non-Christian religions have grown (including the "nones,") along with the growth of non-denominational and Catholic churches we have seen that unifying factor greatly reduced. Whether this is a cause or a result of our cultural demise I cannot say...they are probably too close to separate.
I was referring to their practice of astragalomancy - the tossing of bones to make decisions and foretell the future...
 

crimbru

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Pagans could change their deity like their shirt which was about as close to freedom of religion one could hope for back then. If you think about it from another perspective during those times, the reason the early Christians were probably ridiculed and persecuted is because they were thought by outsiders to eat the body and drink the blood of the son of their god in their most sacred ritual--literally. To stay on topic, freedom of and from religion in government is a huge society health factor in my opinion. Christians being more orthodox (insular and demanding) at the time of their increased power maybe caused more harm than the superstitions, but it is always complicated and more than one thing.
 
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Tidewater

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I am in the middle of reading Watt's book.

The past is no oracle and historians are not prophets, but this does not mean that it is wrong to look to antiquity for help understanding the present. The republics that are now so strained did not, like Athena, spring fully formed from the head of Zeus in the 18th century. Their founders modeled them on older, extremely successful republics that preceded them. Rome offered the oldest and most successful republic on which many modern states were patterned. The ancient Roman Republic is, of course, very different from a modern state, but the Roman Republic‘s distribution of power and its processes for political decision-making deeply influenced its modern descendants. The successes and failures of Rome's Republic can show how republics built on Rome's model might respond to particular stresses. ( page 1)



No republic is eternal. It lives only as long as its citizens want it. And, in both the 21st century A.D. and the first century BC, when a republic fails to work as intended, its citizens are capable of choosing the stability of autocratic rule over the chaos of a broken republic. When freedom leads to disorder and aristocracy premises a functional and responsive government, even citizens of an established republic can become willing to set aside long-standing, principled objections to the rule of one man and embrace its practical benefits. Rome offers a lesson about how citizens and leaders of a republic might avoid forcing their fellow citizens to make such a tortured choice.

Rome shows that the basic, most important function of a republic is to create a political space that is governed by laws, fosters compromise, shares governing responsibility among a group of representatives, and rewards good stewardship. Politics in such a republic should not be a zero-sum game. The politician who wins a political struggle may be honored, but one who loses should not be punished. The Roman Republic did not encourage its leaders to seek complete and total political victory. It was not designed to force one side to accept everything the other wanted. Instead, it offered tools that, like the American filibuster, served to keep the process of political negotiation going until a mutually agreeable compromise was found. This process worked very well in Rome for centuries, but it worked only because most Roman politicians accepted the laws and norms of the republic. They committed to working out their disputes in the political arena that the republic established rather than through violence in the streets. Republican Rome succeeded in this more than perhaps any other state before or since.

If the early and middle centuries of Rome’s republic show how effective this system could be, the last century of the Roman Republic reveals the tremendous dangers that result when political leaders cynically misuse these consensus-building mechanisms to obstruct a republic’s functions. Like politicians in modern republics, Romans could use vetoes to block votes on laws, they could claim the presence of unfavorable religious conditions to annul votes they disliked, and they could deploy other parliamentary tools to slow down or shut down the political process if it seemed to be moving too quickly toward an outcome they dislike. When used as intended, these tools helped promote negotiations and political compromises by preventing majorities from imposing solutions on minorities. But, in Rome as in our world, politicians could also employ such devices to prevent the Republic from doing what its citizens needed. The widespread misuse of these tools offered the first signs of sickness in Rome’s republic.

Much more serious threats to republics appear when arguments between politicians spill out from the controlled environments of representative assemblies and degenerate into violent confrontations between ordinary people in the streets. Romans had avoided political violence for three centuries before a series of political murders rocked the republic in the 130s and 120s BC. Once mob violence infected Roman politics, however, the institutions of the republic quickly lost their ability to control the contexts and content of political disputes. Within a generation of the first political assassination in Rome, politicians had begun to arm their supporters and use the threat of violence to influence the votes of assemblies and the election of magistrates. Within two generations, Rome fell into civil war. And, two generations later, Augustus ruled as Roman emperor. When the Republic lost the ability to regulate the rewards given to political victors and the punishment inflicted on the losers of political conflicts, Roman politics became a zero sum game in which the winner reaped massive rewards and the losers often paid with their lives. (Page 8–9)
 

BamaInBham

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For all the prestige that work brings, his central argument (that the superstition of Christianity inter alia ruined the empire) seems passable until one remembers that during the period of Rome's greatest expansion (the third and second centuries BC), Roman generals would consult "the sacred chicken" before deciding whether the fight a battle, the "superstition" argument holds less water. The Roman republic was pretty superstitious before Christianity.
It's true that the cultural, nominal, vacuous version of Christianity, has sometimes incorporated elements of superstition among other non-Scriptural practices - especially from the time of Constantine. The irony is that Biblical Christianity provides this world's only sober, accurate, understanding of reality - past, present and future. But thankfully, there has always been the Biblical version, however imperfectly practiced, which reveals the true nature of God and man, including God's love and grace in the face of man's sinfulness; it tells of the judgment to come, thus, man's need of a Savior and God's provision of that Savior. "To him who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness." (Emphasis mine)
 

B1GTide

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This opinion piece, written 2 years ago, demonstrates where we are in the decline of our democratic republic. History tells us that we can't save it. We can only try to slow the transition. This is happening globally, not just in the US.


An excerpt:

Twice in the past three thousand years, civilization – both Ancient and Western – began in many fragmented monarchies. Twice, monarchies ended in tyrannies. Twice, power was diffused to landed aristocracies. Twice, aristocracy curtailed tyrannies. Twice, aristocracies hardened into oligarchies. Twice, the people revolted against oligarchies. Twice, wealth was diffused to create middle classes. Twice, the middle classes brought democracies into existence.

If only the parallels ended there. But they don’t. Twice, the prosperity created during democracy created plutocracies of ‘new money’. Twice, the plutocracies of leading cultures plundered citizens and foreigners, expanding their hegemony. Twice, the people became economically distressed as wealth was concentrated and society was stratified. Twice, civil society was polarized as middling virtues, like moderation, disintegrated alongside the middle classes.

What else will be said to happen to civilization twice? That the middle classes were swept away? That forces of democracy and plutocracy fought for control? That democracy was subverted by a contest between ambitious demagogues? That a great republic descended into violent revolution? That the tournament of demagogues ended with one champion? That democracy died, leaving only its rituals behind? And that this sequence of evolution had been predicted before it happened?
 
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