The Fall of the Roman Republic
by J. R. Nyquist, Global Analyst. March 12, 2010
A couple of years ago Cullen Murphy wrote an elegant little book titled with the question, "Are We Rome?" He was not specifically referring to the Roman republic, but to the late Roman Empire. It is a distinction worth making, because Rome lost its freedom and its greatness long before the barbarian incursions of the fifth century. It was the virtue of the republic that built the empire; and, as Murphy noted in his book, the educated elite of Britain's thirteen colonies in the 1770s "were steeped in the Roman code of virtus." Here was a code very different from that of our present era. "The Founders did not cherish therapeutic notions of self-actualization or self-esteem or 'the real me,'" noted Murphy. "What mattered was adherence to duty as expressed in outward behavior." America's Founding fathers also looked back to Rome for a workable republican system of checks and balances. Murphy quotes the Roman Statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero: "I consider the most effective constitution to be that which is a reasonably blended combination of three forms -- kingship, aristocracy, and democracy." Such were the "simple forms of the state," subject to decay into despotism, oligarchy and mob rule (respectively). When placed together, under a system of power sharing, the corruption of the simple forms is prevented by mixing them together. When America adopted a republican Constitution, every educated person knew what had happened to the Roman republic. They also knew that the Roman republic had lasted more than 400 years before it was subverted by Gaius Julius Caesar.
Many students of antiquity have been persuaded that republican virtue and republican freedom went hand in hand with the rise of the Roman republic, which practiced a kind of conservatism that has influenced British and American political thinking for the better part of two centuries. This political conservatism had been practiced by Roman statesmen for centuries before its principles were explicitly stated by Cicero. In a remarkable posthumous book, titled Death of a Republic, Professor John Dickinson contrasted the moral and political conservatism of Cicero with the "instrumentalist" and revolutionary spirit of Caesar. Dickinson emphasized the existence of "rival philosophies of government" at work behind the fall of the Roman republic. "It is appropriate," he explained, "to conclude the narrative of the downfall of the Roman republic with a review of the two opposing views of government and political power which, latent in every age, come into open and striking conflict in all great periods of change. One of these views is represented in the political writings of Cicero and is set forth with perhaps greater simplicity and clarity than by any other publicist in the history of Western thought. The other view is represented by the policies of Caesar, who wrote no books about politics, but whose acts speak more plainly and expressly than most men's words. These two men stand on opposing sides of the conflict between two views of government which in large measure have repeatedly come into open prominence in most of the great crises in Western political development."
Cicero was the first to systematically promote the idea of a government of laws and not of men, based on justice. A commonwealth, said Cicero, is “an assemblage of people in large numbers associated in an agreement with respect to justice and a partnership for the common good.” According to Dickinson, “For Cicero the essence of tyranny is lawlessness; the two are synonymous. Where there is tyranny, there cannot be a state in any proper sense, since the essential characteristic of the state is law.” We may be reminded of George Orwell’s characterization of totalitarian socialism in his novel, 1984, as a “lawless order.” With Cicero we find that legitimate authority is always lawful, while illegitimate authority has the character of lawlessness. This line of thinking, developed by Cicero, heavily influenced modern thinkers from Montesquieu to Locke and Adam Smith. In Cicero’s view, freedom was made possible by a system of checks and balances in which no man or party could tyrannize over society. In this way, power could be limited, and all would be subject to the same rules. The objective of government, said Cicero, was to foster a harmonious state “by agreement among dissimilar elements, brought about by a fair and reasonable blending together of the upper, middle, and lower classes, just as if they were musical tones. What the musicians call harmony in song is concord in a State, the strongest and best bond of permanent union in any commonwealth; and such concord can never be brought about without the aid of justice.”
Cicero’s contemporary, Gaius Julius Caesar, followed a very different line of thinking. While Cicero was what Dickinson called an “institutionalist,” Caesar was an “instrumentalist.” For Caesar the ends justified the means, subordinating institutional checks and balances in a quest for “results.” Was the constitution of the republic broken? No matter, as long as constituents were satisfied – by a bread dole, farms for veterans, or vast entertainments. Whatever goodies accrued to the rabble, however, the real object was to concentrate power in Caesar’s hands. It was therefore useful to dilute the senate, corrupt the people, massacre and plunder foreign nations, all for the aggrandizement of a single individual. Dickinson tells us that “Caesar was preparing the way for his deification or something like it, yet many historians have found difficulty in attributing such an objective to a man of his bold and rationalistic spirit.” It is difficult indeed, in our own time, to account for the motives of men like Hitler or Lenin or Stalin. But there has always existed, in some men, a pathological desire for power and primacy. “Like dictators of recent times,” wrote Dickinson, “[Caesar] was anxious to clothe his position with a name that would be free from constitutional associations and would mark his supremacy as a complete break with the past.” Claiming to represent the people, or serve the cause of a “higher history,” the dictator serves himself. Caesar destroyed the republic with no greater object than gratifying his own ego. “The bent and temper of Caesar’s mind were clearly not congenial to broad ideas of economic or social welfare,” wrote Dickinson. It is of no account what Caesar promised. What is important, is what Caesar delivered.
When Rome's moral standards declined, the Republic fell under despotism. While the republic was still holding on, a class of revolutionary malcontents and conspirators emerged into political life. Cicero had been Rome's leading magistrate during an attempt by such people to overthrow the Republic. "Oh ye immortal gods!" cried Cicero before the Roman senate in 64 B.C. "Where in the world are we? What sort of commonwealth do we possess? In what city are we living? Here, here in our very midst, Conscript Fathers, in this most sacred and dignified council of the whole world, are men who plan for the destruction of all of us, who plan for the destruction of this city and even the destruction of the whole world!" [Louis E. Lord translation, In Catilinam 1]
The revolutionary conspiracy of Catiline, recounted by Cicero's contemporary Gaius Sallustius Crispus (a.k.a. Sallust), was crushed by Cicero. Sallust described Catiline's conspiracy as "a criminal enterprise ... unprecedented in itself...." But this conspiracy was only the beginning of Rome's troubles, because the spirit of revolutionary combination and conspiracy was carried forward by Caesar. Was it an exaggeration to say that the spirit of revolution threatened the destruction of the whole world? Moral and political nihilism, as exemplified by the plotters of 64 B.C., always threatens society as a whole. The success of Rome, noted Cicero, was due to Roman morality and fair dealing. "As long as the Roman people governed its empire by goodwill and not injustice," wrote Cicero, "our wars were fought either to protect our subject allies or to defend our own territory." [Michael Grant translation, On Duties]
The decline of fair dealing is a serious matter in any society. When Cicero and Caesar were young men, the Republic had been upended and restored by the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. According to Cicero. "Since the time of [Sulla's] triumph, we have abandoned such ideals altogether. When we treated our own fellow citizens with such brutality, it could no longer seem wrong to inflict even the most frightful oppressions on our allies. Sulla's cause, it is true, was a just one; but his victory proved appalling. Planting his spear in the Forum he proceeded to auction the possessions of men who were patriots and people of substance.... Yet he had the effrontery to declare that the objects he was selling were spoils he had won from an enemy in war. After him came a man whose cause was not right but evil [Caesar]; and his success was even more horrible than Sulla's. Mere confiscations of the property of individual citizens were far from enough to satisfy him. Whole provinces and countries succumbed to his onslaught, in one comprehensive universal catastrophe. Entire foreign nations were given over to ruin and destruction." [Michael Grant translation, On Duties]
The story of the republic's fall is one of the great lessons of history. It is one that Americans should pay special attention to; for the same permissive spirit, sensuality, and apathy have appeared in our midst today. Americans should consider the extent to which we have been unthinkingly cultivating our own destruction. "Surely, then," wrote Cicero after Caesar's assassination in the Roman Senate, "our present sufferings are all too well deserved. For had we not allowed outrages to go unpunished on all sides, it would never have been possible for a single individual to seize tyrannical power." At the end of this passage, Cicero concludes: "Here in the city nothing is left -- only the lifeless walls of houses. And even they look afraid that some further terrifying attack may be imminent. The real Rome has gone forever." [Michael Grant translation, On Duties]
I should mention, in closing, that Robert Harris has published two novels on the life of Cicero. The first of these is titled Imperium, and the second (which came out last month) is titled Conspirata. Harris tells Cicero's story with remarkable historical fidelity, skill and detail. Everyone who cares about liberty should know the story of the Roman republic's fall.
© 2010 J. R. Nyquist