Outside of death and taxes, one certainty in this life is that at some point somebody is going to try to make an awkward comparison between the United States and Rome. One comparison in particular, Lessons in the Decline of Democracy From the Ruined Roman Republic, was recommended to me by Firefox and it annoyed me so much I decided to write this article, although it is by far not the most annoying article on the subject. To be fair, these comparisons are not entirely nonsense: after all, the constitution of the United States does take some inspiration from the Roman Republic. Unfortunately, it is way easier to find doomer articles on how what the United States is going through is JUST LIKE THE ROMAN REPUBLIC™ than it is to find a sober analysis of how the drafters of the United States government took influence from Roman ideas.
I am not going to do such a sober analysis, because I lack the expertise and more importantly the interest. The Roman Republic and eventual Empire is so interesting to me because of how incredibly alien yet oddly familiar it is. It’s chock full of ideology: people will contort various points in its over 1000 year history to prove their various pet political projects. A large portion of its importance comes from people thinking it is important: the traditional historiography around the European “Dark Ages” is defined by the absence of a western Roman Emperor, for example. There are vague lessons to be learned from studying ancient Rome, just as there are from any period. We could just as easily obsess over the inner workings of the Han dynasty in China, but we have fasces surrounding the American flag in the House of Representatives and not Feng Huang, so what are you going to do.
Probably the most important thing to recognize about the Roman Republic in terms of how it compares to the United States is that it wasn’t very democratic. The voting system is pretty complicated, but in essence the urban poor had almost no representation while the propertied classes made the majority of the political decisions. In the assembly of the centuries, which voted in members of the senate, the wealthiest classes got to vote first. If the wealthiest citizens all agreed (probably talking about the top 1% here), they didn’t even need to consult the lower classes. The lower classes clearly did get the opportunity to decide important votes or endemic bribery would not have been such a dire problem, but the vast majority of citizens were squished into a singular voting block with very little influence. Even the Tribune of the People set aside specifically for ordinary people was in some respects dominated by wealthy rural landowners.
The tribune of plebeians (the voting assembly of the ordinary citizens of Rome) is an essential institution to understand in this landscape. In the early Republic, wealthy landowners dominated the countryside with private armies and the city with the legal expertise of the priestly class. A debt crisis, high food prices, and military impressment led ordinary citizens to leave Rome en masse and occupy a hill outside of the city. This mass action led to the formation of the tribune of the plebs, which defended them from the abuses of the wealthy elite. A tension between the will of ordinary citizens and domination by a wealthy oligarchy characterizes much of the political history of the Roman Republic.
“Citizens” is an important distinction to make here. The Roman Republic was a slave society, which added additional layers of tension and complexity. Slaves may have been born into the institution, captured in war, or forced into it by debt bondage. The Roman concept of slavery was somewhat different from that of Thomas Jefferson. Although for much of Roman history slaves had no rights and experienced unimaginable hardship, it was not based on ethnicity, and they were seen as human beings who could perform skilled work even including education of Roman nobles. While many slaves were worked to death and tortured at their master’s whims, a rare few like Cicero’s stenographer Marcus Tullius Tiro were given an education and treated like members of the family. There was some social mobility, and manumitted slaves could even become wealthy in some circumstances.
Millions of slaves supported the productive apparatus of Roman society and inevitably constricted job opportunities for poor citizens. As many as 1 in 3 Italians were enslaved. Especially in the late Roman Republic, slavery helped develop an extreme differential between increasingly wealthy landowners and throngs of people living under increasingly squalid conditions. Many Roman citizens were forced to leave their farms for long stretches of time in order to fight in Rome’s increasingly expansive wars. Their families would find themselves unable to manage the intensive labor of farming in their absence and sold their land to the wealthy elite in order to survive. With the incredible inflow of slaves from conquests abroad to support their absentee plantations, the wealthy elite were able to rake in staggering profits.
It is important to comprehend warfare, wealth inequality, slavery, and other social elements as deeply integrated and critical to the political situation that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the Roman Republic. The famous slave revolt which Spartacus was elected to lead with two fellow gladiators was eventually put down by two members of the first triumvirate, a secret alliance of the three most powerful people in Rome which was to be critical in the downfall of the Republic.
Crassus, considered to be one of the richest men in history, would later die in a fairly pointless conflict against the Parthian Empire in the Middle East. Oddly enough, Julius Caesar, the only member of the triumvirate not involved in the Spartacus revolt, would be assassinated the day before he was meant to embark on a three-year campaign against the Parthian Empire to avenge the death of his old patron. Pompey stole much of Crassus’ glory for the defeat of Spartacus through his excessive showboating. He was later beheaded by the Pharaoh of Egypt while fleeing from Caesar, putting an end to the first Roman Civil War and establishing Caesar as the sole dictator.
Well, that wasn’t really the first civil war Rome had. A lot of portrayals of the fall of the Republic leave this out, but all three members of the first triumvirate were directly involved in a previous conflict that had shook the foundations of the Roman Republic to its core. Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar’s uncle, engaged in a series of reforms that opened up the military to the lower classes and formed a personal relationship between generals and their troops. The military was starting to be seen as a form of social mobility as Marius, a bit of an upstart himself, promised land to the poor in exchange for their service. This meant that he effectively controlled a large private army that was deeply loyal to him personally. Sulla, a rival of Marius, soon took advantage of this trend and marched his personal army on Rome to resolve a dispute between him and Marius over who would command a military expedition to defend Rome from an outside invader.
At first, Sulla instituted reforms that concentrated power in the aristocratic senate before pulling out to deal with the threat. While he was away, the popular faction of Rome declared him an enemy of the people and destroyed his house. Sulla marched on Rome a second time. He temporarily established himself as dictator of Rome and exerted his political will on the city. Besides a number of critical reforms, Sulla engaged in proscriptions of his political rivals, meaning they would be assassinated and their wealth seized. Crassus’ wealth originated in large part from profiteering over the proscriptions, acquiring as much of 20% of the property in Rome. Pompey was married to Sulla’s stepdaughter and given a triumph, Rome’s highest military honor, for his military prowess and mercilessness during the civil war.
Sulla would eventually resign his position as dictator and retire to the countryside where he would live the rest of his life. Most signs point to him being a conservative who wanted to preserve the aristocratic senate against the efforts of populist reformers like the famous Brothers Gracchi, who had been killed almost half a century earlier trying to implement reforms that would redistribute land from the wealthy slave owning class to the populace. His actions, of course, actually spelled the doom of the senate.
It’s no wonder this period of history has inflamed the imaginations of so many. It’s dense, personal, and grandiose. There were a number of issues like the Social War and Catilinarian Conspiracies which I decided to gloss over for the sake of clarity and brevity. The purpose of this article isn’t to give a comprehensive history of the Roman Republic, which it barely scratches, but rather to give a brief taste for how deeply complex this period is. These people lived vastly different lives than we do, and comparisons between specific events or figures of the modern United States and ancient Rome tend to break down under even the slightest bit of scrutiny. It would be nice to see people freak out about a period of history that has some more immediate relevance to our discourse, say the Weimar Republic, the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, or even the fall of the Republic of Venice. Barring any of that, we could always go back to the good old Han Dynasty. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Side note: The Roman Republic was a religious society, and much of its institutions were framed as sacred. When people talk about harming a tribune of the plebs like the Gracchi brothers as being “taboo”, it would be much more appropriate to call it sacrilegious. It’s no accident that Julius Caesar, the first dictator for life of Rome, was also the Pontifex Maximus or ‘high priest’ of the city. Much of the politicking that preceded the collapse of the senate had to do with blatant manipulation of religious signs for political reasons. His assassination was in many respects precipitated by an irreverence for Roman Institutions which his successor repaired by essentially ritualizing the democratic process. Augustus Caesar worked hard to maintain a facade of ‘saving the Roman Republic’ while in fact establishing himself as the first true emperor.