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The Fall of the Roman Republic: A Narrative and Analytical Comparison with the Contemporary Conditions of the United States of America — (Part 8 of a Series)

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The Fall of the Roman Republic: A Narrative and Analytical Comparison with the Contemporary Conditions of the United States of America — (Part 8 of a Series)

Derek Suszko

Derek Suszko is the Associate Editor for The St. Croix Review.


In the previous installment of this essay we laid out a framework for understanding the idea of arbitrary power in republican systems of government. By arbitrary power, I refer to any exercise of political authority that is in violation of constitutional restraints or regulations. We might presume that arbitrary power should not occur in the ideal circumstances of republican governance, and that any exercise would be detrimental for its continuation. But a survey of the history of republics belies this conclusion. All republican governments feature instances of arbitrary power. The extent to which an elected governor or body can stretch the limits of constitutional prescription is highly dependent on popular consensus and the plausibility of a popular mandate. If the executive retains a legitimate mandate, he can venture exercises of power beyond the possibilities of an executive without such a mandate. A republican system enters a stage of crisis when a government or ruling elite ventures arbitrary power not to satisfy a popular mandate but to illegally preserve its hold on power. If the rulers cannot persuade a critical mass of the population by propaganda appeals to the necessity of the arbitrary action, they provoke the escalatory effects of exercises of arbitrary power. In such conditions, some or all of the republican processes are suspended and the opposing factions fight by means of extra-constitutional force. In this installment of the essay we will complete the analysis of the Roman and American republics promised previously. As the culminating cause of the fall of the Roman republic, we will probe in some detail the intricacies of the events that finally led to the Augustan dictatorship. In our analysis of the Roman figures, the reader must bear in mind that exercises of power are rendered arbitrary not so much by the substance of the event but by the persuasiveness of the actor. The fact that a constitution has been violated is nothing to the perception that a constitution has been violated. This is not casuistry but a necessary insistence of realpolitik. A state facing systemic failure like the Roman state has little to do with objective claims of constitutional legitimacy, but is instead subject to the more fundamental forces of personal charisma, fortune, and audacity. All power participants of the late republic claimed fidelity to the constitution. All claims were dubious. The American republic is entering such conditions, and, just as the Roman republic from the time of Tiberius Gracchus was “post-constitutional,” so is the American republic from the time of Donald Trump.

Cause IV: Analysis of the Roman and American Republics

No Reform from Within

In previous installments of this essay we dealt at length with the Gracchan reform movement that commenced with the election of Tiberius Gracchus as tribune in 133 BC, and ended with the suicide of his brother Gaius Gracchus in 121 BC. The failure of this movement was due to its confinement in legislative procedures. The entire saga of the Gracchan movement furnishes grave lessons in the perils of illegitimate deployments of power. As tribune, Tiberius Gracchus was subject to long-established and highly explicit constitutional prerogatives and restraints. The definite nature of his office worked decidedly against him in his duel of brinkmanship with the Roman senatorial elite. Tiberius was elected tribune in 133 BC determined to force through land reform legislation for the Roman rural smallholders at all costs. To this end, he ventured a series of arbitrary power moves. When his fellow tribune Marcus Octavius (a patrician hack) vetoed his legislation, Tiberius filibustered the entire administration of the Roman state until his colleague rescinded. When Octavius refused to do so, Tiberius summoned an unprecedented plebeian assembly to remove him from office.1 Tiberius further broke long-standing precedent (if not law) by dabbling in foreign affairs (generally, the role of magistrates and provincial governors) and by standing for immediate re-election as tribune. It was this final action that proved intolerable for the senatorial elite. On election day, a mob of senatorial supporters clashed with the supporters of Tiberius on the Capitoline Hill. In the resultant clash, Tiberius and over 100 of his supporters were killed.

Why did this not lead to immediate civil war? The answer lies in the essential weakness of Tiberius’ position. For several decades, the senatorial elite had been corruptly interfering in the election of tribunes in the concilium plebis. Such machinations surely represented an instance of arbitrary power since patricians legally had no right to participate in the election of tribunes. But though this exercise of power was constitutionally dubious, it was also sequestered from public scrutiny. Tiberius felt himself justified in pushing the limits of tribunician power because the Roman elite had already engaged in grave constitutional violations. But Tiberius ventured arbitrary powers that were highly public and dramatic, and paid dearly for violating the long-understood customs and regulations of his official position. In deployments of arbitrary power, the ruling elite always retains the ability to exercise illegitimate power by passive or underhanded means. This ability is bolstered by its domination of media and propaganda functions. In the immediate aftermath of the death of Tiberius, the senatorial elite smeared him as a demagogue who hated Roman institutions. This charge was potent enough to prevent an aggregate of the “urban poor” faction from supporting the tribunate of his brother Gaius Gracchus. Fundamentally, meaningful reform of the Roman state by way of the tribunate had become impossible after the death of Tiberius, though it took two whole generations for this to become apparent. The tribunate office was a standing testament to the integrity of the Roman constitutional order, and the Roman senate was the symbol of that order. There was an inherent contradiction in the populist acceptance of the constitutional prerogatives of the tribunate and the increasing denial of the prerogatives of the magistrates and the senate. The political system itself was inadequate for the remedial necessities of the aggregate Roman populace. But where was power to be found if not within the system?

Gaius Gracchus, grafted with significant political capital from the martyrdom of his brother, was not yet the man to affect a revolutionary breakthrough. This was less a fault of the man and more the fault of the times, and Gaius displayed a nascent understanding of the need for paramilitary protection if he was to survive the opposition of the Roman senate. Generally, Gaius remained more within constitutional bounds than did his brother during his tribunate (123-122 BC), and this momentary restraint led to some pivotal and lasting legislative achievements.2 But the senate was entirely implacable on the issue of land reform, and managed to force Gaius into uncomfortable political association with non-citizen Italians. If the defeat of Tiberius represented the triumph of the senate’s institutional prestige, the defeat of Gaius represented the triumph of its propaganda. The Roman elite attacked Gaius as an enemy to the Roman urban population, and Gaius failed to meaningfully broaden his support within the city itself. The senate exploited a riot to issue the Senatus Consultum Ultimatum that authorized the consuls to do whatever was necessary to “ensure the survival of the state.” This took the form of an extermination of all Gracchan supporters in the city and the issuance of an arrest warrant for Gaius. Gaius committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the senators. Here, again, we see the significant advantages wielded by a ruling elite in the deployment of arbitrary power. The Ultimatum was a legitimate function, but to issue it on the basis of a single incident was highly dubious. Nonetheless, the veneer of legitimacy allowed for a truly disproportionate response as Gaius and over 250 of his supporters died in purges. Besides the lasting legislation, the tribunate of Gaius demonstrated the duplicitousness of the senate’s claims. Gaius, working within the constitutional framework, was killed by a brutal exercise of power apparently justified by the same framework. With the death of Gaius, the demands of the Roman middle factions were set against the constitution itself.

The System Is What It Does

The death of a political system of a state proceeds only when the system itself is deemed inadequate for necessary remediation. Haphazard instances of corruption rarely generate such an alteration because there is latent faith in the ability of a system to correct its own excesses. The turning point in any revolutionary endeavor comes only when a factional coalition is convinced that it is not hostile elements within a system that stymie reform, but rather the nature of the system itself that impedes remediation. A ruling elite has a wide berth to abuse the system, and potentially can do so indefinitely if no insurgent movement rejects the integrity of the system. In the historical dialectic of republics, we ought to speak of an inevitable corruption of “representative government” by a gradual process of delegation. In Part III of this essay, we spoke about inevitable legislative obsolescence. A point is reached in the course of republican government when the representative authorities have ceded so much function to non-representative administration or bureaucracy that there is no means for constitutionally-sanctioned procedure to reclaim the authorities of origin. That point is reached at different stages by different republics. Some republics are fleeting, and overthrowing them is a relatively straightforward matter. Other republics abide for a wide expanse of time, and steward the state effectively for such a time. But the trade-off in “good republics” comes when the accumulation has finally corrupted the constitutional safeguards. The pollution of these republics is deep-rooted, and can only be remedied by traumatic conflagration. The elite classes of such late-stage republics are formidable because they retain the luxury of wielding determinative power under the guise of upholding constitutional procedures. They inevitably claim to be the true upholders of “representative” government, all while covertly abusing the very constitutions they claim to champion. The constitutional system becomes broken, but this is not readily apparent. Any attempts by an insurgent movement to enter the system and push for excessive power within it are easily rebuffed because such exercises are always more open and blatant than the excesses perpetrated by the ruling elite. It is at this stage that an insurgent movement has no choice but to reject the validity of an implacably corrupted political order.3

This necessarily hits at a deeply distressing fact of politics and human nature for idealists. It is not the form of government that is in question but the effect of governance. In our own time in the modern West, we have passed through an era of definite liberal idealism. “Democracy” or “the republic” is a sacred form of government and cannot be condemned on the basis of its effects. No matter that the actual democratic procedures are corrupt, so long as the appearance of democratic government persists, the ruling elite can deploy the moral claim of “righteous government” as a cudgel against insurgent reform. The truth is that all political orders must be judged by effects and never merely on moral appeals to form or construction. The man who says “a republic is the only correct form of government” is a fool and must answer for the litany of disastrous republics littered through history. Similarly, the man who declares “a monarchy is the only proper form of government” is rightly dismissed, for he has no interest in the effects of particular monarchs. No form of government is infallible. Any government which fails to safeguard the interests of its sustaining citizens is bad government, and has no legitimacy to rule. This might be a democracy, a dictatorship or an oligarchy.4 History passes through various phases of “sacrosanct” political orders. The truth is that all claims to infallible political “forms” are transitory, and should be rejected as valid arguments for government.

But surely one could argue that if it is not the form of government that should be held inviolable, what objective standard is possible? Would this not mean that anyone with grievance could declare the existing government illegitimate and be justified in going about its overthrow? Not so. We have dwelt so extensively on factions because, if form is to be invalidated as an appropriate defense of government, there must exist a hierarchy of factions that renders some political grievances legitimate and others discardable. It is those factions, or those segments of the population, that perpetuate the sustained prosperity and cultural cohesion of the state that are legitimized to topple a government if it fails to remediate their grievances. Naturally, such an assertion only invokes greater dissension. We can nearly all agree that a “faction of murderers” who wish to do away with the prohibitions on murder would have no legitimate claims, and we justify this because murder is a horrific breach in the stability and prosperity of individual citizens, and the state as a whole. To take the opposite extreme, we agree that soldiers, veterans, farmers, and other “necessary” factions are to be especially rewarded and aided by the state for their outsized value to its stability and prosperity. But the truth of the matter is that there are always individual actions and societal behaviors that are practiced broadly, and are to be rewarded in the same manner. Law-abiding married couples with children represent a superior societal faction to those who are unmarried because children are necessary for the state to persist. Here again our reigning liberal idealism, with its severe hesitancy to judge in hierarchical terms, must take a hit. A law-abiding single person, employed but living out a hedonistic lifestyle, has legitimate claims on the basis of his employment. But his hedonism bears a purely personal benefit, and must be judged irrelevant (or worse) to the prosperity of the state. If such a person desires the state to benefit his hedonism, he makes an illegitimate factional claim. All political claims must be judged by this standard. Naturally, the complexities of life render such assessments difficult and contentious, and we hardly deny that certain trade-offs are inevitable. A childless person working as a doctor may benefit society sufficiently without children, but a childless person working a redundant administrative job does not. It would be far better for such a person to bear children than maintain employment of marginal value.

A liberal of our times would here accuse us of de-humanizing and retort that such bland assessments of value represent a threat to individual freedom. This is hardly the case. No government has a right to be punitive against any individual behavior that does not violate law. We are speaking of behaviors that a proper government should explicitly benefit and promote by positive incentive. There are two tiers: the law prescribes which behaviors are impermissible to individuals, and good government promotes behaviors which are desirable for individuals. All individuals are free to live within the bounds of the law as they wish. The role of government is to direct individual wishes, by accreted benefits alone, to live in the manner that upholds the maintenance of its prosperity and stability. This need not necessarily be a dry assessment of “rational” needs. The people need life and liberty, but they also require those aesthetic causes which produce loyalty to a state or movement beyond material assessments. The idea of “America” is not only one of potential material prosperity but also a romantic or aesthetic conception of political life. Both needs, the material and the aesthetic, are duties of the state to promote and uphold.

The Marian Interlude

After the death of Gaius Gracchus, two actualities were evident: 1) that the Roman EMF (elite minority faction) had such a dominance of the established methods of power nominally within the Roman constitutional system that any attempts at remediation were not possible through the system, and 2) that the EMF would not hesitate to persecute or murder leading opposition figures who lacked an extra-constitutional means of protection (i.e. a paramilitary). The solution to the first dilemma could only be resolved by a more formidable political appeal. The truth of the Gracchan movement was that its aims and orientation were too identified with the factional grievances of the Roman rural smallholders. When the senatorial EMF eliminated the Gracchi, the other non-patrician factions of the republic (the urban workers, the equites, the Italian non-citizens) were not willing to venture revolutionary action in response. The factional base of the “populist” movement required a broader coalition of support, not only in numerical terms but also in intensity of investment. The factions had to embrace the likelihood of violent conflagration with the EMF. Fomenting this increased willingness was the solution to the second dilemma. It was not enough to have a plurality of the factional coalition willing to vote for a populist platform, because the voting was within the systemic control of the EMF. It was necessary to raise up a militant faction within the coalition that could counter the EMF deployments of force. For two decades this was not possible. The EMF domination of the selection of magistrates ensured that no officer with military authority possessed the will to combat the regime. The career of Gaius Marius testifies to the aimlessness of the post-Gracchan generation. Marius was a blatant populist, and his career was difficult to germinate amidst persistent establishment opposition. He served uneventfully as tribune in 119 BC and as praetor in 115 BC. Serving in Hispania as pro-praetor, Marius avoided controversial ventures and gained a reputation for military competence. As a result of this reputation, the senate was neither able to prevent him from obtaining a command in the Jugurthine War in 109 BC, nor to block his election to the consulship in 107 BC. As consul, Marius’ crucial innovation was in raising up new legions among the Italian allies. It is impossible to know whether this was shrewd political insight, or mere military pragmatism necessitated by Rome’s strained manpower reserves. Regardless of motivation, Marius had discovered the reform that was to lead to the death of the republic, and the eventual rise of the Roman military dictatorship. His unprecedented string of consulships from 104-100 BC was possible only because of the dire threat of the Celtic invasions, but even with the state in crisis the EMF refused to countenance the idea of land reform.5 Marius might have made a bid for absolute power on his terms after his victory over the Celts at the Battle of Aquae Sextae, but he instead chose to ally with the tribune Saturninus in an effort to reward his legionaries with land through the normal legislative means. This proved unwise since the senate had already demonstrated its willingness to dispense with tribunes by arbitrary means. Saturninus was no Gracchus, and entirely lacked the charisma and aura of nobility that had made the brother tribunes the greater threats to the regime. His thuggish tactics within the city alienated many populist supporters, and he was murdered in 100 BC with no immediate consequences to the regime. The land issue remained pressing, and the claims of the veterans were now added to the claims of the Roman smallholders. The tension persisted for a decade and civil conflict broke out only with the murder of the tribune Livius Drusus in 91 BC. After his murder, the Italians mutinied and inaugurated the War of the Allies.

It is impossible to assess whether Marius really had the means to overthrow the regime in the aftermath of the Celtic war, but it is almost certain that he should have attempted it. Apparently, Marius had enough lingering faith in the tribunate and the existing constitutional framework to sequester his reformist efforts in established procedures. His fatal hesitancy at this stage likely explains his later recklessness in 86 BC. Had Marius acted decisively, it is possible that the republic would have died two generations before it did, and much bloodshed might have been avoided. His failure broadcasts a general pitfall for revolutionary movements that many later successful revolutionaries avoided.6 Marius ought to have secured a pro-consular command in Gaul (where he would have commanded an Italian force outside the city of Rome) instead of standing for a sixth consulship in Rome in the midst of the civil unrest of Saturninus’ tribunate. He could have marched into Rome under the pretext of terminating the senatorial tyranny and of quelling the excesses of Saturninus. In any event, his docility doomed him to ten years of political exile, and left for the pro-establishment Sulla to venture the inaugural step of taking control of the city by military force. Revolutions are never kind to half measures, and Marius was to pay for his hesitancy by suffering the historical eclipse of Caesar.

Sulla: The Senate’s Dictator

Marius was awarded a command in the War of Allies in 88 BC but his political stock was depleted, even among the Italian legionaries. The 80s were to be Sulla’s decade, and here again we must speculate as to personal motives. Sulla’s shrewd courting of the senate (by denouncing land reform in existing territories), the Italian legionaries (by promising them land from the Pontus campaign) and the rank-and-file population (by winning victories in Italy and Anatolia) set him up splendidly for a personal dictatorship with his final defeat of the Marian forces in 83 BC.7 But Sulla’s pro-senatorial sympathies were sincere and deep-rooted. Unlike Marius, Sulla was not a novus homo but neither did he originate from ultra-patrician stock. He had numerous patrician senators executed during his dictatorship (83-80 BC) for having opposed him in his rise to power. Whatever personal vendettas he pursued against individual senators, Sulla’s politics were firmly in line with the EMF. It is ironic then that Sulla’s actions were to prove the decisive undoing of the senatorial EMF and its dominance of Roman policy. After the War of Allies, the EMF recognized that it was no longer viable to keep up the pretext of constitutional government and arbitrarily do away with meddlesome tribunes. The Italians, even without Marius, had demonstrated a willingness to topple the government by force, and it was only by investment in a sympathetic magistrate that the senate could forestall populist remediation. Sulla was not ideal in this regard. His own march on the city of Rome in 88 BC (for the purpose of retaining the Pontus command) gravely dismayed many senators, and it was only out of necessary expediency that the senatorial elite threw in their lot with Sulla. Though Sulla claimed to be the savior of the republic and the old order, his own actions were so unprecedented that the claim was risible even to his sympathizers. Sulla combined complete devotion to EMF policy with totally arbitrary personal conduct, and so obliterated the pretense of “upholding the constitution” on which the senate had staked its claims to greater legitimacy. It would be satisfying to believe that Marius (and others) had provoked Sulla and the EMF into such obvious displays of arbitrary power by strategic provocation, but the truth is that Sulla’s actions were his own. Sulla remains a historical paradox, so rarely has a man acceded to the pinnacles of power by unauthorized means only to prove so zealous a defender of the established order. In any case, it was Sulla’s actions and not his politics that were to prove the enduring model for his ambitious successors.

The Glory of Caesar

Sulla stepped down from the dictatorship in 80 BC to spend a brief retirement before his death in 78 BC. It is unlikely that he would have been able to maintain any real stability had he lived longer. The unpopularity of senatorial policy with the non-urban populace was so pronounced (and the sincerity of the EMF appeals to the constitution so discredited) that revolutionary resistance to the regime was inevitable. After Sulla, it was obvious that the republican government was terminal, and that some other form would take its place. But it was an open question how drastic of a departure the new form would prove from four and a half centuries of republicanism. The inherent delicacy in the art of arbitrary power determined that any ruthless or sensational attempt at a coup would still fail as a “violation of norms.” The attempted coups of Lepidus in 77 BC, Sertorius in Hispania in 73 BC, and Catiline in 63 BC, all demonstrated the terminal vulnerability of the state. But each of these attempts failed because they were too flagrant in their proposals for reform, and as yet too removed from the old established constitutional procedures. Elections between the death of Sulla in 78 BC and Caesar’s dictatorship in 48 BC continued with the same degree of corrupt patronage as before, but the offices themselves no longer represented the real source of power in the waning republic. The tribunate (due to Sulla’s crippling reforms and popular apathy) was a dead office, and even the consuls and praetors had diminished prestige and authority. Instead, both the popular and administrative sources of power lay in provincial appointments and proconsular commands. Pompey, for instance, served as consul three times (in 70, 55, and 52 BC) but his real influence and popularity was generated by his military commands.

The senate largely resigned itself to these conditions, and accepted the need to cultivate support among former magistrates, and raise up enough competing strongmen that no single individual commander could gain too much power and push through aggressive populist reforms. The idea of the triumvirate of 60 BC was an attempt to stabilize the conditions of the state under a fragile compromise between the patrician financier Crassus, the politically undefined (but popular) Pompey, and the populist Caesar. Caesar had intentions for dictatorial power probably from adolescence, but he recognized the need to attain a military reputation, especially as his chief rival in any bid for a dictatorship would be the illustrious (but overrated) Pompey. The disposition of the senatorial EMF during this period is best exemplified by Cicero, who, as a novus homo, was himself a beneficiary of the populist shifts in recent decades, despite his fidelity to patrician policies. Cicero accepted that the republic had fundamentally changed into a quasi-military state, and that the senate no longer had the leverage of institutional prestige. To this end, he sought to slander dangerously radical magistrates (i.e. Catiline and later, Antony) and encouraged senatorial support for lukewarm magistrates who might be amenable to senate policies (i.e. Crassus, Pompey, and, as he erroneously thought, the young Octavian). The figure who transcended these efforts at triangulation was Caesar. Caesar recognized that the lingering sympathies for the senatorial cause among Rome’s urban population was only skin deep, and to this end he spent lavishly in the city on gladiatorial games, festivals, and grain relief to secure the support of the one major “popular” faction that had yet refused to accept the death of the republic. The senate accepted Caesar’s military assignment in Gaul as a means of quarantining him from the city, but Caesar’s military ability only ensured rapid increases in his fortune, prestige, and popularity. In the final move of desperation in 52 BC, the senate declared Pompey “perpetual dictator,” and ceded him all administrative power in the state. Unlike Marius, who whiffed his chance for mastery of the state, and Sulla, who was content with amiable retirement, Caesar entered the Italian peninsula with his legions in 49 BC with the intention of erecting a revolutionary political order. This he managed, thanks to the ineptitude of Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. The carcass of an unworthy “republic” had rotted into history.

The period 44-27 BC is secondary in the assessment of the “death of the republic” because the pivotal revolution had already been accomplished by Caesar. The assassination of Caesar in 44 BC was less an attempt at the restoration of old senatorial policy dominance (the possibility of which had died long before), as much as an attempt to install a cabal of senators as military dictators. A man like Cassius was simply an envier of Caesar, hardly a patrician hardliner. Even Brutus was unclear on what “restoring the republic” meant after the upheavals of the previous decades. The only consequential struggle in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination was to determine his inheritor, and only Antony and Octavian had a real chance at this claim. The elimination of the conspirators (Brutus, Cassius etc.) and the war with Pompey’s son Sextus, waged by the second triumvirate (Antony, Octavian, Lepidus) amounted only to nuisances next to the pivotal struggle between Antony and Octavian for the sole dictatorship. When Octavian provoked Antony’s suicide after his victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, the chance for stability under a single military dictator was realized.

Assessment of the Fall

The long saga of the death of the Roman republic produced an abundance of interpretation in two thousand years of generations in the West. The historians of the early empire (Tacitus, Suetonius) were members of the disenfranchised old senatorial elite, and it is from them that we receive the colorfully lurid accounts of the emperors of the first century AD. Suetonius drily proclaims that Caesar “deserved assassination” and his account of the first “twelve Caesars” tends toward the venomous and sensational. Tacitus is more partial, but it is clear that he gravely deplored the death of the republic, and catalogs the power struggles of the imperial office of the 1st century AD with a keen sense of resignation. While there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the patrician-historians in relating the deeds of individual emperors, an astute reader senses that he does not have the complete picture. If we take the historians at face value, Tiberius (reigned 14-37 AD, successor to Augustus) was a paranoid pederast indifferent to administration, Caligula (37-41 AD) was an incestuous psychotic and megalomaniac, Claudius (41-54 AD) was a slothful, gluttonous imbecile, and Nero (54-68 AD) was a manic, murderous hack artiste.8 This amounts to over half a century of apparently deranged autocratic governance. And yet, the Roman state prospered economically and militarily over the course of this period. During the reign of Claudius, the Roman army conquered and incorporated the province of Brittania. The civil war of 69 AD was a nasty affair, but fleeting compared to the civil wars of the late republic. It becomes clear upon analysis that despite the mayhem of the imperial court, and the violent transfers of power, the broader Roman populace enjoyed greater prosperity and economic opportunity than they had in the last century of the republic. This fact alone is enough to justify the political order of Augustus, even if we grant that the state did not achieve an ideal of administration until the era of the Five Good Emperors (96-180 AD).

Whatever the reservations of the chroniclers, the autocracy of Caesar and Augustus was so enduring that no republican government appeared anywhere in Europe for over a millennium. The empire itself lasted intact for over four hundred years after the death of Augustus, and the imperial succession continued in the East until the liquidation of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottomans in 1453.9 The triumph of Christianity in the empire did nothing to upset its basic political order. Constantine and his Christian successors found in the legacy of Caesar a fine model for the ideal of a “Christian sovereign” as the secular correlate to Christ, the king of heaven. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire was the end of a centralized state, but not the end of the specter of Caesar. Caesar remained the ideal of the statesman well into the Middle Ages. Dante, sharing a widely held medieval view, considered the victory of Caesar divinely sanctioned by God to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Dante places Caesar in Limbo as a virtuous pagan but rates his murderers Brutus and Cassius the worst sinners of all except Judas Iscariot.10 The prestige of Caesar in monarchical Europe is easy to understand, and so too is the darkening of his reputation with the advent of the Enlightenment and modern political theory. Whatever the corruptions of the Roman republican system, it was a government based on explicit prescriptions in a contracted constitution. Caesar’s power was arbitrary tyranny, based on no social contract and no established legal boundaries. Caesar’s overthrow of the republic certainly fails John Locke’s test for justified revolution because it was based entirely on military force and personal whims instead of parliamentary or procedural consensus. The Founders of the United States, flushed with the philosophies of the Enlightenment, deplored the name of Caesar, and identified strongly with the Roman senators of the late republic.11 Caesar has been more a caution than an encouragement to the post-Enlightenment West, but it is characteristic of “liberal political theory” to misunderstand what it hates. Under our operating idealistic paradigm, Caesar is a villain for dispensing with a constitutional state, but in a real sense Caesar was an authentic “democrat” who merely acted out the will of a people. This is troublesome for modern paradigms because it hints at a native human desire for charismatic over lordship.

We are accustomed to talking about “tyranny” as referring to the illegitimate governance of a single tyrant. But this only flatters our modern idealism. In the history of political systems, tyranny more often proceeds from odiously corrupted elites with systemic advantages. These “elites” are generally without charisma or individualism, and blend into an amorphous mass of faceless bureaucratic control. To liberal idealists, it is inconceivable that a people would genuinely reject a political system that enables their participation for a populist autocrat who rules by personal arbitration. But history demonstrates this very paradigm again and again. The history of the monarchy in medieval Europe, for instance, is not usually the story of arbitrary oppression by kings. More often, it is the people who demand a powerful monarch to protect them from the petty tyrannies of barons, dukes, and boyars. In many instances, only rulers with popular and military backing, and broad licenses of power, can eliminate the systemic advantages of a corrupt and predatory elite. A defective state that attempts to retain power by resting on the claims of institutional prestige (all while producing an endless stream of cowardly, spiritless hacks in power positions) will always fall to the seductive allures of individual charisma. Bureaucracies of a faceless elite make for bad history, and such governments never survive the challenge of a genuine man of spirit. The decline in both the Roman and American republics is the history of overindulgence in procedure and systemic control, and the total neglect of charismatic legitimacy and the generation of real popular enthusiasm. It is a late hour for the insipid overlords of the American “republic” to remedy the damage they have dealt to the American people. In the next installment, we will examine whether the corrupted American constitutional system can survive the enticement of a looming Caesar.

(This article will be continued in the next issue).


  1. 1.Under the Roman constitution any tribune could veto any legislation. Thus, only a total consensus of all elected tribunes would result in the enactment of laws.
  2. 2.Chief among them being the elevation of the equites to greater participation in the judicial system. This not only brought the equites as a faction into the populist fold, but also pressured provincial magistrates to curry favor with popular sentiment, lest they face removal from equite dominated courts.
  3. 3.This line of reasoning mirrors a common dichotomy in many scientific disciplines: The question of form vs. function. In biology and psychology we see this in the well-known “nature vs. nurture” argument. Objective analysis will often favor the “form” or innateness of a system that produces a given outcome. But human nature, desiring powers it may not have, has a wide inclination to favor the “function” or the changeability of a system. This is flattering to us because it indicates that we can overcome nature by making necessary advances and discoveries. But we exaggerate our powers. While it is true that advances in “technology” have appeared to fundamentally alter human nature, it is more accurate to say that they have exacerbated certain essential conditions that have always persisted.
  4. 4.Aristotle, who understood everything, was authoritative when he divided the forms of government into “good” and “bad” incarnations. A monarchy was corrupted by personal tyranny; an aristocracy by oligarchy; and a constitutional government by democracy.
  5. 5.For a complete narrative on the actions of Marius and the tribunate of Saturninus, see Part II of this essay.
  6. 6.Among them William of Orange who seized the opportune moment in 1688 (when the Stuart monarchy was at its most vulnerable) to seize the crown of England in the Glorious Revolution.
  7. 7.Recall that Marius had died in 86 BC after seizing control of Rome and declaring himself consul for the seventh time. Even had he lived, it is unlikely he would have defeated Sulla. His politics in his last days were centered more on personal vendetta than on populist reform, and many of his former supporters had taken up with others.
  8. 8.Ironically for the modern Christian reader, some of the few instances where Suetonius and Tacitus commend the actions of these emperors relate to persecution and expulsion of early Christians.
  9. 9.Technically, the Byzantine Empire was defunct from 1204-1271 after the knights of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and established the Latin Empire. The Catholic West generally considered the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, crowned by the Pope, as the belated and legitimate successor of Caesar. The Holy Roman Empire was mainly a loose confederation of German states, and its emperors were only sporadically in control of Rome throughout its thousand-year history (800-1806 AD). After the Reformation, a number of member states embraced Protestantism, even though they still nominally gave allegiance to the Catholic emperor. This collage of facts gives credence to the wisecrack that the Holy Roman Empire was “not holy, Roman, or an empire.”
  10. 10.Their punishment in Dante’s Hell is to be eternally gnawed upon by the several heads of Satan himself. Dante is more interested in personal actions than political affinities. He condemns the conspirators harshly for betraying trust, but he allows Caesar’s enemy Cato the Stoic to serve as gatekeeper of Purgatory. This is the more astonishing when we remember that Cato was a suicide. Dante judges Cato by the standards of the Stoic moral code, and finds Cato virtuous despite lacking the knowledge of Christian revelation necessary for heaven.
  11. 11.Robert Yates and George Clinton, writers of the Anti-Federalist papers opposing adoption of the American Constitution, selected as pseudonyms Brutus and Cato. The writers of the Federalist Papers (Hamilton, Madison, Jay) used the pseudonym Publius in response that referred to Publius Poplica, one of the original founders of the Roman republic.     *
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