The Roman Republic

I do love an epic podcast. Like an old friend, the medium has played an integral part of my daily run and morning routine. Hardcore History. The Dispatch. The 4-Hour Work Week. Dispatch. Modern Finance. The technology focused (there are many). Many more. While listening to Mike Duncan talk about his latest book, I realized he started a podcast series in the early days of the medium about the fall of the Roman Republic. In small digital increments, an empire emerged. And, then, fell.

So, I read the book version, The Storm Before the Storm, which is lengthy. But aren’t most history books? And Presidential biographies? The names of Tribunes and Consuls blurred at times, but this is engaging and hard to put down.

For many media types, comparisons run abound between history’s most famous Republic and the United States, but they are ill-conceived, misinformed, and often maligned in intent. In the media Twitter universe that isn’t real, I find the trend of folks wishing for the downfall of the United States of America disturbing. Yes, as a country, we do have our challenges. We’ve made mistakes. But you can be a force for change in a Democratic Republic, the same cannot be said in all parts of the world. With our often accepting society and ease of technology, the spreaders of this ill-will are often nation states not aligned to our own interests. And ourselves, sadly.

That being said, one can learn from history.

Here were my notes and highlights:

  • With his ability to secure special treatment from the Assembly, the career of Aemilianus became a prototype for ambitious politicians in the years to come. Aemilianus showed how easy it was to manipulate the mob to serve personal ambition—inducing them to suspend inconvenient rules. But that was not the only dangerous example Aemilianus set. Grant, he did have a large army at this disposal. However, when we deviate from the process and ask for exceptions long term consequences occur. The ends, often open to interpretation by history’s winners, rarely justify the means. Empires fall because of internal strife. That’s why I found the recent vote to change the filibuster so fascinating. It’s hard to know how often this occurs because the Senate has open-ended debate, but one can invoke cloture to move forward. In 2021, the 117th Congress, cloture was invoked 202 times mostly by Chuck Shumer. Frustrating, I’m sure, for the majority leader. Unfair? In 2020, cloture was invoked 120 times, mostly by Mitch McConnell. Mathematically, the 116th and 117th Congress are on pace with one another. Amazing, how the mob and large donors can push for our own demise.
  • If passed, it would complete the transformation of Roman voting from public voice to secret ballot—as all electoral, judicial, and legislative Assemblies would now be secret. Again, one should never compare the early Rome to the United States. But I did find how this tweak changed how the Roman Senate operates substantially. Less to do with voting for elected officials, the US House of Representatives (the most powerful branch on paper) has become dysfunctional due to changes with parliamentary rules and procedures giving more power to the speaker, which in turn leads to behind the scenes back room dealing. Some of these started with Gingrich but with the latest Congress minority voting rights (and the ability to force votes) have been scaled back immensely. Perhaps, stripping the speaker’s ability to set the calendar, determine committee assignments, and limit votes on the floor should be pared back. Cast up and down votes more often. But, if Republicans roar in after the mid-terms, do we have a brave enough politician to give up their power? Based how the current minority leader dangles committee assignments, I have doubts.
  • Since the city of Rome was a strictly cash economy and all food, lodgings, and fuel required coins, there was never desperate poverty. If you did not have money to live you either departed for the countryside or died in a back alley. Poverty was fatal. Society has come far; however, there is always more to do.
  • But as a trade-off they also had few responsibilities. Rome demanded no regular taxes and left local administration to local magistrates. All Rome asked was that the Allies provide troops to fill the ranks of the legions. The hierarchical, confederal relationship that defined Roman Italy worked tolerably well for two centuries. Decentralized governmental systems often last centuries. Worth pondering as we look to centralize more aspects of the law and our voting systems.
  • The Lex Agraria had been a creative attempt to solve the problem of widening inequality in Italy and reverse the gradual disappearance of the small Roman farmer—a problem that ultimately would not be solved until after the fall of the Republic. The problem of large and wealthy entities squeezing smaller farmers has been a challenge for centuries. The world needs more local farmers. And small, nimble businesses. Buy local.
  • As the crisis over the Lex Agraria revealed, it was no longer a specific issue that mattered so much as the urgent necessity to triumph over rivals. Reflecting on the recurrent civil wars of the Late Republic, Sallus said, “It is this spirit which has commonly ruined great nations, when one party desires to triumph over another by any and every means and to avenge itself on the vanquished with excessive cruelty.” Accepting defeat was no longer an option. I’m often amazed how one side (choose your own adventure) will often overlook common sense legislation to score political points. From electoral college tweaks to immigration, important needs are left on the cutting room floor to maintain leverage or simply kick the can. Courage has been lacking for hundreds of years, apparently, or longer. A human condition.
  • We are silent when we see that all the money of all the nations has come into the hands of a few men; which we seem to tolerate and to permit with the more equanimity, because none of these robbers conceals what he is doing. Simple insider trading rules are thrown to the winds of chaos. Yes, we are a free-market economy, bold statement by the current speaker. But if you know details that the common folks do not, that is indeed a crime. Public companies go to great lengths to prevent this type of behavior, but our politicians aren’t subject to the same rules. As he departed, Jugurtha looked back at Rome and issued his famous judgment: “A city for sale and doomed to speedy destruction if it finds a purchaser.”
  • Anyone who knew the Gracchi family personally knew Saturninus was spinning a transparent fiction. Sempronia—the Gracchi’s still-living sister—refused to receive this alleged nephew, whom she had never met. But this was an age when a lie was not a lie if a man had the audacity to keep asserting the lie was true. Presented without comment.
  • The Battle of the Raudian Plain spelled the end of the Cimbri—they left 120,000 dead on the plain and the survivors were enslaved. As is so often the case in Roman history, repeated defeats in battle could be endured as long as the Romans won the war. Early history often overestimates the devastation. We are storytellers. Still, the casualty count dwarfs what is seen in modern times. Sadly.
  • Politics in Rome often turned deadly, the losers often went into exile only to be executed. Over time, the legions became more powerful, which ultimately led to the sacking of Rome multiple times over and the evolution of a true Caesar. Envoys met him on the road and asked him why he was marching with armed forces against his country. “To deliver her from tyrants,” Sulla replied. With plenty of legal advisers on hand, and with a decent grasp of constitutional law himself, Sulla ensured his new title came with all requisite powers to act without constraint. As dictator, Sulla now had the power of life and death over all Romans. He had sole discretion over declarations of war and peace. He could appoint or remove senators. He could confiscate property at will. He could found new cities and colonies. He could punish and destroy existing cities. He had the final say in all matters in the provinces, the treasury, and the courts. Most importantly the dictator’s every decree automatically became law. The enormous constitutional force of the Assembly now existed at Sulla’s mere word. Despite all the constitutional reforms he was about to unveil to restore the proper order of the Old Republic in the next generation, the mundane rules of republican order paled in comparison to the example of a single man holding unlimited power indefinitely. While leading the Republic, Sulla eliminated many of those who opposed him in power but eventually retired, handing down power. During this transitional process, he left one notable person alive. “Have your way and take him; only bear in mind that the man you are so eager to save will one day deal the death blow to the cause of the aristocracy, which you have joined with me in upholding; for in this Caesar there is more than one Marius.” When the Republic began to break down in the late second century it was not the letter of Roman law that eroded, but respect for the mutually accepted bonds of mos maiorum.. Yes, the means matter because the winds of change always come calling.

Other Notes:

  • The pictures from Rome were taken by me years ago. To this day, the city remains Enteral. And remains one of my favorite to visit.
  • The notes in italics are my Kindle highlights, curtailed for me to remember.
  • Originally, I wanted to work in the writing of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton into this post. I ran the Federalist Papers through a machine learning model, built on PyTorch, but due to the small amount of text results were limited and somewhat expected from experience. Alas, my ability to resurrect the Founding Fathers in a text bot was an abject failure. Yet, I’ll keep trying. That’s what one does. And heroes too? Right, Thor?
  • The US Senate. Votes, including cloture motions, are on the record.Yes, the final product is on record. The in-between remains behind closed doors.
  • I found that a little work each day, planned and executed, can take one far. A podcast becomes a book. Alas, Rome wasn’t built in a day; no pun intended.