As often happens, having studied Latin in high school and college and spend much of my free time studying the foundational societies of western civilization, I began to compare and contrast Rome to America; as I often do. Aurini, a man who often says things that I find uncomfortable, but then comfort should never be the metric upon which we measure truth or insight, articulated how someone should approach history perfectly; I honestly could not have said it better myself. That is that a person needs a hypothesis when looking at history. During your first run through it is fine and good to learn just the dates, names, and the general basics to get you somewhat familiar with the landscape of the era. But if you fancy yourself a historian, or even an educated individual, you should revisit history with a definite hypothesis. I had always read Roman history with a few specific questions:
- Why was Rome and not Greece the most powerful civilization in the west during the age of antiquity?
- What about Rome, specifically their society, made them more powerful than their neighbors?
- Why did the Republic fall and what lead up to its fall. Or more specifically, what conditions lead to the rise of men like Marius, Sulla, Caesar, and Octavian?
- Assuming that there is something about Roman society that made them the power of the ancient world; what similarities exist between ancient Rome and America?
A view of this history isn't wrong, but it is lacks nuance into the hows and whys. When you delve into Roman history in depth you will notice that Rome had been beset and plagued by barbarians throughout its history; it was sacked twice during its formative years. You then ask was the deposition of Romulus Augustulus by Odoacer, a barbarian who was a higher up in the Roman military establishment, marked as the end of the empire? When throughout Roman history the emperor had been deposed. And why did the Eastern Roman Emperor not seek to exert hard influence, a public display of submission, on the usurper? Approaching history in this context you begin to gain real insight and learn to see fundamental trends and causes. And this is how I approach history.
As my mind drifted off to sleep I worked my way through the differing periods of Rome and then suddenly my drowsiness dissipated and I was fully awake; the gears in my mind spinning vigorously. I had remembered something about Roman patronage and how it worked in the early and late republics. Patronage was the practice in Rome were men would pledge loyalty, service, and commitment of varying degrees to their patrician benefactors. The patrician benefactors would give their patroness gifts, money, government positions if they could, in exchange for their loyalty; which meant votes in republican Rome. That is perhaps the most condense summation I can give as there were various types of 'partonage' in ancient Rome.
There were obligations for both parties involved and though many obligations had no legal basis, only dishonorable men (and this is a society were it was considered proper for dishonored men to commit suicide) would break an obligation of patronage; and patronage didn't just exist between plebeians to patricians. Other patricians could be patrons to other patricians and very complex familial and honor based ties were created within Roman society. However, towards the end of the Republic these systems began to change, and even break down. But before I go into the change I need to cover one very important aspect of Roman society.
Republican Rome, much like colonial and early Republican America, was oriented around the ideal of the citizen farmer. Participation in the military and civil government required that a man be a landowner, and a man wasn't really a true Roman unless he was a farmer. The society of Rome was oriented around owning land. If a man did not own land, the goal was to eventually be able to purchase some, he often was employed as a laborer on a farm, and one day, if he was driven, frugal, he may purchase his own land to farm and join the ranks of the noble citizenry.
However, many had changed from the foundation of the republic after the end of the third Punic war in 146 BC. Rome had risen from a city state, overshadowed by the Etruscan and other Latin cities of the time such as Alba Longa, and considered a backwater by the wealthier and more culture Hellenistic city states. To the foremost military power in the Mediterranean after their only major rival, Carthage, had been completely defeated and subsumed into the Roman Empire. Coincidentally, 146 BC is also the point when Rome started occupying large parts of Greece, whose city states had long since been the lesser 'partner' in military alliances with Rome.
All that remained for Rome was the constant harassment of the barbarians to the north, and even they had been reduced from an existential threat to a mere nuisance, the pirates of the Mediterranean, and the growing disgruntlement with her Italian allies. The Social War, the attempted secession from the Roman confederation by Italian city states tired of what they viewed as an unfair alliance with Rome, ended with a Roman military victory but with concessions granting full citizenship to Italian cities who remained allies with Rome. By 88 B.C Italy was truly unified under a Roman government. The other major event was the Third Servile War, lead by Spartacus, and relatively easily put down. However, the two wars illustrated two important changes that were happening in the ancient world.
One was the increasing difficulty in finding suitable land with which to settle their citizens. The Social War largely resulted because of unequal distribution of newly conquered lands, most of them going to Rome, wealthy Romans specifically. Rome herself was facing great strain with an increasingly restless Plebeian population due to the lack of adequate farmland. The strain was becoming so great that it bolstered the career of two political activists who sought land reforms for the plebeian poor, the Grachhi brothers, Roman era social activists and progressives of their era. However, like many activists, they broke the rules and abused their power when it suited their ends.
Tiberius Gracchus fell from grace when he tried to push through reforms that sought to redistribute land from patricians to the plebeians. As he tried to run for reelection the Senators gathered a mob of 300 like minded individuals stormed the Senate and club Tiberius and his supporters to death, the first time blood had been shed within the Senate in more than 400 years; and a glimpse of the politics of the next 100 years.
Tiberius' younger brother Gaius was more successful. He included the middle class, known as the equestrians, plebeians in his cause and gathered large support around himself. The equestrians also made up much of the judiciary of Roman society so he was able to use this power to get patricians removed from the ranks of the Senate for misconduct and replace them with men loyal to him. Gaius did things such as fix the price of grain, accelerate land redistribution, and win an unconstitutional third as the Tribuni Plebis. However, like his older brother he over extended himself. When he sought to extend rights to non Roman citizens he lost a large portion of his power base. Eventually he was killed during street fighting between the optios, patrician oriented political party, and the populares, his political party. But rather than end the civil strife within Roman society, it only became more strained.
The other was that large influx of slaves in Roman society and their increasing prevalence in the labor force. Slavery had always existed in the ancient world. But during the formative years of the Republic slaves they were a much smaller portion of the labor force. This meant that poor Romans, or Italians, who did not own land could find work as a laborer or a field hand. With the influx of slaves that resulted in the defeat of the Greeks, Carthaginians, and other enemies of Rome, they increasingly edged out the lower rung of Roman society. This, along with the death of the Gracci brothers, helped contribute to the outbreak of the Social War.
Moreover, the with the Marian Reforms of the Roman military, easing the requirements needed and establishment of a standing military, it helped lay the ground work for the rise of Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, and finally Augustus, signalling the beginning of the end of the Republic. With few ways for poor Romans to earn a living, and middle class Romans increasingly seeing themselves squeezed out by richer patricians, it left those classes few choices. Joining the Roman military, organized crime, gladiatorial games, prostitution, and patronage. Patronage started to become the method of choice for many of the urban dwellers living in Rome. However, it had changed slightly.
Whereas before the patronee had only one patron, the lower classes had soon discovered a way to game the system. Traditional Roman values had decline and honor was not regarded quite like it was. Many Roman men, not all of them members of the lowest social classes, would begin their day by visiting their patrons paying respects and collecting sums of money for paying their respects. They would do this throughout the morning, and then spend the rest of their day drinking, gambling, or watching the games.
And so the common Roman was reduced to holding out their hand and expecting coin to be put in it for simply saying a few sweet words of adoration to the man who held the purse strings. Moreover, the patricians were not oblivious to what was happening, in many ways they encouraged it. They knew that they simply had to offer more coin than their rivals to buy the persons loyalty. And if patronage alone was not enough, there were the games, and frequent allotments of free bread that would be distributed under the name of the right and honorable so and so.
Politics increasingly became a game of occupying office, abusing its power to gain wealth and prestige. There had always been corruption in Rome, more so than what would have been acceptable in America, but there were understandings that came with it. Corruption had to be quiet and discrete and within reason. That was no longer the case. The office of consul, with its legal immunity while in office, became a means for wealthy men to enrich themselves.
This is the world that Caesar grew up in. Were men used their private armies to bully the Senate into submission. Were political enemies were exterminated. And where all it took was money, and buying the love of the masses with it, to wipe away those sins. Caesar was no different than Sulla, Crassus, Pompey or the legion of others who abused their power for person gain. He just was bigger, louder, and more flagrant than anyone before him. He pushed the boundaries, what little remained of them anyways, of Rome sociopolitical norms and was put in a position where, he either had to take power, or be ruined. Later on his nephew, and adopted son, Octavian, was the victor of a series of wars that resulted from Caesars depth.
He was very different from Caesar, and his predecessors in that his formative years were amidst the worst in terms of the decay of Roman society and civil strife. He sought to restore Rome's stability, which he did, and return it moral society with it, which he largely failed to do. He made a great show of returning power to the senate, restoring the Republic, but the truth was that he controlled everything behind closed doors. And in actuality the Republic been effectively dead for almost 70 years at that point.
While mulling this information over in my mind I couldn't help but notice the eerie similarities during the late Republican era of Rome and now. There is a lot more that I have not put in my blog post for the sake of brevity, which I will elaborate on in future posts, but here are some of the similarities I have noticed:
- Calls for land redistribution then. Calls for income redistribution now.
- Decreasing ability for citizens to find farmlands then. Decreasing ability for individual Americans to start businesses now.
- Growing coalescent of farmlands in the hands of a few politically connected patricians then. Growing conglomeration of business companies in the hands mega corporations now.
- Labor crowded out by slaves then. Labor crowded out by illegal migrants now.
- Growing flagrant corruption and disregard for their constitution then by their elected leadership. Growing flagrant corruption and disregard for our constitution now buy our elected leadership.
- Government increasingly reliant on warfare for wealth and economic health then. Government increasingly reliant on warfare for economic health now.
- Middle and lower classes of Roman society increasingly reliant on patronage of patrician leaders for their livelihood. Middle and lower classes of American society increasingly reliant on entitlements for their livelihood.
- Excessive inflation during the waning years of the Republic. Excessive monetary printing now.
- Absolute control of the Mediterranean by the Romans. Absolute control of the oceans by Americans.