History can teach us a lot about the present, because it can show us analogies from what happened in the past. Human nature stays the same throughout the ages and similar conditions can give rise to similar outcomes. However, you need to keep in mind that these are not perfect predictions for the future, but instead warning signs of possible troubled times ahead.

The Roman Republic serves as a great analogy for the present state of chaos, not only in the United States, but around the world. What we are experiencing is the rise of populism, rule by mobs, and great threats towards freedom and prosperity. It is almost eerie how many parallels there are between what happened then, and what is happening now.

Today is the pupil of yesterday.
from “Moral Maxims” by Publilius Syrus

I have written another very long article on this topic, where I focus more on today and look at the conditions in detail, but here I go back to some of the ancient sources themselves to paint a picture of what happened then, and what could happen again, if we are not careful.

The need to study history is reflected in this passage from Livy’s monumental history of Rome called “From the Foundation of the City”:

The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these-the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past, that you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

History can teach us lessons without us having to make the same mistakes as in the past. As ancient historian Polybius noted, there are two ways to learn: from your own mistakes, and from those of others. The second option is much less painful than the first one.

This I mention for the sake of the improvement of the readers of this history. For there are two ways by which all men can reform themselves, the one through their own mischances, the other through those of others, and of these the former is the more impressive, but the latter less hurtful.

Therefore we should never choose the first method if we can help it, as it corrects by means of great pain and peril, but ever pursue the other, since by it we can discern what is best without suffering hurt. Reflecting on this we should regard as the best discipline for actual life the experience that accrues from serious history.

For this alone makes us, without inflicting any harm on us, the most competent judges of what is best at every time and in every circumstance.
from “Histories” by Polybius

Polybius described government types as occurring in cycles, a process he called “anacyclosis”. First you have a monarchy, which degenerates into a tyranny, which is then replaced by an aristocracy, which then degenerates into oligarchy. At this stage, the people rebel and create a democracy. However, democracies have a tendency to degenerate into chaos and mob-rule, a state of affairs that Polybius called an “ochlocracy”.

Once this chaotic state of affairs gets unbearable, the people start clamoring for peace and order. Usually one man steps up promising to bring this about and the cycle resets itself back into a monarchy.

This is exactly what happened in Ancient Rome.

Learn to see in another’s calamity the ills which you should avoid.
from “Moral Maxims” by Publilius Syrus

1) Large economic disparities can lead to grievances

Large economic disparities between those at the top and those at the bottom are like a powder keg waiting to explode. An unequal distribution of wealth can lead to many social problems, with the poor becoming more and more dissatisfied and voicing their grievances. In countries with greater economic equality, there is more social cohesion and people tend to trust each other more. When the inequalities start growing, this cohesion is lost and trust diminishes.

Thus certain powerful men became extremely rich and the race of slaves multiplied throughout the country, while the Italian people dwindled in numbers and strength, being oppressed by penury, taxes, and military service. If they had any respite from these evils they passed their time in idleness, because the land was held by the rich, who employed slaves instead of freemen as cultivators.
from “Roman History” by Appian

After the of the Punic Wars, an economic scissor effect came to heed in the Republic. The rich got richer beyond their wildest dreams, while the poor got poorer. After a series of conflicts, soldiers returning to their farms, found them in disarray, had to take on great debt, and then ended up selling them. The buyers came from the rich upper classes, who got vast amounts of money because of the plunder and the trade that came with the Roman control of the Mediterranean Sea.

Affairs at home and in the field were managed according to the will of a few men, in whose hands were the treasury, the provinces, public offices, glory and triumphs. The people were burdened with military service and poverty. The generals divided the spoils of war with a few friends. Meanwhile the parents or little children of the soldiers, if they had a powerful neighbor, were driven from their homes.

Thus, by the side of power, greed arose, unlimited and unrestrained, violated and devastated everything, respected nothing, and held nothing sacred, until it finally brought about its own downfall. For as soon as nobles were found who preferred true glory to unjust power, the state began to be disturbed and civil dissension to arise like an upheaval of the earth.”
from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

“In former years you were silently indignant that the treasury was pillaged, that kings and free peoples paid tribute to a few nobles, that those nobles possessed supreme glory and vast wealth. Yet they were not satisfied with having committed with impunity these great crimes, and so at last the laws, your sovereignty, and all things human and divine have been delivered to your enemies.

And they who have done these things are neither ashamed nor sorry, but they walk in grandeur before your eyes, some flaunting their priesthoods and consulships, others their triumphs, just as if these were honors and not stolen goods.
speech of Gaius Memmius from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

The Punic Wars were a series of wars that Rome fought against Carthage, its mortal rival for the control of the western Mediterranean. The first one happened between 264 – 241 BC. The second one (218 – 201 BC) is the most famous of the three and was fought when Carthaginian commander Hannibal invaded the Italian peninsula by marching his army through the Alps.

After the defeat of Hannibal’s army, Rome became the strongest power in the Mediterranean area. Carthaginian might diminished greatly, however in the minds of many Romans, it still remained a threat. Cato the Elder ended all his speeches in the Roman Senate by clamoring for the destruction of Carthage and the elimination of this rival once and for all.

In 149 BC, this call was heard and Rome launched a war against the city. Parallel to this, the Republic entered a chain of wars in Greece, fighting Macedonia and then the Achaean League. In 148 BC, the Fourth Macedonian War ended with the subjugation of the Kingdom of Macedon.

The year 146 BC was when Rome emerged as the hegemonic power in the Western world. In that year it defeated both Carthage and the Achaean League, and marked its dominance by razing the cities of Carthage and Corinth to the ground.

These events on the international stage, also had profound effects on the internal conditions in Rome itself. The Punic Wars marked an end of the old system in the Republic. This state of affairs led to great economic disparities between the different social classes, which caused great discontent among the worse off.

The Roman Republic went from a country with relative income equality among the different strata of society, to one with greater and greater inequality. The social cohesion and trust between the groups was lost and contributed to growing tensions.

Compare this to the current state of affairs. The amount of wealth controlled by the top levels of society in the world has skyrocketed. Whereas only 30 years ago, the super-wealthy controlled only a relatively small proportion of the total income earned in a country, now the percentage has grown exponentially. This effect is most profound especially in the US, where the top 1% of the population went from earning around 7 or 8% of the total income in 1975 to earning almost 20% of the total income today!


2) When a group of people feels that their lot in life has worsened and will keep on worsening, they might be susceptible to demagogues

When people feel that their lot in life is getting worse, simple answers to complex problems, can seem very enticing. It is very easy to be swayed by populist demagogues who promise them the Moon.

It is the relative fall in well-being that is the problem. When people can compare their current status against that of their parents or even their own previously, they are more prone to be unhappy.

It is not absolute wealth that is the main problem, but instead relative wealth. A person who was born poor, but is no worse off than the previous generations and his lot is stable compared to the wealthier segments of society, might not be dissatisfied and accept how things are.

When a person compares his situation either to that of himself previously or to that of another group, that is when negative feelings set in. You might be perfectly happy when you don’t have a car and neither does your neighbor. At first you might become happier when you buy an old used car.

However, when you see that your neighbor bought a brand new Mercedes, then feelings of jealousy and unfairness set in. Keeping up with the Joneses can heighten anxiety in the population. This anxiety will get even worse, when you feel that not only are the Joneses getting richer, you are getting poorer.

And when the rich began to offer larger rents and drove out the poor, a law was enacted forbidding the holding by one person of more than five hundred acres of land. For a short time this enactment gave a check to the rapacity of the rich, and was of assistance to the poor, who remained in their places on the land which they had rented and occupied the allotment which each had held from the outset.

But later on the neighboring rich men, by means of fictitious personages, transferred these rentals to themselves, and finally held most of the land openly in their own names.

Then the poor, who had been ejected from their land, no longer showed themselves eager for military service, and neglected the bringing up of children, so that soon all Italy was conscious of a dearth of freemen, and was filled with gangs of foreign slaves, by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates, from which they had driven away the free citizens.
from “The Life of Tiberius Gracchus” by Plutarch

In the times of the late Roman Republic, some politicians arose that tried to lessen these disparities. Some of them did have the interests of the people in heart, while others cynically just used this for their own purposes.

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, an illustrious man, eager for glory, a most powerful speaker, and for these reasons well known to all, delivered an eloquent discourse, while serving as tribune, concerning the Italian race, lamenting that a people so valiant in war, and related in blood to the Romans, were declining little by little into pauperism and paucity of numbers without any hope of remedy.
from “Roman History” by Appian

Tiberius Gracchus was probably a genuine reformer, although he might have also had more personal goals as well. However, after him several rabble-rousers arose, charismatic and usually up to no good, with an ability to stir up the masses. Men like Clodius pretended to lend a sympathetic ear to the needs of the downtrodden, while at the same time pursuing their own agendas.

Clodius was a very innovative populist politician, who gained a big popularity with the crowds. Originally born as a patrician, he realized that leading the plebs might be a better way to power and so organized his own adoption by a plebeian (and a man younger than himself!) in order to become a plebeian himself.

After getting himself elected as plebeian tribune, he promulgated a series of laws that were a mix of common sense checks on powers of the magistrates, populist policies like free grain distribution, and self-serving ones such as the expulsion of Cicero from the city, or making the organization of clubs of semi-political nature (in practice organized gangs) legal.

This act on the organization of gangs unleashed a wave of bloodshed, as rival political gangs started fighting each other in the streets. This ultimately cost Clodius his life, as he died in one of the confrontations against the gang of Milo, a rival gang-leader who supported the aristocrats.

Clodius was described as extremely arrogant and not above using any means necessary to get his way. He was very good at getting the crowds worked up to a fever point, and then having them do his bidding.

He would often use the worsening conditions of the people he was talking to as a way to get them to do what he wanted. In this way, he took advantage of the mental state of the poorer and exploited sections of society to get more power and advance his career.

They therefore gladly listened to Clodius also, and called him the soldier’s friend. For he pretended to be incensed in their behalf, if there was to be no end of their countless wars and toils, but they were rather to wear out their lives in fighting with every nation and wandering over every land, receiving no suitable reward for such service, but convoying the waggons and camels of Lucullus laden with golden beakers set with precious stones.

All this, while the soldiers of Pompey, citizens now, were snugly ensconced with wives and children in the possession of fertile lands and prosperous cities, — not for having driven Mithridates and Tigranes into uninhabitable deserts, nor for having demolished the royal palaces of Asia, but for having fought with wretched exiles in Spain and runaway slaves in Italy.

“Why, then,” he would cry, “if our campaigns are never to come to an end, do we not reserve what is left of our bodies, and our lives, for a general in whose eyes the wealth of his soldiers is his fairest honor?”
from “The Life of Lucullus” by Plutarch

Populist demagogues can easily take advantage of the negative mindset that sets in a situation of relative loss of status and wealth. They will assure you that it is not your fault and someone else is to blame. They will start offering simple answers on how this can be solved. Most of all, they will make you feel like someone actually cares about your problem. This can become very enticing and can sway many people.

The problem today is that many people in the developed world feel as if they are worse off than previous generations and that the next generations will be even worse off than now. They feel as if they are losing control. That is why such huge chunks of the population are prone to demagogic politicians.

3) Anger can lead to polarization, which is a step away from violence

Many demagogues use the tactic of swaying emotions to get power. Emotional persuasion is much more effective than logical persuasion. And what is the most powerful emotion? Anger.

The ancient commentators realized the dangers of anger for the individual, but also for society. The reason why this is so, is because this emotion circumvents reason and makes people behave in a brainless way, often leading to aggressiveness. Modern research has confirmed the strong links between anger and aggression.

Some of the wisest of men have called anger a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes.

That you may know that they whom anger possesses are not sane, look at their appearance; for as there are distinct symptoms which mark madmen, such as a bold and menacing air, a gloomy brow, a stern face, a hurried walk, restless hands, changed color, quick and strongly-drawn breathing; the signs of angry men, too, are the same.
from “On Anger” by Seneca

The different definitions that the ancients gave of anger were all usually linked to a desire for revenge, even bodily harm. Whether this desire stemmed from just or unjust causes, this emotion was always tied to an aggressive state of mind.

Anger is the desire to punish one who, we think, has wrongfully done us harm.
from “The Tusculan Disputations” by Cicero

Anger as an emotion is stronger than gratitude. People often forget all the good things that others might have done for them, and instead focus on the bad things.

For men do not feel the same way toward those who have injured them and toward their benefactors. They remember their anger even against their will, yet they willingly forget their gratitude.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

In the last century of the Roman Republic, conditions were ripe for the rise of strong negative emotions. Apprehension spread throughout Roman society. The different groups started professing their grievances, many of which were at odds with the grievances of the other groups. This inflamed the tensions, and created anger.

They collected together in groups, and made lamentation, and accused the poor of appropriating the results of their tillage, their vineyards, and their dwellings. Some said that they had paid the price of the land to their neighbors. Were they to lose the money with their land? Others said that the graves of their ancestors were in the ground, which had been allotted to them in the division of their fathers’ estates. Others said that their wives’ dowries had been expended on the estates, or that the land had been given to their own daughters as dowry. Money-lenders could show loans made on this security. All kinds of wailing and expressions of indignation were heard at once.

On the other side were heard the lamentations of the poor — that they were being reduced from competence to extreme penury, and from that to childlessness, because they were unable to rear their offspring. They recounted the military services they had rendered, by which this very land had been acquired, and were angry that they should be robbed of their share of the common property. They reproached the rich for employing slaves, who were always faithless and ill-disposed and for that reason unserviceable in war, instead of freemen, citizens, and soldiers.

While these classes were thus lamenting and indulging in mutual accusations, a great number of others, composed of colonists, or inhabitants of the free towns, or persons otherwise interested in the lands and who were under like apprehensions, flocked in and took sides with their respective factions. Emboldened by numbers and exasperated against each other they kindled considerable disturbances, and waited eagerly for the voting on the new law, some intending to prevent its enactment by all means, and others to enact it at all costs.

In addition to personal interest the spirit of rivalry spurred both sides in the preparations they were making against each other for the appointed day.
from “Roman History” by Appian

Grievances can lead to anger, which can then give rise to moral indignation. Once moral indignation sets in, the mind stops reasoning rationally and can become a slave of the passions. It is very easy then to start solving problems using violence.

Moreover, since the people felt bitterly over the death of Tiberius and were clearly awaiting an opportunity for revenge, and since Nasica was already threatened with prosecutions, the senate, fearing for his safety, voted to send him to Asia, although it had no need of him there.

For when people met Nasica, they did not try to hide their hatred of him, but grew savage and cried out upon him wherever he chanced to be, calling him an accursed man and a tyrant, who had defiled with the murder of an inviolable and sacred person the holiest and most awe-inspiring of the city’s sanctuaries.
from “The Life of Tiberius Gracchus” by Plutarch

The nobles then abused their victory to gratify their passions; they put many men out of the way by the sword or by banishment, and thus rendered themselves for the future rather dreaded than powerful.

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.

But if I should attempt to speak of the strife of parties and of the general character of the state in detail or according to the importance of the theme, time would fail me sooner than material.
from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

The Roman Republic became divided between opposing camps, each accusing the other. Deep polarization led to political violence, and even murder. This then further exasperated the partisanship and led to more violence. Once violence became the norm, it became hard (maybe impossible) to stop.

The Gracchi by their judiciary law had created a cleavage in the Roman people and had destroyed the unity of the State by giving it two heads. The Roman knights, relying on the extraordinary powers, which placed the fate and fortunes of the leading citizens in their hands, were plundering the State at their pleasure by embezzling the revenues; the Senate, crippled by the exile of Metellus and the condemnation of Rutilius, had lost every appearance of dignity.

In this state of affairs Servilius Caepio and Livius Drusus, men of equal wealth, spirit and dignity — and it was this which inspired the emulation of Livius Drusus — supported, the former the knights, the latter the Senate.

Standards, eagles and banners were, it is true, lacking; but the citizens of one and the same city were as sharply divided as if they formed two camps.
from “Epitome of Roman History” by Florus

Plutarch noted that anger can often arise from very small beginnings. Society often mirrors the internal makeup of people, and just like in people profound changes can be initiated by the smallest of circumstances, in society chaos can have humble beginnings.

For anger does not always have great and powerful beginnings; on the contrary, even a jest, a playful word, a burst of laughter or a nod on the part of somebody, and many things of the kind, rouse many persons to anger.
from “On Controlling Anger” by Plutarch

Sometimes the anger is boiling under the surface, only waiting for a spark to set it off. In Ancient Rome, this spark was the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus. In more modern times, you have the example of the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, which unleashed these bent up emotions and started the so-called Arab Spring.

Tiberius Gracchus lost his life in consequence of a most excellent design too violently pursued; and this abominable crime, the first that was perpetrated in the public assembly, was seldom without parallels thereafter from time to time. On the subject of the murder of Gracchus the city was divided between sorrow and joy.

Some mourned for themselves and for him, and deplored the present condition of things, believing that the commonwealth no longer existed, but had been supplanted by force and violence. Others considered that their dearest wishes were accomplished.
from “Roman History” by Appian

Once this spark was set off, things started going downhill. First it was only riots, however once political assassination had been introduced into the system, anger turned to downright hate. When such strong emotions take over, people on both sides throw the gloves off and stop restraining themselves.

Thus the seditions proceeded from strife and contention to murder, and from murder to open war, and now the first army of her own citizens had invaded Rome as a hostile country. From this time the seditions were decided only by the arbitrament of arms.

There were frequent attacks upon the city and battles before the walls and other calamities incident to war. Henceforth there was no restraint upon violence either from the sense of shame, or regard for law, institutions, or country.
from “Roman History” by Appian

This state of affairs started, paradoxically, right after Rome had experienced its greatest triumph, and grew worse as the decades passed.

When the threat from Carthage had been removed, they were free to resume their quarrels. Then there arose frequent riots, revolutions and eventually civil wars. A few influential men, who had gained the support of the majority, sought absolute power, on the specious pretext of defending the nobles or the plebs.

Citizens were not called “good” or “bad” according to their public conduct, because in that respect they were all equally corrupt; but those who were wealthiest, and most able to inflict harm, were considered “good” because they defended the existing state of affairs.
from “Histories” by Sallust

Seneca called anger a plague, in fact the most destructive one in the history of humanity. One of the victims was the Roman Republic. Anger led to polarization, which led to violence and destruction. It all started from small fires and over time grew to overwhelm society.

No plague has cost the human race more dear: you will see slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations, sacking of cities, ruin of whole peoples, the persons of princes sold into slavery by auction, torches applied to roofs, and fires not merely confined within city-walls but making whole tracts of country glow with hostile flame. See the foundations of the most celebrated cities hardly now to be discerned; they were ruined by anger.
from “On Anger” by Seneca

Compare this to today. Society is deeply polarized between two sides. Political divisions seem irreparable. Each side seems to be veering towards more extreme positions.

The extreme attitudes have gotten so bad that significant sections of Republican and Democrat supporters in the US see the other party as a threat to the country. This can be quite dangerous, since if you dehumanize the opposition and see them as a mortal threat, you are much more prone to support more radical measures against them.

4) When people are not willing to compromise, the situation will get worse

Extremism makes compromise virtually impossible. When a state of affairs arises that people are not willing to sit down and agree on a reasonable common action, then more extreme measures like violence come to be seen as the only solution to the problem.

And it is thought that a law dealing with injustice and rapacity so great was never drawn up in milder and gentler terms. For men who ought to have been punished for their disobedience and to have surrendered with payment of a fine the land which they were illegally enjoying, these men it merely ordered to abandon their unjust acquisitions upon being paid the value, and to admit into ownership of them such citizens as needed assistance.

But although the rectification of the wrong was so considerate, the people were satisfied to let bygones be bygones if they could be secure from such wrong in the future; the men of wealth and substance, however, were led by their greed to hate the law, and by their wrath and contentiousness to hate the law-giver, and tried to dissuade the people by alleging that Tiberius was introducing a re-distribution of land for the confusion of the body politic, and was stirring up a general revolution.
from “The Life of Tiberius Gracchus” by Plutarch

When Tiberius Gracchus proposed his laws on the redistribution of land, the upper classes were vehemently opposed to them. They did not want to even consider any such measures. Instead of finding a compromise solution to very grave problems of society, they started attacking the messenger.

This is opposed to the spirit of compromise that reigned in the times of the early Roman Republic. While there was class conflict between the patricians and the plebeians, little by little the grievances were solved. At the end, they knew that they were part of a common body, and need to compromise for the common good.

The plebeians and Senate of Rome were often at strife with each other concerning the enactment of laws, the cancelling of debts, the division of lands, or the election of magistrates. Internal discord did not, however, bring them to blows; there were dissensions merely and contests within the limits of the law, which they composed by making mutual concessions, and with much respect for each other.

Once when the plebeians were entering on a campaign they fell into a controversy of the sort, but they did not use the weapons in their hands, but withdrew to the hill, which from that time on was called the Sacred Mount.

Even then no violence was done, but they created a magistrate for their protection and called him the Tribune of the Plebs, to serve especially as a check upon the consuls, who were chosen by the Senate, so that political power should not be exclusively in their hands.
from “Roman History” by Appian

This tendency to compromise broke down during the latter years of the Republic. One of the biggest problems was that the people on both sides did not understand the situation of the other side. An anecdote captured by Valerius Maximus, shows this divide of perceptions.

As a young man, Scipio Nasica was running for the political office of the aedile. One day, as was customary for candidates, he was shaking hands with the voters. Taking the hand of a farmer, a hand that was heavily calloused after years of toiling in the countryside, Scipio Nasica jokingly asked him whether he had spent his life walking on his hands.

That statement was heard by many people standing around them, and the word of this incident spread among the people, and caused Scipio Nasica to lose the election.
from “Memorable Deeds and Sayings” by Valerius Maximus

Scipio Nasica, coming from an ancient patrician family, did not understand the way the common people lived, and their everyday problems. Living in their own social bubble, many of the aristocrats did not know about the lives of the ordinary plebeians. When you keep yourself apart like this, you cannot look at the world from the perspective of the other groups, blinding you to their needs, wants and fears.

On the other hand, the ordinary people sometimes did not want to see how unreasonable some of their demands were. For example, when they were clamoring for free grain, Cicero noted that a huge part of the public expenditures would need to go towards satisfying these policies. This money had to come from somewhere and could not be spent on other things (for example improving Rome’s infrastructure).

Gaius Gracchus proposed a grain law. The people were delighted with it because it provided an abundance of food without work. The Optimates, however, fought against it because they thought the masses would be attracted away from hard work and toward idleness, and they saw that the state treasury would be exhausted.
from “Speech in Defense of Sestius” by Cicero

The subsidized grain distribution became a favorite tactic of many populists, who would often propose that the state provide cheaper and cheaper grain, and later bread. Clodius, when he became tribune, even passed a law making it free.

However, there were significant knock-off effects. The money for this grain dole had to come from somewhere, and this meant higher taxes, especially in the provinces. Some of the provinces suffered quite a bit under a heavy tax burden. Also, from time to time, speculators would arise, who would try to artificially reduce the grain supply, causing shortages and thereby increasing its price. This forced the state to either buy the grain at higher prices or get it through other means, wasting even more money.

So the grain dole ended up being a huge burden on the public finances of Rome, and thereby the entire Roman economy. This subsidized grain, however, was something that could not be abolished, as if someone tried to do it, the people of the city of Rome would riot.

Most people think they are right and the other side is wrong. This is reinforced through the way the brain works. Cognitive biases such as confirmation bias make it that a person usually seeks information that is in line with their opinion and discards the things that are not in line with that.

Even more powerful is the backfire effect, where opposing facts contrary to a person’s opinion, paradoxically make people believe in their opinion even more. This means that most people will not want to learn about the opinions or positions of others, and instead they will discard them automatically.

The fact is that those who are enslaved to their sects are not merely devoid of all sound knowledge, but they will not even stop to learn!
from “On the Natural Faculties” by Galen

When people are not willing to walk in the shoes of others, and do not want to understand the problems of the other side, then they won’t see the other side’s arguments as legitimate. Compromise is virtually impossible in situations such as these.

Gridlock and the unwillingness to compromise was also replicated in the Senate. As this institution became one of the main battle grounds between the different political factions, it was witness to many fierce stand-offs.

One of the men responsible for this impasse was Cato the Younger. While, he is remembered as a Stoic and a defender of the principles of the old Republic, he was also incredibly stubborn and not willing to compromise. He was often criticized for this, even by some of his allies, such as Cicero.

Cicero knew that on the political scene, compromise is often necessary. Cato would not budge, even if the moment called for giving a small concession. This lack of expediency for the sake of a greater good, really irked Cicero.

In one of his speeches, Cicero praised and criticized Cato at the same time. He said that Cato was brave, temperate, and just. However, what was missing in Cicero’s speech was the mention of prudence, the last of the four cardinal virtues.

One example that Cicero gives when Cato should have been more prudent was when he was against a bailout (yes, they gave bailouts in Antiquity!) to a company of tax-farmers (which were basically financial houses). In one letter to Atticus, Cicero mentions that while he agreed in principle that the bailout was outrageous, you still need to give it. When considering the next course of action, you always have to look at the bigger context.

Sometimes, it pays off to get off your high-horse and compromise for the sake of the greater good. According to Cicero, this was what Cato should have done.

While being high-minded and of the utmost loyalty, he nevertheless does harm to the Republic. For he delivers his opinions in the Senate as if he were in Plato’s Republic, and not in the scum of Romulus.
from “Letters to Atticus” by Cicero

It became almost impossible to get anything done in the Senate. With this institution becoming locked in gridlock, some of the stalling tactics started bordering on the ridiculous. Cato tried to filibuster legislation. Bibulus, who was a co-consul with Caesar and his bitter opponent, tried to stop legislative proceedings from being carried out by declaring every day a religious holiday. Elections ended up getting postponed several times.

Everything became mired in controversy. The old Roman propensity to compromise disappeared. At some points, the machinery of state almost ground to a halt, as the different factions tried to block the other.

The situation today has many eerie parallels. People in today’s political climate are less willing to compromise than before. A large chunk of the electorate believes that their side should get what they want without compromising. Polls from the time of the past administration in the US have consistently shown this winner take all attitude. This type of attitude however is not prevalent only in the US, but many other countries as well.

The lack of willingness to compromise between the different sides has in the US also led to the rise of the filibuster. Once a very rare tactic, to be used only as an extreme measure in extreme circumstances, the use of the filibuster has now skyrocketed.

5) When money and decadence become prevalent, society becomes ready to be seduced by simple (but wrong) answers to complex problems

When the rich start focusing on drugs and orgies as the point of their existence, and the poor clamor for bread and games, you know that your society is heading for a downfall. When the point of a society becomes to wear fancy clothes, watch someone else do stuff, and to satisfy your instant gratification, then you are doomed. People stop thinking long-term and only care for satisfying their current urge. This makes simple answers seem very appealing.

Rome went from being a city where living a simple life was a virtue, to a city where decadence prevailed. The end of the Punic Wars brought in great luxuries to the city, the temptation of which proved too powerful for many.

The first of the Scipios opened the way for the world power of the Romans; the second opened the way for luxury. For, when Rome was freed of the fear of Carthage, and her rival in empire was out of her way, the path of virtue was abandoned for that of corruption, not gradually, but in headlong course. The older discipline was discarded to give place to the new. The state passed from vigilance to slumber, from the pursuit of arms to the pursuit of pleasure, from activity to idleness.”
from “The Roman History” by Velleius Paterculus

“From that time onwards the conduct of our ancestors declined, not slowly as previously, but like a torrent. The young men were so corrupted by luxury and wealth that it could justly be said, that they were men who could neither maintain their own family possessions, or allow others to do so.
from “Histories” by Sallust

Instead of striving to achieve real values, people started to seek vain ways to glorify themselves. This is when virtue loses value, starts being seen as uncool, and instead the way ahead is to post endless selfies of yourself, and dance smashed drunk every day. In the eyes of many people it becomes more important what you wear, than who you are.

Some of these men eagerly strive for statues, thinking that by them they can be made immortal, as if they would gain a greater reward from senseless brazen images than from the consciousness of honorable and virtuous conduct.

And they take pains to have them overlaid with gold, a fashion first introduced by Acilius Glabrio, after his skill and his arms had overcome King Antiochus. But how noble it is, scorning these slight and trivial honors, to aim to read the long and steep ascent to true glory, as the bard of Ascra expresses it, is made clear by Cato the Censor.

For when he was asked why he alone among many did not have a statue, he replied: “I would rather that the good men should wonder why I did not deserve one than (which is much worse) should mutter ‘Why was he given one?'”

Other men, taking great pride in the coaches higher than common and in ostentatious finery of apparel, sweat under heavy cloaks, which they fasten about their necks and bind around their very throats, while the air blows through them because of the excessive lightness of the material; and they lift them up with both hands and wave them with many gestures, especially with their left hands, in order that the over-long fringes and the tunics embroidered with party-colored threads in multiform figures of animals may be conspicuous.
from “Roman Antiquities” by Ammianus Marcellinus

Society becomes decadent, when money becomes the end goal for everything. Money is not seen as a means to an end anymore, but instead the end itself. Humility is lost and people start bragging and exaggerating their wealth (does this remind you of anyone in the highest offices of the US today?).

Others, though no one questions them, assume a grave expression and greatly exaggerate their wealth, doubling the annual yield of their fields, well cultivated (as they think), of which they assert that they possess a great number from the rising to the setting sun; they are clearly unaware that their forefathers, through whom the greatness of Rome was so far flung, gained renown, not by riches, but by fierce wars, and not differing from the common soldiers in wealth, mode of life, or simplicity of attire, overcame all obstacles by valor.

For that reason the eminent Valerius Publicola was buried by a contribution of money, and through the aid of her husband’s friends the needy wife of Regulus and her children were supported. And the daughter of Scipio received her dowry from the public treasury, since the nobles blushed to look upon the beauty of this marriageable maiden long unsought because of the absence of a father of modest means.
from “Roman Antiquities” by Ammianus Marcellinus

Rome after the end of the Punic Wars was a hedonistic paradise. When this happens, the moral fibers underpinning the state start to loosen, which invites all kinds of problems later on.

The first direction taken by Scipio’s ambition to lead a virtuous life, was to attain a reputation for temperance and excel in this respect all the other young men of the same age. This is a high prize indeed and difficult to gain, but it was at this time easy to pursue at Rome owing to the vicious tendencies of most of the youths.

For some of them had abandoned themselves to amours with boys and others to the society of courtesans, and many to musical entertainments and banquets, and the extravagance they involve, having in the course of the war with Perseus been speedily infected by the Greek laxity in these respects. So great in fact was the incontinence that had broken out among the young men in such matters, that many paid a talent for a male favorite and many three hundred drachmas for a jar of caviar.

This aroused the indignation of Cato, who said once in a public speech that it was the surest sign of deterioration in the republic when pretty boys fetch more than fields, and jars of caviar more than ploughmen.
from “Histories” by Polybius

The ancient commentators were of the view that the enormous resources and wealth that was brought to Rome spoiled the morals of the people, who now preferred to engage in all kinds of vices and leisurely activities.

This decadence also increased the corruption of the state. The people at the top started competing against each other for more wealth and power, while the people at the bottom seeing this, also wanted to partake. To placate the lower rungs, bread and games were introduced.

For what else produced these outbreaks of domestic strife but excessive prosperity? It was the conquest of Syria which first corrupted us, followed by the Asiatic inheritance bequeathed by the king of Pergamon.

The resources and wealth thus acquired spoiled the morals of the age and ruined the State, which was engulfed in its own vices as in a common sewer. For what else caused the Roman people to demand from their tribunes land and food except the scarcity which luxury had produced?

Hence arose the first and second Gracchan revolutions and the third raised by Apuleius. What was the cause of the violent division between the equestrian order and the senate on the subject of the judiciary laws except avarice, in order that the revenues of the State and the law-courts themselves might be exploited for profit?

Hence arose the attempt of Drusus and the promise of citizenship to the Latins, which resulted in war with our allies. Again, what brought the servile wars upon us except the excessive size of our establishments? How else could those armies of gladiators have arisen against their masters, save that a profuse expenditure, which aimed at conciliating the favor of the common people by indulging their love of shows, had turned what was originally a method of punishing enemies into a competition of skill?

Again, to touch upon less ugly vices, was not ambition for office also stimulated by wealth? Why, it was from this the Marian and Sullan disturbances arose.

Again, were not the sumptuous extravagance of banquets and the profuse largesses due to a wealth which was bound soon to produce want? It was this too that brought Catiline into collision with his country.
from “Epitome of Roman History” by Florus

When money and instant gratification become the thing everyone is striving for, and virtue declines and is even looked at as being stupid, then the state is ready for chaos and decline.

As soon as riches came to be held in honor, when glory, dominion, and power followed in their train, virtue began to lose its luster, poverty to be considered a disgrace, blamelessness to be termed malevolence.

Therefore as the result of riches, luxury and greed, united with insolence, took possession of our young manhood. They pillaged, squandered; set little value on their own, coveted the goods of others; they disregarded modesty, chastity, everything human and divine; in short, they were utterly thoughtless and reckless.
from “The Conspiracy of Catiline” by Sallust

But the love of irregular gratification, open debauchery, and all kinds of luxury, had spread abroad with no less force. Men forgot their sex; women threw off all the restraints of modesty. To gratify appetite, they sought for every kind of production by land and by sea; they slept before there was any inclination for sleep; they no longer waited to feel hunger, thirst, cold, or fatigue, but anticipated them all by luxurious indulgence.

Such propensities drove the youth, when their patrimonies were exhausted, to criminal practices; for their minds, impregnated with evil habits, could not easily abstain from gratifying their passions, and were thus the more inordinately devoted in every way to rapacity and extravagance.
from “The Conspiracy of Catiline” by Sallust

Sallust in his works describes how the upper classes succumbed to vice in their every day life. They would partake in all kinds of scandalous activities, often losing all their money in the process. Once faced with the fact that they had no more money, many of these youths would then turn to different types of criminal activities to try to continue their easy lifestyle. The reason why this type of dynamic arises is idleness. Idleness has a bad effect on both the rich and poor, but in different ways.

The rich, having access to all the luxuries they want, often get bored and don’t know what to do with themselves. In the modern world, they often turn to things like drugs, just to get a kick. The poor, have nothing to do, but usually for different reasons, often to do with a lack of work or an environment where education is not seen as important or cool, prolonging the vicious cycle of poverty. With nothing to do, these poor youths often turn to a life of crime or other vices.

For continuous idleness offers food for vice.
from “The Distichs of Cato” by Dionysius Cato

When a person doesn’t do anything challenging or to be proud of, then there is great temptation for vice. To illustrate a bit how this dynamic plays out, we can point to the lives of underprivileged youths in bad parts of town around the world. When they are just lounging around, there is a big chance that they will turn to petty crime or try to amuse themselves by destroying things around them.

That is why individuals, often coming from these same communities and concerned with the well-being and the future of these kids, set up extra-curricular activities to keep them focused. These can come in the form of sports clubs, music clubs, or other similar types of clubs. Sometimes this works, and the kids who get engaged with these places often stay off the streets and out of trouble. Many successful individuals coming out of these communities have credited these activities with keeping them focused and helping them to not getting caught up in all the bad influences that surrounded them.

The problem is that most people don’t have the willpower to disconnect themselves from instant gratification, or the discipline to push themselves through the pain that is often needed when trying to improve yourself. Taking selfies of yourself all day and posting stuff on social media is easy, going to the gym every day and exercising is hard. With the hard path you often don’t see results straight away and have to toil diligently every day with the hope of at one point reaching your goal.

With posting selfies all day, you get a bunch of likes straight away, giving you a boost to your self-esteem, soothing your fragile ego at least for a moment. Why work hard to try to achieve a goal that might not even come, when you can just lounge around and get empty boosts of dopamine?

This type of dilemma was quite evident to the ancients. In the ancient world, one way to teach people how to behave in their life was through myths and legends. In one ancient myth, Hercules is given a choice of which path to take for his future. The first path is the easy path, full of pleasure and luxury. The second path was the hard path, full of hard work, and would be long and difficult. Hercules chose the second path, because he knew that this was the path to true happiness. You cannot really achieve a full appreciation of life without testing yourself, surmounting obstacles, and learning about yourself in the process.

However such is human nature, that most people choose the first path, the easy road. This choice has a great impact on society. While the upper classes pursue debauchery, the lower classes also want to have some fun. This state of affairs distracts the non-thinking masses into living just for spectacles, and neglecting their brains. Juvenal satirized these mindless preoccupations of the plebs perfectly in his works.

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
from “Satires” by Juvenal

The rise of gladiatorial games and other types of spectator sport in ancient Rome could be dated to the period of the Punic Wars, and their explosion in popularity can be correlated with the period of the fall of the Republic. Initially, fights between gladiators had been part of funeral celebrations for the deceased, but by late Republic times, they had become a type of mass entertainment, often organized by private individuals who wanted to gain political influence and support of the masses. They started to be featured as part of the “ludi”, public games held during public festivals, and drew enormous crowds. The gladiators who participated in these contests were at the beginning lowly slaves or war captives, but by late Republic and Empire times, some of them grew to become veritable superstars, very rich and famous.

Initially, all male Roman citizens could be called up for duty to serve their state, so had to be prepared and do regular exercise. However, with the professionalization of the army, most people no longer had to do that. There was then a general decline in the fitness levels of the population. The people started preferring to watch, rather than do themselves. There are different things at play here. Participation in something like sports has been shown to increase self-esteem and happiness. Just like in ancient Rome, participation in sports has been declining among today’s generation. This most likely has an effect on self-perception and self-esteem.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian who spent most of his latter life in Rome and wrote a history to familiarize the Greeks with the early history of Rome, stated that it is courage and exercise, as well as masterdom over your passions, that make a person great and which also have an influence on the greatness of the country. In his analysis, he directly linked these three things to a feeling of having a common cause in the state, as well as a feeling of safety. When the state consists of a large number of people like this, then it will be strong.

It is other things that preserve cities and make them great from small beginnings: in foreign wars, strength in arms, which is acquired by courage and exercise; and in civil commotions, unanimity among the citizens, and this, he showed, could be most effectually achieved for the commonwealth by the prudent and just life of each citizen.

Those who practice warlike exercises and at the same time are masters of their passions are the greatest ornaments to their country, and these are the men who provide both the commonwealth with impregnable walls and themselves in their private lives with safe refuges.
from “Roman Antiquities” by Dionysius of Halicarnassus

What many sociologists and economists have noticed is that events move in circles. This was also the basis of political theory in the ancient world. Polybius described how democracy tends to fall in the third generation after its founding, as people who were raised in prosperity start taking things for granted. This can be observed on other levels as well. For example, the generations that have experienced war and suffering have a different mindset from those that haven’t. These newer generations tend to forget, and then end up repeating the same mistakes that previous generations have done.

All these factors have an effect on the behavior of the people on the political level. When they prefer instant gratification over hard work, then the likelihood that simple answers will appeal to them increases. When people stop doing things themselves and instead turn to watch other people do things, then you have a problem. As the people have been idle for so long, the urge to do something ends up exploding. They get seduced by the simple promises that a few demagogues spout at them, and move into action (either at the ballot box or in the streets). This is exactly when a democracy falls and becomes an ochlocracy. Mob-rule takes over.

But when a new generation arises and the democracy falls into the hands of the grandchildren of its founders, they have become so accustomed to freedom and equality that they no longer value them, and begin to aim at pre-eminence; and it is chiefly those of ample fortune who fall into this error.

So when they begin to lust for power and cannot attain it through themselves or their own good qualities, they ruin their estates, tempting and corrupting the people in every possible way. And hence when by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence.

For the people, having grown accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from the houses of office by his penury, institute the rule of violence; and now uniting their forces massacre, banish, and plunder, until they degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch.
from “Histories” by Polybius

Decadence is the instant gratification mindset that pervades society. Coupled with idleness, this can be a dangerous combination. It can establish itself quite easily in a society where a certain amount of prosperity and stability has taken hold. Consumerism and excess can lead to a loss of values, which then has an effect on the behavior of the people. The elites at the top will start vying with each other for pre-eminence, taking advantage of the vegetative state of the people.

But in these degenerate days, on the contrary, who is there that does not vie with his ancestors in riches and extravagance rather than in uprightness and diligence? Even the “new men,” who in former times already relied upon worth to outdo the nobles, now make their way to power and distinction by intrigue and open fraud rather than by noble practices; just as if a praetorship, a consulship, or anything else of the kind were distinguished and illustrious in and of itself and were not valued according to the merit of those who live up to it.”
from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

“When a state has weathered many great perils and subsequently attains to supremacy and uncontested sovereignty, it is evident that under the influence of long established prosperity, life will become more extravagant and the citizens more fierce in their rivalry regarding office and other objects than they ought to be.

As these defects go on increasing, the beginning of the change for the worse will be due to love of office and the disgrace entailed by obscurity, as well as to extravagance and purse-proud display; and for this change the populace will be responsible when on the one hand they think they have a grievance against certain people who have shown themselves grasping, and when, on the other hand, they are puffed up by the flattery of others who aspire to office.

For now, stirred to fury and swayed by passion in all their counsels, they will no longer consent to obey or even to be the equals of the ruling caste, but will demand the lion’s share for themselves.

When this happens, the state will change its name to the finest sounding of all, freedom and democracy, but will change its nature to the worst thing of all, mob-rule.
from “Histories” by Polybius

Many of the ancient philosophers called for moderation as the winning strategy in life. This was the credo of the most successful schools of philosophy of the ancient world, such as the Stoics or the Epicureans.

However, the problem is that when there are riches, there are temptations. This creates structural problems, which can sway the human mind towards vices much more easily. When resources are scarce, it is much easier to maintain equality and good morals.

When resources were moderate, equality was easily maintained; but when the world had been subjugated and rival states or kings destroyed, so that men were free to covet wealth without anxiety, then the first quarrels between patricians and plebeians broke out.

Now the tribunes made trouble, again the consuls usurped too much power; in the city and forum the first essays at civil war were made.
from “Histories” by Tacitus

It is a paradox that the greatest triumph of Rome was also the thing that seeded the downfall of its Republic. However, in many ways it makes sense. When there was a threat, the mind was focused on more important things. When this threat disappears and you have a generation that does not remember the old existential problems, many people forget about the real value of certain things. When this is coupled with an increase in prosperity, the rich can be tempted and spoiled by luxury. With no worries, they end up spending money lavishly on vain pursuits. As can be shown by the stories of many lottery winners, many people don’t know how to handle instant riches. Many are too weak-willed to stop themselves from falling into the instant gratification mindset, especially if they didn’t earn the money they have with hard work.

However in such times, the craving for the latest sneakers or designer handbags, doesn’t hit only the rich. This type of desire also infects the poor, the ones who can’t really afford it. They start spending beyond their means, borrowing money that they can’t afford to pay back, and living like there is no tomorrow. After a while of living like this, the day comes when all this comes crashing down. Many times, poor people end up spending more than they earn, either due to a lack of foresight, weak wills, or poor financial literacy. Usually, it is a combination of all three factors that contribute to this problem.

The Romans formerly, being governed by good and wholesome laws and customs, gradually grew to such a height of power, that at length they gained the greatest empire of any that history makes mention of. But in later times, after they had conquered many nations, and had long indulged themselves in the enjoyment of an uninterrupted peace, they declined from their ancient manners to wicked and destructive pursuits.

For the young men, enjoying rest and ease from war, with plenty of all things to be fuel to their lusts, gave themselves up to luxury and intemperance; for in the city prodigality was preferred before frugality, and living at ease before military service; and he that wasted all his time in voluptuousness, and not he that was of a virtuous and sober conduct, was accounted by all to be the only happy man.

Therefore sumptuous feasts, most fragrant ointments, flowered and embroidered carpets, rich and stately dining couches, splendidly wrought with gold, silver, ivory, and such like materials, came into fashion everywhere. Wine that was but of an ordinary quality they would not touch, but only Falernian and Chian, and other such fine wines: the choicest fish likewise, and everything of the best sort, was provided to gratify their shameless luxury.

The young men likewise wore garments of the finest and softest wool, woven so fine, that they were even transparent, and, with their flimsy texture, altogether like women’s gowns. All these things, serving to nourish luxury and voluptuousness, (to their ruin and destruction), were generally coveted by all, so that in a short time their prices grew to an excessive level: for a jar of Falernian wine was sold for a hundred drachmas, and a jar of salted Pontic fish for four hundred, skillful cooks were sold for four talents a-piece, and delicate and beautiful boys for many talents.
from “Historical Library” by Diodorus Siculus

The thing about engaging in too much pleasure is that it will end up biting you in the ass, if that becomes the entire point of your life. As Greek-Egyptian grammarian Athenaeus of Naucratis stated, to go be very eager in the pursuit of pleasure is to be hunting for pain.

And yet some people say that the desire of pleasure is a natural desire, as may be proved by all animals becoming enslaved by it; as if cowardice, and fear, and all sorts of other passions were not also common to all animals, and yet these are rejected by all who use their reason. Accordingly, to be very eager in the pursuit of pleasure is to go hunting for pain.
from “The Dinner of Sophists” by Athenaeus of Naucratis

When the society of the late Roman Republic turned to decadence, when the pursuit of pleasure by its population became paramount, then the country went hunting for pain. And pain it received in the form of chaos, violence, and civil wars.

When you pursue too much pleasure, you will receive pain. This was the lesson that many of the ancient stories tried to teach. One of the greatest and most ancient poets of Antiquity, Homer, had this as one of the main lessons of his epics.

On which account Homer wishing to represent pleasure in an odious light, says that the greatest of the gods receive no advantage from their power, but are even much injured by it, if they will allow themselves to be hurried away by the pursuit of pleasure. For all the anxiety which Zeus, when awake, lavished on the Trojans, was lost in open day, when he abandoned himself to pleasure.
from “The Dinner of Sophists” by Athenaeus of Naucratis

Living in a hectic, hedonistic age can produce lots of pain. Most people don’t heed the lessons of wise men like Homer, and get stung again and again without learning anything from the experience. However, there are some people that don’t like to live their life that way, and instead try to find other ways of living. That is why they turn to self-help. Many different schools of philosophy arose during that era in order to provide answers.

The absence of pain (“ataraxia” in Greek) was a part of the highest good according to the Epicurean school of philosophy. They were caricatured as hedonists by other later groups for their mantra that the pursuit of pleasure is the most important goal for people, but this image of them was far from the truth.

In fact, most Epicureans lived quite modestly. Their idea of pleasure was very different from what most people conceive of as pleasure. They divided pleasure into three types: pleasure that is both natural and necessary, pleasure that is natural but not necessary, and pleasure that is both not natural and not necessary.

The first category consists of things like food and shelter, without these you would not be able to survive for long. The second category are things like tasty food. While you have a natural desire to eat food that tastes really good, you don’t really need it to survive. Normal food suffices to sustain you. The third category are things which are neither natural, nor necessary. These are things like smoking, but also vain pursuits like wanting fame.

The pursuit of pleasure is a natural thing, as this is one of the ways that your internal mechanisms force you to try to achieve goals. The important thing to keep in mind is the type of pleasure you are seeking. In order to live a good life, you only need to fulfill the first category of pleasures. The rest of them are not necessary for your survival, and often can actually cause you great pain in the long-run.

The problem with society in the late Roman Republic was that most people forgot this important distinction between the types of pleasures. Many people started to binge on pleasures of the second category, and more importantly, they became obsessed about seeking pleasures of the third category, ones that were neither natural, nor necessary. The end result was not pleasure, but great pain.

Philodemus of Gadara, an Epicurean philosopher whose works form the majority of the papyri discovered at the famous Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, wrote an interesting treatise on the proper management of wealth. There he argued that the obsession of many people with getting wealthy is due to empty and wrong beliefs.

This paradoxically, not only causes them great mental pain, but also can lead them to lose this wealth. For a person with the wrong values, money is a fundamental prerequisite for their well-being. This causes great tension, which causes their day to day life to be full of pain, but also makes them prone to making mistakes. A person with the right values, will not only live a happier life, but also be able to procure things in a proper manner.

Of the recommended activities leading to profits and the maintenance both of these and of the possessions that one had beforehand, one must keep in mind that the principal one consists in managing one’s desires and fears.

For, usually nothing drains and ruins the most illustrious and richest houses so much as extravagance in lifestyle, lechery, ostentatious actions, effeminate behavior, and similar things and, again, the chilling fear of the gods, of death, of pains and of the things that are believed to produce them.

Consequently, if one removes from oneself, to the extent that it is possible, the envy of things that are not to be envied and the fear of things that are not to be feared, one will be able both to procure and to preserve one’s property in the appropriate manner.
from “On Property Management” by Philodemus of Gadara

The framework that the Epicureans used to classify pleasures can be a good guide to determine the amount of useless activities people engage in. When the balance is shifted heavily towards pleasures that are not necessary and especially ones that are not even natural, then you know there is a problem.

The warning signs are there. Any society can be swayed by the seeking of instant pleasure. This is a constant of human nature.

You are mistaken, my dear Lucilius, if you think that luxury, neglect of good manners, and other vices of which each man accuses the age in which he lives, are especially characteristic of our own epoch; no, they are the vices of mankind and not of the times. No era in history has ever been free from blame.”
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

Every era is susceptible to fall for decadence, and things like corruption and other vices are always present in some respect, but some eras and countries end up worse off than others. The thing is, as Seneca stated in another passage, every era produces someone like Clodius, the unscrupulous rabble-rouser of the late Republic, but not every era produces a Cato.

In early Rome, simplicity was considered a virtue. The times of the rise of the Republic produced characters like Cincinnatus, who spent his life working on a farm and when he was chosen to lead the country as dictator, put down his powers the day he defeated the enemy.

Maybe some of these descriptions are romantic views produced by later commentators longing for a long ago golden age, however it is not hard to imagine that there is a large kernel of truth in them. History has many examples of societies changing, decaying and dying, the levels of corruption rising or falling, statistics on crime varying from one era to another.

A society can change for the worse. When the morals decline, and the main driving force is quick pleasure, when a right here, right now attitude prevails, then the country is probably headed for greater problems down the line.

Research has shown that people are linked to their social environments and vice versa. Empathy between people in society can decline, which has negative effects on interpersonal relations, and thereby societal trends. Lack of empathy also seems to correlate to short-term thinking and selfishness.

Current society has also fallen into the instant gratification mindset. Bread and games are the drivers of society. Reality TV, drugs, and mindless stuff have taken over. Not only has long-term thinking diminished, but so has empathy.

6) Human nature is the driving force of history

Human nature is the set of character traits and ways of acting that drive the behavior of people. The thing about humans is that they can be generous and altruistic, but also mean, petty, and sometimes outright murderous. Humans can be selfish and hugely competitive, but also cooperative and loving. This means that there is no single definite human nature, but instead certain features of it, that reveal themselves based on the individual, situation, or circumstance.

The ancients viewed morals and virtue as the highest good. Excellence of character, doing the right things for the right reasons, was the ideal way of acting for a person. However, they also knew that very few people will act that way. There are only a very small number of people who strive to have a virtuous character, as most people are slaves to passions, whether due to their internal make-up, the environment they live in, or the circumstances they find themselves in. And this influences how human nature shapes the events in society.

While humans have this wide range of traits and ways of acting, ranging from good to evil, there are certain proclivities that push them in specific directions. Just like the second law of thermodynamics states that in a system without outside interference, the disorder and entropy always increases, a human system has the tendency to degenerate to the lowest common denominator if left alone. This means that in a society, the negative traits of human nature have a tendency to overwhelm the positive ones.

This can be quite easily explained by game theory, since in a system where one person cheats and the other doesn’t, it is the good guy who ends up being the sucker. That is why the assholes tend to win, and over time, most people will degenerate towards the more negative traits. This is what happened in the Roman Republic. The negative parts of human nature, like measureless ambition and lust for power, overwhelmed the system and brought about a fall. In a world where passions take over, this is what will happen.

Luckily, human society is not a completely closed system. Humans have been endowed with something that the ancients prized highly, reason. Reason is the outside force that can prevent a society from sliding down the path of chaos. Unfortunately, very rarely is reason actually used.

Thus, out of multifarious civil commotions, the Roman state passed into harmony and monarchy. To show how these things came about I have written and compiled this narrative, which is well worth the study of those who wish to know the measureless ambition of men, their dreadful lust of power, their unwearying perseverance, and the countless forms of evil.
from “Roman History” by Appian

All these problems can be explained by human nature. Humans make decisions and behave the way they do, because of certain factors. Many of these factors are deeply ingrained in the psyche and have been passed down onto us from our more primitive ancestors.

First of all, Nature has endowed every species of living creature with the instinct of self-preservation, of avoiding what seems likely to cause injury to life or limb, and of procuring and providing everything needful for life — food, shelter, and the like. A common property of all creatures is also the reproductive instinct (the purpose of which is the propagation of the species) and also a certain amount of concern for their offspring.”
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

“Nature likewise by the power of reason associates man with man in the common bonds of speech and life; she implants in him above all, I may say, a strangely tender love for his offspring. She also prompts men to meet in companies, to form public assemblies and to take part in them themselves; and she further dictates, as a consequence of this, the effort on man’s part to provide a store of things that minister to his comforts and wants — and not for himself alone, but for his wife and children and the others whom he holds dear and for whom he ought to provide; and this responsibility also stimulates his courage and makes it stronger for the active duties of life.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

Human nature is universal and applies across all types of people, countries and times. The same mental processes that drove the actions of people in ancient Rome, are also driving the actions of people today. That’s why the lessons that you learn in one context can be applied in another one.

In short, our minds are all similarly susceptible of inquietudes, joys, desires and fears; and if opinions are not the same in all men, it does not follow, for example, that the people of Egypt who deify dogs and cats, do not labor under superstition in the same way as other nations, though they may differ from them in the forms of its manifestation.
from “On the Laws” by Cicero

Seneca identified that most of the things that humans do, they do for themselves. A kind of solipsism and preference for yourself is inherent in your behavior.

First of all, the living being is adapted to itself, for there must be a pattern to which all other things may be referred. I seek pleasure; for whom? For myself. I am therefore looking out for myself.

I shrink from pain; on behalf of whom? Myself. Therefore, I am looking out for myself. Since I gauge all my actions with reference to my own welfare, I am looking out for myself before all else. This quality exists in all living beings – not engrafted but inborn.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

The basic fundamental drives for humans are to eat, survive and reproduce. However, this is dependent on the person controlling or at least having access to some resources. This is why a certain drive for gaining status is inherent in every human. Ambition is the manifestation of this.

This is stronger and weaker in different people, and the ones vying for the top positions of power are the ones whose ambition is the highest. The top positions can be achieved through different strategies, and if one path is blocked the ambitious individuals will often try to use another means of getting power and status. This is what Tiberius Gracchus did when he found out that actions were estimated not on the basis of worth, but instead chance was the main factor.

Tiberius Gracchus caused an upheaval of the Roman state notwithstanding the fact that he belonged to one of the foremost families through his grandfather, Africanus, that he possessed a natural endowment worthy of the latter, had received a most thorough course of education, and had a proud spirit. For in direct proportion to the number and magnitude of the advantages he possessed was the allurement they offered him to follow his ambition; and when once he had turned aside from what was best, he drifted, quite in spite of himself, into what was worst.

It began with his being refused a triumph over the Numantines; he had previously been hoping to be honored inasmuch as he had conducted the negotiations, but so far from obtaining any such reward, he actually came near being delivered up. Then he decided that deeds were estimated not on the basis of worth or genuineness, but according to mere chance.

So he abandoned this road to fame as unsafe, and since he desired by all means to become a leader in some way, and believed that he could accomplish this better with the aid of the populace than with that of the senate, he attached himself to the former.”
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

Many of these paths to power are not very savory ones and people often resort to wicked practices in order to secure a personal advantage. Quintus Tullius Cicero, the younger brother of the famous orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, reminded his brother of this fact when he was running for the consulship.

Deception, intrigue, and treachery are everywhere. This is not the time for a formal disquisition on the indications by which a true friend may be distinguished from a false: all that is in place now is to give you a hint. Your exalted character has compelled many to pretend to be your friends while really jealous of you.
from “On Running for the Consulship” by Quintus Tullius Cicero

These internal drives are also the reason why people will often try to trip you up or hate you for no reason. This is also one of the most important lessons of life that Marcus Aurelius reminded himself every day when he became emperor two centuries after the fall of the Republic.

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.
from “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius

You need to keep in mind that all of these actions happen as interactions between people in a societal context. Early philosophers like Aristotle called humans social or political animals, and saw this as a basic principle underlying what people do. Different philosophers from various philosophical schools took this on-board and made it a basis of their discussions of ethics.

Man is a social animal, and in need of others.
from “The Elements of Ethics” by Hierocles the Stoic

However, the relationships within a society composed of individuals are often complex, with different drives at play. People as social animals do need to interact with others, but the social dynamics within groups have certain evident patterns. The common good often takes a back-seat to narrow personal interests.

This is quite predictable if you take the selfish gene explanation of evolution as your basis for explaining why living things behave the way they do. A gene wants to survive and propagate. While your gene is the most important, part of that gene is also in your relatives and that’s why you have a preference for them over strangers.

While an individual might start off with caring about the common good, sooner or later, they will be swayed by more selfish interests.

You see the philosopher seems here clearly to distrust and condemn human nature. For he says so in so many words when he asserts that human nature is in no case worthy of such an excess of fortune.

For he thinks that it is too hard for one who is merely human to prefer the general weal of the citizens to his own children; he says that it is not just that one man should rule over many who are his equals; and, finally, he puts the finishing stroke to what he has just said when he asserts that “law is Reason exempt from desire,” and that political affairs ought to be entrusted to Reason alone, and not to any individual man whatever.

For the reason that is in men, however good they may be, is entangled with passion and desire, those most ferocious monsters.
from “Letter to Themistius the Philosopher” by Julian the Apostate

There are certain internal mechanisms within the body that propagate these patterns of human nature. Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire outlined some of these drives in a letter to one of his philosopher friends.

What controls human behavior was something that many of the ancient philosophers pondered about. They used different words to signify the thing that drove what you do: soul or psyche. The idea of these concepts varied among the different intellectuals and was initially quite broad and sometimes fuzzy, however in later Hellenistic and early Roman times, their meaning narrowed down to something more mental or psychological, what we in today’s world would understand under the words brain or mind.

The predominant explanation used in the ancient world was called the tripartite theory of the soul (mind). This theory was initially described by Plato, and later expanded upon by other thinkers, such as Galen. The ancient philosophers divided the soul or mind into three parts: the logical, spirited and appetitive. The logical part is equal to reason, while the other two parts deal with emotions. The spirited part is one associated with high emotions and drives. Here you can find all the things associated with the human spirit and status-seeking, like ambition, but also different passions or emotions like fear, or anger. The appetitive part is associated with desires and pleasures.

Galen, one of the ancient world’s greatest physicians, who started off his career as a doctor for a school of gladiators and rose to become a physician for the emperors of Rome, described the emotional part of the brain in this way:

We have in our souls two irrational powers. The one spirited, has for its task to become angry and wrathful on the spot with those who seem to have treated us ill in some way. It is also a function of this same power to cherish its wrath for a longer period since the passion of anger is greater in proportion to the length of time it endures. The other irrational power in us, the appetitive, is the one by which we are carried forward to what appears to be pleasant before we have considered whether it is helpful and good or harmful and bad.
from “On the Passions of the Soul” by Galen

In order for a person to behave in the correct way, all these three parts need to be in sync and guided by reason. Plato illustrated this concept by comparing the soul to a chariot. The two emotional parts are horses, which can often behave in irrational ways. What drives them and keeps them in check is the charioteer, the logical part or reason.

Other thinkers, such as the Epicureans, came up with an even simpler explanation of how the mind works. They divided it into two parts: the rational and the irrational, the first one driven by reason, the second by emotions. Modern researchers have come up with a very similar division for the mind. They divide it into a system one and a system two, with system one being the emotional part that often succumbs to passions and falls for cognitive biases, and system two being the rational, more deliberative part. So system two is the charioteer, while system one are the horses.

The problem is that often in humans the charioteer is asleep at the wheel or gone out for lunch. That’s why people tend to succumb to their emotions. This includes falling for example for cognitive biases.

Galen recognized the way some of these cognitive biases work. The thing is that humans think that they are right, which is further fortified through the effects of confirmation bias. Paradoxically, it is the guys who are convinced about their superman status, that in reality usually err the most.

It is likely that we do err even if we ourselves should think that we do not, and we can infer this from what follows. We see that all men suppose that they themselves are altogether without fault or that their errors are few and mild and at great intervals. This happens especially in the case of those who, in the eyes of other men, err the most.
from “On the Passions of the Soul” by Galen

Emotions often have a more powerful effect on your actions than logic. One strong tendency that humans have is to have an aversion to loss. Losing something affects them a lot more emotionally than gaining that very thing. For example, you will likely have a much more powerful powerful reaction if you lose a hundred dollars or euros, than if you gain the same amount. This doesn’t make much logical sense, but this is how the human brain is wired.

The fear of loss drives many actions. What drove many of the aristocratic senators to oppose land redistribution was the fear that they would lose their status and property, what drove many of the urban plebs to call for the expulsion of foreigners from the city of Rome and also to oppose the granting of Roman citizenship to Italian allies, was the fear of losing their jobs to these foreigners, and also the fear of their status being diminished if thousands of non-citizens would suddenly gain citizenship.

Loss aversion is also what drives the strong negative feelings that people have when they see their status decline, as what happened to many of the citizen farmers and other lower classes after the end of the Punic Wars. The endowment effect is the tendency for humans to ascribe more value to something that they own than to that same thing when they don’t own it. Often your property becomes intertwined with your identity, which makes this effect even more powerful.

The ancient Stoics saw how powerful the fear of loss (and actual loss) was on the human psyche and came up with several techniques to try to lessen it. For example, they preached imagining your potential losses before they happen, so when by chance they do happen, you will be prepared for it.

Plutarch, while not a Stoic (but a Middle Platonist with a propensity to also borrow from other philosophical schools), also saw how hard people can take losing something. He wondered why they don’t look on the bright side and instead rejoice at the fact that they still have other things left?

For it is the act of a madman to be distressed at what is lost and not rejoice at what is saved, but like little children, who, if someone takes away one of their many toys, will throw away all the rest as well and cry and howl; in the same way, if we are troubled by Fortune in one matter, we make everything else also unprofitable by lamenting and taking it hard.
from “On Tranquility of Mind” by Plutarch

Modern researchers in psychology have come up with a theory to explain these human behaviors: prospect theory. Under prospect theory, loss aversion is one tendency, but there is another behavior which they call relative positioning. Humans have a tendency to be more interested in relative gains and losses than absolute ones.

The average person will feel much happier if they get a 20% raise and his neighbor gets nothing, than if they both get a 20% raise. This is because in the first case, the person’s relative status as opposed to his neighbor increases, while in the second one it stays the same (even though in both cases you got the same amount of money extra).

Now imagine if you are faced with a situation where not only do you yourself lose your status, but you see other groups vastly improve their situation in life. This relative loss of status is what can drive such strong emotions as anger and indignation.

Emotions work both on an individual level, but also on a societal level. There are some emotions that drive the people towards social cohesion and promote centripetal forces, while other emotions promote bickering which gives rise to centrifugal forces, tearing society apart. Some forces that promote social cohesion can be positive, while others are negative.

For example, in Ancient Rome, the fear of an external enemy, namely Carthage, drove the people together and gave them a common focus. When this external factor disappeared, the togetherness effect diminished. This tendency for society to tear itself apart is even stronger when decadence sets in, and when people stop caring about others and only focus on themselves.

Now the institution of parties and factions, with all their attendant evils, originated at Rome a few years before this as the result of peace and of an abundance of everything that mortals prize most highly.

For before the destruction of Carthage the people and Senate of Rome together governed the republic peacefully and with moderation. There was no strife among the citizens either for glory or for power; fear of the enemy preserved the good morals of the state. But when the minds of the people were relieved of that dread, wantonness and arrogance naturally arose, vices which are fostered by prosperity. Thus the peace for which they had longed in time of adversity, after they had gained it proved to be more cruel and bitter than adversity itself.

For the nobles began to abuse their position and the people their liberty, and every man for himself robbed, pillaged, and plundered. Thus the community was split into two parties, and between these the state was torn to pieces.
from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

The thing about cohesion is that there needs to be some common idea to hold the people together. These can be positive values, but negative emotions are much more powerful. Fear is a strong motivating factor. That is why religion has often been such a strong tool to promote togetherness. Fear of the gods is at the very essence of most religions, and it was deeply ingrained in the religions of the Mediterranean world, including the Greek and Roman ones.

Lucretius, an Epicurean poet, wrote about the power of religion and the fear it instills in the human psyche. He noted how strong the pull of this fear of the supernatural is among even the strongest of characters.

And there shall come the time when even you, forced by the soothsayer’s terror-tales, shall seek to break from us. Ah, many a dream even now can they concoct to rout your plans of life, and trouble all your fortunes with base fears.
from “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius

Religions set down certain tenets and rules that people must obey, with the promise of strict punishments coming from the deities if these are not followed. In this way, people have an incentive to follow one common way of doing things, which gives them a certain mindset which is similar to other people around them.

While religion can have many negative influences on the individual and can lead to many cruelties, there are certain aspects of it that can produce an agreement among the population on how things are and how they should be, which then helps to unite people around a cause.

These parts of religion, ones that really capture the attention of the populace, can play a huge role in fostering a common mindset. Polybius noted this effect of religion on the Roman state. Wrapped in pomp and different ceremonies, it can be used to brainwash the people. In this way, it creates cohesion in the state.

But the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions. I believe that it is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach, I mean superstition, which maintains the cohesion of the Roman State.

These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many. My own opinion at least is that they have adopted this course for the sake of the common people. It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry.

For this reason I don’t think that the ancients acted rashly and at haphazard in introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the terrors of hell.
from “Histories” by Polybius

This does foster a strong sense of community, but can cause great anxiety in individuals and at certain times can lead to cruel divisions in societies when some people decide to go against these basic tenets and rules.

However, it is quite natural that some more free thinking people want to break themselves free of this type of totalitarian ideology and do things on their own. In late Hellenistic times, certain philosophies arose that tried to foster a more individualistic approach.

The ancient Epicureans actually based their philosophy on removing this fear of the gods from people. For them, not only would this help people to lead more happy lives, but also remove the cruel behaviors that religion often leads to. This is what Roman poet Lucretius noted in his poem “On the Nature of Things”:

I fear perhaps you deem that we fare an impious road to realms of thought profane. But it is that same religion that far more often has bred the foul impieties of men.
from “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius

The discovery of this poem in an old dusty library at the end of the Middle Ages was one of the sparks that started the Renaissance in Europe. It helped open up the minds of certain curious individuals to new possibilities and led them to question the established order of things. From this it was only a small step to the scientific revolution that helped create the modern era. The ideas that this poem talked about had a similar effect on many people in the ancient world as well.

One thing that happened during the late Roman Republic, probably due to the influx of all kinds of immigrants and foreign ideas (such as Epicureanism), was that you had now a variety of convictions and philosophical schools to choose from, which promoted a turn away from traditional Roman religion. While this did result in greater personal freedom, there was no other big idea to replace traditional religion and to hold the people pulling together with one rope for a common cause.

Octavian when he became Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, turned once again to religion in order to promote unity and shore up his rule. He saw that religion can help him to create more social cohesion and also to give him more legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

When Virgil composed his “Aeneid”, he wrote it in a way as to support this religious revivalist project of the first emperor. Through this work, Virgil tried to link the new more pious Augustan age to the old mythological founding traditions of Rome, and thereby augment the status of emperor Augustus as being one with the gods.

Together with this religious revival came the idea of Roman exceptionalism, the argument that the gods had destined Rome to greatness. This was something pushed by Augustus as well as many of the historians and commentators who wrote during his reign.

But the Fates had, I believe, already decreed the origin of this great city and the foundation of the mightiest empire under heaven.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

The thing about religion is that it can serve to unite, but very often it can also divide. In order to foster unity, you also need to weed out the so-called heretics and other subversives, so a turn to religion can also create persecutions, something that even poets like Ovid felt, when he was banished by Augustus to exile for his activities and works.

Later, emperor Constantine would use a similar tactic to shore up his own rule. This time, however, he saw that the old Roman religion no longer had the cohesive power that could be used to control the populace, but instead turned to Christianity in order to do that. In the process, this unleashed great waves of terror against the adherents of the old religions, as well as Christians who did not adhere to orthodoxy.

These common causes based on fear like religion or a common enemy are not the only ones that can serve to unite a populace, but they are very effective. That is why, wanna-be strongmen rulers often turn to them. These were also the ideas that served to unite the people in the early Roman Republic. When their power waned, nothing else came to replace them.

These underlying aspects of human nature are what shapes the way society looks like. Human nature makes people act in a certain way in different situations, which then gives rise to different social norms and rules.

Human nature often works in an action versus reaction kind of way. When you feel you are wronged, you will try to exact revenge. Certain events can arise based on a series of actions and reactions due to human nature.

The manner in which these notions come into being is as follows. Men being all naturally inclined to sexual intercourse, and the consequence of this being the birth of children, whenever one of those who have been reared does not on growing up show gratitude to those who reared him or defend them, but on the contrary takes to speaking ill of them or ill treating them, it is evident that he will displease and offend those who have been familiar with his parents and have witnessed the care and pains they spent on attending to and feeding their children.

For seeing that men are distinguished from the other animals by possessing the faculty of reason, it is obviously improbable that such a difference of conduct should escape them, as it escapes the other animals: they will notice the thing and be displeased at what is going on, looking to the future and reflecting that they may all meet with the same treatment.

Again when a man who has been helped or succored when in danger by another does not show gratitude to his preserver, but even goes to the length of attempting to do him injury, it is clear that those who become aware of it will naturally be displeased and offended by such conduct, sharing the resentment of their injured neighbor and imagining themselves in the same situation. From all this there arises in everyone a notion of the meaning and theory of duty, which is the beginning and end of justice.
from “Histories” by Polybius

Both positive and negative norms can arise from this type of process. When this is done according to reason, then just laws and good conduct can arise, however when emotions take over, then it is very easy to get set on a negative path. This is what happened in the Republic after the Punic Wars.

The conditions in Rome were made worse by the faults of many of its leaders. Old aristocrats like Metellus were arrogant, while the new men like Marius were power hungry. All these traits then fed off each other to make things worse.

Now, although Metellus possessed in abundance valor, renown, and other qualities to be desired by good men, yet he had a disdainful and arrogant spirit, a common defect in the nobles.

At first then he was astonished at the unusual request, expressed his surprise at Marius’ design, and with feigned friendship advised him not to enter upon so mad a course or to entertain thoughts above his station.

All men, he said, should not covet all things; Marius should be content with his own lot and finally, he must beware of making a request of the Roman people which they would be justified in denying.
from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

While some of the men coming from the old patrician or other long-established noble families had superiority complexes, where they thought themselves better than others, other men had inferiority complexes. Both of these types of complexes can drive negative action in the individual.

A superiority complex is often associated with arrogance and disdain for others, while an inferiority complex can be tied to envy and jealousy. Each can produce negative actions, and in extreme cases even overwhelm a personality. One well-known inferiority complex is the Napoleonic Complex, named after Napoleon, who tried to overcompensate for his short height by being very aggressive and domineering in social situations.

In ancient times, Cicero as a new man coming from outside of the traditional nobility, had what seems to be a strong impostor syndrome, and often tried to overcompensate for his lack of distinguished ancestry by boasting. Servilius Caepio, coming from an old patrician family, on the other hand suffered from a superiority complex. When he was put under the command of Mallius Maximus, a new man from the lower classes, Caepio refused to cooperate with him. However, when he learned that Mallius might outshine him, he then grew jealous and proceeded on a coarse series of actions which resulted in one of the biggest defeats of a Roman army in history.

Unfortunately, it is often the least competent individuals in society who have a high opinion of themselves (suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect), believe that they are the best thing since slice bread and therefore can do everything better than others (who are in reality usually more competent than them).

Servilius became the cause of many evils to the army by reason of his jealousy of his colleague; for, though he had in general equal authority, his rank was naturally diminished by the fact that the other was consul.

After the death of Scaurus, Mallius had sent for Servilius; but the latter replied that each of them ought to guard his own province. Then, suspecting that Mallius might gain some success by himself, he grew jealous of him, fearing that he might secure the glory alone, and went to him.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

Envy is one basic negative trait of human nature that often makes its appearance. It shows its head not only in the relationships between the classes, where the poor start envying the rich, and the rich feel entitled and look down on the poor, but especially on the more inter-personal levels, where one neighbor envies the possessions of another, and where one leader envies the status of his rival.

The excessive power enjoyed by Pompeius excited, as often happens, a feeling of envy among the ease-loving citizens. Metellus, because his triumph over Crete was shorn of its splendor, and Cato, who always looked askance upon those in power, began to decry Pompeius and clamor against his measures.
from “Epitome of Roman History” by Florus

Enmity drove many of the inter-personal conflicts that brought down the Republic. Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, as well as many rivalries on a smaller scale quickly became the factors that determined the direction that the Republic would take and brought about horrific events. Not only did the actors on the political stage want to win, they also wanted to see others lose, and lose badly. In Greek this type of behavior is called “pleonexia”, and for many ancient Greek historians it is a primary cause for the downfall of states.

When Polybius was writing his histories, he noticed that pleonexia was widespread among the leaders of the Greek city states and the Carthaginians, but noted its absence among the Romans themselves. This is what in his view made them strong. Paradoxically, just a short time after he wrote these assessments, this type of behavior started appearing among the Romans as well, and grew quite fast.

Quintus Catulus and Aemilius Lepidus were chosen consuls, the former of the Sullan faction and the latter of the opposite party. They hated each other bitterly and began to quarrel immediately, from which it was plain that fresh troubles were imminent.
from “Roman History” by Appian

Caesar’s power now inspired the envy of Pompeius, while Pompeius’ eminence was offensive to Caesar; Pompeius could not brook an equal or Caesar a superior. Oh, the wickedness of it! They strove for the first place, as though the fortunes of a great empire could not find room for both of them.
from “Epitome of Roman History” by Florus

The power struggles and petty jealousies resulted in the most powerful individuals among the ruling classes, supported by different factions in the Senate, concentrating not on justly ruling the Republic, but instead on trying to undermine their rivals through any means possible.

One example of this is when the Senate, under the influence of Pompey, tried to strip Caesar of his province, and called on him to disband his army. This meant that if he returned to Rome, he would potentially be exposed to prosecution, which at that time could have meant his death.

This testimony of the unanimous voice of the Senate was very great, and consistent with their former conduct; for the preceding year, when Marcellus attacked Caesar’s dignity, he proposed to the Senate, contrary to the law of Pompey and Crassus, to dispose of Caesar’s province, before the expiration of his command, and when the votes were called for, and Marcellus, who endeavoured to advance his own dignity, by raising envy against Caesar, wanted a division, the full Senate went over to the opposite side.

The spirit of Caesar’s foes was not broken by this, but it taught them, that they ought to strengthen their interest by enlarging their connections, so as to force the Senate to comply with whatever they resolved on.”
from “The Gallic Wars” by Julius Caesar

“Thus most of the Senate, intimidated by the expressions of the consul, by the fears of a present army, and the threats of Pompey’s friends, unwillingly and reluctantly adopted Scipio’s opinion, that Caesar should disband his army by a certain day, and should he not do so, he should be considered as acting against the state.

Marcus Antonius, and Quintus Cassius, tribunes of the people, interposed. The question was immediately put on their interposition. Violent opinions were expressed: whoever spoke with the greatest acrimony and cruelty, was most highly commended by Caesar’s enemies.
from “The Civil War” by Julius Caesar

Both character and circumstances have an effect on the actions of people. Some people just have a bad character overall, but for some others, their bad actions are due to circumstances. Even if they know what the right thing to do is, if a disaster strikes their life, they don’t have the willpower necessary to do what is right, but instead they proceed on doing the wrong things.

It is common enough for people, when they fall into great disasters, to discern what is right, and what they ought to do; but there are but few who in such extremities have the strength to obey their judgment, either in doing what it approves or avoiding what it condemns; and a good many are so weak as to give way to their habits all the more, and are incapable of using their minds.
from “The Life of Mark Antony” by Plutarch

Wrong-doing can arise from several causes. The character traits of the people with power can be further awakened by the outside conditions. When a person fears for his status or even his life, he can act in ways that he wouldn’t otherwise under other conditions. In Ancient Rome, politics ended up being driven by fear, which awakened some of the worst traits of many of the leading men of the Republic.

Then, too, those very wrongs which people try to inflict on purpose to injure are often the result of fear: that is, he who premeditates injuring another is afraid that, if he does not do so, he may himself be made to suffer some hurt. But, for the most part, people are led to wrong-doing in order to secure some personal end; in this vice, avarice is generally the controlling motive.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

The conditions degenerated so much, that traditional norms ceased to exist and violence became the way things were done. This promoted a state of fear, which further reinforced rule-breaking. Fear of loss of property, or even life was a defining factor for driving the actions of certain people at the end of the Roman Republic.

But they, being then under the influence of excessive fear, because they thought that those actions and all the events of the preceding year were being undermined by the praetors, and annulled by the Senate and by the chief men of the city, were unwilling to alienate a popular tribune of the people from their interests, and were in the habit of saying that their own dangers touched them more nearly than mine.
from “Speech in Defense of Sestius” by Cicero

Caesar might not have done some of the things that he did, had this constant danger not been above his head, and had he been able to realize at least some of his ambitions without the threat of being persecuted by his opponents.

A similar fear drove the actions of guys like Tiberius Gracchus. He was afraid that if he was no longer protected by the immunity of his office, his enemies would have a field day with him. In order to protect himself, he decided to break a norm and ran for a second term as tribune.

Gracchus was proposing certain laws for the benefit of those of the populace serving in the army, and was transferring the courts from the senate to the knights, disturbing and overturning all established customs in order that he might be enabled to lay hold on safety in some wise.

And when not even this proved of advantage to him, but his term of office was drawing to a close, when he would be immediately exposed to the attacks of his enemies, he attempted to secure the tribuneship for the following year also, in company with his brother, and to appoint his father-in‑law consul.

And to obtain this end he did not hesitate to make any statement or promise anything whatsoever to people.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

Humans want control and will do everything in their power to get it. That’s why religion and superstition have had such a powerful pull, since they help humans keep an illusion of control in their minds. Individuals always want to expand their locus of control, which is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the things happening in their lives.

Ancient Stoic philosophers realized that this need for control was a mechanism that played deeply with the psyche of humans and that’s why their advice focused on one big mantra: keep in mind what you can and cannot control.

The need to control their destiny drove many of the leaders in the Roman Republic to start going around the norms. When you have fear, your sense of control is slipping away, and you try to do everything in your power to regain it. That is why fear as an emotion can push people towards breaking norms.

The feeling of not having enough control in their lives is what starts people chasing after money and power. However, with certain people, this grows beyond any reasonable bounds. Some people end up chasing money and power, just for the sake of getting more money and power.

This greed and lust for power can often even grow exponentially, as the person becomes richer and more powerful. When a person becomes obsessed by this, then they are willing to do anything to get what they want. They start behaving in ways that trample any norms.

The great majority of people, however, when they fall a prey to ambition for either military or civil authority, are carried away by it so completely that they quite lose sight of the claims of justice.

For Ennius says: “There is no fellowship inviolate, no faith is kept, when kingship is concerned.”

And the truth of his words has an uncommonly wide application. For whenever a situation is of such a nature that not more than one can hold pre-eminence in it, competition for it usually becomes so keen that it is an extremely difficult matter to maintain a “fellowship inviolate.”

We saw this proved but now in the effrontery of Gaius Caesar, who, to gain that sovereign power which by a depraved imagination he had conceived in his fancy, trod underfoot all laws of gods and men.

But the trouble about this matter is that it is in the greatest souls and in the most brilliant geniuses that we usually find ambitions for civil and military authority, for power, and for glory, springing; and therefore we must be the more heedful not to go wrong in that direction.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is the famous maxim that has been proven true throughout history. The story of Sulla shows this well.

But after this event he changed so much that one would not say his earlier and his later deeds were those of the same person. Thus it would appear that he could not endure good fortune. For he now committed acts which he had censured in other persons while he was still weak, and a great many others still more outrageous.

He had doubtless always desired to act thus, but revealed himself only in the day of his power. This fact produced a strong conviction in the minds of some that adversity has not a little to do with virtue.

Thus Sulla, as soon as he had conquered the Samnites and thought he had put an end to the war, — for he considered the rest as of no account, — changed his course, and leaving behind his former self, as it were, outside the wall on the field of battle, proceeded to outdo Cinna and Marius and all their successors combined.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

Sulla now busied himself with slaughter, and murders without number or limit filled the city. Many, too, were killed to gratify private hatreds, although they had no relations with Sulla, but he gave his consent in order to gratify his adherents.
from “The Life of Sulla” by Plutarch

Naturally, therefore, his conduct fixed a stigma upon offices of great power, which were thought to work a change in men’s previous characters, and render them capricious, vain, and cruel.

However, whether this is a change and reversal of nature, brought about by fortune, or rather a revelation, when a man is in authority, of underlying baseness, were matter for determination in some other treatise.
from “The Life of Sulla” by Plutarch

The lust for money has also been noted as being a source of evil deeds and often leads men on the path to the dark side. The internal need for control is also what pushes many people to chase after riches. It is true that a certain amount of money is needed if you want to improve your lot in life, however often people take this overboard. They stop viewing money as a means to an end, but instead the end itself.

As Cicero wrote in his work “On Moral Duties”, avarice is also a big driving factor for the actions of people. Making more and more money can become an obsession, pushing people to behave in strange ways. Friends, principles, morality will no longer matter, if they stand in the way of getting more money.

Wealth, the subject of so much dispute amongst men, sometimes causes great misfortunes to those who long to gain it. It drives them to unjust and criminal actions; it provides fuel for licentiousness, and leads the unwise into shameful behavior.

Thus we see these men fall into the greatest misfortune, and bring disaster on their cities. Such is the pernicious power of gold over men, when they foolishly over-value it. In their insatiable greed, they apply to everything these verses of the poets:

“Blessed gold, most beautiful gift to mortals, greater pleasure than a mother.”

And also:

“Let them call me wicked, as long as I make a profit.”
from “Historical Library” by Diodorus Siculus

“Hence the lust for money first, then for power, grew upon them; these were, I may say, the root of all evils. For avarice destroyed honor, integrity, and all other noble qualities; taught in their place insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything.
from “The Conspiracy of Catiline” by Sallust

In the times of the late Republic, whether due to luck, circumstances or the environment, the leadership positions became filled with people who were driven by avarice and lust for power. Men like Crassus became the most powerful people in the country. Crassus was a real estate magnate who stopped at nothing in order to gain more power and money. In the process of getting to the top, this motive came to overshadow all the rest. When this is the primary motive of your leaders, then the state of the government will reflect this and deteriorate.

The Romans, it is true, say that the many virtues of Crassus were obscured by his sole vice of avarice; and it is likely that the one vice which became stronger than all the others in him weakened the rest. The chief proofs of his avarice are found in the way he got his property and in the amount of it.
from “The Life of Crassus” by Plutarch

Positions of governors in provinces, and generals on foreign campaigns were taken up not out of a sense of duty or a public service to the state, but instead to line their own pockets. Governors, together with the tax-farmers and money lenders, would try to extract as much money out of the provinces for themselves as they could. This money was not going to improve the workings of the Roman state, but instead to fund luxurious living and help them get political positions of power back in Rome.

Cicero prosecuted a case against Verres, a notoriously corrupt governor of Sicily. The way Verres went about planning the stewardship of his province was no different from what many other future governors would do.

Now, as soon as Sicily fell to him by lot as his province, immediately at Rome, while he was yet in the city, before he departed, he began to consider within himself and to deliberate with his friends, by what means he might make the greatest sum of money in that province in one year.

He did not like to learn while he was acting, (though he was not entirely ignorant and inexperienced in the oppression of a province,) but he wished to arrive in Sicily with all his plans for plunder carefully thought of and prepared.
from “Against Verres” by Cicero

In this case, Verres was convicted, but in many other cases, corrupt governors walked free, often because of all the money they paid in bribes to the judges. However, even relatively honest people like Cicero could not resist the temptation. While he did try to govern in a fair way and did not partake in the usual robbing of the populace like other governors, he still did end up going back to Rome with a significant amount of money. In a world of such political competition, if you did not get any money, you were signing away your political career, such was the environment in Rome.

Some other men were ready to sell out their country and collude with foreign powers, if it brought them riches. Jugurtha was the ruler of a kingdom in North Africa, and he bribed a lot of powerful people in Rome in order to get his way. Rome in his time had become extremely corrupt and you could buy almost anyone if you had pockets deep enough.

A few, on the other hand, to whom right and justice were more precious than riches, recommended that aid be given to Adherbal and that the death of Hiempsal be severely punished. Conspicuous among these was Aemilius Scaurus, a noble full of energy, a partisan, greedy for power, fame, and riches, but clever in concealing his faults.

As soon as this man saw the king’s bribery, so notorious and so brazen, fearing the usual result in such cases, namely, that such gross corruption would arouse popular resentment, he curbed his habitual cupidity. In spite of all, that faction of the Senate prevailed which rated money and favor higher than justice.
from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

Jugurtha, however, although he was clearly responsible for so flagrant a crime, did not cease to resist the evidence, until he realized that the indignation at the deed was too strong even for his influence and his money.

Therefore, although in the first stage of the trial he had given fifty of his friends as sureties, yet having an eye rather to his throne than to the sureties, he sent Bomilcar secretly to Numidia, fearing that if he paid the penalty, the rest of his subjects would fear to obey his orders.

A few days later he himself returned home, being ordered by the senate to leave Italy. After going out of the gates, it is said that he often looked back at Rome in silence and finally said, “A city for sale and doomed to speedy destruction if it finds a purchaser!”
from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

Several decades later after the Jugurthine Wars, the state of affairs in the city of Rome had degenerated even worse. Nothing was sacred anymore and in their quest to satisfy their ambitions, some men even tried to overthrow the duly elected government through a coup d’etat planned in secret. Frustrated for not being elected to the consulship, Catiline plotted with some of his friends to take power in the city. In order to carry this out, they even engaged the aid of foreign tribes such as the Allobroges from Gaul.

From this time Catiline abstained wholly from politics as not leading quickly and surely to absolute power, but as full of the spirit of contention and malice. He procured much money from many women who hoped that they would get their husbands killed in the rising, and he formed a conspiracy with a number of senators and knights, and collected together a body of plebeians, foreign residents, and slaves.
from “Roman History” by Appian

The political and business interests had become tightly intertwined in the late Roman Republic. Much of the tax collection in the provinces was given out to private contractors, tax-farmers, who had formed consortia, which were early forms of financial institutions. The way it worked was that these consortia would bid on contracts to collect the taxes in the provinces, and the one with the highest bid would win. However once the bid was won, in their quest to get the maximum amount of profits out of their province, they would end up gouging the populations with huge tax burdens. An entire financial market developed around this, as many people, including senators, would buy shares in these companies, and all kinds of financial instruments were developed.

These tax-farming consortia were also usually bribing the local Roman governors to let things slide, which they did most of the time. When, a more honest governor appeared, one who tried to nip these scandalous practices in the bud, the consortia would use their political connections back in Rome to get them removed. This is what happened to Lucullus, when he tried to correct the bad conditions in the Province of Asia. Unfortunately, the financial interests were stronger, and honesty did not pay.

Lucullus was now busy in looking after the cities of Asia, and having no war to divert his time, spent it in the administration of law and justice, the want of which had for a long time left the province a prey to unspeakable and incredible miseries; so plundered and enslaved by tax-farmers and usurers that private people were compelled to sell their sons in the flower of their youth, and their daughters in their virginity, and the states publicly to sell their consecrated gifts, pictures, and statues.

In the end their lot was to yield themselves up slaves to their creditors, but before this worse troubles befell them, tortures, inflicted with ropes and by horses, standing abroad to be scorched when the sun was hot, and being driven into ice and clay in the cold; insomuch that slavery was no less than a redemption and joy to them. Lucullus in a short time freed the cities from all these evils and oppressions; for, first of all, he ordered there should be no more taken than one per cent.

Secondly, where the interest exceeded the principal, he struck it off. The third and most considerable order was, that the creditor should receive the fourth part of the debtor’s income; but if any lender had added the interest to the principal, it was utterly disallowed. Insomuch, that in the space of four years all debts were paid and lands returned to their right owners. The public debt was contracted when Asia was fined twenty thousand talents by Sylla, but twice as much was paid to the collectors, who by their usury had by this time advanced it to a hundred and twenty thousand talents.

And accordingly they inveighed against Lucullus at Rome, as grossly injured by him, and by their money’s help (as, indeed, they were very powerful, and had many of the statesmen in their debt), they stirred up several leading senators against him.
from “The Life of Lucullus” by Plutarch

With these financial houses (the individual businessmen who ran them were called the publicans) becoming so powerful, moral hazard was introduced into the system. In order to make more and more money, they took on riskier bids, and their money collection practices became more and more outrageous. When one of these consortia put in a too high bid for tax collection in the Province of Asia, which it could recuperate, it had to be bailed out by the Roman state.

If this company had gone bankrupt, it could have caused quite an economic crisis in Rome, as many different people had a stake. It helped, that Crassus had a financial interest in this company, so he helped to push this bailout through. This was done after the formation of the First Triumvirate between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and it was Caesar in his capacity as consul, who got this bill through the Senate, resorting to some shady tactics, such as locking up Cato.

When the publicans asked for relief, Caesar freed them from a third part of their obligation, and openly warned them in contracting for taxes in the future not to bid too recklessly. He freely granted everything else that anyone took it into his head to ask, either without opposition or by intimidating anyone who tried to object.
from “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius

In parallel to this tax-farming racket, a lending industry rose up. The problem was that the taxes these tax-farmers were collecting were so high, that the people in the provinces did not have the money to pay them. In order to satisfy the tax-farmers, they had to borrow money. Of course, a “friendly” lender would come in and lend them the money, but at rates that amounted to usury. The interesting thing is that the people behind these lenders were often wealthy senators, who could use their influence in the Senate to get some military backups to enforce these usurious loans. Even though technically it was illegal for senators to work in the lending industry, they would often hide their dealings behind front men they secretly controlled.

In one of the letters to his friend Atticus, Cicero describes how as governor of the province of Cilicia, he was approached by two men who worked as money-lenders. They tried to get him to enforce that the people of Salamis, a city in Cyprus, pay back what they borrowed. Of course with a 48% interest on top! After a while, these men told Cicero that they were acting on behalf of another man in the background. This man turned out to be Brutus, the guy who would go down in history as one of the leaders of the group of senators that assassinated Caesar, and a man who had a reputation for being honest, the noblest Roman of them all.

Cicero of course found this rate of interest scandalous, and tried to reason with the lenders. The Senate had originally limited the rate of interest for loans at 12% in order to curb these types of usurious practices. However, Brutus, through his friends got some bills passed in the Senate to get around this law, and also apparently got the army to intervene in Salamis, which ended up causing the death of five local councilmen. It is interesting to reproduce a large part of the letter, where Cicero describes what went down.

I must now tell you about Brutus. Your friend Brutus is acquainted with certain individuals, by name Marcus Scaptius and Publius Matinius, to whom the people of Salamis, in Cyprus, owe money, and whom he strongly recommended to my good offices.

I know nothing of Matinius, but Scaptius came out to me to the camp. For Brutus’s sake, I promised that I would enforce payment on the Salaminians, for which he thanked me. He asked for some post of command, but I said that I never appointed anybody engaged in money transactions, and that I had explained the same to you before : when Pompeius had applied to me I had shown him good reasons for my rule, not to mention Torquatus when he asked for your friend Laenius, as well as many others.

If he wanted the post only for the sake of his bond I would take care he recovered it He thanked me, and took his leave. Now my predecessor Appius had already given a few troops of horse to this Scaptius in order to coerce the Salaminians, and had appointed the man also to a command. He was now putting the screw on the people. I ordered that his troops should leave Cyprus.

Scaptius was greatly aggrieved. Well, not to make a long story, when the Salaminians came to apply to me at Tarsus, and with them Scaptius, I ordered them to pay the money, in fulfillment of my pledge to him. This produced much about the bond itself and the violent proceedings of Scaptius, but I refused to listen. I advised them, even implored them, in return for the favor I had shown their city, to settle the claim ; finally I told them that I must enforce it.

The poor people, so far from refusing, even said they were only paying away what was mine, for as I had not exacted what they had always before had to give to the Governor, they were only giving up what was practically mine, and in fact the debt to Scaptius was considerably less than what their Governor usually exacted. I commended the deputation for this. Very good, said Scaptius, but let us see what the sum amounts to.

Now when I published the usual edict, I had announced that I should maintain the rate of interest at 12 per cent, the interest on default to be added to the principal only at the end of each, year; but Scaptius by the terms of his bond now proceeded to demand 48 per cent. What do you mean? – say I. How can I possibly go against my own edict? Hereupon, he produces a decree of the Senate, dated from the consulship of Lentulus and Philippus, that the Governor of Cilicia for the time being should be required to recognize this bond as valid.

I was horrified at first; in fact, it was absolute ruin for the community. On examination I find two decrees of the Senate dated from that year about the very bond in question. For when the Salaminians wanted to borrow money at Rome they failed, because it was forbidden under Gabinius’s act. Here-upon some friends of Brutus, relying on his powerful protection, were willing to lend the money at four times the usual rate, provided they could obtain security for payment by a special decree.
from “Letters to Atticus” by Cicero

The lust for power and greed seemed to have overtaken the leaders after the Punic Wars. This was in stark contrast to the behavior of the Romans of previous generations. What guys like Polybius admired about Rome was the fact that its public officials were honest and incorruptible. One example is that of Fabricius, who when king Pyrrhus of Epirus tried to bribe him, refused the bribe by stating that working for Rome is its own reward.

The embassy was headed by Caius Fabricius, who, as Cineas reported, was held in highest esteem at Rome as an honorable man and good soldier, but was inordinately poor. To this man, then, Pyrrhus privately showed kindness and tried to induce him to accept gold, not for any base purpose, indeed, but calling it a mark of friendship and hospitality.

But Fabricius rejected the gold, and for that day Pyrrhus let him alone; on the following day, however, wishing to frighten a man who had not yet seen an elephant, he ordered the largest of these animals to be stationed behind a hanging in front of which they stood conversing together.

This was done; and at a given signal the hanging was drawn aside, and the animal raised his trunk, held it over the head of Fabricius, and emitted a harsh and frightful cry. But Fabricius calmly turned and said with a smile to Pyrrhus: “Your gold made no impression on me yesterday, neither does your beast to‑day.”
from “The Life of Pyrrhus” by Plutarch

This honesty of public officials that made the Roman institutions strong in the early stages, was replaced by corruption in the later Roman officials. This corruption grew worse and worse as time went.

In any population, you have people who are more greedy and ambitious than others. However it is the specific conditions that the society finds itself in, that lets these people rise to the top more easily. When things start going downhill, you get a snowball effect. People who in earlier times would not be able to gain power, end up riding the conditions.

In truth, in such a vast number of citizens, there is a great multitude of those men, who either, from fear of punishment, because they are conscious of their own misdeeds, are anxious for fresh changes and revolutions in the republic.

Or people who, on account of some innate insanity of mind, feed upon the discords and seditions of the citizens; or else who, on account of the embarrassment of their estates and circumstances, had rather burn in one vast common conflagration, than in one which consumed only themselves.

And when these men have found instigators, leaders in and promoters of their own objects and vices, their waves are stirred up in the republic.
from “Speech in Defense of Sestius” by Cicero

Not only do bad times help certain bad people rise to the top, the environment around you also encourages certain actions. You won’t just tolerate bad actions by other people, you might even engage in some of them yourself.

One example of this is the broken window theory that the New York Police used to clean up the New York City subway of crime, and which helped lessen crime in the city overall. It states that low level crime like vandalism will over time lead to bigger crime. As low level crime becomes more frequent, people get used to it and adjust their behavior to it. As what is considered normal starts slipping, more and more crime starts appearing. This means that if you want to reduce crime, you have to fix broken windows as soon as they appear.

This theory has huge implications on human behavior. Outside conditions can nudge you towards certain actions. Let’s say you just finished your drink and are left with a plastic cup in your hand. If you are in an area where it is considered normal to just throw garbage on the street, you won’t hesitate much and do it as well. If you live in a community with clean streets, and where it is not considered normal to throw things on the ground, you will most likely keep holding that cup. What will promote even more responsible behavior is if you have many garbage cans nearby.

Ancient commentators noticed a similar thing to the broken window theory happening in the ancient Roman Republic. Vice encouraged more vice, a bad environment encouraged people to act badly. Sallust noted how the outside atmosphere and the corrupt morals of the state were part of the reasons why Catiline decided to launch his coup d’etat attempt.

The corrupt morals of the state, too, which extravagance and selfishness, pernicious and contending vices, rendered thoroughly depraved, furnished him with additional incentives to action.
from “The Conspiracy of Catiline” by Sallust

Roman historian Florus saw excessive wealth as the main triggering factor for this degeneration of the state of affairs towards loose morals, and a hunt for power and money.

Finally, whence did the lust for power and domination arise save from excessive wealth? It was this which armed Caesar and Pompeius with the fatal torches which kindle the flames that destroyed the State.
from “Epitome of Roman History” by Florus

This competition between powerful people brought about a deadlock and confrontation, resulting in the destruction of the institutions of state. What made it worse is the fact that you can never satisfy everyone and when the spirit of compromise is lost, then the ones on the losing side will be out for revenge.

This is something that Drusus experienced when he became the tribune of the plebs a short time before the outbreak of the Social War. He started off as a conservative on the side of the Optimates, however later started leaning more and more to the popular side, in such a way that he is remembered as a Populare reformer.

However, his measures ended up dividing up the society even more. They made some groups happy, while others became angry.

Drusus passed over from being highly regarded to being hated. The plebs who received land were extremely happy, the people who were expelled were really angry, the knights who were inscribed into the Senate were happy, but the ones who didn’t make it were complaining.

The Senate basked that it won the day in the question of the juries, but on the other hand, the old senators couldn’t really stand the fact that now they had to share power with more members coming from the knight class.
from “On the Illustrious Men of Rome” by Aurelius Victor

Drusus faced a lot of opposition to his measures. One of the things that he promised was citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. This was something that the Roman urban plebs and the senatorial elites united to oppose.

Drusus was assassinated by an unknown killer before being able to implement the things he was proposing. This immediately sparked the Social War, the war that many historians have labeled as the point of no return for the Republic.

The Italians revolted and fought against Rome. The Social War ended with them getting granted citizenship, but with the different Roman generals having standing armies in the field. It didn’t take long for them to turn their soldiers against Rome and try to get power for themselves.

The crisis that had been sparked decades before by the events around the Gracchi, came to head as full blown chaos. Old rules no longer applied and new rules were being made on the fly, changing literally by the day.

The natural tendency of most individuals when faced with a political crisis is to pretend that it isn’t happening, or that it doesn’t affect them. As the Republic was collapsing, most of the people with power decided to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that they would somehow weather the storm.

They are such fools that they seem to expect that, though the Republic is lost, their fish-ponds will be safe.
from “Letters to Atticus” by Cicero

The answer out of this predicament for many ancient philosophers was to use reason. This was the charioteer who is supposed to steer the horses, the irrational parts of the brain. What we see is that very often he is not successful and the horses end up running wild. Cicero in his work “On the Republic”, through the words of Scipio Aemilianus, compares the passions in the brain as a wild monster more powerful than an elephant. Some nations have succeeded in domesticating the elephant, but the challenge of reigning in the deep monster in the mind, is often much harder.

Thus an Indian or Carthaginian regulates one of these huge animals, and renders him docile and familiar with human manners. But the genius which resides in the mind of man, by whatever name it may be called, is required to rein and tame a monster far more multiform and intractable, whenever it can accomplish it, which indeed is seldom.
from “On the Republic” by Cicero

The common denominator of most societal problems is the innate nature of humans. As Pliny the Elder stated in his enormous work on the natural world, most of humanity’s misfortunes arise because of people.

With man,—by Hercules! most of his misfortunes are occasioned by man.
from “The Natural History” by Pliny the Elder

What are we seeing today? The lust for power and the lust for money are going stronger than ever. While power and money have always been intertwined, and corruption was always there, with the rise of Trump, the US has a president driven by his ego, more so than the previous presidents in recent decades. You see similar processes in other countries as well, where ego-driven politicians have set their nations down on dangerous paths.

7) People are easily fooled

Human nature also means that people are easily fooled. The mind works by seeking pleasure, trying to get quick answers over correct answers (and falling for cognitive biases), and not using reason very often.

Epictetus the Stoic philosopher, noticed that most people only concern themselves with simple things, and are prone to mistaking their opinions for facts. It is often pointless arguing with them, since facts, arguments or talk of virtue will just go past them.

And thus the laymen get the better of you; for everywhere judgement is strong, judgement is invincible.
from “Discourses” by Epictetus (as compiled by Arrian)

However, pitching simple messages that play to the preconceived notions and biases of the masses can work quite well on them.

As Cicero noted, it is very easy to corrupt the mind of a person. The senses can seduce the mind and drive actions. For many ancient philosophers, virtue was sufficient enough for people to live a good life, and acting with virtue was supposed to be the end goal. However, most people do not follow this path and will never follow this path.

But our delusions are connected with corruption of our mental opinions. And this corruption is either superinduced by those causes of error I have enumerated, which, taking possession of the young and uneducated, betray them into a thousand perversities, or by that voluptuousness which is the mimic of goodness, implicated and interfused through all our senses—the prolific mother of all human disasters.
from “On the Laws” by Cicero

Things like the halo effect or other biases such as confirmation bias can close the eyes of the populace and lock up their brains. Just like magic tricks can fool you, so do populist demagogues often fool the people. The mind works in such a way as to make it easy for them to do that.

As to that equality of rights which democracies so loudly boast of, it can never be maintained; for the people themselves, so dissolute and so unbridled, are always inclined to flatter a number of demagogues; and there is in them a very great partiality for certain men and dignities, so that their pretended equality becomes most unfair and iniquitous. For if the same honor is rendered to the most noble and the most infamous, the equity they eulogize becomes most inequitable.
from “On the Republic” by Cicero

“I know, fellow citizens, that it is by very different methods that most men ask for power at your hands and exercise it after it has been secured; that at first they are industrious, humble and modest, but afterwards they lead lives of indolence and arrogance.

But the right course, in my opinion, is just the opposite; for by as much as the whole commonwealth is of more value than a consulate or a praetorship, so much greater ought to be the care with which it is governed than that which is shown in seeking those offices.
speech of Marius from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

Demagogues work by promising to solve complex problems in simple ways. Most people buy these solutions without actually thinking about the implications of what the populists are proposing, or whether it is even feasible. In the immortal words of Roman playwright Terence, they believe that they can eat their cake and have it too.

You cannot eat your cake and have it too, unless you think your money is immortal. The fool too late, his substance eaten up, reckons the cost.
from “The Three Coins” by Plautus

One common wisdom about humans is that they tend to see faults in others and forget about their own. From time immemorial many maxims have tried to point this out, but usually to no avail. This tendency to see the faults of others, but be blind to your own faults, can be taken advantage of quite easily.

As Aesop says, we have two sacks suspended from our necks; the one in front is filled with the faults of others; the one behind is filled with our own. This is the reason why we see the faults of others but remain blind to those which concern ourselves.
from “On the Passions of the Soul” by Galen

Scapegoating is a good strategy to get the crowds on your side. Authoritarian leaders vying for power always like to offer someone to blame. This works quite well, since most people like to blame others for their own problems.

Men are only too clever at shifting blame from their own shoulders to those of others. Such is the nature of crowds: either they are humble and servile or arrogant and dominating. They are incapable of making moderate use of freedom, which is the middle course, or of keeping it. There is nothing that is more often clothed in an attractive garb than a false creed.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

The masses can start behaving in a mindless way, shouting for things that at the end are counter-productive and against their own interests in the long-run.

Crowds can often have a negative effect on the behavior of people. They can shut down the reasoning faculties of the individual, and instead make them behave in a mindless matter, just following the crowd. Groupthink, reinforced through herd behavior can seize the day.

The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue.

Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere.

What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

This then creates conditions where the bandwagon effect takes over. Some popular ideas get adopted because of the influence of others, and increase exponentially as more people start adopting them. This can create a negative environment, which further poisons the atmosphere in the society. This can sway the individual into behaving badly, especially if anger adds fuel to the fire.

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

Seneca saw the danger that the mindless behavior of crowds can have on the individual and on the world at large. It is often these mobs that drive the events in society. Sometimes they see themselves in strong men who promise them the Moon. Herd mentality and the wish to be led gains prominence.

Most people don’t want to think and prefer that the thinking is done for them. They want to be led.

Only a few prefer liberty, the majority seek nothing more than fair masters.
from “Histories” by Sallust

It is quite easy to inflame up the passions of the people. According to the ancient rhetoricians, there are three ways to persuade someone. In Greek the words are “ethos”, “pathos”, and “logos”: appeal to authority, appeal to emotion, and appeal to logic. Unfortunately, the most powerful ways of persuading a crowd are going through their emotions, and not through logic.

For there is nothing, of more importance in speaking than that the hearer should be favorable to the speaker, and be himself so strongly moved that he may be influenced more by impulse and excitement of mind, than by judgment or reflection.

For mankind make far more determinations through hatred, or love, or desire, or anger, or grief, or joy, or hope, or fear, or error, or some other affection of mind, than from regard to truth, or any settled maxim, or principle of right, or judicial form, or adherence to the laws.
from “On the Orator” by Cicero

The most powerful demagogues have mastered not only the appeal to emotions, but also the appeal to authority. They are very good at seeming confident and an authority on the topic, or playing the persona of a man of the people.

The best demagogues have realized that they are playing a character. For them, life is a farce, and by putting on the right mask, you can win. Augustus, the artist formerly known as Octavian, based his entire life philosophy on this premise. Historian Suetonius records his last words as being: from the stage dismiss me with applause.

After that, calling in his friends and asking whether it seemed to them that he had played the comedy of life fitly, he added the tag: “Since well I’ve played my part, all clap your hands and from the stage dismiss me with applause.”
from “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius

A crowd can be moved very easily by a good speaker to want one thing and then another. This was demonstrated quite well in 155 BC, when an Athenian embassy to Rome included three philosophers: Critolaus of the Peripatetic school, Diogenes the Stoic, and Carneades the Skeptic.

It was especially Carneades who caused quite a stir among the Roman public. One day, he got up on stage and delivered a lively speech on the virtue of Roman justice. All the Romans were ecstatic. The next day, he got up on stage again, but this time arguing that everything that he said the day before was not true.

Report spread far and wide that a Greek of amazing talent, who disarmed all opposition by the magic of his eloquence, had infused a tremendous passion into the youth of the city, in consequence of which they forsook their other pleasures and pursuits and were “possessed” about philosophy.”
from “The Life of Cato the Elder” by Plutarch

The youth of Rome were mesmerized by these Greek philosophers. Struck by this, Cato the Elder realized the potential danger of philosophy and these types of rhetorical techniques that were used in order to persuade, but with no morality as the basis. So he banned them from the city.

But Cato, at the very outset, when this zeal for discussion came pouring into the city, was distressed, fearing lest the young men, by giving this direction to their ambition, should come to love a reputation based on mere words more than one achieved by martial deeds.
from “The Life of Cato the Elder” by Plutarch

The ancient Greeks lived in city-states, where being engaged in politics was an important part of public life. Many young men strived to become leaders and started learning rhetoric in order to have the best chance of doing that. To satisfy this need, a class of itinerant teachers of rhetoric called the sophists arose. Their aim was to teach the techniques of speaking and persuasion without looking at the morals.

Despite the efforts of Roman traditionalists like Cato the Elder, all these latest persuasion techniques came to Rome as well. In order to better prepare themselves for a career in politics or law, Roman youths started studying with Greek teachers.

In time, the Romans not only adopted these techniques, but perfected them. During the period of the fall of the Republic, most of the main political actors were skilled speakers, who used this knowledge to get ahead and destroy their rivals.

The Gracchi who were eloquent, and qualified for speaking by all the helps of nature and of learning, having found the state in a most flourishing condition, both through the counsels of their father, and the arms of their ancestors, brought their country, by means of their oratory, that most excellent ruler of states as you call it, to the verge of ruin.
from “On the Orator” by Cicero

Cicero lamented that the Gracchi used their public speaking skills to stir up the crowds and bring the state to ruin. However, he himself was no different, using his great rhetorical prowess for good and evil, bringing corrupt officials to justice, but also protecting some quite unsavory characters. Cicero, like other public figures of his era, was a master of a technique called “utramqe partem”, meaning he was able to argue about things from both sides of the issue.

Guys like Clodius or Julius Caesar were known as quite adept public speakers and were able to get the crowds on their side. In the latter years of the Republic, many demagogues armed with excellent public speaking skills arose and were able to stir the crowds for their own purposes. These men, protected by angry crowds, were then able to do whatever they wanted to do on the political stage.

Lucian of Samosata, one of the ancient world’s greatest satirists, spoke one great truth: people enjoy lying and they also enjoy being lied to.

The men I mean are innocent of any ulterior motive: they prefer a lie to truth, simply on its own merits; they like lying, it is their favourite occupation; there is no necessity in the case.
from “The Liar” by Lucian of Samosata

Sometimes humor is the best tool to expose how the world really works. Lucian was a great observer of human nature. He noted that some people lie with an objective in mind, but many people lie just for the sake of lying. When people prefer lies to truth, it is no wonder that they can be easily fooled. Ancient politicians often took advantage of this.

The way things turn out is that by falling for the lies of demagogues, the people lose their freedom. Falling for snake oil that promises to relieve them of their minor pains, the populace instead ends up feeling even greater pain. Horace in one his works, uses one ancient parable that came down to him from much older sources (this parable is known in Greek sources such as Aesop’s Fables, but also in for example Aramaic sources from the Middle East), to show how a person can get tricked into losing his freedom. The parable talks about a horse who tried to enlist the aid of a man in his fight against a stag.

The stag, superior in fight, drove the horse from the common pasture, till the latter, worsted in the long contest, implored the aid of man and received the bridle; but after he had parted an exulting conqueror from his enemy, he could not shake the rider from his back, nor the bit from his mouth.

So he who, afraid of poverty, forfeits his liberty, more valuable than mines, avaricious wretch, shall carry a master, and shall eternally be a slave, for not knowing how to use a little. When a man’s condition does not suit him, it will be as a shoe at any time; which, if too big for his foot, will throw him down; if too little, will pinch him.
from “The Epistles” by Horace

The man tricked the horse, first by promising to help him, but then putting a bridle on him, and thereby enslaving him. This is what happens when people fall for the sweet promises of demagogues. Not only does the problem not get solved, they lose their liberty in the process.

The same thing is happening today, with fiery populists using their public speaking skills to enrage their supporters. Populist politicians whether from the right or the left (although now the far-right is much more influential), like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders were able to catch the imagination of the people.

One thing is for sure: the masses are quite adept at shooting themselves in the foot with such things as Brexit.

8) People who put their personal ambitions above the common good are dangerous

Many nations have been ruined by individuals who have put their own ambitions above all else, who have done everything to gain power, money and fame, instead of treading the path of virtue.

So much more intense is the thirst for fame than for virtue. Who’d embrace virtue simply for itself, if you took away all the reward? Yet nations have been destroyed by the ambition of a few, by their desire for fame and a title, a name that might cling to the stones that guard their ashes, those stones the barren fig tree’s malicious strength is capable of shattering, since even their very sepulchers are granted a limited span by fate.
from “Satires” by Juvenal

The fact that status-seeking is a primary driver of human behavior, also means that many people will put their own good above the common good. They will put their own personal ambition in front of that of others.

Marcus Octavius, because of a family feud with Gracchus, willingly became his opponent. Thereafter there was no semblance of moderation; but zealously vying, as they did, each to prevail over the other rather than to benefit the state, they committed many acts of violence more appropriate in a despotism than in a democracy, and suffered many unusual calamities appropriate to war rather than to peace.

For in addition to their individual conflicts there were many who banded together and indulged in bitter abuse and conflicts, not only throughout the city generally, but even in the very senate-house and the popular assembly. They made the proposed law their pretext, but were in reality putting forth every effort in all directions not to be surpassed by each.

The result was that none of the usual business was carried on in an orderly way: the magistrates could not perform their accustomed duties, courts came to a stop, no contract was entered into, and other sorts of confusion and disorder were rife everywhere.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

While it is natural for most people to behave in this way, some people are naturally more ambitious and power-seeking than others. When this ambition is combined with ruthlessness and disregard for the needs of other people, a force for destruction can be unleashed.

Pompey did not even think it incumbent upon him to abide by the laws which he himself had made, if he might only display the greatness of his power to his friends.
from “Comparison of Agesilaus and Pompey” by Plutarch

The problem is that most of the leaders were thinking of themselves first. A narcissistic type of thinking prevailed among the men vying for power. This can sometimes be mistaken as confidence, which can be viewed as attractive by others, but deep down it is more linked to sociopathy or even psychopathy in extreme cases.

Many of the people acting out in this quest for the top knew no shame. No act to secure the top was considered embarrassing enough. For guys like Caesar the only thing that was humiliating was not being the leader.

The only shame he knew was not to win.
talking about Caesar – from “Pharsalia” by Lucan

The term “narcissism” comes from an ancient myth that was written down by Ovid. This is the story of Narcissus, a hunter who was so pretty that everyone became enamored with him. However, he only loved himself. Narcissus became the prototype of a person who is too full of themselves, a narcissist.

Narcissus, tired
of hunting and the heated noon, lay down,
attracted by the peaceful solitudes
and by the glassy spring. There as he stooped
to quench his thirst another thirst increased.

While he is drinking he beholds himself
reflected in the mirrored pool—and loves;
loves an imagined body which contains
no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade
a thing of life to love. He cannot move,
for so he marvels at himself, and lies
with countenance unchanged, as if indeed
a statue carved of Parian marble.

Long, supine upon the bank, his gaze is fixed
on his own eyes, twin stars; his fingers shaped
as Bacchus might desire, his flowing hair
as glorious as Apollo’s, and his cheeks
youthful and smooth; his ivory neck, his mouth
dreaming in sweetness, his complexion fair
and blushing as the rose in snow-drift white.

All that is lovely in himself he loves,
and in his witless way he wants himself:—
he who approves is equally approved;
he seeks, is sought, he burns and he is burnt.
And how he kisses the deceitful fount;
and how he thrusts his arms to catch the neck
that’s pictured in the middle of the stream!

Yet never may he wreathe his arms around
that image of himself. He knows not what
he there beholds, but what he sees inflames
his longing, and the error that deceives
allures his eyes. But why, O foolish boy,
so vainly catching at this flitting form?
The cheat that you are seeking has no place.

Avert your gaze and you will lose your love,
for this that holds your eyes is nothing save
the image of yourself reflected back to you.
It comes and waits with you; it has no life;
it will depart if you will only go.
from “Metamorphoses” by Ovid

The story of Narcissus is the perfect metaphor for the type of people that came to dominate politics during the times of the fall of the Roman Republic. That era saw narcissists take over the show. These men became so enamored with themselves that they spent more time looking in the mirror and reflecting on how to promote themselves, instead of taking a look out the window and coming up with solutions on how to solve the problems of the society around them.

This type of behavior came to prominence especially during the times of the civil wars, when Marius and Sulla, and later Pompey and Caesar battled themselves for the control of government. Glory-seeking drove many of the men of the later Roman Republic. Often their actions became bold and rash, because of this.

However, even in the previous times, when some of the early reformers did have high principles in mind, hot-headed action was quite destructive and served to heighten hostilities. While we have to be careful reading too much into the statements of the ancient commentators (they had their own biases), even the Gracchi brothers ended up drifting into too much ambition.

Gracchus had the same principles as his brother; only the latter had drifted from excellence into ambition and thence into baseness, whereas this man was naturally turbulent and played the rogue voluntarily; and he far surpassed the other in his gift of language. For these reasons his designs were more mischievous, his daring more spontaneous, and his arrogance greater toward all alike.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

This was the sort of man who attacked the constitution, and, by assuming no speech or act to be forbidden, in very brief time gained the greatest influence with the populace and the knights. All the nobility and the senatorial party, if he had lived longer, would have been overthrown, but, as it was, his great power caused him to be hated even by his followers, and he was overthrown by his own methods.
talking about Gaius Gracchus – from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

Many of the leaders conducted themselves with arrogance and thought themselves above the rest.

Caesar returned to Rome, and began to conduct himself with too great arrogance, contrary to the usages of Roman liberty. As he disposed, therefore, at his own pleasure, of those honors, which were before conferred by the people and did not even rise up when the Senate approached him, and exercised regal, or almost tyrannical power.
from “Abridgment of Roman History” by Eutropius

One of ancient Rome’s greatest poets, Horace, warned against the dangers of vain glory seeking. In the early Republic, the quest for glory was tied to the betterment of the state, the individual’s ambitions were supposed to be done for the common good of the country. However, in the late Republic this quest for glory shifted to mean personal glory. Men wanted glory for themselves in order to satisfy their ambition, no matter the cost.

Self-love in partial blindness comes. Vain glory next, with empty head aloft, is wont to pass. And tattling treachery succeeds seen through as clear as glass.
from “Odes” by Horace

Vain glory seeking and ambition were at the forefront of the actions of the leaders of the state. The Republic came to be dominated by men like Crassus, who only had their own self-interest at heart and did not chicken out of any tactic to get their way.

For Crassus openly utilized these opportunities as men do agriculture and money-lending. And as for the practices which he denied when on trial, namely, taking bribes for his voice in the Senate, wronging the allies, circumventing weak women with his flatteries, and aiding base men to cloak their iniquities.”
from “Comparison of Nicias and Crassus” by Plutarch

Blind self-interest is what drove the Republic to its doom. The senators were more about preserving their power than anything else. The Senate turned into a playground where the individual senators would not vote according to things that they thought would be good for the common good, but on whether that particular law would benefit them or instead benefit their rivals.

One consequence of this was that even crucial public infrastructure projects like the building of aqueducts to bring water to the city of Rome were halted. In fact, no new aqueduct was built between 125 BC and 33 BC, when Octavian took over the rule of the city towards the end of the Republic. Not only was there a lack of new aqueducts, the existing ones were rarely cleaned. This was the case, even despite the fact that the population of Rome was expanding exponentially and water was crucial for its further development.

The problem was that building a new aqueduct was costly and would bring huge political capital to the censor who oversaw its construction. So the political rivals of the current censors in the Senate would most certainly block anything of that nature. On the other hand, the upkeep of the existing aqueducts themselves would bring very little political capital to the politicians, so the priorities for spending were always found elsewhere.

The story of the building of the Aqua Marcia, the last aqueduct to Rome constructed until the era of Octavian gives us clues on what started to be happening a bit before the time of the rise of the Gracchi. Competition between the elites was intensifying and novel tactics were beginning to be deployed in order to try to block projects that would benefit opponents. In the case of the aqueduct, the tactic of bad omens as a pretext to stop the works was used.

One hundred and twenty-seven years later, that is in the six hundred and eighth year from the founding of the City, in the consulship of Servius Sulpicius Galba and Lucius Aurelius Cotta, when the conduits of Appia and Old Anio had become leaky by reason of age, and water was also being diverted from them unlawfully by individuals, the Senate commissioned Marcius, who at that time administered the law as praetor between citizens, to reclaim and repair these conduits.

And since the growth of the City was seen to demand a more bountiful supply of water, the same man was charged by the Senate to bring into the City other waters so far as he could. He restored the old channels and brought in a third supply, more wholesome than these, which is called Marcia after the man who introduced it.

We read in Fenestella, that 180,000,000 sesterces were granted to Marcius for these works, and since the term of his praetorship was not sufficient for the completion of the enterprise, it was extended for a second year. At that time the decemvirs, on consulting the Sibylline Books for another purpose, are said to have discovered that it was not right for the Marcian water, or rather the Anio (for tradition more regularly mentions this) to be brought to the Capitol.

The matter is said to have been debated in the Senate, in the consulship of Appius Claudius and Quintus Caecilius, Marcus Lepidus acting as spokesman for the Board of Decemvirs; and three years later the matter is said to have been brought up again by Lucius Lentulus, in the consulship of Gaius Laelius and Quintus Servilius, but on both occasions the influence of Marcius Rex carried the day; and thus the water was brought to the Capitol.
from “The Roman Aqueducts” by Frontinus

This played on the specificities of the religious traditions of ancient Rome, but the use of different means that have nothing to do with the merits of the case are a generic tactic that apply across generations. The rise of similar types of tactics can be observed in the political process of today.

In 144-140 BC when these discussions around the aqueduct were taking place, the old ways were still strong and a compromise was reached without too much conflict. However, in these initial encounters you can see the seeds of what would later escalate to monstrous proportions.

The politicians became quite jealous and protective of their power and privileges, not wanting to share them with any potential rivals. A spirit of working together that had succeeded in overcoming divisions in previous generations totally disappeared, as the quest for personal power and ambition overwhelmed the running of the state.

Ambition prompted many to become deceitful; to keep one thing concealed in the breast, and another ready on the tongue; to estimate friendships and enmities, not by their worth, but according to interest; and to carry rather a specious countenance than an honest heart.

At first these vices grew slowly, from time to time they were punished; finally, when the disease had spread like a deadly plague, the state was changed and a government second to none in equity and excellence became cruel and intolerable.
from “The Conspiracy of Catiline” by Sallust

The senators were always on guard against sharing their power with the other classes, and especially resented the attempts at enlarging the size of the Senate to include more people from the knightly class. Although to be fair, these expansions of the size of the Senate were often attempts by powerful individuals to stuff it with their own supporters.

This was the plan that he contrived for both of them, but it turned out contrary to his expectations, for the senators were indignant that so large a number should be added to their enrollment at one time and be transferred from knighthood to the highest rank. They thought it not unlikely that they would form a faction in the Senate by themselves and contend against the old senators more powerfully than ever.

The knights, on the other hand, suspected that, by this doctoring, the courts of justice would be transferred from their order to the Senate exclusively. Having acquired a relish for the great gains and power of the judicial office, this suspicion disturbed them. Most of them, too, fell into doubt and distrust toward each other, discussing which of them seemed more worthy than others to be enrolled among the 300; and envy against their betters filled the breasts of the remainder.

Above all the knights were angry at the revival of the charge of bribery, which they thought had been ere this entirely suppressed, so far as they were concerned.
from “Roman History” by Appian

Politicians would instigate trouble when it was opportune for them to do that, or would prolong turmoil, if it was advantageous for them to do that.

Caesar now rose, and since he was a powerful speaker and wished to increase every change and commotion in the state for his own designs, rather than to allow them to be quenched, he urged many persuasive and humane arguments.
from “The Life of Cato the Younger” by Plutarch

The utter disregard for the common good, and the narcissistic ambition that drove the leaders of that era, can be seen in this quote from Julius Caesar when he was making the fateful decision to cross the Rubicon and start a civil war.

“”When his course brought him to the river Rubicon, which forms the boundary line of Italy, he stopped and, while gazing at the stream, revolved in his mind the evils that would result, should he cross the river in arms. Recovering himself, he said to those who were present, “My friends, to leave this stream uncrossed will breed manifold distress for me; to cross it, for all mankind.” Thereupon, he crossed with a rush like one inspired, uttering the familiar phrase, “The die is cast: so let it be!”
from “Roman History” by Appian

Ambition came to duly dominate the state, when the politician and general combined into one person. When individuals started using the army to do their bidding and to control politics, that’s when the collapse of the Republic became inevitable.

The generals of this later time, however, who won their primacy by force, not merit, and who needed their armies for service against one another, rather than against the public enemy, were compelled to merge the general in the demagogue, and then, by purchasing the services of their soldiers with lavish sums to be spent on luxurious living, they unwittingly made their whole country a thing for sale, and themselves slaves of the basest men for the sake of ruling over the better.

This was what drove out Marius, and then brought him back again against Sulla; this made Cinna the assassin of Octavius, and Fimbria of Flaccus. And it was Sulla who, more than any one else, paved the way for these horrors, by making lavish expenditures upon the soldiers under his own command that he might corrupt and win over those whom others commanded, so that in making traitors of the rest, and profligates of his own soldiers, he had need of much money, and especially for this siege.
from “The Life of Sulla” by Plutarch

This state of affairs, where corrupt and self-interested people were dominating politics, led the honest ones to stay away. People like Titus Pomponius Atticus decided it was too dangerous and too immoral to be in politics:

He aimed at no offices (though they were open to him as well through his influence as through his high standing), since they could neither be sought in the ancient method, nor be gained without violating the laws in the midst of such unrestrained extravagance of bribery, nor be exercised for the good of the country without danger in so corrupt a state of the public morals.
from “The Lives of Eminent Commanders” by Cornelius Nepos

At a time when the Republic was coming to an end, the political conditions deteriorated rapidly and the political class with it. In a place, where the politicians were driven by self-interest above all else, no real statesmen were to be found.

A genuine statesman is not to be found, even in a dream.
from “Letters to Atticus” by Cicero

While it has always been a fact that most politicians are in it mostly for their own ego, today’s crop of politicians is extremely egotistical. The common good does not even enter the vocabulary of people like Donald Trump. The problem is that when a person is driven by their own ambition and ego, there is nothing to stop them from trying to achieve power through any way possible. After all, the ends justify the means.

9) When those in power start going around the norms, you could be headed for a slippery slope

Once the politicians went around the norms, it became easier to go around another one. This led to a slippery slope. While the first norm that was ignored might be quite innocent, the next one was a bit less, and the next one even less, until you ended up in a situation where the only norm that mattered was who had more soldiers in the field. The rule of law became replaced by the law of the sword.

Norms are an important part of any political system, because they define how things are done. They can be written down in legal documents like constitutions, but often they are a set of traditions, unwritten rules and conventions that determine how a political process should work and how politicians should behave. Following norms, even if they are not legally binding, ensures the stability of the system, and makes sure that people don’t abuse the power that they are granted by their political positions. A stable system also promotes trust in the entire process of governance of the state among the different actors, but also the populace.

The political system in Rome was founded upon the ancient “mos maiorum”, or ancestral custom. These were different principles, patterns of behavior, and social conventions that were passed on from generation to generation. They were based on tradition, but there were also conventions on how to change and adapt the system to new situations. However, any change to these customs and processes had to be agreed upon by consensus.

Custom is the tacit consent of the people confirmed by long-established practice.
from “Rules” by Ulpian

What happened in Rome is that these norms that had governed the political process started to get eroded and then ended up being completely ignored. The first major instances of norms being passed over are usually dated to the time of the Gracchi, when both Tiberius and the people who opposed him, tried to get around the norms in order to get their policies through.

Marcus Octavius, however, another tribune, who had been induced by those in possession of the lands to interpose his veto (for among the Romans the negative veto always defeats an affirmative proposal), ordered the clerk to keep silence.

Thereupon Gracchus reproached him severely and adjourned the comitia to the following day. Then he stationed near himself a sufficient guard, as if to force Octavius against his will, and ordered the clerk with threats to read the proposed law to the multitude. He began to read, but when Octavius again forbade he stopped.

Then the tribunes fell to wrangling with each other, and a considerable tumult arose among the people. The leading citizens besought the tribunes to submit their controversy to the Senate for decision. Gracchus seized on the suggestion, believing that the law was acceptable to all well-disposed persons, and hastened to the senate-house.

But, as he had only a few followers there and was upbraided by the rich, he ran back to the forum and said that he would take the vote at the comitia of the following day, both on the law and on the official rights of Octavius, to determine whether a tribune who was acting contrary to the people’s interest could continue to hold office. And this Gracchus did; for when Octavius, nothing daunted, again interposed, Gracchus proposed to take the vote on him first.
from “Roman History” by Appian

With some people in Rome, notably the senators and the factions allied with the Optimates (the conservatives), thinking that Tiberius was trying to take over the power in Rome, they sprung into action. Publius Scipio Nasica, the pontifex maximus (the chief religious position in the city), gathered a crowd of supporters and decided to eliminate Gracchus.

Wrapping the fold of his toga about his left forearm he stationed himself on the topmost steps of the Capitol and summoned all those who wished for the safety of the state to follow him. Then the Optimates, the Senate, the larger and better part of the equestrian order, and those of the plebs who were not yet infected by pernicious theories rushed upon Gracchus as he stood with his bands in the area of the Capitol and was haranguing a throng assembled from almost every part of Italy.

As Gracchus fled, and was running down the steps which led from the Capitol, he was struck by the fragment of a bench, and ended by an untimely death the life which he might have made a glorious one. This was the beginning in Rome of civil bloodshed, and of the licence of the sword. From this time on right was crushed by might, the most powerful now took precedence in the state, the disputes of the citizens which were once healed by amicable agreements were now settled by arms, and wars were now begun not for good cause but for what profit there was in them.

Nor is this to be wondered at; for precedents do not stop where they begin, but, however narrow the path upon which they enter, they create for themselves a highway whereon they may wander with the utmost latitude; and when once the path of right is abandoned, men are hurried into wrong in headlong haste, nor does anyone think a course is base for himself which has proven profitable to others.
from “The Roman History” by Velleius Paterculus

Precedence is what gives rise to the slippery slope. Once you can point to instances of rules and norms being broken, then you have an argument that breaking another one is nothing big.

People get used to this state of affairs quite quickly. When Sulla decided to march on Rome with his army, it caused quite a shock among his commanders. Except for a small handful, almost all of them resigned their commands in protest. A few decades later, no officer would even bat an eye if their general decided to fight other Romans.

After the times of the Gracchi and Nasica, the Roman Republic entered a period of declining respect for old norms and rules. It became normal to use different shady practices to get your way. Malicious lawsuits against opponents became very common, which would serve to tarnish their reputations and sometimes get them out of the way if the lawsuit was successful.

Electoral bribery and vote buying grew to monstrous proportions. Many candidates paid money to secure votes and many people sold their votes eagerly. Lucan, a poet of the early Imperial period, wrote an epic poem on the period of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, where he describes the conditions of that era in striking verse.

Consul and tribune break the laws alike. Bought are the fasces, and the people sell. For gain their favor: bribery’s fatal curse corrupts the annual contests of the Field. Then covetous usury rose, and interest was greedier than ever as the seasons came.
from “Pharsalia” by Lucan

Every few years, a law was passed trying to curtail these acts, but each of these laws came to nothing. Bribery and vote buying grew bigger and bigger, and paradoxically prosecution under these laws became just another tactic to smear your opponent.

When power was concerned, unscrupulous practices became the norm. People like Caesar didn’t hesitate to put their opponents in jail, when it came time for crucial votes in the Senate. One case of this came when Cato was trying to filibuster his way through a vote that was important for Caesar. In order to stop this filibuster and get the vote through, Caesar just threw Cato in jail.

The consul Gaius Caesar called upon Marcus Cato for his opinion. Cato did not wish to have the motion before the house carried, since he did not think it for the public good.

For the purpose of delaying action, he made a long speech and tried to use up the whole day in talking. For it was a senator’s right, when asked his opinion, to speak beforehand on any other subject he wished, and as long as he wished.

Caesar, in his capacity as consul, summoned an attendant, and since Cato would not stop, ordered him to be arrested in the full tide of his speech and taken to prison.
from “On Senatorial Conduct” by Ateius Capito

Going around the rules through any means possible became very common. Old rules and procedures were not respected, and whenever it became convenient new ways of getting around them arose.

First norms were broken, then violence (even death), then more norms became broken. You went from public officials going for one more term, or shutting down the government over disputes at the beginning, to guys like Sulla marching on Rome itself half a century later.

Laws were no longer sacred. What worked instead was terror and violence. This slippery slope can be explained by game theory quite well. If one side engages in a tactic, the other side will have to as well, otherwise it will lose out. Nice guys lose and they lose big, unfortunately.

At first, some politicians, despite the broken norms, tried to play the game by the old rules. Gaius Memmius tried to use the courts to prosecute corruption, bribery, and collusion with foreign countries. He was incensed at some of the injustices that were committed and tried to get the people a bit more riled up to fight for their rights, however in a controlled manner.

I seem to hear someone say, ‘What then do you advise?’ I reply, ‘Let those who have betrayed their country to the enemy be punished, not by arms or by violence, which it is less becoming for you to inflict than for them to suffer, but by the courts and Jugurtha’s own testimony.
speech of Gaius Memmius from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

His strategy was to get Jugurtha, the ruler of the kingdom of Numidia, to come to Rome and testify to how he bribed certain high-placed Romans, who then colluded with him. However, due to further corruption, this did not work and Memmius was prevented from questioning the king. The corrupt officials got away scot-free, their deeds going unpunished.

What was worse is that Gaius Memmius himself ended up being killed a few years later in a new wave of political violence unleashed by his opponents. This then showed the futility of playing by the rules. Instead, both sides started resorting more and more to angry mobs.

The assembly was broken up in terror. Neither laws nor courts nor sense of shame remained. The people ran together in anger the following day intending to kill Apuleius, but he had collected another mob from the country and, with Glaucia and Gaius Saufeius, the quaestor, seized the Capitol.
from “Roman History” by Appian

It became much easier to get your way through violence than through the normal legislative process. Political violence, something which was unthinkable just half a century before, had become the standard practice.

The sword was never carried into the assembly, and there was no civil butchery until Tiberius Gracchus, while serving as a tribune and bringing forward new laws, was the first to fall a victim to internal commotion; and with him many others, who were crowded together at the Capitol round the temple, were also slain.

Sedition did not end with this abominable deed. Repeatedly the parties came into open conflict, often carrying daggers; and from time to time in the temples, or the assemblies, or the forum, some tribune, or praetor, or consul, or candidate for these offices, or some person otherwise distinguished, would be slain.
from “Roman History” by Appian

These men, accordingly, now that they had the consuls as leaders, made more disturbance than before, and the same was true of the others in the city, as they championed one side or the other.

Many disorderly proceedings were the result, chief of which was that during the very taking of the vote on the measure Clodius, knowing that the multitude would be on Cicero’s side, took the gladiators that his brother held in readiness for the funeral games in honor of Marcus, his relative, and rushing into the assemblage, wounded many and killed many others.

Consequently the measure was not passed, and Clodius, both as the companion of those armed champions and otherwise, was dreaded by all.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

Political enemies battled themselves in the streets, rather than in the Senate. At one point, it became not enough just to rely on spontaneous mobs. Instead, guys like Milo and Clodius formed rival organized gangs to cause calculated trouble.

While contesting this very point Milo caused much disturbance, and at last himself collected some gladiators and others like-minded with himself and kept continually coming to blows with Clodius, so that bloodshed occurred throughout practically the whole city.

Nepos, accordingly, inspired with fear by his colleague and by Pompey and by the other leading men, changed his attitude; and thus the senate decreed, on the motion of Spinther, that Cicero should be restored, and the populace, on the motion of both consuls, passed the measure.

Clodius, to be sure, spoke in opposition to the others, but he had Milo as an opponent, so that he could commit no violence, and Pompey, among others, spoke in favor of the enactment, so that that side proved much the stronger.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

This chaotic state of affairs ended up leading to a series of much larger conflicts, with the turning point being the Social War. In this war, the Italian allies rebelled against the Roman Republic in order to gain citizenship. Many historians see this war as the point of no return, a spark which led to even larger conflicts and civil wars.

While they were thus occupied the so‑called Social War, in which many Italian peoples were engaged, broke out. It began unexpectedly, grew rapidly to great proportions and extinguished the Roman sedition for a long time by a new terror.

When it was ended it also gave rise to new seditions under more powerful leaders, who did not work by introducing new laws, or by the tricks of the demagogue, but by matching whole armies against each other. I have treated it in this history because it had its origin in the sedition in Rome and resulted in another much worse.
from “Roman History” by Appian

The Social War was just one of the conflicts of the period, which also saw numerous rebellions of the slaves, including one led by Spartacus. However, for the first time in Roman history, you also saw Romans turning their swords against each other in large numbers.

A series of deadly civil wars damaged the Republic beyond repair.

Unseemly violence prevailed almost constantly, together with shameful contempt for law and justice. As the evil gained in magnitude open insurrections against the government and large warlike expeditions against their country were undertaken by exiles, or criminals, or persons contending against each other for some office or military command.

There arose chiefs of factions quite frequently, aspiring to supreme power, some of them refusing to disband the troops entrusted to them by the people, others even hiring forces against each other on their own account, without public authority. Whenever either side first got possession of the city, the opposition party made war nominally against their own adversaries, but actually against their country.

They assailed it like an enemy’s capital, and ruthless and indiscriminate massacres of citizens were perpetrated. Some were proscribed, others banished, property was confiscated, and prisoners were even subjected to excruciating tortures.
from “Roman History” by Appian

Rule of law broke down completely, and rule by the sword began. It wasn’t the one who was right who won, but instead the one who had the bigger army.

At which Pompey said: “Cease quoting laws to us that have swords!”
from “The Life of Pompey” by Plutarch

When chaos engulfs a republic, then it gets easy for democracy to die, to be replaced by monarchy, or the rule by one man, just like what happened in Rome.

When after the destruction of Brutus and Cassius there was no longer any army of the Commonwealth, when Pompeius was crushed in Sicily, and when, with Lepidus pushed aside and Antonius slain, even the Julian faction had only Caesar left to lead it, then, dropping the title of triumvir, and giving out that he was a Consul, and was satisfied with a tribune’s authority for the protection of the people, Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws.

He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandized by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past.

Nor did the provinces dislike that condition of affairs, for they distrusted the government of the Senate and the people, because of the rivalries between the leading men and the rapacity of the officials, while the protection of the laws was unavailing, as they were continually deranged by violence, intrigue, and finally by corruption.
from “The Annals” by Tacitus

Later historians like Zosimus, writing in the twilight of the Roman Empire, and armed with the hindsight knowledge of the rule of many emperors, reflected upon what having a single absolute ruler meant for the country in reality. Such a rule is destined to failure, as it is highly dependent upon the character of the ruler. However, even a ruler who tries to rule justly, will have problems doing so, and the tendency is for power to corrupt.

In such a political system, all kinds of scheming, parasitic, incompetent people rise to positions of power, while the honest and modest men do not. That is why we should always be reminded why preserving a republic based on democratic ideals and with a system of checks and balances is important. In the words of one British politician, while democracy is a bad system of government, it is better than all the rest.

But the commonwealth being ruined by the civil wars between Sylla and Marius, and between Julius Caesar and Pompey, the aristocracy, or government of the nobles, was set aside, and Octavianus chosen dictator. The entire administration of affairs was thus committed to him alone, without the consideration, that it was like throwing the hopes and interests of all the people on the hazard of a die, and placing that vast empire at the risk of the inclination and authority of a single ruler.

For were it the inclination of such a ruler to govern according to justice and moderation, he could not hope to give satisfaction to all, not being able to protect such as were at a considerable distance in any convenient time, nor to select so many officers, that would fear the disgrace of not performing their duty; nor could he suit his own disposition to the different humors of so many.

But if he should wish to break through the bonds of imperial and regal government, and exercise absolute tyranny, by subverting the existing establishments, conniving at great crimes, selling of justice, and regarding his subjects as slaves (as most, and indeed with a few exceptions, almost all the emperors have done), it must of necessity follow, that his unbounded savage authority would prove a common calamity.

It is the very nature of such a despotism, that fawning miscreants and parasites are preferred to situations of the greatest trust, whilst modest quiet men, who are averse to so base a manner of living, resent with justice that they themselves cannot enjoy similar benefits. Hence cities are filled with sedition and tumult; for when all offices, both civil and military, are conferred upon ill disposed magistrates, it both renders the citizens restless in peace, and discourages the soldiers in war.
from “New History” by Zosimus

Look at the current state of affairs in the US and the world today. Norms have been surpassed many times, in the US and in other countries. From the Republicans refusing to seat a new Supreme Court justice through filibustering, to Democrats using character assassination to prevent another one from getting seated, to Trump shutting down government to get his pet project through. It has come so far, that Trump has even indirectly threatened to use the police and military, and even unleash vigilante groups like the Bikers for Trump against his opponents. This is very dangerous language indeed.

In France, you are already seeing political violence becoming quite influential in the streets. Months of protests have resulted in deadlock, burned out national monuments, and fights in the streets. The anger among certain sections of society seems not to be diminishing and certain cynical rabble-rousers are starting to see opportunities in steering these movements in their own directions. Other countries are also experiencing polarization and the rise of populists who use lying and cheating as their primary tactics to gain power. Unless, this norm breaking is kept in check, the world can be headed for a slippery slope of more chaos and violence.

The US still doesn’t have wanna-be strongman politician generals running around commanding their private armies and battling other wanna-be strongmen. However, for the Romans living in the times of the Gracchi, it would also have been hard to imagine that just 50 years later, Romans would be slaughtering other Romans in gruesome civil wars.

What is worrying is the rise of support for authoritarianism in established democracies around the world. Parallel to that the percentage of people who see living in a democratic system as important has declined significantly. In the US, it has been declining every decade.

What is even more worrying is that the support for rule by the military has been rising in most countries around the world. In the US, it has gone up from around 6% in 1995 to 18% today and rising.

10) It is very easy to destroy working structures, but it is extremely hard to build them back up

The thing about destructive politics is that it is very easy to destroy structures than to build them back up. You can take hours to build a house of Legos, but can destroy it in one sweep of the hand. Institutions are the same way.

In the ancient Roman Republic, guys like Sulla destroyed something which took centuries to build. He marched on Rome and took power with his army, something that was never done before. He did try to rebuild the institutions back up through his Sullan Constitution, but it crumbled just days after his death. He reaped what he sowed, and it was men who had actually before benefited greatly under his rule that were instrumental in its undoing. Once you let the genie out the bottle, it is very hard to get him back in.

Crassus and Pompey dealt the final death knell to the reforms of Sulla, when they reversed his most important decisions, in order to secure their positions as consuls.

In the senate, Crassus had more weight; but among the people the power of Pompey was great. For he gave them back their tribunate, and suffered the courts of justice to be transferred again to the knights by law.
from “The Life of Pompey” by Plutarch

Sulla had tried to rebuild the institutions, but previously with his actions he had unleashed chaos. The people lost respect for the institutions, and the leaders started using them as chess pieces, building them up and dismantling them in order as they saw fit, not to improve the functioning of the state, but instead to improve their own position in it.

I give notice to you, of what I am well assured, that this most seasonable opportunity has been given to you by the favor of the gods, for the purpose of delivering your whole order from hatred, from unpopularity, from infamy, and from disgrace. There is no severity believed to exist ill the tribunals, nor any scruples with regard to religion; in short, there are not believed to be any tribunals at all.

Therefore we are despised and scorned by the Roman people; we are branded with a heavy and now a long standing infamy. Nor, in fact, is there any other reason for which the Roman people has with so much earnestness sought the restoration of the tribunician power: but when it was demanding that in words, it seemed to be asking for that, but in reality it was asking for tribunes which it could trust.

And this did not escape the notice of Quintus Catulus, a most sagacious and honorable man, who, when Cnaeus Pompeius, a most gallant and illustrious man, made a motion about the tribunitian power, and when he was asked his opinion, begin his speech in this manner, speaking with the greatest authority, “that the conscript fathers presided over the courts of justice badly and wickedly; but if in deciding judicial trials they had been willing to satisfy the expectations of the Roman people, men would not so greatly regret the tribunitian power?”

Lastly, when Cnaeus Pompeius himself, when first he delivered an address to the people as consul elect, mentioned (what seemed above all things to be watched for) that he would restore the power of the tribunes, a great shout was raised at his words, and a grateful murmur pervaded the assembly.
from “Against Verres” by Cicero

Once chaos had been unleashed, not even statesmen like Cicero, with all his intellectual prowess, could stop the fall of the institutions of the Republic.

It is very easy to criticize and rejoice when things go wrong, but it is very hard to offer workable alternatives. Guys like Nigel Farage or Donald Trump are very good at criticizing, but have shown to not be very good at building things up after they destroy the previous ways of working. Trolling is easy, but actual statesmanship is hard.

11) A republic can fall slowly, one small action at a time

History teaches us that a republic can fall slowly. The people who were living in the early stages of the fall, were not aware of the wheels that had been set in motion. Even late into the fall, guys like Cicero, Cato, or Brutus believed that the Republic could be saved.

A republic, and democracy, are very brittle, and just like glass, they can break easily. In the words of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America:

A republic, if you can keep it.

 

 

Read More:
If you want to learn more about this topic, I have written an article on the lessons from the fall of the Roman Republic which is almost 21 000 words long! The future is not set in stone, but history is. If you want to prevent that it repeats itself, you need to act now:
What we can learn today from the fall of the Roman Republic.

The work you have read now took tremendous effort on my part to put together. I had to read through huge amounts of sources from the period in question and comb out relevant material, with the aim of finding those pieces of information that would help us understand not only what happened in those final days of the Roman Republic, but also to help us formulate some general insights into human nature and the dynamics of societies. These insights can then be applied to better help us understand what our current world is experiencing and where we might be headed in the future.

 

 

Images: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,6, 7, 8,9,

 

One thought on “11 Lessons From The Fall Of The Roman Republic: It Is Disturbing How Relevant They Are For Today”

  1. 5/23/2019 In my view, gainweightjournal.com does a good job of dealing with issues of this kind. While sometimes intentionally polemic, the information is generally thoughtful and challenging.

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