In 27 BC, 727 years after the founding of the city of Rome and in the second year of the 188th Olympiad, a pivotal event happened. This moment would change the world forever. The Roman Senate, the venerable institution that had been created in the legendary days of the first kings, proclaimed Octavian as Augustus. Feigning modesty, he accepted. Under this title, Octavian united all the executive powers in his hands. The adopted son of Julius Caesar became the most powerful man in the world. The first emperor of Rome.

After almost 500 years of continuous history, the Roman Republic was no more. A remarkable achievement of human spirit, the Republic had survived many tumultuous events. It presided over the expansion of Rome from an insignificant city-state on the Tiber River to a hegemonic power. Its territories spread on all sides of the Mediterranean Sea.

While not perfect, its rule of law guaranteed Roman citizens certain rights like free speech, and a say in choosing their leaders. Considering that it lasted for so long, this way of arranging public affairs stands out in history. While democracies did appear from time to time, their life under the sun was usually brief. The states reverted back to the usual pattern of autocracy pretty quickly. However, not Rome. For centuries, it stayed a republic.

At that moment, the senators applauding Augustus, and the people cheering outside, did not realize they had signed away their freedom. Under the coming Roman Empire, the people would no longer vote for their leaders. Institutions like the Senate became mere rubber-stamping bodies. The rule by many was replaced by the rule of one man.

After a century of chaos and war, the people probably felt relieved they no longer had to live in the uncertainty of political unrest. This was a temporary illusion. In time, this peace was supplanted by even greater terrors. For the autocratic rulers of the Empire grew more and more despotic, destroying the rights and freedoms the people had previously enjoyed during the times of the Republic.

All this happened more than two thousand years ago, in a time in many ways unlike our own. While many people may regard history as bunk, studying the past is an incredibly relevant subject in any era. A recording of the actions of people under different circumstances and in various eras, it is a real treasure trove of lessons and examples.

It is the mental transference of similar circumstances to our own times that gives us the means of forming presentiments of what is about to happen, and enables us at certain times to take precautions and at others, by reproducing future conditions to face with more confidence the difficulties that menace us.
from “Histories” by Polybius

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. What needs to be kept in mind is that these are not perfect predictions for the future, but instead warning signs of possible troubled times ahead. History can inform us on the choices to make and the policies to enact, but it is up to us to pick the way ahead.

The Roman Republic serves as a telling analogy for the present state of chaos, not only in the United States, but around the world. Reading about the events of two thousand years ago, of times long gone, you get a feeling of how familiar all that is to you. Unscrupulous politicians taking advantage of the general grievances of people, increasing polarization between different groups turning into political unrest and violence. This was the Rome of the 1st century BC.

Today, what we are experiencing is the rise of populism and rule by mobs, dangerously undermining our freedom and prosperity, and threatening the very future of our republics. It is almost eerie how many parallels there are between that era and our current times.

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

While an analysis that examines the chaotic times of today and compares them to the conditions of yesteryear can be quite revealing, a look back at the ancient sources themselves can paint a picture that illuminates the human condition in a much more powerful way. Through the words of ancient politicians, historians, and philosophers, we can get a snapshot of what happened then, and what could happen again, if we are not careful.

The need to study history is reflected in a famous 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 neither endure our diseases nor face the remedies needed to cure them.

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.

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

After the end 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.

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

While the upper classes acquired new lands to farm, and lots of money, the poor were reduced to dire conditions. After losing their lands, they would often lose their houses as well, and would need to wander around the country in search of work. Unfortunately, work was hard to come by, as many of the tasks were being overwhelmingly done by slaves.

But they accomplished nothing; for Tiberius, striving to support a measure which was honorable and just with an eloquence that would have adorned even a meaner cause, was formidable and invincible, whenever, with the people crowding around the rostra, he took his stand there and pleaded for the poor:

“The wild beasts that roam over Italy,” he would say, “have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children.”

“And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchers and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.”
from “The Life of Tiberius Gracchus” by Plutarch

Early Roman society was composed of citizen farmers, tilling their lands, and making a decent living off their produce. From time to time, they would get called up to serve in the army and defend Rome. While there were divisions between the lower class plebeians, and the upper class patricians, in reality the income disparities between these two classes were not that great. In the advent of the Roman Republic, even the generals farmed the land.

The fact, we have every reason to believe, that in those days the lands were tilled by the hands of generals even, the soil exulting beneath a plough-share crowned with wreaths of laurel, and guided by a husbandman graced with triumphs.
from “The Natural History” by Pliny the Elder

This is how it was all throughout history, until the era of the Punic Wars changed things.

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 and after a prolonged and drawn out struggle ended with the Roman annexation of the island of Sicily. The most famous of the three conflicts is the second one (218 – 201 BC), which 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 conditions kept on worsening, and despite the efforts of reformers like the Gracchi brothers, the plebeians continued on getting poorer and poorer.

“The plebeians lost everything, and hence resulted a still further decline in the numbers both of citizens and soldiers, and in the revenue from the land and the distribution thereof and in the allotments themselves; and about fifteen years after the enactment of the law of Gracchus, by reason of a series of lawsuits, the people were reduced to unemployment.
from “Roman History” by Appian

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.

“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

Several ancient philosophers had realized that income inequalities can bring great discord to a country. Aristotle in his treatise “Politics” even noted the importance of having a strong middle class for the stability of a state. In ancient Rome, the process that came about after the Punic Wars, not only widened the income disparities between the rich and the poor, but also led to an impoverishment of a large section of people who had in previous times been part of the middle class.

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!

The middle class is also getting squeezed and shrinking not just in the US, but around the world.

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.

“The condition of the poor became even worse than it was before.
from “Roman History” by Appian

It is not absolute wealth that causes the greatest distress, 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, the man who started the revolution, was probably a genuine reformer. While he might also have had more personal goals as well, his actions showed real concern for the precarious and downtrodden members of society. 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, being a very innovative populist politician, gained a big popularity with the crowds. He was one of the most recognizable rabble-rousers of the mid-1st century BC. 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

Clodius was not the only person that was a master at using the negative emotions of the poor crowds. Catiline, the guy who decided to stage a coup d’etat after he lost his election for consul, also got a lot of support from the discontented masses.

In general the whole plebs approved of Catiline’s undertaking, from an inclination for new things. In this it seemed to act according to its custom. For always in a state those who have no resources envy the propertied, admire evil men, hate established things and long for new ones, and from discontent with their own position they desire everything to be changed.
from “The Conspiracy of Catiline” by Sallust

It is not just material conditions, loss of money or jobs that are the problem, but also the quality of the jobs. When the prospect of getting a good job, adequate to your level, even after years of study and hard work diminishes, it can have a negative impact on your psyche. This is something that was noticed by Libanius, a teacher of rhetoric, who lived in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, at a time when Christianity was taking over and the conditions in the country were rapidly declining.

While the conditions in late Empire were a bit different from those in the late Republic, what Libanius noticed is pertinent for any era. Even after years of hard studies, him and his pupils could not get the jobs that the previous generations could get. Instead, the jobs went to people with connections, and usually also a lack of education.

What profit will I gain from these countless labors, by which I must pore through many poets, many orators, and every other kind of written work, if the end result of my sweat and toil is that I myself wander about in dishonor, while another achieves prosperity?
from “Orations” by Libanius

A sense of injustice or a feeling of vulnerability have been identified as some of the factors that can lead to anxiety. This can result in the idea of being mistreated by a specific group or just the world in general. These types of feelings are usually accompanied by a sense of powerlessness and lack of control.

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.

For people when they feel that they are being treated unjustly, become quite desperate, which makes them prone to fall for populist promises.

For men, when they feel unjustly treated, are wont to become desperate.
from “Secret History” by Procopius

These feelings of unfair treatment might be justified or not, but it is usually not objective facts that drive a person’s behavior, but rather subjective feelings. A subjective feeling of a fall in well-being can have very similar effects on a person’s sense of things getting worse, as much as an objective, measurable fall in well-being can.

This realization that the subjective interpretation of events plays an important role in human affairs was a key aspect of Stoic teachings. Ancient Stoic philosophers realized that it is usually not the event itself that matters, but how you interpret it. Emotions stir themselves inside everyone, but they work only if you give assent to them.

If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgement about it.
from “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius

This is how the world works. Most people give assent to their subjective feelings, whether on the emotional interpretation of their perceived problems or on the solutions that are being offered to solve them. On the positive side, emotions can push people to try to do something about a real problem. On the negative side, they can also exaggerate problems to bigger proportions and make some populist solutions seem attractive.

Emotions are a double-edged sword and need to be managed properly, which is something that many of the ancient philosophical schools tried to teach people to do. However, these techniques never entered the tool-belt of most people. It is hard even for a philosopher-king to keep his emotions in check when adversity hits, so when the personal situation of a huge chunk of the population declines (whether in reality or in imagination), you will have trouble ahead.

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

Often, the people who resort to anger all the time are just overcompensating for their lack of control and their own failures. Their mind is constantly unhappy, and this is their way of dealing with it.

To be constantly irritated seems to me to be the part of a languid and unhappy mind, conscious of its own feebleness, like folk with diseased bodies covered with sores, who cry out at the lightest touch.
from “On Anger” by Seneca

In the ancient world, the views on whether anger is ever justified differed quite a bit. While the Stoics stated that anger is never justified, the Peripatetics (followers of Aristotle) had a more nuanced view. They believed that there were certain instances when righteous anger is legitimate. It can move you to try to right a perceived wrong or injustice. However, what both schools agreed on is that too much anger, especially uncontrolled anger, can lead you on the wrong path.

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 takes over, the mind stops reasoning rationally and can become a slave of the passions. This can result in intense feelings of permanent anger, often turning into full-out rage. 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

When moral indignation sets in, and a person becomes overtaken with anger, even rage, they will believe that they are being wise and that their cause is just. They become blinded by their self-righteousness, but can end up sliding into ruin.

All those whose madness raises them above human considerations, believe themselves to be inspired with high and sublime ideas; but there is no solid ground beneath, and what is built without foundation is liable to collapse in ruin.

Anger has no ground to stand upon, and does not rise from a firm and enduring foundation, but is a windy, empty quality, as far removed from true magnanimity as fool-hardiness from courage, boastfulness from confidence, gloom from austerity, cruelty from strictness.

There is, I say, a great difference between a lofty and a proud mind: anger brings about nothing grand or beautiful.
from “On Anger” by Seneca

The problem with anger is that it can bring about cycles of violence and revenge. Even if this anger is based on righteous anger at the beginning, the degeneration into endless bouts of emotional outbursts from both sides can often stop progress in its track. Instead, it can lead to the radicalization of both sides, which makes any hope of a compromise disappear.

Now no passion is more eager for revenge than anger, and for that very reason is unfit to take it; being unduly ardent and frenzied, as most lusts are, it blocks its own progress to the goal toward which it hastens.
from “On Anger” by Seneca

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.

The outrage culture seems to be taking over, greatly helped with social media echo chambers.

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. Word of this incident spread among the populace, 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.

Another contentious issue in ancient Rome was debt. Throughout its history, the Roman Republic was plagued with rising debts. At various times, popular movement for the cancellation of this debt arose. However, these things need to be considered carefully. Too much debt can lead to inflation and collapse.

There was a huge debt crisis during Sulla’s ascendancy after the end of the Social War in 88 BC, which caused havoc on the Roman economy. Rome had been through these types of crises before and was always able to overcome them, but in the latter days of the Republic, they multiplied more frequently. Together with all the other events happening, they added pressures on the system and in time overwhelmed it. What happens is that economic shocks can exacerbate the existing problems, and greatly increase the popular discontent. That’s why economic recessions need to be handled with care.

While on one hand, the cancellation of debt can ease the burden on the people who have those debts, this can also have negative consequences. It can be very detrimental to the creditors, who then don’t see their money back. It can also introduce moral hazard into the system and be unfair to the people who did pay off their debts. All these sides of the issue need to be considered whenever enacting any type of policy. This debt issue played a huge role in the affairs of the Roman state, and could have been one of the contributing factors to its collapse.

Cicero, during his consulate, was a big opponent of the abolition of debts.

What does the establishment of new debt accounts mean other than that you buy a plot of land with my money, that you’re the one who owns it and that I do not have my money? That’s why you have to ensure that there aren’t any debts, which may harm the State.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

However, many populist politicians, like Catiline, used the promise of the abolition of debts, as a way to get support from the masses.

Thereupon Catiline promised abolition of debts.
from “The Conspiracy of Catiline” by Sallust

On the political front, the Roman Republic became a battleground between debtors and creditors, which added to all the other contentious issues that had strong partisans on each side. What usually happens in controversies such as these, is that people argue from their own perspective, keeping in mind their own interests.

Very rarely do individuals take a step back and try to see the wider perspective. Instead, they look at the world through narrow blinders, without taking a holistic view of things, and without taking into account various sides of any issue. People usually cannot place themselves in the shoes of others and see things from their point of view.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and feel from another person’s point of reference. This type of a mindset is incredibly important, if you want to be able to come to a common understanding. Instead, people blindly push their own perspectives.

For some ancient philosophers, like Hierocles the Stoic, the way to get out of this narrow point of view was to expand your circle of concern. He described how humans have different circles of concern, with the first and foremost being yourself, then in a circle around it, your family, and so on and so on, with the final circle encompassing the whole world.

For, in short, each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other.

For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which every one describes about his own mind as a center, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body, are comprehended. For this is nearly the smallest circle, and almost touches the center itself.

The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the center, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the center is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters.

After this is the circle which comprehends the remaining relatives. Next to this is that which contains the common people, then that which comprehends those of the same tribe, afterwards that which contains the citizens; and then two other circles follow, one being the circle of those that dwell in the vicinity of the city, and the other, of those of the same province.

But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race.
from “On Appropriate Acts” by Hierocles the Stoic

In another one of his works, Hierocles the Stoic explained that this type of view of the world as being in circles of concern comes out of a sense of self-preservation that all animals are born with. The Greek word he used is “oikeiosis” and signifies a perception of belonging to oneself. All the basic impulses of animals, including humans, stem from this. In many ways, this is in line with the modern theory of the selfish gene that some researchers view as the driving force of human behavior.

An animal, when it has received the first perception of itself, immediately becomes its own and familiar to itself and to its constitution.
from “The Elements of Ethics” by Hierocles the Stoic

So narrow ways of looking at the world are inherent in how you perceive the world. The way out of this filter bubble is to strive to put all these circles into one big circle, and feel empathy towards everyone.

It is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one center, and always to endeavor earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.
from “On Appropriate Acts” by Hierocles the Stoic

Unfortunately, most people don’t conduct themselves like this, but instead stay within their circles of concern and their blinded ways of looking at the world. This narrow view of things means that no matter what you do, you can never please everyone. Whenever you conduct a speech or try to enact a policy, you will have those who are pro and those who are against. The same speech can pump up one set of people, while it enrages another group.

A speaker can satisfy one set of people, while at the same time irritating another set. His speech will as often please, as much as displease.
from “Against Plato In Defense of Rhetoric” by Aelius Aristides

What happened in Rome is that you had different camps of people forming. These were drifting further and further apart ideologically. As a consequence, attitudes hardened, and anger further exasperated the tense stand-offs. The lack of understanding became more and more extreme as time went by, and extremism flourished. This type of state of affairs often doesn’t arise from day to day, but instead builds up upon differences of opinion, which grow larger and larger as time passes.

The reason why there are so many differences of opinion is because experiences vary under different circumstances. The internal makeup of one person is not always the same as that of another, in terms of character, principles, or history of experiences. It is not just these traits and attitudes that compel a person to act in a certain way, but the particular situation at that moment can also induce the reaction of a person. The same person might react one way in one particular situation, but in another way in another situation.

There are personal factors that influence a person’s reactions and behaviors, but also societal ones. The environment a person lives in matters and affects how a person thinks and acts. Culture can also have an impact on the way person thinks, since people are brought up with different beliefs, customs or in different social conditions.

All these factors influence the way a person perceives a particular issue. Sextus Empiricus, a follower of the ancient school of Pyrrhonian Skepticism, outlined several reasons why perceptions can differ. One analogy that he gave is how seawater is unpleasant and even poisonous for humans to drink, but fish seem to have no problem with it. Just like fish and humans react differently to salty water, two humans can react differently to other types of external objects.

It is likely that the external objects are perceived differently depending on the differing makeups of the animals. But one can see this more clearly from the preferences and aversions of animals. Thus, perfume seems very pleasant to human beings but intolerable to dung beetles and bees, and the application of olive oil is beneficial to human beings but kills wasps and bees.

And to human beings sea water is unpleasant and even poisonous to drink, while to fish it is most pleasant and potable. And pigs bathe more happily in the worst stinking mud than in clear and pure water.
from “Outlines of Pyrrhonism” by Sextus Empiricus

The reaction of one person to the same object, can be totally different from that of another person, due to preferences, priorities or life history. One person might have a preference for collecting stamps, while another person finds this boring and instead has a longing for adventure. Priorities can also vary based on an individuals’ goals or outlook.

There are a thousand species of men; and equally diversified is the pursuit of objects. Each has his own desire; nor do men live with one single wish.
from “Satires” by Persius

Different people are wired differently, and that’s why they perceive the same thing differently.

Since no common effect comes about in us, it is rash to say that what appears a certain way to me also appears that way to the next person. For perhaps I am put together in such a way as to be whitened by the thing that strikes me from outside, but the other person has his senses designed so as to be disposed differently.

What is apparent to us, then, is absolutely not common. We are not activated in the same way, given the different designs of our senses.
from “Against the Logicians” by Sextus Empiricus

One aspect of this internal wiring is a person’s personality, which is defined as a set of usual behavioral patterns, which that person shows consistently across a wide variety of situations. The ancients developed a theory of personality called the four temperaments, which was based on the four humors theory.

According to this theory people fell into four types of temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Of course these categories were not rigid, and individuals could display a wide variety of combinations of these temperaments, but there was always a tendency toward one type. Galen described this personality theory in his work “On the Temperaments”.

According to Galen, the temperaments are based on the four humors inside a person’s body. When one prevails over the other, then there is a tendency for certain behaviors. The ideal would be for all the humors to be in balance, not too much or too little of each, the golden mean.

The most well-mixed man in respect to his soul, will be precisely in the middle between boldness and cowardice, hesitancy and rashness, pity and envy. Such a person will be good-spirited, affectionate, generous and intelligent.
from “On the Temperaments” by Galen

However, it is very uncommon for an individual to have a perfect balance of the humors. Instead, certain mixtures prevail and drive how a person responds to outside stimuli. All the mixtures have a positive and negative aspect. For example, a person with a choleric type of personality is an extrovert who is driven, ambitious, and decisive, but also violent, vengeful, stubborn, and short-tempered. Many leaders and politicians fit exactly this profile.

This ancient theory of personality has influenced many of the more modern personality typologies like the Myers-Brigg, or the NLP meta-programs. Most scientists now however prefer to use the Big Five scale, where they divide a person on factors such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (or emotional stability). Some researchers have surmised that some of these traits could play a big role in explaining divisiveness in society.

Having an antagonistic personality paradoxically bodes well for politicians. The politicians who fit here garner more media attention through their antagonistic stances, and are much more likely to get elected than more agreeable ones. According to the researchers, the people who are on the antagonism part of the antagonism-agreeableness spectrum are more likely to push disagreements or believe in conspiracy theories. This also hugely impacts the way they perceive things around them, and makes them much less likely to try to compromise.

It is not just the predetermined internal wiring that makes people perceive things differently, but also their experiences. Life history is incredibly important when it comes to the way people act. A person who grew up in a dangerous neighborhood might have a history of bad experiences with people, while someone who was born rich, pretty, and pampered would end up with a history of good experiences with people. This then affects their opinion of people in general and how they act towards them.

When the same things are chosen by some people and avoided by others it is logical for us to infer that these people are not affected alike by the same things, since if they were they would alike have chosen and avoided the same things.
from “Outlines of Pyrrhonism” by Sextus Empiricus

Things like your position in life, your preceding activities, or your particular mood in that instance affects the way you think or act. If a person is poor, they might think one way, but when they become rich, they might start thinking in a different way.

Aesthetic tastes can also differ, based on subjective criteria. As Sextus noted, sexy is in the eye of the beholder.

And many people who have ugly mistresses think them beautiful. Depending on hunger and satiety, too: since the same food seems very pleasant to the hungry but unpleasant to the sated. And depending on being drunk or sober: since things we consider shameful when we are sober appear to us not to be shameful when we are drunk.
from “Outlines of Pyrrhonism” by Sextus Empiricus

Based on all these factors, people form opinions on different subjects. Often, they cannot distinguish an opinion from a fact, and end up deceiving themselves. They usually engage in motivated reasoning, where they try to fit the facts to their preconceived notions and not the other way around. Basically, they draw the conclusions that they want to draw and try to find evidence to confirm these inner beliefs.

The human race, which by nature partakes of wisdom, though it falls short of it through bad judgement and indifference, is inwardly full of opinion and self-deception.
from “Discourse on Opinion” by Dio Chrysostom

Perceptions and opinions are shaped by, but in turn also shape, one fundamental aspect of how humans view the world: values. A value is a principle or a standard that a person holds as important. Much of how humans see the world is skewed through their values, and these values form the basis for their beliefs. A person’s value is usually also one of the main drivers of their behavior.

While philosophers like Plato argued that there is one objective value for everyone, Protagoras and other philosophers argued that values are subjective. Different people have different values, which can sometimes be opposed to each other.

Protagoras was the first to maintain that there are two sides to every question, opposed to each other, and he even argued in this fashion, being the first to do so. Furthermore he began a work thus: “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.” He used to say that the soul was nothing apart from the senses.
from “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

Modern researchers studying the values that people hold came up with the moral foundations theory, which states that people have different types of reasoning on morality. According to this theory, people usually place their values on a spectrum consisting of these five categories: care, loyalty or ingroup, authority, sanctity or purity, and fairness or proportionality.

While all of these categories are important, one of the values that was fought over the most in ancient times was the idea of fairness. Fairness is something which has deep biological roots and so is deeply ingrained in the mind. Many ancient philosophers considered fairness as a component of justice. Aristotle in his “Nicomachean Ethics” discussed the notion of fairness as receiving according to what you put in. So for example, if you go out on a hunt and come back with a kill, then the person who did the most in order to catch the prey should also get the biggest piece of the meat, proportional to his part of the overall effort.

However, this is where we get one of the biggest points of contention. What is fair? Different people have different definitions of fairness, and this has a huge impact on their values. Many people argue that the power structures in a society are not the same, so there needs to be some sort of a mechanism to ensure an equality of opportunity and outcome. This often involves a sort of redistribution of resources, with the aim to promote egalitarianism.

These different ideas of fairness serve as sources of disagreement among different groups of people. Some people base their notions of fairness on a more individualistic definition, focusing on merits, while others have a more societal outlook, focusing on equality. These different ways of looking at fairness are at the core of people’s values, which can then lead to points of contention in what types of policies to enact in order to have a fair and just society.

Polybius in his descriptions of various constitutions of the states of his era noted the different set-ups of the countries. This was a reflection of what the majority of citizens regarded as fair. The Cretans had a more proportional (or meritocratic) definition of fairness, where you could buy as much land as you could afford, with this money being acquired through your work (or that of your ancestors).

Their laws go as far as possible in letting them acquire land to the extent of their power, as the saying is, and money is held in such high honor among them that its acquisition is not only regarded as necessary, but as most honorable.
from “Histories” by Polybius

The Spartans, on the other hand, had a more egalitarian notion of fairness.

For the equal division of landed property and the simple and common diet were calculated to produce temperance in the private lives of the citizens and to secure the commonwealth as a whole from civil strife.
from “Histories” by Polybius

In the Roman Republic, it is the differing ideas about fairness among the various sections of the population that stoked up polarization and created conflict. One side was fighting for entrenched property rights and had a conservative outlook on society, the other side was calling for land redistribution, capping the size of landholdings, giving out subsidies, and had a more egalitarian radical view of society.

These types of issues can become an aspect of a person’s world-view. Often, this world-view is influenced by a school of thinking, a political party or group, or the authority of an individual.

A person learns about a certain philosophy or ideology, and without thinking much about the wider context, adopts it outright. In this phase, thinking can become rigid for many people.

Many times, this learning comes way before a person is mature, and is influenced by the family the person grows up in, the community around him, as well as the peer groups that the person finds himself hanging around. A person’s world-view is often very much a product of that person’s circumstances and the surrounding society.

For in the first place, those of the other schools have been bound hand and foot before they were able to judge what was best; and, secondly, before their age or their understanding had come to maturity, they have either followed the opinion of some friend, or been charmed by the eloquence of some one who was the first arguer whom they ever heard, and so have been led to form a judgment on what they did not understand, and now they cling to whatever school they were, as it were, dashed against in a tempest, like sailors clinging to a rock.
from “Academic Skepticism” by Cicero

While individual perceptions, reactions and values are important, what shapes the mood in society is the interaction of them with the perceptions, reactions and values of other people. Humans have a tendency to divide themselves into groups, whether tribes, nations, or based on ideology. These divisions are then reinforced through modes of thinking, with each group adopting their own proper rituals or beliefs. Membership in each particular group then fortifies the beliefs that distinguish it from others.

This can create dangerous “us” versus “them” divisions, which can widen over time. When some of these ideas and beliefs of one group are in direct contrast to those of another group, then the potential for intolerance and conflict increases.

The dogmatists egotistically refuse to allow other people the judgment of the truth, but say that they themselves are the only ones to have discovered this.
from “Against the Logicians” by Sextus Empiricus

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.

Black or white thinking, which paints both sides in broad strokes has a tendency to take over in times of growing polarization. The partisans of each group start thinking in extremes, painting themselves as all good, and the other side as all bad, with nuances and grey thinking disappearing by the wayside.

This type of closed off mindset is reflected in the differences in descriptions of the same exact events. One example of this is the way that Tiberius Gracchus was described by the two sides. For the Populares, Gracchus was a hero, battling for better social conditions, and some of his partisans even had his picture on their walls. For the Optimates, he was a dangerous upstart hungry for power, wanting to become king. Sometimes it seems as if they lived in alternate universes composed of alternative facts.

In these highly polarized situations, everybody wants to win, and they often want to win at the expense of the other. Instead of trying to find a common position or to arrive at a consensus, the goal is to stick it to the other side, to humiliate them or even destroy them. It sometimes actually gives pleasure to a person to see their moral opponents suffer defeat or humiliation.

It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds.
from “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius

Each side thinks it has the moral high ground, and that the other side is evil and beneath them. Civility and respect for your opponents disappear, to be replaced by rudeness and hatred. Often, the language degenerates into shouting and name calling.

They think they can offend with impunity, and by their nobility easily keep aloof those who are not their equals.
from “Satires” by Lucilius

However, as noticed by Pliny the Younger, while these people might treat the other as a mortal enemy, both behave in a very similar way. They blame others for all kinds of faults, yet ignore the fact that they themselves are behaving the same way. You can notice this in many political discussions.

People will close their eyes when they discover that someone from their side did a bad thing, but will pounce when it is someone from the other side who did a bad thing. The patterns of behavior are the same on whatever side of the barrier you are sitting, if you are blinded by extreme partisanship and self-righteousness. In these types of discussions, hypocrisy reigns supreme.

Did you ever come across people who are themselves the slaves of all kinds of passions, yet are so indignant at the vices of others as to appear to grudge them their viciousness – people who show no mercy to those whom they most resemble in character? And this in spite of the fact that those who themselves need the charitable judgment of others ought above all things to be lenient in their judgments!

For my own part, I consider the best and most finished type of man to be the person who is always ready to make allowances for others, on the ground that never a day passes without his being in fault himself, yet who keeps as clear of faults as if he never pardoned them in others. Let this be our rule, then, at home and out-of-doors, and in every department of life, to be remorseless in our judgment of ourselves, yet considerate even to those who are incapable of overlooking faults in any but themselves.
from “Epistles” by Pliny the Younger

Political radicalization fosters greater cognitive dissonance and doublethink. Everyone believes that they are the good guys, and that they are defending the right cause. In reality, things often turn out differently. What happens is that even people who call for equality or fairness, and believe that they are fighting against oppression, end up themselves oppressing other people or groups.

True moderation in the defense of political liberties is indeed a difficult thing: pretending to want fair shares for all, every man raises himself by depressing his neighbor; our anxiety to avoid oppression leads us to practice it ourselves; the injustice we repel, we visit in turn upon others, as if there were no choice except either to do it or to suffer it.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

There are different reasons and explanations why people become extremists, including the need for significance and a feeling of importance. Virtue signalling is a good way to gain status in your little group, which gives you a hit of dopamine, which gets you hooked, starting the ride to more radicalization.

Unfortunately as Seneca noted when people are convinced of the fact that they know the ultimate truth, and everyone else who does not subscribe to their world-view is the enemy, things end up going down a bad path. Replace the word “philosophy” with “ideology” or a something similar, and you will understand how powerful this quote really is in describing the current situation.

When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

These types of behaviors are similar across the ages. People like to behave in a tribal way, cheering for their own side, demonizing the other side, and being blind to their own faults. At times, the political environment in the country heightens the behaviors and stokes up the tensions. If you couple these effects with people selfishly pushing for their own perceived interests, you have the social conditions which are akin to a volcano waiting to blow up. This was the point that was reached at Rome in the latter days of the Republic. Society was divided, and polarization was at its maximum.

Gridlock and the unwillingness to compromise were 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 staunch 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. These tax-farming companies were basically financial houses, and engaged in many activities, such as tax collecting, but also banking. In one letter to Atticus, a close friend of his, 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.

Even before that time, ancient lawgivers knew that growing polarization and lack of compromise could endanger a country, and so they imagined various ways of overcoming the gridlock. One solution was to try to pack both sides with moderates. This would result in them overpowering the radicals and bringing the two sides to an agreement.

A law of Solon, the result of careful thought and consideration, which at first sight seems unfair and unjust, but on close examination is found to be altogether helpful and salutary.

Among those very early laws of Solon which were inscribed upon wooden tablets at Athens, and which, promulgated by him, the Athenians ratified by penalties and oaths, to ensure their permanence, Aristotle says that there was one to this effect: “If because of strife and disagreement civil dissension shall ensue and a division of the people into two parties, and if for that reason each side, led by their angry feelings, shall take up arms and fight, then if anyone at that time, and in such a condition of civil discord, shall not ally himself with one or the other faction, but by himself and apart shall hold aloof from the common calamity of the State, let him be deprived of his home, his country, and all his property, and be an exile and an outlaw.”

When I read this law of Solon, who was a man of extraordinary wisdom, I was at first filled with something like great amazement, and I asked myself why it was that those who had held themselves aloof from dissension and civil strife were thought to be deserving of punishment. Then those who had profoundly and thoroughly studied the purpose and meaning of the law declared that it was designed, not to increase, but to terminate, dissension.

And that is exactly so. For if all good men, who have been unequal to checking the dissension at the outset, do not abandon the aroused and frenzied people, but divide and ally themselves with one or the other faction, then the result will be, that when they have become members of the two opposing parties, and, being men of more than ordinary influence, have begun to guide and direct those parties, harmony can best be restored and established through the efforts of such men, controlling and soothing as they will the members of their respective factions, and desiring to reconcile rather than destroy their opponents.

The philosopher Favorinus thought that this same course ought to be adopted also with brothers, or with friends, who are at odds; that is, that those who are neutral and kindly disposed towards both parties, if they have had little influence in bringing about a reconciliation because they have not made their friendly feelings evident, should then take sides, some one and some the other, and through this manifestation of devotion pave the way for restoring harmony.

“But as it is,” said he, “most of the friends of both parties make a merit of abandoning the two disputants, leaving them to the tender mercies of ill-disposed or greedy advisers, who, animated by hatred or by avarice, add fuel to their strife and inflame their passions.”
from “Attic Nights” by Aulus Gellius

The other solution was to try stay away from taking sides and instead try to moderate the two sides from the sidelines.

Now those who are skilled in tending and keeping bees think that the hive which hums loudest and is most full of noise is thriving and in good condition; but he who has been given the care of the rational and political swarm will judge of its happiness chiefly by the quietness and tranquility of the people; he will accept and imitate to the best of his ability the other precepts of Solon, but will wonder in great perplexity why that great man prescribed that in case of factional disorder whoever joined neither faction should be deprived of civic rights.

For in a body afflicted with disease the beginning of a change to health does not come from the diseased parts, but it comes when the condition in the healthy parts gains strength and drives out that which is character to nature; and in a people afflicted with faction, if it is not dangerous and destructive but is destined to cease sometime, there must be a strong, permanent, and permeating admixture of sanity and soundness; for to this element there flows from the men of understanding that which is akin to it, and then it permeates the part which is diseased; but States which have fallen into complete disorder are utterly ruined unless they meet with some external necessity and chastisement Band are thus forcibly compelled by their misfortunes to be reasonable.

Yet certainly it is not fitting in time of disorder to sit without feeling or grief, singing the praises of your own impassiveness and of the inactive and blessed life, and rejoicing in the follies of others; on the contrary, at such times you should by all means put on the buskin of Theramenes, conversing with both parties and joining neither; for you will appear to be, not an outsider by not joining in wrongdoing, but a common partisan of all by coming to their aid; and your not sharing in their misfortunes will not arouse envy, if it is plain that you sympathize with all alike.

But the best thing is to see to it in advance that factional discord shall never arise among them and to regard this as the greatest and noblest function of what may be called the art of statesmanship.
from “Precepts of Statecraft” by Plutarch

While both of these pieces of advice sound contradictory, in reality they are not. The idea for both of them is for the moderates to take over from the radicals and instead of further polarizing the discourse, they should sit down and try to find common points between the different sides.

The ability to compromise is at the core of having a functioning democracy. Moderates like Cicero understood this aspect, while stubborn extremists like Cato did not. The ability to take a step back and see the issue from multiple sides is fundamental for finding intersections between the different sides, which is a necessary step for forming a lasting agreement.

Cicero was a lawyer by training, and through his studies of argumentation, he became a master of a technique called “utramque partem”. This is the ability to argue from both sides of a contentious issue. It involves checking your biases, getting a holistic overview of the situation, and then seeing the two arguments side by side. Here, like for other matters, a key aspect is keeping your emotions in check.

The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down – such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.
from “On the Orator” by Cicero

The ancient Romans were greatly influenced by the ancient Greeks, who also created different techniques meant to find compromise. One of these can be found in a small treatise called “On Contrasting Arguments” (“dissoi logoi” in ancient Greek), which was found as an appendix to the works of Pyrrhonist Skeptic philosopher Sextus Empiricus.

The aim of this document was for people to gain a deeper understanding of issues by having them look at the issues from different sides, not just their own, but also that of their opponents. Once you have this deeper look at the different sides, it is much easier to reach a compromise.

All things come into being by a conflict of opposites.
quoting Heraclitus from “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

Many ancient philosophers argued that things come into being by a conflict of opposites. This, in a nutshell, is also the idea behind dialectics. Philosophers such as Plato, or later Cicero, structured many of their works as dialogues or discussions between multiple people, where each participant would present a different point of view. Based on this interchange of views, the group would then come up with a common understanding of the topic.

The basic structure of this type of dialectic is first presenting a thesis, then the opposite antithesis, which then results in a synthesis: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. One side presents their argument, then the other side presents theirs, often trying to refute this argument. However, at the end, the final result is a combination of the two propositions.

Just like any technique, this method of reaching a compromise can be abused. It works under the assumption that the two opposing arguments are of equal weight, or at least that they are based on rational thoughts. However, often the two opposing arguments are not of equal weight or even rational.

Putting a person arguing that global warming is caused by human activity, on the same footing as someone arguing that aliens installed giant heaters around the planet, is ludicrous. You cannot give equal time or consideration to someone arguing that the Earth is flat, as you would to someone arguing that the Earth is round. In order to have a rational debate, you need evidence.

The ancient Skeptics, a philosophical school that questioned the certainty of knowledge, preached the concept of “epoche” or suspension of judgment. However for most of them, this did not mean that all opinions were worth the same. Instead, people like Carneades stated that certain impressions are more probable than others, which also means that the possibility that they are true is much higher.

Carneades holds that there are two classifications of presentations, which under one are divided into those that can be perceived and those that cannot, and under the other into those that are probable and those that are not probable.
from “Academic Skepticism” by Cicero

There is no presentation of such a sort as to result in perception, but many that result in a judgement of probability.
from “Academic Skepticism” by Cicero

Thus, the wise man will make use of whatever apparently probable presentation he encounters, if nothing presents itself that is contrary to that probability, and his whole plan of life will be charted out in this manner.
from “Academic Skepticism” by Cicero

Cicero was an adherent of Academic Skepticism, which made him much more flexible at trying to arrive at the truth, and also in trying to facilitate compromise between different factions. Bayesian thinking also works with probabilities when trying to arrive at the truth, and can be adopted as a good framework for any type of discussion.

Agreeing on having a logical discourse based on facts, having open-minded moderates at the core of the policy making process in government, and combining this with striving to reach a compromise, is very important if you want your country to keep on functioning smoothly.

Having extremists drive the agenda on the two sides can cause a deadlock, blocking any way forward. The only way to break this impasse is when a strong man steps in and imposes his will. This is what happened in ancient Rome. However, this type of situation also meant the end of the Republic, and its transformation into an autocratic Empire.

It is incredibly easy for countries to slip into greater and greater polarization due to the effects of group dynamics. Often the discourse gets taken over by a radical minority, while the moderate majority sits silent. Many modern researchers have noted that groups tend to adopt more extreme positions over time, with the term group polarization referring to the tendency of groups to make more extreme decisions than the positions that most of the members started with. That is why the importance of moderate members working to sway the group towards less extreme positions cannot be overstated.

You have to always keep in mind that the other side probably also has a valid reason for saying what they are saying. Sometimes, these reasons might be misguided, but then you cannot get angry at them. Instead, try to understand their point of view and try to teach them instead.

They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. But it is not so. Teach them then, and show them without being angry.
from “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius

This is why both Aulus Gellius and Plutarch noted the importance of moderates in the situation when a country is getting more and more polarized. Their rational way of thinking should be used in order to cool everything down. Moderates can see commonalities better, which can help in identifying common projects to work on. They can shift the perception of the situation from being seen as zero-sum, and steer the groups towards thinking in terms of win-win.

Scientific research has shown that when two previously antagonistic groups start working towards a common goal in a cooperative task, the antipathy between the groups diminishes. In order to foster this type of reconciliation, you can use either moderates from the particular sides, or moderate independents who are staying on the sidelines, but the final effect should always be the same: an end to polarization and the beginning of compromise.

Unfortunately, none of these two solutions were tried in the latter days of the Republic. What happened is that the radicals from both sides dragged the country towards further chaos. This chaos was then taken advantage of by certain ambitious individuals for their own selfish purposes.

Those who care for the interests of a part of the citizens and neglect another part, introduce into the civil service a dangerous element — dissension and party strife.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

The situation today has many eerie parallels to the times of the late Roman Republic. 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 stalling strategies in the US Congress. One of these is 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

Materialism took over ancient Rome when it was at its peak. Ancient physician Galen wrote how people did not value learning and knowledge. The only time when they took notice was when they needed to calculate expenses, build their mansions, or for forecasting how much money they were going to inherit. In fact, most people despised intellectuals.

“Causes of all this in the world lie in the materialism of the rich and powerful in the cities, who honoring pleasure over virtue consider of no account those who possess some finer knowledge and can impart it to others.
from “On Prognosis” by Galen

Seneca the Elder, father of the famous Seneca the Stoic philosopher, a man who lived through the last days of the Republic and the beginning of Empire, summarized how the youths of his days started preferring to spend their time singing and dancing, and worrying more about how their clothes and hair look, instead of what is inside their brains. They were concentrating on superficial things, instead of on things of real substance.

Look at our young men: they are lazy, their intellects sleep, no one can stay awake to take pains over a single honest pursuit. Sleep, torpor and a perseverance in evil that is more shameful than either have seized hold of their minds.

Libidinous delight in song and dance transfixes these effeminates. Braiding the hair, refining the voice till it is as caressing as a woman’s, competing in bodily softness with women, beautifying themselves with filthy fineries – this is the pattern our youths set themselves.
from “Controversies” by Seneca the Elder

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

Plutarch remarked how the desire for riches is born out of seeking to get the positive opinions of others. When no one wants something, then you don’t want it either. However, once everyone wants it, you want it too.

Thus the desire of riches does not proceed from a natural passion within us, but arises rather from vulgar out-of-doors opinion of other people.
from “The Life of Cato the Elder” by Plutarch

The point of riches for many people is to be seen with them. That’s why they post selfies of themselves with expensive cars, or wear expensive things out in public. It is all about posing.

For people in general reckon that an order not to display their riches is equivalent to the taking away of their riches, because riches are seen much more in superfluous than in necessary things. Indeed this was what excited the wonder of Ariston the philosopher; that we account those who possess superfluous things more happy than those who abound with what is necessary and useful.

But when one of his friends asked Scopas, the rich Thessalian, to give him some article of no great utility, saying that it was not a thing that he had any great need or use for himself: “In truth,” replied he, “it is just these useless and unnecessary things that make my wealth and happiness.”
from “The Life of Cato the Elder” by Plutarch

This posing is tied to the vanity of people. In decadent times, it is not their actions, but instead their possessions that people take pride in.

Oh how much vanity is there in human affairs!
from “Satires” by Lucilius

People concentrate on outward appearances, judging other people based on superficial things like what they wear, instead of looking at the substance of a person and their character. When these types of criteria are what counts, then wrong priorities take over.

But a great majority of mankind, misled by a wrong desire, cry, “No sum is enough; because you are esteemed in proportion to what you possess.”
from “Satires” by Horace

Incidentally, these types of vain priorities and a bad outlook on life cause a lot of mental anguish. It is because of this wrong approach to life that people suffer internally.

Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

Drugs, such as opium or cannabis, were also quite common in ancient Rome. They were legal, and often abused. However, they were also used for medical purposes. Dioscorides, an ancient physician of the 1st century AD, while writing about the positive medical effects, also noted the negative aspects of taking too much opium.

Taken as a drink too often it hurts, making men lethargic, and it kills.
from “On Medical Material” by Dioscorides

Galen, the famous physician, described the effects of cannabis, more particularly eating space cakes.

Hemp cakes, if eaten in moderation, produced a feeling of well-being but, taken to excess, they led to intoxication, dehydration and impotence.
from “On the Properties of Foodstuffs” by Galen

The seeds are quite warming, and consequently when they are taken in quantity over a short period they affect the head, sending up to it a vapor that is both warm and like a drug.
from “On the Properties of Foodstuffs” by Galen

Roman policy towards recreational drugs was quite lax. Drug dealers were only liable for penalties if their wares caused death.

The expression “injurious poisons” shows that there are certain poisons which are not injurious. Therefore the term is an ambiguous one, and includes what can be used for curing disease as well as for causing death. There also are preparations called love philters. These, however, are only forbidden by this law where they are designed to kill people.

A woman was ordered by a decree of the Senate to be banished, who, not with malicious intent, but offering a bad example, administered for the purpose of producing conception a drug which, having been taken, caused death.
from “Institutions” by Aelius Marcianus

There was also a short list of controlled substances, where the sellers were liable to penalties.

It is provided by another Decree of the Senate that dealers in ointments who rashly sell hemlock, salamander, aconite, pine-cones, bu-prestis, mandragora, and give cantharides as a purgative, are liable to the penalty of this law.
from “Institutions” by Aelius Marcianus

These types of drugs were often mixed in with wine, in order to create a powerful concoction of psychedelic effects!

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

Roman society even had its own version of Las Vegas, Daytona Beach at spring break, and Ibiza, all rolled into one: Baiae. This was the party capital of the later Republic, and also during the times of Empire. According to the words of Varro, this is where old men came to be boys, boys came to be girls, and unmarried women got gangbanged.

Baiae is where unmarried women are common property, old men behave like young boys, and lots of young boys act like young girls.
from “Menippean Satires” by Varro

The Roman poet Propertius wrote a poem about the place when his girlfriend Cynthia was there, urging her to leave. He described it as a coast fatal to chaste girls.

Only leave corrupt Baiae as soon as you may: that coast will bring discord to many, a coast fatal to chaste girls.
from “The Love Elegies” by Propertius

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

How corruption and decadence go hand in hand can be seen from the fact that after the Punic Wars, many of the upper class nobles did not even want to serve in the army. In earlier times, it was a matter of prestige and honor to fight, however in prosperous times, many of the nobles tried to get exemptions from serving. They tried to use their connections for this, which further undermined the morals and corrupted the state.

There were numerous cases of this type of behavior in the times leading up to the Gracchi, with some tribunes going as far as imprisoning the consuls in order to get exemptions from serving for their friends. You can see how this type of behavior leads to a slipping of norms in the political sphere.

When consuls Lucius Licinius Lucullus and Aulus Postumius Albinus recruited their army with great strictness and favored no one with an exemption, they were imprisoned by the tribunes of the plebs, because they were unable to obtain exemptions for their friends.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

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.

This is what ancient writers such as Virgil realized: hard work conquers all. This theme was repeated not just in myths and legends that were recounted from ancient times, but also in many poems that were meant to inspire people to try to work hard in order to succeed in life.

Toil conquered the world, unrelenting toil, and want that pinches when life is hard.
from “The Georgics” by Virgil

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 is important is to be a master of your passions. Hard work and overcoming challenges help you to acquire self-control and willpower, which is a crucial skill to have when you face temptation or hard times. Some ancient philosophers saw life as a battle between “akrasia” which was the Greek word for lack of self-control (or state of acting against your better judgment), and “enkrateia”, which was the Greek word used to mean power over yourself, over your passions and instincts.

In decadent times, most people cannot control their passions, instead their passions end up controlling them. A self-controlled person has the ability to choose, while for a person who has weak willpower and self-control, their choice is curtailed.

Who then is free? The wise man, who has dominion over himself; whom neither poverty, nor death, nor chains affright; brave in the checking of his appetites, and in contemning honors; and, perfect in himself, polished and round as a globe.
from “Satires” by Horace

In his commentary on Aristotle’s principal work on virtue and ethics, Aspasius discusses how a person without self-control acts when he has an appetite, that is without a choice. A person who has self-control has the ability to take a step back and consider his actions, to use reason. A person without self-control acts on impulse and emotions, which can often have disastrous consequences.

He shows it further on the basis of the uncontrolled and the self-controlled person. ‘For the uncontrolled person acts when he has an appetite, not when he chooses’; hence appetite and choice are not the same thing. The self-controlled person acts in accord with choice, for in fact he does it by having reasoned out what is advantageous, with wishing, which itself too is desire, following upon his reasoning. The uncontrolled person acts contrary to this choice, following his appetite.
from “Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics” by Aspasius

This is the reason why a decadent society, one concerned only with pleasure, has a tendency to degenerate. In such a society, many people lose power over themselves, becoming slaves to their passions. They end up getting distracted easily, not knowing what is really important, instead focusing on meaningless things.

The mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply.
from “On the Shortness of Life” by Seneca

Both the politicians, as the rulers, and the people, have to exercise self-control. Without it, wantonness results, which often ends up in the ruin of both the state and the people.

It is essential for the king to exercise self-control over himself and demand self-control of his subjects, to the end that with sober rule and seemly submission there shall be no wantonness on the part of either. For the ruin of the ruler and the citizen alike is wantonness.
from “Discourses” by Musonius Rufus

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.

For he who has suffered a defeat has been taught to guard in future against that from which he has suffered, but he who is inexperienced in misfortune has not even learned that it is necessary to guard his success.
from “The General” by Onasander

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

However, it is not just political processes that are at play, but also natural ones. As the population keeps growing, some of the natural resources are depleted, the environment gets degraded, which then sets in motion other negative effects. These types of problems often contribute to, and usually worsen, the political dynamics of society.

For society is a huge system, where different chains of events and feedback loops push events in different directions. When the system gets too far out of whack and the population outstrips its resources, hunger can come in, in order to maintain homeostasis and bring the system back into balance.

What most frequently meets our view and occasions complaint, is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.
from “On the Soul” by Tertullian

In Rome, you also found other pathologies, ones which are associated with big city life. At the end of the Republic, Rome had grown to become a city of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. This brought social disconnection and loneliness, something which people in today’s world are very familiar with.

In a big city, you are always surrounded by crowds, but perpetually alone. Many people chase after money and careers, and the social links between individuals are superficial or broken. This can bring on depression, and sometimes even mental instability. Many try to fill this void by engaging in instant gratification, which makes the situation even worse.

In Rome, you also find one big specificity. If someone dies, even the neighbors don’t know about it. They don’t know how the person died, nor which doctor treated him. The reason for this is because of the large size of the city and the huge number of its inhabitants, as well as the mindless way they chase after making money, positions, and honors.
from “On Examinations by which the Best Physicians are Recognized” by Galen

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

One important lesson to learn is that in times of victory and triumph, you should never let your guard down or grow complacent. In times of prosperity, the good times get into people’s heads, which can lead to disaster down the line.

Prosperous beginnings often have a disastrous ending. There should be no rejoicing over excessive and prolonged prosperity.
from “Letters to Marcus Aurelius” by Fronto

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, most 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.

The ancient Cynic philosophers believed that most people lived in a world of smoke (the Greek word they used is “tuphos”), a sort of mental confusion that clouds people’s judgment. People don’t see the world as it really is, and instead end up chasing after empty things that in reality have no value.

Diogenes Laertius in his work “The Lives of Eminent Philosophers” has a section on the Cynics. He quotes from a poem by ancient Greek Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes, who describes the life on a simple island surrounded by a wide ocean of tuphos, an ocean made up of smoke and vapors, meant to represent human folly. In this way, he denounced society living for mere appearances, a world which has lost its soul.

Crates, son of Ascondas, was a Theban. The following playful lines are attributed to him:

“There is a city Pera in the wine-dark sea of folly,
Fair, fruitful, passing squalid, owning nought,
Into which sails nor fool nor parasite
Nor glutton, slave of sensual appetite,
But thyme it bears, garlic, and figs and loaves,
For which things’ sake men fight not each with other,
Nor stand to arms for money or for fame.”
from “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

Pera represented the small island of people that saw beyond the smoke, and instead focused on real values, surrounded by a society of decadence. Roman society of the late Republic came to resemble the sea of folly described by the Cynics. Reading the works of late Republic and early Empire authors like Cicero or Seneca, you can see that people of that period were experiencing a crisis of meaning. Despite the outside trappings of prosperity, many people were seriously unhappy, and tried to make up for that emptiness inside by engaging in instant gratification, or by seeking extreme solutions. Today’s society is unfortunately following in the same footsteps.

Socrates said, “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”
from “How to Study Poetry” by Plutarch

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

Human nature consists of things that are present to an extent in all human beings. They can be called unwritten laws that apply to how humans act.

There are many things which we are accustomed to call unwritten laws, which are common to all human beings, at any rate those that are not incapacitated.
from “Supplement to On the Soul” by Alexander of Aphrodisias

Part of human nature are certain instincts, or built-in inclinations towards a number of behaviors. Some of these are complex patterns that occur because of basic drives, while others are triggered by various stimuli.

“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

This means a certain level of selfishness is characteristic to all human beings. 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 specific 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. Humans care much less about things that are common, but they do care a lot about that which is their own. This is reflected in the tragedy of the commons, where shared resources are over-exploited by private individuals for their own interests.

Human beings do not care about the things that are in common, but rather they care about the things that are their own. It therefore happens that they neglect things that are considered as being held in common.
from “Commentary on Plato’s Republic” by Proclus

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. This mechanism does however ensure that there is at least a bit of concern for others, at least ones related to you by blood. 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. However this preference for your own kin is also what sets up “us” versus “them” dynamics in society.

These internal drives push people to behave in certain ways. Even if they try to resist initially, the effects of these internal pulls are quite strong. 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.

System One is made up of the spirited and appetitive horses of the chariot, the different types of emotions. In reality, emotions are mental states brought on by chemical changes due to external or internal stimuli. The mechanism behind them developed as a way to guide animals in performing certain actions. Ancient philosophers spent a lot of times discussing what emotions are, how they function, and whether they are beneficial or not. Great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, or Epicurus, all had their take on emotions and how they drive human actions.

One of the most complete classifications of emotions comes from the ancient Stoics. They divided emotions into four basic types based on whether they concerned present or future good, or present or future evil.

Universal emotions constitute four great classes, grief, fear, desire or craving, pleasure.
from “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

Modern researchers even today argue about the nature of emotions, but they have come up with similar lists of emotions, building on top of the theories that were passed down from Antiquity. The ancient Stoics (and ancient thinkers who based their models of emotions on this Stoic classification, like Cicero) further subdivided the four basic classes into more detailed subdivisions.

Grief is an example of a present evil.

And grief or pain they hold to be an irrational mental contraction. Its species are pity, envy, jealousy, rivalry, heaviness, annoyance, distress, anguish, distraction. Pity is grief felt at undeserved suffering; envy, grief at others’ prosperity; jealousy, grief at the possession by another of that which one desires for oneself; rivalry, pain at the possession by another of what one has oneself.

Heaviness or vexation is grief which weighs us down, annoyance that which coops us up and straitens us for want of room, distress a pain brought on by anxious thought that lasts and increases, anguish painful grief, distraction irrational grief, rasping and hindering us from viewing the situation as a whole.
from “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

Fear is the expectation of a future evil.

Fear is an expectation of evil. Under fear are ranged the following emotions: terror, nervous shrinking, shame, consternation, panic, mental agony. Terror is a fear which produces fright; shame is fear of disgrace; nervous shrinking is a fear that one will have to act; consternation is fear due to a presentation of some unusual occurrence; panic is fear with pressure exercised by sound; mental agony is fear felt when some issue is still in suspense.
from “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

Desire is the wanting of a future good.

Desire is an irrational craving, and under it are ranged the following states: want, hatred, contentiousness, anger, love, wrath, resentment. Want, then, is a craving when it is baulked and, as it were, cut off from its object, but kept at full stretch and attracted towards it in vain. Hatred is a growing and lasting desire or craving that it should go ill with somebody.

Contentiousness is a craving or desire connected with partisanship; anger a craving or desire to punish one who is thought to have done you an undeserved injury. The passion of love is a craving from which good men are free; for it is an effort to win affection due to the visible presence of beauty. Wrath is anger which has long rankled and has become malicious, waiting for its opportunity. Resentment is anger in an early stage.
from “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

Pleasure is the feeling of a present good.

Pleasure is an irrational elation at the accruing of what seems to be choice-worthy; and under it are ranged ravishment, malevolent joy, delight, transport. Ravishment is pleasure which charms the ear. Malevolent joy is pleasure at another’s ills.
from “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

The different species into which they divide pleasure come under this description; so that malevolence is a pleasure in the misfortunes of another, without any advantage to yourself. Delight is pleasure that soothes the mind by sweet sounds, and by similar sensations through the organs of sight, touch, smell and taste. All feelings of this kind are a sort of melting pleasure that dissolves the mind. Boastfulness is a pleasure that consists in making an appearance, and setting off yourself with insolence.
from “The Tusculan Disputations” by Cicero

So according to the Stoics, these four basic types of emotions are behind the different aspects of human behavior. You can say that they are the building blocks of human nature. Emotions help humans to make choices, but sometimes they can give false impressions and push people to do the wrong thing.

The rational part of the mind, the charioteer is supposed to steer the horses, the emotions, in the right direction whenever they act up. 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. Emotions were developed to guide living beings in their actions, but a lot of times they can lead people astray.

Humans are fallible creatures, and one reason for this is the way you take in the world around you through your senses, which can sometimes be deceived. Humans have five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. You make sense of the world through the interaction of these senses with the outside environment. This is called perception.

For if these animals are going to survive, they must also perceive at a distance what to avoid and pursue. That is why the organs of hearing, sight and smell serve this purpose for them.
from “On Aristotle’s On the Soul” by Themistius

However, these senses are not always accurate. One example that is always given to illustrate this, is how your sense of sight can sometimes fall for optical illusions.

Sight, then, sometimes needs the confirmation afforded by other senses, for instance, when the object has been deliberately devised to deceive sight, as is the case with a picture. For the aim of painting is to deceive sight, it may be by reliefs and hollows that have no real existence, if the subject lends itself to perspective.

Therefore, to detect a planned illusion, there is need of touch, in the first place, and, in some cases, also of taste and smell, as in that of the wax apple. At other times sight, acting by itself, represents its objects clearly so long as they are not far distant, and then sees as round, if seen a long way off, what is actually a square tower. Sight errs again when we look through mist or smoke or things of that sort that obscure vision.

Looking through troubled water is similar. When one looks at an oar in the sea it appears broken. Similar things happen on looking through some transparent substance, as looking into mirrors, or glass, or anything else of that description, or at an object violently agitated. For swift motion throws vision out, so as to see as round, things that are not round, and as still, things that are rotating.

Vision is thrown out, also, when the mind is preoccupied, as when someone sets out to meet a friend, meets him, and walks right past him, because his thoughts are on other matters. But this is not really a failure of sight so much as of mind. For sight saw and gave notice, but mind would not attend to the notice given.
from “On Human Nature” by Nemesius

It is not just sight that can err, but the other senses as well.

Deception is imputed to the sight, because it asserts that oars, when immersed in the water, are inclined or bent, notwithstanding the certainty that they are straight; because, again, it is quite sure that that distant tower with its really quadrangular contour is round; because also it will discredit the fact of the truly parallel fabric of yonder porch or arcade, by supposing it to be narrower and narrower towards its end; and because it will join with the sea the sky which hangs at so great a height above it.

In the same way, our hearing is charged with fallacy: we think, for instance, that that is a noise in the sky which is nothing else than the rumbling of a carriage; or, if you prefer it the other way, when the thunder rolled at a distance, we were quite sure that it was a carriage which made the noise. Thus, too, are our faculties of smell and taste at fault, because the selfsame perfumes and wines lose their value after we have used them awhile.

On the same principle our touch is censured, when the identical pavement which seemed rough to the hands is felt by the feet to be smooth enough; and in the baths a stream of warm water is pronounced to be quite hot at first, and beautifully temperate afterwards. Thus, according to them, our senses deceive us, when all the while we are the cause of the discrepancies, by changing our opinions.

The Stoics are more moderate in their views; for they do not load with the obloquy of deception every one of the senses, and at all times. The Epicureans, again, show still greater consistency, in maintaining that all the senses are equally true in their testimony, and always so—only in a different way. It is not our organs of sensation that are at fault, but our opinion. The senses only experience sensation, they do not exercise opinion; it is the soul that opines. They separated opinion from the senses, and sensation from the soul. Well, but whence comes opinion, if not from the senses?
from “On the Soul” by Tertullian

The way your brain works is that the senses take in stimuli from the outside, which are then passed onto the brain, which then uses emotions in order to interpret what is happening and what it needs to do next. However, this process is not perfect. People often fall for cognitive biases, which can lead to a distortion of the perception of the world.

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 the most 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

Catullus, one of the most renowned poets of the late Republic, showed the effects of ego-based biases in many of his works. His observation was that humans tend to have a high opinion of themselves. In one of his poems, he makes fun of a mediocre poet who thinks he is world-class. However, that is not the main lesson of his piece. Catullus then turns the words around and shows that we all deceive ourselves in the same way that this poet does.

He rejoices about himself and admires himself so much. Evidently, we are all deceived the same way.
from “The Poems of Catullus” by Catullus

Perception can then sway social dynamics and interactions between different individuals. Some cognitive biases play an important role in determining how you view yourself and how you look at other people, which in turn can push you into forming certain opinions which often don’t conform to reality.

One type of cognitive bias is the fundamental attribution error, where people attribute their success to their own personality and willpower, while dismissing their failures as being due to factors outside their control. However, when it comes to other people, their attitudes change. They will attribute other people’s success as due to luck, and proceed onto generalizations. One of these is the tendency to regard the deeds done by another person in one particular moment as reflecting that other person’s overall, normal character.

To be sure, men have come to believe that it somehow is an attribute of human nature, however selfish that may seem, to resort to deeds of violence; for every one who excels in any respect thinks it right that he should have more than his inferior, and if he meets with any success, he ascribes his success to the force of his own intelligence, whereas if he fails, he lays the blame for his failure upon the influence of the divine will.

But, on the other hand, the man who, in following such a course, resorts to plotting and villainy, is, in the first place, held to be crafty and crooked, malicious, and depraved, — an opinion which I know you would not allow anyone to express or to entertain about you, even if you might rule the whole world by such practices; and, in the second place, if he succeeds, men think that the advantage he has gained is unjust, or if he fails, that his discomfiture is merited.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

Emotions often have a more powerful effect on your actions than logic. They work in different ways, sometimes promoting a person’s hubris, while at other times working against their ego. These emotions in themselves are not good or bad, but their effects usually depend on the context. The same type of emotion or tendency can be beneficial in one situation, but destructive in another one.

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 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.

Men feel the good less intensely than the bad.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

Losing something that is yours can be quite traumatic. 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 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. An actual or potential loss of status for a certain group can trigger a sense of worry, which can in turn lead to more powerful reactions and feelings of threat. This can further strengthen “us” versus “them” group identities, leading to more polarization, especially if the situation starts seeming as a zero-sum game, where a win for one group automatically equals a loss for the other.

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.

Shared danger is the strongest of bonds. It will keep men united in spite of mutual dislike and suspicion.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

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 an effective 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. The fact that the gods are portrayed as invisible and all-knowing also enforces conformance in a way, as they can see you even if you are alone. They can punish you if you do something against the religious rules, even if you are in private and no human is there to see you.

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.

For many of the ancient philosophers, the way states are organized was a reflection of human nature. Plato’s work “The Republic”, one of the most influential texts on political science in the ancient world, took this as the main assumption for its discussion: states grow out of human characters.

There are underlying aspects of human nature that mold 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.

This is when culture comes in to shape how people behave in a society. Different social norms and rules, especially ones concerning morality, then try to hem in human behavior into certain bounds.

Human morality gives us such stifling precepts, and makes indecent what Nature freely allows us!
from “Metamorphoses” by Ovid

Both nature and nurture have an effect on what humans do, however it is the underlying instincts and drives of human nature, hidden deep in the subconscious, more primitive parts of the brain, that often have a stronger pull on human actions. While they might be stifled underneath by society’s rules and norms, they are bursting to come out, just waiting for the right stimulus to awaken them.

This is of course not discounting the huge effect that culture plays on people’s behavior. The Roman traditions of glory-seeking and the view that individuals need to be engaged in the affairs of the state in prominent positions played a big role in shaping the acts of the politicians. It can be argued that the cultural norms of Roman society actually magnified some of the deeper facets of human nature in certain directions.

Cicero, in his speech defending the right of Roman citizenship for the poet Archias, outlined the core aspects of what it meant to be Roman. The quest for glory, praise and honor were at the basis of Roman culture. These were the personal values that were held dear by the prominent citizens of the city.

For if I had not persuaded myself from my youth upwards, both by the precepts of many masters and by much reading, that there is nothing in life greatly to be desired, except glory, praise and honor, and that while pursuing those things all tortures of the body, all dangers of death and banishment are to be considered but of small importance, I should never have exposed myself, in defense of your safety, to such numerous and arduous contests, and to these daily attacks of profligate men.
from “Speech for Aulus Licinius Archias the Poet” by Cicero

However, while culture (and nurture) are quite prominent in shaping how people behave, the deeper aspects of human nature, sometimes stemming from the primitive parts of a human being’s reptilian brain are still the main driver. Culture then affects which of the general traits of human nature rise to the top, in one direction or the other.

In fact, many modern scientists argue that culture is rooted in biology. The patterns of culture arose from the behaviors of our more primitive ancestors and their natures. 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

Reciprocity is one of the building blocks of morality, which itself is one of the pillars of a well-functioning human society. Studies have shown that primates have a sense of reciprocity, rewarding those that did them favors, and punishing or shunning those that they perceive as having done them wrong. Humans share this behavior and engage in reciprocity in their daily interactions with other humans.

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.

One basic human characteristic is the need for self-esteem. This is tied to status-seeking, and manifests itself in many different ways. Both internal and external factors have an impact on a person’s self-esteem, and many of the ancient philosophical schools tried to teach people how to focus on the internal factors, ones that you can actually influence. However, this is quite hard to do, and often, external factors play a much stronger role in determining a person’s sense of self-worth.

People have a desire to be valued, and this need for recognition is often a driving factor in how they behave and what they do. Some modern commentators have looked at Plato’s concept of “thumos”, one of the emotional parts of the mind, and came up with two new concepts in order to explain behavior: “isothymia” and “megalothymia”. Isothymia is about a person’s desire for equal respect, while megalothymia is when people go beyond that and desire to be esteemed above others. This esteem above others is one of the building blocks of ambition.

Most people just want respect, and are quite satisfied when they feel they have it. However, when individuals think that they are not respected, they might start feeling aggrieved, which can later turn to anger. Respect is also tied to the issue of fairness. A sense of fairness is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, and comes down from our primordial ancestors. The thing is that it drives actions which don’t always make sense from a logical point of view.

In experiments done with chimpanzees, the apes would throw temper tantrums when they felt that they weren’t getting a fair deal. Humans often go beyond that, and outright reject offers that would make sense from a utility maximalization standpoint. They will not take offers that they deem unfair, instead of pocketing the money. For reasons of pride, they will do things that are irrational from an economics perspective.

A perception of the lack of fairness is not the only mechanism that can trigger feelings of disrespect. Other types of slights can result in people feeling that they are not being respected. These perceptions are highly subjective and can differ not only from person to person, but also according to the situation. Illogical actions like hissy fits can result when you feel like you are not being respected. So if you wanted to know why some people vote for throwing themselves off the cliff, then here is your answer.

However, sometimes there is real mistreatment and legitimate reasons for this type of feeling. When someone really is keeping you down and laughing in your face about it, you can be moved to try to do something about it, for example rebel. This feeling of getting disrespected played a large role in many of the uprisings of the ancient, but also modern world.

Not only in political life should the powerful behave humanely towards those who are of humble condition, but also in private life the right-minded should not be too harsh on their slaves.

For as in states arrogant behavior leads to civil dissension amongst the citizens, so in each private home, such behavior provokes the slaves against their masters, and gives rise to terrible disorders in the cities. For when those in power act cruelly and wickedly, the character of their subjects is inflamed to reckless action.

Those whom fate has placed in a lowly position will gladly yield to their superiors in honor and glory, but if they are denied the kindness which they deserve, they revolt against the men who act like cruel despots.
from “Historical Library” by Diodorus Siculus

Self-esteem and the need for recognition are behind many of the behaviors like envy, enmity, or other insecurities. All people exhibit some of these things, but some fall for them worse than others. Especially in ancient Rome, the need for recognition was very important due to cultural factors, and when the leaders felt that they were disrespected or not recognized, they tended to try to rectify that. Many of the ancient politicians wanted to have a feeling not of just being equal to others, but above them.

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.

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

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 sliced bread and therefore can do everything better than others (who are in reality usually more competent than them). Many of them end up being the leaders in government or business.

For sometimes men without any ability to perceive what is needful, men who have never given heed to their own welfare in the past, incompetent to manage even a village as it should be managed, but recommended only by wealth or family, undertake the task of government; still others undertake that task in the belief that they are displaying diligence if they merely heap up phrases and string them together in any way at all with greater speed than most men can, although in all else they are in no way superior to anybody else.

And what is most serious is that these men, not for the sake of what is truly best and in the interest of their country itself, but for the sake of reputation and honors and the possession of greater power than their neighbors, in the pursuit of crowns and precedence and purple robes, fixing their gaze upon these things and staking all upon their attainment, do and say such things as will enhance their own reputations.

Consequently one may see in every city many who have been awarded crowns, who sacrifice in public, who come forth arrayed in purple; but a man of probity and wisdom, who is really devoted to his own country, and thinks and speaks the truth, whose influence with the city that follows his advice insures better management and the attainment of some blessing — such a man is hard to find.
from “Second Tarsic Discourse” by Dio Chrysostom

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 Pompey 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 Pompey 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 Pompey, while Pompey’s eminence was offensive to Caesar; Pompey 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

Actions bring reactions, and when someone has been wronged, they often plot their revenge. Personal conflicts can be just like wars, resulting in tit for tat waves of retributions.

Wars bring retribution as they swing back and forth.
from “Homeric Problems” by Heraclitus the Grammarian

Deception and betrayal also play a big part in human affairs. An individual often suffers the biggest injuries through the deliberate acts of people that they considered their friends and that they trusted. That’s why it is necessary to be on guard not just against your enemies, but your friends as well.

Toward all men, then, one should be equally on his guard, and not be one whit more trustful even if a person is held to be a friend or a close acquaintance or a blood-relative.
from “Discourse on Distrust” by Dio Chrysostom

During the times of the fall of the Roman Republic, many of the characters on the big stage met their downfall not through the actions of their enemies, but instead through the actions of former friends. Loyalty is not always adhered to when a supposed friend sees a bigger opportunity for their own selfish gain.

This is something that has been a problem from time immemorial, and even our primate cousins engage in this type of behavior. Caesar and Pompey, Marc Antony and Octavian, were all friends or at least fought on the same side at one point, but of course the most famous betrayal of trust is when Brutus led the gang of senators who assassinated Caesar, a man who considered him a close friend.

Well, then, let us consider the following question also. By whom have more persons been ruined — by those who are admittedly enemies, or, on the contrary, by those who profess to be friends? As for myself, I observe that of the cities which have been captured those which have been destroyed by traitors are more numerous than those which have been forcibly seized by the foe, and also that with human beings those who lodge complaints against their friends and close acquaintances are altogether more numerous than those who blame their enemies for their misfortunes.
from “Discourse on Distrust” by Dio Chrysostom

Accordingly those who wish to live at peace and with some degree of security must beware of fellowship with human beings, must recognize that the average man is by nature prone to let others have a share in any evil, and that, no matter if one claims a thousand times to be a friend, he is not to be trusted. For with human beings there is no constancy or truthfulness at all; on the contrary, any man whom at the moment they prize above everything, even, it may be, above life itself, after a brief interval they deem their bitterest foe, and often they cannot refrain even from attacking his body.
from “Discourse on Distrust” by Dio Chrysostom

Another thing is that often people pretend to be your friend or like you in order to get something from you, to con you. This especially happens to people in power.

For there are thousands who willingly, yes, very eagerly, cultivate the rich and influential, and all the world is full of flatterers, who ply that calling with both experience and skill.
from “Discourse on Envy” by Dio Chrysostom

Sometimes people do bad things without being conscious of it, but often they do them knowingly.

There is sufficient evidence that some of those who act wrongly do not act wrongly either under compulsion or through ignorance of what is better, in the fact that they are neither distressed at their wrong actions nor regret them. For things that are done involuntarily cause distress and are objects of regret.
from “Ethical Problems” by Alexander of Aphrodisias

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 Marc Antony” by Plutarch

However, often there doesn’t need to be some sort of a personal disaster in order for you to get pulled in the wrong direction. The simple power of emotions usually suffices. Just look at smokers. In their minds, they know that smoking is bad for them, however they still light one up, because desire is stronger and their willpower is weaker. Ovid captured this effect perfectly in his work “Metamorphoses”, where he has Medea, a female character from Greek mythology, say these words:

I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.
from “Metamorphoses” by Ovid

Sometimes reason never even enters the equation, and impulses take over straight away. One problem is that many people are often prone to anger, to let emotions overtake them, and act before they think. They punch someone, shout out an insult, or send out a tweet. This was one of the problems of Julius Caesar, who would sometimes do rash things at the spur of the moment. Seneca mentions one episode, when he became so overcome with rage over a slight mishap, that he even challenged Jupiter, the supreme god himself, to a fight.

Gaius Caesar, who when angry with heaven because it interfered with his ballet-dancers, whom he imitated more carefully than he attended to them when they acted, and because it frightened his revels by its thunders, surely ill-directed, challenged Jove to fight, and that to the death, shouting the Homeric verse:— “Carry me off, or I will carry thee!”

How great was his madness! He must have believed either that he could not be hurt even by Jupiter himself, or that he could hurt even Jupiter itself. I imagine that this saying of his had no small weight in nerving the minds of the conspirators for their task: for it seemed to be the height of endurance to bear one who could not bear Jupiter.
from “On Anger” by Seneca

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.

Fear makes men believe the worst.
from “Histories of Alexander the Great” by Quintus Curtius Rufus

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.
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

Lucretius in his epic poem “On the Nature of Things” went even further and saw fear, more particularly the fear of death as the primary driver of human action. The inevitability of death is the stark reminder that you lack complete control over your life. Often, you try to do everything in your power to postpone death as far as possible.

Wherefore it is more fitting to watch a man in doubt and danger, and to learn of what manner he is in adversity; for then at last a real cry is wrung from the bottom of his heart: the mask is torn off, and the truth remains behind.

Moreover, avarice and the blind craving for honors, which constrain wretched men to overleap the boundaries of right, and sometimes as comrades or accomplices in crime to struggle night and day with surpassing toil to rise up to the height of power—these sores in life are fostered in no small degree by the fear of death.
from “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius

Some of them come to ruin to win statues and a name; and often through fear of death so deeply does the hatred of life and the sight of the light possess men, that with sorrowing heart they compass their own death, forgetting that it is this fear which is the source of their woes, which assails their honor, which bursts the bonds of friendship, and overturns affection from its lofty throne.
from “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius

Control and status go hand in hand in the minds of men. If you are poor, then you have less control over your life, and hence are more likely to die. That is why status-seeking is such a dominant factor in driving human affairs.

For most often scorned disgrace and biting poverty are seen to be far removed from pleasant settled life, and are, as it were, a present dallying before the gates of death; and while men, spurred by a false fear, desire to flee far from them, and to drive them far away, they amass substance by civil bloodshed and greedily multiply their riches, heaping slaughter on slaughter.
from “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius

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.

Lust of absolute power is more burning than all the passions.
from “The Annals” by Tacitus

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

When this power-hungry individual reaches positions of absolute power, they might start behaving even worse, as it becomes harder to control their desires and impulses.

When a man holds absolute power, it is difficult for him to control his desires.
from “History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus” by Herodian of Antioch

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

The reason why power corrupts can be illustrated by a tale of the Ring of Gyges, which Plato used in his work “The Republic”. In it, he has Glaucon use the tale to back up his assertion that people are corruptible creatures and if there is no threat of punishment hanging over them, they will do despicable things.

Gyges has the power of invisibility and thereby he can do whatever he wants with no consequences. He uses it to do bad things. This is the same thing that happens to those in power. Their grip on power gives them a sense of impunity and thereby they get corrupted.

Once upon a time the earth opened in consequence of heavy rains; Gyges went down into the chasm and saw, so the story goes, a horse of bronze; in its side was a door. On opening this door he saw the body of a dead man of enormous size with a gold ring upon his finger.

He removed this and put it on his own hand and then repaired to an assembly of the shepherds, for he was a shepherd of the king. As often as he turned the bezel of the ring inwards toward the palm of his hand, he became invisible to everyone, while he himself saw everything; but as often as he turned it back to its proper position, he became visible again.

And so, with the advantage which the ring gave him, he debauched the queen, and with her assistance he murdered his royal master and removed all those who he thought stood in his way, without anyone’s being able to detect him in his crimes. Thus, by virtue of the ring, he shortly rose to be king of Lydia.

Now, suppose a wise man had just such a ring, he would not imagine that he was free to do wrongly any more than if he did not have it; for good men aim to secure not secrecy but the right.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

Cicero noted that not everyone succumbs to these temptations and abuse their power. The wise man still follows the path of virtue, no matter what. The defining moment of a person’s character is what they will do when no one is looking. Can the strength of character withstand the circumstances? Yes it can, but it requires a very wise person that is in control of himself, for it is very easy to stray from this road, if the right circumstances present themselves.

Is it nature or nurture that has the greater effect on a person becoming corrupted by power? Unfortunately Plutarch did not answer this question, but debate throughout the ages has weighted in on both sides of the issue. However, modern research has revealed, that both things can be correct. While previously genes were thought as hard-wired, recent discoveries point to the fact that the outside environment can awaken them or keep them dormant. In the future, the new field of epigenetics will probably shine even more light on this topic.

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.

“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

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

Often, the appetite for money grows the more money you have. When greed overtakes the individual, no amount of money is enough.

Though the covetous men gain riches in number as the grains of sand by these sea-cliffs, or as the stars that shine of dark nights, he never ceases to bewail his poverty; and though the desire of the wealthy man is glutted with gold and silver and all manner of precious things, yet is the thirst of their greed never quenched, for its bottomless abyss has many empty chambers yet to fill. Who can ever give enough to the frenzy of the covetous? The more that is given him the greater his desire.
from “The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius

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

The Jugurthine War took place between 112 and 106 BC, and fully exposed the moral stink that was setting into Rome. Jugurtha, the principal actor in this series of events, instigated a coup against his rivals and took over the entire kingdom of Numidia. He managed to stay in power for so long, because of his widespread use of bribes to different Roman officials. This period was also instrumental in the rise of Marius and Sulla, who became the two main catalysts of the civil wars that would grip Rome at a later time.

Several decades later after the Jugurthine War, 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

Many of the people who joined in the plot of Catiline, did it not just to get power, but also to get out of debt. There are often certain individuals who live above their means, suffer frequently from bankruptcies, but always try to get greater power for themselves. This is a phenomenon not restricted to ancient times, but several examples come to mind from recent events as well.

There is one class of them, who, with enormous debts, have still greater possessions, and who can by no means be detached from their affection to them. Of these men the appearance is most respectable, for they are wealthy, but their intention and their cause are most shameless.
from “Catiline Orations” by Cicero

There is another class of them, who, although they are harassed by debt, yet are expecting supreme power; they wish to become masters. They think that when the republic is in confusion they may gain those honours which they despair of when it is in tranquillity.
from “Catiline Orations” by Cicero

Crime in those times ran rampant in Rome. Walking around the city, especially at night, could get you robbed and even killed. However, this petty robbery at the bottom was accompanied by white-collar crime at the top.

As the ancient Greek Cynic Diogenes of Sinope remarked when he saw high-ranking temple officials take away a petty thief who stole a bowl: the great thieves are leading away the little thief. In the latter days of the Republic, many of the high-ranking magistrates and politicians engaged in many illegal and immoral activities.

Once he saw the officials of a temple leading away some one who had stolen a bowl belonging to the treasurers, and said, “The great thieves are leading away the little thief.”
from “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

Often, these high-ranking people operated with impunity. It is usually true that the richer, more connected individuals, the ones who know how the system really works and who are not shy of abusing it, get acquitted, while the poorer ones end up rotting in jail for lesser crimes.

Unprincipled men inflict injuries because the laws are not valid against all classes. A transgressor who belongs to the wealthy class is not punished for his injustice, while a poor man, who doesn’t understand business, pays the legal penalty.
from “Roman Antiquities” by Ammianus Marcellinus

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 not 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 was very convenient 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. You can see quite well how things worked back in that time, which is in many ways similar to modern times. Today, we would call the way that financial consortia pulled the strings on legislation with a telling term: special interests.

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 Pompey 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 Pompey 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

An insightful passage preserved by the the early Eastern Roman anthologist, Stobaeus, in his great opus the “Anthology” illuminates the processes going on deep down in a person’s mind. This snippet is influenced by an esoteric philosophical tradition called Hermetism (which mixed ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek mythologies and philosophies with esoteric traditions), one of the mystical schools that arose in the chaotic world of Late Antiquity.

The Hermetics had a very cryptic way of interpreting reality, however their teachings were grounded in deep observations of how humans act. They used this to try to connect to higher levels of meaning and that way reach personal transformation and self-actualization.

In the passage, Hermes Trismegistus, the mythological founder of this esoteric school is engaged in a discussion with the gods in order to find out about how humans came to be, what makes them tick, and how these basic drives give rise to numerous faults of human behavior.

Teach them, then, to have a passion for their projects so that they fear the bleakness of failure, so that they are tamed by biting grief when they fail to obtain their hopes. Let the niggling curiosity of their souls be cut down by lusts, fears, waves of grief, and deceitful hopes. Let continual love affairs take vengeance upon their souls, along with varied hopes, and desires sometimes fulfilled, sometimes shattered so that the sweet bait of success becomes a striving for more perfect evils.
from “Anthology” by Stobaeus

This imaginary discussion between Hermes and the gods, demonstrates the drives that form the basis of human nature, and the fact that they can take a person down a good path, but also a bad one. All humans have a will for success, which can sometimes warp their behaviors and turn them to evil, whether consciously or subconsciously.

The way a person behaves is dependent on a number of factors. Some have to due with the environment around them, but we cannot forget the role of human agency, an individual’s choice. Even in a bad environment, a person can use their willpower to try to act in a correct way. There is always a war going on inside the brain, one pulling the person one way and then the other. You have to be careful not to fall astray, since succumbing to one vice can make it much easier to succumb to other vices.

Consider, now, whether the corruption of genius is to be attributed, not to a world-wide tyranny, but rather to the war within us which knows no limit, which engages all our desires, yes, and still further to the bad passions which lay siege to us to-day, and make utter havoc and spoil of our lives.

Are we not enslaved, nay, are not our careers completely shipwrecked, by love of gain, that fever which rages unappeased in us all, and love of pleasure?—one the most debasing, the other the most ignoble of the mind’s diseases. When I consider it I can find no means by which we, who hold in such high honor, or, to speak more correctly, who idolize boundless riches, can close the door of our souls against those evil spirits which grow up with them.

For Wealth unmeasured and unbridled is dogged by Extravagance: she sticks close to him, and treads in his footsteps: and as soon as he opens the gates of cities or of houses she enters with him and makes her abode with him. And after a time they build their nests (to use a wise man’s words) in that corner of life, and speedily set about breeding, and beget Boastfulness, and Vanity, and Wantonness, no base-born children, but their very own.

And if these also, the offspring of Wealth, be allowed to come to their prime, quickly they engender in the soul those pitiless tyrants, Violence, and Lawlessness, and Shamelessness. Whenever a man takes to worshipping what is mortal and irrational in him, and neglects to cherish what is immortal, these are the inevitable results. He never looks up again; he has lost all care for good report; by slow degrees the ruin of his life goes on, until it is consummated all round; all that is great in his soul fades, withers away, and is despised.
from “On the Sublime” by Longinus

What pushes an individual to personal disaster is when they have the wrong priorities, and are ruled by passions and emotions. Many times they go for things which are vain or out of their power to reach and base their happiness on this. This is the mental state that most people in society have on a day to day basis. When people with these states of mind interact with each other, clashes are inevitable.

They, that place their desires and their aversions upon such things as are out of a man’s power, must needs fail of prudence and moderation, and cannot have inclinations and aversions grounded upon, and governed by, right reason, which are the only things that make men free, and easy, and happy. For they must of necessity live in subjection to their wild and brutish passions, which lord it over them, like so many cruel master, or enraged tyrants.

They must also live perpetually in a slavish fear of all those men, in whose power it is, either to gratify their hopes, or to obstruct and defeat them; who can intercept the good they wish, or inflict the ills they fear; lest they should exert this power to their prejudice.
from “Commentary on the Handbook of Epictetus” by Simplicius

Many people are of frivolous nature and read gravity into things that are in fact frivolous.

Those incapable of thinking gravely read gravity into frivolities which correspond to their own frivolous nature.
from “The Enneads” by Plotinus

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

Even in ancient times there was discussion on whether people are naturally good or naturally evil, and what place nature or nurture has in shaping their behavior. The answer is that both nature and nurture shape behavior. Circumstances play a big part in how you act and whether you do evil deeds, however the biggest part of a person’s actions is due to themselves. Their inner wiring makes them act in certain ways, and it is up to the individual to be conscious of their tendencies and rise above them.

It does not seem to Posidonius that evil comes to man from the outside, and that it is not rooted in the soul from which we see it sprout and grow. He believes the opposite, because for him the seed of evil is in ourselves.

Therefore, should we not flee the wicked as much as we should seek men who can make us virtuous and stop the development of evil in us, because all the evil does not come from outside the soul, as the Stoics claim, but the perverse men are responsible themselves for most of the vices that they commit; it’s the smallest part that comes from outside.

It is in this way that bad habits are born in the unreasonable part of the soul, and false opinions in the reasonable part; so when we are brought up by good and honest men, our opinions are true and our habits good. But in the logical part of the soul, the more or less pronounced degree of wisdom or foolishness depends on the temperament, which in turn depends on the basic principles of nature and on habits, these two circumstances helping each other.

A hot temper makes you easy to anger; on the other hand, by this, the innate heat is ignited. To those who have a moderate temperament, and consequently moderate movements of the soul, the equality of character is made easy.
from “That the Qualities of the Mind Depend on the Temperament of the Body” by Galen

People have different characters and personalities (or temperaments in the classification of Galen), which make them act in certain ways. Some people are naturally shy, while others extroverted, some people are naturally explosive, while others reserved. All these things have an effect on a person’s behavior and give them certain tendencies to do certain things in specific instances. Most people succumb to these internal drives without reflecting. However, there are a few people who don’t, the ones who put virtue and reason (including meta-cognition, and being aware of how you think and why) in the driving seat.

How is it, then, that certain vices and virtues come naturally to men? It is true that it proceeds from their bodily temperament. For just as men are naturally healthy or sickly by temperament, so some are naturally choleric, some proud, some craven, some lecherous. Nevertheless, some such persons master these tendencies, and prevail.
from “On Human Nature” by Nemesius

It might be easier for some people to do one thing or the other, or to stay away from doing bad things. There are people who have naturally been endowed with more willpower than others. However this should be no excuse. Just like the 10 thousand hour rule says, practice makes perfect. The man who practices can become better than the talented man who wastes his talents.

In the case of the skills, one man is better endowed by nature than another for acquiring the disposition for the skill in question, but none of those who are in a natural condition has been disabled with regard to the obtaining and acquisition of it. This is much more so in the case of the virtues, inasmuch as the acquisition of virtues is more natural for man than that of skills.

But if this is true of the acquisition of virtues, it is clear that it also applies to that of vices, if it is through opposed habits to those through which virtues are established that vices are established, and that those who have it in their power to do the one, also have it in their power to do the opposites of these.
from “Ethical Problems” by Alexander of Aphrodisias

Unfortunately, most people do not heed this wisdom. It is much easier to succumb to passions and negative emotions and live a life of vice than it is to do the right thing. For doing the right thing requires much more effort than just going where your emotions take you.

Using reason, and living a life of virtue are tied together. Virtuous behavior was the cornerstone of character for the ancients. It took hard work and effort to have a good character and live a life of virtue, and people like Cicero and Marcus Aurelius struggled all their lives to achieve this ideal, sometimes succeeding, but often failing. Character is a creature of habit, for it is doing things regularly and repeatedly that define who you are.

Character, has its name from habit, for those characteristics of which we have the beginnings and seeds from nature, attain perfection by habit and right upbringing, and therefore the study of character is a study of habit and concerns only the animals, and above all man.
from “Epitome of Didymus” by Arius Didymus

The reality is that most people don’t really strive to live a life of virtue, a life driven by reason. Instead, they are usually overpowered by their emotions. This short-termed thinking driven by passions and looking for instant gratification, often leads to problems. The habits that most people have are frequently negative.

The first step towards living a life guided by reason is to start applying the ancient maxim of knowing yourself. This means having a meta-view of how humans tend to think and behave in general, but also of your own particular circumstances, character, and thought patterns. Most people are not aware of their behaviors, especially their negative traits. As Apuleius said, insanity can no more be sensible of its existence, than blindness can see itself.

But he who knows what insanity is, is sane; whereas insanity can no more be sensible of its own existence, than blindness can see itself.
from “The Apology” by Apuleius

There is no easy fix for this. You cannot legislate your way out of the problems of society. While temporarily one remedy might halt the problems, people will always find a way to go around even the best of laws. This would often happen during the times of the Roman Republic. A law would be passed in order to curb the excesses of the time, but after a period, people would start going around that law. People always find ways to get around regulation.

But when this laudable practice was spoilt by excessive partisanship the House had recourse to the silence of the ballot-box in order to cure the evil, and for a time it did act as a remedy, owing to the novelty of the sudden change. But I am afraid that as time goes on abuses will arise even out of this remedy, for there is a danger that the ballot may be invaded by shameless partiality.
from “Epistles” by Pliny the Younger

As the ancients noted, nothing is lasting when reason does not rule. When passions take over, then things tend to degenerate.

Nothing can be lasting when reason does not rule.
from “Histories of Alexander the Great” by Quintus Curtius Rufus

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. The perception of corruption in the US among the populace has been steadily rising over the last decade.

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

The actions and reactions of the populace can be stirred in two different ways: either through certain external factors and events helping to push the people towards certain ideas and heightening their feelings, or nefarious actors manipulating the passions of different groups in specific directions, ones that are beneficial to their own personal cause. Often, these two ways go hand in hand, and magnify the effect.

Human nature 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

These politicians were able to capture the crowds. Mobs are not led by reason, but instead by appeal to its base instincts.

Few men are controlled by reason, and few are pleased by a right purpose. The mob, rather, is led to what was plainly invented for oblivion of its cares. For it supposes that whatever serves its pleasure must also be linked to the happiness of the age.
from “Various Epistles” by Cassiodorus

The key to winning an election is by promising everything, knowing that you don’t actually have to keep your promises. Big promises, and short, but empty slogans work.

So true it is that men are more taken by look and words than by actual services.
from “On Running for the Consulship” by Quintus Tullius Cicero

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 Plautus, 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

This happens because the mind has a propensity to prefer to bypass logic, and instead rely on magical thinking. All laws of causality get broken, rational thought flies out the window, and delusions take over. Irrational beliefs can take hold of even the smartest individuals, which can be shown by the prevalence of superstition among most people.

Speaking frankly, superstition, which is widespread among the nations, has taken advantage of human weakness to cast its spell over the mind of almost every man.
from “On Divination” by Cicero

A person’s mind is usually full of all kinds of twisted opinions, which have no basis in reality.

Man’s nature is a bearer of all sorts of twisted opinions whenever it does not correctly follow common conceptions.
from “Commentary on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras” by Hierocles of Alexandria

Many people like to follow their favorite ideology or leader to the letter, and without thinking about things in a wider context. They prefer to stubbornly defend their pre-conceived notions, instead of keeping an open mind.

Having heard the matter mentioned once, they have surrendered themselves to the guidance of some one individual. But, I know not how it is, most people prefer being in error, and defending with the utmost pugnacity that opinion which they have taken a fancy to, instead of inquiring with an open mind and without any stubbornness about that which is said.
from “Academic Skepticism” by Cicero

In one of his works, Plato uses the story of a prisoner stuck in a cave as an analogy for how people think in the real world. The prisoner is chained to a wall and cannot turn his head. His entire reality is a bunch of shadows projected on the walls in front of him. He thinks that the shadows are real, but in fact they are just projections of things in the real world.

Proclus, a Neo-Platonist philosopher, living in the last dying decades of Antiquity, summarized the divisions in Plato’s analogy in this way:

He compares the elements inside the cave to objects of opinion, while those on the outside are compared to knowable objects.
from “Commentary on Plato’s Republic” by Proclus

If the prisoner manages to escape from his chains and ventures outside of the cave, he would at first be blinded by the light. However, in time he would learn to see things for what they really are.

The problem is that for most people this would be too disturbing and many would rather return to their cave. Many would prefer to see the shadows all their life than face the way things really are. Even, if the person does accept the truth and decides to go back to the cave to tell the other people stuck inside, he would get nowhere. In fact, some would even decide to kill him.

The prisoners chained in the cave are an analogy for normal people in the real world. An average person only sees the shadows on the wall and thinks that what he sees is real. People prefer to live inside their own bubbles, oblivious to the reality outside. They readily gulp up the things that others serve them, instead of thinking for themselves and trying to find out how things really work.

Some hold for certain facts the most precarious hearsays, others turn facts into falsehood.
from “The Annals” by Tacitus

Very few people actually take the time to think about their beliefs, to examine what they believe and why. As historian Tacitus noted, very few people bother to distinguish between right and wrong, and what is sound from what is hurtful.

For it is but few who have the foresight to distinguish right from wrong or what is sound from what is hurtful.
from “The Annals” by Tacitus

Popular opinion can be quite fickle, often changing according to the moods of the crowds, and usually it is not able to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t.

What is called popular opinion should be regarded as no better than a shadow, seeing that sometimes the popular view makes much of small matters and little of great ones, and often concerning the same matters it is at one time greater and at another time smaller.
from “Discourse on Popular Opinion” by Dio Chrysostom

Most people are not moved by issues that impact the entire society, but are far away. Instead they care first and foremost about their own problems and the things that have an effect on them right here, right now. The fact that the rainforest is burning on the other side of the world is not as important, as the fact that the closing of the factory in your town might make you jobless.

We feel public misfortunes just so far as they affect our private circumstances, and nothing of this nature appeals more directly to us than the loss of money.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

In hard times, the most base traits of humans often shine through, jealousy and ill-will towards others take over the thinking patterns of many people.

The majority of the people are devoted only to their own interests and hate all their neighbors, regarding the others’ successes as their own losses and the others’ misfortunes as their own gains.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

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.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

The anxieties that people have can often be exploited in order to build up fear. Anxiety can lead to fear, which can then be used to stoke up anger. This fear does not always have to be based on a real threat, but often an imaginary threat can also serve to create fear.

People often suffer more in their imagination than in reality, magnifying the problems to proportions much larger than they really are.

There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

Fear as an emotion can serve not only to unite people against an external enemy, but it can also be used to divide people against each other, creating internal enemies and enhancing the “us” versus “them” dynamics in society. The mind can create an enemy out of the “other” very easily.

The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

Falsehoods spread easily when fear is involved.

What is false is increased through fear.
from “Histories of Alexander the Great” by Quintus Curtius Rufus

Conspiracy theories and rumors are often used to stoke up the sense of threat. Many people give assent to these theories and rumors without thinking critically about them.

For it is more often the case that we are troubled by our apprehensions, and that we are mocked by that mocker, rumor, which is wont to settle wars, but much more often settles individuals. We agree too quickly with what people say.

We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumor.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

With fake news, lies becomes the truth, and the actual truth gets lost in the tussle.

Both truth was masked by lies and sometimes false passed for true.
from “Roman Antiquities” by Ammianus Marcellinus

Virgil in his “Aeneid”, a long epic poem that tells the story of Aeneas, the mythical ancestor of the Romans, recounts the allegory of the goddess Fama, who stands for rumor. He describes her as spreading fast, and gaining strength and dominion the more she spreads. This is a metaphor for how a rumor spreads, and can tell us a lot about the power of fake news. While in ancient times, rumor spread fast, in modern times the advent of social media has made this dynamic even faster and more powerful.

Rumor! What evil can surpass her speed?
In movement she grows mighty, and achieves
strength and dominion as she swifter flies.
Small first, because afraid, she soon exalts
her stature skyward, stalking through the lands
and mantling in the clouds her baleful brow.

from “Aeneid” by Virgil

Virgil goes on to describe the goddess of rumor as having a huge number of tongues, lips, and ears, spreading her lies throughout. This picture of rumor by the ancient author shows a terrible creature that can infect people’s ears. This is not far from the way modern researchers have started to model the spread of fake news. They use the analogy of a virus spreading, and just like people are susceptible to be infected by viruses, they can be infected by fake news too.

An equal number of vociferous tongues,
foul, whispering lips, and ears, that catch at all.
At night she spreads midway ‘twixt earth and heaven
her pinions in the darkness, hissing loud,
nor e’er to happy slumber gives her eyes:
but with the morn she takes her watchful throne
high on the housetops or on lofty towers,
to terrify the nations. She can cling
to vile invention and malignant wrong,
or mingle with her word some tidings true.
She now with changeful story filled men’s ears,
exultant, whether false or true she sung.

from “Aeneid” by Virgil

The monster with multiple tongues and ears that creates conspiracy theories and rumors has the powerful effect of spreading false information far and wide, and it can do it fast. These fake messages can often heighten tensions and promote fear.

Fear can be manipulated quite easily for nefarious purposes. 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.

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

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. When an individual becomes part of a crowd, this can lead to a process of de-individualization, where the anonymity leads to disinhibition. Violence can ensue.

In the twilight years of the Roman Republic, many leaders resorted to violent mobs to get their ways. Their speeches stirred their passions, resulting in rampage. Modern psychologists and sociologists who have studied crowds compared their behavior to that of infections. There are three processes at play here that can carry away a mob to act unchained: anonymity, contagion, suggestibility. Being in a crowd provides anonymity, which can cause unrestrainedness, allowing people to act otherwise than they normally would.

Contagion spreads behavior from one part of the crowd to the rest of it, and finally suggestibility allows influential individuals to sway the movements of the group. Sometimes the mobs 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 able to argue about things from both sides of the issue.

Sometimes being persuasive is just a matter of framing. Just like Plato observed in his dialogue “Theaetetus”, the number 6 appears bigger when you compare it with the number 4, but smaller if you compare it with 12. So if you have 6 dice, then you have more dice than 4, but less than 12.

The thing is that you still have the same amount of dice in both cases, but just framing it in two different ways, you get a different perception of that number. After all, the glass can be both half-full and half-empty. Politicians can frame the same issue in different ways, and thereby get different reactions from the crowd. The framing effect is often used as a powerful tool of deception.

Framing was just one of the tools that the politicians had in their tool-belt. Many of them had also served as lawyers, prosecutors, or advocates for the defense, and in that way honed their skills of persuasion. Many of these tools involved techniques that played with the emotions of the audience.

Quintilian, Roman rhetorician of the early Imperial period, wrote a manual meant to teach these skills, basing himself on materials from the Republic period. In it he outlined many different techniques, with the most efficient being ones that appeal to emotions. The people who knew these things either through natural talent or through training had the ability to play with words and in that way evoke the reactions they desired in their audiences.

We endeavor to magnify the wrongs by saying that other far lesser ills are intolerable; e.g. “If you had merely struck him, your conduct would have been indefensible. But you did more, you wounded him.” However I will deal with this subject more fully when I come to speak of amplification.

Meanwhile I will content myself with the observation that the aim of appeals to the emotion is not merely to shew the bitter and grievous nature of ills that actually are so, but also at once make ills which are usually regarded as tolerable seem unendurable, as for instance when we represent insulting words as inflicting more grievous injury than an actual blow or represent disgrace as being worse than death.

For the force of eloquence is such that it not merely compels the judge to the conclusion toward which the nature of the facts leads him, but awakens emotions which either do not naturally arise from the case or are stronger than the case would suggest. This is known as “deinosis”, that is to say, language giving additional force to things unjust, cruel or hateful, an accomplishment in which Demosthenes created immense and special effect.
from “Institutes of Oratory” by Quintilian

Going through these manuals on rhetoric, produced by Quintilian, Cicero, or countless others, gives you a good idea of what types of tricks some of these people vying for office had up their sleeve. Making things up was permitted, if it allowed the speaker to get their point across better.

We will make things apparent if they are like the truth, and it is even permitted to invent falsely whatever usually happens.
from “Institutes of Oratory” by Quintilian

Even Cicero and Atticus, who were relatively moral and honest, had a shaky relationship to the truth when it came to words. In one of Cicero’s dialogues, he depicts himself debating with Atticus on how to portray historical events. They both wrote about the death of Corolianus, an ancient Roman general from early times, who was banished from the city and then led foreign armies.

However, they both painted a totally different picture of what happened. Cicero mentions this, but Atticus waves him away by stating that it is the prerogative of the rhetorician to embellish things a little bit. Never have the facts get in the way of a good story!

“For though you, my Atticus, have represented the exit of Coriolanus in a different manner, you must give me leave to dispatch him in the way I have mentioned.”

“You may use your pleasure,” replied Atticus with a smile: “for it is the privilege of rhetoricians to exceed the truth of history, that they may have an opportunity of embellishing the fate of their heroes: and accordingly, Cleitarchus and Stratocles have entertained us with the same pretty fiction about the death of Themistocles, which you have invented for Coriolanus.

Thucydides, indeed, who was himself an Athenian of the highest rank and merit, and lived nearly at the same time, has only informed us that he died, and was privately buried in Attica, adding, that it was suspected by some that he had poisoned himself. But these ingenious writers have assured us, that, having slain a bull at the altar, he caught the blood in a large bowl, and, drinking it off, fell suddenly dead upon the ground.

For this kind of death had a tragic air, and might be described with all the pomp of rhetoric; whereas the ordinary way of dying afforded no opportunity for ornament. As it will, therefore, suit your purpose, that Coriolanus should resemble Themistocles in every thing, I give you leave to introduce the fatal bowl; and you may still farther heighten the catastrophe by a solemn sacrifice, that Coriolanus may appear in all respects to have been a second Themistocles.”
from “Brutus” by Cicero

If a guy like Cicero was not above playing with words and inventing stories in order to get his point across, now imagine how more unscrupulous politicians behaved. 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.

One very telling analogy that demonstrates how this works, and why the power of the passions is stronger than logic, is from Plato’s dialogue “Gorgias”. There, he has Socrates, the wise old man who tries to persuade using logic, discuss the issue with Callicles, an advocate of political realism. Callicles is of the view that the institutions of the state and the laws were established by men, who were looking out for their own interests, and not necessarily any higher morality. Socrates shows him that you can never sway a person using logical arguments, when irrational passions are stirring inside them.

For this, he uses an allegory of the Doctor and the Pastry Chef. In the closing phases of the dialogue, Callicles tells Socrates that he would never be able to persuade the crowd of his innocence using his logical methods, even if he were indeed innocent. This would be especially grave, if he were standing against someone who was apt at stirring up emotions in his arguments. Socrates agrees with him, and says that he would be judged as if he were a doctor that were accused in front of a jury of children by a pastry chef.

In this analogy, Plato pitted two types of politicians: the doctor, an honest politician who was trying to use logic and knowledge, and a pastry chef, a politicians who would promise sweet, but unhealthy solutions, enticing the passions.

So if a doctor and a cook had to compete among children: “So”, he says, “if we muster an audience of unintelligent people, and judge a doctor and a cook before them, the doctor will be ostracized by the children-for children even shudder at the doctor as he often prescribes a fast too-but the cook will be loved as one who aims at their pleasure.”
from “Commentary on Plato’s Gorgias” by Olympiodorus

In the real world, it is usually the pastry chef type of politician that wins out over the doctor type of politician. For the pastry chef serves up delicious illusions, ones which smell good, but at the end will not only make you fat, but destroy your health. On the other hand, the doctor is never popular. While he might be the rational one who serves up the healthy choices, people don’t want to listen to him, because what he proposes is usually painful.

This allegory is a powerful illustration of what happens in the political arena. The pastry chef politicians, the demagogues, use arguments which bypass logic, but play deep down to the irrational soul of the listeners. Their method involves many cheap tricks and falsehoods.

Propaganda and fake news were a big part of the political process in ancient Rome. In fact, when reading the ancient sources, we can never be sure whether what is written actually happened or is fake news. Octavian was a master at spreading fake news, and this skill was instrumental in him damaging the reputation of Marc Antony.

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 favorite 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.

Cato the Elder, once compared the Roman people to sheep. He said that when they are alone, they do whatever they want. However when in a group, instead of thinking for themselves, they follow the leader. Often these leaders are people that in a normal situation, you would never want advising you.

Being once desirous to dissuade the common people of Rome from their unseasonable and impetuous clamor for largesses and distributions of corn, he began thus to harangue them: “It is a difficult task, O citizens, to make speeches to the belly, which has no ears.”

Reproving, also, their sumptuous habits, he said it was hard to preserve a city where a fish sold for more than an ox. He had a saying, also, that the Roman people were like sheep; for they, when single, do not obey, but when altogether in a flock, they follow their leaders:

“So you,” said he, “when you have got together in a body, let yourselves be guided by those whom singly you would never think of being advised by.
from “The Life of Cato the Elder” by Plutarch

The people are especially prone to falling for new self-professed saviors on the block, always hoping that this is finally the one, only to be deceived yet again.

For the masses are more ready to accept the beginner because they are so palled and surfeited with those to whom they are accustomed, just as spectators at a show are glad to accept a new performer.
from “Precepts of Statecraft” by Plutarch

The rabble-rousing politicians know how to tap into the anger that many people feel about real or imagined indignation. They use this agitated state of the people and channel it in certain directions, riling the populace up, and then making it pliable to do their bidding.

Sometimes, the masses can start worshiping individual leaders, feeling that they can do no wrong. They fuse their identity with the leader and the group. This is what happened with Julius Caesar, who was even acclaimed as divine!

See how they are rushing to meet Caesar, and parading their loyalty to him! Why, the country towns are offering him prayers as though he were a god, and not sham ones, as those offered on behalf of the other when he was ill.
from “Letters to Atticus” by Cicero

Instead of a eulogy the consul Marc Antony caused a herald to recite the decree of the Senate in which it had voted Caesar all divine and human honors at once, and likewise the oath with which they had all pledged themselves to watch over his personal safety.
from “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius

When this type of fusion (either to a person or a group) happens, then the issues become secondary, and the people follow the leader blindly, even if he flip flops on the issue. Studies have shown that people who strongly identify themselves with a particular political group or leader, will like a policy when told that their group or leader supports it, and dislike the same policy when told that their group or leader doesn’t support it.

You are continually stirred up by your demagogues and roused to fury.
from “Roman Antiquities” by Dionysius of Halicarnassus

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 conditions in countries degenerate when the people fall for false prophets. In the words of Antisthenes, an ancient Athenian Cynic philosopher, as quoted by Diogenes Laertius, a country is doomed when its citizens are unable to distinguish the good men from the bad.

States, said he, are doomed when they are unable to distinguish good men from bad.
from “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

At times, the masses end up unchained, angry at everything, and not willing to listen to reason.

It is impossible to please the mass of people, so Bion thought, unless one becomes a honey-cake or good Thasian wine.
from “Discourse on Reputation” by Dio Chrysostom

Mobs tend to overpower the other more rational parts of society, and destroy not only themselves, but also the people arguing against their irrationality. In this way, their actions bring the state to ruin.

For the boasted freedom of the mob proves in experience to be the bitterest servitude of the best element to the other and brings upon both a common destruction.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

Phaedrus, an ancient Roman fabulist, adapted another one of the tales of Aesop to teach a lesson on what happened in the Roman Republic. In a fable titled “The Frogs who desired a King”, Phaedrus taught a moral lesson: the people aren’t happy with liberty and the conditions that they have, clamoring for someone to rule over them, but end up getting a ruler who eats them all up.

In this tale, the frogs are living in a swamp, but are unhappy with their situation and ask Jupiter, the supreme god, to send them down a ruler. So he obliges and throws a log in the middle of the swamp. First the frogs are a bit cautious, but then the bravest one jumps on the log and seeing that it doesn’t react, starts mocking it. Then all the rest of the frogs join in.

Unhappy with this king, they start asking Jupiter for another king, a real one that would rule them. Jupiter, annoyed at the request, sends them down a water snake. The water snake then eats all the frogs one by one.

The Frogs, a freeborn people made,
From out their marsh with clamor prayed
That Jove a monarch would assign
With power their manners to refine.

The sovereign smiled, and on their bog
Bent his petitioners a log,
Which, as it dashed upon the place,
At first alarmed the timorous race.

But here it long had lain to cool,
One slyly peeped out of the pool,
And finding it a king in jest,
He boldly summoned all the rest.

Now, void of fear, the tribe advance,
And on the timber leaped and danced,
And having let their fury loose,
In gross affronts and rank abuse,

Of Jove they sought another king,
For useless was this wooden thing.
Then he a water-snake empowered,
Who one by one their race devoured.

They try to make escape in vain,
Nor, dumb through fear, can they complain.
By stealth they Mercury depute,
That Jove would once more hear their suit,

And send their sinking state to save;
But he in wrath this answer gave:
“You scorned the good king that you had,
And therefore you shall bear the bad.”
from “The Fables of Phaedrus” by Phaedrus

One of the lessons that could be taken out of the this fable is that the people who do not appreciate the freedom that they have, will end up with a tyrant ruling over them.

Bad men rule by the feebleness of the ruled.
from “The Enneads” by Plotinus

The same thing is happening today, with fiery populists using their public speaking skills to enrage their supporters. Populist politicians (and commentators/activists) 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. What is different from the time of ancient Rome is how information is spread. Back in those times, information spread at a much slower pace and came from limited sources. With the advent of mass media a few centuries ago, and now social media taking over, information reaches a much wider audience and much faster, often through conflicting messages and surrounding noise. Scarier times might be ahead, as many social scientists predict that technology will make the usual excesses of human nature even worse in the next years to come.

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

When personal ambition is the main driving force behind what a politician does, then their actions and the policies they support reflect this. Usually, these involve vanity projects or saying things to make them look more popular.

They seek therein only to engage in some enterprise out of which they may emerge with added glory for themselves, making that their sole aim.
from “Second Tarsic Discourse” by Dio Chrysostom

Some of these ambitious individuals believe that rules and normal ways of doing things don’t apply to them, and often end up agitators in public life.

The more notable a man is for his greatness of spirit, the more ambitious he is to be the foremost citizen, or, I should say rather, to be sole ruler. But when one begins to aspire to pre-eminence, it is difficult to preserve that spirit of fairness which is absolutely essential to justice.

The result is that such men do not allow themselves to be constrained either by argument or by any public and lawful authority; but they only too often prove to be bribers and agitators in public life, seeking to obtain supreme power and to be superiors through force rather than equals through justice.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara observed that many people who are illustrious in wealth and power, don’t like to be criticized. This arises out of a sense of superiority they feel towards others.

Why is it that, other things being equal, those who are illustrious both in wealth and reputation endure frank speech less than others?
from “On Frank Criticism” by Philodemus of Gadara

The dangerous thing about arrogant people is that their judgment is impaired, and their reasoning abilities can get clouded.

Sometimes one worsens one’s ailment into stupidity or madness, if indeed Xerxes’ deeds do not depend upon both rather than one of these qualities— I mean the yoking of the Hellespont and casting fetters into the sea and the other deeds that people tell of him. The same holds of the acts of people who think that they themselves have turned from men into gods, and all the other features of those who behave with unrestrained arrogance.
from “On Arrogance” by Philodemus of Gadara

Many of the leaders in ancient Rome 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 thing is to be eloquent. Another thing is to be craving the fame and admiration that stems from this eloquence.

It is necessary, indeed, that a political leader should prevail by reason of his eloquence, but ignoble for him to admire and crave the fame that springs from his eloquence.
from “Comparison of Demosthenes and Cicero” by Plutarch

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

Gerrymandering was quite prominent in the Roman political process. The laws were usually passed using a series of popular assemblies (including the Centuriate Assembly, the Tribal Assembly, and the Plebeian Assembly), with each of these assemblies being organized a bit differently. For example, the Plebeian Assembly consisted only of the plebeian class, and did not include the patricians. Each of these bodies could be set up in such a way as to favor certain interests.

The Tribal Assembly was made up of 35 tribes, four of which were urban tribes from the city of Rome itself, and the rest were rural tribes coming from the outside. These were of course political tribes, and not based on any previous ancestral affiliations. The way voting worked in this Assembly was that the tribes voted one after another, with the decision of the tribe being decided by a majority within that tribe. The decision of that tribe then counted as one vote for the overall decision.

It did not matter how big that tribe was, its overall vote would only count as 1. This led the composition of the tribes liable for manipulation. You could stuff the tribes that voted early with your supporters, or gerrymander the other tribes in such a way as to put all the supporters of your opponents into a small number of tribes, with the other tribes being dominated by your own supporters.

This voting system was also the reason why many plebs were against immigrants, and also giving citizenship to them (even if they were Italian). One of the things they feared was that their voting power would be diminished with the inclusion of immigrants in the citizen rolls. The most vehement opponents of giving Roman citizenship to foreigners were the poorest Romans.

Cinna, who belonged to Marius’ party, passed a law to the effect that new citizens, upon receiving Roman citizenship for any reason, should be able to vote amongst the old citizens, with no distinction. He did this to gain the favor of the men who had raised Marius to power by their votes and had granted him the greatest honors; but this law was unfair to the old citizens, who seemed to have lost the benefit of their dignity, by having their votes mixed in with those of the new, less worthy citizens.
from “Short History of Rome” by Julius Exsuperantius

When after a long struggle, the citizenship was extended to large sections of the Italian allies, there was an attempt to limit their voice through gerrymandering.

Accordingly, although the citizenship had been given to Italy with the proviso that the new citizens should be enrolled in but eight tribes, so that their power and numbers might not weaken the prestige of the older citizens, and that the beneficiaries might not have greater power than the benefactors, Cinna now promised to distribute them throughout all the tribes. With this object he had brought together into the city a great multitude from all parts of Italy.
from “The Roman History” by Velleius Paterculus

Many of the leaders fighting for power would switch factions, allies, and tactics when it suited them. Pompey was a Populares for much of his career, using the citizen Assemblies to get his way. However, he later switched over to the Optimate side, gathering support from the most conservative senators. This flip-flopping was a constant of Roman politics in the last decades of the Republic.

The tactics that the politicians used in order to advance their interests, ranged from the merely unethical to some that were downright illegal. For some of them, chaos played right into their hands.

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

Instead of trying to be the best leader and putting the interests of the Republic above their own, the main aim of guys like Pompey or Caesar was to be the only leader, to be above the rest.

Do you remember, then, that ideal “director of the commonwealth” to whom we would refer all questions? In the fifth book, I think it is, Scipio thus speaks: For as the object of a pilot is a successful voyage, of a physician bodily health, of a commander victory, so the object of such a director of the commonwealth is the happiness of the citizens, that it should be secure in means of defense, opulent in material resources, splendid in reputation, untarnished in its virtue. For my idea of him is that he should carry to perfection the work which is the greatest and best among men.

Such a conception never occurred to our friend Gnaeus in former times, and least of all in this controversy. Supremacy has been the object of both; there has been no idea of securing the happiness and virtue of the citizens. Nor, indeed, did he abandon the city because he was unable to protect it, nor Italy because he was driven from it; but his idea from the first was to stir up every land and sea, to rouse foreign princes, to bring barbarous tribes in arms into Italy, to collect the most formidable armies possible. For some time past a kind of royalty like Sulla’s has been the object in view, and this is the eager desire of many who are with him.
from “Letters to Atticus” by Cicero

They could have stuck some sort of a bargain or compromise, but instead they pursued their naked ambition to the ruin of the country.

Do you suppose that some understanding between the two, some bargain has been impossible? Today it is still possible. But the object of neither is our happiness: both want to be kings.
from “Letters to Atticus” by Cicero

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

The will to power, a notion that some modern philosophers have thought of as the main driving force of humans, has ancient roots as an idea. From Sallust and other historians, it passed onto the thoughts of Augustine of Hippo, whose writings were very influential in the development of the Christian Church. His concept of “libido dominandi” is about the willful need to dominate others that is found in certain individuals.

This type of lust for domination is present in many people, and while sometimes lying dormant, it can be re-awakened by circumstances. The individuals driven by this desire to dominate others, can take different ideologies and paths to power, but deep down underneath, these are only a means to an end, with the end being holding power.

Don’t be fooled by people who are pretending to be speaking for virtue and railing against the current establishment, shouting how corrupt and evil everyone is. When these guys get into power, they will do the same things as those they are disparaging. A lot of times, they might be even worse.

“But he hates those who make an ungoverned use of great power suddenly acquired.” I retort that he will do the same thing as soon as he acquires the same powers. In the case of many men, their vices, being powerless, escape notice; although, as soon as the persons in question have become satisfied with their own strength, the vices will be no less daring than those which prosperity has already disclosed.

These men simply lack the means whereby they may unfold their wickedness. Similarly, one can handle even a poisonous snake while it is stiff with cold; the poison is not lacking; it is merely numbed into inaction.

In the case of many men, their cruelty, ambition, and indulgence only lack the favor of Fortune to make them dare crimes that would match the worst. That their wishes are the same you will in a moment discover, in this way: give them the power equal to their wishes.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

It is important never to underestimate anyone, no matter how harmless they look at the beginning. Cicero compared this to giving a sword to a child. While by himself and left to his own means, the kid cannot harm anyone, with the sword it is completely different.

When Hindenburg was giving power to Hitler in 1933, he also thought he could control him. At the start of the Republican primaries, most people were of the opinion that Trump had no chance. But both were given swords, and you see what happened.

If you give a sword to a little child, or to a powerless and decrepit old man, he himself by his own violence cannot injure any one, but still if the sword touches the naked body of even the strongest man, it is possible that he may be wounded by the mere sharpness and power of the weapon; in like manner, when the consulship had been given as a sword to enervated and worn-out men, who, of their own strength, would never be able to wound any one, they, armed with the name of supreme command, murdered the republic.

They openly made a treaty with the tribune of the people, to receive from him whatever provinces they chose, and an army, and as much money as they chose, on this condition,—that they themselves were the first to hand over the afflicted republic in fetters to the tribune.
from “Speech in Defense of Sestius” by Cicero

Many of these people feel no shame, and will do whatever it takes to get to the top. No lie is too small, no act is too illegal, if it helps them to attain their ambition.

You must not delay or look for help from prayers to the gods; unless haply you hope that Sulla is now weary or ashamed of his tyranny and that what he has criminally seized he will with still greater peril resign.

On the contrary, he has sunk so low that he thinks nothing glorious which is not safe, and regards every means of retaining his supremacy as honorable.
speech of Aemilius Lepidus from “Histories” by Sallust

Divide and conquer is a common strategy used by these power-hungry unscrupulous demagogues. They thrive in a world of growing “us” versus “them” divisions, in a world where dog eats dog, where chaos reigns supreme. They like to create an environment which forces people to choose between becoming a slave or a master, using rhetoric that paints the game as zero-sum. The “other” must lose, in order for “us” to win.

Hence that state of repose and tranquillity combined with freedom, which many good men prized more highly than honors attended with toil, is a thing of the past; in these times one must either be slave or master, one must feel fear, citizens, or inspire it.

For what else is left us? What human laws survive? The Roman people, lately ruler of the nations, now stripped of power, repute and rights, without the means to live and an object of contempt, does not even retain the rations of slaves.
speech of Aemilius Lepidus from “Histories” by Sallust

Playing off different groups against each other is a good way to gain personal power and influence, and one that was often used by the different politicians of the ancient Roman Republic.

By setting all the classes at variance, he built up personal power for himself; and by using funds from the public treasury for shameful and inopportune expenses, which however bought him favor with others, he made himself the center of everyone’s attention.
from “Historical Library” by Diodorus Siculus

It becomes difficult to dislodge a wanna-be strongman from his position of power once he builds a wide cult of personality. This is what was happening in times of the latter Roman Republic. Guys like Marius and Sulla claimed favor by the gods, with Pompey starting to build a veritable personality cult around himself. However, it was Julius Caesar who took it to the extreme, being proclaimed an actual living god by the Senate!

And they decreed that a chariot of his should be placed on the Capitol facing the statue of Jupiter, that his statue in bronze should be mounted upon a likeness of the inhabited world, with an inscription to the effect that he was a demigod, and that his name should be inscribed upon the Capitol.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

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

Having good leaders is incredibly important, especially in troubled times. Most misfortunes hit states not through fortune or luck, even though these do play a part, but instead through ignorance of a common good, and the incompetence of the leaders. Competent leaders are quite rare.

If the leaders and statesmen in the cities were competent to hit upon the proper course, all men would always fare handsomely and be free from harm — unless of course some chance misfortune should perversely befall one city or another. But on the contrary, in my opinion, both in former days and at the present time you would find that more dreadful things have happened to cities through ignorance of what is to their interest and through the mistakes of their leaders than the disasters that happen by divine will or through mere chance.
from “Second Tarsic Discourse” by Dio Chrysostom

It is not just that people can be incompetent, but they can be downright two-faced. Usually, the vilest individuals have their mouths full of talk of justice, but in reality they behave opposite to what they say. People often don’t do what they preach, but this is especially striking among politicians who shout about morality, justice and such things in public, but privately do not act that way.

The orators are very earnest about justice in their speeches, but not at all in their actions.
from “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius

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

It is virtue that defines the character of a good man, and it is virtue that needs to be at the core of a good leader’s basic set of principles. Virtue ethics was the foundation of moral philosophy in Antiquity, and philosophers like Plato and Aristotle expounded upon it, but it was Cicero who defined the four cardinal virtues, and made them the key building block of politics.

Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature. It has four parts: wisdom, justice, courage, temperance.
from “On Invention” by Cicero

At the end of his career, when the Republic was engulfed in strife and civil war, Cicero wrote one of his most memorable treatises, “On Moral Duties”. Dedicated to his son, this work tried to outline what a good politician should be. It is a person’s moral virtue that should be regarded as their most important characteristic.

The more a man is endowed with these finer virtues — temperance, self-control, and that very justice about which so much has already been said — the more he deserves to be favored. I do not mention fortitude, for a courageous spirit in a man who has not attained perfection and ideal wisdom is generally too impetuous; it is those other virtues that seem more particularly to mark the good man.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

A good leader is one who dedicates himself to justice and honor, does not expose anyone to hatred or disrepute by groundless charges, and seeks to promote the common good above his own personal interests.

All this the citizen who is patriotic, brave, and worthy of a leading place in the state will shun with abhorrence; he will dedicate himself unreservedly to his country, without aiming at influence or power for himself; and he will devote himself to the state in its entirety in such a way as to further the interests of all.

Besides, he will not expose anyone to hatred or disrepute by groundless charges, but he will surely cleave to justice and honor so closely that he will submit to any loss, however heavy, rather than be untrue to them.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

Such a person respects their political rivals and does not indulge in violent anger against them.

Neither must we listen to those who think that one should indulge in violent anger against one’s political rivals and imagine that such is the attitude of a great-spirited, brave man. For nothing is more commendable, nothing more becoming in a pre-eminently great man than courtesy and forbearance.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

An honest politician does not regard their political rivals as mortal enemies to be put down, even if they disagree on matters of policy.

A most wretched custom, assuredly, is our electioneering and scrambling for office. Concerning this also we find a fine thought in Plato: “Those who compete against one another,” he says, “to see which of two candidates shall administer the government, are like sailors quarrelling as to which one of them shall do the steering.”

And he likewise lays down the rule that we should regard only those as adversaries who take up arms against the state, not those who strive to have the government administered according to their convictions.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

You always need to keep the interests of the country and the common good above your own personal interests and your own gain.

All those who would assume the mantle of public affairs would be well advised to heed two of Plato’s rules: first, to keep the best interests of the people so clearly in view that, whatever their own interests, those of the people will guide their conduct; and second, to care for the well being of the whole body politic, and not that of any one political party, especially not one which is prepared to betray the interests of the state for its own gain.

The administration of the affairs of state must be taken like a public trust, to be undertaken for the benefit of those entrusted to one’s care, and not for the benefit of those upon whom the trust is conferred.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

The man of integrity always makes the moral choice, even when it might cost him personally.

Wherever fate leads, virtue must follow without fear.
from “Pharsalia” by Lucan

Unfortunately, as historian Livy lamented, luck and a good disposition rarely come together. Often, the person of bad character gets more lucky than the one of good character.

Good fortune and a good disposition are rarely given to the same man.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

History is filled with bad, but lucky people without scruples rising to the top. However, how do you deal with these types of narcissistic, power-hungry politicians? One has to be careful not to push too hard against these types of individuals. You either don’t give them the chance to get into positions of power in the first place, or once they have power, let them realize their ambitions at least partially, without invoking a sense of threat in them. One reason why Caesar made the decision to cross the Rubicon was because he felt to be under threat of prosecution if he did lay down his arms.

But Caesar, when he reached Pompey’s ramparts and saw those of the enemy who were already lying dead there and those who were still falling, said with a groan: “They would have it so; they brought me to such a pass that if I, Caius Caesar, after waging successfully the greatest wars, had dismissed my forces, I should have been condemned in their courts.
from “The Life of Julius Caesar” by Plutarch

The big problem of the political arena of the last century of the Roman Republic was that the politicians were looking at their own bottom-line, hungry for more personal power, always pushing their own interests without taking a more systemic view and doing things to promote the common good. Short-term thinking prevailed over long-term thinking, and narrow-mindedness won over taking a wider perspective.

Democracies experience something of the same sort as do the seas; for just as the latter are agitated by the winds, though it is their nature to be tranquil, so the former are disturbed by the demagogues, though they have in themselves no evil.
from “Roman Antiquities” by Dionysius of Halicarnassus

The ancients used to say that character is destiny, and in many ways this holds true. When a populace continuously starts choosing self-absorbed characters and demagogues as its leaders, then the fate of that country starts hanging in the balance. It is then only a matter of time before a tipping point is reached and the nation throws itself over the edge, into an abyss of chaos and violence.

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. We can even see the beginnings of personality cult of Donald Trump starting to take root, with his frequent rallies and adoration by fans. Once this becomes strongly grounded in place, it could be difficult to dislodge.

A similar streak can be seen in the ambition of Boris Johnson in the UK and his drive for power, where no principle is so sacred that he can’t change it, and a lie is repeated so often that it ultimately comes to be seen as the truth.

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. Then, Tiberius attempted to go for a second consecutive term as tribune, something which was customarily not done. The faction around the conservative senators tried to stop him in a way that broke the ancient traditions around the institution of the tribuneship, and ended up killing him in the process.

However, if you read through the history of some of the events preceding the times of Tiberius Gracchus, you can see that the norms were slowly being chipped away at by Scipio Aemilianus and others at least since the mid-2nd century BC. What is important is that with the events around Tiberius, consensus finally broke down and the norm erosion became blatant.

When Tiberius proposed his law on land reform, he knew that he was going to be opposed by the Senate. Tradition dictated that any law that was to be voted on by the popular assemblies, was first to be approved by the senators. However, knowing that he would never get the required agreement from the wealthy senators, Tiberius decided to skip this part of the process, and instead went straight to the Plebeian Assembly to vote on the law.

This glaring disregard of the norms started off a spark which led to a fire that kept on spreading and engulfing everything in its path. The senators, enraged at this turn of events, forced another of the tribunes, Marcus Octavius, to interpose his veto on the legislation. This set off a rapid succession of abuses of power from which the Roman Republic never recovered. All the different factors like income inequalities, feelings of loss, anger, and lack of compromise came together to create a multitude of forces that started a race to the bottom, and eventually led to the fall of the Republic.

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.

Before that time, the institution of the plebeian tribune was sacrosanct. No one could even lay their hand on them or impede them in their actions. Nasica’s deeds totally undermined this institution, one that was set up as a way to protect the plebeians from the abuses of the patricians. With the norms around the office of the tribune no longer respected, a whole can of worms was opened up.

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

At first the norms that were surpassed were relatively minor and most of the actors on both sides had high-minded principles driving them. Cicero, while a supporter of the conservative side, still praised the spirit of the early reformers like the Gracchi brothers. This he contrasted with the state of affairs in his own time, where violent mobs were roaming around, trying to get their way through intimidation.

Do you think that the Gracchi, or that Saturninus, or that any one of those ancient men who were considered devoted to the interests of the people, had ever any hired fellows in their assemblies? Not one of those men ever stooped to such a course. For the mere liberality of their proposed laws, and the hope of the advantage which was held out to them, excited the multitude sufficiently without any bribery. Therefore, in those times, those men who set up for friends of the people, were hindered in their plans by wise and honorable men, but they were great men in the opinion of the populace, and received every sort of honor from them.
from “Speech in Defense of Sestius” by Cicero

The slide towards chaos in Cicero’s time, started off with a few minor breaks of the traditional way of doing things. Even small transgressions can have grave consequences. What you think is a one-off tiny infraction of the norms, can set off a chain of events that lead to dangerous places.

It is such cases as these that sometimes perplex us in our consideration, when the point in which justice is violated does not seem so very significant, but the consequences of such slight transgression seem exceedingly important.
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero

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.

Character assassination was a regular tactic, used masterfully among others by Cicero. Instead of debating the merit of things, many political speeches were full of ad hominem attacks and invectives. Political attacks against opponents were quite vicious in nature.

Cicero, in a short treatise teaching his son the power of rhetoric, outlines some ways to carry out these invectives.

In persons, the first things considered are the natural qualities of health, figure, strength, age, and whether they are male or female. And all these concern the body alone. But the qualities of the mind, or how they are affected, depends on virtues, vices, arts, and want of art; or in another sense, on desire, fear, pleasure, or annoyance. And these are the natural circumstances which are principally considered.

In fortune, we look at a man’s race, his friends, his children, his relations, his kinsmen, his wealth, his honors, his power, his estates, his freedom, and also at all the contraries to these circumstances.
from “A Dialogue Concerning Oratorical Partitions” by Cicero

Attacks on a person’s race or sex were considered fair game!

This type of poisonous atmosphere went hand in hand with other types of unscrupulous practices. 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

Electoral bribery and vote buying grew to monstrous proportions. For example, Milo spent three times his net worth, not just on bribing the voters themselves, but also on spectacles and gladiatorial shows.

Milo wanted the elections over as soon as possible, and put his trust in the support of the Optimates, because he was opposed to Clodius, and in the people on account of his general bribery and huge expenditure on dramatic spectacles and a gladiatorial show, on which Cicero indicates that he had spent three inheritances.
from “Commentary on Cicero’s On Behalf of Milo” by Asconius

Many of the candidates borrowed heavily in order to win, which means that they had to recoup this money while in office. This led to further abuses.

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

The criminalization of opponents became a common practice. It didn’t stop at only putting lawsuits against them, or throwing them in jail, but at times of peak violence, lists of political opponents (as well as others) were drawn up with orders for them to be killed. The so-called proscriptions put a bloody stain on the Republic, and thousands of potential leaders perished in them, robbing the country of some of its ablest politicians. Sulla was the first who put systematic proscriptions in place, but was not to be the last.

He was the first to set the precedent for proscription — would that he had been the last! The result was that in the very state in which an actor who had been hissed from the stage has legal redress for willful abuse, a premium for the murder of a citizen was now publicly announced; that the richest man was he who had slain the greatest number; that the bounty for slaying an enemy was no greater than that for slaying a citizen; and that each man became the prize set up for his own death. Nor was vengeance wreaked upon those alone who had borne arms against him, but on many innocents as well.
from “The Roman History” by Velleius Paterculus

When you start denying the legitimacy of your opponents, when you start branding them as criminals without proof, when you start curtailing their political liberties, then you are encouraging an environment where civility of discourse and rules of the game are no longer respected. This can turn violent, even deadly. Unfortunately, ancient Rome experienced this murderous turn.

How do you get from a situation where the normal political process, while heated, functions according to established norms and rules, to a situation where violence, even killing reigns supreme? In the Roman Republic, this occurred through several stages, with fits and starts here and there, short returns to normalcy, followed by outbreaks of violence, even civil wars.

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.

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.

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.

Initially, 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

It is especially in times of intense political competition that norms tend to get broken and one needs to pay attention.

One important litmus test of the status of your political system is the relationship between the opposing groups and politicians. In the late Republic, political opponents were often no longer seen as the honorable opposition, but were increasingly seen as not even being legitimate. When you don’t see your opponents as legitimate, the chance of political violence increases.  With these mortal contests between opponents, the rules of the political game started breaking down.

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 (91-88 BC). 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

Before the Social War, the political violence was just fragmentary. After it, skirmishes in the streets, even fights on the battlefield, became systemic and grew large-scale.

“Hitherto the murders and seditions had been internal and fragmentary. Afterward the chiefs of factions assailed each other with great armies, according to the usage of war, and their country lay as a prize between them. The beginning and origin of these contentions came about directly after the Social War.
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

Special attention has to be paid during times of emergencies. It is very easy to loosen the norms a bit, when things like terrorism or other matters of security have the population scared. In 68 BC, a group of pirates operating out of bases in Asia Minor, attacked and razed down the port of Ostia, Rome’s principal harbor. In the process, not only did they destroy a large part of the Roman navy, but also kidnapped numerous people, including two senators.

The potential effects of future raids could be devastating, which made the average person on the street feel very nervous. Pompey seeing an opportunity to gain power, had one of his allies, the tribune Gabinius pass an emergency measure to deal with the problem. This law would give Pompey unprecedented authority and domain over the entire empire.

This was what most of all inclined the Romans, who were hard put to it to get provisions and expected a great scarcity, to send out Pompey with a commission to take the sea away from the pirates. Gabinius, one of Pompey’s intimates, drew up a law which gave him, not an admiralty, but an out-and‑out monarchy and irresponsible power over all men.

For the law gave him dominion over the sea this side of the pillars of Hercules, over all the mainland to the distance of four hundred furlongs from the sea. These limits included almost all places in the Roman world, and the greatest nations and most powerful kings were comprised within them.

Besides this, he was empowered to choose fifteen legates from the senate for the several principalities, and to take from the public treasuries and the tax-collectors as much money as he wished, and to have two hundred ships, with full power over the number and levying of soldiers and oarsmen.
from “The Life of Pompey” by Plutarch

The populace, scared of the potential terror that the pirates could inflict, as well as of the danger that the grain supply could be disrupted, clamored for Pompey to be given the command, and extraordinary powers. Many of the senators protested, fearing what giving this type of power to one man could mean.

When these provisions of the law were read in the assembly, the people received them with excessive pleasure, but the chief and most influential men of the senate thought that such unlimited and absolute power, while it was beyond the reach of envy, was yet a thing to be feared.

Therefore they all opposed the law, with the exception of Caesar; he advocated the law, not because he cared in the least for Pompey, but because from the outset he sought to ingratiate himself with the people and win their support. The rest vehemently attacked Pompey.
from “The Life of Pompey” by Plutarch

The law was finally passed, and Pompey went on to eradicate the pirates in just a few short months. However, the final effect of the law was disastrous for the Republic. It went around the usual norms in giving unprecedented power to one man, effectively putting him above the law. A few decades later, this law would serve as a precedent for Octavian, when he himself took over absolute power. In a way, going around the norms in times of fear caused by terror attacks, was one of the key events that set up the eventual fall of the Republic.

In a republic, the slide towards autocracy becomes apparent, when formerly independent institutions become dependent too much on the wants of a particular person. With the rise of strongmen in Rome, you also saw another effect happening, with the numerous senators getting in line and pandering to these individuals. The same men who months before would be railing against the dangers of a potential autocrat, could turn around 180 degrees and become the demagogue’s staunchest supporters.

While privately, many of the senators would still see the danger of guys like Pompey or Caesar and their hunger for power, publicly they would sing their praises and support them unconditionally. Even Cicero was not immune to this from time to time, although towards the end of his life, he did take a strong stand against Marc Antony and his actions. The senators would bestow all kinds of honors on the leading strongman of the day like Caesar, further feeding their vanity.

For not only did Gaius Julius Caesar accept excessive honors, such as an uninterrupted consulship, the dictatorship for life, and the censorship of public morals, as well as the forename Imperator, the surname of Father of his Country, a statue among those of the kings, and a raised couch in the orchestra; but he also allowed honors to be bestowed on him which were too great for mortal man: a golden throne in the House and on the judgment seat; a chariot and litter in the procession at the circus; temples, altars, and statues beside those of the gods; a special priest, an additional college of the Luperci, and the calling of one of the months by his name. In fact, there were no honors which he did not receive or confer at pleasure.
from “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius

Often, these senators saw these strongmen as vehicles to further their own political agendas. Yet, the pandering undermined the norms further more, and made these types of titles and powers seem legitimate for a single person to hold. When the senators finally decided that enough was enough and assassinated Caesar, it was too late. The wheels had been set in motion and the train was going too fast downhill.

This was starting to happen under the Republic, but came to heed during the Empire. In the Republic, the pandering was only temporary and could be switched from one moment to the next depending on the situation, and was often divided between different competing individuals. The senators at the time were still quite independent, and there was a huge level of competition between the different factions, with each having the tendency to line up behind a leader, only to be dissolved when circumstances changed.

This all shifted radically when Octavian defeated his enemies once and for all by 30 BC and when he instituted the Empire in 27 BC. While outwardly, the first emperors wanted to keep the trappings of a republican government, in reality institutions like the Senate became mere rubber-stamping bodies. The senators now didn’t have any significant agendas of their own, but instead supported anything that the emperor wanted.

The Senate went from being an independent deliberative body to a place that was beholden to the man holding the power in the state. Most senators preferred to put their own political ambitions, their property, and their riches over what was in the interest of the common good. They knew that the strongman could destroy them at any moment, at times even taking their life. It was much easier to keep their head down and overlook any wrongdoing of the leader of the day.

The historian Tacitus in his works showed how low this once noble institution had sunk. In one passage, he describes the speech of senator Curtius Montanus and his admonition of how the senators became complacent and reverent towards the figure of the emperor without showing any sign of their own personal integrity and independence. Instead of trying to stop the illegal actions of the executive, they either kept quiet or condoned them.

At the end he asks, whether they believe that a bloodthirsty ruler like Nero will be their last master? No, more tyrants came, and by being quiet then, they destroyed their own institutions for the generations to come. Autocracy came to reign supreme.

Even unsuccessful villainy finds some to emulate it: what will happen, if it flourish and be strong? And the man, whom we dare not offend when he holds only quaestor’s rank, are we to see him rise to the dignities of praetor and consul?

Do you suppose that Nero will be the last of the tyrants? Those who survived Tiberius, those who survived Caligula, thought the same; and yet after each there arose another ruler yet more detestable and more cruel.
speech of Curtius Montanus from “The Annals” by Tacitus

With Pompey, the beginnings of a personality cult could be seen, something which was later brought to a grander scale by Caesar. The personality cult was later institutionalized when Octavian became the sole ruler of Rome, and turned it into a central pillar of the power of the emperor. In less than a hundred years, Rome went from people being allergic to even the mention of a king, to being led by a supreme autocrat who was considered divine. This is how badly the norms had slipped.

Some worried Romans did warn of the dangers to freedom from giving into the wishes of wanna-be strongmen, but unfortunately they were not listened to. In 56 BC, one of the consuls for that year, Lentulus Marcellinus, proclaimed a prophecy that unfortunately came true: protest while you can, for soon you will not be able to do so with impunity.

When complaints were being registered in an assembly about the excessive power of Pompey the Great, and everyone was loudly proclaiming their agreement, the consul Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus remarked: “Protest while you can, Romans, for soon you will not be able to do so with impunity.”
from “Memorable Deeds and Sayings” by Valerius Maximus

Cicero in his work “On the Republic” noted down one thought from the Roman poet Ennius, who lived in the mid-2nd century BC: the Republic stands upon its norms, morals and its people. However, one has to be careful how to interpret that. Sometimes these types of statements are used by reactionaries to legitimize their causes. They call for a return to some pure golden age, which usually only exists in their own imagination.

What is important is not keeping everything the same as it was centuries ago, but instead being guided by the spirit of moral integrity and an eye on the greater good. Times change and things need to move with them, however what needs to stay the same is a respect for the rules of the game, the norms, and for the legitimacy of the system. The recognition that while you may not agree with your opponents, but that they too have a right to voice their opinion and stand against you, is essential for the political process to function well.

While the “mos maiorum” and tradition guided the functioning of the Roman state, there were provisions built in that allowed the norms to be changed. However, this was done in an organized manner and according to consensus. Sextus Pomponius, a jurist from the 2nd century AD, wrote a short treatise in which he explained the history of Roman law. In it, he noted some of the different crises and problems that precipitated the changes in governance. The early Roman Republic had been mired in struggles between the plebeians and the patricians. Open conflict had been present in the system from the get-go. Yet, for the first four centuries of its existence, the Republic had managed to weather the storms and evolve in an orderly manner.

Then, because it was difficult for the plebs any longer to assemble, and much more so for the entire body of the people to be collected in such a crowd of persons; necessity caused the government of the commonwealth to be committed to the Senate. Thus the Senate began to take an active part in legislation, and whatever it decreed was observed, and this law was called a senatus consultum.
from “The Handbook of Pomponius” by Sextus Pomponius

Rules and trust are the fundamental pillars underlying any political system. When these are undermined, then other pieces can start falling off like dominoes. It is dangerous when you start questioning the results of an election, especially without proof. With such actions, trust in the system is diminished, and a Pandora’s Box is opened, which can lead to further destabilization and chaos.

Ennius told us: “Rome’s Republic in its morals and people stands.”

This verse, both for its precision and its verity, appears to me as if it had issued from an oracle. He justly couples men and manners together, for neither the men, unless the state had adopted certain manners, nor the manners, unless illustrated by the men, could ever have established or maintained, for so many ages, so vast a dominion.

Thus, long before our own times, the force of hereditary manners molded our greatest men, and the most eminent citizens, in return, gave new weight to the venerable customs of our ancestry. Our age, on the contrary, receiving the Commonwealth as a finished picture of another century, already evanescent through the lapse of years — not only has neglected to renew the colors of the original painting, but has not even cared to preserve its general form and prominent lineaments.

Alas! What now remains of those antique manners, on which the poet based our Commonwealth? They are now so superannuated, so obsolete, that they are not only not cultivated, but not even mentioned. As to the men, what shall I say? The manners would never have thus perished, but through a scarcity of patriotic worthies, who should support them. Of which great defect, we are not only called to give an account, but even, as in capital offences, to implore absolution. Thanks to our vices, rather than our misfortunes, we retain our glorious Republic in name only, when we have long since lost the reality.
from “On the Republic” by Cicero

In a system based on the rule of law, no one is above the law and everyone should answer for their actions. At the end of his career, Scipio Africanus, the man who defeated Hannibal and one of Rome’s greatest generals, found himself in front of a legal process that wanted to investigate some of his actions. While questioning the motives of the accusers (and these might have been at least partially politically motivated), he still submitted to the process.

All discussion and even recollection of this dispute were lost in the outbreak of a more serious controversy with a greater and more distinguished man. We are told on the authority of Valerius Antias that the two Petillii instituted proceedings against P. Scipio Africanus.

Men put different interpretations on this according to their various dispositions. Some blamed, not the tribunes only, but the whole body of citizens, for letting such a thing be possible; the two greatest cities in the world, they said, had proved themselves, almost at the same time, ungrateful to their foremost men. Rome was the more ungrateful of the two, for whilst Carthage after her defeat drove the defeated Hannibal into exile, Rome would banish the victorious Scipio in the hour of her victory.

Others again took the ground that no single citizen should stand on such an eminence that he could not be required to answer according to law. Nothing contributed more towards maintaining liberty for all than the power of putting the most powerful citizen on his trial. What business, it was asked – not to mention the supreme interests of the State – could be entrusted to any man, if he had not to render an account for it?

If a man cannot submit to laws which are the same for all, no force which may be employed against him is unlawful. So the matter was discussed until the day of trial came.
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

Even though Scipio Africanus was incensed at the fact that he was put on trial, instead of trying to play the game of delegitimizing the proceedings, or instituting a coup using the army like his successors a hundred years from that time would do, he chose exile. His accusers, instead of pursuing the matter further and humiliating the man, then withdrew their motion and let him retire with dignity. After the Second Punic War, the old norms were still in place and largely respected. The political battles were often heated, but kept within bounds.

The keeping of norms is about self-restraint on the part of the actors taking part in the political process. Norm-breaking is a dangerous game. Even if technically legal, and for a good cause in the opinion of the norm-breaker, the ends still do not justify the means.

Does it become virtuous men to do every thing which it is in their power to do? Suppose it to be a base thing? Suppose it to be a mischievous thing? Suppose it be absolutely unlawful to do it? But what can be more base, or more shameful, or more utterly unbecoming, than to lead an army against the senate, against one’s fellow-citizens, against one’s country?

Or what can deserve greater blame than doing that which is unlawful. But it is not lawful for any one to lead an army against his country? If indeed we say that that is lawful which is permitted by the laws or by the usages and established principles of our ancestors. For it does not follow that whatever a man has power to do is lawful for him to do; nor, if he is not hindered, is he on that account permitted to do so.
from “Philippics” by Cicero

One way to guard against politicians breaking the norms is to force them to account for their actions. In ancient Athens, the officeholders had to be able to explain their actions and be held accountable for them. Cicero, seeing the problems that were destroying the Republic, proposed a system of accountability as a way to make sure that the norms were respected.

We have no method of protecting the laws themselves, and so the laws are what our clerks want them to be: we get them from scribes, and we have no authenticated public record in the public archives. The Greeks were more careful about this: they created ‘‘guards of the laws’’ who watched over not only the texts (that was customary among our ancestors too) but also men’s actions, and brought them in line with the laws.

This responsibility should be given to the censors, as we want them to exist in the commonwealth at all times. Before them too those who are completing their terms of office should state and explain their actions in office, and the censors should give an opinion about them.

This takes place in Greece with publicly assigned prosecutors; but they cannot be taken seriously unless they are volunteers. For that reason it is better for accounts and explanations to be given before the censors, but the right of prosecution before a court should be preserved intact.
from “On the Laws” by Cicero

These proposals, however came too late, and were never implemented.

In Cicero’s time, the rules of the game broke down completely, the legitimacy of the system was questioned, and no one respected the norms anymore. 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 Sextus Pompey 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 Octavian 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

The Republic fell, to be replaced by the Empire, but the Empire fell too. While it can be argued that the fall of the Empire was also more of a transformation, it can’t be denied that society entered a dark age, where learning diminished and became confined to tiny dots spread out far from each other. History continues, and what is today will soon be yesterday.

Writing at a time when the old pagan social order was on the verge of disappearing in the 6th century AD, Simplicius, one of the last philosophers of Antiquity, noted down one memorable thought from Heraclitus, a philosopher from the dawn of Greek philosophy more than a millennia before his time. This statement is quite profound, since it captures one essential aspect of how history works: things flow.

Everything flows and never stays the same.
from “Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics” by Simplicius

Things change, but it can’t be helped that some evident patterns emerge out of the apparent chaos. You will never step in the same river twice, as the water keeps on flowing downstream, but the mechanisms behind the way the water moves are predictable. While all the events of the future will be new and unique, certain things will repeat themselves. There are some forces that push society in certain directions, no matter the era. The good thing is that humans have the ability to learn and adapt. It is up to us not to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Eastern Roman administrator, John Lydus, gave a very metaphysical summary of how time and the laws of nature drove the growth of the Roman state (both the Republic, and the Empire), but also its decline. The same processes come and go throughout history, appearing and disappearing, leading the regeneration of a state, but also its collapse.

All the things that exist come into being and exist in conformance to the nature of the good. The things that exist exist, as they exist, while the things that come into being do not exist perpetually, nor do they exist in the same manner, but they revolve through generation to corruption.

Then from the latter to generation, and with respect to existing they are perdurative, but with respect to undergoing change they are somewhat different; for, whenever they retire into themselves, they exist by means of substance but come into being by means of corruption because nature preserves them with itself and brings them forth again into manifestation.
from “The Magistracies of the Roman State” by John Lydus

The Roman Republic had declined, pushed by corruption and the dismantling of common norms that guided the political process. These common norms are the rules of the game that ensure that the game of politics happens in a fair way. The politicians can disagree on the particular policies that should be implemented, but they need to agree on and respect the way that the political process itself is done. If these norms are undermined, then corruption and chaos sets in and eats away at the foundations of the state.

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 against candidates (even their own), 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. Trump even questioned the legitimacy of the way the elections were run and the results themselves, alleging that somehow millions of illegal votes were counted for his opponent.

You also have a lack of the Republican establishment taking Donald Trump to account for his actions. The Republican voices that critique him are being marginalized, and even formerly vocal opponents of Trump in the Party are lining up behind him, pretending that they don’t see his wrongdoings. While the nature of politics in the ancient world was in many ways different from the way things are done in the US and around the world today, what you are seeing is fear and a narrow vision of your own personal gains taking over looking at the wider picture. At least in Rome, the people pandering to the autocrats had a legitimate fear of losing their life and property if they didn’t conform, for modern lawmakers in the US the cost of non-conformance is just potential ridicule from the President and maybe losing their seat in the legislature.

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.

Fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid.
from “Moral Letters to Lucilius” by Seneca

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.

At any rate, much of Sulla’s legislation began to be undone while he was yet alive.
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

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 tribunitian 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 Gnaeus Pompey, 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 Gnaeus Pompey 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

Even the most secure institutions can crumble if care is not taken to preserve them. The Roman Republic was established around the balance of power, with different office holders and institutions being set up in such a way, as to prevent individuals from gaining too much power and abusing it. Polybius described the division of powers in Rome in this way:

As for the Roman constitution, it had three elements, each of them possessing sovereign powers: and their respective share of power in the whole state had been regulated with such a scrupulous regard to equality and equilibrium.
from “Histories” by Polybius

The division of powers and the system of checks and balances held in the Roman Republic for hundreds of years, sometimes coming under strain, but always bouncing back. However, in any political system, there is the principal agent problem, which is best summarized by Juvenal’s observation about guardians.

Who will guard the guards themselves?
from “Satires” by Juvenal

This quote was initially a quip about a woman’s infidelity in marriage, but has now acquired a meaning in the political context. You can set up guardians in order to watch over the political actors, but who will take these guardians to account? You can create all kinds of oversights to ensure that things function well, but there is always a weak link. That is why personal self-restraint plays an important role in keeping the system strong.

The rule of law is fundamental for the proper functioning of a Republic. Norms underpinning this need to be respected and no man should be above the law.

We are all servants of the laws in order to be free.
from “For Cluentius” by Cicero

It is this respect for the rule of law and the norms that govern the political process that give it credibility. However, in the Republic the norms were no longer respected and the rule of law disappeared.

As the chaos in the Republic degenerated, the elections themselves started coming into question and the abuse of the election process escalated. Elections were regularly postponed, periods without elected officials multiplied, bribery and vote buying grew to enormous proportions, and the election results themselves were often disputed. Later, the winners were picked outright by the powerful men of the state. The basic process that was behind the functioning of the Republic was undermined, and trust in the system diminished.

Trust and good faith are the pillars that cement a community together. If these are lost, then the state will likely fall. In the latter parts of the Roman Republic, trust and good faith disappeared, to be replaced by disorder and confusion.

For there is nothing that holds a political community together like good faith.
from “On Moral Duties” 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.

Trust in governmental institutions has been steadily falling over the last few years around the world. In the US, trust in the executive branch has been in free fall since the year 2000, and trust in the legislative branch was at a record low just a few years ago. Even thought this indicator has rebounded a bit in the past few years, it is still nowhere near what it was even fifteen years ago, not to mention the levels of a few decades ago.

There are various reasons for this fall in trust, but one is quite worrying. Many people are starting to question the legitimacy of the system, and see it as rigged. This type of view is seen predominantly on the right, but increasingly also on the left.

For the right-wingers, the state is captured by a group of faceless bureaucrats, while other institutions like universities are under the sway of radical left-wing ideologists. On the left, there has always been a traditional view of the state as being dominated by a group of rich folks and their interests. However, this is increasingly being supplanted by a shift towards race and gender, with calls that the entire system is dominated by some sort of a “white” or “male privilege”.

Many of the people on both sides are starting to view the system not just as being rigged, but illegitimate. When this type of viewpoint wins out, the only answer for many of these folks is to bring down the entire system.

This fall in the trust for governmental institutions has also been accompanied by a rise in political trolls, guys who damage the system and make people lose trust in it. 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.

We are living in a similar moment. All the signs point to chaos ahead. On the global level, the problems with resources and the environment seem to be getting worse. All this adds further stress to the unraveling that we are experiencing in the political sphere.

Will the world pay attention to these predictions? Or are we just preaching to the wind? In ancient mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of the king of Troy, cursed with the power to foresee the future, but to be never believed by anyone.

One heart was steadfast, and one soul clear-eyed, Cassandra. Never her words were unfulfilled; yet was their utter truth, by Fate’s decree, ever as idle wind in the hearers’ ears, that no bar to Troy’s ruin might be set. She saw those evil portents all through Troy conspiring to one end; loud rang her cry, as roars a lioness that mid the brakes a hunter has stabbed or shot, whereat her heart maddens, and down the long hills rolls her roar, and her might waxes tenfold; so with heart aflame with prophecy came she forth her bower.

Over her snowy shoulders tossed her hair streaming far down, and wildly blazed her eyes. Her neck writhed, like a sapling in the wind shaken, as moaned and shrieked that noble maid: “O wretches! into the Land of Darkness now we are passing; for all round us full of fire and blood and dismal moan the city is. Everywhere portents of calamity Gods show: destruction yawns before your feet.

Fools! ye know not your doom: still ye rejoice with one consent in madness, who to Troy have brought the Argive Horse where ruin lurks! Oh, ye believe not me, though ne’er so loud I cry! The Erinyes and the ruthless Fates, for Helen’s spousals madly wroth, through Troy dart on wild wings. And ye, ye are banqueting there in your last feast, on meats befouled with gore, when now your feet are on the Path of Ghosts!”
from “The Fall of Troy” by Quintus Smyrnaeus

She foresaw the fall of Troy, only to be made fun of by the people.

So scoffed a Trojan: others in like sort cried shame on her, and said she spoke but lies, saying that ruin and Fate’s heavy stroke were hard at hand. They knew not their own doom, and mocked, and thrust her back from that huge Horse for fain she was to smite its beams apart, or burn with ravening fire.
from “The Fall of Troy” by Quintus Smyrnaeus

A series of actions can set in motion a chain of events, which through feedback loops can keep on intensifying. We are starting to see the same types of factors that were present when the Roman Republic started its decline and eventually fell. It took over a hundred years, but fall it did. Let’s hope that I don’t end up like Cassandra, to foresee the signs of what will happen, only to be ignored. It is imperative that people take notice and adjust this course of action.

A sword of Damocles is hanging over our societies today. Held up only by a horse-hair, it could fall at any moment, chopping off the neck from the body, destroying our democracy for a long time to come. We need to take lessons from what happened in the past, in order not to repeat the same mistakes. If we don’t heed these warnings, then we are doomed to reset the cycle of ochlocracy.

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, 10, 11, 12

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, 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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