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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is exactly what happened in Ancient Rome.

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

1) Large economic disparities can lead to grievances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Punic Wars marked an end of the old system in the Republic. This state of affairs led to great economic disparities between the different social classes, which caused great discontent among the worse off.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men like Clodius pretended to lend a sympathetic ear to the needs of the downtrodden, while at the same time pursuing their own agendas.

“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 honour?””
from “Life of Lucullus” by Plutarch

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is this spirit which has commonly ruined great nations, when one party desires to triumph over another by any and every means and to avenge itself on the vanquished with excessive cruelty.

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

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

“He 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

“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

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.

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 “Life of Tiberius Gracchus” by Plutarch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scipio Nasica, coming from an ancient patrician family, did not understand the way the common people lived, and their everyday problems. Many of the aristocrats did not know about the lives of the ordinary plebeians, and did not want to see things from their perspective.

On the other hand, the 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.

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.

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

“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

“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

“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

“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

“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

“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 “Satire X” by Juvenal

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Status-seeking is a driving factor for human behavior, but so are such things as cognitive biases. Emotions often have a more powerful effect on your actions than logic.

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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

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 Gaius 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 Gaius Julius Caesar

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

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

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

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

Caesar might not have done some of the things that he did, had this constant danger not been above his head, and had he been able to realize at least some of his ambitions without the threat of being persecuted by his opponents. A similar fear drove the actions of guys like Tiberius Gracchus.

“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

As Cicero noted, avarice is also a big driving factor for the actions of people. This greed and lust for power can often even grow, as the person becomes richer and more powerful.

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

“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

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.

“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

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.

“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

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

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

7) People are easily fooled

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

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.

“”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

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

“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

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. The same thing is happening today, when the masses are supporting populist politicians whether from the right or the left (although now the far-right is much more influential). The masses are quite adept at shooting themselves in the foot with such things as Brexit.

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

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.

“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

“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

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.

“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

“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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many disorderly proceedings were the result, chief of which was that during the very taking of the vote on the measure Clodius, knowing that the multitude would be on Cicero’s side, took the gladiators that his brother held in readiness for the funeral games in honour 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.

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

Nepos, accordingly, inspired with fear by his colleague and by Pompey and by the other leading men, changed his attitude; and thus the senate decreed, on the motion of Spinther, that Cicero should be restored, and the populace, on the motion of both consuls, passed the measure. Clodius, to be sure, spoke in opposition to the others, but he had Milo as an opponent, so that he could commit no violence, and Pompey, among others, spoke in favor of the enactment, so that that side proved much the stronger.”
from “Roman Histories” by Cassius Dio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In France, you are already seeing political violence becoming quite influential in the streets. Unless, this norm breaking is kept in check, the world can be headed for a slippery slope of more chaos and violence.

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

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

In the ancient Roman Republic, guys like Sulla destroyed something which took centuries to build. He marched on Rome and took power with his army, something that was never done before. He did try to rebuild the institutions back up through his Sullan Constitution, but it crumbled just days after his death.

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.

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

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

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

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

 

 

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

 

 

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