The Roman Republic officially ended in 27 BC, when Octavian became Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. However, it had been dying long before.
The process took over a hundred years to complete, but once the momentum was strong enough, it became almost impossible to stop. Despite the wishful thinking of some individuals, who thought they could still save the old ways, things had degenerated so much that one man rule became almost inevitable.
Some historians label the Social War of 91 – 88 BC as the point of no return. The war left ambitious Roman generals with armies in the field, and in a city where political norms had been slipping for decades, it didn’t take long for these generals to start using their soldiers against other Romans. The era of civil wars had started.
The thing is, that despite all the chaos, few people could predict that their Republic would die, especially in the early stages of the process.
There are striking parallels between what is happening now, in the US and many other countries around the world, and what happened then. Of course, the analogy is not perfect. Our world has evolved since that time. We have new types of norms, and more advanced technologies.
However, human nature is still the same as it was two thousand years ago. Similar processes can provoke similar responses. Paradoxically, all the advanced technology that we have, actually magnifies the effect. Polarization is creeping up on us, and we need to wake up before it is too late.
It is fun to compare different eras and see where we are on the timeline. While no era is the same, we cannot ignore the striking similarities. So at what point of the fall of the Roman Republic are we?
I had previously written two articles that go into the parallels between the fall of the Roman Republic and today in much greater detail.
I had carefully gone through many of the ancient sources into the fall of the Republic and tried to pick out some insights that we could use to learn lessons.
Ancient historians, politicians, and philosophers left some valuable writings that can help us understand what went wrong. In this post I quote from the ancients themselves:
In another post (which is around 21 000 words), I try to analyze in greater detail the time of the fall of the Republic, the forces at play, and then compare and contrast them with today:
The fall of the Roman Republic did not happen overnight, but after a series of events that spanned over a century. Most ancient commentators agree that the initial conditions that facilitated the chaos came after Rome’s greatest triump, and that is the defeat of Carthage.
Enormous riches were brought into the city, and Rome became the predominant power in the Mediterranean. This worsened the income disparities, as the rich got richer beyond their wildest dreams, and poor got poorer with no hope of getting back up on their feet. Grievances started appearing.
In this tense atmosphere, politicians became divided into camps. Some tried to come up with solutions to try to lessen the income disparities. However, greater polarization was the result and in order to get their way, some of these politicians started going around the traditional political norms of the Republic.
Little by little, what used to be an orderly process, turned into chaos, political murders appeared, mobs started rioting in the streets. This culminated in a series of civil wars, where powerful individuals tried to satisfy their ego and ambitions and plunged the Republic into a crisis from which it never recovered.
Polarization in many countries of the northern hemisphere seems to be having similar dynamics as those of the ancient Roman Republic. Polarization is growing, populism is on the rise and demagogues are getting more power. If this trend continues, we could be headed for a much more chaotic time.
Let’s do a fun little exercise and place the current developments on the timeline of ancient Rome. For the US, I think the place that is most similar is around 103 BC, when Saturninus was elected tribune, and entered into an alliance with Marius, who was at the height of his power as a consecutive consul, and later also Glaucia, a powerful senator.
Together, they held the power in the state, supported by mobs made up of plebs and army veterans. Their chief opposition were the conservative senators led by several members of the Metellus family.
This was the time of growing polarization and tensions, and terminated in angry mobs rioting, Saturninus and Glaucia ordering the murder of a popular candidate for consul, and then themselves being arrested and killed by an angry mob.
If you look at other countries, the UK and France seem to have even greater polarization than the US, with France already having angry mobs in the streets setting fire to things. I would say these countries are already after the 100 BC mark.
Russia has already completed the full cycle of anacyclosis, with a very brief period of chaotic democracy (which was anyways dominated by oligarchs) ending around the turn of the millennium, and is in full tyrannical monarchy mode with one man running the show.
The similarities between what happened in the Roman Republic and what is happening now are striking, but they are not perfect parallels. Every age is unique, and for us technology will play a defining role, for the better or the worse.
What we also cannot forget is the role of unforeseen events. These can strike at any time and swerve the course to totally different directions.
While in the previous post looking at the ancient sources, I had included many different wise ancients, they were all guys who lived through the era of Rome and were familiar with the city.
One ancient source I did not include was Aristotle. His work called “Politics” discussed different states and constitutions. There is an interesting remark in it, that I will quote at length, since it not only summarizes the problem that the Roman Republic later faced, but one that our own world is facing today:
“The boundaries of virtue and vice in the state must also necessarily be the same as in a private person; for the form of government is the life of the city. In every city the people are divided into three sorts; the very rich, the very poor, and those who are between them.
If this is universally admitted, that the mean is best, it is evident that even in point of fortune mediocrity is to be preferred; for that state is most submissive to reason; for those who are very handsome, or very strong, or very noble, or very rich; or, on the contrary; those who are very poor, or very weak, or very mean, with difficulty obey it; for the one are capricious and greatly flagitious, the other rascally and mean, the crimes of each arising from their different excesses: nor will they go through the different offices of the state; which is detrimental to it.
Besides, those who excel in strength, in riches, or friends, or the like, neither know how nor are willing to submit to command: and this begins at home when they are boys; for there they are brought up too delicately to be accustomed to obey their preceptors: as for the very poor, their general and excessive want of what the rich enjoy reduces them to a state too mean: so that the one know not how to command, but to be commanded as slaves, the others know not how to submit to any command, nor to command themselves but with despotic power.
A city composed of such men must therefore consist of slaves and masters, not freemen; where one party must hate, and the other despise, where there could be no possibility of friendship or political community: for community supposes affection; for we do not even on the road associate with our enemies. It is also the genius of a city to be composed as much as possible of equals; which will be most so when the inhabitants are in the middle state: from whence it follows, that that city must be best framed which is composed of those whom we say are naturally its proper members.
It is men of this station also who will be best assured of safety and protection; for they will neither covet what belongs to others, as the poor do; nor will others covet what is theirs, as the poor do what belongs to the rich; and thus, without plotting against any one, or having any one plot against them, they will live free from danger: for which reason Phocylides wisely wishes for the middle state, as being most productive of happiness.
It is plain, then, that the most perfect political community must be amongst those who are in the middle rank, and those states are best instituted wherein these are a larger and more respectable part, if possible, than both the other; or, if that cannot be, at least than either of them separate; so that being thrown into the balance it may prevent either scale from preponderating.
It is therefore the greatest happiness which the citizens can enjoy to possess a moderate and convenient fortune; for when some possess too much, and others nothing at all, the government must either be in the hands of the meanest rabble or else a pure oligarchy; or, from the excesses of both, a tyranny; for this arises from a headstrong democracy or an oligarchy, but very seldom when the members of the community are nearly on an equality with each other. We will assign a reason for this when we come to treat of the alterations which different states are likely to undergo.
The middle state is therefore best, as being least liable to those seditions and insurrections which disturb the community; and for the same reason extensive governments are least liable to these inconveniences; for there those in a middle state are very numerous, whereas in small ones it is easy to pass to the two extremes, so as hardly to have any in a medium remaining, but the one half rich, the other poor: and from the same principle it is that democracies are more firmly established and of longer continuance than oligarchies; but even in those when there is a want of a proper number of men of middling fortune, the poor extend their power too far, abuses arise, and the government is soon at an end.”
from “Politics” by Aristotle