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!