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Colorful fall

Culture | Ancient Romans traded their freedom for a government that would entertain and take care of them. Sound familiar?

Issue: "George W. Bush: Gut check," April 24, 2004

CULTURAL CRITICS HAVE LONG LOOKED FOR lessons in the fall of the Roman Empire. But far more significant to the United States is the fall of the Roman Republic. Rome became ruled by an all-commanding emperor with pretensions of divinity because the Romans lost their constitutional, freedom-loving republic. A recent book by Tom Holland, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic, is a lively, popularly written history of how this happened.

When the ancient Romans overthrew their king, they formulated a system of representative government complete with free elections, individual rights, checks and balances, and guarantees of liberty. The Romans had a senate to pass laws. They had consuls as an executive branch-two of them, to ensure that no consul could gain too much power.

To further limit their power, they had strict term limits: No consul could serve more than one year. To protect the rights of ordinary citizens, they had the office of tribune, whose task was to be the advocate of the people. (This is why many American newspapers call themselves "tribunes.") The tribune could not only protect a citizen when the government grew too intrusive, he could actually veto legislation.

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Rome's republic lasted for some 500 years. It produced one of the most stable, successful, and accomplished societies the world has ever seen. So what happened?

In some ways, Rome was a victim of its own success. After the invasion by Hannibal and his elephants, Rome not only destroyed Carthage but launched a policy of preemption. The Roman legions marched out to defeat any neighbors that might someday prove a threat. Before long, the plunder and taxes from conquered territories brought the city vast wealth. Ambitious young Romans now had a greater sphere of action. And military success was the surest way to popular acclaim and thus political office.

There were constitutional instabilities too. One-year term limits meant constant campaigning and nonstop political fighting. Factions grew more and more divisive. Politicians would curry favor with the masses by promising free food and by sponsoring lavish entertainments (the notorious "bread and circuses"). The different political factions would form armed gangs that fought each other in the streets. Later, these factions would have armies.

Eventually, the system produced Julius Caesar, a young playboy who was also a military genius with unparalleled leadership qualities. After serving as consul, he was elected proconsul-a position given to those who exercised authority outside of Rome-whereupon he conquered Gaul and much of Western Europe.

As Caesar's term came to an end, he was summoned back to Rome to face charges from his rivals. Would the conqueror of Gaul, at the head of crack, loyal legions, allow himself to lose everything at a trial? Caesar came back, but, deciding to break one of Rome's most hallowed laws that forbade bringing troops across the river into the precincts of Rome, he crossed the Rubicon. His enemies fled, rallying behind another Roman strongman, Pompey the Great (the conqueror of Judea), resulting in civil war.

When it was over, Caesar was supreme. Although he is a hero according to the monarchist Shakespeare, his assassination in the senate was a noble effort to save the republic. But into the power vacuum left by his death rushed a triumvirate of other strongmen, leading to more civil war, until Caesar's adopted son Octavius acquired all power as Caesar Augustus.

Mr. Holland's book is full of memorable characters. Cicero, known today as a great literary stylist and rhetorician, was in the thick of the political battles, and he gave his life for the republic, murdered in a purge of Octavius's enemies. Even more impressive was Cato, the uncompromising moralist and defender of the republican virtues, who died by his own hand rather than surrender to Caesar. (He is the namesake for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.)

Ultimately, what did in the republic was a moral failure. The Roman religion had little, if any, moral content. "Honor" could inspire great deeds, but it also could justify the untrammeled pursuit of selfish ambition. Politicians made themselves above the law. Vicious politics destroyed national unity. The people themselves traded their freedom for charismatic leadership, peace, prosperity, and a government strong enough to take care of them and keep them entertained. They lacked the worldview to sustain a republic.

The American Founders carefully studied the lessons of the Roman Republic, even as they imitated its ideals, as evident in the architecture of the nation's capital. Christianity offered a stronger foundation for self-government than Roman paganism. But as we look at our own increasingly divisive politics and our current worldview shifts, can our republic survive another 300 years to last as long as Rome's?

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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