Thursday, February 2, 2017

This is not like the end of the Roman Republic

Yesterday evening someone told me that people were saying that the current situation is like how the Roman Republic ended and I started typing about how it isn't.  Around midnight I realized that maybe I was running a bit long.

So let's start with some basic high level overview, and save the huge detail for other posts.

The end of the Roman Republic was something that was a long time coming.  It was the culmination of a series of events that led inexorably to fundamental political change.  Now that change didn't have to be the fall of the Republic; it could have been fixing the Republic, but change of some sort was inevitable.

Note the word "long" in the first sentence above.  Do you understand "long"?  One hundred and six years before the Republic finally fell the whole thing was kicked off when the Senate formed an unruly mob and clubbed Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (and some three hundred of his followers) to death in the forum.  That marked the first notable political violence in Rome since they got rid of the kings almost four hundred years prior.

I've just told you about five centuries of Roman history.  That's what long is.

But maybe it's the same thing but faster.

No.  Nope.  Not even close.  Here's why "long" matters: everyone alive for the fall of the Republic had lived through years when Rome was at war with itself.

Julius Caesar was born when things were still in a period of slow burn.  It had been twenty one years since the Senate killed the second of the Gracchus brothers (this time with three thousand of his followers) and the civil wars wouldn't start for another eleven years.  Thirty-two years of relative quiet.  Amazing.

But eventually Caesar had to turn eleven, didn't he?  People don't care much about that civil war because the one that started the same year that one ended was a really big deal.  Sulla invaded the city of Rome with a Roman army.  That had never happened before.  That was unthinkable.  And all it achieved other than allowing other people to think, "Hey, I could just take my Roman army and invade Rome," was three years of peace.  Four if you pretend the provinces don't exist.

Casear was twenty eight by the time a semi-lasting peace broke out.  From age eleven to twenty eight he only knew three years when Roman wasn't slaughtering Roman.

Small wonder that he had no problem starting a civil war himself a bit over twenty years later.  If you know how old Caesar was when he died, you know what's coming next.

He was dead, killed off by the Senate, pretty much right after that civil war and we need to pause to talk about that for a moment:

* * *

Want to know if this is like the fall of the Republic?  Ask yourself this: can you seriously picture an angry mob of congresspeople led Paul Ryan (for House members) and Mitch McConnell (for senators) murdering Donald Trump on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington DC?

You know it's not going to happen.

We have undivided government right now.  The President is a Republican, the Senate is Republican, the House is Republican, and soon the Supreme Court will be Republican.

There's no friction to create a spark and nothing to light if one were to magically appear.

- - -

Hyphen break because we're not done with the death of Caesar yet.

Roman identity was anti-king.  "King" ("rex") was a dirty word in Rome.  When Rome went back to having kings those kings never called themselves kings for fear that they'd get stabbed to death (and some of them did anyway.)  They called themselves "Guy Who Gives Orders" (Emperor) or "First Guy" (Princeps) or anything but "King".

Kings were antithetical to what it was to be Roman.  Yes they had those legendary kings, yes, Romulus got respect, but that was in the mythological past when the god of war was coming down and having sex with vestal virgins.

If you were a Roman in the late Republic then the entire concept of a king was anti-Rome.

The common people wanted a king.

They didn't want to make Rome great again.  They didn't want to take over the government or control the government or put the government back on track.  They wanted to (figuratively) burn it to the fucking ground and replace it with what the entire government had been built up in opposition to, in hopes that an absolute ruler with no checks on his power wouldn't be beholden to the rich and powerful and thus would stop screwing them over.

They wanted to kill Rome and replace it with something entirely different but with the same name.

We aren't seeing that here in America.  No one's going, "Welp, America has failed.  Let's set the constitution on fire and go in a completely different direction."

Ok, someone probably is.  But not most people.  Regardless of how they feel about what's actually written in the constitution and whether they actually want to obey it, everyone's being all "patriotic".  Scare quotes because some of them really aren't being patriotic.

We have not yet reached the point where the common people of America are openly hostile to the concept of America.  Key word: openly.

The common Romans weren't hiding behind restoration or correction or fixing or anything like that.  They were openly anti-patriots who were about as patriotic in there Roman-ness as George Washington was in his British-ness.

People wanted the Republic to end.  They weren't getting wool pulled over their eyes. There was no double talk (that came later.) They were openly for the wholesale destruction of everything but the name and the borders.

You may think that there are people like that today, but they're not openly saying, "You know the defining qualities that make America America?  Let's get rid of those.

* * *

Ok, so, Caesar's dead; must be time for another civil war.  Well, three concurrent civil wars.  The Republic is still standing in spite of three civil wars going on at the same time.

One of those civil wars went on so long that while it was still going a fourth civil war was fought in its entirety.

Now, the Senate was at peace with the Caesar faction after the biggest of the three post-Caesar civil wars ended in a truce.  They knew things could go very badly for them.  Very, very badly.

Mark Antony and Octavian (Augustus) were the ones with power.

Mark Antony was Caesar's best bud; Octavian was some nineteen-year-old kid who just happened to be related to Caesar.

The Senate backed Octavian because they thought he'd be malleable.  They thought he could be manipulated.  He was the one manipulating them.

When Octavian and Marc Antony went to war (nine years after the most important post-Caesar civil war ended, four years after the longest) it was the death knell of the Republic (provided we're using the "presaging death" sense because it actually took another four years of political manuevering before the Republic was definitely ended.)

* * *

The Roman Republic ended after more than a century of Romans killing Romans for political reasons, including invasions of Rome itself (by Romans, remember), five hugely important civil wars, several less important civil wars, a significant part of the population becoming so disillusioned that they were openly anti-patriotic, and political machinations backfiring on the pro-Republic side.

Can you remember the last time the US was at war with itself?  The last time the US army invaded DC?  Were there heads on pikes?  What about the last time we had more than one civil war going on at the same time?

Do you remember how the slogan, "Don't make America great, kill it and build something great with its corpse," was all the rage with the average American?


That's because this isn't how the Roman Republic ended.

We still have church burning, mass murders and church-burning mass-murders and so forth, but it's been one hundred fifty two years since the US went to war with itself.  No one alive today remembers us killing us.

EVERYONE at the time of the Republic dying remembered Romans killing Romans.  They couldn't help it.  It was yesterday.  And last week.  And last year.  And a decade ago.

That is how the Roman Republic ended.  Things getting worse and worse for a century until, finally, something had to break.

And I mean break-break.  Not a mere civil war followed by a civil war with another civil war fast on its heels break.  Actually fundamentally break in a way that goes beyond brother killing brother and blood in the streets.

No comments:

Post a Comment