The Empire Strikes Back

The United States of America is currently approaching its 248th birthday. Generally speaking, that’s not bad. But there have indeed been a number of entities that lasted longer, of which the Romans were fundamentally responsible for three. The first was the Roman Republic, which by most accounts lasted from 509 BC to 27 BC – 482 years by the Machine’s high-powered number crunching capability. So not only are we not the first representative democracy in the world, we’re only half as old as possibly the most famous one. We also weren’t all that original in the way our nation came about: the Roman Republic followed over 200 years of monarchy, ending when the last monarch became exceptionally overbearing. All that was missing was a Tea Party.

Prior to the Roman Republic, Rome was ruled by a series of seven Etruscan kings from the central region of the Italian peninsula. The last of these kings, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud) was reportedly considerably crueler than his predecessors, so the Roman citizens overthrew him with help from another king named Porsenna. Porsenna wanted to become the new king of Rome, but he was told “thanks but no thanks”, and the Roman Republic was born. It began with a Senate that had previously existed to advise the kings.

The early Roman Senate was comprised of patricians (the privileged class), while the plebeians primarily would serve as soldiers in wars. Over time, the plebeians demanded and were granted a greater role in their government, starting with the creation of the Concilium Plebis (Council of Plebs), which in turn led to the Comitia Centuriata (more military in nature, and which elected the magistrates) and the Comitia Tributa (tribal assemblies open to all free adult males, which focused on local authority and limited judicial powers). The magistrates included the consuls, of which two essentially were serving at any given time as heads of state. The consuls were mostly concerned with waging war as needed. The early days of the Roman Republic were also when the role of dictator was established – an emergency position limited to six months in duration.

While the later Roman Empire is often revered for the geographical extent of its rule, much of that expanse was conquered during the days of the Roman Republic. The Republic first subdued the Italian peninsula, and then took control of the Mediterranean beginning with the conquest of Carthage during the Punic Wars (264-146 BC), in which Hannibal was defeated and Carthage itself was laid waste. The Romans then defeated Syria, Macedonia, Greece, and Egypt.

The bigger the Republic became, the more difficult it was to look after all of it, especially those closest to Rome itself. Civil unrest grew as the nation was constantly more concerned with its borders. It was during this time that Julius Caesar built the framework for his eventual rise to power – using conquests to gain the support of the soldiers and expand the empire, while simultaneously feeding on the growing discontent of the Roman citizens as the Republic grew increasingly unable to address their concerns. Caesar became a consul in 59 BC, and then formed a loose alliance known as the First Triumvirate with rival politicians Pompey and Crassus. He was appointed governor of Gaul (modern day France and Belgium), and then he utilized the Gallic wars to strengthen his standing and pad his wallet. He was also the first Roman to make expeditions all the way up to Britain.

Eventually, Caesar became powerful enough that the Triumvirate dissolved; Pompey and the Senate demanded that he relinquish his army, but instead he crossed the Rubicon (the northern boundary of Rome at that time) and invaded Rome, where he drove away Pompey and claimed the title of dictator for life. While in that role, short though his reign was, Caesar expanded the senate to dilute its prestige and power, filled it with his allies, and passed laws allowing him to appoint all magistrates and eventually consuls and tribunes. Fearing he would increasingly tighten his grip on power over Rome, a group of senators led by Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus assassinated Caesar on March 15, 44 BC.

By that time, the Republic was on a respirator. Caesar’s nephew and heir Octavian defeated the conspirators, and Octavian split the Republic with Marc Antony – Octavian getting the North and Antony getting the South. Then came Cleopatra, rumors of impending betrayal, and a snake – and with the Battle of Actium Octavian took control of the entire Roman Republic. He established himself as Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and completed the centralization of power that had begun under Julius Caesar: the ability to introduce and veto laws, complete command of the army, and final say on who was allowed to hold any office of significance. The Senate’s role became to legitimize the emperor, and the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire.

Just like the Roman Republic before it, the Roman Empire eventually became too big to maintain. Diocletian split it in half at one point, but that merely delayed its ultimate fate. For all practical purposes, it fell in 476, but the eastern portion (the Byzantine Empire) would last another 1000 years until falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

In the latter days of the Roman Republic, we can see a lot of the same things we see in the United States today: a growing dissent and increasing polarization in the population; faded memories of the kings (i.e., an empire) that preceded the Republic; and an ambitious rising star who knew exactly which buttons he could push to turn up the temperature and set the stage for his moment. What’s also interesting, and all too familiar, is the length of time over which those ambitions were fairly obvious – a couple of decades in this case – and yet no one was able to keep them in check. Caesar’s name lasted even longer than the Roman Empire – it is the foundation of titles ranging from Tsar to Kaiser in more modern times. It seems we never learn…

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

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