Whenever the United States fall into strife, quips and stories about the fall of Rome follow naturally. If Rome fell, why not the US? Indeed, it’s quite logical given that no empire in the history of the planet has ever been permanent. Nations with a long imperial heritage, particularly Egypt and China, were not only reconstituted from scratch several times they both have rejected imperial trappings today.
More to the point, the United States is not an Empire to start with.
There is a more interesting period of Roman history, however, which is when it transformed from a Republic to an Empire. It’s a topic shrouded in complex political machinations that become difficult to understand. But they are indeed worth knowing.
The official chronology is very well fixed. The Roman Republic lasted from 504 BCE to 27 BCE and not a minute less. It started with the overthrow of the last king, Tarquinus Superbus, in 504 BCE. When he was overthrown, the Senate took control in a tribal arrangement with the heads of families. Executive power was given to two Consuls, elected by the Senate, who operated with complete legal immunity for a term of one year.
This was the first attempt to run a large kingdom with a power-sharing arrangement, so its limitations are natural. But they were a source of constant strain which grew as the Republic did.
There were two significant threats to the Republic during this time, and how they were dispatched were the sword and shield of its eventual downfall. The Republic was quite small, essentially the lower two thirds of Italy, when it came into conflict with Carthage in what is now Tunisia. The bitter struggles between them, known as the Punic Wars, lasted from 264 to 146 BCE. Despite some unimaginable defeats at the hands of Carthaginian general Hannibal, Rome eventually won.
With that victory came Spain, North Africa, and all of the Western Mediterranean. The Republic was outgrowing its original charter dramatically.
With a new lust for conquest, the Republic turned on the weak remnants of Greece almost immediately. Constant expansion became the norm and it was a great time to be Roman. But this naturally left the soldiers and poor people wondering what their share of spoils was going to be. If this sounds familiar, it should. The complaint of “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” is essentially constant throughout history, especially with the strong warrior traditions integral to the Western world.
As Rome became richer, the distribution of the spoils of war became a serious strain.
One of the rarely discussed features of Rome is the Plebian Council, a body elected by the poor people left out of the Senate – which is to say, the vast majority. Most of the time it served as a rubber-stamp body despite its power to veto new laws passed by the Senate. In 133 BCE, Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune of the Plebs or the head of this body. His status as a war hero and calls for land for veterans made him a popular choice.
Tiberius pushed as hard as he could for land reform, a literal piece of the conquest for those who took it. He was ultimately murdered by a mob who were in opposition to the radical changes he proposed. His brother Gaius took up the cause, but he, too, was murdered in 123 BCE. That supposedly was the end of that.
There are many ways to study this period, but some excellent videos are probably the easiest. For more information on the Gracchi Brothers, as they are known, this video makes an excellent starting point It’s worth a solid 15 minutes of your time to understand what happened.
This was not the end of calls for reform, however. A young Senator of noble birth, Julius Caesar, started pushing for the same reforms. He was elected Consul in 60 BCE and immediately the Senate became polarize. After his one year term, Caesar was sent off to be governor of Gaul, southern France today, and his supporters were left to fight as a faction without him. Through a series of brilliant maneuvers and the ability to raise his own armies, over the next eight years Caesar conquered all of Gaul, today’s France, and developed immense power away from Rome.
The strain was only increasing.
Caesar was eligible to be re-elected as Consul after ten year hiatus, and the conquest of Gaul only increased the alarm of the conservative faction. Reformers were eager for him to return and lead the charge. Various laws were put in place to serve as roadblocks to Caesar’s return and the entire operation of the Senate gradually devolved from reform to “The Caesar Question.” He was blocked from returning, but did so anyway. In 49 BCE Caesar brought one of his armies into Italy proper, crossing the Rubicon river with them in open violation of Roman law.
This event is also best explained in another video from a different source. If you have a lot of time and wish to understand Rome, there are many others from youtube channel Historia Civilis that I strongly recommend. But this one on Caesar is good for these purposes. It is longer, but worth it.
After a horrible civil war, Caesar consolidated power and became the Dictator of Rome. It seems like the end of the Republic, but it was not officially. When Caesar was murdered in the Senate in 44 BCE, the Senate attempted to pretend everything was back to normal. It was not. Attempts at power sharing were cobbled together, but when Egypt was taken through a series of political maneuvers and a military campaign the strain created by even higher stakes was too high. Octavian (aka Augustus) took control in 27 BCE with the title Princeps, later referring to himself as “Imperator Caesar.” He ruled alone, with complete control, and the Senate was deprecated to a rubber-stamp body much like the Plebian Council.
The Republic was officially, finally, gone.
The parallels with the United States today are more than simply obvious, many of them are by design. The Founding Fathers of the US were very well versed in the history of Rome and understood how the Republic slouched its way into Empire. Power sharing, particularly checks on executive power, were seen as critical to blocking an American Caesar.
In general, the fall of the Roman Republic is attributed to these factors, all of which we can see deliberately dealt with in some fashion by the Founding Fathers of the United States:
- The gradual assumption of the trappings of Empire, which put strain on political institutions.
- The lack of a strong rule of law, or the use of law as a tool for control rather than creation of order.
- The independence of the military and the use of force as a political tool.
- The lack of basic rights for all citizens.
- The lack of effective political outlets for reform generally.
- The lack of democracy, or direct input into by the people, due to an ineffective Plebian Council.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Before there is a republic, democratic or otherwise, there has to be the absolute rule of law. Our presidency is designed to have very specific checks on its power in the form of institutions and elections for a very good reason. Subsequent generations after the Founders only reinforced this as the quest for increasing civil right came to define American political history.
But there was still the growth of Empire, or the spirit of one, regardless of the structure. And the spoils of empire are never distributed evenly.
Is the United States a republic or an empire? We are a Republic, certainly, but in terms of operation we have come to look more and more like an Empire. This was ultimately what caused the Roman Republic to collapse, not on one specific date but gradually as the amount of control it exercised grew beyond the ability of its political institutions to manage them. Their Senate became useless not through decree but through its own petty squabbles and a greater favor to personal power over the stability of the institution itself.
We can see all of this happening now. As Barataria has said many times, history does not repeat but it does rhyme like a street poet hitting the downbeat. The lessons of the fall of Rome are well worth understanding, and not the fall of the Roman Empire. The fall of the Republic was more complex but, to ordinary citizens and to history, much more devastating.