What the fall of the Roman Republic can teach us about America
During the century and a half between the time of Pyrrhus and the rise of Tiberius Gracchus, there had not been a single explosion of large-scale political violence. Then Tiberius passed land reforms in defiance of the Senate veto. In the crash that followed, he and hundreds of his supporters were murdered. The taboo on naked power politics had been broken, never to recover.
Over the following years, it quickly became normal for populist politicians to set aside long-standing standards to achieve their goals; for the military commanders to bend the Senate to their will by threatening to occupy Rome; and for rival generals to wage war against each other. “Less than a generation after the first political assassination in Rome, politicians began to arm their supporters and use the threat of violence to influence assembly votes and the election of magistrates. In two generations, Rome fell into civil war.
If we are to avoid the fate that ultimately befell Rome, warns Watts, it is “essential that we all understand how the republic of Rome functioned, what it accomplished and why, after nearly five centuries, its citizens fell apart. are ultimately turned away from it and turned to the autocracy of Augustus. In a sense, the book fails in this ambition. The more so as he progresses, Watts, professor of history at the University of California at San Diego, abandons a careful analysis of major trends for a detailed account of the many conflicts that have divided the republic over the past century. of its existence. Sometimes this never-ending onslaught of calamity – yet another violation of a traditional norm, the last commander to threaten an invasion of Rome, one more shift in the ever-fragile constellation of power – begins to numb the mind.
But in another sense, the mere repetition of the calamities that befell Rome only underscores the book’s most urgent message. If we were to spell out the implicit analogy that runs through the “Mortal Republic”, we would most likely present Donald Trump as a grotesque reincarnation of Tiberius Gracchus. Like the original populist, Trump was propelled to power by the all too real failures of a political system unable to curb growing inequalities or mobilize its most prominent citizens around a shared conception of the common good. And like Gracchus, Trump believes that, because he acts on behalf of the dispossessed, it is perfectly justified to tear apart the traditions of the Republic.
If this analogy is correct, the good news is that Trump, once the history of our own mortal Republic is written, will turn out to be a relatively minor figure. Far from destroying our political system on its own, it is the figure of the transition, the election of which demonstrates to what extent the failings of our democracy are finally starting to wreak havoc.
The bad news is that the coming decades are unlikely to provide us with many moments of peace and quiet. For although four generations stand between the violent death of Tiberius Gracchus and Augustus’ rapid rise to plenipotentiary power, the century that followed was one of virtually incessant fear and chaos. If the central analogy that drives “Mortal Republic” is correct, the current challenge to the American political system is likely to persist long after its current occupant has left the White House.