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When in Rome? | Focus

HBO’s Rome offers a peek into BC-era political dilemmas not unlike our own. The lesson, it seems, is not to do as the Romans did.

INT. ATRIUM OF ATIA BALBA’S MANOR, ROME — DAY, 49 BC

Roman legionary Titus Pullo leans against a column eating grapes. Opposite him his commander, Lucius Vorenus, sits uneasily on the edge of his seat. Both are dressed rustically. To Vorenus’s right is Gaius Octavian, a young boy in a fine shirt. Opposite him, his mother Atia Balba reclines, wearing luxurious dress and wig.

PULLO: Priests! Crooks, many of them. I just talk direct to whatever god I'm doing business with. Bugger the priests.

ATIA: Too few people can be bothered to do things the proper old, Roman way. I commend you, Lucius!

OCTAVIAN: Vorenus is a strict Catonian.

VORENUS: I believe in the divinity of the Republic. If Cato believes the same, then I suppose I am a Catonian.

ATIA: But Cato represents the rights of nobility. Surely a plebeian like yourself would like to see some changes made.

VORENUS: It should remain as it was at the founding of the Republic. Why should that change?

OCTAVIAN: Because the Roman people are suffering. Because slaves have taken all the work. Because nobles have taken all the land, and the streets are full of the homeless and the starving.

ATIA: I had no idea my son was such a firebrand.

OCTAVIAN: The nobles say that Caesar is a war criminal. They say that he wishes to march on Rome and make himself king.

VORENUS: That is sacrilege. No man of honor would follow him.

PULLO: Well, I'm no man of honor then. Because I say Caesar should ride in here with elephants and squash Pompey and Cato and anybody else that wants it, never mind the law! That's what I say.

VORENUS: You say that because you govern your reason no better than you govern your tongue!

ATIA: Forgive me. It's my fault for mixing politics and wine.


This scene comes from HBO’s unfortunately short-lived Rome. If you haven’t seen it (you ought to), the show chronicles the transition of Rome from republic to empire, the rise of Julius Caesar and the fall of the Senate. One of the great features of Rome is its two main characters, no great names of history but lowly soldiers who find themselves in the midst of a changing world, not unlike ourselves perhaps. This scene uses those characters to dive right into the core political debate of the day, juxtaposing these very different people—soldiers and nobles, young and old, commanders and subordinates, traditionalists and realists—to get a fascinating and probably accurate cross-section of Roman political sentiments in the age of Caesar.

Octavian, the promising young man that he is, breaks down the day’s issues very well, and his commentary, airing in 2005 and made about events in the BCs, sounds very familiar to our own times and troubles.

To understand this period of Rome’s history and the collapse of the Republic, however, requires looking much further back, to stories less familiar to our ears than talk of Caesar and his crossing of the Rubicon. As is so often the case, the die was cast long before then.

Caesar stood principally as a partisan of the interests of the people of Rome, or plebeians, against the interests of the, as he and his supporters saw it, increasingly oligarchic ruling Senatorial class of patricians. The first obvious seeds of this conflict were sown almost a century before Caesar, with the dramatic expansion of Rome’s territory. As the borders of the Republic spread through expansionary wars, slaves flooded the city, promising cheaper labor than the plebeians could ever afford to match. The wealthiest patricians began buying up slaves and newly-conquered land, growing their already-fabulous wealth and putting vast swathes of plebeians out of work and into fatal poverty.

In response to this growth of poverty and discontentment, Tiberius Gracchus—a populist politician of sorts who held the office of tribune—advocated for land reform and greater benefits for Rome’s provincial and urban poor. Tiberius’s patrician opponents eventually mobbed him and beat him to death in public: a profoundly irreligious act, as tribunes like Tiberius were literally sacred. Soon after, his brother would suffer a similar fate under the bludgeon of a broken chair leg in the forum. Hundreds of his allies were rounded up and executed.

It was long believed in Roman culture that the key to the success and resilience of the Republic was its poverty: that hard, rustic living had made the Romans tough and capable of great achievements. With the immense, newfound, and concentrated wealth gained by conquest, things were fast changing. It was also commonly believed that the Republic was divinely sanctioned, but that too was now falling by the wayside as political spats took precedence over religious obligations, as with the violation of the sacred protection of Tiberius. The Republic’s social fabric was tearing, but, for now, the regime persisted.

About a half century after the time of the Gracchi, the age of Marius and Sulla would come to pass, renewing this dispute between the people and the Senate. Marius, a populare or friend of the people, professionalized Rome’s erstwhile citizen army, bringing thousands of armed—and formerly poor and disenfranchised—men into his personal allegiance who would support his seizure of power. Eventually Sulla, an optimate or partisan of the Senatorial ruling class, rose to oppose him. Rome’s first great civil war ensued, and Sulla won. He promptly executed Marius’s allies, as the partisans of the Senate had done to the friends of the Gracchi years before. Score: 2-0 for the Senate against the people.

It was this history—a history of the collapse of social norms and constraints—which Caesar inherited when he crossed the Rubicon river and plunged the Republic into its final, fatal crisis. The troubles cited by Octavian—lack of work, consolidation of land and wealth—weren’t new in Caesar’s time. In fact, they’d been basically getting worse or remaining the same for almost a century. It’s just that the ones demanding reform—the people—kept losing to those in power—the Senate. Caesar, though himself a patrician and member of an ancient noble family, would reverse this trend by defeating the forces of the Senate in battle and ushering in reforms the Gracchi could have only dreamed of.

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For years I’ve asked myself where today’s America is along the timeline of Roman history. After all, Rome was the last great republic for millennia, until—we tell ourselves at least—the rise of the United States. We share a militarism, a crudeness or lack of sophistication, an unparalleled willingness to sue our countrymen, and a general belief in our own exceptionalism (whether personal or national). And just like Rome’s republic and later empire did, our regime too will eventually collapse.

I’m still torn about whether ours is a time of the Gracchi or of Caesar. On the one hand, the complete abandonment of centuries-old norms displayed in the storming of the Capitol seems akin to the killing of tribune Tiberius Gracchus. On the other hand, it’s hard not to look at Trump and think of Caesar or Marius (as decidedly less impressive a person he seems). Regardless which moment is most like ours, the key features that remain constant through this century-long period are certainly shared by our own time: the growth of inequality and decline of moderating social norms (e.g. polarization).

Unsurprisingly then, I see political dialogue almost exactly the same as in the scene from Rome on what seems a daily basis. The far right and far left seem to share Pullo’s sentiment; the system is obviously broken, so to hell with the elites and the rules. An avatar of one side is of course Donald Trump. Instead of promising to bring down the Senate and expel the slaves who take all the work, he swears an end to outsourcing and immigration, to the same end.

In the middle, where you’ll find self-avowed centrists and #resisters, I see similarities to Lucius Vorenus: an almost instinctual opposition to Trump, because American democracy is good. Why is American democracy good? You might get all kinds of answers, but at the root of it is a deeply held, almost religious belief that it is somehow the right form of government.

Truth be told, I’d count myself among these people in the middle who have an unwavering faith in the legitimacy of the American experiment. But, as Octavian demonstrates, there sometimes is an answer to the question, “Why should things change?” and it’s rather powerful: poverty, strife, material necessity.

When you take refuge in a preservationist school of thought like Vorenus’s, you can miss that reality. Sure, democracy may in fact be the best form of government, but insistence on the truth of that statement does nothing to assuage the concerns or the pain of people whom it has failed to serve. Simple love of the regime, of democracy, of liberal democracy skirts the material reality and secludes itself in a cave of self-assuredness which serves no one else.

In part, it may be controversial to take a position like that. Some might even say it’s anti-democratic. After all, modern liberal democracy is a form of government founded on principles and procedures. You have a few key rights, and they’re enumerated in the Constitution. Similarly, that document lays out rules for how and what things can be changed over time, and those rules must be followed before any other concern. The regime is, essentially, little more than a procedure for how to make decisions and a few limits on what decisions may not be reached.

In a way, to suggest that democracy needs to be defended as somehow substantively good is a betrayal of that democratic principle of procedure before all else. Perhaps I even sound a bit like Caesar himself, or the Chinese Communist Party, who insist that true democracy is service to the people, rules and institutions be damned.

But that isn’t what I’m saying. Procedure is crucial. Without it, there isn’t reason not to reach for a Caesar or Donald Trump: a promise of a quick fix to all our substantive problems. If we put substantive results well before procedure, we invite a destruction of the rules which hold power in check. To defend American democracy purely on its ability to deliver substantive results would invite the replacement of the regime as soon as it fails to deliver on par compared to others.

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But procedure, good as it may be, is also never enough. See in the history of Rome how decorum crumbles before the mighty wave of necessity. Take even our stern republican Lucius Vorenus (a minor spoiler to follow). He says, “no man of honor would follow” Caesar. And yet, within months, as he finds himself hard up and in need of money, he ends up begging for a job under Caesar. Consider today how we react when someone we believe guilty of some crime is acquitted. We become furious that the system is failing, even if all the rules of procedure are followed. We want hard justice, not only rule-following.

What’s more, last week, Harry wrote about meritocracy and its tendency to generate many dispossessed and in turn many despairing and resentful. Even perfect meritocracy, he reminds us, does this. When you consider liberal democracy, politically and economically, it purports itself to be meritocratic. And even if it’s perfectly so, then following that procedure is bound to generate negative externalities and misfortune at the margins. As time goes on, and “merit” consolidates, that misfortune may look less marginal and more mainstream. Such discontentment can ultimately threaten the stability of the entire system, as it did in Rome and as it may be doing now in America.

To love democracy in times like this, then, does not mean merely to love, as Vorenus does, its procedure, its rules, its promises of fair opportunity. Neither does it mean to love, as Pullo does, its promises of fair results and equality, its material benefits like broad-based wealth and prosperity. What democracy in crisis demands is a synthesis of these two minds: a care for procedure alongside an understanding that it must be for something, some hard result which is beneficial for the people. To be a partisan of democracy in unstable times, then, demands being political. It isn’t enough to stand apart from the fray and remind everyone that democracy is good for some philosophical or ethical reasons. Such appeals are bound to fall on deaf ears when many don’t feel materially well-served by the system.

But, then, that makes a very difficult request of us who care for democracy, because we must make a judgement of who to side with. It’s harder to tell than it might seem at first blush.

Take a look at Rome in the time of Caesar first. Caesar may well have wanted to destroy the republic, or save it. To judge him negatively, all anyone would have to go by at the time was his means: marching into Italy with his army. Besides this, however, his pretexts were entirely democratic; he promised to restore the Republic to a regime sharing power between the Senate and People of Rome, rather than allowing the Senate to hold all the power and abuse the people. On the other side of the equation, Pompey and Cato and the rest of the Senate make it hard not to sympathize with Caesar’s claims. They were fighting to defend the Republic, sure, but the Republic as it was at that moment: in other words, the status quo, which was, undeniably, a rapidly-consolidating, if not consolidated, oligarchy. The Republic was hardly a republic at all. Caesar, then, promises something partisans of democracy ought to appreciate. Though he may be a wildcard, there’s some potential for improvement, which is hard to say of the Senate.

In America today, many of us and our countrymen find themselves, or did at some point recently, in a similar dilemma. The regime, to the serious eye, is clearly losing touch with its democratic promises. Gerrymandering makes more and more elections less competitive, almost foregone conclusions. Our political elites continue to prove themselves incapable of just about anything besides insider trading, tweeting platitudes, cutting taxes for wealthy people, and putting on one hell of a show for DC reporters and the people who can’t take their eyes off their articles. Our leaders seem to grow older and wealthier every election. Accurate or not, this is the perception of a whole lot of people, or else it’s pretty hard to rationalize the popularity of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

We are then faced with the dilemma of who to support. Partisans of Trump, many of them at least, were drawn to his promises like Caesar’s: to restore the jobs, to restore the regime, to place power back into the hands of the people. On the other side, with Joe Biden and the Democrats, we were promised similar greatness: enormous reforms to restore the working class and its power in society. Yet with both of them, we hardly got anything of the sort. Trump ended up being little more than a racist Republican who cut taxes for the wealthy and tried but failed to axe Obamacare. It wasn’t until his election denialism and January 6th that it became clear beyond any doubt that he would not hesitate to try to be a despotic Caesar. Even then, the banner-bearers on that day truly believed they were engaging in a restoration of the regime’s promises. Joe Biden has proposed reforms bigger than anything we’ve seen in a long time, but the gerontocratic oligarchy of the Senate hasn’t even been able to vote on most of them. It becomes harder by the day not to give up and wish that someone, anyone, would do something remarkable to bring glory back to our democracy, to make America great again.

And so, in a time like this, as such sentiments become more and more compelling to many Americans, the only answer to the political dilemma is reform of some kind. What seems likely today is that any collapse of the regime would take some time. After all, the example of Rome makes it clear how resilient are the powers that be. The Senate beat the people twice, in brutal fashion, because, after all, they were at the top of the status quo and held all the power. But eventually, if all the regime can muster is squashing of dissent, it will run out of energy. The people will always win in time; there are too many of them for it to go any other way. Reform, the amelioration of popular conditions, the surrendering of some power and wealth by the powerful and wealthy, is the only other avenue.

What I mean to say is that American democracy cannot for long be sustained on sentiment and attachment, on love of the regime. By the day, one has a harder time finding a Lucius Vorenus and an easier time stumbling into a Titus Pullo. Truth be told, the most reliable way to provide a substantively good life to most people is to follow the procedure of liberal democracy. But the rules can be followed to bad ends just as well as good ones. To preserve the procedure of democracy, the regime requires a material justification: a proof that it still works, still provides a good life to the American people. Without such a proof, our democracy will die, either slowly or all at once, and such a death wouldn’t be without good reason.

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If you're curious to learn more about this period of Roman history and what we might be able to learn from it and apply to our challenges today, Plutarch's biographies are a great insight into the lives of important Romans at any time. This collection is a good one for the period in question. From a more modern voice, Mike Duncan is an excellent and accessible presenter of Roman history, both through his podcast, and his book on this period.

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