An old college professor explained the United States is the heir to the Roman Empire. He told us this some 35 years ago as he suggested Greece would’ve been a better role model. You could also make an argument the world’s largest church is the continuation of Rome but in a different form.
The professor, I believe, was partially right. Growing up I was surrounded by towns named after Roman generals. My maternal grandfather was named after an obscure emperor.
A new book has come along from Mike Duncan, podcaster and historian. Duncan’s work is called the “Storm Before the Storm.” Where many histories focus on the collapse of the Roman Empire, his focus is on the fall of the Roman Republic, an event decades in the making and a half-millennia before the crumbling of empire. In the forward he explains he’s often asked about parallels between the United States and his subject matter. He’s willing to leave the inferences to his readers.
Last week I finished the relatively short book (it clocks in at 265 pages) in a matter of three afternoon bursts of reading. Once you sort the Latin names of the characters it reads like a novel. Much of Rome’s issues in the last decades of the Republic dealt with international rivalries, but more importantly events at home. Between an urban and rural divide. Between a party of the rich and a party of the poor. Between promises of lavish social programs and the struggle to pay for the wishes.
When foreign obligations multiplied, there was a constant need for troops and supplies. An entire merchant class rose and provided shoes, weapons and cloaks for the legions. This class became dependent on military action. Troops were eventually recruited from beyond Rome to meet demand, especially in the Italian countryside, where the residents didn’t enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. Coming home to their farms, the soldiers were faced with fallow fields and rundown barns. A quick fix was selling the property to the wealthy. Then the former farmers moved into Rome and looked for work. The larger farms then recruited foreign labor, slave and free. In the capital wages were depressed because of a glut of labor.
The wealthy patricians were caught off guard when they discovered their policies weren’t popular with the rural and urban poor. Some realized there were massive amounts of voters among the peasants. Promises were made of discount bread. This could be accomplished by taxing the growing merchant class or seizing the far flung grain around the Mediterranean. It also brought in more cheap labor when the triumphant legions returned with gold and more slaves. Keeping the army outfitted continued as a drain on the treasury.
While there were no established political parties, some legendary generals appeased the workers, foot soldiers and poor by promising land reform or land in newly conquered territories. The wealthy objected. Despite a constitution and layers of laws, the sides created street gangs. These brawled in the streets and the life of a rising political star was usually brief. Many murders went unpunished, until the next faction rallied a larger gang and then sought revenge. Compromise vanished. One year you could be labeled the Third Founder of Rome and in less than a decade be a fugitive fleeing through marshes and onward to Africa. Generals routinely marched on each other and Rome in an effort to extract vengeance.
We’re living in some interesting times in the United States. Two large political factions talk of jailing opponents or removing them from office. Roving gangs battle each other on city streets, and sometimes people are killed. Here in flyover country there is a belief we aren’t viewed as equals by the coastal elites. Last month I was reading an agriculture journal and there was a story about corporate farms engaging in the second round of gobbling family farms. The first wave was 30 years ago, and I personally witnessed the result. I can’t say it made small-town living any better.
In the Mountain and Intermountain West there are wealthy Texans buying hundreds of thousands of acres as private preserves.
Government promises to smooth out the rough patches in our lives and struggles with funding the plans. There are American troops serving in 170 countries. Supplying them is profitable for a few, but on borrowed fiat currency.
A great deal of ink is spilled asking if we’ll follow the Roman Republic to extinction. Maybe it’s inevitable. Some years ago I visited a friend who had worked at the federal Justice Department before he retired young on a large inheritance. He pulled a book from a large shelf written by Arnold Toynbee, economist and historian. My friend, a very sharp guy, flipped open to a chapter and recited from memory. Toynbee predicted the collapse of all governments and mapped the stages of government life.
Mike Duncan does compare the end of the Cold War with the sacking of Carthage. What comes next? A consolation is located on any map or globe. There is Rome. Locally, on a street by City Park is a Roman Catholic Church. Science still labels species in Latin. Governments are subject to creative destruction. Some of the best parts remain. For all our worries this is also an opportunity.
Much of Rome’s issues in the last decades of the Republic dealt with international rivalries, but more importantly events at home. Between an urban and rural divide. Between a party of the rich and a party of the poor. Between promises of lavish social programs and the struggle to pay for the wishes.