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What Americans Can Learn From The Fall Of The Roman Republic46:07
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The Supreme Court in Washington in 2012. (Evan Vucci/AP)
The Supreme Court in Washington in 2012. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The fall of the Roman empire has fascinated history buffs and close students of power for centuries. The Fall of the Roman republic, however, may cast more light on our age.

To walk around the federal part of Washington, D.C., is to attain constant glimpses of ancient Rome.

The physical seat of all three branches of government — the White House, the Supreme Court building, the U.S. Capitol — and the National Archives all draw inspiration from Roman architecture. The very name of the U.S. Senate is taken from Rome. And that’s no accident.

The Founding Fathers of this country looked to Rome for inspiration — not the empire, the republic.

For hundreds of years the Roman republic flourished, based on checks and balances, compromise and annual votes. But by 130 B.C., Romans were losing faith in the system. And the center could not hold.

In order to move forward, we must look back. And that's just what we did, Hour 2, Friday, On Point.

Edward Watts, professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, and author of "Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny," described the parallels and differences between the Roman and American republics.

Interview Highlights

What inspired you to publish your book at this time?

"The biggest thing that inspired me to do this was to see the reaction and the sort of questions that my students are asking me. I've been teaching [a course on Roman history] for over 20 years, and the interest that students have had usually been in the empire, and what happens in the empire, and why the empire disappears.

"But over the last two or three years, the questions have really been about the republic. What does the republic tell us about ways to think about what's going on in the world around us now? And I think the republic offers us a story that offers us some way to think. It doesn't prescribe what the future will be for us, but I think it does give us a sense of things we need to be aware of and conditions and kinds of political behaviors that will be destructive in a situation and in a system that is designed to promote consensus.

"My students' interest in this is quite sincere. And they really are seeking tools to try to figure out the world around them. And I think the Roman republic offers some pretty significant and important tools to think about what behaviors might help us politically, and what behaviors might prove destructive politically."

How do we gauge today if there is an unraveling of norms that could be detrimental over the long-term?

"The thing that is particularly dangerous to look at are actions that, when they were done the first time, were seen as really aberrant and oddly sort of dangerous, that have become commonplace. Twenty-five years ago, shutting down the government for political brinkmanship was seen as absolutely crazy. It was someone no one would dare do. And now its routine.

"That's a sort of degeneration of norms. There's no law that says you can't do that. But the norms saying that that's something that is not acceptable have completely eroded. And now this is something that-it's just done as part of a process of political negotiation. It's almost become sort of a routine part of the system.

"I think that the law granting presidents the ability to assert emergency powers-it seems to me that this is a law that is incredibly permissive because there was a basic assumption that presidents would use it ways that were not for political gain, but were to actually address a problem that was an emergency.

"Like when President Carter used it to streamline action against Iran for taking hostages, or when President Bush used it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those were not for political purposes. They were to respond quickly to a problem that needed a quick response. And the law, it seems, could potentially be used in the way President Trump is talking about using it. The reason it hasn't been before is because there was a norm saying this is actually for a real purpose, a real emergency. In this context, I think if it's used, basically as a sort off-ramp for political stalemate, that opens up a precedent to misuse this law even worse in the future."

"The Roman republic offers some pretty significant and important tools to think about what behaviors might help us politically, and what behaviors might prove destructive politically."

Edward Watts

What was the mentality of Roman citizens before the transition from republic to empire, and does that have any resonance for what we can watch for today?

"The citizens of Rome took it for granted that the republic would be there. And so there were conscious choices made to either act in your own self-interest in ways that were sort of damaging to the structure of the republic and the norms that sustained it, or, if you're a regular voter, an unwillingness to punish people who behaved that way. But beneath that is a basic assumption that the republic is incredibly successful, and it's been there a long time and it doesn't need protecting. The short-term gains you could get from doing something that violates political norms are worth it because they weren't going to destroy the system.

"Not all Romans were complacent all the time. There were moments throughout even that last century where Romans would say, 'This is a crisis and we need to rally around the state. We need to defend our republic.' But the average choices individuals were making accumulated and created conditions where these norms could be violated in ways that were more subtle than marching an army on Rome, but no less destructive over a long period of time.

"The particular analogy that I think Rome offers Americans — the Weimar Republic was young. The republics that fell in the 1930s in places like Germany or Spain and led to totalitarianism were young republics. There were a lot of people in those societies who remembered living under something else. And so they didn't take the continuity of that republic for granted, in a way that citizens living in a republic that's been around for centuries can tend to do.

"I don't think that anyone, consciously, is thinking that the danger to the United States from having these budget shutdowns, and other political conflicts like we've been having, will accumulate in such a way that they create conditions for the republic to ultimately fall. Because our republic is old, and it has generally been successful. And there's a complacency that comes about from living in an old republic because it's hard to imagine what seems impossible. And it's hard to see how you'd reach that point. And I think the lesson that Rome provides is that a republic that is old and is successful can generate a special kind of complacency among citizens that ultimately can be as destructive as the cynicism of people living in a young republic who don't feel it's the right form of government for them at all.

"The average choices individuals were making accumulated and created conditions where these norms could be violated in ways that were more subtle than marching an army on Rome, but no less destructive over a long period of time."

Edward Watts

What would you say President Trump represents in terms of violations of norms?

"I think there are a couple of things that are particularly alarming about the way that Trump is doing this. The use of emergency decrees — we've seen that go wrong in the 20th century and 21st century in so many different contexts. When you empower a president to declare an emergency without a clear sense of what actually constitutes an emergency, there are all sorts of things that can be done that are effectively unchecked. I think that's a really dangerous step. It's a really dangerous precedent.

"Another thing that is alarming to me is the use of this kind of menacing behavior at rallies. That, I think, is something that challenges this basic rule that political behavior will not be subject to violence. [Trump] has not encouraged violence. There hasn't been the kind of violence that you see in Rome in the last century of the republic. But even creating a condition where you can start to speak in that way, it encourages a movement toward behaving that way. And I think all politicians need to sort of be aware that one of the greatest things that a republic guarantees is the ability to participate willingly and peacefully without putting your life at risk for doing this."

"There's a complacency that comes about from living in an old republic because it's hard to imagine what seems impossible."

Edward Watts

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