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Rome Traded Freedom For Autocracy. How Does America's Republic Compare?

A view of the Colosseum after the first stage of the restoration work was completed in Rome, Friday, July 1st, 2016. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
A view of the Colosseum after the first stage of the restoration work was completed in Rome, Friday, July 1st, 2016. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
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Find our buildout from this hour, featuring a partial transcription, here.

With David Folkenflik

Is America on the brink? Looking back at the fall of Rome and what it can teach us about America now.


Edward Watts, professor of history at the University of California, San Diego (@UCSanDiego). Former director of the UCSD Center for Hellenic Studies. Author of "Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny."

From The Reading List

Excerpt from "Mortal Republic," by Edward J. Watts

In 22 BC a series of political and economic crises buffeted the regime of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Augustus had won control of Rome’s Mediterranean empire in 30 BC after nearly two decades of civil conflicts, but his hold on power now seemed like it might be slipping. The emperor had only recently recovered from a severe illness that he himself feared would kill him when a series of other misfortunes beset the imperial capital. Plagues and floods hit Rome late in 23, and both returned in early 22. Theseh natural disasters contributed to a food shortage and to such severe rioting that a mob imprisoned the Roman Senate in the senate house and threatened to burn them alive. Augustus could call the unrest only when he used his own funds to pay for grain to be delivered to the city. It looked like Augustus’s empire might quickly come apart.

Things did not improve as the year continued. Augustus felt compelled to appear at the trial of a Roman commander who had attacked a Thracian tribe without legal authority, and, at the hearing, the emperor found himself subjected to an aggressive cross-examination by the advocates of the accused. An assassination plot against him was detected and, although the plotters were executed, the jury embarrassed the emperor by not returning a unanimous verdict against them.

Problems worsened after Augustus left the capital to attend to matters in the empire’s eastern provinces. The next year, 21 BC, brought rioting about the selection of Roman magistrates, violence that would recur nearly every year until the emperor returned at the end of 19. Rome, whose population of one million people made it the world’s largest city, perpetually sat on the edge of anarchy while its imperial frontiers demanded constant attention. An objective observer might wonder whether one man, even one as skilled as Augustus, could really run so complicated a state. With its seemingly endless problems, Rome’s empire under Augustus might by rights look like a failed political experiment in autocracy. Surely, a citizen of a modern republic might assume, Romans would quickly abandon autocracy and return to the representative republic under which Roman elites had shared power with one another for nearly five hundred years. This is how we, who have lived all of our lives under younger representative democracies, have been trained to think about freedom.

But the traumas of those years did not, in fact, push Romans back toward the familiar political structures of the republic. Instead, most Romans seem to have craved the power and authority of Augustus even more. In 22 BC, the Roman mob that threatened to burn the senate house also sought to force Augustus to accept the title of dictator although he already possessed supreme power in the empire. The third- century Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that the electoral violence of 21 BC showed “clearly that it was impossible for a democratic government to be maintained” among Romans. And, when Augustus returned to the city in 19 BC, the same author wrote: “There was no similarity between the conduct of the people during his absence, when they quarreled and when he was present.” Augustus’s presence alone calmed the chaos of Rome and its empire. But Dio added a caveat. Augustus placated Romans only “because they were afraid.” Order came to chaos only when freedom was exchanged for fear.

Augustus himself explained the transition from republic to empire very differently. Although Romans had long held that political domination by one individual represented the opposite of liberty, Augustus framed his autocratic control of the Roman state as a sort of democratic act. In Augustus’s conception, he had restored liberty (libertas) to Rome by first delivering the Roman world from the senators who had seized power by murdering Julius Caesar and by later eliminating the threat of foreign control posed by Cleopatra and her lover Marc Antony. Liberty, as Augustus and his supporters saw it, meant the freedom from domestic unrest and foreign interference that came only with the security and political stability that Augustus provided. Augustus’s liberty meant that Roman property rights remained valid. It opened economic opportunities to new segments of the Roman population. And it took control of the city and its empire away from an increasingly corrupt senatorial elite whose mismanagement had led to civil war. In the 20s BC, many Romans agreed with Augustus that liberty could not exist if insecurity persisted. They came to believe that freedom from oppression could only exist in a polity controlled by one man.

This book explains why Rome, still one of the longest-lived republics in world history, traded the liberty of political autonomy for the security of autocracy. It is written at a moment when modern readers need to be particularly aware of both the nature of republics and the consequences of their failure. We live in a time of political crisis, when the structures of republics as diverse as the United States, Venezuela, France, and Turkey are threatened. Many of these republics are the constitutional descendants of Rome and, as such, they have inherited both the tremendous structural strengths that allowed the Roman Republic to thrive for so long and some of the same structural weaknesses that led eventually to its demise.

This is particularly true of the United States, a nation whose basic constitutional structure was deliberately patterned on the idealized view of the Roman Republic presented by the second-century BC author Polybius. This conscious borrowing from Rome’s model makes it vital for all of us to understand how Rome’s republic worked, what it achieved, and why, after nearly five centuries, its citizens ultimately turned away from it and toward the autocracy of Augustus.

No republic is eternal. It lives only as long as its citizens want it. And, in both the twenty-first century AD and the first century BC, when a republic fails to work as intended, its citizens are capable of choosing the stability of autocratic rule over the chaos of a broken republic. When freedom leads to disorder and autocracy promises a functional and responsive government, even citizens of an established republic can become willing to set aside long-standing, principled objections to the rule of one man and embrace its practical benefits. Rome offers a lesson about how citizens and leaders of a republic might avoid forcing their fellow citizens to make such a tortured choice.

Rome shows that the basic, most important function of a republic is to create a political space that is governed by laws, fosters compromise, shares governing responsibility among a group of representatives, and rewards good stewardship. Politics in such a republic should not be a zero-sum game. The politician who wins a political struggle may be honored, but one who loses should not be punished. The Roman Republic did not encourage its leaders to seek complete and total political victory. It was not designed to force one side to accept everything the other wanted. Instead, it offered tools that, like the American filibuster, served to keep the process of political negotiation going until a mutually agreeable compromise was found. This process worked very well in Rome for centuries, but it worked only because most Roman politicians accepted the laws and norms of the Republic. They committed to working out their disputes in the political arena that the republic established rather than through violence in the streets. Republican Rome succeeded in this more than perhaps any other state before or since.

If the early and middle centuries of Rome’s republic show how effective this system could be, the last century of the Roman Republic reveals the tremendous dangers that result when political leaders cynically misuse these consensus- building mechanisms to obstruct a republic’s functions. Like politicians in modern republics, Romans could use vetoes to block votes on laws, they could claim the presence of unfavorable religious conditions to annul votes they disliked, and they could deploy other parliamentary tools to slow down or shut down the political process if it seemed to be moving too quickly toward an outcome they disliked. When used as intended, these tools helped promote negotiations and political compromises by preventing majorities from imposing solutions on minorities. But, in Rome as in our world, politicians could also employ such devices to prevent the Republic from doing what its citizens needed. The widespread misuse of these tools offered the first signs of sickness in Rome’s republic.

Much more serious threats to republics appear when arguments between politicians spill out from the controlled environments of representative assemblies and degenerate into violent confrontations between ordinary people in the streets. Romans had avoided political violence for three centuries before a series of political murders rocked the Republic in the 130s and 120s BC.

Once mob violence infected Roman politics, however, the institutions of the Republic quickly lost their ability to control the contexts and content of political disputes. Within a generation of the first political assassination in Rome, politicians had begun to arm their supporters and use the threat of violence to influence the votes of assemblies and the election of magistrates. Within two generations, Rome fell into civil war. And, two generations later, Augustus ruled as Roman emperor. When the Republic lost the ability to regulate the rewards given to political victors and the punishments inflicted on the losers of political conflicts, Roman politics became a zero-sum game in which the winner reaped massive rewards and the losers often paid with their lives.

Above all else, the Roman Republic teaches the citizens of its modern descendants the incredible dangers that come along with condoning political obstruction and courting political violence. Roman history could not more clearly show that, when citizens look away as their leaders engage in these corrosive behaviors, their republic is in mortal danger. Unpunished political dysfunction prevents consensus and encourages violence. In Rome, it eventually led Romans to trade their Republic for the security of an autocracy.

This is how a republic dies.

This book begins in the 280s BC, not long after the written record of Roman history becomes more factual than fanciful. The early chapters show how, in moments of crisis throughout the third century BC, Rome’s republic proved remarkably resilient.

The consensus- building tools of the Republic ensured that it survived after the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy in 218 and that it remained robust throughout the incredible territorial and economic expansion that followed Hannibal’s defeat in 202. The Republic continued to function well as Rome grew into the premier military and political power in the Mediterranean world during the first half of the second century BC. Unlike most other ancient societies, Rome was able to absorb tremendous amounts of territory and generate great economic growth during these years while remaining politically stable.

By the 130s, however, popular anxiety about growing economic inequality began to threaten the Republic’s stability. When politicians working within the framework of the Republic failed to reach a consensus about how to respond to their citizens’ concerns, some of their rivals opportunistically exploited their inaction by pushing for radical policies in ways that breached the boundaries of acceptable political behavior. The quest for consensus that had made Rome’s republic so stable in previous centuries was quickly replaced by a winner-takes-all attitude toward political disputes.

Between 137 and 133, senators disavowed a Roman treaty in order to punish particular political opponents, a group of politicians obstructed land reforms aimed to address social and economic inequality, and their opponents resorted to constitutional trickery to get around their obstruction. Then, as 133 drew to a close, Rome saw its first acts of lethal political violence in more than three centuries.

Subsequent chapters show that the political violence that was so shocking in the 130s became increasingly routine as the second century BC drew to a close. The mob violence of those years, however, only set the stage for the violent and destructive civil wars that tore through Roman and Italian societies in the late 90s and most of the 80s BC. The Social War and the Roman civil wars that followed it resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, executions, and confiscations of property. The Republican structures that had once been so robust and resilient failed amid such widespread violence and dysfunction. Although the Republic would be restored before the 70s began, it would never fully recover.

The concluding chapters treat the final decades of the Roman Republic. The Republic remained a source of great pride and enjoyed significant public trust through the 60s, 50s, and even into the 40s BC, but the damage done to it in the first decades of the first century could never be completely repaired. Civil war, widespread political violence, and their enduring economic and political repercussions were now a part of the Roman historical experience. And, as the Republic entered its final civil wars in the 40s, all of these traumas rapidly came back to haunt political life.

This violent political world was the one that Augustus came to control, but this is not how Rome’s republic began. In fact, the Republic was expressly designed to prevent the emergence of a figure like Augustus and to limit the political violence that made someone like him possible. It is with this vibrant, capable, and effective Roman Republic that we begin.

Adapted from MORTAL REPUBLIC by Edward J. Watts, with permission from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © Edward J. Watts, 2018.

New York Times: "What the Fall of the Roman Republic Can Teach Us About America" — "Near the beginning of the third century B.C., the Republic of Rome faced an acute threat to its domination of the Italian peninsula. In a series of brutal battles, Pyrrhus of Epirus and a fearsome parade of 20 war elephants had managed to vanquish Rome’s armies. When Pyrrhus offered Rome a comparatively lenient peace treaty, many of its senior statesmen were keen to take the deal.

"It was, Edward J. Watts shows in 'Mortal Republic,' thanks to the unrivaled strength of Rome’s political institutions that Pyrrhus’ victories ultimately issued in his proverbial defeat. When the Senate convened to debate the offer, “an old, blind senator named Appius Claudius was carried into the Senate house by his sons.” As the chamber fell silent, he stood to chastise his colleagues. 'I have,' he said, 'long thought of the unfortunate state of my eyes as an affliction, but now that I hear you debate shameful resolutions which would diminish the glory of Rome, I wish that I were not only blind but also deaf.' By giving in to Pyrrhus, Claudius warned, the Roman Republic would only invite more outside powers to mess with it. Low as the odds of victory might be, Rome had no choice but to keep fighting.

"Unable to pacify the Roman Republic by treaty, Pyrrhus turned to bribery. When Fabricius, a senator widely known to be as poor as he was distinguished, arrived to negotiate a prisoner exchange, Pyrrhus offered him gold and silver so plentiful it would make him one of the world’s richest men. But Fabricius refused. 'The Republic of Rome provides those who go into public life with everything they need,' he haughtily declared. Because even a poor man could accede to the most distinguished offices, his reputation was far more important to Fabricius than Pyrrhus’ money."

Vox: "What America can learn from the fall of the Roman republic" — "If you were a Roman citizen around, say, 200 BC, you probably would have assumed Rome was going to last forever.

"At the time, Rome was the greatest republic in human history, and its institutions had proven resilient through invasions and all kinds of disasters. But the foundations of Rome started to weaken less than a century later, and by 27 BC the republic had collapsed entirely.

"The story of Rome’s fall is both complicated and relatively straightforward: The state became too big and chaotic; the influence of money and private interests corrupted public institutions; and social and economic inequalities became so large that citizens lost faith in the system altogether and gradually fell into the arms of tyrants and demagogues.

"If all of that sounds familiar, well, that’s because the parallels to our current political moment are striking. Edward Watts, a historian at the University of California San Diego, has just published a new book titled 'Mortal Republic' that carefully lays out what went wrong in ancient Rome — and how the lessons of its decline might help save fledgling republics like the United States today."

Hilary McQuilkin produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on January 11, 2019.



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