When people speak of the fall of Rome, they're usually referring to the fall of the Roman Empire. I've been thinking lately about the fall of the Roman Republic. Which occurred a little earlier.
There are two reasons I've been thinking about Rome lately. One is that finally, after a summer spent nursing a broken leg, I am walking once again, headphones firmly in place, listening to the series of lectures I ordered from Great Courses on Ancient History. We're up to Rome. Serendipitously, I have also just begun reading Robert Hughes' . They both spend some time on the transition from Republic to Empire. There are stories in each that resonate with our current national state of affairs.
- The move from a citizen's army to a professional army.
- Small farmers forced into bankruptcy, their farms consolidated into large estates.
- A widening gap between rich and poor.
- An unmanageable collection of unruly states.
- A conservative elite determined to protect their privileged status at any cost.
Populist reformers like the Grachii were eventually defeated by ancient opposition to, among other things, plans to extend rights to non-Roman Italians.
Cato the Elder, a conservative extremist who would feel right at home with the folks who renamed French fries and tore Jimmy Carter's solar panels from the White House roof, was so suspicious of the luxuries adopted from Greek culture that he tried to have water mains laid into private Roman houses ripped out.
Then there was Cicero. Cicero, says Hughes, wanted to bring about a 'concord' of the conservative, senatorial aristocrats and the rapacity of the growing class of equestrians, but this was beyond his powers, as it would have been beyond anyone's.
Cicero was an orator, a lawyer of sorts, a constitutional lawyer, one might even say. He wasn't a liberal, by our standards. Not by any means. But he tried, and failed, to bring the red bloods and blue bloods of ancient Rome to a place where they could all live peacefully, respecting the rights and privileges of each other.
According to Cicero, If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
Sounds reasonable to me.