A Tale of Two Republics

A Tale of Two Republics.

Rome, during the early and middle Republican periods actually had a better system for choosing their leaders than we do in the modern United States. Anyone who aspired to the highest political position had to go through the Cursus Honorum. An ambitious young Roman, usually of patrician or equestrian background, spent ten years in the Army and, if fortunate, was given the rank of military tribune. Upon completing this service, he ran, successively, for Quaestor, Aedile, Praetor and Consul. With a few notable exceptions, no one became Consul before the age of forty. By the time a man became Consul, he had shown his ability on the battle field as well as his talents at civil service.

Roman Consuls were not always great generals, as the cases of Varro, Sempronius and Flaminius during the Second Punic War indicates, but some were remarkably talented like Claudius Marcellus, Fabius Maximus, and Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. In any case, one did not reach the highest levels of the Roman political world with no knowledge of military matters, and no experience at government.

Where did the Roman Republic go wrong? The Roman military during the early and middle Republic was a citizen army drawn from land owners. Soldiers provided their own armor and equites their own horses (although some had a public horse.) There were property requirements for being in the army. The reforms of Gaius Marius around the turn of the first century B.C. abolished these requirements. Ambitious generals could recruit their own soldiers and the soldiers owed their loyalty to their general rather than to Rome. Rivalries between generals led to three generations of civil war. Marius versus Sulla, Caesar versus Pompey, Octavius versus Antony. The outcome was the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of monarchy, in which the populace was appeased by “bread and circuses.”

Some might argue that, given the expansion of the empire, the Marian reforms were necessary to keep the military at adequate strength. Perhaps if the Romans had heeded the advice of Tiberius Gracchus and settled veterans on public land where they could farm and raise large families, these reforms might not have been necessary, but that is speculation.

Where did the modern American Republic go wrong? How did we get a leader with no military experience and no experience at government? A leader who lacks even the understanding of the basic concepts that underlie our Republic. How could a party supported by, at most, 40% of eligible voters take complete control of the government to the total exclusion of the other 60%?

Ancient Rome was, unabashedly an oligarchy. Its electoral system was clearly biased in favor of the moneyed classes. The vote of the ordinary plebeian counted for less than the vote of the patricians and wealthy equites.

The United States was also deliberately designed by its founding fathers to be an oligarchy. Originally there were property requirement to vote in most states. The Electoral College was originally designed to put a damper on democracy. Over the years the U.S. political system has become more democratic with the voting franchise eventually extended to all adult citizens except convicted felons. Recently, however, there have evolved several factors that prevent the rule of democracy and promote oligarchy. Economically, over the past forty years we have become increasingly unequal in our distribution of wealth, with the wealthy becoming ever wealthier and the middle class eroded. Government policies have fostered this inequality through tax cuts to the wealthy, subsidies to corporations and withdrawal of support for higher education. The latter has resulted in a middle class burdened with billions of dollars of educational debt. This has resulted in a vicious cycle in which wealth buys power. Billionaires like the Koch brothers can pour vast sums of money into elections, ensuring the election of politicians who represent their interests and not the interest of their constituents. The Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision has given full legal sanction to this process. Once legislators have been bought, they take measures to keep themselves in power. These include Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and in some cases, outright voter fraud. The Electoral College system has created a system whereby the votes of voters in some states count for more than the votes of voters in other states, allowing a candidate with a minority of the popular vote to become President, as happened in 2000 and in 2016.

Will the U.S. become a monarchy or a dictatorship as Ancient Rome did? Conditions are not the same. The Romans were weary after seventy-five years of civil strife and many looked for a strong man. Augustus was a masterful politician. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is mentally unstable and clearly incompetent. His rule will fall of its own weight. In due time reason will return to government. But how can we prevent this debacle from recurring?  Several things come to mind. Eliminating the Electoral College and establishing one citizen, one vote would be a good start. Reversing the Citizens United decision is essential. Outlawing Gerrymandering and voter suppression, and better oversight of election results will also make our elections more democratic.


  1. This is excellent, I’m sharing it.

    There are a couple of additional concerns. Precisely because of their military backgrounds, and their culture of death (after Sulla’s Reign of Terror, there weren’t enough Senators left to carry on business), the Romans were overwhelmingly conservative. Not just politically, but socially, intellectually, technically, economically.

    The first thought that comes to mind is that the machines the Cistercians used in the Medieval, which lay the groundwork for many technical advances of the Renaissance, they found in Roman manuscripts.

    But the Romans didn’t use their machines. Slave labor was cheaper.. The irony, of course, is that the machines chould have freed up their labor to do more than pack-animal work, and improve the entire Roman economy.

    A parallel happened with the Cotton Gin. Whitney introduced it to obviate slave labor, which was already declining. In fact, it made cotton more lucrative, and increased the slave labor trade. But the North, without slave labor, was more productive, more inventive, and had a higher median standard of living.

    As de Tocqueville said, “Slavery dishonors labor.”

    Which brings us back to your well-stated thesis. We could argue that Rome’s mercenaries and paid soldiers were indentured servants, temporary slaves. And slaves made Rome weak.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, Joe. As Ectorius points out in The Death of Carthage, the Romans never entertained a thought about ending slavery. “An end to slavery would be a wonderful thing, and so would an end to war,” said Polybius, “but neither of those things will ever happen, or if they do it will be in hundreds or thousands of years. At this point such things are not even worth thinking about.”
    Clearly Polybius thought that my views on the subject of slavery were little short of insanity, but we’ve remained friends over many years. Whenever I hold forth on the subject I’m met with incredulous looks and
    glassy eyed stares, so I generally only do that when I’ve had more wine than I should.”
    It may be argued that modern America, where 50% of workers do not take home enough money to meet their expenses, and the middle class millennials who aspire to higher education are so burdened with debt that they cannot buy homes, marry or have children, has created a new form of slavery, and as you point out, slaves make a society weak. The U.S. under Trump has abdicated its role in world leadership (Merkel: “we’re on our own now.”) and despite (or perhaps because of) our military might, we are becoming a weak nation.

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