A Wealth of Examples

Comments comparing modern society and politics to the ancient Roman republic.

About A Wealth of Examples

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I have been reading Roman history in an effort to understand how the Romans lost their grip on republican government and slipped back into monarchy. Perhaps there are things we can learn from the Romans (or their errors) that will help us manage our own republic; or things which, while known to the generation of our Founding Fathers, each later generation needs to relearn. Comparing and contrasting Roman society with ours highlights some ideas which do not normally arise in modern political discussions. In this blog I hope to make some intelligent remarks on these topics.

We can say, from the Romans’ long period of success, that they were doing something right. But where did they go wrong? What did they not quite understand that led to their downfall? Having abolished monarchy after about 250 years, they managed their nation as a republic for around 350 years. Then their government began to fail. Two kinds of corruption became rampant: bribery and rule by factions through violence and fear. After another 150 years, they had not yet found solutions to these problems and entered the “imperial” period, essentially returning to monarchy (although they retained the outward appearance of a republic). And then in time their huge wealth and power dwindled until they were wiped out by “barbarians”.

Events from 2500 years ago may still be relevant as lessons because people have not changed in the intervening time. Ideas and attitudes have come and gone since then, and huge amounts of knowledge have been accumulated, but the underlying human psyche remains the same. The Romans had to contend with the same issues we have today: maintaining peace and security; regulating finance and the economy; keeping greed for property and power in check; deterring crime and dealing with the consequences of those that are committed. Indeed, looking at these problems in the unfamiliar world of the Romans might be useful in extracting the patterns and principles that apply in any society.

We may like to imagine, if we think about this at all, that the Founding Fathers of our country learned all the available lessons either from their own educations, which included the reading of Classics; or from more recent authors such as Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli, etc.; or from the previous 700 years of English history; and that they incorporated these lessons into our Constitution. But it ain’t necessarily so. They might have missed something. There might be more to discover.

Even if the Founding Fathers had it all right, however, there seem to be matters that every generation needs to learn for itself, sometimes from scratch. No writer belabors points that his readers know well, and this applies as well to the Constitutional Convention. The writing in the Constitution is spare and to the point. Every contemporary reader understood the points of the Bill of Rights because the abridgments of those rights that had led to the Declaration of Independence were still fresh in their minds. Two hundred years later, having not ourselves experienced these forms of tyranny, we do not always appreciate the value of these rights. Consequently, we hear mountains of nonsense every day from fellow citizens, on both the left and right, especially on television, and disturbingly from government officials. And so in every generation there are attempts to curtail some right: free speech in the sixties, habeas corpus recently, etc. It may be useful, therefore, to constantly review various concepts in a context which illustrates their importance.

Titus Livius (often called Livy in English), in the Preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, says that it is an important benefit of learning history that, having seen how people acted before and the results of those actions, one can choose the best principles of behavior for oneself and one’s country. He, of course, recommended Roman history as the best repository of such lessons, both because there was so much of it (including many examples of bad behavior) and because he considered it rich in examples of good behavior. I do not know whether I will find more to emulate or more to avoid or simply things for which we still have no good solution.

Comments here will be suggested by Roman events recorded in books translated in the companion blog Memoria Romana. I do not imagine that this will be an academically rigorous study. My goal is not to be an expert on Rome. Nor do I expect to put forth complete solutions for modern issues. The approach will be to read what the Romans had to say about their own society, in their own words, and to think about whether the events and conditions of their history have any similarity to events and conditions of our time; to discover whether there are patterns that can illuminate common problems of democratic government that are still relevant in modern society and politics. We shall see what comes of it.

Copyright 2008 Verbifex

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Written by Verbifex

2008 August 18 at 04:25 UTC

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