Rue The Ides

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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40 Responses

  1. Murali says:

    So, the question today is who is going to be the caesar of today and who is going to kill him and what will happen to the american empire when that happens.Report

  2. Nob Akimoto says:

    I think there’s an over-tendency for western liberals to romanticize(no pun intended) the notion of the Republic, whether in Rome, Venice or even Cromwellian England. In all of those cases the “Republics” were oligarchies, built atop massively skewed social and economic systems that were designed to perpetuate that structure.

    Part of the problem with the Liberators, and indeed with the stoics and the “patriots” like Cicero and Cato, was that they fundamentally didn’t understand that a system that worked fine for a single city state with a large oligarchical class ceased to function when you had an ever expanding group of ostensible “citizens” who didn’t share in the greatest share of the government’s spoils. In the end the system’s sickness kept producing antibodies to try to cure it. It started with the populism of the Gracchi, then led to the conflicts between Marius and Sulla and culminated in the events of the mid-late 1st century BC.

    Good riddance to that lot.Report

    • Mopey Duns in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      I think an argument can be made that no one has ever really figured out how to make a large democratic state work in the long term.

      So lets not be too hard on the Romans.Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to Mopey Duns says:

        My condemnation of Rome is more for their imperialism, widespread exploitation of slave populations, abominable treatment of women, etc. etc.

        Oh sure, if you were a propertied white dude circa the period of Good Emperors you probably had a better life than anyone up to say the 1950s like Gibbon alleged.

        But for everyone else? Meh.Report

        • Fnord in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

          Again, to what extent were they worse than other premodern societies? Although of course much depends on the time period, and it’s true that many of those things were at least arguably better under the empire than the republic, so points about idealization of the republic specifically are well taken.

          Obviously you’d pick a propertied male citizen (with whiteness hardly being synonymous with citizenship) if you had a choice. But for, say, a propertied female citizen, that era seems to provide as good a life as you could get anywhere, if not up to 1950 then at least for 1000 years or so before and after (and indeed, simply being able to describe oneself as a “propertied woman” rather than a “woman from a propertied family” probably puts it above many).

          They do look somewhat worse in the slavery and imperialism departments. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure I’d take being a Roman slave or peregrinus over being a being a slave in or aboriginal inhabitant of a European New World colony, for example.Report

          • Mopey Duns in reply to Fnord says:

            I largely agree with this. Short of the sort of narcissistic self-gratification Greg Bear indulges in with his 1632 series, it does not make much sense to compare the Romans, at any time period, to a modern liberal democracy. I am not sure that using the category of ‘whiteness’ to describe what was going on with them is helpful either.

            I am not a historicist, but I do not see how it is fair to any civilization to at the least compare them to their contemporaries. And as Fnord says above, they beat out most of their neighbors pretty handily.Report

    • Barry in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Seconding this; Burt is a bit off about self-government. ” A system where that sort of self-government was a practical reality turned out not to be possible once Rome grew much beyond a territory of roughly the size of the present-day state of Connecticut. ”

      The system retained as much power as possible in Rome and the vicinity, from way back in the day (see the Civil Wars for a description).Report

  3. Christopher Carr says:

    Cataline is interesting: as senators both Cicero and Cato pushed for the death penalty. Caesar argued for clemency. Maybe he was trying to create a precedent!Report

    • To be fair, Catiline was a much bigger threat to the likes of Cicero and Cato, as they were well established Senators with a hard-on for the aristocratic traditions of the Republic.Report

    • Barry in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      “Cataline is interesting: as senators both Cicero and Cato pushed for the death penalty. Caesar argued for clemency. Maybe he was trying to create a precedent!”

      IIRC, Cicero was pushing for summary execution of the conspirators, despite them being Roman citizens. That was the rub. Caesar was pointing out that less than 20 years ago, Sulla had legally but summarily executed thousands of Roman citizens, and that perhaps it was a bad thing to return to those days.Report

  4. Fnord says:

    The point that “it left Rome bleeding for a generation longer than necessary while doing nothing to stave off the transition to an empire” is well taken.

    On the other hand, it’s not like political violence actually stopped, at least not for very long. So I think that calling Caesar’s solution workable is, perhaps, a bit optimistic.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Fnord says:

      Define “political violence” and I’ll see if I agree with you.

      Taking out Caligula was a violent act but from a systemic point of view not an intolerable one. It wasn’t a civil war — it was the death of one man.

      The Year of the Four Emperors was a civil war, but a relatively brief one as compared with the contests of the Socii against Sulla’s aristocracy, Caesar versus Pompey, or Antony versus the Liberators and then versus Octavian. Other than the occasional knifing or poisoning of a princeps who had gotten out of control, things really didn’t get all that politically violent again until the “wise” Marcus Aurelius’ search for a successor produced his own son who proceeded to botch things up sufficiently well to end Rome’s golden age.Report

      • Fnord in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I’m not sure the various coups and attempted coups are really limited to violence against just one man, but I’d agree that they’re significantly different from the systemic (to use your word) violence of civil war. I’m also willing to draw a distinction between civil war between parts of the Roman establishment and revolts of subject peoples like the Jewish Revolt.

        So, on that measure, you’re correct that there wasn’t that much political violence in the early Empire. Although I will note that the civil war at the end of Nero’s reign started while Nero was still emperor, so implying that the violence was only going on during the Year of Four Emperors itself is understating the extent of the civil war.

        But, looking at it from that perspective significantly reduces the extent of the violence in the late Republic, too. If we’re going to exclude revolts of subject peoples, I think we ought to exclude the Social wars, too: the Socii weren’t part of the Roman power structure either. If we exclude the Pisonian conspiracy, we ought to exclude the Catilinarian conspiracy. If we’re going to exclude Nerva’s clashes with the Praetorian guard, we probably ought to exclude the Gracchis’ clashes with the aristocracy.

        When it comes to actual civil wars, the only real precedent for Caesar is Sulla versus Marius. Sulla’s first civil war was relatively quick (certainly no worse the the Year of Four Emperors and associated violence). The second civil war was somewhat more prolonged, but not so much in Rome itself; the persistent part was Sertorius’s resistance in Hispania. The worst violence of the late Roman Republic is the violence associated with Caesar and later Octavian implementing the “solution”.Report

  5. Jason Kuznicki says:

    It is often said that history is written by the victors. As J.G.A. Pocock once observed, however, the history of imperial Rome was written by the senatorial class, and they were the vanquished.

    That’s partly why the Caesars look so bad, of course — I can’t imagine the historians were unbiased — but still. From where we are now, we benefit from warnings against arbitrary power.

    Yet neither the republic nor the empire was even remotely worth saving, by our lights. To find a modern country that treats its women similarly, we’d have to look to Saudi Arabia. And while slavery still exists in many places, there are none where it is enshrined in law and serves as the very foundation of a society.Report

    • Fnord in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      That’s equally true of most other societies in history. It’s not that the Romans were particularly bad, it’s because almost all premodern societies were not worth saving by modern standards (at least if you exclude hunter-gatherer societies, which are a seperate issue).Report

  6. James Hanley says:

    Probably the most depressing thing I’ll read this month.

    The liberators did not think about institutions. They did not think about culture. They did not think about logistics. They did not think about government. They did not think about the contradiction inherent in a lawless act done in the name of preserving the law. They did not think about the immediate political aftermath.

    Amen, Burt. Amen.Report

  7. Glyph says:

    I am not as well-versed in Roman history and politics as you guys, so can I ask a speculative question?

    Does the process of breakdown of republican institutions on the road to an emperor occur faster, or slower, in a 2-party system?

    That is, are there dynamics in a more Parliamentary system that either impede, or hasten, the accruing of ultimate power in one man? Or is it a toss-up?Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Glyph says:

      Party politics in late republican Rome were characterized by a complete lack of principle and ideology. After the Gracchan land reforms resdistributed land, it mattered not a whit what the substance of a policy proposal might have been. What mattered is who proposed the law and who got to administer it.

      So with that said, there is some evidence that in modern liberal democracies, particular parties stand for particular constellations of ideas, and the public can choose from among them, and typically preferences swing back and forth between center-right and center-left over the years. This seems to encourage stability, both politically and economically.

      There are also symptoms that a lot of the ideological posturing is mere posturing and that there is not a whole lot of important substantive differences between parties, which would be like what the Romans had during this point of their history. In the U.S. Republicans embraced Medicare Part D and insurance mandates — until they didn’t and suddenly those things became existential threats to liberty and America As We Know It. In the UK, the Social D’s somehow found a way to coalesce with the Tories — and amazingly, it seems to be working reasonably well.

      On the continent of Europe, parties form and dissolve seemingly with every election cycle, demonstrating durability only when the charisma of particular leaders is aimed at preserving them. In some ways, this is very Roman — without established parties at all, various blocs and support groups would coalesce and dissolve seemingly without pattern or predictability. In other ways it is very un-Roman, since the substance of policy and the nature of contemporary problems seems to be the motive force rather than the particular webs of personal loyalties and economic interests in play.

      What I think led to autocracy in Rome was a confluence of institutional problems. First, the system of checks and balances in the Roman constitution being allowed to move beyond their intended purpose and becoming tools for obstruction deployed simply for the sake of obstruction. (One might argue that a contemporary parallel to this can be found in the way the U.S. Senate is currently being run by the Republicans’ “majority” of 41 members who filibuster everything.)

      Second, the technological inability of the head of the government to quickly communicate directives and changes in the law to regional governors theoretically subordinate to the central state is astonishing — in retrospect, I’m amazed that there were fewer warlords from the provinces than actually arose, but all the same a regional military governor could have all sorts of adventures without anyone in power in Rome even knowing what was going on much less able to stop it. That problem I think we’ve got licked with strong political institutions, a culture with a strong idea of respect for the rule of law and central authority, and the technological ability to give commands to, and gather information from, projected military forces at a distance.

      Then, of course, there was simple corruption, which permeated the government from top to bottom like an oversaturated sponge. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether we have that same problem today, and if so to what degree.

      Finally, there was the overt manipulation of the electoral system, which itself was never comprehensively reformed from a scheme for a small trading city with an agricultural hinterland whose people wished to incorporate the concept of deference to the elders into their mode of government, to grow to meet the needs of a geographically sprawling empire with a complex set of laws, daunting military challenges, multiple cultural groups, and the most diverse economy the world had yet seen. Imagine trying to govern New York City with a New England-style town meeting and you get an idea of the institutional paralysis the Republican constitution imposed on the Romans’ government.Report

  8. Burt,

    Roman history is one of my (many) lacunae as an aspiring historian, so I don’t have much that’s very knowledgeable to add, so I’ll that this was quite a provocative essay, and I enjoyed reading it.Report

    • I commend the history of the Roman Revolution to you, Pierre. I’m confident you’ll profit from studying it immensely, as I feel I have. In the OP I was content to let the parallels between Rome and contemporary society simply exist without much comment, but in my reply to Glyph above I get a bit more explicit about it. Everyone approaches that topic with a slightly different angle on it, and it’s one of the best historical parlor games around.

      Grab yourself a translation of the Commentaries, and come join us!Report

  9. zic says:

    Perhaps I’m biased due to my high regard for all things Burt Likko (except for his tastes in music); this is brilliant.

    And that same history demonstrated to him that the public admired success much more than it did formal adherence to the law – which had grown too complex, too much a creation of the elite, and too distant from the realities of daily life and popular culture, to matter all that much to the average Roman on the street. The formalities of government were for the elites to worry about, not the common man functionally unaffected by them; justice was obtained through informal means and not through the courts.

    Too complex. Too much a creation of the elite. Too distant for realities of every day life and pop culture. Sounds like now.

    What the Great Man had grasped, perhaps only through the lens of self-interest but had grasped nevertheless, was that the checks and balances built in to the formal republican government had grown too cumbersome for actual government to occur. The nearly pathologically-conservative culture out of which that government had grown could not tolerate the notion of consolidation of power.

    Too cumbersome for actual governance — our Congress sprung to mind.

    The concept of a principled government with principled parties grappling over competing visions of the best course of action for society as a whole had gone by the wayside long before Caesar’s time. A system where that sort of self-government was a practical reality turned out not to be possible once Rome grew much beyond a territory of roughly the size of the present-day state of Connecticut.

    I worry about this now; that our form of democracy works on a small level, but fails as the group governed gets larger. It certainly becomes easier and easier for citizens to fail to see a connection between government and their own lives; for the othering of government to begin, and the wedge between the governing and the governed to grow, opening room for rent seekers.

    The liberators did not think about institutions. They did not think about culture. They did not think about logistics. They did not think about government. They did not think about the contradiction inherent in a lawless act done in the name of preserving the law. They did not think about the immediate political aftermath.

    I don’t want to be biased, but truthfully: Today’s Republican Party; just say no, contort yourself to be defined by the negative space of the Oval Office.

    Thank you, Burt. Ancient history is very worthwhile, and never more so then when it illuminates today.Report

    • James K in reply to zic says:

      I worry about this now; that our form of democracy works on a small level, but fails as the group governed gets larger.

      I think you’re right, and it’s because of two related forces. On the one hand, the US is less federalist than it once was, more decisions are made from the centre now. On the other hand, the US is much larger and more diverse then it once was, which makes finding any consensus at the centre harder, even while your system of government has come to rely on that consensus.

      I don’t think this is sustainable. I think ether the US will need to move toward greater federalism, or possibly even consider splitting up into a few countries.Report

  10. Tod Kelly says:

    Wow. Great post.

    Was the comparison to today’s situation intended, or did I bring all of that baggage with me?Report

  11. T. Greer says:

    It is interesting that you write this today, for I just finished Plutarch’s biography of Brutus yesterday. (Scott-Kilvert translation). Brutus seems to run counter to your description “They did not think about culture. They did not think about logistics. They did not think about government.” Two passages come to mind:

    “He noticed, he wrote, that Cicero did not really object to a tyrant, but was only afraid of a tyrant who hated him, and that when he declared in his letters and speeches what a good man Octavius was, his policy was really to recommend a painless form of slavery. ‘But our forefathers’ he reminded Cicero, ‘would not tolerate even easy going tyrants.; As for himself, his mind was not yet fully made up whether to choose war or peace, but on one thing he was utterly resolved, that he would never be a slave. It astonished him, he went on, that Cicero should… [accept] as a reward for getting rid of the tyranny of Antony he should ask for the privilege of setting Octavius up on his place.”

    And then later, upon hearing the news of Cicero’s death at Octavius’ hands:

    “He said he felt more shame for the cause of Cicero’s death than sorrow for the fact of it, and he blamed his friends in Rome for what had happened. He said it was nt their oppressors but their own actions that had made slaves of them, and that they had allowed themselves to look on tamely at deeds which they should have considered it intolerable even to hear of.”


    As Plutarch tells it, Brutus was the one man in the lot who understand that means influenced ends and that the game must be played differently if the Republic could ever be brought back.

    Was this all romance on Plutarch’s part? Or did it reflect reality? Had Brutus emerged victorious from those gloomy days at Phillipi, would the Republic have remained?

    [1] Plutarch, “Life of Brutus” in Plutarch: Makers of Rome trans Ian Scott-Kilvert. (New York: Penguin Books). 1965. p.242, 246.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to T. Greer says:

      Plutarch? Romanticize his subjects? Never.

      Brutus was the figurehead but not the motive force for the liberator conspiracy for one, and to the extent that the exchange with Cicero reflects his political thought it shows both his ability to rationalize an act of betrayal on a moral level and a demonstration that he thought the problem was the existence of an autocrat (who happened in this case to be Octavian, who happened to be his enemy).

      Brutus may well have really drunk up all the Kool-aid Cassius had served up. He was big on recalling the noble deeds of his ancestor. But he wasn’t able to see that autocracy had become a dandelion in the lawn of his beloved republic: cut one down and another would sprout out of the same deep root again in seemingly no time at all.Report

  12. Fnord says:

    Oh, and I skipped over this I don’t know how many times despite doing plenty of thinking about the timelines of all this, but Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, not 33 BCE.Report

  13. BlaiseP says:

    Fine work. Well written, lots to think about in here.

    Julius Caesar epitomised an aspect of Rome’s unhealthy obsession with tradition. We think of the Republic as something better than the Emperors, or were taught so — I was. I’m not sure that’s true. The Republic was always unworkable and the Senate was nakedly undemocratic.

    Rome was not so much a culture of men but of insects. Like ants, they roamed abroad, tearing down huge prey and dragging it back to the nest and like ants, they enslaved. Like termites and bees, they built. While they were reasonably close to their nest in Rome and reasonably small, the Romans did well: uniting tribes, providing the infrastructure the Etruscans hadn’t. As you say:

    The concept of a principled government with principled parties grappling over competing visions of the best course of action for society as a whole had gone by the wayside long before Caesar’s time. A system where that sort of self-government was a practical reality turned out not to be possible once Rome grew much beyond a territory of roughly the size of the present-day state of Connecticut.

    The Late Republic and Early Emperors give the historians fits. The histories of the times are coloured by partisan sentiment. I often wonder if Nero was half as weird as he’s painted in history. If truth is the first casualty of war, gossip is the vulture which eats it.

    The Romans were never all that comfortable in their own skins. They looked to the Greeks for intellectual sustenance. They were great copiers but lacked the grace and style to produce much in their own tradition. As the Greek polis had declined and Philip of Macedon had finally toppled it, culminating in the campaigns of the preposterous Alexander, the Romans came to understand this Republic Thing they’d engineered would go the way of the Greek polis.

    For all their obsession with him, it’s always perplexed me to realise the lessons of Alexander were so completely lost on the Emperors. Polybius holds up Alexander as the great role model and the Romans bought into the vision with a will. But in accepting that vision, of tyrannical madness, Rome set in motion a decline which neatly paralled how Alexander’s empire had declined. The Romans came to Greece with armies and left with books and statues. And the Roman Empire would live on, speaking Greek but still calling itself Latin, in Constantinople.

    In the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice stand four bronze horses. The story says they were cast by Lycippus for Alexander the Great. They once stood over the Hippodrome in Constantinople. The conquering Venetians took them back and Napoleon hauled them off to Paris to grace his Arc de Triomphe. The Austrians took them back to Venice, where they’ve been ever since.

    Every empire has put up a copy of those four horses in one form or another. One such copy stands atop the Brandenburg Gate. The French put back their own version The arch of triumph is a Roman invention but the statues were fundamentally Greek. Tyranny knows so such ethnic or cultural identity. It’s universal.

    The Romans abandoned their Republic and went into Empire with their eyes wide open. Though they were much given to respectability in public, they’d engineered tyranny into the system from the very beginning. They didn’t really want a Cincinnatus, a man who would return power to the people. They wanted their leaders to return loot to the people, tribute from conquered peoples. The original vision of the Republic had been inclusion. That vision had long since been supplanted by Alexander’s vision of conquest.Report

  14. Ken says:

    I often wonder if Nero was half as weird as he’s painted in history. If truth is the first casualty of war, gossip is the vulture which eats it.

    One of the things that struck me when I read Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars was the gossipy style. It’s full of things like “And Livius said that Germanicus once took the wife of a Senator into another room during a banquet, and when they returned their clothing was disarranged.” I suppose it could be called a precursor to citing sources, but it seems very junior high.

    (Not an actual quote, but there was something quite similar – I think the Germanicus was Caligula. )Report

  15. Damon says:

    “So all along, when people protested to Caesar that he was making himself into a king, he could point to precedent and say he was doing nothing new, and nothing that the republic hadn’t been through before without losing its republican character. This seemed a transparent fiction to his critics. But for a legal culture steeped in and heavily reliant on precedent, it mattered a lot…..”

    This sums it up nicely: I’m just using the power that has been previously exercized. This is the problem. Once you allow someone an exception, it becomes the rule. The thinking that “it’s ok, he’s one of us” may be true but for sure, sooner or later, he won’t be one of you, and you’ll be on the receiving end. This is why the electorate will get it in the end…Report

  16. T. Greer says:

    Just wanted to bring to the attention of the readership to Mark Safranski’s (“Zenpundit’s”) thoughtful reply to this post:

    Tyrannicide and the Death of the Republic
    Mark Safranksi. 19 March 2013. The money quote at the end of his post:

    That said, thinking in terms of institutions would have been nigh impossible for [the anti-Caesar clique]. As an aristocratic Republic, Rome’s institutions that composed what we might call “the state” were very few in number and skeletal in form. This was because the expectation was that patrician leadership, informally exercised through their extensive clientelas, their public benefactions and donations, expressions of charismatic auctoritas even when not in power, would always provide the muscle to make things happen. These in turn would be regulated by age-old custom, tribunican vetoes, the signs of the augurs, the weight of Senatorial opinion and what formal laws existed.

    When custom began to be lightly disregarded in pursuit of political vendettas and even the legions did not possess an “institutional” existence yet, there was little to stop aristocracy from transmogrifying into oligarchy and autocracy. Conceiving of institutions in the modern sense of an independent, self-regulating, corporate body in the late 1st century BC would have been a radical innovation to say the least. Even Octavian’s assumption of imperial power was done under the mantle of amalgamating republican offices in his own person that took many lifetimes to crystallize “princeps” into an institutionalized, tyrannical, office of ”emperor” as understood later in the time of the Dominate. Brutus, the wayward follower of Cato, could no more have conceived of institutionally-based constitutional reform to renovate Roman government than he could have invented an airplane