Saturday, March 2, 2024

Saturday Snippet: The Roman slide into dictatorship


Historian, classicist and author Mary Beard, well-known for her many books on Ancient Rome, tackles the institution of Empire and the rise of the Caesars in "Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World".

She doesn't tackle so much the lives of the Emperors as the way in which their office came to be, how it developed, how they ruled (and how their subordinate bureaucracy managed the Empire), and some of their quirks in office.  To any history buff, it's a fascinating look at how the formerly republican and democratic Empire fell under the sway of unelected dictators and bureaucrats - a lesson, perhaps, not without its importance to our world today.

Here's how Ms. Beard describes the change from democracy to autocracy.

When Pliny, as a new consul, rose to speak in September 100 CE, Rome had been ruled by an emperor for more than a century. But the city of Rome itself was over eight hundred years old, and for the majority of that time, after a largely mythical series of seven early kings – starting with the founder Romulus and ending when Tarquin ‘the Proud’ was thrown out around 500 BCE – it was governed by a sort-of democracy, in what is now usually called the Roman Republic.

The ‘sort-of’ is important. To be sure, the major political officials of state, including the consuls at the top of the hierarchy, were democratically elected by all the male citizens, and those same citizens also had charge of making laws and taking decisions about war and peace. But it was a system dominated by the rich. Their votes in elections expressly counted for more than those of the poor, and they alone were allowed to stand for office and to command Rome’s armies. Meanwhile the senate, consisting of several hundred ex-office-holders, was the most influential political institution of the state. Even if its precise formal power is, and was, hard to define, the senate’s decisions were usually followed. It would be more accurate to call this government a power-sharing system rather than a straightforwardly democratic one. For apart from the senate, whose members sat for life, all political offices were temporary, held for just a single year, and always held jointly. There were always two consuls at any one time. Next below them in seniority were the ‘praetors’, concerned with the administration of law, among other things, who gradually increased in number so that there were eventually sixteen of them in post together each year. It was not simply that more officials were created in order to cope with a bigger workload, though that was a factor. The underlying principle of the Republic was: you never held power for long, and never alone.

This was the system of government under which – many years before it had an emperor – Rome gained its empire, dominating much of what is now Europe and beyond: ‘staining the seas with blood’, as Pliny put it. What drove them to this, and why they were so unnervingly successful in their conquests, especially during their major period of expansion between the third and first centuries BCE, has always been debated. The Greek historian Polybius in the second century was already wondering how Rome, a very ordinary mid-Italian town in the fifth century, had come to dominate most of the Mediterranean within a few hundred years.

It is too easy to put everything down to the Romans being aggressive and militaristic, or having superior discipline and expertise in battle. They were militaristic, but so were most of those they conquered. And the Romans also had their weaknesses in combat skills, their early inability in naval warfare, for example, being close to a standing joke. The best explanation (or guess) is that, somehow, aggression and militarism were combined with a hugely competitive ethos among the Roman elite in their hunt for military glory, with almost limitless resources of manpower at the Romans’ disposal once they had taken control of most of Italy, and, most likely, with an element of simply ‘getting lucky’ – all of it resulting in vast, rapid and violent imperial expansion. But what exactly the combination was, and which were the real deciding factors, is quite uncertain.

What is certain is that this series of conquests had an almost revolutionary effect on the politics of Rome itself, in addition to the more obvious consequences for the victims. Part of the disruption was caused by the enormous profits of empire, which destroyed the notional equality that had previously existed between the power-sharing elite and had acted to mitigate their competitive rivalry. For the commanders, there were personal fortunes to be made out of war, especially against the rich kingdoms of the Eastern Mediterranean, and an increasingly large gap opened up at the top of Roman society between a few super-successful ‘big men’ and the rest. When one of those big men, the tycoon Marcus Licinius Crassus, observed that he would count no man rich who could not raise an army out of his own cash, he obviously revealed the level of wealth commanded by the fortunate few (he himself had inherited one fortune and made another largely out of property speculation). But he also hinted at the uses to which that wealth might be put. As it turned out, none of this did Crassus much good himself. He was killed in 53 BCE on what had promised to be a lucrative campaign against the Parthian empire (stretching east of modern Turkey), his severed head allegedly ending up as a gory prop in the performance of a Greek tragedy at a Parthian royal wedding.

Equally important were the pressures put on the power-sharing structures of Rome’s Republican government by its growing imperial territory. Traditionally the same elected officials handled both the domestic business of the city and its external affairs – whether commanding the legions in front-line war, ‘peace-keeping’ or troubleshooting. To begin with at least, the Romans did not aim at much hands-on, direct control of what they had conquered, beyond taking the tax revenue, exploiting the local resources (such as the Spanish silver mines), and getting their own way when they wanted. But even so, all the different roles became more and more difficult to accommodate within the framework of shared, temporary, annual offices. It might, after all, take a few months of a single year’s office simply for a man to get from Rome to a trouble spot at the edge of the empire.

The Romans were not blind to this, and they made various adjustments in response. Office-holders, for example, began to serve in positions overseas for an additional temporary period, after their year in Rome itself. But, all the same, the crises generated by the empire sometimes required more radical solutions. If you wanted, say, to clear the Mediterranean Sea of ‘pirates’ (a word that had something of the ring of ‘terrorists’ to an ancient ear), you had to give authority and resources to a single commander on a potentially long-term basis, in a way that fundamentally flouted the temporary, power-sharing principles of traditional Roman office-holding. The empire, in other words, gradually destroyed the distinctive structures of government that had brought it into existence in the first place, paving the way for one-man rule. The empire created the emperors, not the other way around.

Prequels to autocracy

Through the early part of the first century BCE, Rome witnessed a series of prequels to autocracy. One of the big men of the 80s, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, marched with his army on Rome, installed himself as ‘dictator’ and imposed a programme of conservative political reforms, before resigning a couple of years later and then dying in his bed. It was, by all accounts, a very nasty final illness, but still perhaps a better end than he deserved, given the death squads he had let loose in the city. Just a decade later, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) took a slightly more subtle route to what was almost sole power. It was he who, by a citizens’ vote, was given charge of getting rid of the pirates, with a huge budget and seniority over all other Roman officials in the Eastern Mediterranean for a period of three years. (In the event it took him only three months, and he followed it up with an even longer-term mandate, a bigger budget and greater power, to confront other enemies of Rome.) He went on to be made consul on his own, without a colleague, a flagrant breach of Republican principles, however unremarkable it might sound now. He ploughed money into grand public buildings in Rome itself, much as later autocrats did, and occasionally saw his own head on coins minted by cities outside Italy, a key indicator of monarchical power in antiquity, as it has remained.

The turning point, however, came in the mid first century BCE with Julius Caesar, who stood on the cusp between Rome’s sort-of democracy and the rule of the emperors. Caesar’s career started in a fairly standard way for a member of the Roman elite, despite later writers imagining that he had secretly harboured overweening ambitions from an early age. One apocryphal story imagines him, in his early thirties, standing gloomily in front of a statue of Alexander the Great (from whom Pompey borrowed his name, ‘Great’), and lamenting his own slow start in comparison with the precocious Macedonian king. But after a successful (and shockingly brutal) military command in Gaul, which he managed to extend to eight years without a break, he followed the example of Sulla. In 49 BCE he marched with his army on Rome, ‘crossing the Rubicon’, the boundary of Gaul and Italy, en route, and making that a well-known phrase even now for ‘passing the point of no return’. In the civil war that followed, his enemies were led by Pompey, who was now, for a change, playing the part of the conservative traditionalist and ended up decapitated on the shores of Egypt where he was seeking refuge. Caesar used his victory to take what was effectively sole control of Roman government. He was appointed ‘dictator’ by the senate, and in 44 became ‘dictator for ever’.

Yet Caesar in some ways still looks back to the Republic. His career started within the framework of traditional short-term elected offices. Even his ‘dictatorship’ had at least tenuous links with an ancient temporary appointment designed to handle public emergencies, although, since Sulla, it increasingly meant something closer to our modern sense of the term. It is for those reasons that most historians recently have tended to treat Caesar as the last gasp of the old order. But when, in the second century CE, the biographer Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, in full) was composing his Lives of the first Roman emperors, he chose to begin with Julius Caesar, as number one of twelve, the ultimate founder of imperial dynasty. Even more to the point perhaps, all Roman rulers after him took ‘Caesar’, previously just an ordinary Roman family name, as part of their own official titles – in a tradition that continued down to modern Kaisers and Czars. And that is exactly how Pliny addressed the emperor through most of his vote of thanks: not ‘Trajan’ but ‘Caesar’ (which he used more than fifty times, compared with ‘Trajan’ just once).

It is easy to understand why Caesar was cast in this founding role. Although there were fewer than four years between his victory over Pompey and his own death in 44 BCE (and although he was rarely in the city of Rome itself for more than a month at a time as he finished off other pockets of the civil war overseas), Caesar managed to change the face of Roman politics in radical and controversial ways that established the pattern for later emperors. Like them, he controlled election to high office, nominating some candidates who were then simply given the nod by the voters. He went further than Pompey in having his own head represented on coins minted in Rome itself, not just abroad (the first living Roman to do so), and he set about flooding the city and wider world with his portraits, in numbers never seen before: hundreds, if not thousands, were planned. And he exercised unprecedented power, in new areas, apparently unchecked. Cicero’s wry quip about the stars in the sky being forced to obey him was a reference to his bold reform of the Roman calendar, changing the length of the year and of the months, and effectively introducing the ‘leap year’, as we still know it. Only all-powerful autocrats – or, as in eighteenth-century France, revolutionary cabals – claim to control time.

Caesar also set a pattern for the future in the manner of his death, assassinated in 44 BCE, shortly after he had been made ‘dictator for ever’. This became both a warning to his successors and a model for political murder lasting into the modern world. (John Wilkes Booth chose the date of Caesar’s killing – ‘the Ides of March’, the 15th of the month by our dates – as the code word for his planned assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.) The truth is that, thanks to William Shakespeare and others, the assassins have been treated rather generously by history. They were a predictably mixed group of high-principled freedom fighters, malcontents and self-interested power seekers who ambushed and killed the dictator during a meeting of the senate, leaving him dead in front of a statue of Pompey. Marcus Junius Brutus, who emerges as an honourable patriot from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, was probably one of the most self-interested of the lot. He had an appalling record of exploiting people in Rome’s empire. Notoriously, he lent money to a city in Cyprus at a 48 per cent rate of interest, four times the legal maximum, and he had his agents blockade the local council chamber to recover what was owed, starving five councillors to death in the process. And within a couple of years of Caesar’s assassination, despite his opposition to monarchy, he had his own head depicted on the coins that he minted to pay his troops.

But even more to the point, the assassins’ success in eliminating their victim (which is often the easy bit) was overshadowed by their lack of any plan for what to do next. More than a decade of civil war followed, in which the supporters of Caesar first of all turned on his killers, and then on each other. By 31 BCE, it had come down to a clash between two main parties: on the one side, Caesar’s henchman Mark Antony, now in alliance (and more) with the famous Queen Cleopatra of Egypt; and on the other, Caesar’s great-nephew, Octavian, who had also officially become his son, by posthumous adoption, in Caesar’s will (a not uncommon Roman practice). Their final battle was fought at sea off the coast of northern Greece, near the promontory of Actium, just south of the island of Corfu. The Battle of Actium, as it is known, was celebrated extravagantly in later propaganda as the decisive and heroic victory for Octavian, and the glorious start of a new era. In fact, it was won more by desertion and disloyalty than by heroism. Antony’s battle plans were leaked to the enemy by one of his generals, and, on the most plausible reconstruction, Cleopatra headed back to Egypt with her ships, and her treasure, almost before the fighting had begun, quickly followed by Antony. Quite how ignominious a departure it was is still debated, but many ancient writers were keen to paint Cleopatra as a cowardly queen who couldn’t take the heat and simply scarpered. Whatever the circumstances, though, Octavian was left as the sole leader of the Roman world, and soon to be the first emperor of Rome. To put it another way, the assassins had, indirectly at least, brought about the very thing they claimed to be fighting against: permanent one-man rule.

Many things worth noting there, including how politicians can be so lionized by their supporters (and their political parties, and the gray eminences behind the scenes who control those political parties) that they are elevated in public opinion to almost Caesar-like status.  Therein lies an immense danger to any constitutional republic like the United States.  If order should break down, and our politicians prove incapable of controlling it, many will demand a "strong man" to take charge, solve the problem, and "restore the Republic".  As we see in ancient Rome, such a "strong man", once in charge, seldom agrees to lay down the power he's arrogated to himself.  The Roman Republic was effectively destroyed by the Caesars.  Will our republic suffer a similar fate?  Only time will tell.



Michael said...

Peter even with Caeser the "Consent of the people" was required to rule effectively. Seems The Ides of March made the "For Life" Brief.

We lack the social cohesiveness to get the "Consent of the People" to back a STRONG MAN. One could be installed but beware the ides of March.

They say herding cats is difficult, now add flaming mostly peaceful bottles of disagreement (and 2nd Amendment) to anything said or done to the cat herding.

Not to mention the apparent importation of even more "Social Diversity" as various countries empty their prisons to ship them off to America. Reports of Chinese military aged "Immigrants" just add to the future excitements.

But then again, a Chinese installed Strong Man is possible. China has historically had local Governers installed. Seems a local Strong Man and his supporters was more acceptable than an obviously Chinese one.

We will see when the smoky fires burn out.

Jen said...

I noticed the part about [someone] controlling high offices by nominating pre-chosen 'candidates', who are simply given the nod by the voters.
That's the thing, isn't it - the uniparty selects their candidates, and we just go along with the pantomime like good little sheep. Isn't that the appeal of DJT or Ross Perot?- they weren't preselected and fed to us.

Bob Gibson said...

I am afraid that there are few, if any, leaders on the national stage with the character of George Washington. And if there are, I suspect that in the rough and tumble politics of this day and age their character wouldn't put them in the position to be handed, or to take, 'supreme executive power'.

Randomatos said...

Isn't Beard the lady who claimed historic Britons were black because of one bit of ostensibly African DNA at a Roman site? And got called out by N.N. Taleb for fabricating more than once? She's not high on my list
of credible, objective historians. Even a blind pig might find a truffle or two in a lifetime, but that's no reason to buy it lipstick.

Zaphod said...


Yep... That's her. She's a horrid dysgenic Guardianista type.

However there's nothing obviously wrong or contentious in the snippet of history outlined above.

My only quibble is that she doesn't do nearly enough to outline just how dysfunctional the late Roman Republic was and how divorced its Cloud People were from the issues affecting common folk *and* just how much foreign adventurism peturbed what had been fairly successful and stable conditions and institutions in Rome proper.

LL said...

The enduring question of whether Octavian's Pax Romana was good for what had become an Empire by then or whether he should have/could have set it aside for the (divided) Senate is always worth reviewing. It remains one of those historical lessons and precedents.

HMS Defiant said...

I tend to set aside any history that lends itself to describing the actions of the past as 'brutal'. It's like the 'historian' fails to understand just how things work which makes what they write kind of meaningless.
I get a kick out the method and the effect when one looks beyond Rome. South and Central America suffered from terrible turmoil and violence for a generation as they dealt casually with their communists and socialists and shining paths etc. There was one country that didn't suffer from that lot because the President just killed the turbulent ones before they could doom an entire country to ruin and rot. I think that was probably how Rome was ruled for a very long time and then they stopped doing it one day.