In a broad sense, the common wisdom of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” seems to especially apply to empires. The degradation of an empire is oftentimes a chaotic affair that drags on for years, decades, or longer.
Descriptors like collapse or fall may not accurately capture this process, however; decline is probably more appropriate and more useful, implying a gradual erosion of hegemony over time. Still, the more power and influence an empire gains, the uglier the abuse of that power can become.
In the case of Rome, such abuses undoubtedly contributed to the decline by eroding public trust and sowing the seeds of future problems.
There is obviously no singular characteristic that explains the downfall of the Roman Empire—and the same can be said of Rome’s shift from republic to empire. The forces of history are more complex than such an explanation would allow. Nevertheless, there are general themes that are strong candidates for having played a key role therein. Moreover, many of these themes—political polarization, concentration of power, military overstretch, and corruption—became increasingly pronounced in Rome’s late republican period. This makes for an interesting comparison with the path that the United States (still ostensibly a republic) currently appears to be on.
Politics as Unusual
In order to decline, of course, a nation must first become powerful.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the politics of Ancient Rome reached considerable heights of sophistication, even amid the chaotic world of antiquity. Nearly five centuries of some form of republican rule gave the Romans plenty of chances to iron out how the system of checks and balances, and the level of popular representation, in their government would work. What is surprising is the degree to which these institutions became unstable during the time of the late republic—even when Rome’s “golden age” of Pax Romana still laid ahead. Amid various military conflicts and much internal strife among leading political factions, Rome’s preeminence carried on and even grew.
After a period of expanding popular representation in the early Roman Republic, the final two centuries of republican government were characterized by struggles among the elite for ever-greater power that were often (either directly or indirectly) at the expense of the common people.
For the first time, the politicians engaged in the government broke into powerful factions based not necessarily on class or identity (as it was with the patricians and plebeians) but on “political party” affiliation. Like the Federalists and Democrat-Republicans of the early-19th-century American republic, the groups known as optimates and populares emerged in the latter stages of the Roman Republic.¹
A number of attendant sins would follow: increasing partisanship and polarization; a loss of public trust in the political class; near-sighted politics; unnecessary foreign wars; too much money and special interests in politics. Does this sound familiar?
This degradation of the republic’s political system foreshadows the use of “bread and circuses” that was noted during the time of the empire. More and more, politicians could be bought and sold based on their own ambitions, not the good of the republic and not the welfare of the public.
F. Cavazzi’s chronicle of Ancient Rome recounts poetically:
“In turn the electorate was flagrantly bribed and cajoled by populists and demagogues who knew that, on achieving power, they could recoup any costs simply by exploiting their offices overseas.
“Had in the earlier days of Cincinnatus high office been sought for status and fame within Roman society, then the latter days of the Roman republic saw commanders win vast fortunes in loot and governors make millions in perks and bribes in the provinces.”
Bribery, corruption, and the poison of money in politics is illustrated by the story of the Jugurthine War. Such drama in government can be entertaining to the masses to some extent, but it is obviously an unjust and highly efficient way to govern.
The rise of hollow populism and demagoguery in the politics of the late Roman Republic also has analogs in our present times:
“. . . [There is] an important difference between a king’s court and an administration. An administration is made of public policies, and of the politics by which policies live or die. It’s outward-facing, making decisions about the government as it relates to society, not the other way around. When the personal traits and lives of administrators become the main story, for example when political scandal erupts, it usually means something has gone wrong for them. A court, on the other hand, deals in palace intrigue. The players in power, the courtiers, are themselves the story, and they are supposed to be.
“While Americans certainly have an appetite for obsessing over the private lives of the powerful, the U.S. has traditionally been suspicious of the politics of personality; when George Washington’s critics wanted to insult him, they called him George IV, as though he had merely succeeded the English monarch.”²
Eventually, the political polarization and abuse of authority eroded Rome’s republican order. Over periods of decades and centuries, a variety of capricious or self-interested changes were made by governing officials that slanted the mechanics of how legislation passed toward their faction’s benefit. As part of a power struggle between senators and tribunes, many things became arbitrary poker chips: what issues came before the people for a vote; how agendas or “election platforms” were attached to consul candidates; how much political agency different groups would enjoy. These and more became politicized and corrupted. As a result, the Roman public became largely disillusioned with its leaders.
During the hectic, short-sighted scramble for control of Rome and her growing sphere of influence during the late republic, leaders began holding onto power for longer periods, often invoked expansive emergency powers, and generally consolidated authority through cronyism and military force. The powerful and influential republic, which began as a representation of the people’s best interests, came to be wielded as a mere tool of statecraft.
In some sense, this has also been a recurring theme in American politics. As wartime presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt greatly expanded executive prerogative in unprecedented ways. Somewhat like Lincoln’s use of federal troops to try and quell the “insurrection” that became Southern secession and the Civil War, the Roman commander and politician Sulla (circa 100 BCE) was the first to turn the republic’s troops on the city of Rome against followers of his rival, Marius. Moreover, FDR also notably was the only president to ever serve more than two terms: He was actually elected four consecutive times.
One thing that is worth distinguishing, however, was the amount of bloodshed these political squabbles caused in Ancient Rome. Prior to the all-out carnage of the Civil War, even colonial and post-colonial episodes of political uprising in America in the battle between the country’s popular movements and the aristocracy did not involve nearly the level of violence seen in Rome. The same is true of today’s mindless indulgences: they don’t rise to the level of blood sports, gladiator spectacles, or the public slaughter of exotic animals for entertainment. No matter what way we choose to deservedly venerate the sophisticated civilization of Ancient Rome, it is a time and society that is undeniably more barbaric than our own.
Everything Has Consequences
Though Roman dominance of the ancient world would persist on for centuries, even rising to remarkable new heights, the seeds of instability and discord were sown in the waning years of the republic. This same confluence of problems festered, fractured Rome’s political culture, and further soured the public’s trust and confidence in its leaders’ promises. Centuries later, these issues were still contributing factors to the empire slowly sinking under its own weight.
The aforementioned Cavazzi also acutely observes, “Looking back one feels that most of all the Roman constitution was never designed with the conquest of wealthy overseas territories in mind.” Similarly, American democracy was not designed with globalization and corporatism in mind. In fact, corporatism would seem to be more of an imperial feature—for instance, consider the British Crown’s use of royal charters.
This theme will come up again in later installments in “A Tale of Two Empires”: bureaucratic corruption and hypocrisy, the growing wealth gap between the rich and poor, widespread greed and opulence. We will also later explore the connections between Rome’s over-reliance upon slavery and the later systems of bondage and mass incarceration as they manifested in the U.S. But for now, a succinct summary of the tragedy of the Roman Republic’s best and worst by Cavazzi hammers home the point:
“The very virtue of Roman unchanging stoicism now became Rome’s undoing. For without change a catastrophe was inevitable. Yet adaptable as the Roman mind was to matters of warfare, it was resistant to any sudden change in political rule.
“So, as the Roman elite did what it was bred to do, as they competed ruthlessly with one another for the highest positions and honours, they unwittingly tore apart the very structure they were sworn to protect.
“. . . The lowly plebeians had lost their bargaining power.
“Rome’s success had undermined the balance of power between rich and poor.
“As the two drifted apart, the communal spirit with which Romans approached their politics died. The rich no longer needed the poor, more so they despised them. The poor meanwhile resorted to the one means of exerting influence they still possessed; that of being a riotous mob.”
Just prior to the the emergence of imperial rule in Rome, the author sets the stage:
“Rome had heroically risen to predominance and her armies had attained such superiority, no power could hope to defeat her.
- F. Cavazzi, “The Late Roman Republic.” Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. 2012. <www.roman-empire.net>
- Nicholas Clairmont, “Trump Is Turning American Companies Into Reality-Show Contestants.” The Atlantic. 7 Jan 2017.