"It's not so much America's tendency toward decadence and our astounding military might that make us like Rome. It's the dangerous blurring of public and private responsibilities, paired with an inflated sense of power that can blind us to what's happening beyond our borders." Some of this may be true, particularly the latter portion. As for the former, Mr. Murphy claims that massive public works and keeping necessary institutions run federally or municipally is the key to citizen cohesion. Case in point: Mr. Murphy claims that subcontracting things such as marital or business arbitrations to private entities, or worse, subcontracting prisons to private companies (like Wackenhut) are eroding our sense of shared mission. Perhaps true, but as someone with libertarian leanings that thinks that government should be the last, not first, solution to a problem that could be privately (and profitably) dealt with in an effective manner, I take issue with Mr. Murphy's thesis. The point of devolving certain municipal or federal powers to private entities (who are still subject to governmental oversight) is, simply put, done to lessen the burden of the taxpayer. Additionally, anything that can lessen the intrusiveness of government, even if it is for things like securities or real estate arbitration, is a good thing. Better that people who know better arbitrate on matters particular to a given industry have the ultimate say-so in it. They also serve to unclog the public legal system for cases that cannot be adjudicated any other way. Read the book if you wish. I learned a few things, despite my disagreements with it.
So...now that I got that out of the way, my true intent behind writing this post. A conversation that I had with a friend of mine a while back (who happens to have had a pretty impressive Jesuit education and a pretty good memory for what he was taught) turned to Roman history. I realized that I knew very little of it. (This is 2005, btw.) That, combined with the excellent HBO series Rome, sparked my interest. I consequently went on a six year bender of eating up everything on Rome that I could get my hands on. My father, schooled in this stuff more than I at the time (I subsequently passed him in this department) suggested that I start with Suetonius' "12 Caesars", written in 121 AD. Aside from the charge that I got from reading something nearly two-thousand years old, I found it eminently readable and translatable into real-world terms. From there I moved to Plutarch's "Lives", detailing prominent Romans and preceding Greek statesmen and making (sometimes) apt comparisons between them. Then onto contemporary historian Tom Holland's "Rubicon-The Last Days of the Roman Republic", an absolute stunner and the perfect guidebook if you were watching HBO's "Rome" series. (Better to track the personalities and the consistencies/inconsistencies of the show, you see...) Then onto Livy, an excellent book about Cicero ("The Life & Times of Rome's Greatest Politician"), and of course, the truncated (but still exceptionally dense) version of Edward Gibbon's "Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire". (The first volume was published, interestingly, in 1776. Gibbon was a Member of Parliament who undoubtedly was involved in discussions and debates regarding that rebellious North American colony we now live in.) A few books on the Greco-Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War, Alexander the Great, and some classical philosophy rounded out my reading list for the last six years. Proceeding all of this were bios on Adams, Hamilton, and Washington, as well as the excellent 1776 by David McCullough. Oh...and the comprehensive "History of the American People" by Paul Johnson....1000 pages of bliss, it was.
Pardon the self-indulgent listing of all and sundry that I've read for the last six years, but it brings me to a salient point: One cannot understand the linchpins of our republic if one doesn't have an understanding of Greco-Roman and Anglo-Saxon history, politics, and philosophy. (Particularly the latter.) One cannot "get" the thinking of the Founders (who signed the Declaration of Independence, as well as fought the war for it) or the Framers (those who devised, edited, debated, and ratified The Constitution) unless one knows the history that they knew. It cannot be accurately understood through any other lense.
The Constitution is a written document. This might seem like nothing, but consider that the British have a constitution, but it is NOT written one. The most successful and long-lasting republic in history, Rome also didn't not have a written constitution. These unwritten constitutions were based on customs and precedents, but could be revoked, twisted, perverted, and otherwise subjugated through sophistry and the ever-present reason used throughout the ages, national emergency. It is no small coincidence that the rhetoric coming from Washington DC these days always has a certain spin or urgency to it, and either is a war (war on poverty) or crisis (energy crisis, healthcare crisis, climate change crisis, etc.). Language like this has always been used to justify the seizure of the rights and/or property of private citizens....because to the ruling mandarins, it's all a matter of national security or public safety. To wit:
- Lucius Cornelius Sulla (referred to going forward as Sulla) sought to "restore the republic" after being cheated (unconstitutionally) by a rival general/statesman/populist (Gaius Marius) out of a military command. Sulla turned his army on Rome instead of Pontus (where his revoked command mandated he go to finish off a rebellious King Mithridates), breaking the most sacred of covenants-that no Roman general can march his army through the city gates under arms. Sulla then reversed the revocation of his command via the senate, marched out to Pontus, defeated Mithridates, turned back to Rome, and marched through the city gates under arms again. In his absence, rival Marius rigged the senate to appoint himself consul (the highest position in Rome prior to the demise of the republic) in perpetuity, also an unconstitutional act. On Sulla's return, Marius fled and eventually died of natural causes (such as they were), his allies were promptly proscribed and/or executed, and Sulla forced a senatorial decree appointing himself dictator. This was all done under the need for a "restoration of public order" and "public security". From there, Sulla waged a war of terror on his enemies and their allies, eliminating 9000 of them, mostly noblemen. After a year, true to his word to "restore the Roman constitution" (despite perverting it), he resigned.
- Julius Caesar was one of Marius' followers, a "populare" (a man of the people). Following the politics of Marius but the actions of Sulla, he too would march through the gates of Rome under arms and seize absolute power. His assassination would trigger a war between his followers (Caesarians) and the old guard seeking to preserve the last vestiges of the Roman constitution (Republicans). In the end and over several years, Caesar's nephew and posthumously adopted son, Octavian (Augustus), would also march through the gates of Rome under arms. Rome would never again be a republic, and its quasi-democratic government and constitution would be forever sundered.
From these two men one can glean several applicable and parallel things to our own republic, our constitution, and why there are certain amendments in it. For one, if it is written, they'll be no dispute about what it says and means. Of this there can be no dispute, as the main architects of the Constitution (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and to a lesser extent, John Jay) had an extraordinarily deep knowledge of Roman history, and knew full well what brought the republic down: the personal ambition of extraordinary men who's lust for power was lethally accompanied by legions dedicated to those men, not the republic itself. The fact that they could pervert and subvert a constitution that had no binding force, other than custom, proved too attractive to pass up. In the case of the United States, if someone of power breaks their constitutional vows, one can point to where in the Constitution it was broken. If you don't believe me, consider the pseudonym of the three authors of it whence publishing their thoughts vis-a-vis the Federalist Papers: Publius, as in Publius Valerius Publicola, one of the main conspirators that overthrew the last of the tyrannical kings, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and established the Roman republic.
To conclude, I disagree with Cullen Murphy on why Rome crumbled. It spent more time as a republic than it did as a dictatorship, and conquered the entire Mediterranean basin during republican, not principate rule. To my mind, what brought it down was a gradually withering indifference to its constitution and its institutions. If there is a comparison between Rome and our nation, it is that. Under-educated snots like Washington Post writer Ezra Klein are a primary example of this. Stating that the issue with the text is "confusing" because it is "over one hundred years old" (it's 223 years old, mind...), and that it differs "from person to person" and "depends on what they want to get done" is a good example of a mindset that is prevalent amongst many, particularly on the Left. The Constitution protects the individual's freedoms, their property, and their freedom to worship. The Framers understood that these rights have to be enshrined IN WRITING so that people like Klein (and they are legion, and unlike Klein, in positions of actual authority in our government), should they choose to break it, can't rhetorically manoeuvre their way around something that is stated plainly in its texts. And if the Constitution is considered "too old" by people such as Klein, perhaps he should pick up a book and read about where the Framers got all these ideas from. Of course, if he has a problem with the 223 year old texts of the Constitution, I would imagine that 2000 to 2500 year old writings from the likes of Plutarch, Livy, Cicero, Cato, Sallust, Polybius, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Suetonius would be way above his intellectual pay-grade. Fortunately, they weren't for Hamilton, Jay, and Madison.