• Richard Murff

The Rubicon is Deeper Than It is Wide

New Lessons from the Old Republic


These Superpowers, they don't last forever

Like the United States, Rome was not a natural to empire. The republic was forced into existence at the intersection of a popular uprising against Tarquin, the city’s last king, and the invasion by the Etruscan King Porsena to highjack the uprising for his own ends. Before the Etruscan king could establish himself, however, the Romans made it violently clear they didn’t want a foreign king and Porsena was forced to withdraw. So, it was that they established a republic with two annually elected leaders called consuls. Records are spotty, but the senate may have existed as an advisory board for the old kings. To maintain a sense of continuity, the institution was kept on in an altered form under the republic.


Even as Rome developed into what we’d call a superpower, it still held republican pride in having thrown off its kings to become a nation of free Roman citizens. It was a superpower, whether it wanted to be or not, and soon found itself playing the role of the world’s policeman. Also like that far-distant ancestor in the Americas, senators were always heading out to trouble spots, along with armies, to “help” small, friendly states against their bigger, hairier neighbors.


By 73 BC, the Western-leaning Seleucid Empire, with its Greek elite atop the Persian masses, had been reduced to a mostly Greek enclave clinging on in modern day Syria. To manage the situation, a succession of famous Roman senators, beginning with Sulla and ending Pompey Magnus, were sent to the hotspot to keep the peace by killing everyone who looked at them funny. Pompey settled the matter in 63 BC, having chased Mithridates IV up into Armenia and establishing the Roman province of Syria.


The Romans kept hanging around in the Levant but were never able to make much of a dent in lands to the east that were so rich the Romans called it Felix Arabia, Fortunate Arabia. Unable to penetrate far, they followed the Greeks by hooking a well-worn path around into Egypt and North Africa. They were good administrators and, like Cyrus the Great, had largely cracked the nut of getting subject peoples to buy into the idea of being part of the imperial whole. They outsourced the bureaucracy to locals where they could, brought technical innovations that improved life in the provinces and tolerated the other fellow’s religion. At least that was the plan. This is an easier sell if you are a pagan and believe that there are plenty of gods around for everyone. It is also worth noting that the monotheistic Jews never really stopped giving the Romans a headache.


Yet all this global adventurism hid a nasty rot at home. Things had gotten so unstable that the normal course of power got disrupted under near constant states of emergency. A dictatorship of three – called the Triumvirate – was established between Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Magnus Crassius which lasted from 60-54 BC. The point of the arrangement was that no one man would have absolute power. It was a temporary measure, but it did lasting damage. While free elections make free republics function, they also expose their fragility. Like paper money, peaceful power transitions only work because we all agree that they will.


For the Romans, the dictatorship was a legal, if seldom used, device for when republican politics descended into violence. Akin to an emergency powers act, it was a temporary measure intended to be for six months or until the crisis had passed. It was a fatal legal loophole that, once abased, transformed the Republic. When Crassius died the Triumvirate ended, leaving Pompey and Caesar eye-balling each other suspiciously. Caesar was off subjugating Gaul at the time, so he headed back home with his army.

Here, gentle reader, is the importance of precedent in the survival of a republic. For obvious reasons, Roman fighting legions weren’t allowed in Italy, the northern border of which was marked by the river Rubicon. When Caesar crossed the river, bringing his armies into Italy, it was a wildly illegal move that was either going to kill him or make him. The gamble paid off when he managed to terrify the senate into making him sole dictator in 49 BC. The crisis, as defined by Caesar, was so broad that it couldn’t be settled in six months, or a year. Once in sole command, his dictatorship kept being re-upped by a cowed senate. He kept claiming that his goal was to restore the Republic, but he never fully explained why he started promenading around the senate in purple boots, the symbol of the old Roman kings. Then in 44 BC, with the senate and the citizenry used to the idea, he declared himself Dictator for Life.


Once Julius Caesar had thrown a rock through that delicate precedent, it was very hard to set it straight again. In any event, Julius Caesar didn’t restore the Republic before being poked full of holes in the middle of March. At this point, however, it didn’t really matter – the norms had been shattered. The assassination was sold as a blow against tyranny – and it was. The larger point is that even if a full restoration of the public had been managed, the order was always just one hurled stone from shattering again.


Another dictatorship of three - the Second Triumvirate - was established between Caesar’s great-nephew Gaius Octavius - by then called Octavian – along with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidas. This one ended with Lepidas in exile and Mark Antony committing suicide after being famously stood-up by his girlfriend Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium (31 BC), which he then famously lost.


By 27 BC Octavian had restored the façade of the old Republic to his satisfaction – read: with him in complete control of all of it. While the Pax Romana Octavian established was never, strictly speaking, all that peaceful its far-flung foreign wars of expansion had stabilizing affect at home for the better part of two centuries. Surely, we should rank Augustus Caesar up there with the Cyrus the Great’s of the world – he nearly doubled size of the Roman Empire. But to snatch land is one thing, to maintain an empire is another. He died in 14 AD – naming Tiberius his heir. After 70 years of stability, no one thought the republic was coming back. At that point, most Romans didn’t even want it to.


And therein lies our lesson: that the framers were seeking to avoid the pitfalls of empire and over-powerful governments when they looked to Rome. Even the most meticulously laid out republic requires norms and precedents on which we all agree. Perhaps the framers unwittingly set us on this path to face a hairy world at our throats and unruly mob violence at home. History may not tell us what to do next, but we know what not to do.


Don’t cross the Rubicon.


Photo: Meldarion Quesse

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