Back in February, I wrote a post comparing the US in 2011 to Rome in 59 BC, asking, “So just how far have we progressed?” Without boasting, it’s been my most successful post to date; it was a lot of fun to write, too.
Of course, surface comparisons can only take us so far, especially when you’re trying to write social commentary. You can get so wrapped up in the obvious similarities that you ignore the deeper differences; even worse, you can strain to make meaningful equivalences out of situations that are apple-and-orange different.
For example, gay-rights advocates are at some pains to equate the homosexual experience of discrimination with the black American experience … an effort that must cause many black Americans either amusement or disgust. The most obvious dissimilarity? Most of the time, if you’re black, you don’t have to tell anyone. And that accounts for most of the differences in treatment and experience.
(By the way, this isn’t another flipping post on gay marriage; I’m sick to my gills with the topic. Just let me set the stage here.)
At the time, I wrote:
In Rome itself, a massive political power shift had occurred over the last fifty years, moving more power out of the hands of the constitutional legislators—the Senate—into a small handful of tribunes who could only be blocked by one of their own, but who could block action by any other political body through their vetoes. This meant that the two major political blocs, the Optimates and the Populares, had to compete for control through ownership of individual tribunes.
Some clarity needs to be added here. For one, there was no written constitution as we Americans understand it. Rather, it was like the British unwritten constitution — the entire body of laws passed up to that time, to an extent controlled by a heavy respect for tradition (the mos maiorum, or “custom of our forefathers”).
For another, while Senate decrees (consulta) had the force of custom, they weren’t a true legislating body. The true legislating power lay in various assemblies, especially in the comitia centuriata (the people voting in blocs according to social rank and income) and the tribunes. When he assumed power in 83 BC, the dictator L. Cornelius Sulla tried to bolster the authority of the Senate and strip the tribunes’ legislative power; however, by that time the pre-Sullan tribunes had become so much a part of the mos maiorum that his correction lasted less than four years after his abdication.
The big dissimilarity between the tribunes and the Supreme Court is that SCOTUS can’t issue positive law; their power of judicial review depends precisely on a written constitution that also limits their function in government. The tribunes, on the other hand, could not only forbid laws but also make laws as an assembly. Because no written constitution limited its power, a tribune or two strong enough to dominate the bench and unscrupulous enough to flout custom could wield a lot of power.
What, then, did limit the power of the tribune? The fact that he was elected for only one year. Even in the waning days of the Republic, the Senate strongly resisted candidates from standing for re-election to the post. The only two tribunes I can think of prior to Mark Antony who actually held the office twice — Gaius Gracchus and L. Appuleius Saturninus — went too far, provoking armed struggles that led to their assassinations.
But the peculiarity of late Republican politics that really defies comparison is in the two factions: The Optimates (the “best men”), centered around Cato the Younger, Marcus Bibulus and Quintus Lutatius Catulus; and the Populares, centered around Marcus Crassus, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. Indeed, all the major personalities came from the same oligarchic class — Pompey’s father had risen to the consulship — and had many crossing ties of amicitia (blood relationships, traditional alliances and patronage).
For one, Catulus, Crassus and Pompey had all supported Sulla in his conquest of Cinna and Carbo, while Caesar had had to go into hiding from the dictator because he had married and refused to divorce his wife, Cinna’s daughter Cornelia. For another, despite his relationship by marriage to Gaius Marius, Caesar was been co-opted into one of the priesthoods early in his political career, which should be interpreted as a conservative stamp of approval. Finally, despite their mutually advantageous relationship, after Pompey’s wife — Caesar’s daughter Julia — died in childbirth, Pompey eventually joined Cato and Bibulus, marrying the daughter of another Optimate, Caecilius Metellus Scipio.
By the time Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January of 49 BC, both sides had shown increasing disregard for the mos maiorum and even for the constitution, resorting to electoral bribery (even Cato, whom most people considered incorruptible) and political violence almost regularly. But the conflicts weren’t never issue- or ideology-driven so much as they were personality and ambition clashes. Neither side saw a need to change society or the political system except as it served their personal agendas.
Today the clashes are ideologically driven; the differences, where they exist, go all the way down. While in the Republic the commercial class (the knights, or equites) had a clear interest in supporting the First Triumvirate, today the business interests aren’t strictly committed to one side or another, and are fully capable of supporting social change so long as they can make a business case for it. Moreover, the entertainment and education blocs are heavily in the possession of one side, and have a social influence we haven’t seen since we were in tribes and clans huddled around the bard or the storyteller.
In the end, the struggle between the Optimates and the Populares was mostly for the sake of power itself; because of that Roman society was able to survive the transition from Republic to Empire. Today the goal is social change, a deliberate attempt to rewrite the DNA of human institutions.
That is what — and why — our republic may not survive.