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Is the American Republic dying, as in the last days of the Roman Republic?

20 July 2010

Each day brings comparisons of America to various failing states, like Zimbabwe (see here) and Greece.   I believe the strongest comparison is to the last days of the Roman Empire.   Bernard Finel (of the American Security Project) sketches the similarities in The Fall of the Roman Republic: Lessons for David Petraeus and America, at his blog on 15 July 2010.  It’s worth reading in full.  Here is a excerpt, followed by my analysis.

At the core, the Roman Republic faced two problems. …

  1. the growth of Roman power and the acquisition of an empire stressed the existing structure for managing provinces. …
  2. for a variety of reasons that economic historians continue to debate, there was increasing income inequality in Rome, and worse, the gradual impoverishment and ultimately virtual elimination of small-hold farmers that had traditionally formed the backbone of both the Roman citizenry and military.

… These problems were recognized early. In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus sought to implement land reform from his position as Tribune in order to address the twin issues of the disappearing free rural peasantry and the resultant lack of citizens eligible for military service. His efforts threatened the position of the aristocratic elites, and in the end he was murdered.   Ten year later his younger brother suffered the same fate under similar circumstances.

At the time of the Cimbrian War (113-101 BC), the threat of foreign invasion by Germanic tribes forced Gaius Marius to replace the traditional Roman Army soldiered by land-owning citizens with one built around landless volunteers for whom military service was a career and who owed loyalty primarily to the general paying the bills rather than the state. Marius’ legions defeated the Germans, but a new instability had been introduced into the Roman state due to the tendency of these new volunteer forces to be loyal to personal patrons rather than state institutions. This instability manifested itself in the increasing role of popular generals in Roman politics, including several willing to implicitly or explicitly threaten civil war to get what they wanted.

… By the time the of the First Triumvirate in 59 BC, the Roman state had been grappling with these basic, interlocking economic, political, military challenges for 70 years without any systematic solution. … And yet the Roman state was unable to act. Three dynamics combined with poorly designed state institutions to lead to paralysis. …

  1. within the Roman body politic, there was a small, but solid group of aristocrats who were ideologically opposed to reform. …
  2. even among reformers there was a great deal of concern about letting anyone get the “credit” for solving problem. …
  3. there was a relatively small number of wealthy aristocrats, some of whom has managed to effectively privatize public lands and were unwilling to allow distribution of those lands, even if as a matter of law they didn’t actually have title to them anyway.

None of this reflects a theory of history. And it is certainly not a prediction for the United States. But there is some value in thinking about the structural similarities between the cases. At some point, the United States will need to address a wide variety of structural problems. As a practical matter, this will require some reform of our governing institutions. Whether these reforms occur as a result of deep crisis, political accommodation, or something in between remains an open question.

This is accurate and brilliant.  But it’s a structuralist analysis, and almost useless to us, IMO. 

Finel overlooks a key element:  the Roman people.  National survival requires contributions of both elites and the people.    Too much conflict, and it’s Latin America — prosperity to poverty in 3 generations.   Rome’s problems were more subtle.  Their elites were  excessively concerned with their own welfare, too little with Rome’s.  The Roman people grew tired, finding the burden of self-government to great to bear.  Neither could govern themselves, hence combined they could not govern Rome.  The resulting wars decided who would sit on the throne; both suffered from the resulting tyranny.

That’s the lesson for us, the great similarity between our two different situations.  If we prefer to be consumers rather than citizens, who will govern America?

For another perspective on this, see this article by Zenpundit.

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