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October 05, 2004

Those Who Do Not Learn From... Wait, I Never Learned The End Of That Aphorism

Alexis Smolensk of Business Edge in Canada is a sometimes visitor here. He recently sent me an email about Sulla and Marius, two Consuls who happily encouraged the Roman Republic's decay into the Roman Empire.

Alexis believes America could learn something from this period of Roman history. Fortunately we know that's not true, because Americans are totally different from all humans who've lived before or elsewhere. I'm not sure why this is, but it's one thing we know absolutely for sure.

Nevertheless, this gives Americans an interesting window into the crazy things they're thinking about us in other countries, assuming other countries actually do exist, which has not yet been conclusively proven.

* * *

by Alexis Smolensk

Both Sulla and Marius should be looked at very closely by anyone living in America at the moment. Both of them were quality generals; Sulla was a pupil of Marius.

Let me apologize if any of this repeats things you already know, but I just want to make sure the background is there.

The Roman Republic was established in 509 BC after the rule of kings was overthrown by one Brutus, great great ancestor of the Brutus who later does the deed with Caesar. The Roman state was based upon a rather unequal arrangement of voting by wealth (after all, this was 25 centuries ago, so any kind of vote was forward thinking). The state was overseen by two consuls, who were elected yearly. In fact the American system of President/Vice-President was based upon this idea--that if one were killed the other could carry on.

In war, the two Consuls divided up the business; one stayed at home, the other led the army out. Sometimes the army leader would fail and the they'd switch roles. Sometimes the threat was so great that both consuls would lead an army. And sometimes the consuls just weren't up to the task.

In which event, Rome would elect a dictator: a single individual who would have total power of life and death over every individual. He would have the power to raise an army of any size, seize any property to feed and supply it, and lead it out to fight the enemy. When the danger was gone, the dictator voluntarily stepped down and the consul system was resumed.

For 4 centuries, this worked very well. Rome rose from a small town on the Tiber to the dominant power in the west. But...things were getting more complicated, and the system was breaking down in all sorts of little ways. Such as the distribution of wealth, the lack of willing volunteers to act as soldiers, the number of enemies Rome had, the need to have many outposts on frontiers, etc.

Basically, for most of Rome's history, soldiers were farmers who picked up their weapons in the fall and put them down again when winter came. Almost all wars were fought in a three month period between August and November.

But by the 2nd century BC this wasn't adequate. The law stated that a soldier had to be someone who owned land, and the lands were being grouped together under rich senators who themselves did not fight (they were usually quite aged). Thus the organization of the army was becoming a disaster.

In 107 a happy fellow named Marius was elected consul for the first time. He went to war in north africa against Jugurtha, who was threatening the big senatorial estates in Africa--some sources will say later that the entire province ultimately came under the control of six senators. In any case, Jugurtha was a threat primarily because of the defense of those lands, though the war against Jugurtha was not exactly 'defensive.'

He was elected dictator to deal with the situation in Africa.
In order to have a large enough army, Marius PAID his troops. He ignored the laws saying a soldier needed to have a certain level of wealth, and simply gathered an army out of the impoverished mob.

He won the war handily in North Africa, and then used his position as triumphant general to have himself re-elected to seven consulships in a row. While he was a fairly decent leader, he was the first Roman to be elected to so many consecutive consulships (two was rare).

Marius stepped down around 100 BC (he was aging and not well) and Rome struggled for some years under the old system as it continued to degrade. Socially, the struggle erupting involved the difference between "Romans" and "Italians," the latter being people who dwelt within Italy but were not citizens of the Republic. Marius continued to take part in Roman affairs.

Marius' second-in-command in Africa was Sulla, who was known to be ruthless and a brilliant general. Sulla, more than Marius, was personally responsible for the destruction of Jugurtha's Army.

Through the 90s, Sulla and Marius fell out, and the center of power began to swing between them. As Marius continued to age, Sulla's power grew. When the opportunity came, Sulla seized power with the help of six legions in his own pay (thus the problem with soldiers being paid--their loyalty remains to the paycheque, not the state). Marius fled Rome and Sulla established himself as consul along with Lucius Cornelius Cinna.

Thereafter followed the social war, as the non-citizens rose against the citizens. In a very famous quote from Appian (The Civil War I, c.60):

In this way the episodes of civil strife escalated from rivalry and contentiousness to murder, and from murder to full-scale war; and this was the first army composed of Roman citizens to attack their own country as thought it were a hostile power. From this point onwards their conflicts continued to be settled by military means and there were frequent attacks on Rome…because nothing remained, neither law, nor political institutions, nor patriotism, that could induce any sense of shame in the men of violence.

Sulla put down the rebellion and headed east to fight Mithradates in Asia Minor, to defend the republic's frontiers. While he was gone, in 87 Marius had returned to Rome, had Cinna killed, and had himself re-elected consul. Sulla abandoned the east and returned to Rome. By 82 Marius had been destroyed. In 81 Sulla named himself "dictator for life."

What happens next is that the Roman state is reworked by Sulla to reduce the potential for any other individual to rise in the same manner. Laws are passed to present political infighting, the check the political power of politicians, to prevent repeated consulships. In effect it was all reactionary legislation. Because he "brought peace" to Rome, his position was not threatened and Sulla died quietly in 78 BC, having 'ruled' for only three years.

The names of Sulla's lieutenants are better known than Sulla: Pompey and Crassus. The aforementioned Cinna's daughter would become Julius Caesar's wife. The connections with the events that destroyed the Republic and created the Empire are multiple.

It would be very easy to say, well, that was Rome, has nothing to do with us. But. When I hear about questioning whether the elections should be held over in case of a terrorist attack, I wonder. It would be very easy for the partisanship of America at present to break down into factionism. In fact, it happened very quickly in Rome. Between 130 BC (when the major political leader Gracchus was assassinated) and 78 BC is only 42 years. All of the events I've described above took place in a republic. None of the wars were fought on the Italian peninsula (there were laws about that sort of thing that were not broken until Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army). So to the people of Rome, it was undesirable, but increasingly acceptable.

In fact I believe the parallels exist now that are comparable with when Marius first rose to power. The machine is present. The factions are present. Any small thing could set the road to dictatorship in motion. And the American voice is making it clear that such action would be just as acceptable today as it was once. The rhetoric going around condemning "persons not like ourselves" proves it.

Ain't history fun?

Posted at October 5, 2004 10:01 PM | TrackBack

Jon, this kind of erudite argument has no place on an American blog. 'Round these here parts, we don't believe in book-larnin'.

The Marius and Sulla argument is an interesting one, and I think the critical point is the one about the paid soldiery. This is actually one of the things I've found most disturbing about our fun 'n' games in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are now depending, to an unprecedented amount, upon mercenaries. Yes, we call them private security contractors, but they are mercenaries, and they are an incredibly dangerous trend. As Alexis pointed out, such hired guns have no real loyalty except to their paycheck; furthermore, their presence alongside actual soldiers who make less than a fifth of what the mercs make is pernicious. I mean, really, if it's a choice between getting shot at for minimum wage and getting shot at for a hell of a lot of money, no effective oversight, and also you get to wear cool shades and muscle shirts, it's a no-brainer. Is it any wonder that special forces troops are jumping ship at the first opportunity? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we no longer have enough special forces to carry out missions, so inevitably we hire these guys back again to fill the need. But ultimately they don't report to us.

The paid soldiery would continue to prove a big problem for Rome, especially under the Empire when legions or the Praetorian Guard liked to blow off steam by assassinating an emperor or two.

There are, of course, some differences between these days and those days. Populists like Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus ended up stabbed and tossed into the Tiber, whereas now we simply assassinate their character on FOX News.

I hope, though, that unlike that time, we will instead follow the pattern that this country has taken through most crises in the last 50 years, most notably the McCarthy era and the Vietnam War. Namely, we go way too far for a while, kill people or at least destroy their careers, and then swing back in the other direction in self-loathing for a bit before realizing that what we really care about is whether bell-bottoms make our butts look too big. It's kind of amazing that even with their violent tendencies and unfortunate habit of drinking water out of lead pipes, the Romans still had more of an attention span than we do.

Posted by: Ted at October 5, 2004 11:15 PM

You know, I can't subtract. That should be 52 years between 130-78 BC

Posted by: Alexis at October 6, 2004 12:38 PM

I don't know, Ted. Tiberias and Gaius bear a haunting comparison to certain Kennedys the country used to know. The difference between the present and the McCarthy era is that once upon a time America had enemies that were worth being afraid of. Just as Rome once needed to be concerned.

Today, however, America has no comparable enemies. Oh, yes, it has vipers and wasps, who can hurt without really threatening. It isn't like any country is going to launch an invasion of the North American continent any time in the next three or four decades. During that time, America can lumber around like a mauling beast, ripping up its enemies and all the while being stung and bit and feeling a growing sense of exhaustion.

Rome was like this. The whole complex nature of the "fall" took six centuries. And parts of the original empire never "fell." To wit, the social system, law, merchant practices, religion, philosophy, etc.

It is natural to think that America is going to "get it together" sometime soon. But consider the things that cannot be taken back:

1) America's reputation is shot. Any efforts at peacekeeping or the "spreading of democracy" will be met in the future with violence and hatred.

2) America's economy is on the skids. By what I've read, America is something like 1.2 trillion dollars in the hole from what it was three years ago, and its going to take another half trillion (minimum) to tidy up this affair--assuming the next president is Kerry and that's his intention.

3) If Kerry does win, the bad economy is going to be blamed on him (after all, it couldn't have been those good republicans) and the republicans are almost certain to win in 2008.

4) If Bush wins, the bad economy is going to get worse, leaving the democrats to win in 2008 with an even BIGGER economic hole to dig out from.

In short, this is the beginning of the end. It is like the end of the movie "Falling Down," in which the patriotic American finally realizes at the end, "I'm the bad guy?"

P.S. It is interesting that you say these thoughts have no place on an American blog. Because I'm a Canadian

Posted by: Alexis at October 6, 2004 12:51 PM

"Tiberias and Gaius bear a haunting comparison to certain Kennedys the country used to know."

Well, to a point (the fact that they were brothers sequentially assassinated). However, the Gracchi were killed by the establishment rather than by lone wackos (Oswald conspiracy theories notwithstanding). Furthermore, although I consider RFK a populist, at least in 1968, calling JFK a populist is a bit of a stretch. Civil Rights, Great Society, Medicare, these were things driven more by Johnson than Kennedy.

I agree, though, that there are disturbing parallels between what's wrong with America now and what was wrong with Rome then.

"P.S. It is interesting that you say these thoughts have no place on an American blog. Because I'm a Canadian"

You pernicious Canadians, with your, um, universal health care, low crime rate, and irritatingly peaceful history. Stop making us look bad.

Unfortunately, my statement was only half in jest. The truth is, we are so violently polarized in this country right now that it really is almost impossible to have a civilized debate about anything. I suspect a lot of this has to do with the fact that we have no viable third parties in our electoral system. In a parliamentary system, you can at least build coalitions of parties that actually stand for things, which means that nobody can really afford to piss off other parties with impunity like they can here.

This was brought home to me even more in watching the VP debate the other night. The two candidates were obviously in two parallel universes, and I can't imagine how the average ill-informed voter knew what was true and what wasn't. Especially with our breathless press covering it like some sort of tennis match and not calling the lies.

Posted by: Ted at October 6, 2004 07:18 PM