Senatus Populaesque Romanum
I should be using this chance to shill for my new book, The Four Emperors. And this essay is certainly inspired by it – or rather, by fear that it will happen again.
Watching the shenanigans in the US House of Representatives, I can’t help but think of Rome. After two novels, a play, and two more novels next year, I may have Rome on the brain. But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the terrifying parallels, all coming faster and faster. It took the Romans nearly 500 years to get to where we are in just over 200.
Our most dire peril, as I see it, is the breakdown of the rule of Law. When our lawmakers dislike the laws that came before them, and decide to subvert them, the whole system is endangered.
The greatest gift the Romans gave us wasn’t aqueducts or amphitheatres, or even art. It was Law. The Roman court system was the envy of the world. Yes, there were miscarriages of justice, when a jury was bribed or a judge threw out an air-tight case. But even the very concept of standing courts was new to the world, as was a selected jury of your peers (rather than the unwieldy Greek version of a court, when the whole city came together to pass judgment. The Roman way didn’t shut down the society).
At the dawn of the Republic, when the first Brutus threw out the Tarquin and set up a new system of government, there were four inalienable rights of citizenship:
1 – A Roman had the right to vote. After the overthrowing of a tyrannical king, this was a huge guarantee, and vital.
2 – A Roman had the right to own property.
3- A Roman had the right to marry. This was later expanded to include all legal contracts – basically a Roman had the right to sign a written contract, or enter a verbal one, and expect it to be upheld.
4 – A Roman had the right to be whole in his person. Technically this means he could be beaten with a rod, but not whipped or cut – nothing that broke the skin. But it also had the effect that he had recourse at law for any injustice or indult given him – assault, etc. This also ended up guaranteeing a citizen the right to a trial before he was punished. The right to a fair trial is enormously important.
Having come from tyranny, these rights were precious, and ferociously defended, becoming the cornerstones of Roman law (and of course I should mention that these applied to Roman male citizens. Women eventually could own property, but the rest of their rights were not nearly as protected. A man could divorce a woman on a whim, whereas a woman needed a reason, and proof).
These foundations got expanded over time, as rights do. First conceived to protect Patricians (the “fathers” of the country), they then spread to cover all citizens, even Plebians. As more and more people got the citizenship, and therefore the vote, the ideal of Roman law was respected the world over. People from other countries would travel to Rome to get justice in a Roman court. A will lodged with the Vestal Virgins in Rome was considered so safe than many foreign kings placed their wills in those holy hands. Roman justice was seen to be swift, and by-and-large fair.
What eventually happened, though, was that the lawmakers started to not like the eroding of what they saw as their rights. There were too many “new men” coming up to join their ranks (some were even of Italian, not Roman, birth!) In response, lawmakers began rigging the elections, so that their votes counted more than those of ordinary people. Then they started holding themselves exempt from certain laws. Then they started passing laws to circumvent other laws. Then Cicero had five Roman citizens executed without a trial.
For all our talk of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, it was this undermining of the law that was the beginning of the end for the Republic. A country’s laws are only useful when they are seen as applying equally to all people, high or low. I know I’m supposed to be promoting The Four Emperors, but I’m going to quote from the next book I have coming out, also set in Rome. It’s a play called Eve Of Ides, and it’s set the night before the assassination of Caesar:
The law is a breathing thing, Brutus. It cannot be static. When the Senate - a few hundred men of birth and wealth, making laws for people they despise - when they make laws that go against the wishes or interests of the people, they abrogate their authority.
Is that how you see the Senate?
(laughing) I’ve been a member too long to see it as anything other than what it is - a collection of privileged fools who do nothing and obstruct everything. They’ll fight even the most basic, clear-headed notion because it was suggested by their political enemy. As if we were not all Romans. Picking absurd fights to protect some petty private interests, backing so deep into a political corner that my only viable solution is military. Lawmakers with a profound disdain for the law. That is how I see the Senate. Whereas you see it as you wish it to be - a just and wise body of men.
And the pragmatist.
This was a very reasonable view of the Senate in Caesar’s day. They routinely broke the law, violating their stated beliefs in order to protect their power and privileges, invoking Rome’s founders and traditions as a club to beat anyone who disagreed with them.
Does this sound at all familiar?
We must study Rome, not for simple love of history. Our own founders consciously based the government they created on the Roman system – two houses, a Senate and a House of Plebs; two consuls to run the executive branch; and a system of standing courts. With Rome as our model, it is imperative that we learn from Rome’s mistakes, not repeat them. Otherwise we’ll end up with too much power vested in the executive branch, a huge income disparity between the wealthy and the common man, and a military engaged in perpetual war.
As I see it, we’re in the time of Gaius Gracchus. Gracchus, who tried to advocate for the rights of the common man above the elite. When he was opposed by a faction of backward-looking zealots calling themselves the Boni (the “Good Men”), who pulled the same parliamentary tricks as the Tea Party this last fortnight, Grachus said, “A tribune who diminishes the privileges of the people ceases to be a tribune of the people.” I couldn’t agree more.
Being in the time of Gracchus means we’re not doomed yet. But if Rome is a reliable roadmap, in about 100 years we’re destined for our own Nero, our own Galba, Otho, Vitellius, our own Year of the Four Emperors. That year, 69 AD, was a nightmare of unconstitutionality. But by then, the constitution of Rome was so badly trampled that it was virtually useless.
When law-makers live outside the law, the law ceases to have value. As Truman Capote said, “The problem with living outside the law is that you no longer have the protection of it.”
By the bye, I don’t have a soapbox in The Four Emperors. It’s just my attempt to tell an excellent and exciting story, a story worth telling. But history is more than a window into the past. History is a mirror, a window into ourselves. As I said in an interview last week, “We forget our history. That’s what literature can do – remind us not of where we are, but how we got here.”
Senatus Populaesque Romanum: “The Senate and People of Rome.” We forget the People at our peril. The same is true of history.
I’ll close with a lengthy exchange from the end of Act One of Eve Of Ides:
You of all men might understand. Seven civil wars in my lifetime. Seven. Add to that proscriptions, purges, and outright murder, and what do you have? Chaos. Rome is foundering. You must see that. Our customs and beliefs are dashing themselves against the facts of our times. The ideals of our founders are either ill-equipped for modern man, or else ill-served by him. The poor are frightened by the change, and they cling to the three staples of their lives - their gods, their games, and their bread. The Second and Third Classes want to join the First Class while the First Class wants to protect its exclusivity. We with the birth, the money, and the will to govern are expected - needed - to provide for the lesser among us. Else the Republic will fall.
The Republic is eternal.
Nothing is eternal. Not even the gods. Without a firm hand, we will return to Pandora’s world - a world of chaos. It’s almost as though someone has defied the gods and shouted out Roma’s secret name into the open air, heralding our destruction.
Is that the choice? Caesar, or chaos?
Not a palatable choice, I’ll confess. But you must see that a dictator is better than destruction.
I’m not so sure. We cannot have a king - or a Caesar - and still be the people our forefathers envisioned.
But they couldn’t envision the state in which we find ourselves today! We’re no longer that tiny colony on the seven hills, desperate to survive the wolves. We have interests in foreign lands, far-flung peoples and places. Our wealth is great, our prestige greater, our enemies greater still. The sign-posts our ancestors planted should guide us to who we will become, not bind us to who we were. An example - from the time of our founding until a generation ago, the poor had no stake in the society. The army was filled with men of means - men with property have property to defend. But that changed when Marius saw Rome’s need for soldiers - an honest need, with the Germans coming for us like an avalanche. Lacking men, he drafted the poor. Practical. But fifty years on, what do we have? Professional soldiers coming home to find themselves rejoining the poor, wondering why they were called to fight for their country. Was it to join the Head Count and starve once discharged? Military training married to starvation births revolution. And not one of our civil civil wars, with Senators battling Senators. This will be a genuine uprising, with the people overthrowing the lot of us. As a consequence, Rome today needs wars, constant wars, foreign wars, until we are prosperous and equitable here at home. Without wars abroad, we sow the seeds of our own destruction here at home.
Perpetual warfare? That’s a terrible solution!
Offer an alternative. Should we tax businesses? The poor? Women? That is the choice - wars of conquest, or taxation. War is both popular and profitable. We can try to replace it with arena games, but nothing matches the patriotic fervor of war, nor its ability to produce funds.
We should just return to the old ways. Leave the rest of the world to fight each other. Remain above it.
We tried! We tried, but they came for us anyway! Carthage, Pontus, the Germans - we fought them and fought them until we saw the only way to keep them at bay was to conquer them. I am not saying I approve, Brutus. I’m saying this is where we are.
Are we a nation of brigands, then? Foreign wars are theft writ large.
Whereas civil wars are not about wealth or land. They’re about our idea of ourselves. Most men are sadly incapable of defining themselves by what they are, so they rely on what they are not. Being Roman has to mean more than merely not being Greek or Aegyptian. If we cannot have a foreign foe to define us, we will create one within our own ranks. And the sides will forever line up between youth and learning on the one hand and tradition and dogged ignorance on the other. One side sees the need for change, while the other sees the passing of the old ways and resists.
No illusion to which side you favor in that struggle.
There is value to our history, but it cannot dictate our future.
Says the Dictator.
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