The decline of the Roman Republic

Given recent events here in the US, there have been a lot of statements made about our political future, often with implicit or explicit comparisons to one of the most famous societies in antiquity: the Roman Republic. Often the narrative is, once a democratic norm has been shattered, it puts us on an irreversible course to ruin. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from history, but it pays to be familiar with the actual history.

The first thing to realize about the Roman Republic is that, although we do get the word “republic” from the Romans, their version of it was different in some important respects from the modern ones. The Republic’s government had three institutions: the senate, the magistrates, and the popular assemblies.

But the main power was always in the Senate. Although there were mechanisms to allow new blood to enter it, it was largely an aristocratic institution. The magistrates were the executive branch, and while they were elected, it was by the nobility, and they were expected to follow the advice of the Senate. The exceptions were the tribunes, who were, at least in theory, elected by the populace, and were charged with protecting the people from unjust actions by the Senate or magistrates. The last, and seemingly most democratic, were the popular assemblies.

Although these popular assemblies had theoretical sovereign power, in reality they too followed the guidance of the Senate. The magistrates who summoned the assemblies only brought before them issues that had been debated already by the Senate, and the assemblies almost invariably endorsed the Senate’s decision. It was a sophisticated system that acknowledged the right of all citizens to have a say in government while in practice keeping control in the hands of the nobility. The Republic was governed by the Senate and People of Rome, very much in that order.

Gwynn, David M.. The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (pp. 23-24). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

All of which has long inclined me to think of the Roman Republic as more an oligarchy with some democratic protections. But those protections were forged in the context of a small city state. As Rome’s territory increased, they became increasingly ill suited for their original purpose. For instance, tribunes had protection from persecution by senators or magistrates, but only within the city of Rome itself.

With each new major conquest, the Roman economy saw an influx of new slaves from the conquered territory. This meant that for many land owning aristocrats, it was cheaper to have their lands farmed by slaves than by free tenants. Those same aristocrats also used their new wealth and power for buy up land from free farmers, often with coercion. The result was those farmers were increasingly pushed off the land and into the cities, where they joined an ever increasing and discontented urban mob.

This was the situation that led to rise of the Gracchi brothers, two tribunes who, in separate tenures a decade apart in the late 100s BCE, attempted to use their position to constrain the aristocracy in their use of public land, and distribute that public land to the populace. However, they encountered fierce resistance from the elites, and responded by pushing the customary boundaries of the law. The Senate responded by arranging for their murder.

The Gracchi are often seen as the beginning of the end for the Republic. But it’s important to recognize that they were a symptom of a deeper problem, the suffering of much of the populace, suffering that was being ignored by the ruling class. In essence, the Republic wasn’t working for much of the free population, a fact that would have consequences.

One consequence was that the Roman army, which had always been composed of citizen soldiers, was having recruiting problems. To join the army, you had to own a certain amount of property and provide your own equipment. But with the dwindling of free farmers, that was becoming increasingly infeasible. This led to the property requirement being lowered, and then temporarily suspended in military emergencies.

A couple of decades after the Gracchi, a Roman consul, Marius, reformed the army, permanently doing away with the property requirement, paying soldiers, and equipping them in a standard way.

The Marian reforms forged a tough professional infantry army. They also marked the abandonment of the old ideal of a Roman citizen militia. Marius’ landless volunteers were promised a farm at the end of their service as an inducement to recruits. Responsibility for fulfilling that promise lay with the general to whom the new soldiers took their oath of loyalty. Thus the armies became personal, loyal to their general not to the Senate or the Roman state.

Gwynn, David M.. The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 81). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

When we think of the powerful Roman strongmen in the final decades of the Republic, such as Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar, they have to be understood as arising on the foundations of this change. It’s what led to the endless civil wars that only ended when one strongman managed to destroy all the others and reign supreme.

Interestingly enough, Augustus, usually recognized as the first Roman emperor after 27 BCE by most historians, mindful of what had happened to Julius Caesar, was very careful never to claim such a role. He carefully maintained the appearance and fiction of a functioning republic. Many of his successors did the same. The Senate even stayed around throughout the history of the empire, continuing late into the Byzantine period, but it’s role as the supreme authority was over.

So, what lessons are there for us in this history? It’s tempting to see some similarity between the influx of slaves and the rise of automation and globalization in modern times. And many in our modern society do often feel like the elites are ignoring their concerns. (Although who “the elites” are varies depending on your political views.)

But the comparisons have issues. The Roman Republic was a pre-industrial agrarian society that was, again, mostly oligarchical in nature. It never provided, nor claimed to provide universal suffrage to its population. This meant that the incentive structures, as compared to a modern representative democracy with a consumer based economy, were pretty different.

Maybe the real lesson is that a society only works as long as most of the people in that society see it working for them. When it comes to a democracy, that often means compromise. This led historian Brett Devereaux to recently make this observation:

In stark contrast, the effort by conservative (in the general sense, not in the American sense) elements of the Roman senate to ‘hold the line’ and permit no compromise on questions of land reform and citizenship in the Late Republic led quite directly to the outbreak of civil war in 91 (with the Italian allies) and in 88 (between Romans) and consequently to the collapse of the Republic. Initially, the influence and raw power of the elite was sufficient to squash efforts at reform (including the murder of some prominent reformers), but in the long run the discontent those crackdowns created laid the fertile ground for the rise of demagogic military leaders to supplant the Republic entirely, culminating in first Caesar and then Octavian doing just that. In an effort to compromise on nothing, the Roman elite lost everything.

In these bitterly divided times, that’s a lesson hard to remember. Unity means compromise, something that’s difficult at the best of times. But history shows us what the alternative is, and it’s far worse.

51 thoughts on “The decline of the Roman Republic

  1. It’s the nature of the beast Mike and the beast has not changed. A master/slave morality has always been the prevailing paradigm and that paradigm is in direct contrast to an egalitarian mentality. Our conscious experience is an experience of power; and the exclusive, targeted objective of power is control, not some of the time but every time. It requires a higher degree of intelligence in order to move past the archaic, primordial master/slave morality. The only thing that has changed in the modern era are the words we use to whitewash the master/slave paradigm. Individuals in positions of power is not synonymous with intelligence, just the opposite is true.

    Our news media is the most powerful institution in America. Unfortunately, the news media is a self serving self absorbed institution and if it was doing its job, it would be reporting on the subtle changes taking place within China at the cultural level instead of using its power and prestige to stir up controversy in America. Here is the prevailing business model for the media: First, create a mob; second, incite the mob and third, report on the mob.

    China is the future and history will bare witness to the transformation of that nation. We as a nation can learn form what China is currently attempting to accomplish.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Lee,
      What would you say are the subtle changes happening in China?

      China is certainly headed for having the world’s largest economy in a few years. It follows from that that it’ll probably be the dominant power in international relations as the 21st century passes, a change many in America will likely have difficulty with. Is that what you mean when you say it’s the future?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They are not subtle changes Mike. China has crafted a profoundly revolutionary mission statement which outlines a vision for the future of China and that vision has been adopted by the party. It is a vision for the future that we as a nation should also adopt.

        One thing that most Americans cannot get through their thick skulls is that China is NOT a communist nation. They are a capitalistic society with a one party system. And because China is a one party system, the system is leveraged for the benefit of the people and not for the system itself. A nation’s system of governance should be judged by its ability and efficacy to improve the lives of its own citizenry. Over the last several decades China has accomplished the task of improving the lives of its citizens and it is now embarking upon a vision that will establish China as a leader in the world of domestic, industrial policies.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Lee,
          “Subtle changes” was your phrase from above.

          Whether China is a communist country is an interesting question. But I think we can say it’s an authoritarian state. A lot of people in the 70s and 80s, including many in China, assumed that its economic development would lead to a more democratic country. That hasn’t happened. In some ways, it’s not surprising, since China has a deep tradition of autocracy. In essence, it’s modernizing in its own way.

          Does that mean the rest of the world should become authoritarian? Well, as I noted, China has a deep tradition of it, including a reverence for a functional bureaucracy that is pretty alien to most countries. It’s not clear that attempts in most of the world to replicate would turn out as well.

          And it’s worth noting that China has the largest population on the planet, along with a vast supply of natural resources, and was substantially behind the world in terms of development until a few decades ago. Arguably, all it had to do was get out of the way of economic development to see amazing growth, which to some extent is what happened. Again, it’s not clear how reproducible that is for countries not in its particular situation.

          It’s also worth noting that it’s far from the only economy that has seen strong growth.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “But I think we can say it’s an authoritarian state.”

            And our country is not an authoritarian state? Get real Mike! The US imprisons more of its population per capita than any other nation in the world, third world or otherwise. And that scenario is acceptable to you?

            Liked by 1 person

    2. The Chinese governance, sovereign ruling, civil service and imperial examinations (科舉) of the past were very unique and had no equivalent or counterpart anywhere in the modern world both in the East and the West, because they were entirely meritocratic and highly scholastic and academic, and only the best of the best, the crème de la crème, could ever hope to work for the government, meaning that if the same standard were to be applied in any one of the modern nations nowadays, then very few of those working for the US Senate and other governmental offices would have qualified, to use the USA for example. You can learn more about this Chinese system in much greater detail at


    3. “The only thing that has changed in the modern era are the words we use to whitewash the master/slave paradigm. ”

      Wholly agree. A pyramidal structure. You only get to the top by incredible energy and often ruthless tactics. Once you are there you will use all means at your disposal to stay there. Witness Trump’s botched coup attempt.

      If history tells us one thing and one only, it is that human nature does not change. It is moderated or veiled (mostly) in the West. The top of the pyramid in the Roman Empire may have been living 2,000 years ago in an agrarian economy but little has changed except technology.

      We need peaceful revolution to permanently disenfranchise the 2% and to create a flat power structure. As an idealist, do not look to me for practical advice.

      Mike Smith will know exactly what sort of society I want. A post scarcity society with equality, for starters.

      As to the Roman Empire itself….and all other political structures….change is in their very nature. Cyclical, recurrent and unpredictable with any exactness. Complex adaptive systems. Try forecasting one of those.


  2. Popular mythology blames the lead pipes. 🙂

    I confess I haven’t heard anyone directly comparing our situation (which I agree is entirely different on many counts) to the Roman Empire, other than perhaps pointing out that all empires fall, usually under their own weight. That is, their failure is ultimately due to their success.

    (I’ve thought the eerie historical parallel the last half-dozen years or so was to pre-WWII Germany, and the really weird thing is our political situation has now killed just as many Americans.)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve seen some political commentators make the comparison with the Roman Republic, but it’s admittedly scattered across the last few weeks. And I’ve also seen some comparisons with the Weimer Republic.

      But I also think the comparison is problematic here too. The Weimer republic had only existed for a few years, after a revolution that had overthrown the Kaiser, which made borrowing difficult for it, and led to hyperinflation in the early 20s. Yet it had pulled out of that and was doing okay before the Great Depression hit. Together with the war burdens the Allies had saddled it with after WWI, its economy went into a tailspin.

      This was a country that didn’t really have a democratic tradition, so a lot of people in the population had little faith in it. Together with the war reparations, and the sudden absence of the US as a lender, its economy went into a tailspin. Definitely a society that wasn’t working for a lot of people, rich ground for extremism, which of course is what they got in spades, and eventually shared with the world.

      Trump just showed us that we have the extremism lying in wait, if things ever got bad enough for them to get real support. Thankfully, most of the population haven’t supported them, although a distressing number of Republicans have.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Definitely a society that wasn’t working for a lot of people, rich ground for extremism, which of course is what they got in spades, and eventually shared with the world.”

        And a single individual came along and leveraged that into a movement that shook the world. The prevalence of racists, nationalists, and fascists, among his followers is no coincidence.

        (BTW: About that death toll. WWII was six years. We’ve lost that many in a sixth the time.)

        “Thankfully, most of the population haven’t supported them,”

        74 million Americans were fine with them. That’s almost 30% of possible voters and exactly why Republican politicians are either scared to death of them or actively on board with them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There’s an old saying Wyrd: One is either a part of the problem or one is part of the solution. I do not consider the comments you just posted nor the comments you post on your own blog site to be a part of the solution, but a continuation of the very problem you seem to be so vehemently opposed against.

          Personally, I didn’t care for the man nor any other politician for that matter; but hanging around and patiently waiting for an angry mob to follow is a waste of time. Please refer to the comments I made to Matti’s post if you need a better understanding of where I might be coming from my friend…..

          Liked by 1 person

        2. 74 million people did vote for Trump, but the number who supported the rioters was far less, about 28%: (That’s too high, but in the neighborhood of people who believe in astrology and witches.) So I think it’s a mistake to tar all of those voters with the Capitol riot. It might feel good, but it’s not going to incline them to be cooperative.

          Of course, the insurrectionists themselves, including Trump, all need to be put away.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “Of course, the insurrectionists themselves, including Trump, all need to be put away.”

            Seriously Mike? Do you even know what an insurrection actually is because our so-called leaders don’t have a clue? What happened at the Capital buildings during a spontaneous riot was anything but an insurrection.

            Forgive me, I forgot to tune into my local news station when I woke up this morning so I can get my opinion. I really do need to be told how to feel about these sort of things don’t I? Thinking for myself is a slippery slope.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. “…at least unless you’re one of the people simply determined not to see them.”

            My rebuttal is simple Mike: “Then you must be one of the people simply determined not to think for yourself.”

            You prize yourself at being educated right? So let me ask you a few direct questions: Have you seen the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam war? How about a documentary on the Ruby Ridge fiasco in northern Idaho? How about the debacle of the Waco, Texas where innocent women and children were massacred in the Davidian compound by paid government employees? How about the covert operations of the CIA selling tons of cocaine to US citizens to finance illegal arms shipments to the Contras of Nicaragua, all the while law enforcement officers were busy imprisoning the very citizens we were selling the drugs to?

            I trust the, a “bipartisan” think tank based in Washington DC as much as I trust a rattle snake.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Thank you for highlighting those vexing and outstanding matters, many of which have not been properly resolved.

            Here is also another big factor contributing to the crisis. Watch the following video entitled “Adam Ruins Everything – Our Overuse of SWAT Teams Makes Us Less Safe”:

            In addition, there is a book entitled “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” published in 2013 by investigative journalist Radley Balko who focuses on the subject of militarization of police in the United States, in addition to the issues of police corruption and brutality.


          4. You are very welcome, Lee. I for one am not very optimistic about the US. Moreover, social and economic polarizations can further exacerbate the issues of wealth and power distribution. The underlying opposition is not so much between the Democrats and the Republicans as between the rich plutocrats and the rest of the population. The Democrats need to (re)form their party to unite the 90 percent of the people living at an entrenched economic and political disadvantage in order to deal with the plutocrats.

            Whilst Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, the planet of America, so to speak, has already ascended to plutocracy. It is going to be an arduous task for the Biden presidency (or any presidency for that matter) to turn things around, because saving and rehabilitating the USA aside, we also need the political economy of saving the planet. Yet the entrenched and insidious issues of plutocracy have loomed even larger, thus continuing to thwart many efforts mounted to save the nation and the planet.

            I have declared in my most recent post that human beings are proving to be as fallible in their responses to global epidemics and global warming as they are vulnerable to their own mental traps, thinking styles, behavioural patterns, psychological tendencies and cognitive biases. Divided into eleven major sections with their own titles, this extensive post is entitled “Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity“, which has received a good deal more improvement recently. Given your intellectual perspectives, I would be delighted if you could kindly submit your comment to my said article, as I am very keen and curious to know what you think or make of it.


          5. “I for one am not very optimistic about the US. Moreover, social and economic polarizations can further exacerbate the issues of wealth and power distribution.”

            Well stated SoundEagle. This ship has sailed a long time ago when our so-called leaders bailed out the corrupt individuals who caused the financial crisis back in 2008. The taxpayers and all of the commoners have been subsidizing the wealthy ever since. The United States of America is now firmly held hostage by the wealthy power brokers of investment bankers and there is no way to stop it without excruciating pain for the masses, pain that nobody is willing to endure regardless of who sits in the seat of power. Our current situation is unprecedented.

            It is ironic to mention that it was the financial collapse that triggered the Chinese to find their own path going forward. China is famous for copying what other countries do, then improving upon those things. Because of that financial debacle, China has made the decision to blaze their own unique path going forward. It is also worth noting that if what happened in America back in 2008 occurred in China, those individuals who were responsible for the financial collapse would have all been executed. But in America, our so-called leaders choose to reward those individuals and continue to subsidize them to this very day as they consolidate more and more wealth for themselves at the expense of the common American and at the expense of America as a nation.

            FYI, I posted a comment on your blog…… very nice sight by the way


  3. I think the Roman Republic has important lessons. But different circumstances make applying them problematic. Those differences (an agrarian economy vs. industrial capitalism, the Enlightenment substitution of a myth of progress for the ancient myth of a golden age, and so on ) are part of the difficulty.

    It may be more fruitful to compare the contemporary political/moral situation in America to its founding generation to determine the causes of political strife. The founding generation were at a unique crossroad of ancient thought and a nascent Enlightenment. They didn’t get it all right by any means and there are intellectual inconsistencies, especially, I think, with the mixed concept of civic virtue which was an aristocratic concept imported from Rome as well as versions from Montesquieu, Christian thinkers and the Renaissance (Machiavelli). It was loosely re-defined for a reinvention of a new form of republicanism. But that important part of the foundation, as imperfect as it was, has been distorted and corrupted over time. Tocqueville’s positive assumptions about American civic republicanism were well deserved at the beginning of the 19th Century. But that civic republicanism is now dead; replaced by liberal and libertarian individualism and the sacredness of the free market. That historical and intellectual change, I think, has a great deal to do with our present situation.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Maybe, though I tend to be leery of golden age narratives. If we look at the actual history of the founding parents, we find that they were very much politicians, and often trying to solve their immediate problems.

      It’s worth noting that at the beginning of the American republic, only about 6% of the population could vote, and that was only for representatives, not senators or presidents. Even in Tocqueville’s time, it was still only tax paying white males that could vote. Universal suffrage is a very recent thing. I did a post on this a few years ago:

      I think our biggest issue today is that the parties have become so optimized that they each have roughly half the voting population, with a tiny sliver of swing voters. The rhetoric has escalated. The right is far worse about this, but the left is far from pure on it. It’s hard to compromise with people we’ve decided are vile and evil. I think it helps to remember that politics is about inclusive self interests. When we can, and can see the other side as fighting for their interests, it becomes easier to compromise. It’s much harder when we make it a battle of good and evil.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I wonder why even the Founders (United States) felt that governance must be held by the elite. The whole fiefdom system of the middle ages relied upon a strict hierarchy. And so, it seems, did the Roman Empire. Is there a pattern here that hides an underlying trend? I speak of intelligence here.
    If we divide humanity into thirds based on IQ, we undoubtedly have the lower third effectively incapable of performing much more than manual labor. The middle third might be easily grouped with the lower while the upper third might assume, not erroneously, that they must organize and lead the others.
    Once established, I can see that even if hyper intelligent are born in the lower levels, the ruling parties would quash class mobility, power is a heady drug.
    I’m not trying to justify such a stratified system, but wonder if this premise has a basis in historic reality.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The American founders did not restrict the concept of “virtue” merely to an intelligent elite, although that was a part of it. In fact, John Adams endorsed universal education as a necessary, although not sufficient, ingredient of virtue. No, it was understood that civic virtue, although hotly debated on its full list of quantities and conditions, was a “moral” concept that required certain prerequisites like education. The Founders would have seen a man like Ted Cruz (Princeton/Harvard Law) as a man clearly without civic virtue!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. So tell me Matti; does this so-called virtuous educational system that John Adams endorsed teach you to think for yourself or does it teach you to become a bigoted church member? Was your bigoted opinion of Ted Cruz planted in your brain by someone who was an authoritative figure in your church, someone you respect because you share the same bigoted biases, or did you come up with that bigoted opinion all by yourself?

        The word virtue owes it origin to the Greek word Arete’. As a species, we like to whitewash the true meaning of words to serve our own self righteous indignations. Although the word Arete’ is glamorized in the historical archives to mean excellence and virtue, its original meaning is more pragmatic: Arete’s means “Duty to Self”. Now that we have a clear and concise meaning, all human being by nature are virtuous therefore, no single person is any more or less virtuous than any other human being.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. There have been arguments in recent years, particularly after the rise of Brexit and Trump, that maybe voting should be restricted to people with a certain amount of education. The reasoning is similar to what you describe for the upper third, and it’s no doubt similar to the reasoning ruling elite have held throughout the millenia.

      But it assumes that people can accurately assess the interests of others and vote with that in mind. I’m moderately well read in history, and I see nothing there to validate that assumption. What I do see, is that those with the power consistently take care of themselves and people like them, and take themselves to be doing what’s best for all, while often blind to the needs of those outside the power structures, at least until they’re forced to see them.

      I read a book a few years ago that looked at why people vote the way they do, and it largely changed the way I look at politics. (And also led me to mostly avoid writing about it.) I did a post on it: (It’s a bit longish and dense.)

      Liked by 2 people

          1. That’s ok Mike. I tend to compress too many concepts in my writing. Let me just offer this more simple summary. I think the Founders got a lot right which has been lost. Here is what Madison said at the Virginia Ratifying convention:

            “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is [fantasy].”

            Virtue was, as I tried to say, a slippery concept back then, but it is a dead letter now. And that is, IMO, one factor that I respectfully submit is a cause of our strife.

            Liked by 2 people

          2. Ah, thanks Matti. I think I see what you meant now. Definitely, laws and institutions are only as good as the people with stewardship over them, and the population that holds them accountable. It’s only the people which give these words on paper their power. Unless most of us agree to continue doing so, they won’t save us.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Complex? Yeah. I’m somewhat of a technocrat, though. I just hate the thought that Bob Dole voted for the Idiot-In-Chief yet again last election. Jeeze! Dole is toast. The dude is 97 yet his vote counts the same as an 18 year old’s. I cry foul. ‘Course, Dole’s vote didn’t count for squat this go-round. Yay!

            Liked by 2 people

          4. Similar to your comment on the post, I have to admit I didn’t know Bob Dole was still around, but I do vaguely recall hearing about his endorsement back in 2016.

            I also didn’t know Larry King was still around, but heard he passed away today from Covid.

            Liked by 2 people

  5. Could we learn lessons from the history of the Roman Republic? We may put it more broadly – Could we learn lessons from different societies’ rises and falls throughout mankind’s history? There are a lot of articles and books on the topic. We could get a lot of lessons from those sources. Will it help us to foresee even the nearest future of current societies, and propose the wisest course? I doubt it.

    I think the different approach could help. I mean, we could use an imitation of the scientific approach to the study of societies’ rises and falls.

    We need to model those societies. Then, probably, with the help of AI, find out the causes of those falls and recipes to prolong the existence of old societies. Then, we should apply this knowledge to the most important, in our opinion, cases and see if our models could help in already known situations.

    Only after that, it would make sense to apply those models to current societies.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s pretty tough to get detailed data on the fall of civilizations, since that’s not usually a period when detailed records are kept. My thinking is that societies fail for a wide variety of reasons, and history never repeats itself. But many will point out that it does rhyme at times.

      But I think a lot can be learned from history, even if only studied qualitatively. Many have criticized the Fed’s response to the Great Recession, but it could have been far worse. Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman at the time, just happened to be an expert in the history of the Great Depression, and so was very familiar with the catastrophic mistakes the Fed made in the 1929-1933 period. He avoided repeating them. Unfortunately, the response of the rest of the government could have been better, and wasn’t as historically informed as it could have been.

      Although a case could be made that economics is along the lines of what you’re asking for, a modeling of historical events to figure out what and why things happened. Paul Krugman once noted that he went into economics because it was the closest thing he could find to Isaac Asimov’s psycohistory in his Foundation series.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Mike,
    Nice discussion on a timely subject!

    There are multiple reasons for the great difficulty of applying lessons of history to any present situation. Foremost, I think, is the near impossibility of understanding the political culture of the past. We can’t even fully understand what is going on today given all the ignorance, lies and misinformation. Also, everyone approaches the questions of the day from a different perspective. The comments here are a good illustration of that. Every independent thinker will inevitably come up with a unique formulation of what the existing problem iscome what it is and how to deal with it.

    The events of January 6 remind me, a little bit, of the fascists march on Rome which in effect resulted in a bloodless coup d’état. I was primed for this because I had in the preceding months been doing a little dabbling in the history of Mussolini and Italy. Demagogues are always with us, but what makes the difference in our case is that we have a very durable constitution. In fact, Madison explicitly states that the articles of confederation were failing because it relied on public virtue. That is, leaders should only act on the basis of what is the general interest, not self interest. The articles of the Constitution adopted in 1789 takes into full account the interests of factions. It was hoped that the interests of society would be served while all the various groups were following their self interest.This has been a wildly successful and copied widely. Whether the Chinese model will be a successful only time can tell.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Liam,
      Sorry. I just noticed your comment in the Spam folder and pulled it out. Not sure why WP stuck it in there. If that ever happens again, either drop me an email or do a short comment (those tend to get through) letting me know.

      Good points. I hope you’re right about the constitution. As I noted, it’s a system that only works as long as a majority of us decide to abide by it even when we lose. Granted, the winners have some responsibility for ensuring it’s not a scorched earth situation. But I’m increasingly worried about the number of people who seemed determined to get their way no matter what.


  7. Mike,

    Yes indeed; our political institutions are only as good as our citizens. That’s definitely part of what I wanted to get across in my clumsy posts. But there’s more. The now lost concept of civic virtue, a highly debated concept at the founding, was an essential ingredient of their various theories of republicanism. Those theories did not see politics as merely about mediating competing self interests; what we tend to believe now. Politics was not merely a means, it was also an end. It was an extension of ethics. My clumsiness in expressing this perspective is, I think, in part because that is so foreign to us nowadays.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Matti,
      By civic virtue, would it be accurate to describe it as valuing the whole over our own immediate interests?

      Would you consider the actions of the various elected state official (mostly Republicans), who did their job correctly despite pressure from Trump, to be acting under any type of civic virtue? What about the judges who ruled the numerous lawsuits without merit? If not, what would you say was missing?


      1. Well said, Mike! Whatever the motivations of the officials you note, it amounts to various acts of civic virtue. I note, however, that the ethics of liberal and libertarian individualism still greatly outweighs the ethics of civic republicanism.

        By the way, this is a hot issue in political philosophy. Not as hot as issues in the philosophy of mind which you are on like white on rice, but up there. Two of the principle opposing characters are John Rawls and Michael Sandel who were colleagues on the Harvard faculty. John Rawls’ libertarian counterpart is the late Robert Nozick, also from Harvard. Both Rawls and Nozick passed away recently.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Matti,
          You might find this interesting. It’s both scary and reassuring (2nd paragraph) at the same time.

          Trump Pressed Justice to Go Directly to Supreme Court

          “In his last weeks in office, former President Trump considered moving to replace the acting attorney general with another official ready to pursue unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, and he pushed the Justice Department to ask the Supreme Court to invalidate President Biden’s victory,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

          “Those efforts failed due to pushback from his own appointees in the Justice Department, who refused to file what they viewed as a legally baseless lawsuit in the Supreme Court. Later, other senior department officials threatened to resign en masse should Mr. Trump fire then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, according to several people familiar with the discussions.”


          1. Thanks Mike. Interesting.

            George Washington always kept with him a copy of Addison’s play, Cato. In the play Cato, Roman Senator, was a hero of republican virtue. Washington even had the play performed for his troops at Valley Forge. If you don’t know this part of Roman history, when Caesar Crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, Cato opposed his seizure of dictatorial power in defense of the old republic. It cost him his life. Seems like Cato’s spirit lives on today! And we circle back to Roman history!

            Liked by 2 people

  8. Hello Mike.

    In a sense, I think the alternative is not much worse. Break up of nations or civilization may not be bad after all. USSR disintegrated and while Putin has been trying to pull strings here and there, those communities are trying to forge their own futures which is not a bad thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Mak,
      I agree break ups can be good, depending on the circumstances.

      But just to be clear, this post wasn’t about the disintegration of the Roman Empire, which was a much later event, but about the change in Roman government from a more distributed (albeit still elite) form of decision making to an autocratic one.

      Ironically, for the average commoner, even that may have initially been an improvement, since the more distributed governance wasn’t taking their interests into account. Although later history showed that the emperors often didn’t either.


      1. I think most present governments are like the Roman state, beholden to the large donors. The average citizen does not rise up because of the police and the distractions that keep them(us) busy; TV, smartphones and games

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Donors are definitely part of the power mix in most democracies. I wish we could replace political donations with public financing of campaigns. That wouldn’t eliminate financial power as a force in politics, but it would greatly diminish it. In recent years though, small donors have emerged as a force.


  9. I’m a little wary of comparisons between the United States and the Roman Republic, but I think you’re spot on with this one. Any time groups of people live or work together, there will have to be compromises. It’s true in a marriage, or in the workplace, and it’s true in a city-state or nation-state as well. The specific details about the US and ancient Rome are quite different, I think, but that stubborn unwillingness to compromise is very similar.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interestingly, on Meet the Press this morning, Chuck Todd was going over some poll results, and noted that there are at least four major factions in the country:
      the far right
      the center-right
      the center-left
      the far left

      Each of these is 17% of Americans. (Indicating 32% of the country doesn’t fit on this spectrum.) Todd pondered that the center factions could probably compromise. I think the numbers in each faction willing to compromise were 25%, 55%, 70%, and 60% respectively. The problem is that the centers are constrained by agreements with the fars in order to get elected, and the right is obviously less willing right now.

      All of which seems to indicate that this is not going to be easy.

      Liked by 1 person

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