Modelling the Roman Empire?
January 6, 2016 8 Comments
No one who goes to DC can help being struck by how much of the governmental architecture is modelled in Rome – the Supreme Court building even has the sign of the Roman legislators – fasces – on its facade. There is no doubting that what you are seeing is the new Roman Republic. That’s not a surprise, When the Founding Fathers did what they did, the world was ruled by kingdoms and empires – republics were, if not unknown (there had been Venice after all) a rarity. It was not surprising that agrarian republicans saw the Republic of Rome as their model – civic virtue ruled. Men like Washington, who could easily have afforded to have lived a life of leisured ease, took time away from that to help govern the republic – the res publica – literally ‘the thing of the people’. They were not in it for the money – they had money – they were in it because that was what men of their standing did – just as in the Rome of old.
But the ancient republic rotted from within. Men who sought power and more wealth, bribed senators to do their bidding, masters of war used their positions to bid for power, and everything – and everyone – had a price if someone was willing to pay enough. The people could be bought off with bread and circuses, all paid for by others, and they could be brought on side by the military might of Rome. It was, in the end, easy enough for Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, to proclaim himself emperor and bring the republic to an end. Civic virtue had been hard work, and it didn’t pay well – indeed it cost you money. The temptations of power, of fame, of wealth, proved too much. No one man thought that his own corruption would bring down the republic, but when all men were corrupt, that brought it down easily enough. The temptation to go for the strong man, the man of power who would deliver security and prosperity in an uncertain world was too easily succumbed to. What was the point of being a senator if you didn’t make money by it? What was the point of office if it was not a career for life? Who really wanted to put in all that effort and find himself poorer at the end of the process? Power corrupted, and men fell for it.
The price of civic virtue was too high for the Romans of old. Has it become so for the new Romans – for the USA? Why should a President who wants to do something and has a popular mandate be blocked by Congress? Surely an executive order or two (or more) would be fine? True, Supreme Court Justices might stand in the way, but they can be replaced, and if you get your timing right, you can pack the sourt to secure the result you want? There is an awful lot of money in DC, and money talks – usually it says ‘come to me papa’ to the unwary legislator. Your state or district can have whatever infrastructure schemes will help it (and keep you in power) if only you vote the right way. There’s a reason lobbyists swarm round Congress – the same one that sees flies do the same round a cow pat.
Have we reached a stage where the old American Republican ideal (and that is Republican aas in supporters of a republic, not a party) is about to go? One of the things at issue in this year’s election will be whether the pass has already been sold, whether America is already too far down the slippery slope. It is clear that among the people there is still a longing for the old virtues – but is that so among those who aspire to lead? we shall see.