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America And The Roman Republic-Is The United States At An End?
The Roman Republic
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The Roman Republic, at its peak, was a shining beacon of improved democracy by the addition of oligarchy type system of government. The Romans perfected the Greek’s system of government and unified the people without oppressing them. For a large portion of the five hundred years of the Roman Republic’s existence (508 B.C - 44 B.C.) the Romans enjoyed a time of significant growth. Historians today host a myriad of theories describing the “disintegration and inevitable fall of the Republic,” and its gradual descent into imperialism (Nardo 10). Experts argue over the one significant change that signaled the death of this form of government and the birth of another. In truth, the Republic never fell, it merely transformed into an Empire as economic change reshaped the make-up of the average Roman. The United States faces the same threats today. The same enemy with a new face threatens all this country stands for. Rome’s conquests and the resultant flood of cheap labor in the form of slaves created an inevitable domino effect that put an end to Rome’s efforts for free government. The struggle for power between the rich and the poor continually put control in the hands of dangerous and violent men who successively took more and more control from the people. Power, or the perceived lack of it, was essentially the catalyst for the death of the Republic. As rich and poor vied for power, ambitious men seized control and destroyed their freedom forever.
The Beginning Of The End
The first chink in the armor of the Republic became apparent toward the end of the second century B.C. Rome’s war with Carthage decimated the Roman population, displacing many families who depended on the men to work and maintain their farms. The state reclaimed land lost during the war, but did not give it back to the farmers who lost it. Instead, it was sold to the highest bidder, and aristocrats gobbled it up. At the same time, the market flooded with slave labor, giving the rich a cheap source of labor to work their rapidly growing tracts of land. According to Robert Payne, “the number [of slaves] captured in the first half of the second century B.C. may have reached 250,000 [people]” (97). Slavery became a way of Roman life. Mary Johnston describes its effects as “the chief cause of the changes in character… of the Empire (160). Small farmers, forced to compete with slave labor, inevitably failed and were driven from their homes. Rome’s new slaves can easily be compared to the United States shipping jobs overseas. As the gap between the rich and poor grows, and the middle class continues to disappear, class warfare places Congress in gridlock and eventually may push the people toward centralized government.
Romans Saw The Problem And Tried To Fix It
Romans saw this growing problem, and the Senate passed laws to prevent the aristocracy from buying too much land. These Agrarian Law reforms limited citizens to a maximum of 500 hectares of land, but the rich created false names to affectively go around the system. Romans continued to pour into the city with no place else to go. The gradual disintegration and disappearance of small land owning Roman citizens created huge problems. Roman law dictated that only land owning citizens could join the military, and for a growing Roman state, a shrinking army was impossible. Tiberius Gracchus, a son of the elite families of Rome, saw this growing problem as he traveled to Rome from Spain.
The savage beasts have their particular dens in Italy, but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for the safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but the air and light; and having no houses or settlements of their own, are constrained to wander from place to place with their wives and children (Plutarch).
Gracchus, with his newly appointed powers of tribune, forced agrarian reforms to buy excess land from rich landowners and redistribute them to the poor. Unfortunately, a corrupt Senate made up of the very men who bought up the land, murdered Tiberius during his reelection and dumped him into the Tiber River. Gaius Gracchus, Tiberius’ brother, picked up the torch of his late brother but soon met the same fate. A rapidly growing Empire became desperate for soldiers. These reforms were an attempt to fix the problem, but they never would because they did not attack it at the source. If slavery is not permitted, then the need for handouts diminishes because the aristocracy is forced to use middle class Romans. These failed peaceful reforms eventually gave way to a transfer of power in a much bloodier and far more barbaric way.
Gaius Marius, a famous Roman general who despised the Senate, used the Senates’ desperation to conscript non-landowning Romans into the ranks. These new legionnaires, with no home to go to, depended on Marius for their livelihood. The Roman Army quickly evolved into a unit more devoted to their General than to their country. Marius used this new power to diminish the strength of a corrupt Senate, but it did not last long. The Senate, desperate for a return to power threw their support behind Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a rival of Marius’. Sulla, a great General in his own right, used the support of the Senate, the power of his armies, and a brotherhood of 10,000 assassins created from his slaves to be elected as emergency dictator. Sulla murdered all of his opponents and strengthened the power of the Senate, weakening the popular assembly. Marius and Sulla damaged an already fragile system, and created a perfect atmosphere for their predecessors to seize control of Rome. Marius undermined a corrupt Senate by strengthening the powers of Consul and General. Sulla undermined the voice of the people by supporting the aristocrats and ultimately seizing total control by manipulation and murder. Conditions were ripe for a complete collapse of the system, and so entered Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar. These three men combined their efforts in an alliance for power called the First Triumvirate. Eventually, the Triumvirate collapsed with the death of Crassus, and Caesar and Pompey found themselves at odds for control of Rome. Caesar crossed the Rubicon-the frontier between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy- and war began between the two. Caesar triumphed, and with his masterful manipulations, swung the support of the people to pronounce him dictator for life. A Senate, grasping at straws to retain their power, murdered him in a last ditch effort to retain power, and threw their support behind his appointed successor, Augustus.
Augustus proved to be an able leader who allowed the Senate their power in name only. The Senate and the Roman masses, weary of the bloodshed of earlier Generals were easily placated, willing to cede power to Augustus as long as the façade of a broken Republic was maintained. The strong Roman citizen, grounded in self-reliance and tied to the land gave birth to a new self-indulgent generation of Romans who were more interested in sports and handouts than their own independence. Roman history is plagued with parallels to American society. With the will of the Republic broken, Rome became an empire.
Warning! We Are Repeating Past Mistakes!
The Roman Republic was the perfect recipe for disaster, and the comparisons to the United States are alarming. Many citizens may notice the shipping of jobs overseas to workers who make pennies a day is eerily similar to the growing use of slavery during the Roman Republic. Former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich warned that “America is confronted with many of the conditions that brought down the Roman Republic” (Laurenti A10). All of the ingredients for disaster are in place, and an ineffective congress is only exacerbating the class warfare that has already begun. George Santayana famously said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (284). Rome’s disastrous decision to make a quick buck off the backs of cheap labor is a stark warning to America’s system of government. . While socialist reforms may seem a quick fix for a flawed system, in the end they are only a precursor to an inevitable end of freedom.
Brett A. Wood
Brett A. Wood
Johnston, Mary. Roman Life. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1957. Print.
Laurenti, Jeffrey. “To the Editor.” New York Times. 9 May 1998, natl. ed.: A10. Print.
Nardo, Don. The Collapse of the Roman Republic. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998. Print.
Payne, Robert. Ancient Rome. New York: American Heritage Press, 1970. Print.
Plutarch. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Clough: ebooks@Adelaide, 2009, Web. 17Feb. 2011.
Santayana, George. The Life of Reason. Vol. 1. New York: Dover Publications, 1905. Print.
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