What We Need To Learn From The Fall Of The Roman Republic

“There’s a complacency that comes about from living in an old republic because it’s hard to imagine what seems impossible.”

On Point / WPR (1/11/19)

The fall of the Roman empire has fascinated history buffs and close students of power for centuries. The Fall of the Roman republic, however, may cast more light on our age.

To walk around the federal part of Washington, D.C., is to attain constant glimpses of ancient Rome.

The physical seat of all three branches of government — the White House, the Supreme Court building, the U.S. Capitol — and the National Archives all draw inspiration from Roman architecture. The very name of the U.S. Senate is taken from Rome. And that’s no accident.

“The average choices individuals were making accumulated and created conditions where these norms could be violated in ways that were more subtle than marching an army on Rome, but no less destructive over a long period of time.”

The Founding Fathers of this country looked to Rome for inspiration — not the empire, the republic.

For hundreds of years the Roman republic flourished, based on checks and balances, compromise and annual votes. But by 130 B.C., Romans were losing faith in the system. And the center could not hold.

In order to move forward, we must look back. And that’s just what we did, Hour 2, Friday, On Point.

Edward Watts, professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, and author of “Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny,” described the parallels and differences between the Roman and American republics.

Interview Highlights

What inspired you to publish your book at this time?

“The biggest thing that inspired me to do this was to see the reaction and the sort of questions that my students are asking me. I’ve been teaching [a course on Roman history] for over 20 years, and the interest that students have had usually been in the empire, and what happens in the empire, and why the empire disappears.

“But over the last two or three years, the questions have really been about the republic. What does the republic tell us about ways to think about what’s going on in the world around us now? And I think the republic offers us a story that offers us some way to think. It doesn’t prescribe what the future will be for us, but I think it does give us a sense of things we need to be aware of and conditions and kinds of political behaviors that will be destructive in a situation and in a system that is designed to promote consensus.

“My students’ interest in this is quite sincere. And they really are seeking tools to try to figure out the world around them. And I think the Roman republic offers some pretty significant and important tools to think about what behaviors might help us politically, and what behaviors might prove destructive politically.”

How do we gauge today if there is an unraveling of norms that could be detrimental over the long-term?

“The thing that is particularly dangerous to look at are actions that, when they were done the first time, were seen as really aberrant and oddly sort of dangerous, that have become commonplace. Twenty-five years ago, shutting down the government for political brinkmanship was seen as absolutely crazy. It was someone no one would dare do. And now its routine.

“That’s a sort of degeneration of norms. There’s no law that says you can’t do that. But the norms saying that that’s something that is not acceptable have completely eroded. And now this is something that-it’s just done as part of a process of political negotiation. It’s almost become sort of a routine part of the system.

“I think that the law granting presidents the ability to assert emergency powers-it seems to me that this is a law that is incredibly permissive because there was a basic assumption that presidents would use it ways that were not for political gain, but were to actually address a problem that was an emergency.

“Like when President Carter used it to streamline action against Iran for taking hostages, or when President Bush used it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those were not for political purposes. They were to respond quickly to a problem that needed a quick response. And the law, it seems, could potentially be used in the way President Trump is talking about using it. The reason it hasn’t been before is because there was a norm saying this is actually for a real purpose, a real emergency. In this context, I think if it’s used, basically as a sort off-ramp for political stalemate, that opens up a precedent to misuse this law even worse in the future.” …

Read the Rest and 46-Minute Audio