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“Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny,” by Edward J. Watts

Posted in Uncategorized by EloiSVM42 on May 16, 2019

Everyone should read this book. It is a good recap of Roman history from BC 280 (the year of the Roman Republic’s battle with the Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus), to the death of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar in AD 14. It is also a vivid cautionary tale of how a republic like ours can fail.

Rome was a functioning republic until a series of events unfolded that set it on a different course. Although Ancient Rome was of a different age, readers will recognize similarities in our present day, and the primary drivers are identical: greed, and blind partisanship. These drivers induced political leaders and rivals to bend and abuse the laws and norms of the republic to their benefit, at the expense of the common good.

The rot began – and today’s readers will recognize this too – with dysfunction in the Senate. Senators began breaking the rules in their lust for power and riches. Senatorial partisan conflict progressed from insult, to threats of violence (Sulla brought an army into the city to intimidate other senators), to violence itself (Caesar was killed in the Senate chamber), to civil war.

Our legislative branch has not been functioning properly for at least two decades. The tipping point for us may have been the extreme malfeasance of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who obstructed the entire eight years of the Obama administration out of pure bigotry, culminating in his refusal to perform his duty to advise and consent on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

McConnell is a modern day hero among conservatives, but I believe history will treat him as the rapacious scumbag he truly is, and possibly the root of our own historic decline.

In Rome, the situation became so dangerous that citizens “traded the liberty of political autonomy for the security of autocracy.” Ironically, Caesar was a skilled politician and competent leader as dictator, and his ultimate successor Octavian (later Augustus) was not only competent, but long-lived, which solidified the imperial form of government.

But then came terrible emperors like Caligula and Nero. (Cynics may jump in here and claim we have jumped over the Caesars and gone straight to the Caligulas and Neros with Trump today.)

Watts points out the obvious: that the republic did not have to die. A republic has no expiration date. It lasts as long as people want it enough to protect it. But he warns, “When citizens take the health and durability of a republic for granted, that republic is at risk.”

Our Constitution rests on the assumptions that our public officials will do their jobs (McConnell deliberately failed to do that), and that we will select good people to officiate. Republics survive on the choices made by those in charge of its custody.

Rome’s custodians failed to protect the public good. Ours are failing now. In each case, the result has been dangerous inequality between citizens and their leaders, a leading indicator of revolution.

Watts concludes, and I agree, that “A republic is a thing to be cherished, protected and respected. If it fails, an uncertain, dangerous and destructive future lies on the other side.” But this requires competent people working for the common good. Perhaps it is inevitable that there will be incompetent, selfishly motivated people in government, but they must be avoided as much as possible. Currently, we are wallowing in a sea of them.

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