Once upon a time, I took a couple of upper-level courses in Roman history. I had a professor who spent a whole quarter on just Augustus, and it was revealing: there was no one moment where you could say that the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, and even as it was happening the Emperor (who was just the Princeps, just another guy among all the other guys, he was just first in all things) was able to point to all these wonderful examples of the continuity of tradition. For example, the tribune of the plebs was important: he was elected by the plebeians to represent their class, and he had all these abilities, like being able to propose legislation directly to the people for a vote, and he had the power to veto legislation. The position was a key check on the power of the aristocracy.
Augustus didn’t get rid of it. He just adopted the tribunician power for himself. So you could go looking for a tribune of the plebs to represent you if you were plebeian, and still find him…he was just the Princeps himself, which kind of defeated the whole purpose, but literally, one could argue you hadn’t lost anything. The fall of the Republic took decades, as all the diverse checks and balances got consolidated into granting absolute power to one individual.
But the ’30s isn’t the only era with lessons to teach us. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the ancient world. Initially, I have to admit, I was doing it for entertainment and as a refuge from news that gets worse with each passing day. But I couldn’t help noticing the contemporary resonances of some Roman history — specifically, the tale of how the Roman Republic fell.
Here’s what I learned: Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.
On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Here’s what Adrian Goldsworthy’s “In the Name of Rome” says: “However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic … no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.”
I’m sure historians will look back on the recent history of the American republic and find lots of similar concerns — the gradual aggrandizement of power in the hands of the executive, with the willing help of a senatorial aristocracy (and in our case, a subservient press). It seems like a good idea when you’ve got a competent leader, a Caesar or an Augustus or even dour old Tiberius, but then a Caligula takes the reins and you realize your mistake.
But don’t worry. You can eventually get rid of a Caligula with assassinations, calling in the Praetorians, and treason trials, which of course fixes everything.