October 15, 2003


The End of the Republic? (Chalmers Johnson, History News Network)

The collapse of the Roman republic in 27 BC has significance today for the United States, which took many of its key political principles from its ancient predecessor. Separation of powers, checks and balances, government in accordance with constitutional law, a toleration of slavery, fixed terms in office, all these ideas were influenced by Roman precedents. John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams often read the great Roman political philosopher Cicero and spoke of him as an inspiration to them. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, authors of the Federalist Papers, writing in favor of ratification of the Constitution signed their articles with the name Publius Valerius Publicola, the first consul of the Roman republic.

The Roman republic, however, failed to adjust to the unintended consequences of its imperialism, leading to a drastic alteration in its form of government. The militarism that inescapably accompanied Rome's imperial projects slowly undermined its constitution as well as the very considerable political and human rights its citizens enjoyed. The American republic, of course, has not yet collapsed; it is just under considerable strain as the imperial presidency -- and its supporting military legions -- undermine Congress and the courts. However, the Roman outcome -- turning over power to an autocracy backed by military force and welcomed by ordinary citizens because it seemed to bring stability -- suggests what might happen in the years after Bush and his neoconservatives are thrown out of office.

Obviously, there is nothing deterministic about this progression, and many prominent Romans, notably Brutus and Cicero, paid with their lives trying to head it off. But there is something utterly logical about it. Republican checks and balances are simply incompatible with the maintenance of a large empire and a huge standing army. Democratic nations sometimes acquire empires, which they are reluctant to give up because they are a source of wealth and national pride, but as a result their domestic liberties are thereby put at risk. [...]

On January 13, 27 BC, Octavian appeared in the Senate, which had legitimized its own demise by ceding most of its powers to him and which now bestowed on him the new title of Augustus, first Roman emperor. The majority of the Senators were his solid supporters, having been handpicked by him. In 23 BC, Augustus was granted further authority by being designated a tribune for life, which gave him ultimate veto power over anything the Senate might do. His power rested ultimately on his total control of the armed forces.

Although his rise to power was always tainted by constitutional illegitimacy -- not unlike that of our own Boy Emperor from Crawford, Texas -- Augustus proceeded to emasculate the Roman system and its representative institutions. He never abolished the old republican offices but merely united them under one person -- himself. Imperial appointment became a badge of prestige and social standing rather than of authority. The Senate was turned into a club of old aristocratic families, and its approval of the acts of the emperor was purely ceremonial. The Roman legions continued to march under the banner SPQR -- senatus populus que Romanus, "the Senate and the Roman People" -- but the authority of Augustus was absolute.

The most serious problem was that the army had grown too large and was close to unmanageable. It constituted a state within a state, not unlike the Pentagon in the United States today. [...]

After Augustus, not much recommends the Roman Empire as an example of enlightened government despite the enthusiasm for it of such neoconservative promoters of the George W. Bush administration as the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer, the Wall Street Journal's Max Boot, and the Weekly Standard's William Kristol. My reasons for going over this ancient history are not to suggest that our own Boy Emperor is a second Octavian but rather what might happen after he is gone. The history of the Roman republic from the time of Julius Caesar on suggests that it was imperialism and militarism -- poorly understood by all conservative political leaders at the time -- that brought it down. Militarism and the professionalization of a large standing army create invincible new sources of power within a polity. The government must mobilize the masses in order to exploit them as cannon fodder and this leads to the rise of populist generals who understand the grievances of their troops and veterans. [...]

Given the course of the postwar situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may not be too hard to defeat George Bush in the election of 2004. But whoever replaces him will have to deal with the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, our empire of bases, and a fifty-year-old tradition of not telling the public what our military establishment costs and the devastation it can inflict. History teaches us that the capacity for things to get worse is limitless. Roman history suggests that the short, happy life of the American republic is in serious trouble -- and that conversion to a military empire is, to say the least, not the best answer.

Even for the Left this is lunatic, as the "militarized" America he's fretting about spends a historically paltry, though quite sufficient, 4% or so of its GDP on the military, and this at a time of global warfare, with troops in the field from Central Europe to the Philippines to Colombia. As for the unfettered power of the American military--if the generals ran the nation we'd not have fought the first Iraq war, never mind the second, so it's hard to even figure out what he's talking about.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 15, 2003 10:29 AM

Mr. Judd;

He certainly does appropriate justice to his case through his use of "Boy Emperor" to describe the President.

Among the many other fundamental errors, he neglects the fact today, empires are a financial drain, not a source of wealth, and that wealthy republics have strong budgetary reasons for disposing of imperial posessions as soon as possible (does anyone seriously believe that we'll get our $87 billion back by looting Iraqi oil?). One need only listen to the current debate to see that this is currently the biggest complaint about the occupation, not to mention the endless carping about an "exit strategy". Why didn't the author address these facts from the real world? But that answers itself…

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 15, 2003 10:47 AM

We're not even in the Social Wars period yet, although Clark is already auditioning for

Posted by: narciso at October 15, 2003 10:52 AM

"... a state within a state, not unlike the Pentagon ..."

I served with a bunch of outstanding military people, all of whom took the Consitution completely seriously, and all of whom he just witlessly insulted.


Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 15, 2003 12:23 PM

Yes. If you are going to compare the US to Rome, the proper period is that after the destruction of Carthage, when Rome had vanquished it's last competitor in the Mediterranean. The events described in the article were after decades of civil wars, dictatorships, purges and terrors, the growth of an all consuming welfare state and the conquest and occupation of the known world to keep that state and its upper class supplied with wealth to which it had become accustomed. The US has yet to go through that period.

This is just another example of a Leftist who's learned just enough history to expose his vast ignorance.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 15, 2003 12:25 PM


Ever read Samuel Huntington's book on the role of the military in a democracy?:


Posted by: OJ at October 15, 2003 12:35 PM

In the "boy emperor" sentence he also questions the legitimacy of GWB's election. When is that lie going to stop? All of the major press organization counted and re-counted the Florida ballots...no matter how you count (or disallow) the dimpled chads, hanging chads, etc., etc., Bush was found to win Florida.

Posted by: Foos at October 15, 2003 1:39 PM

Don't complain too loudly. As long as liberals keep thinking that "Given the course of the postwar situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may not be too hard to defeat George Bush in the election of 2004," they can make all the ridiculously inept historical comparisons they want.

Posted by: Timothy at October 15, 2003 1:47 PM

If I'm part of the empire, where's my tribute and why are we in debt??????????????

Posted by: Sandy P. at October 15, 2003 1:50 PM


Looting? I suppose not. But the US consumes approximately 500m barrels of oil a day (that sounds high to me, but so I'm told). At that rate, dropping the price of oil from $30 to $20 a barrel would pump $87B back into the US economy in three weeks.

From a cynical standpoint, we hardly need to loot the oil; all we have to do is increase the supply enough to force the (rather inelastic) price down.

Which is not to say I think that'll work out that way, but it's not obviously implausible.

Posted by: Mike Earl at October 15, 2003 1:57 PM

This kind of article is why Santayana should be exhumed, shot, burnt and reburied.

Although, the left could do worse then refer to the President as "W-Rex".

Posted by: David Cohen at October 15, 2003 2:03 PM

If the model is the Roman Republic, then why don't we just sell the Iraqis into slavery? If we can get $3,500 apiece for them, that's $87B right there.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 15, 2003 2:43 PM

W-Rex? Well, how about George III?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 15, 2003 4:10 PM

Going with the Roman theme, "W-Imperator"?

Posted by: David Cohen at October 15, 2003 4:17 PM


I did read that book, although too long ago for me to remember much other than that he seemed to pretty much hit the nail on the head.

That our military is all volunteer, largely from conservative portions of the population, and we maintain a wide variety of officer commissioning sources, are a several reasons our military is an asset to the Republic, not a threat.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 15, 2003 4:31 PM


Quite. Our generals in particular have been a bulwark of republicanism.

Posted by: OJ at October 15, 2003 4:45 PM

I'd like to quibble on two additional points:

Moron boy forgets that Octavian was not given the title "Augustus" as a sign of authority, but rather Princeps, or, loosely, First Citizen. Augustus carries no mandate of power.

Second, properly, the phrase is Senatus Populusque Romae, the Senate and the People of Rome (because both were of and part of Rome, and Rome was composed of the two, hence the importance of the slogan). Even assuming that I've improperly declined, and therefore mistranslated the whole thing, which I believe I have not, one does not separate que from the antecedent noun, and one certainly does not do so in this phrase. (It's like how Glenn Reynolds keeps attacking the phrase Salus populi suprema lex, and always misrendering it Salus populi est suprema lex, which is incoherent idiomatically.) Romanus is "man who is Roman," if memory and The Life of Bryan serve.

And Raoul is right about the best Roman Republic comparison.

Posted by: Chris at October 15, 2003 6:03 PM

This is the second Roman-themed academic travesty in two days. Yesterday it was Harold Bloom, invoking the ghost of Gibbon no less, in the WSJ Opinion Journal.

This nonsense requires some serious rebuttal, and I nominate someone like Victor Davis Hanson. Does he do cleanup work?

Posted by: Dave in LA at October 15, 2003 6:55 PM

Gibbon began his great study witht the following:

"In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth."

The apogee of Roman greatness cited by Gibbon occured more than a century after the last chapter in the collapse of the republic. A process that of itself took almost a century. Recall that Sulla named himself dictator in 82 B.C. amidst violence and rapine.

If it is now 27 B.C.E. in the United States then we have more than two centuries before our decline truly begins. More to the point we have not had a Sulla or a Ceasar yet.

I really do think though that the left has become completely unhinged.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 16, 2003 12:48 AM

Chalmers Johnson was, last time I checked, a professor at Berkeley (obviously) and had been since the 1970s, so describing him as any kind of 'boy' doesn't make sense, although his article is rather jejune and really not at all up to the level of his "Autopsy of People's War," (Am not certain of the exact title.)
In the 1960s Johnson was on NET's "World Press Review" out of San Francisco, and I remember him as being in his thirties or fourties at the time.

Posted by: John Costello at October 16, 2003 1:11 AM

John: My apologies. I meant to express contempt, not an accurate rendering of age.

I hereby call him "Moron Geezer." This, in fact, makes him even stupider, as someone of that age should've had some Latin growing up.

Posted by: Chris at October 16, 2003 9:18 AM

Mr. Earl;

That's true, but we could have done the same thing by appeasing the Ba'ath instead of invading and gotten made twice as much money.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 16, 2003 2:12 PM

The issue is that the American public is obviously not terribly competent to oversee an activist policy that gets us intimately involved with countless overseas cultures speaking countless languages Thus, attempting to rule over people speaking multiple languages encourages rule by mulitlingual elites, as in the European Union and even Canada. It's not the worst form of government, but it doesn't have much to do with the one set up by the Constitution.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at October 16, 2003 9:26 PM

That's a new idea to me, Steve. I'm going to have to think about it.

At first glance, how does it fit with the British in India?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 17, 2003 3:58 PM

America is countless cultures speaking endless languages, but then we teach them English and our own culture's ideas. That's how the Brits ruled India too and why it stayed reasonably Western after they left..

Posted by: oj at October 17, 2003 4:30 PM