FUSION JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010
The fault, dear Americans, is not in our stars but in ourselves!
By Pia Varma
OK, I’ll admit it. I didn’t pay much attention in high school English class. Julius Caesar? Yawn! To be honest, I didn’t really get it. I thought that Caesar was the good guy and Cassius and Brutus, the two men who led the plot to kill him, were the bad guys. But it was the ‘90s, the Cold War was over and I had prom to think about. To snap up a line from Shakespeare’s play, it was all Greek to me!
Flash forward several years to our new post-9/11 America. We are fighting two wars, a global battle against terrorism, low interest rates and cheap money have caused a credit crisis of gargantuan proportions, the Treasury has become a free-for-all, the welfare state is growing quicker than you can say Nancy Pelosi, the government is becoming more powerful and corrupt, rampant inflation is imminent, and corporate-cronyism has replaced the free markets.
Maybe it’s time for us all to re-read history.
You see, many, many years before there was the United States of America, there was a Republic called Rome. Actually, I never realized that “Ancient Rome” as we’ve come to know it existed in three phases that spanned the course of almost a thousand years. It was founded some time between 758 and 728 B.C. and existed as a monarchy for over two centuries. It then became a democratic Republic, which lasted for 460 years, and finally transitioned to an empire for the final 200 or so years.
The heroic beginnings of the Roman Republic were actually very similar to those of America. In 509 B.C., a rebellious group of rugged individuals, tired of abuses of the monarchy, overthrew King Tarquin and put into place a new system of government. In order to safeguard personal liberties and prevent another monarchy from emerging, these founding fathers replaced the monarchy with two elected magistrates who would each serve a maximum of one year. Each magistrate would check the ambition of the other and never again would one man be allowed to rule supreme over the Roman citizens.
The Roman “constitution,” known as the Twelve Tables, was completed in 449 B.C. with an emphasis on individual liberty. The legislation would come from an elected body of officials, also known as the Senate. Under this new system of government, Rome flourished as a fledgling, agrarian republic where citizens were able to vote, hold public office, engage in trade and commerce and own property. Although Roman citizenship, or civitas, was limited to adult males, it was incredibly revolutionary at the time and, therefore, became a source of great pride for the Romans. It meant you were free!
And what does freedom bring? Prosperity!
Rome became the most rockin’ place around. Toga parties, drinking, wrestling, sporting games, bathhouses, you get the idea. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be Roman.
Life was pretty good for a few centuries. Rome grew and prospered. The Romans built roads, bridges, aqueducts, buildings, apartments, stadiums and had the most powerful military in the world. And we all know it wasn’t built in a day! The Roman Republic even had a booming financial sector, with early forms of futures and equities markets. But in 49 B.C., the party finally came to an end as Julius Caesar stood at the bank of a small river in Northern Italy known as the Rubicon.
Roman law stated that no General could cross the Rubicon and enter Italy with a standing army. If Caesar crossed, he would be declared an “Enemy of the State,” plunge Rome into a civil war and turn the once shining democratic republic into an empire and himself into Emperor. The Senate was terrified of such an outcome. Even Caesar, himself, hesitated. But he was too ambitious to turn around and give up all that he had worked to achieve. He wanted power, even if it meant ending the Republic. He marched forward and, in his own words, the “die was cast.” He had crossed the point of no return and became Emperor of Rome.
Brutus and Cassius did eventually assassinate Caesar in an attempt to restore the Republic, but it was too late. By then, the problems were greater than one man and had been developing under the surface for many years. In fact, many Roman citizens were happy to have Caesar take the reigns as dictator of Rome to get things under control. I guess Sallust was right when he said, “Only a few prefer liberty—the majority seek nothing more than fair masters.”
So, what exactly led to the moment at the Rubicon? Why did Rome fall?
Perhaps the malaise began 150 years earlier when Rome’s biggest external threat, Carthage, was defeated in the Second Punic War. While most Roman citizens were ecstatic, many were concerned that, without a common enemy holding the Republic together, a sense of apathy would set in. They were right. Over time, by the consent of the masses, Rome began to destroy itself from within. The citizens ceased to care what the Senate was doing, so long as their needs were being taken care of. The Senate began a policy of expansion, conquering new lands and looting gold and silver for the Treasury. In the early days of the Republic, the tax rate was about 1-3 percent. By 167 B.C., Romans were no longer obliged to pay taxes, as the burden could be carried by others.
There was enough revenue coming in from conquered lands to pay for everyone. As a result, a new brand of crony-corporatist, known as the publicani, emerged. The publicani were also known as tax farmers, who were in the business of collecting taxes abroad for a profit. The tax rate was progressive, with the publicani deciding who would pay what taxes. Corruption ran rampant.
To make matters worse, in the middle of the Second Century B.C., two brothers with great political ambition came to power. The Gracci brothers emerged from the Populares Party. They understood that they could gain enormous amounts of political power by making grand promises and using propaganda and charisma to woo the Roman citizens. They promised grain at prices below market and, eventually, for free. They promised to redistribute land, and they put into place sweeping “New Deal” like social reforms, which increased the welfare state. Essentially, you name it, they probably promised it. As a result of these progressive reforms, farmers rushed to live in the cities for their free grain and slaves were freed in order to qualify for the dole.
It didn’t help that there was also lots of money floating around the Roman economy from the conquests abroad. Since money was cheap and interest rates were kept very low (and, at one point, even forbidden), individual Roman citizens racked up considerable amounts of debt. The publicani were also in the money lending business but eventually cracked down on borrowers so they could invest their money into new markets opening up in Asia. This led to a huge credit crisis in 88 B.C.
The economy continued to crumble as debt increased and more and more hands grasped at the treasury. By the time Caesar came along, more than 300,000 Roman citizens were on the dole and an increasing number were making greater demands on the government. In fact, more legislation was passed during the end of First Century B.C. than any other time in the Republic’s history. Politicians were becoming increasingly corrupt and self-interested. By the time Rome became an empire, there were so many obligations that taxes began to rise to crippling levels and emperors began to adopt a policy of devaluing the currency. Rampant inflation ensued. In fact, during the 200 years of the Roman Empire, the Denarius (Rome’s coinage at the time) went from containing 95% silver to containing .02% silver. It became virtually value-less!
Roman Emperors, such as Diocletian, began grasping at straws: regulating industry and trade, nationalizing businesses and fixing prices and wages. However, despite all the concerns from the more rational members of the Senate, Rome continued to collapse. Cicero had even warned, “The budget should be balanced. Public debt should be reduced. The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered, and assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome becomes bankrupt.”
So there you have it, the breakdown of the Roman Republic (and maybe the breakdown of the American Republic) in a nutshell. We’ve modeled our government after Rome, we looked at the writings of Roman philosophers like Cicero and Cato to create our Constitution, we got terms like “senate” and “citizen” from Latin. We even designed our nation’s capital after Roman architecture. And, in a way, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and others gave us the ultimate “mulligan” when they founded America. But they also warned us of what happened to Rome and urged us not to go in the same direction. And what did we do? Like sheep and cowards, we didn’t listen, didn’t learn from past mistakes and, eager for security and temporary quick fixes, have been voting ourselves back into bondage ever since.
American, wake up! We don’t want to be Rome! Let’s not forget that this shining city on a hill ultimately burned down with Nero fiddling away!
As our leaders in Washington stand at the bank of the Rubicon, ready to cross, we must remember Cassius’s wise words in Julius Caesar when he said, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”
I hope my high school English teacher is impressed.