Rome and Nationstates : A Series of Lectures

From the University of The Meritocracy, republished Mar 13 2006 (I don’t know the earlier date). Written by Objectivist Chimps. [hr]

Rome and Nationstates :
A Series of Lectures

Lecture I

I have been wanting to write a lecture for some time now, but had yet to come to any concrete conclusion of what the subject matter ought to be. So I began to explore what exactly interests me, and the answers were brief and simple: Rome, history, Nationstates. And, just like that, I had a topic I felt I could teach.

My goal in the course of these lectures is, simply, to explore significant events of Roman history and discover what links and similarities exist to Nationstates and, most importantly, to the Meritocracy. I believe that the two empires have more in common than the titles of their officers.

I have no intention of following any chronological order, but intend to skip from time period to time period as I see fit, making connections and conclusions as I travel through the history of the world’s greatest civilization. My first lecture shall concern itself with one of the most important times in Roman history – the end of the Republic. I shall be exploring its decline and fall (to borrow from Gibbon) and attempting to learn lessons from its demise.

The most obvious, and most difficult, question is simply: why did it fall? For those who have studied history in a cursory manner, the answer would probably be something along the lines of: a few ambitious, power-hungry men capitalized on constitutional and political flaws to sate their thirst for glory, and left nothing but death and ruin for the Republic wherever their quest took them. But there is more to it than that; for while the study of history is chiefly concerned with the individual, the circumstances surrounding the individual’s actions often define the behavior of great men more than anything else.

What was it about the climate of the Late Roman Republic that made it so conducive to the usurpation of power by a few, and led to the utter degeneration of all semblance of constitutionality? Right now, I’m in the mood to discuss the final catalyst that led to its collapse, rather than the innumerable events that led up to it – in a further lecture, I will happily discuss those events in depth. It is safe to say that the actual event that caused the Republic to end was Gaius Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon (I pick that event because it makes it all seem more dramatic; one could make the argument that it was his complete and sweeping victory that made any reverting to the old system impossible, and I will address the reasons for his victory later).

As the legend goes, Caesar pondered for some time his own fate, and, most importantly, the fate of Rome itself, before crossing the swollen waters of the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. And as we have all heard before, with a final remark of “alea iacta est!” Caesar led his troops south, into war, fame, and everlasting glory. Be it noted that I’ve heard some say that he actually proclaimed a quote from his favorite playwright Menander before crossing (though, allegedly, it had the same meaning as the other statement that has passed down to posterity).

But why did Caesar, a noble Roman who sought nothing more than the fame and success that any man of intelligence with the bloodline of the Julii would expect, seek open war with the Senate and People of Rome? Caesar’s past had shown himself to be a man who longed for no more than was his due – he had shown no rebellious instincts, but rather had always acted well within the law (though certainly not without deep desires for glory). In fact, Caesar was one of the few who defended those Romans involved in the Catilinarian Conspiracy, arguing against a death sentence without trial. Some argued that this was because of an involvement with the Conspiracy, but true evidence is lacking, and this seems characteristic of the typical mud-slinging against Caesar. The true point of this story would be to indicate Caesar’s reverence for Rome: her laws, her customs, and the Cursus Honorum itself (well, that last one… by extension… but I had to make it a tricolon).

So, to return to my pre-rambling question, why did Caesar do it? Because his hand was forced. The Senate, led by the Optimates, a political party birthed during Sulla’s reign, due to a personal vendetta against Caesar, had made a decree that Caesar must lay down his governorship of Gaul and cede his army to the Senate. As soon as Caesar would become a private citizen, he would be tried on outlandish treason charges and spend the rest of his life living in some backwater of Asia Minor.

Why, one must ask, did the Optimates favor Pompey (who was permitted to keep his province and his army, and eventually became their tool for warring with Caesar when it did come to blows) over Caesar? The latter was the superior military commander. His bloodline could trace itself back to Aeneas and Venus herself. He was one of the brightest minds that Rome had seen in decades. But, he also fooled around with every Senator’s wife, made an enemy out of any foolish superior officer in an army he served in, and refused to be cowed by the domineering faction within the Senate. Simply put, it was a personal vendetta.

A personal bias that destroyed the greatest government the world had ever seen. Granted, Rome did not fall utterly, but this was a severe blow. The vitriolic battle between the Optimates and the Populares caused a great man to be pushed beyond the point of human endurance and into open rebellion.

The great orator Cicero, during his Consulship, had sought a “concordium ordinum,” a harmony of the orders. Sadly, he saw his hopes for this dashed as Caesar troops flung themselves down the spine of Italy and into the cheering throngs of Rome. My point, in all of this, must seem fairly obvious. Discord, especially factional discord based on personal rivalries, can bring down even the greatest societies. The New Meritocracy is no exception.

Now, contrary to what some may have inferred, I am not opposed to party politics. Perfect harmony on any issue means that people are not fully comprehending it – everything has advantages and disadvantages. A marketplace of ideas is necessary for good government policy, but rigid party loyalty based on personal hatreds is detrimental to any organization. This is not a lecture meant to bash the Meritocratic Optimates, but is simply an attempt to remind those who may not be students of history of what can and has happened in not too dissimilar situations.

I hope that my next lecture will probe a bit more deeply into these issues, since I am first to admit that this is nothing more than a cursory examination of, arguably, the most unsophisticated approach to the fall of the Roman Republic. The meatier, and perhaps more informative, discussions will follow soon.

Comments are more than welcome, and, in the event that this lecture has actually sparked some interest, questions are most appreciated. [hr]

Lecture II

When last we met, I examined the actual impetus that drove the Republic into war and oblivion. Today, I would like to discuss the underlying causes (one particular one) that made civil war the only possibility.

Due to the inherent constitutional flaws of the Republic, such a situation as the one which developed from 133 B.C. onward was inevitable, and it was merely a question of which man would be the one to finally catalyze it. Obviously, that man was Julius Caesar, but he was most certainly not the first. Before him had been Marius, Sulla, and Pompey (well, sort of), all of whom failed for various reasons.

But the date I (and nearly all historians) gave as the beginning of that downward spiral was 133 B.C., twenty six (assuming I did my math right) years before Marius’ first Consulship. Before the transient dictators, other forces had been at work to set the stage. In 133 B.C., Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, running for an illegal second-term as Tribune of the Plebeians, was murdered by a band of Senators led by Scipio Nasica.

Tiberius, as Tribune, had two chief powers – the power to veto actions of any magistrate (including his fellow Tribunes) and the power to convene the Concilium Plebis, a law-making body which was typically subordinate to the will of the Senate. Gracchus sought to introduce a series of agrarian reforms which would serve to grant many of the landless veterans discharged in the overcrowded Rome with land to call their own, knowing full well that the Senate would fight that proposal tooth and nail.

Against all precedent, he utilized the Concilium Plebis to pass the legislation he sought without Senatorial approval, and, when a fellow Tribune vetoed this action (at the behest of the Senate, of course), Gracchus petitioned for his removal from office, and got his way. After these actions, the Senate was craving blood.

To save himself from a treason trial and possible execution (or, at the very least, exile), Gracchus sought a consecutive term as Tribune, clearly a violation of Roman law and the mos maiorum (tradition, loosely translated). With this decision, his fate was sealed, and a band of indignant Senators had him murdered in the Campus Martius, along with a few hundred of his supporters.

Why did this blood shed occur? Because there were two irreconcilable factions (even before the Optimates versus Populares) who each had absurd powers over the other. The Senate looked after its own interests, and the Consuls possessed a veto over all actions. Similarly, the Tribunes looked after their own (or the people’s, if you’re feeling idealistic) interests, and possessed a veto over all actions. There were no checks, and there certainly was no balance; just a perpetual (once Gracchus began to wield the weapons of his half in a more aggressive manner) war between the two coalitions.

The Roman Constitution and laws neither sought to vest sole power in one body nor sought to create a reasonable balance between the two. Both had supreme power (legally), and both could be manipulated by power-hungry or incredibly lofty thinkers to bring ruin upon the other.

In 100 B.C., Saturninus, a Tribune with less noble ideals than the Gracchi (for Tiberius’ younger brother was cut from the same mold, and perished only eleven years later in similar circumstances), brought open guerilla warfare upon Rome, capitalizing on the passions of a disgruntled populace to wage war against the ruling class. He and his followers, after a lengthy siege, perished to the last man.

Since the two factions could not resolve their differences legally, bloodshed became their only recourse. Sulla attempted to rectify this through a sweeping collection of reforms, all of which were overturned after his death.

The struggle continued more bitterly as factions emerged within the Senate itself, and each side sought to utilize the Tribunes for their own ends. Notably in the street war between Clodius and Milo, the Optimates and Populares battled by proxy, resulting in many deaths and the destruction of the Senate house itself.

The message I am attempting to convey by itemizing all this bloodshed is what immense dangers lie inherently within governmental law. Just as supreme power in the hands of one faction or branch of government can be detrimental to a nation, so too can a too great attempt to prevent abuses of power be.

One must always remember when dealing with government that destruction lies at either end of the spectrum. Power cannot be bequeathed to one group, but if power is distributed to all, a government will fall. Over-legislation can be the bane of an efficient and viable government, and the same is true in Nationstates.

While the Meritocracy does not have the same inherent problems of the Roman Republic, we do share similarities. The first form of government in Rome fell, and in an attempt to stay far away from that, the Republic was conceived, possessing from the start a system that could not survive indefinitely. Similarly, we must remember that, though a particular form of government may once have been odious, moving too far to another half of the spectrum could lead to problems just as immense.

Government must be kept reasonable, born out of logic, not out of fear of the past. So long as we continue to make decisions based on what is rationally sound, then the Meritocracy will continue down the sound path it is on.