“Who is there so feebleminded or idle that he would not wish to know how and with what constitution almost all the inhabited world was conquered and brought fully under the single dominion of Rome in fifty-three years?” -Polybius
Before we get going on what the early days of the Roman Republic can teach us that applies to today, we need to understand the very basics of the greatest story history ever told.
The city of Rome was founded in 753 B.C. According to legend, it began when its mythical founder, Romulus, killed his brother, Remus, built walls around the city and proclaimed that the same fate would befall any who dared cross the wall as did Remus. And so Romulus became the first king of Rome, and the little discussed era of the Roman Kingdom began. It’s important to note that the Roman Kingdom is different from the Roman Empire, which won’t come for more than 700 years. The kingdom was when Rome was just barely bigger than the size of the current city and ruled by etruscan kings, and the empire was the superpower of the world, covering all of Europe, north africa, and into west asia.
Going wayyyyyyy back in time so we can later move forward to understand the founding of America and their governing norms, we’ll start withthe Roman kingdom, which spanned what is known as the seven kings of Rome. Though only three are worthy of note for our purposes. The first, Romulus, embodied the unrelenting, warlike ferocity of the Roman people. And the second, Numa, embodied the rigidly faithful, superstitious discipline of them. And the seventh and final King of Rome was Tarquinius Superbus. And he sucked. In fact he sucked so much, that Rome revolted, and decided they didn’t want to have any one man to have that much power. They wanted to have what they called “res publica” or “the public thing,” or as it has become known today: a republic. Sound familiar? It was also what the founding fathers of America wanted.The most important goal of the republic was to keep one person from ever getting too powerful, again similar to America. And Rome took that goal seriously. Seriously to the point that you were legally allowed to kill anyone you suspected of trying to become a king.
The government Rome came up with to ensure this goal was without doubt a brilliant one. In fact, its brilliance- both in ideology and application- became the intellectually starting point for the founding of our modern republics.It’s what’s called a mixed government. Meaning it takes institutions from multiple regime types and molds them into one to balance each other as one. In Rome’s case, there were three parts to the mix: part monarchy (rule of one), aristocracy (rule of the elites), and democracy (rule of the people). First, the monarchical and most powerful part, were the consuls. There were two of them and they were the elected chief executives and served for one year at a time. Both consuls had a veto, which in latin means I forbid, so neither could gain too much power because the other would check his peer consul; they also had “term limits” andonly served for one year at a time. Next was the aristocratic part of the mix: the senate. This consisted of about 300 Roman wealthy aristocrats who had come up through the ranks of Roman politics as magistrates. They served mostly as an advisory role, but because their appointment to the senate was for life and because of their immense wealth, their advice was almost always taken by the consuls. The final part of the mix, the real kicker in terms of limiting one person from getting too powerful, was the democratic aspect: the committees. The committees were made up of the people and they voted on laws and elected officials. However, their voting system was kind of weird. They had their own electoral college. They were divided up into groups based on their social status and jobs and each group voted as a block and the voting ended as soon as a majority was reached. Not surprisingly, the distribution of the groups favored the wealthy, so they got their way a lot. It wasn’t perfect, but you see the seeds of what, ultimately, the goal was. And you should see how America incorporated this system of mixed government into our own state. You have the monarchical president, the aristocratic congress, and the democratic elections and referenda.
So how did actual governing work back then? One of the most important things to know about the Roman Republic is that there was no written constitution. Instead, the government’s rules were dictated by what was called the mos maiorum, “the tradition of the ancestors.” The mos maiorum were the norms, traditions, and republican values that were set back in the early days of the Republic. They were also the most important factor in the republic’s success. As we’ll see as we delve into it more, one of the most valuable lessons that Rome teaches us about modern republics like America is that norms, traditions, and republican values matter even more than laws. As we see today, the balance of power the republic was trying to achieve counts on the nature and ambitions of the people to sustain norms more than the institutional enforcement of the laws that ensure the pure functioning of the republic. And herein lies the fragility of a republic- that it is dependent on the character of its leaders and values of its society. So, each generation poses an existential threat, as they too must come to adopt these values.
Thebest example of the effectiveness of the mos maiorum came in the success of the office of the dictator. As we discussed last episode, in times of crisis, the government needs to act swiftly and with one voice. That voice was literally that of the dictator, which means in latin “he says.” The dictator was appointed by the senate to be in charge for chunks of six months or until the emergency was deemed over. This may seem like a position ripe for abuse, but it wasn’t. And it wasn’t because the sanctity of the mos maiorum was so strong that no one would dare try to do something in such extreme violation of them. That’s where the values, norms, and traditions of the Roman Republic came into play.
So how’s that relate to the early American Republic and today’s republics?
It might seem random, but let’s start with the veto. America and other countries took the veto from Rome. Why? Because it is a critical instrument to prevent one person from gaining too much power. Even today, it prevents the government from moving too quickly and provides checks on decision makers. In republics, slowness and deliberation are good things. They allow for reasoned decision making and for every point of view to be heard and considered. Our founders agreed with this principle. And gave the President the authority to veto laws passed by congress.
A lesson America learned from Rome was that the power of an absolute veto can actually lead to a massive problem. That’s because the tool designed to keep someone from gaining too much power can actually lead to someone gaining too much power by essentially holding the government hostage with his veto. We’re gonna do a whole episode on one such event in Roman history later. America, however, successfully has avoided this issue in terms of the power of the executive because a two thirds majority of congress overrides a Presidential veto.
But the United States has not escaped the stalemate that can be caused by vetoes entirely. The idea of the founders was originally that the senate and the house would sort of be on the same team. They’d be checking the power of the executive and judicial branches. But, in our time of partisan politics this simply isn’t the case. We see right now that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who were elected by just over 5 million of the 330 million Americans combined, are capable of bringing the government to a stop. McConnel decides what gets voted on in the senate. Pelosi decides it in the house. So if a bill isn’t gonna go the way they want it to, essentially, they can keep it from even being voted on. As we speak in December of 2020, this use of disproportionate power is occurring with the COVID stimulus package. It has passed the house, but majority leader McConnel won’t let it be voted on until his demands are met. However, the power of Pelosi and McConnel is not enshrined in the constitution, but a result of a change in norms and customs over time. Their power certainly is not illegal, but it also wasn’t intended. This is just one of many examples in which partisanship, which did not exist in Rome, has eroded our own mos maiorum.
Beyond just the value of norms, traditions, and republican values in a republic, Rome also teaches us about class struggles within one.It’s important to know that Republican Rome was very much a class based system. There were two, not counting slaves. The patricians and the plebeians. Patricians were the nobility and could trace their lineage all the way back to the first 100 senators that advised Romulus, the first king, and only they could be senators. The plebeians were everybody else. It’s interesting to note that, though most patricians were wealthy and most plebeians less so, this division was not based on wealth. There were plenty of rich plebeians. But, the struggle between the patricians and plebeians would define Republican Rome for generations.
For the first generation of Republican Romans in the late 5th century B.C., things weren’t easy. There was no honeymoon phase after defeating Tarquin. Rremember him? He’s the guy who was such a bad king that Rome invented a whole new form of government. There was almost immediately trouble from abroad and at home. You see, the surrounding cities in Italy saw the Roman revolution as leaving Rome weak. So they decided to pounce. So, in 496, Aulus Postumius was named dictator to protect the city. It was the first test of the mos maiorum and the republic. And it held. Postumius fought off the invasions of surrounding cities, and then immediately relinquished power. An example followed by George Washington, who many believe could have made himself king. Both of these examples established the mos maiorum of a peaceful transition of power in their respective countries, which is fundamental to the health of a republic. And, it is very concerning what we’re seeing in the United States today as Joe Biden is set to become the next president and a smooth transfer of power is not occurring.
In Rome, though, as was the case in the early United States, the plebeians weren’t happy with the republic, as they hoped it would bring more change to their lives than it actually did. At this point, no plebeian was even allowed to hold elected office.And they were angry that they had now fought in both the revolution against Tarquin and to protect the city from invaders, yet still had to pay massive debts and taxes that they incurred while fighting. So what did they do? They went on strike. They literally all just left Rome and refused to return until they were given the power they believed they deserved. So, the senate, with the strength of the newly formed Republic on the line, decided to create a new position. It was called the Tribune, and there were two of them and they were plebeians elected by plebeians. And each had their own veto, just like the consuls.This was Rome’s only real institutional check and balance, and it led to a lot of future showdowns and stalemates between the patricians and plebeians.
Class struggle is an inevitable part of a Republic. And the United States, both at its founding and now, are no different. In fact, just like in Rome, almost immediately after the founding of the American Republic, many farmers felt that they were being taken advantage of and not being properly taken care of by this new government they had fought for and been so sure would better represent them. This frustration came to a head during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1784. In western Pennsylvania, farmers and distillers protested a whiskey tax enacted by the federal government. Following years of aggression with tax collectors, the region finally exploded in a confrontation that resulted in President Washington sending in troops to quell what some feared could become a full-blown revolution.
So what’s one conclusion we can draw from the immediate frustration of the lower class at the beginning of both republics? That class struggle in a republic is even greater than in a monarchy because in a Republic the lower class has the expectation of being served in some way by the republic. They feel that they are not subjects, like in a monarchy, acting at the will of the king, but a part of the community and owed justice and fairness.
To state the obvious, today’s America is divided on many fronts, but one of the biggest is geography. And it’s no longer the north vs.the south. It’s urban vs. rural. I believe that we have our own, informal version of the patricians and plebeian divide between the values of so-called “coastal elites” and “everyday Americans.” And the data bear this out. Urban vs rural America has never been more divided. Joe Biden dominated in major cities, carrying him to victory in key battleground states. For example, Biden won Milwaukee by 40 points, and that’s the reason he won Wisconsin. Conversely, Trump won rural counties by 40 points.
What’s interesting about this divide is that there are strong populist movements amongst each side. On the far right, it’s more of a nationalistic, identity populism. On the left, the populist push is about income inequality and socialism. As I mentioned, class disparity came up again and again during peacetime in Republican Rome, and we’ll cover multiple examples of that going forward, but it’s the same in America. During times of war, talk about wealth distribution and national identity goes down. But during times of peace it becomes a greater focus. During wars there is too much immediate focus on unity around a common goal to focus on big picture injustice. That luxury only exists in peace. At the beginning of Republican Rome, the wealth and cultural gaps were far greater than they are in America today. But the poor and the plebeians made a lot of progress over time, albeit nonlinear progress, eventually making the class distinctions pretty much meaningless. It remains to be seen what the latest surge of economic and cultural populism will bring in America, but you’ll come to learn more about such surges in Rome and it will help inform your understanding of today.