I often pick books the way I pick sleeping positions; I feel around, spreading and contracting my limbs until I find something that suits my mood. So I was sweeping up the other day while listening to an audio-recording of the first few chapters of Gibbon’s infamous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. What never fails to surprise me about huge, impenetrable, notorious books like this is how accessible they are. It’s written in beautiful, lucid English. If I had one general piece of advice it would be: pick up a big, fat, old book today—Anna Karenina, Les Miserables, and, of course, the Decline and Fall.
I find it comfortable to read a book like this that does not stint on context. The first few chapters of Gibbon’s enormous history might be called: “Decline of the Roman Republic.” Not empire; republic, and not fall; decline… or maybe slide.
Here’s the scary part, and the part that matters for now: Rome remained a republic from the overthrow of the semi-mythical Tarquinian Kings in time immemorial to the partitioning of the empire under Constantine—and beyond.
Schools make it a point to teach: how is it, once Hitler became the lawfully elected chancellor of the Weimar government, did he overthrow that government and institute a dictatorship? The same with “first citizen” frauds like Robespierre, Napoleon, etc.?
We could equally ask: how did Augustus achieve a similar (albeit rather more benign) overthrow of Rome’s hallowed Republican traditions? Was it more benign? How did the voices of Pompey, of Cicero, of Cato the Younger, indeed, of so many trusted and renowned politicians, get drowned out? (Or stabbed.)
The first answer is the practical: Augustus didn’t overthrow the Roman Republic; he subverted it. He called himself “first citizen.” He kept traditions but changed laws. He maintained titles but either hollowed out their power or claimed the titles for himself.
His ruse worked so well that people in the latter day, in our day, are still uncomfortable with just how terrible Augustus was. We cover over his abuses in stories. To learn it in an American classroom, it would seem like the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire were two different countries. Part of that misconception is that both we and Augustus would use the word emperor, or imperator, but the meaning we ascribe to that word only makes sense after Augustus.
What is an Emperor?
There is no such thing; nor was there ever. At least not in Rome. The title Augustus took was “Imperator.” So what is an Imperator?
An Imperator is a general. The word literally means “commander,” just as the word “Imperium,” or, as we would call it, “empire,” refers to the size of a country’s sway, not the type of government. That’s how England, the United States, Fascist Italy, Ottoman Turkey, and ancient Greece can all have been, or have held, empires, or imperia, even though they were different kinds of governments.
So let’s make like Gibbon and take a step back: in order to understand what kind of government the empire was we, like Gibbon, have to understand what kind of government the republic was.
Essentially: the Roman republic was ruled by the Senate and the senate was led by the Consul. A consul was only in power for a year at a time, and Europeans started keeping time by the birth of Jesus, the Romans would refer to the year based on who had been Consul: “I haven’t seen you since the first Consulate of Cicero! Damn, your ass has grown big.” That sort of thing. The republic was also swayed by the power of the tribunes of the plebs. A tribune could veto the actions of the Senate and generally gum up the works; they would do this in order to ensure that the Senate was passing laws that favored the plebs—the plebeians; the common folk. If all of this sounds a bit slow and bureaucratic, they had one fast-lane to be used in times of emergency, and that was the position of imperator. In an emergency, the consul could take on dictatorial powers for a term of one year and use essentially unlimited power to solve whatever problems he saw fit before returning that power whence it came and returning the country to its status-quo.
The most famous Roman to take these war-powers and then peacefully relinquish them was Cincinnatus, namesake of an American city. Again, the typical cycle for war powers lasted one year; but Julius Caesar, after defeating Pompey in the civil war, ask for them for 10 years and, if the suspicions of his assassins were right, he had no intention of returning them at the end of the agreed-upon period. Obviously, not unlike FDR, he never reached the end of his state-of-emergency alive and so history is left to wonder just how tenaciously he would have clung to power. Nevertheless, he established a precedent Augustus was quick to take advantage of.
Fact: every decade through even the worst excesses of the Roman empire—Nero, Caligula, Commodus, Domitian come to mind—the Senate elected to reinstate the dictatorship for another 10 years.
Fact: a large reason why the emperors, normally so jealous of power and influence, could feel comfortable engaging in this charade once per decade is that the praetorian guard, the personal army/police-force/secret service of the imperator was able to force the obedience of the senate. Lesson for all of us: if the leader has the personal loyalty of the military, bad times are ahead. One of the most ominous aspects of Trump’s presidency has been the way in which he seems to treat the various branches of government as tools for his personal enrichment and/or protection. One of the great reliefs of his presidency has been his tendency to assume that the senate, the courts, and other branches of legislative and judicial power are meant to make his life easier when in fact they are meant specifically to make his life more difficult through checks and balances.
Again: we think of Imperial Rome as something that started overnight upon the death of Caesar, but nothing could be further from the truth: instead what happened is that, during and after a second civil war (this one between Augustus and his allies on the one hand and Brutus and his allies on the other) Augustus began to amass power. Not by grabbing it; but by twisting the traditions on which the power rested. By the end of his rule, Augustus was not only Imperator (which means general and implies dictatorial power over the bureaucratic machinery of the senate); he was also Pontifex Maximus, meaning that he controlled the state religion. He was Tribune of the Plebs, meaning he was the hero of the people and had veto-power over the doings of the senate. He was consul, meaning he was president of the senate. Is this so impossible a state of affairs in the United States? How can it be when Robert Moses followed the same path to unelected power in the mid-20th century?
So it isn’t contextual to think that Augustus woke every (property holding, adult, male, usually-Italian-born) citizen up one day to a new world in which this new office of Emperor deprived them of their quondam rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of sweet, sweet slave-girl nookie.
Rather, there was an almost geologically imperceptible collection of power around the office of the Consul and a military buildup within the City until the only ones left who could protest were either in on the game or were hopelessly outnumbered.
We can see this kind of thing happening now, and it goes far beyond President Sweet-Potato.
When was the last time we as Americans fought in a war declared by congress? Go ask your grandparents. I’ll wait.
When was the last time we were safe, within our own borders, from certain military powers of the commander-in-chief such as freedom from spying, assassination, and holding without a trial? 1999? Or 1863? Depends on your definition of ‘safe.’
The list goes on of rights repealed or gutted; of leaders who know how to work the system to personal advantage.
But I promised myself I would not end on a sour note; and indeed I won’t. We are not Rome. Our military is not the Praetorian Guard. And maybe more importantly, we can read about Roman History, whereas the Romans did not have that privilege to nearly the same degree.
To me, “reading” is a polite term for “hallucinating.” And the fact that we can open the pages of a book and suddenly be right back in the 2nd or 3rd century understanding why and how a great political powerhouse cracked and fell apart is a privilege not to be ignored. While the president seems never to have dented the spine of a book, much less read the contents of such a papery beast, we have an advantage and it is an advantage we cannot afford to give up.