The classicist Mary Beard begins her 2016 book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, with a bizarre and troubling episode that occurred in 63 B.C., shortly after the great orator, philosopher, wit, and politician, Cicero, had been elected to Rome’s highest office, the consulship. His opponent had been Catiline, born in privilege as scion of an ancient family but burdened with a reputation for unsavory and perhaps criminal behavior.
Shortly after the election, Cicero announced that he had uncovered a terrorist plot, led by Catiline, to assassinate Rome’s elected officials, destroy the city, and bring down its civic structures. The newly elected consul’s sensational revelation was bolstered by a packet of letters he had obtained that incriminated Catiline and others in the plot. Cicero quickly obtained from the Senate a grant of enhanced authority to thwart the conspiracy and save Rome. The enhanced authority, Beard informs us, was “roughly the ancient equivalent of a modern ‘emergency powers’ or ‘prevention of terrorism’ act, and no less controversial.”
Cataline promptly fled Rome, organized a ragtag army, and was defeated and killed. Cicero then used his emergency powers to round up the suspected plotters and have them “summarily executed” without even a show trial, some of them almost certainly innocent. Thereafter, writes Beard, the great orator “never ceased to use his rhetorical talents to boast how he had uncovered Catiline’s terrible plot and saved the state.”
But skeptics have emerged since that ancient era who note that Cicero’s narrative plays very much to his own favor, and Beard suggests that a fundamental question for today “should be not whether Cicero exaggerated the dangers of the conspiracy, but how far.” After all, she writes, the exaggeration of an opponent’s malignancy is not uncommon in politics and can reveal how “political paranoia and self-interest often work.”
In contemplating the Cicero-Catiline episode in our own time of American political turmoil, one can’t help noting similarities between then and now. There is, first of all, the political loser refusing to accept the electoral outcome and seeking to tear down the structures of governmental succession. That seems like Donald Trump. But then there are also the opponents of the disgruntled loser who seem bent on exaggerating the episode for political benefit. That sounds like some of Trump’s detractors, warning about what they describe as widespread right-wing terrorism. Or, looking more broadly, one is reminded of those who, back in 2016 and 2017, concocted and circulated accusations of a nefarious Trump conspiracy with a foreign power. That “Russiagate” fervor seemed designed, ultimately, to undermine the new president and even destroy his presidency based on “political paranoia and self-interest,” to use Beard’s term.
However intrigued we may feel about the Cicero tale as analogous to America’s civic struggles of today, it’s difficult to see just what conclusions we should draw. But, if we step back and place the Cicero-Catiline episode in the full context of the Roman Republic’s 465-year history, it becomes more revealing—and far more ominous.
After some 376 years of remarkably stable governance, the brilliantly constructed Roman Republic began to sputter. The polity slipped into a crisis of the regime—“a long, drawn-out, protracted spiral of disorder,” as historian Garrett G. Fagan once put it—that lasted nearly a century before the system became so dysfunctional that Julius Caesar finally killed it off and reinstituted the kings of old in the form of emperors titled with his name. By the time of Cicero’s emergence as Rome’s great protector from Catiline’s mortal threat, Rome had been struggling with this regime crisis for 70 years. Afterward it would have just 19 more years of existence.
This crisis was complex and tangled up in multiple aspects of Rome’s social, cultural, political, and economic life. But in essence it was a progressive erosion of what Abraham Lincoln called, in a different context, the “mystic chords of memory”—a widespread constitutional sensibility and consciousness of heritage that maintained a powerful hold on the people and sustained a mutual fealty to their republican compact. Called mos maiorum and often distilled simply as “the way of the ancestors,” the Roman constitution, though unwritten and vague in conception, was nevertheless universally hallowed and so ruled supreme.
Thus, for centuries this cultural ethos transcended whatever issues might arise in the polity, and a civic comity prevailed. Then around 133 B.C., the political issues roiling Rome took on a definitional cast, penetrating to the very heart of Rome’s identity. The issues became more important than the state’s mystic chords, and politics increasingly took on a portentous cast. The opposition had to be not just bested but destroyed. It must be noted also that, once the Romans abandoned mos maiorum just a little, a further unraveling ensued. Eventually the Roman constitution no longer maintained its traditional hold on the public imagination or its check on the machinations of politicians.
Viewed in this context, the Cicero-Cataline episode takes on clarity as part of a much broader regime crisis that pulled the republic into a downward spiral that led eventually to its demise. This poses some questions for today’s America: Are we in a similar regime crisis and, if so, can we extricate ourselves from it and put the country back on the trajectory of its past? We may indeed be in such a crisis, and we won’t get out of it without recognizing its essence and its dangers.
One thing to be said about the crisis of the Roman regime is that those high officials struggling within it never understood what it was, never managed to define it so they could address it. They were too fixated on winning the next political battle. Another thing to be said is that the two major Roman factions struggling to define the polity—the Optimates, or traditional elites; and Populares, the people at large—simply couldn’t come together with any kind of accommodative spirit. They saw each other as mortal enemies. One faction or the other had to prevail, or a higher authority had to emerge to settle their differences through unchecked power. That higher authority did emerge eventually in the figure of Caesar and his successors. Finally, as noted, the Roman crisis emerged out of definitional issues centered on the true nature of the regime, its essence, what it stood for. The chasm between the two visions was immense.
All of these elements of the Roman syndrome are evident in America today. Certainly, the nature of the crisis besetting America is little understood by our political leaders. They go about their jobs as if they are engaged in the kind of politics personified by Franklin Roosevelt vs. Alf Landon or Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater. The politics of those days could be raucous and intense, but there was no regime crisis. Today there is, but nobody seems aware of it.
Further, there is little interest among politicians today, as in crisis-ridden Rome, in dealing with the opposition in any good-faith way denoting a fealty to the structures of our republic. Consider the empty governance of Donald Trump, bolstered up by the solid support of roughly 40 percent of the electorate throughout his four-year term. He couldn’t build on that foundational support to fashion a governing coalition because he couldn’t bring himself to work with those who weren’t already wearing MAGA hats.
We are seeing much the same thing from Joe Biden in these early weeks of his presidency, notably his decision to ram through the Senate an expansive stimulus package without any Republican support. It is evident also in the president’s bold, unilateral actions regarding the most divisive issue roiling the nation in these times: immigration. With several executive actions Biden has signaled that he doesn’t intend to look for any middle ground on the issue, any more than Trump did during his tenure.
And the erosion of constitutional precepts and strictures has been going on for years, notably in the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Trump, and now, as it seems, Biden. These men have demonstrated that, if the president wants to do it, he’ll find a way to do it. Watch for what the governing Democrats do about the huge student-debt overhang. Will they concoct what they purport to be a constitutional underpinning for the president to cancel much of the debt through executive authority, as many top Democrats are now advocating? That would certainly fit a pattern: Bush’s “signing statements,” which sought to alter the meaning of statutes; Bush’s warrantless wiretaps; Obama’s tinkering with the clear meaning of the Affordable Care Act after its passage in contravention of congressional intent; Obama’s unconstitutional DACA executive action that unilaterally altered, contrary to prevailing law, the immigration status of illegals brought into the country as children; Obama’s effort to stack the National Labor Relations Board by circumventing the Constitution’s “advise and consent” clause (actions struck down by the Supreme Court in a 9-0 decision); Trump’s diversion of federal funds for purposes (his border wall, for example) not authorized by Congress; Trump’s declaration that he had authority to take military action against Iran, when no such authority seemed credible; and the general growth over the years in size and reach of the administrative state.
The trend is unmistakable and ominous.
Out in the country, meanwhile, Americans are squaring off with an intensity of anger rarely seen in American political history. Many of the issues separating the U.S. factions are clearly definitional and hence highly divisive—in ideological terms, between globalists and nationalists; in socioeconomic terms, between elites and ordinary citizens; in geographic terms, between the coasts and flyover states; in foreign policy, between interventionists and advocates of realism and restraint.
During last year’s campaign, New York Times commentator Thomas B. Edsall produced a trenchant piece examining the chasm between today’s U.S. factions and the increasingly intense passions that drive them. Edsall quoted Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies as noting that more and more people were viewing the election in apocalyptic terms, as if it would “decide the success or failure of the United States.” Such intensity of political sentiment, he suggested, “significantly increases (actually inflates) the importance of the election in ways that make violence almost inevitable.” And, sure enough, violence soon ensued at the nation’s capital, with five fatalities.
If America is mired in a regime crisis in the mode of Rome, we’re in the early phase, certainly far from the 70-year mark that spawned the injurious spectacle of the Cicero-Catiline standoff. There remain grounds for hope that America can regain its footing in coming years. But we’re on a dangerous path, and part of the danger lies in the reality that hardly anyone seems to understand the true nature of the crisis we’re in.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy.
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