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Are we living through the fall of the modern Roman Republic? by Harry Ferrigno

Widespread civil unrest, hijacked elections and an incompetent ruling elite headed by an autocratic figure are just a few characteristics of the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC. Two millennia later and America, the leading Republic of the Western world, has become increasingly plagued with the same problems. The immediate causes for turmoil in the Res Publica and modern America are in no way comparable, however, the two Republics share the same deep-rooted, long term causes that caused a gradual decline in the strength of their political systems and in the populous’ trust in them. 

What is happening in America? 

In response to nation-wide protests at the murder of George Floyd, President Trump has advised every governor to utilise the national guard in order to “dominate the streets” and a failure to do so will see the deployment of the United States military to “quickly solve the problem for them.” Trump’s ominous warning to employ martial law in order to suppress the protests is by no means an empty threat and carries a degree of legality. 

The Insurrection Act of 1807 was created to allow the sitting President to deploy US military and National Guard forces in exceptional circumstances to suppress civil turmoil and rebellion. This completely circumvents the late Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 which listed congressional approval as a requirement for using the US military for domestic affairs. Thus, by invoking the Insurrection Act Trump could legally deploy the US army against the protestors. 

The Act itself has some precedent with the Congressional Research Service stating that the act had been invoked “on dozens of occasions”, most recently by President George HW Bush in 1992 to quell riots in Los Angeles. A notable instance was its use by President Eisenhower in 1957 to send troops to Arkansas due to protests surrounding a desegregated school. 

How is this relevant to the Roman Republic?

There is no singular watershed moment where the Roman Republic ‘fell’, rather it was a gradual transformation from a republican system into an autocratic government. This decline began in the mid 2nd century BC and culminated in Octavian being awarded the title of ‘Augustus’ in 27 BC thus formalising his new monarchy. There are several moments during this 150 year period wherein increasing wealth inequality and rising tensions between the Senatorial class and the Roman populous erupted into violence. 

The example most pertinent to America is found in Pompey’s handling of the aftermath of Clodius’ death. Catherine Steel wrote that within a republican system, “elections were a barometer of increasing political chaos.” In 53 BC the elections for the following year were marred by an intense and violent rivalry between Milo, who stood for the consulship, and Clodius, who ran for praetor. Clodius was a populist who had previously implemented extensive agrarian reforms as a tribune of the plebs in order to secure a breadth of popular support. Clodius’ subsequent death at the hands of Milo’s men in January 52 BC led to riots in Rome with the Senate house being burnt down, with calls for Pompey to become dictator. Pompey was swiftly appointed interrex without a colleague, an unconventional move, and used his armed men to quell the riots. This was followed by Pompey intimidating the jurors to pass a new ‘law of violence’ which was used to convict and exile supports of both Clodius and Milo.

This entire episode epitomised the changes that were occurring in the final century of the Republic’s existence. Electoral competition was on the rise as populist candidates operating on an agenda to solve wealth inequality within Rome clashed with the senatorial class. Increasingly, it turned to ‘strong men’ such as Pompey to directly intervene with armed forces in order to abate civil unrest. Significantly, Pompey’s actions, although unconventional, could be presented as legal and following a precedent. In the same way that Trump is sidestepping congress to implement martial law, Pompey’s actions were brought into law through his legal powers as a consul. Other instances of this include Sulla re-engineering the dormant office of ‘dictator’ to end a personal feud with Marius. This precedent of violence being used as a chess piece in the politics of Rome was taken to its extreme when Caesar marched on Rome in 49BC with three of his legions. A political dispute between Caesar and the Senate regarding the duration of the former’s imperium escalated into a full-scale civil war thus making a return to the Republican system impossible. 

What does this mean for America?

The final years of the Roman Republic were marked by militarised streets and a continual negligence of proper senatorial or tribunal procedure. Each catastrophe whether it be grain shortage or popular discontent was increasingly solved by direct military action with no regard for proper conventions. Rome’s example serves as a reminder of what happens when crisis is continually met with military action. By the ascendance of Augustus, Rome was so conditioned to constant military intervention that the change to monarchical autocracy was only gradually discernible. This is in no way suggesting that Trump’s potential implementation of martial law will lead to a collapse of Western democracy but rather seeks to raise the question, ‘how should America progress?’

Supporters of the President may point to the fact that martial law has a legal basis in the Insurrection Act, however, this does not make the action correct in the same way that Sulla’s use of the office of dictatorship did not make his autocracy any less autocratic. Modern America is plagued by many of the same problems of 1st century BC Rome, vast wealth inequality, corrupted elections and officials and a legal system in desperate need of an overhaul. America now finds itself at a crossroads in its relatively short 250-year history. Can it continue down a path of repression or embrace a new policy of reform and change? 

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