Saturday, May 15, 2010

Roman Fever

They say that Henry Laurens, the American Revolutionary leader, so admired Roman freedoms that he used Tully, Valerius and Claudius as names for his slaves. He wasn't alone in his tastes. Almost unversally, the Founders admired classical models, and in particular, models drawn from the Roman Republic, via Plutarch, Cicero or Livy, perhaps filtered through Montesquieu.

I wonder just when it was that this taste for Roman virtus fell out of the political landscape. Contrast the Empire--that comes later, and we still cite it from time to time as a judgment or a warning, But the Republic seems to have vanished from history: "nowadays," says William R. Everdell, "all anyone seems to know about Rome is that it fell."

Everdell thinks this a pity--"a real pity," he says
that [the history of the Republic] is so little known, for the analogies--the true analogies--between the Roman Republic and our own remain striking. Their hatred of monarchy was enduring, dating form the time they expelled their kings, and their belief in constitutional checks and balances was the product of years of practical experience.
Maybe. Or it may just be that we've discovered that the Roman Republic--like so many others before and since--was not so much a model of ordered liberty as a barely stable detente between competing factions at home, and a calamity for its neighbors abroad. So Samuel Finer:
More than any polity so far looked at except the Assyrians, the Republic was shot through and through with militarism. It is unlikely that there are more than perhaps ten individual years over its entire span when Roman armies were not waging war somewhere or another, and in few previous societies was military glory so central an ambition to members of the ruling class. And discipline in the field was of the harshest kind. ... [But] if Roman soldiers suffered ... the enemy suffered worse. ... [L]ike the Assyrians but unlike the Persians, the Republic (not the empire) gave the conquered next to nothing in return. .. Whatever their original motivation, these campaigns were gigantic wars of plunder. ...
Finer returns to his central theme: "The Republican constitution and its political processe":
The first was bad; the second in its final phase, lethal. The Republican constitution was preposterous. Stripped down to the legal provisions only, this constitution was unworkable. Yet it did work and until 133 BC, to be just, it worked very well, but in spite of itself, not because of it. It worked because of unwritten conventions that its provisions should, effectively, be side-stepped. This is a great compliment to the men--both populus and nobilitas--who had to accept the conventions. But it is no compliment to the constitution itself.

After 133 and even worse after 82 BC, it is no longer possible to praise the men who operated it. On the contrary, the practice of politics in Rome was thoroughly degenerate. ... If you strip the personalities away--if you forget that what was st stake was the 'wide arch of the ranged Empire', if in fact you put away the drama and look at nothing but the political process itself--you will find no more sophistication, disinterestedness, or nobility than in a Latin-American banana republic. ...[Y]ou will find clientelist factions, personalist parties, private armies, and military struggle for the presidency ...
Sources: "Finer" is Samuel E. Finer, The History of Government I, 439-40 (1999)--a monument of modern scholarship that seems to be vanishing into obscurity almost more quickly than it was brought into being. "Everdell" is William R. Everdell, The End of Kings 45 (1983), a totally "reactionary" work in the narrow and technical sense that it retells the old stories in a style to suggest that the 20th Century never happened (update: apparently there is a second edition, and a forthcoming third (link)). The story of Henry Laurens and his slaves comes from Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics (1994), a superb backgrounder on what the Founders knew (or thought they knew) about the Greek and Roman world. Richard's Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts (2009) looks promising, although it might be a rework of the same topic.

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