On the fall of the ancient Roman Republic and the rise of modern Neros

A blogpost by Martin de Jong
Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity
A wolf promising a herd of sheep he will become vegetarian after being elected

With elections in the United Kingdom and France coinciding with the UEFA European Championship it becomes clear that the significance of football has eclipsed that of politics. Seriousness and respect have shifted towards athletes, while political debates have become more uncivil and sensationalist, often neglecting pressing societal issues. Looking back at the ancient Roman Republic Martin de Jong cannot help but wonder if we are witnessing the rise of a new generation of Neros? 

Why football is more important than politics

When I was a student, one of my best friends confided to me that his mother expected me to become a Minister when I grew up. That sounded like a compliment at that time, and it certainly was also intended and accepted as such. Those were the days when politicians and reporters were serious and respected people, while football players made light-hearted fun for us but could not be taken seriously as intellectual heavyweights. How times have changed! When people ask me these days what is more important in life, politics or football, I choose the latter in a split second. After crucial national sports matches, journalists ask acid questions about why the previous matches were lost, not why and how the current one was won. But luckily, athletes have been trained to preserve their cool-headedness and provide mature and diplomatic answers. Racial tensions between black and white raged through national football teams two decades and more ago, but have been very largely overcome in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands in the 2020s. Cross-racial solidarity and multicultural hugs and dances galore. 

Political debate twenty years ago may have been somewhat tedious to follow for the uninitiated, yet it tended to be waged in comparatively civilized manners and appeared respectful of certain rules of the behavioral game. Nowadays, during parliamentary performances, reporters systematically follow and show the greatest awe for representatives and officials uttering the most grotesque and injurious language that incriminates and cancels people of different color, religion or ideological conviction. The more brutal and tasteless the one-liners, the higher the likelihood they will hit international headline news. One would almost forget there are still societal problems that need resolving.

The moribund that resisted his fate

What on earth has caused this unpleasant attitudinal shift in our decision-making channels? Or rather, to phrase it in 2024 language, WTF has happened to the interaction style of our filthy politicians?

People in what is commonly known as ‘the West’ feel that their part of the globe is in decline, and much of ‘the Rest’ is enchanted to believe that this is indeed the case. But this feeling is far from new. Oswald Spengler is famous (and notorious) for having made the very same claim over a century ago, as is Samuel Huntington for attempting to demonstrate the same trend towards the end of the 20th century. But we moribunds are still here and have no plan to die any time soon. And still, the dawn of the postmodern poly-crisis age compels to take this current sentiment seriously, which makes the drawing of historical parallels particularly tempting. Leaning on past experience can inspire and comfort us, but since history never repeats itself in exactly the same way, we should beware of false prophets and analogies. 

Annus domini 476 is deeply imprinted in the Western soul as the tragic Fall of Rome to the Barbarian hordes, but unfortunately human memory is a fallible phenomenon and collective organized human memory is in many respects even a perverse one. The end of a political regime is not the same as the end of a civilization, if there is even such a thing as a clearly identifiable ‘end’. To understand our AD 2024 quandary, we should be going back in time at least 500 years more: to the transition of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.

Once upon a time a constitution

During the times of the Republic, it was the Senate convening in central Rome that acted as a collective body representing the dominant families of this majestic city. Modern history books would designate them as the ‘patricians’ or ‘oligarchy’. In the good old days, they had ousted the former Etruscan monarchs from power and replaced them with home-grown aristocratic leadership: stable, consensual, self-serving, witty, rhetorically skilled, solution-oriented, prosperous, and above all averse to one-man rule. Whereas the senators acted as central law-making body, they also elected two consuls that could each remain in office for one year, each vested with veto-power against the other, and acting as executive power. In practice, this often amounted to warmongering and brought much desired booties back home, the equivalent of economic growth in those days. They could also, in times of emergency, install a special ‘dictator’ for at most six months as societal or administrative troubleshooter. Significantly, the ‘plebians’, common people, had managed to wring out the concession of being allowed to select ten peoples’ tribunes protecting their interests in the Roman Forum. These tribunes were allowed to overrule political or legal decisions taken by senators and consuls considered harmful by the Roman mob in front of them, but not those of dictators.

When in Rome, do as the Greeks do

However, as the Romans expanded into Italy, Gaul, Spain, Greece, the rest of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, several decisive policymaking parameters were altered: Roman ‘average income’ farmers were impoverished due to frequent and long-term military service and became serfs to large-scale landlords. Italians outside the capital city that had helped conquer the world were dismayed to have the same duties but not the same rights as Roman citizens and engaged in violent rebellion. Exotic Greek mores and practices turned out to exert an inexorable attraction on many parts of the Roman elite and the question whether to adopt them as endogenous divided them to the bone. People of other races and cultures were captured in conquered territories and imported to Rome as slaves enjoined with a host of different important tasks, some more noble than others. They were fed into the economic system as vicious labor market competition for indigent locals rather than absorbed as potential allies in a united mass social movement for social justice. Moreover, they often took their original beliefs and cults with them which led to diversity without inclusion and activity without security. Rome ended up no longer being and feeling itself: a stable small-scale monoculture based on close ties had evolved into a versatile large-scale multi-culture with increasingly profound social cleavages.

How would its universally acclaimed republican constitution with sophisticated checks and balances and an early prototype of a rule-of-law based administrative system hold out under these altered circumstances?

Deliberately demolishing democratic decency: an introduction

Well, not very well. In order to accommodate the grievances of the undervalued, underpaid, underrepresented, and underprivileged, ever larger amounts of war trophies, territories and riches from foreign lands were required. This phenomenon put virulent social reformers and autocratic warlords in ever more important positions to question and overturn policies adopted by officially elected representatives in higher political bodies and lower administrative organs. It all started with the Gracchi brothers who as people’s tribunes made bold attempts to reform and redistribute land ownership to benefit poor plebeians without duly consulting the senate. It was continued by overly aggressive consuls and power-hungry warlords such as Marius, Sulla, and Pompey who are best described as irresponsible demagogues permanently undermining the validity of procedural obligations. And it was eventually completed by Caesar, Mark Anthony, and Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, also known as ‘Augustus’ (the venerable one) who turned the term dictator from a temporary position into a permanent way of life. Few if any of these populist heroes peacefully died in their bed. Some were honest, others not. Some were left-wing, most were reactionary. Some refused undeserved praise and laurelling from frightened senators and exhilarated crowds, most reveled in it. Each step of the way, long respected ancient institutional rules were first questioned, subsequently seriously bent, now occasionally broken in case of emergency, then frequently broken for convenience, routinely overturned to grow de facto political influence, towards the end made merely cosmetic to respect the constitution and eventually even formally abolished. What made dictator Caesar legendary is his determined display of military prowess and well-deserved loyalty among his soldiers to cut through the Gordian knot of rule-based collective decision-making to address societal problems. What made emperor Octavian the greatest leader of all Roman times was his skill to rule as an autocrat and using the Republican constitution as window-dressing to maintain support among the elites and return peace to the empire. Good or bad? Good, because they fought for (some form of) justice or peace against self-serving republican elites? Or bad, because they turned the honorable rule-led state into a mere sham and paved the way for Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero who were soon to follow in their wake? Good, because they gave the non-Romans citizen rights and a legitimate place in society? Or bad, because they made the world an (even more) violent place than it already was and can easily be named proponents of a patriarchal autocracy open to the madness of unfettered rulers who need to respect no rules? Justice is and never has been an easy concept in real life. But the identification we feel with these stories is symptomatic of the political and legal pain we feel in the year 2024. The analogies are not merely a coincidence.

A world of warlords and business tycoons trumping the plebs

Should Jean-Luc Melenchon be elected as Prime Minister of the French Republic based on totally untenable proposals to reform capitalism, leave NATO, and promises heaven to the jobless while also planning to decrease the retirement age to 60, which of the two Gracchi brothers would he resemble most? And how will he be able to hold onto power when he sees his political opponents as irreconcilable enemies while at the same time using the same populist and conspiratorial methods the far right is often accused of as well? When Geert Wilders reopens a public debate on the legitimacy of wearing headscarves and poisons the societal climate with an absolute rearguard struggle and systematically betrays all his political allies, shall we call him a modern Sulla? When Donald Trump calls into question the legitimacy of any legal verdict unfavorable to his interests, creates false myths on solving health epidemics in the media, denies any proven claim on having harassed women, and refuses the tax office access to his exuberant bank accounts, can we consider him a prelude to the insanity of Neronian times? Examining the accuracy of any of these comparisons is tempting yet besides the point. As far as I am concerned, the real take-away from the ancient republican Rome/modern democratic West comparison is that it appears that in both cases we may witness a crucial transition from a well-structured oligarchic political system with constitutional rules that rapidly lose effectiveness and respect (remember that our ‘democracy’ is actually also mainly driven by the oligarchy) to a form of autocratic rule which is barely rule-bound and susceptible to the vagaries of potentates who have learned to play the mob. These leaders, warlords in ancient Rome and business tycoons in the modern West, make it seem as if they are not part of the ‘system’, but were really bred among the elite families and simply opt to rebel against them to further their own career perspectives. Ancient mobs argued and protested on overloaded and turbulent squares and modern mobs communicate to unruly and aggressive in-crowds through fragmented social media channels. Moreover, the role of modern Rome is played by classic Washington with the ancient Greek islands resembling the fallen European countries with their glorious traditions. But when viewing beyond the surface of these superficial differences, at a more profound level, similarities in the underlying evolutionary mechanisms are striking.

The demon of hypocrisy

Without a major societal upheaval or unanticipated moral revival democracy as we used to know will die much sooner than many realize. Western civilization, however, will undoubtedly hold out a bit longer. Let us imagine what our offspring will be going through in the coming decades. What will be the 21st century counterparts of (unfounded) rumors stating that Caligula attempted to get his horse elected as senator, or Nero setting fire to the capital city and sleeping with his mother? What crazy events will our children be going through with constitutional norms and rules of a stable governance regime thoroughly dismantled? What will the Legislative, Judiciary, Implementative (bureaucracy), Consultative (advisory organs) and Commentative (media) operate like if they end up being fully controlled by the Executive Power? In the unlikely event of me being invited to become Minister in a Cabinet, would my answer really be that politics is more important than football? Would I act like a little philosopher Seneca writing beautiful prose of wisdom in my private time, while serving an unstoppable madman Nero during workhours and idly trying to prevent him from doing damage to those around him? God no, save me from this hypocrisy. Bread and play, please! What teams are battling tonight?

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes