Historians love to argue why the Roman Empire fell. I understand why, but while it’s an interesting question, it is ultimately a trivial one. Empires rise, and empires fall. It doesn’t really matter whether that was due to economic problems, migration, cultural degradation, or military atrophy, at least beyond what those experiences on their own can teach us. But all kingdoms eventually wilt, the question being not if but when. Rome, as towering and mighty as it was, was no different.
The question I want to ask is how Rome became an empire in the first place. This is a far more critical question, as it seeks to explain an important cultural shift away from a republic to authoritarianism, not merely what lead to Rome’s inevitable eventual downfall. Rome was devoted to the idea of republicanism, so much so that the early emperors dressed their tyranny in republican robes. Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first empire, maintained the Senate and other republican institutions and went by the title of Princeps, meaning “first citizen.”
The question of how a freedom loving people succumbed to tyranny is hardly a trivial one.
The reason we are asking these questions is that today is the Ides of March, the 2063rd anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar. It was the last, desperate attempt by conservative republicans in the Senate to prevent a demagogue from obtaining complete power, but miscalculation on their part rendered their efforts unfruitful. Mark Antony would have most of them killed, and then Octavian disposed of Antony and declared himself Caesar Augustus, first emperor of Rome.
The question of how the Republic fell is not often asked because it seems to be a simple question. By 146 BC, Rome controlled large portions of Spain, North Africa and the Balkans, and had become the undisputed superpower in the Mediterranean. In this new and dominant Rome, old Roman virtues, including republicanism, were just not an effective structure for society. In short, Rome had already become an empire, and eventually the political system caught up to this reality.
But that begs the questions of why old Roman virtues were inadequate to be the basis of Roman society as Rome expanded beyond Italy. The best embodiment of these ideals was Cincinnatus, who was consul in 460 BC. After his term he returned to his small farm, which he worked himself, until being called upon to serve as dictator. Dutifully, Cincinnatus left his plow, assumed absolute power, neutralized the threat to Rome, and then immediately returned to his farm, even though he had several months left on his term as dictator and total power in his grasp.
This Roman ideal was that of the citizen farmer, dutiful and patriotic, who lived in moderation, a resilient individual tightly bound to his fellow citizen by a fervent attachment to Rome. It was on this idea that Rome was built from a small town on the banks of the Tiber into the center of antiquity’s greatest civilization.
But there’s nothing about these virtues that would render non-viable outside of Italy. In actuality, the republic failed not because the virtues that built it had become inadequate, but because those tasked with maintaining them failed to sustain them.
The example of this is Cato the Elder, consul in 195. Cato is remembered for being one of Rome’s most vocal conservatives as well as finishing all this speeches with a shout of Carthago delenda est, Carthage must be destroyed. As a conservative, he made it his mission to defend traditional Roman virtues from what he perceived as growing Hellenization, excess, and materialism as Rome became the dominant power in the region. He preached the gospel of the citizen farmer, going so far as to work his own farm alongside his slaves.
But Cato was not really the embodiment of old-school Roman virtue. He criticized his fellow Senators for getting involved in commerce, but much of his fortune came from mineral deposits and maritime trade. While he attacked excessive consumption, Cato lead some of the biggest building projects in the world, largely based off of Greek ideas he claimed to abhor. While this was hypocritical, it was not atypical. Most late Roman conservatives, instead of living out the virtues they claimed to be defending, made use of this new Rome to obtain power, wealth, and status, no different than those they opposed.
Cato died in 149, just before Rome would conquer North Africa and Macedonia, meaning the crisis of republican virtue he exemplified preceded the geographical expansion that supposedly made Imperial Rome inevitable. Traditional Roman virtue was not killed by Rome’s expansion. It was already dead, and as a result, the Republic those conservatives fought to defend would soon follow.
This is not just an abstract history lesson. It is a testament to the need for people to live according to the virtues they profess. If I believe that government shouldn’t be taking large portions of my money to support the poor, I must be willing to live generously. If I believe that women shouldn’t be treated as a means to my own gratification, I must be willing to imprison that impulse, especially when it seems most innocuous. If I am concerned with executive power, I must be willing to stand up each time the President goes too far, even when it comes at a cost to myself. The “constitutional conservatives” would voted otherwise yesterday ought to repent or be cast out as hypocrites. However I seek to change the world around me, it must start with me.
The fall of the Roman Republic reveals one of history’s most enduring lessons – history hates a hypocrite. Those who abandon their principles for expediency or for gain invite defeat. After all, what does it profit a man to gain the world yet forfeit his soul?