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COMMENTARY: HISTORY FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN

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Political Decline in Ancient Rome

The "fall of Rome" is a subject that gets a lot of attention, but I think that the deterioration of Rome politically from what it was in the early days of the republic is more interesting.

In the early days of the republic, in the 400s and 300s BCE, Rome's aristocrats and plebians compromised. The plebians had their assemblies, the aristocrats had their senate. The compromise gave common Roman soldiers a sense that in war they were fighting for their own interests. It enhanced their morale and strengthened Rome as a military power.

This broke down when Rome's privileged senators fought reforms that would give benefits to veterans and also resisted land reform. Rather than compromise, a politics by violence developed that eventually led to the rise of Octavian, the late Julius Caesar's nephew and the exalted hero of the war against Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian wanted to remake Rome to what it had been in the grand days three centuries earlier. He disliked the monarchical system of government and he equated democracy with anarchy. What emerged was rule by autocrats with the senate weakened, afraid of the autocrat's power and rubber stamping the autocrats policies. These autocrats were called emperors. Octavian received the title Augustus Caesar. He was Rome's first emperor.

What is popularly known as the fall of the Roman Republic is recognized as having taken place across a couple of centuries. Emperors passed rule to their sons – a new beginning for European monarchies. In Rome the politics of brute force remained. There was Caracalla trying to end his emperor-father's death sooner rather than later and murdering his brother in front of his mother rather than share power with his brother as his father had wished.

Copyright © 2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.