Swan Song of the Republic
In the rolling, undulating foothills of the purple Apennine mountains in north-eastern Italy, roughly between Ravenna and Rimini, there runs a picturesque little river they call the Rubicon. In 49 BC this bleak but beautiful stream marked the legal boundary between the province of Cisalpine Gaul and Rome proper. For a general facing impeachment and prosecution to march even a fragment of his Gallic army across this symbolic barrier into demilitarised central Italy, was an unequivocal act of sedition. Mutiny. Rebellion. Civil war.
Caesar’s famed crossing of the Rubicon is, of course, the quintessential example of a particular moment in time when a very clear, very deliberate blow was struck against the Republic. It’s been terribly tempting ever since to characterise it as the event which killed the Republic.
Reality is seldom as simple as that, though, and merely scratching the surface of the story of Rome’s republican decline and fall reveals a complex tale of intrigue and duplicity, glory and ignominy, success and reversal. Viewed within the general sweep of events, Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon seems to pale and lose much of its romantic lustre. Caesar was not the first to march soldiers into Rome. He was not the first to extort extraordinary offices of state out of the senate. He was not the first to ride roughshod over the norms and conventions of Roman government. And he certainly was not the last.
It’s a favourite topic among historians and history nerds alike; when exactly did Rome’s republic die? Some hardliners like to argue it was the moment Tiberius Gracchus was clubbed to death. Other, more contrarian souls like to posit that it wasn’t until Vespasian, many hundreds of years later, that the last vestiges of republican government were finally rendered obsolete. I find that a stretch. To my mind, when Caesars’ great nephew Augustus essentially bequeathed the Roman state to his step-son Tiberius, surely at that point the republic was dead, at least in reality, if not in name. No?
In fact, Rome’s republic can more accurately be said to have suffered a series of death throes. There was no clean beheading, no neat execution. Instead, she weathered a number of mortal wounds, over many generations, and then was just left to bleed out. In the end, the forms and pomp of a republican system might have lasted into the Byzantine era, but the spirit and function of a republic had been ground to dust under the boots of ambitious military autocrats.
What, then, of the U.S. in the twenty-first century? What insights or lessons might Rome offer to the great American republic, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all? What might Uncle Sam’s death throes look like?
Some, with merit, might argue that the United States has already endured a great many blows. I’ve heard it said that Woodrow Wilson destroyed the republic with his federal reserve system. Others have pointed to Truman and his establishment of the so-called military-industrial complex. Yet others have suggested something more than a single man was killed in Dealey Plaza in November ’63. George Bush Jr’s Patriot Act will be looked back upon as a fairly severe flesh-wound, I imagine.
It is in the transition of power from Trump to Biden that these processes appear to have been quickened. The open corruption, the obvious and unabashed censorship, the nauseating doublespeak. Yet, two particular events in recent weeks stand out as game-changers. One more subtle than the other. Firstly, I was alarmed to see the Supreme Court decide that Texas had no standing for legally contesting Georgia’s electoral ‘anomalies’. The Court, in essence, absented itself from the situation. I was aghast. The news cycle moved on and now no one talks of it.
The other more obvious acceleration of events towards an increasingly possible death blow is the occupation of D.C. by troops.
This is, in my opinion, a truly horrifying development.
To have brought them in under spurious circumstances in the first place is highly irregular, and when they didn’t leave after inauguration day (currently they plan to remain until at least the end of March) I began to feel a pang of dread. As the days passed and the soldiers remained in the capital, I began to think about Sulla.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla was one of those men who had marched on Rome many years before Caesar did it. He was a tyrant. Sulla made lists of proscribed names. Literally death lists of all his political opponents; something Caesar himself tried vigorously to avoid. Sulla was able to do such a thing because he controlled the army. With complete martial dominance of the city itself, there was no recourse against his will. Only darkness comes from such a situation.
While D.C. remains under some form of military occupation, Biden increasingly seems to resemble a Sulla-like figure, metaphorically. How long before his digital ‘proscriptions’ are made public? How long before actual political prosecutions begin?
Will there be a Rubicon-crossing moment for America? Has it already happened? Will we see an unequivocal act of civil conflict where popular opinion shifts, realising that the republic is teetering on a precipice? For teetering on a precipice she certainly appears to be. Can she be brought back from the edge of oblivion, or are we really going to watch the agonising death throes of this once noble republic? While Washington remains under occupation, the vistas ahead seem grim.
B.B. Dade is a history fan with a mic. He holds degrees in Ancient History and in Government, Policy and Politics. With a background in asset management and private banking, he is currently working for a commodities trading firm. Follow him on YouTube.