Death of the Roman Republic and Birth of the American One

It was 5am on the Sunday before Christmas. I just dropped off family members at the airport. My car’s dashboard beeped as I got back to our driveway, “Out-Temp 37F”. Chilly pre-dawn darkness surrounded me. Original plan of going back to bed was scraped, I poured myself a cup of coffee, pulled out last night’s SNL and watched them again. The Weekend Update segment in SNL has become my new favorite lately, last night’s installment was no exception: Civil Wars Episode II: revenge of the south, brilliant! Notification of alerted me someone re-shared and liked my item on “finished reading John Adams”, which led me to re-read my previous note on “finished reading Dictator”. Laughters was quickly replaced by tears.

痛哭失声! 从Cato的自杀,Cicero给他写的悼文,到Cicero最后模仿Gladiator亮出脖颈求死。。。所有感动我的豪言壮语之中,最温暖的是Cicero关于搬家的一句话“I have put out my books and now my house has a soul.”


Weeping uncontrollably at the end. From Cato’s suicide, Cicero’s eulogy to Cato, to Cicero’s own death where he chose the Gladiator’s way of baring his throat to the killer…among all the words that moved me, this little passage about moving in to a new house warmed me profoundly “I have put out my books and now my house has a soul.”

Since the shocking results of election on Nov. 8, 2016. Amidst all the grief and disbelieve, I turned to reading. I’ve finished the following so far, mostly about the end of Roman Republic. One on the founding of the US.  I thought they would give me answers.

  • Rubicon by Tom Holland, on the last years of the Roman Republic
  • Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris: Imperium, Conspirata, Dictator
  • John Adams by David McCullough.

And they did.

1. Why read on Roman Republic in 62BC instead of Germany in 1933?

I actually didn’t know why i zoomed in on the Roman Republic when i started on my reading spree 5 weeks ago. Now with some basic information gleamed from these books, I think maybe because today’s US and Rome in 62BC were equally superior in its dominance of the world. Unlike Germany in 1933, there is no external force can threaten the US today, or Rome 2000+ years ago. Rome imploded. and the US looks like is on its way to follow suit.

The Sibyl’s Curse (for Rome)
“Not foreign invaders, Italy, but your own sons will rape you, a brutal, interminable gang-rape, punishing you, famous country, for all your many depravities, leaving you prostrated, stretched out among the burning ashes. Self-slaughterer! No longer the mother of upstanding men, but rather the nurse of savage, ravening beasts!”

-Rubicon, Tom Holland

Lacking a crystal ball that tells the future, reading the end of Roman Republic seems the next closest thing.

2. People can normalize anything

Ever since the election, the media has been abuzz daily about all the unbelievable behaviors of the president elect and the GOP. But last years of the Roman Republic demonstrated how adaptive citizens were. People were capable of normalize anything, and there were no reason to doubt we have lost any of those adaptability. Baptized by the bloody WWI and WWII, we are probably even more adaptive than the Romans from 2000 years ago.

During my schooling years, I developed a very efficient way of cramming maximum amount of information in my memory right before an exam and promptly forgetting all of them right after I turned in my finals. As a result, i remembered very little about history. I remembered “Rubicon and Caesar”. but I didn’t remember a thing about Lucius Cornelius Sulla nor his marching on Rome 40 years prior to Caesar crossed Rubicon.

With immense fascination, I read on…

In 91BC there was an “Italian war” because not everyone in Italy were given Roman citizenship. Unsatisfied to stay second class citizen, a few “alliance cities” of Rome in Italy revolted, led by Samnium. Sulla was the general who led Roman legions that put down the revolt swiftly, and trapped the last of rebels in Nola. The victory earned him one of the two spots of consulship, the highest executive power of Rome at the time, in addition, he was rewarded a commission to lead the war against Mithridates in the East, the most lucrative assignment all generals were drooling over. After securing the commission. Sulla returned to his army camp that’s still trying to finish off rebels cooped up in Nola. But in his absence, that Eastern command was maneuvered out of his hand in Rome’s politics, and the lucrative commission was given to Sulla’s mentor and rival Gaius Marius instead.

Up to this point, Roman legions had always answered to SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus – Senate and People of Rome) instead of any general. So following normal procedure, an officer of Marius was dispatched to Sulla’s camp to retrieve the command.

Sulla, first in consternation and then in mounting fury, retired to his tent. There he did some quick calculations. With him at Nola he had six legions. Five of these had been assigned to the war against Mithridates and one to the continued prosecution of the siege—in all, around thirty thousand men. Although much reduced from the numbers Sulla had commanded the previous summer, they nevertheless represented a menacing concentration of fighting power. Only the legions of Pompeius Strabo, busy mopping up rebels on the other side of Italy, could hope to rival them. Marius, back in Rome, had no legions whatsoever.

The math was simple. Why, then, had Marius failed to work it out, and how could so hardened an operator have chosen to drive his great rival into a corner where there were six battle-hardened legions ready to hand? Clearly, the prospect that Sulla might come out of it fighting had never even crossed Marius’s mind. It was impossible, unthinkable. After all, a Roman army was not the private militia of the general who commanded it, but the embodiment of the Republic at war. Its loyalty was owed to whoever was appointed to its command by the due processes of the constitution. This was how it had always been, for as long as the Republic’s citizens had been going to war—and Marius had no reason to imagine that things might possibly have changed.
– Rubicon, Tom Holland

So the unthinkable happened, Sulla became the first citizen ever led legions against his own city. To all frantic embassies sent his way trying to persuade him to turn back, his answer: he was marching on Rome “to free her from her tyrants.” This line made me laugh out loud. Every single rebellion that ended up overturning one Chinese dynasty and starting another almost all used that exact same slogan, “清君侧!”

…after Sulla’s coup ‘there was nothing left which could shame warlords into holding back on military violence – not the law, not the institutions of the Republic, nor even the love of Rome.’
-Rubicon, Tom Holland

But this slogan worked. Even though Sulla’s army defied all rules of the Republic and fought its way into the unarmed city of Rome, killed one of his enemy and forced another fleeing to Africa, declared all his rival’s legislation invalid, and put in place his own. Senate passed all his requests with his army looked on. Throughout all these Sulla insisted on his coup was aimed to “protect the constitution”.

The Republic, in the eyes of its citizens, was something much more than a mere constitution… To be a citizen was to know that one was free–“and that the Roman people should ever not be free is contrary to all the laws of heaven.” Such certainty suffused every citizen’s sense of himself. Far from expiring with Sulla’s march on Rome, … Yes, a general had turned on his own city, but even he had claimed to be doing so in defense of the traditional order. ..For all the trauma of Sulla’s march on Rome, no one could imagine that the Republic itself might be overthrown, ..
So it was that, even after the shocks of 88, life went on. The year of 87 dawned with an appearance of normality.
-Rubicon, Tom Holland

Comparing to Sulla’s march on Rome, what are the new cabinets selections? or Trump’s crazy tweets? If people could normalize a military coup in Rome during later years of Roman Republic, what couldn’t we normalize in today’s US?

3. Who would Trump be during Roman Republic?

Rubicon’s author Tom Holland likened Trump to Caligula . Since I haven’t read much on the Roman Empire, I will keep quiet. But someone on likened Trump to Publius Clodius Pulcher. After my limited reading thus far, I’m whole heartedly agreeing. Clodius came from one of the richest and noblest line in Rome, yet, he positioned himself as the spokesperson for the Rome commoners (plebeian), rallied a mob terrorized the streets of Rome, forced ex-consul, one of most prominent senators Cicero into exile, then Clodius led his mob to storm Cicero’s house and torn the place to nothing brick by brick.

What’s more, “The Good Goddess” scandal and trial for incestum played out just like Trump’s ascend during this election year. The shocking outcome was also incredibly similar to the election result for the US. It was a shocking revelation that common decency no longer mattered to “the people”.

4. “We’re going to go through your Cicero books again to check what happens next.” “Nothing good.”
I quoted this tweet conversation between author Robert Harris and one of his readers in my previous blog on Conspirata.

Harris’ response is very accurate. “Nothing Good” happened after the ascend of a candidate that swore to overturn the “corrupted elite.” But you maybe surprised how it turned out. I knew I was.

The eventual conflict that led to Civil War actually didn’t erupted between the two sides that contested the election, i.e. it was not between the rational Elite and the irrational Mob’s leader. Instead it was another implosion within the power that was in charge.

In other words, if the US were to follow the Roman Republic step by step, the next conflict to watch out for will happen within the Trump Administration. During Roman time, there were two Triumvirate period. Both failed and ended in bloody civil wars. One was among Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus; another was among Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.

It is still to early to tell who were the ones really in charge in this upcoming administration. But at least we know what to watch out for.

5. An revolution by a mob always ends in an authoritarian state
It is shocking to see how alike Clodius’ mob terror was to Chairman Mao’s Culture Revolution. Caesar’s original bill that tried to divide up the public land for the poor was strikingly similar to how Mao earned popularity in his early years, too.
Mobilizing the mob seemed to be eternal method to start a revolution, from the dynasty change in China’s long history, to communist success, to French revolution, to Roman Republic’s demise.

All the labels matter not: communists, republic, capitalists, imperialists, colonial. The fundamental social change engine has always been the same, the polarization of society, the obscene aggregation of rich to the top 1%。不患寡而患不均。 The disenfranchised rose up like a tide, and delivered the shrewd to his/her throne, and demolished whatever social order there was. Misery, war, and death were the reward to the masses.

After the endless civil war and misery, eventually the people will settle for whoever can bring peace, even at the price of lost freedom. and tyrant/authoritarian can always bring peace more decisively than a democracy. Because they are more efficient.

We’ve seen this happening again and again throughout history, and these were only those that I know of. I’m no where near being a history buff.

– 221 BC, Qin Dynasty unified China after “Warring Period” started around 400BC, and thus kicked of the everlasting Unified and Authoritarian China till this day.
– Every Dynasty shift since then was a replay of exactly the same script, polarization of society, mob uprising, shifting to a new dynasty. Repeat.
– 27BC, Establishment of Roman Empire after ~20years of civil war started by Caesar and Pompey that ended Roman Republic founded in 509BC
– 1799 Napoleon’s coup following the French Revolution started in 1789
– early 1900s, Mao ZeDong’s rise and eventual defeat of Chiang Kai-shek after long period of civil war after Qing Dynasty’s collapse.

6. Great Man can’t change history
Reiterate my previous conclusion:”The last years of Roman Republic is truly the age of giants. Cicero alone delayed the death of the Republic by a life time, his life time. Yet, just like Caesar’s assassination couldn’t turn back the clock and revert Rome’s fate. Having one Cicero is not enough either. Maybe if there had been an army of Cicero, they could have kept Roman Republic alive and find a way for the Republic come out of the corruption and rule the world instead of an empire. But genius like Cicero only comes once in a lifetime of a republic. Like Obama. History will move on its own course, regardless of giants. It was fully illustrated in the aftermath of Cicero and Caesar. Mark Anthony and Octavia, as diminished as they seemed comparing to what came before them, they ended up “wrote” history its decisive chapters in that age.”

7. But there is always hope
I’m so glad that I returned to “John Adams” after my reading of the Roman Republic. Despite all the grim talk and conclusions above. Reading David McCullough’s Pulitzer award winning biography and watching the Emmy studded HBO 6 part mini-series, filled me again with hope and inspiration.

“Declaration of Independence” from 1776 moved me to tears.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

A really good highschool friend of mine introduced me to many of Chinese ancient history and stories. Despite Chinese government’s current purge of free flow of information for its citizens, my friend remained optimistic about China’s future. She firmly believes that no one can turn back time. The whole world is progressing in the large scheme of things. So will China.

In one of the darker times of American history, I find my friend’s optimism reassuring.

some encouraging signs i have seen are:
1. more people are paying for good journalism since the election: Washington Post is profitable! New York Times subscription going up after thump bashing. That’s a good start!
2. Lego ends its alliance with UK’s Daily Mail siting latter’s role in spreading lies during Brexit campaign.

“What do you give your kids if you can’t give them hope? — Michelle Obama”