Comparisons of the United States with Rome often make the implicit mistake of assuming that America’s founding – 247 years ago this week – aligns with that of the “eternal city” in the year 753 BC, or with the start of the Roman Republic in 509 BC. But the early history of the Latin city-state is shrouded in mystery and legend, not least because in 390 BC the Gauls sacked Rome and destroyed most of the fledgling republic’s records. Much of what was said later about Rome’s first centuries is myth and conjecture.
Events also moved very slowly for the city on the Tiber: the Etruscan stronghold of Veii, a mere 16 kilometres away, was only conquered in 396 BC, some 350 years after Romulus. By that time, at home, the conflict between plebeians and patricians had been raging for over a century. From the 440s BC there were no more consuls, but consular tribunes – a compromise with the plebs. Up to this point there is hardly any similarity between Rome and the 13 American colonies.
Eventually Rome sorted out its internal mess, to a degree: in 367/366 BC the consulate was restored. The broad outlines of Roman governance settled more or less in the form that was to last until Octavian, and from here-on Rome accelerated the conquest of its backyard, the Italian peninsula. 367 BC is the real milestone for Roman history. It is this date, therefore, that may serve as a more appropriate reference point for the American founding.
Is this a good match? In recent years, endless parallels have been drawn between the state of America today and the late Roman Republic of Rubicon-crossing fame. Still others have looked for clues in the history of the late Empire, with its decadent social life, turbulent politics, military supremacy and – given the barbaric invasions from the 3rd and 4th centuries onwards – its “immigrant” issues.
A closer bet is that our present era is more the 110s than the 40s BC. Specifically, 118 BC was three years since the end of the Gracchi brothers’ famous “populist” challenge to the Roman state (similarly, Biden is three years into his term). The episode is generally seen as the beginning of the late period in Rome’s republican history, the start of the century-long descent into formal imperial autocracy. The stories of Caesar and Pompey, Mark Antony and Octavian, marking the final act of the long-drawn drama, were still some 70-80 years into the future when Gaius Gracchus, an elected tribune of the people, was eliminated by the patricians in 121 BC extra-judicially under the special powers of a new device, the senatus consultum ultimum (“s.c.u.” to scholars).
More than the death of Gracchus, it is this first-ever use of a Senate “emergency decree” that truly marks the point of no return for the Roman Republic. It effectively allowed the establishment of the day to use any means necessary against so-called “public enemies”, without regard to the law, under the pretext of safeguarding the Republic.
“Bending the rules to protect democracy” would be one way of putting it today. In the final years of Trump’s presidency, the deep state-liberal media coalition did not need to pass a formal s.c.u.: it had already given itself licence to go to any lengths to ensure the “tribune of the [MAGA] people” was removed from office, and indeed that he would never come back (the game is still in play).
Read the rest at Brussels Signal.
Gabriel Elefteriu is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute.