Lessons of Rome: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic Provides Lessons That Hint at Flaws in Modern Political Policies

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This is the 10th (final) installment in a series of articles on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.

From a modern vantage point, Roman history instructs poignantly on both the genius of prudent government and the folly of empire. Imperial Rome was finally extinguished in the fifth century A.D., and though strands of her culture persisted--in the Venetian Republic, in the Byzantine Empire, and in Western Christendom, which preferred the Latin language over the vernacular for the next thousand years--the books were closed on the civilization of Cicero, Brutus, and even the Caesars. Because well-constituted states usually decline gradually rather than suddenly, the lessons of Rome were centuries in the teaching--centuries that, to most Romans, made the loss of Roman liberty only vaguely noticeable.

The primary reason for Rome's fall was moral decline. Every Roman writer who chronicled the fall of the republic--Appian, Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Sallust, Cicero, and others--marveled at the evaporation of ancient virtue that preceded the loss of liberty. While republican Rome lacked many of the softer virtues of later Christian civilization, there can be no question that, in comparison with most contemporary pagan societies, Rome was a paragon of rectitude, resisting for centuries many of the debilitating vices and superstitions of the rest of the pagan world. Where the Greeks institutionalized homosexual behavior, sexual perversion was taboo in the Roman Republic. Where the Carthaginians practiced human sacrifice, including child sacrifice on a large scale, Rome generally refrained from such excesses. Where Persia, and Babylonia before her, submitted to an all-powerful priesthood who were superior in power to political rulers, Roman priests remained subordinate to magistrates of the republic.

Cultural Revolution

The end of the republic saw a revolution not only in political but in moral and even religious manners. By the first century B.C., sexual mores had been abandoned, and the former sanctity of marriage forgotten. Crime, once almost unknown in Rome, became rampant. In such an environment, Rome became an easy target for political conspiracies like that of Catiline, which exploited the criminal elements in Rome to carry out bribery, blackmail, and assassination.

More ominously still, the bucolic simplicity of authentic Roman religion was gradually contaminated by a monstrous cult from the east, the Persian mystery religion of Mithra that, by the late second century A.D., had permeated every level of Roman society. This cult was in fact a vast secret society consecrated to emperor-worship and to the amoral doctrine of radical dualism--the idea that good and evil are eternal, absolutely equivalent principles that must both be appeased. It was apparently introduced into Rome in the first century B.C. by the Cilician pirates and spread through the ranks of political officialdom and the military, claiming as adherents emperors like Comodus, Aurelian, Diocletian, and Julian.

Fortunately for Western civilization, Christianity eventually eclipsed Mithraism, breathing new life into decrepit imperial Rome. Rome's successor civilization in the East, Byzantium, was sustained for more than a thousand years by the Christian piety of her citizens and more capable rulers, despite ceaseless assaults by barbarian nations and an irremediably weak system of law and government.

Wages of War

Much of Rome's strength in her early years flowed from her martial virtues. Her citizen soldiers were fearless and superbly organized. The Roman genius for order soon led to innovations in military science that made the Roman legions a virtually invincible fighting force for centuries. But Rome's military successes engendered a love of conflict and conquest that hastened her undoing. For republican Rome was unwilling to interrupt her ceaseless warfare at the water's edge, and plunged into overseas empire building at the first challenge from abroad. …