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Four lessons from the fall of the Roman Republic for American Voters

Great civilizations rise and fall -- many the result of bad decisions. Many Americans today are anxious about next month's mid-term elections for that very reason: fear of making a bad decision. With our election a few weeks away, history might help us think about the election and what it could mean for the future.  

The Roman Republic and American Republic share many traits. Like ours, Rome's origins were humble. Romans believed in hard work. They valued piety and pragmatism. America's founders looked to the Romans of antiquity for assistance in forging their nascent republic.

Here are four lessons from the Roman Republic that could help think about America's next election.

Policy is more important than politics. Policy needs rational thought. Politics is emotional. Thundering campaign rallies. Witty retorts during debates. These political tactics are used to prompt emotional responses, but emotions undermine governance. After years of bloody civil war, the dictator Sulla reinstated the Roman Senate. But instead of fixing the Republic, the Senators used emotionally-charged rhetoric to confuse citizens and pursue parochial interests. Politics became more important than governing. Citizens began to believe that the Senate, trademark of republican government, was an obstacle to solving problems. As problems grew, the Senate abdicated its fundamental policy-making responsibility. It's lack of effective action helped plunge the Republic into further civil war. The Senators' fixation on politics belied the importance of policy. A set of coherent policies is required to govern effectively, and effective government needs leaders who care more about policy than politics.

Equality under the law creates order and trust. In any system of self-government, equality under the law creates trust in institutions. Although the ancient Romans were not known for their philosophy or art like the Greeks, they were tireless administrators. They developed a system of laws that shaped western civilization and strengthened Rome's institutions. In times of crisis, Rome's leaders belief in the rule of law was tested to the extreme. Some leaders chose to pursue their agendas in contradiction of the law, resulting in a breakdown of republican government. Others insisted in equality under the law and ensured accountability. Without equality under the law, corruption is allowed to fester.  Corruption breeds contempt and undermines trust. A lack of trust threatens stability and self-government.

Without virtue and piety, civilizations fall. In today's information and media environment, opposition research firms are likely to uncover indiscretions made by potential leaders. Just remember this: a leader need not be perfect to have virtue and piety. For the ancient Romans, virtue and piety were essential characteristics of leaders. The Romans defined virtue as energetic "manliness" (courageousness). Piety meant something more than religious adherence - it meant self-restraint, prudence, and a sense of duty to family and nation (the mythical founder of the Latin race was called Pious Aeneas). Romans believed virtue was the secret of Rome's long success.  A virtuous society demands and expects integrity, courage, and selflessness from its leaders. Greek historian Polyibus lamented that while Greek public officials were apt to steal public funds, the Romans were virtually incorruptible.  Roman virtue sustained a strong and vibrant society, and when virtue waned so did Rome.

Liberty and ignorance are not compatible. You reap what you sow. At the height of the Republic, Rome's successes were attributed to the high average capacity and capability of the body politic. During the final years of the Republic, Rome's success in the Punic Wars resulted in an influx of slave labor. The new free labor displaced citizens from their jobs and left them idle. Over time, Rome's once-great citizens became little more than paupers. Since the citizen-pauper had a vote, they required placation by means of increasingly extravagant festivals, games, and government-provided goods. As these citizens became addicted to the public dole, they also became increasingly ignorant of the affairs of state.  Such ignorance made them vulnerable to any charismatic demagogue who promised to solve problems and provide ever greater benefits. As Rome's attention was fixated on bread and circuses, their Republic disintegrated. Rome's first Emperor, Octavian, stripped the Comitia, which was an assembly of the people, of its power. The most important lesson from the Roman Republic is that liberty and ignorance are incompatible. The Roman Republic collapsed because its citizens became ignorant, indifferent, and idle.  They became subjects to be ruled instead of citizens to be governed by their consent.   They fell victim to the promises of a demagogue because they were too ignorant to mount a defense and take action.

In sum, ignorance is a threat to republican government; the rule of law and virtuous leaders are necessary for order and trust; and society is threatened when politics are more important than policy.

A key task for Burke-Paine Society is to educate our children in civics so that they, in turn, can make informed decisions. Rome did not fall in a day. Instead, the Roman Republic unraveled over a period of decades. We, and our children, can still arrest and potentially reverse the trends eroding our own republic.

Civic education does not mean all Americans should develop expertise in esoteric policy issues. Instead, civic education sharpens the understanding of the tasks and tools of governance. It helps people to grasp the complexity and enormity of the challenges we face. It safeguards against those who would seek to dupe them by empty rhetoric and promises. Civics also help people to understand how government actually functions. The development of law, policy, and budgets and the associated constraints can be mundane, but they are the vehicles of action.

Most importantly, civics allow people to appreciate the virtues and personality traits necessary for political leaders to be successful. They must know what it means for leaders to have power and to use the levers of government for the common good while sustaining and strengthening a free and open society.

If challenges become more dire and citizens become more ignorant to the workings of government, they may be to give leaders extralegal authority and power. But power must be tempered by virtue, and the citizens who put leaders into power in tempestuous times must not be ignorant. These are the key lessons of the Roman Republic.  And America's founders understood what T.S. Eliot would say in the 20th century: "So far as we inherit the civilization of Europe, we are still citizens of Rome".  

Famously, Benjamin Franklin told the American people after the Constitutional Convention that, "you have a republic, if you can keep it." The Romans could not.

Let us not follow in their footsteps.