Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

Looking Forward, Not Backward in Ancient Rome

Glenn Greenwald has a great post over at Salon about the modern lessons of the Cataline Conspiracy and Julius Caesar’s unsuccessful attempt to prevent the conspirators’ extrajudicial execution. Greenwald draws smart parallels between Caesar’s defense of Roman legal precedent and the dangers of vesting the current executive with quasi-arbitrary power over the life and death of American citizens. Some interlocutors point out that the Cataline Conspiracy may have been overhyped by Cicero and his allies in order to enhance their own political power. Indeed, in one conspiratorial reading of history, the offenders were executed quickly in order to prevent the full version of events from coming to light.

That’s neither here nor there in the end. I agree with pretty much all of Greenwald’s points. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the legal politics of late republican Rome, and I think there’s actually a more crucial parallel to be drawn from that time period to the events of the present day, albeit with more ambiguous implications. Anybody who knows a bit about Roman history knows that Julius Caesar, far from being a consistent defender of republican principle, ended up bringing the whole edifice down when he invaded the Italian peninsula and established himself as dictator rather than relinquish command of his legions as ordered. He was not the first to do this (that honor goes to either Marius or Sulla), nor would he be the last (that honor goes to Octavian) but to the extent that the Republic still functioned properly before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, it ceased to do so afterward.

In the popular imagination, Caesar’s invasion was simply a megalomaniacal power grab, a notion to which there’s certainly some truth. The more nuanced reality, though, requires a detour into the structural contradictions between Roman law and Roman imperial politics. By Caesar’s time, Rome had subjugated most of the Mediterranean world. Traditionally, administration of the Empire’s provinces fell to the recent crop of consuls, who were given proconsular authority over some corner of Spain or Greece or Anatolia or Africa as a reward for their service to the Roman state. These were valued positions because of the opportunities they afforded for colossal personal enrichment. Through bribery, extortion and financial mismanagement, proconsuls could divert bewildering amounts of provincial silver into their personal coffers. This was in turn necessary because becoming consul in the first place required fortunes in bribes. Few could afford it; most borrowed the money against expected returns on financial malfeasance once they got to the provinces. The whole political architecture of the Empire, in other words, was built on an elaborate network of (largely illegal) debt, extortion and bribery. This meant in turn that returning proconsuls needed enough political backing to keep from being successfully prosecuted. As this cycle escalated over time, it created an all-or-nothing situation for leaders like Caesar, who would no doubt have preferred that his colleagues in Rome look favorably on his conquests without complaining too loudly about the means by which he achieved them. The Senate was not so inclined, and so the die was cast.

I think there are important if uncomfortable parallels to draw between the legal stakes of imperial governance in late republican Rome and the present day United States. I don’t want to get too cute here; a lot changes in two thousand years. But the core problem – that there are contradictions between the legal strictures meant to limit state power and the kinds of policies baked into the nature of imperial governance – matters immensely. Unchecked spying and surveillance, the erosion of basic constitutional rights, a ratcheted-up obsession with state secrecy, the nearly complete abdication of war powers to the whims of the executive; these have their roots in the functional necessities of empire and responses to the asymmetric threats that accompany it. As Greenwald frequently points out, the American political class has responded to this contradiction with a gentleman’s agreement not to enforce the spirit or, in many cases, letter of the Constitution when it comes to imperial policy. Hence nobody goes to jail for torture, the patent falsehoods that led to the Iraq debacle get dismissed as honest mistakes, the Federal judiciary acquiesces to a steady erosion of the Bill of Rights, the Justice Department turns a blind eye to executive malfeasance. We look forward, not backward.

And honestly, the lessons of the Roman experience are ambiguous here. Would the Republic have fared better had Rome’s political class established a mutual agreement not to prosecute one another for abuses of which they all aspired to be guilty? Is the rule of law eroded for elites better than law used as a cudgel for universalized behavior? Better to institutionalize imperial policy rather than tacitly tolerate it? Difficile quaestiones.

 

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