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I’m reading Anthony Everitt’s stellar biography of Cicero right now, and rediscovering why I used to be a little obsessed with Roman history. The Late Roman Republic, in particular, is interesting from a modern perspective for reasons that have nothing to do with the usual cable news-ready historical analogies for people who don’t know history.* There aren’t many parallels here, but variations on a theme: economic turbulence and class warfare exacerbated both by the shockingly petty behavior of the political elite and a badly malfunctioning engine of state. On the latter point, it’s interesting just to see how many hasty political reforms were instituted and hastily repealed between the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and the rise of Emperor Augustus, the first emperor.
Cicero’s lifelong project seems to have been trying to achieve some stability in the Republic’s political system, and prevent its collapse. While he was ultimately unsuccessful, his efforts, and thoughts on the matter, made him an inspiration for millennia of other thinkers and small-r republicans. (The back of this edition has a quote from John Adams: “All ages of the world have not produced a better statesman and philosopher combined.”) Here’s Cicero on his vision of the Republic:
Just as in the music of harps and flutes or in the voices of singers a certain harmony of the different tones must be maintained … so also a state is made harmonious by agreement among dissimilar elements. This is brought about by a fair and reasonable blending of the upper, middle and lower classes, just as if they were musical tones. What musicians call harmony in a song is concord in a state.
You can see echoes of this idea in our own Constitution. It’s worth holding in mind as we discuss reforms to the current political system.
Of course, political architecture on its own has limits. The Republic lasted as long as it did partly because of a strong network of allegiances, communities, and familial units to which individuals were honor-bound. We need not just institutional reforms but political figures who adhere to certain norms of behavior—who have some measure of dignity and respect for democratic debate. The Roman code of conduct was maintained through centuries of tradition and a state religion; since we don’t have the state religion, I’ll just say that any institutional reforms will only achieve their full potential if they’re accompanied by sweeping reforms in Washington’s secular religion.
*Don’t you get it?? This is just like the Banana Weimar Republic!