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In 264 BC, the ancient Roman Republic became involved in a series of three wars with Carthage.
Bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this.
Carthage was a tough opponent, and Hannibal definitely gave Rome some problems in the 2nd Punic War, but the upshot of these things was that Rome kind of ended up conquering most of the known world in what it saw as self-defense. It didn’t mean to take everything; that was kind of a side-effect of beating Carthage. But, even though it was something of an accident, in 146 BC Rome finished off Carthage and became the sole superpower in Western Culture (yes, I’m ignoring the East here. Rome didn’t know much about them.).
And it destroyed itself in the process.
See, all of the power, all of the money, all of the expense and all of the responsibility of running a massive conquest like this became a problem. Because now that Rome didn’t have an external enemy, it fell on itself as the great Roman leaders began to vie for control of the behemoth, each one stabbing each other in the back in a vicious, brutal game of King of the Mountain.
The first to die was Tiberias Gracchus, murdered because he attempted to sway the people of Rome to his cause using handouts and class-warfare reforms. Next was Caius Gracchus, his brother, and this time in the midst of a pitched brawl in the forum. Every death caused an escalation, and soon Marius and Sulla tore the entire republic apart with massive civil wars, using armies to hunt each other down in a bid for power. The Populari sought to buy off the lower classes with handouts–it is from this period of time that the “dole” emerged, the free corn for the poor, as a Grachii reform to gain support within Rome. The Optimates sought to maintain power concentrated in the wealthy, and resisted any of these handouts. Neither of these parties were truly benevolent; both simply used their lines of rhetoric to appeal to the base instincts of the people.
And both began to prosecute and to murder members of the opposing faction. Caius Gracchus continued to run for office, knowing that as soon as he left office he would face criminal charges. Marius was elected consul seven times before Sulla not only outlived him, but had his bones drug from his grave and thrown in the river as a sign of disrespect. The Roman Republic system, the system that had seen Rome through the Punic Wars and had built this massively successful entity, turned and devoured itself from within.
A generation after Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey took up their banners. Pompey the Optimate, Caesar the Populari. Both of them were assassinated, but not before completely destroying the Roman system and paving the way for four hundred years of imperial rule.
It was almost eighteen hundred years before a Western republic began to come to life again.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the United States was a backwater. London was the financial capital of the world; Paris the cultural. The sun didn’t set on the British empire; the Americans had four time zones.
Then, in 1914, a series of three wars started. The two World Wars, followed by the Cold War, left America essentially in charge of the world. We won everything. We are the last remaining superpower. Hooray us.
The Cold War, the last great threat to American dominance, ended in 1991. Twenty-five years later, we find ourselves in exactly the position those Romans did. We run everything, and vast amounts of both income and responsibility are ours to do with as we please.
So of course we’re destroying ourselves over it.
This week has been, bar none, the worst political week in American History. There’s an election coming up, and I now have both sides posting in my Facebook feed that the other candidate needs to be prosecuted after the election. I’ve got both sides talking about revolution, and both sides are simply bitter with the other.
And I can’t help but think of Tiberius Gracchus.
We’re there, folks. This has happened before. And it did not end well. But we’ve forgotten that; we’re so focused in the here, the now, that we’ve forgotten the fact that this level of bitterness, of ad hominem attacks, of personal vengeance before reasoned debate is exactly the thing that destroyed the last world-conquering superpower.
Now, everyone reading this post may be sitting there thinking “Oh, he is so right. Those other people need to stop being so angry and bitter.” And if you find yourself thinking that, you are part of the problem. If you find yourself thinking “well, my candidate shouldn’t go to jail, but the other one should,” you are part of the problem.
I don’t like Trump. His policies are wrong, his self-control is terrible, and his prejudices are apparent. He will make a terrible leader. But stop trying to prosecute him in the week before an election.
It’s OK if you don’t like Hillary. If you disagree with her policies, that’s fine. I’d love to sit down and have that conversation. But stop trying to prosecute her the week before the election.
We have entered a political phase where what people want done is no longer as important as who does them. It’s about credit and blame, not about the good of the country. It’s about saving your own ass while throwing your opponent as far under the bus as you possibly can. The Optimates and the Populari are back to destroy another republic.
This post isn’t going to get nearly as much attention as all of the inflaming rhetoric. People would much rather repost memes about how terrible the other person is rather than debate their policies. And, as a result, our republic will continue its death-spiral, just as the last republic did two thousand years ago.