"The budget should be balanced. Public debt should be reduced. The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered, and assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome become bankrupt."
~ Marcus Tullius Cicero (106—43 B.C.)
In a recent conversation among friends concerning the present crop of presidential candidates, a close friend emphatically stated that if Ron Paul wasn’t the Republican candidate then, "I will vote for the worst possible candidate with the hope he/she will speed up the implosion of this unconstitutional government…"
While I don’t ascribe to this voting philosophy I do understand his feelings and empathize with his frustration.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that the Roman senator Marcus Tullius Cicero must have had much the same feeling when he chose to support the frail, sickly, orator Gaius Octavius (when no else in the senate would) over Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony) after Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BC.
Cicero was a stanch Republican and he had supported the ideals of the Roman republic even against Julius Caesar. He believed in “Senatus populusque Romanus,” the senate and the Roman people as the core of Roman Republic, and that meant he believed in the Republic. Most of Cicero’s life had been lived under the Roman republic and he had prospered because of it.
It was his defense of the senate in 63 BC, against a potential violent uprising, which brought him acclaim from a powerful leader of the senate — Marcus Cato — who proclaimed Cicero "pater patriae" (father of his country). Cicero’s stinging condemnation of empire attests to his sentiments.
Cicero wrote concerning liberty: "Only in states in which the power of the people is supreme has liberty any abode." While against the tyranny of the state he said: "Peace is liberty in tranquility. Servitude is the worst of all evils, to be resisted not only by war, but even by death."
So why would Cicero choose to support Julius Caesar’s heir; Octavian? If Cicero hadn’t been murdered by agents of Marcus Antonius in 43 BC would he have continued his support after Julius Caesar’s deification in 42 BC; at which time Octavian insisted he was no longer to be addressed as "Octavian" but now was to be called "Caesar" and saw his true status as divi filius — "son of the deified"?
I believe he would have. Cicero’s choices boiled down to the devil he knew (Marcus Antonius) versus the devil he hoped he could use to destroy the empire (Octavian). If anything, Cicero wished to restore the prosperity that the Romans had enjoyed during the period of the Roman republic; plus he was fully aware of Rome’s history and Rome’s current situation.
The Roman republic had been established after the abolition of monarchy in 510 BC and Rome had come to be a dominating power under the res publica meaning "the constitution of the state."
It is to this period of Roman history Virgil addresses in his Aeneid: "Others will hammer out bronzes so gracefully that you would think that their statues breathed, and bring out the living features of a face from stone. They will plead cases better; better trace out the wanderings of the heavens with a compass and name the rising stars. But you, Roman, remember, these are your skills: to govern the peoples with power and to establish the habit of peace; to be sparing of the vanquished and to crush the arrogant in war."
You may find Virgil’s statement overly sentimental, and strangely reminiscent of the current neocon attitude towards U.S. military adventures, starting with the Spanish American war, and particularly in the last eight years. However, the fact remains that Rome’s rise to power was due to its military prowess, but what is forgotten is that Rome had help.
It was toward the middle of the third century BC that the Hellenistic world began its collapse and there began to arise a sharp contrast between the economies of Egypt and Greece with that of the free Romans living under an enforced constitution.
In both Egypt and Greece the economies were becoming more and more nationalized to the point of being socialistic. The results were that the peoples of Greece and Egypt were strictly controlled; deprived of the freedom to pursue personal profit in either production or trade; burdened with devastating progressive taxes, and forced to work in state-controlled collectives where they had little more status than an American 18th-century southern plantation slave.
The results of these socialist policies were the same on these ancient cultures as they are on modern societies. Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains:
"…(E)veryone’s inclination toward laziness and negligence is systematically encouraged. Hence, an inferior quality and/or quantity of goods will be produced and permanent capital consumption will ensue." Democracy: The God That Failed, p. 123
These nationalistic policies also resulted in weak, ineffective leadership throughout the Mediterranean and in particular in Egypt and Greece, producing the consequences of constant warfare; uncontrolled piracy, the Mediterranean Sea almost closed to trade, followed by economic stagflation.
The Roman armies marched into the weakened Mediterranean states, rarely or seriously opposed, and in much in the same manner as the U.S. military became the "policemen of the world" after the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 31, 1991. The Romans were accordingly positioned so that by the first century BC Rome could claim to be the undisputed master of the Mediterranean.
Rome’s victories should have insured peace but peace was all but snuffed out by civil wars.
Continual wars were wearing on the Romans who found that after 146 BC there were no more conquests that supplied unlimited riches. Wars in Spain, Gaul, along with the slave revolts at home were not profitable.
Civil unrest was beginning to show its ugly head. Italians who had served Rome faithfully wanted as many rights as any Roman citizen.
Small farmers who were the backbone of Rome’s military were being displaced due to economic change and continuous military deployment which had resulted in their losing their farms. This sent many of them into the cities looking for work. The effect was a shortage in military enlistment because there was no incentive in fighting slaves or Spanish rebels.
It was during this time that Rome embarked on a welfare policy that would dog her until her final days.
In the ancient world, just as today, wild fluctuations in grain prices or even famine could be caused by many things but chief among these causes in the ancient world was the transportation of grain to market.
Thus, in 123 BC the Roman tribune, Gaius Gracchus, instituted a policy in which the state would procure a sufficient supply of wheat to be sold to all who were willing to stand in line at one of the public granaries for his monthly allotment. The grain was to be sold at a price below the normal market price and was to be fixed by the Roman state.
Gaius was not seeking to establish a welfare subsidy. He was trying to stabilize the seasonal fluctuations in the grain prices. Gaius hoped to insure that the Roman citizens would be paying the same price for grain throughout the year.
As with all state policies, the good intentions of the statists involved soon deteriorated into a monstrosity of Biblical proportions.
In about 90 BC the grain subsidies were abolished under the dictatorship of Lucius Sulla but by 73 BC the Roman state was once again providing grain at a fixed price to the Roman "poor."
It was in 58 BC that the tribune of the people and common thug, Publius Clodius Pulcher, Cicero’s arch enemy, abolished the charge on grain and threw open Rome’s granaries to the public. The outcome of this action was that the rural poor flooded into the city of Rome while slave holders freed their own slaves putting them on the public dole thus cutting their cost of feeding the "help."
It is doubtful that there is a coincidence in the fact that 58 BC is also the year Rome made inroads into controlling Egypt and it grain harvests when Ptolemy XI sought Roman aid through Pompey to regain his throne.
The supply of grain had always been important but now it was critical, due to the political necessity of keeping the population of Rome happy and fed at the state’s expense. From here on Rome would expend vast amounts of time, energy and resources devoted to securing Rome’s grain supply; even to the degree that grants of citizenship and duty exemptions, were extended to ship-owners who signed exclusive contracts to convey grain to the city of Rome.
Rome had traditionally received its grain from various elements of Italy most notably southern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea and from the provinces of Sicily and North Africa. Now, Egypt took on a new and important role in Rome’s survival.
When Julius Caesar took the reigns of power there were about 320,000 men receiving free grain (which he would ultimately cut to around 150,000) and the system was out of control. Therefore there is a strong likelihood that there was far more involved than Julius Caesar’s libido when he took up with the Egyptian femme fatale Cleopatra VII.
You would think Rome’s grain give-a-way would have a drastic, negative effect on the free market. It didn’t, although it did have a negative effect on the Roman citizen’s taxes.
The reason is probably twofold. First, Rome’s free grain was not obtainable by women, children, slaves, government officials, foreigners, or any outsider who was not a citizen of Rome. Second, the ration of grain was not sufficient to live on. It was left to a large, healthy, and private free market to supply the vast needs of Rome.
What isn’t in dispute is that the reason Egypt retained its Hellenistic economic system and was not allowed to share in the generally profitable freedom of the Roman Empire was that Egypt was now Rome’s main source of grain. Safeguarding of this grain source was critical to Rome’s survival and so Egypt always was to remain exclusively in the ownership of the Roman emperor.
It should also go without question that Egypt’s importance to Rome’s well-being was not lost on either Marc Antony or Cleopatra.
What had happened is that the Roman Republic in Cicero’s day lay in ruins. What once had been the nobility and upper classes had been devastated by years of war. The once guiding "constitution" of the Republic had been changed, circumvented, redefined, or ignored for so long and in such strange ways that it was almost impossible to remember what the original Republic actually was like.
Rome’s economy was on the verge of being reduced to rubble, the food supplies were in peril, while hundreds of thousands of people were either homeless or displaced.
This is the Roman world Cicero faced. Is it any wonder he longed for the old days of the Republic? His choices were simple; absolute evil (Marcus Antonius) or the lesser of the two evils (Gaius Octavius). Cicero chose Octavius and in so doing launched a blistering attack against Marc Antony in his Phillipics against evil and for the Roman Republic.
It was too much for Marc Antony and in 43 BC Cicero was declared a criminal then eventually murdered by one of Antony’s goon squads. After Cicero’s death Antony had Cicero’s head and right hand removed then placed in the rostrum where Cicero had made his speeches; the warning did not go without notice.
Here in 2008 Americans are faced with selecting their next president. Given the choice between McCain, Obama, or Clinton they can only hope a civil war doesn’t settle the issue because it is a forgone conclusion that every other problem America faces will be either ignored or exacerbated.
One thing is certain: in 2100 years the bulk of the human race hasn’t learned a blessed thing!
For me the choice between evil and evil is still evil and so I’ll be content to sit, watch and prepare for the worst. I know the American public is going to select a devil that can’t be controlled.
Tim Case [send him mail] is a 30-year student of the ancient histories who agrees with the first-century stoic Epictetus on this one point: u201COnly the educated are free.u201D