Ancient Rome, Modern Violence
History shows that there are few slopes so slippery as the descent into political violence.
Political violence is a virus that can steadily ruin a democratic republic—a warning worth reflecting on as America remembers several deadly anniversaries this month, including a deranged socialist’s shooting of members of the House Republican caucus at a baseball practice session six years ago and the deadly and costly riots in the summer of 2020. And though most of the violence has come from the left, we cannot neglect the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
We can gain more insight on our modern problem by turning to ancient Rome for a lesson on how drastically a republic can decline once it indulges in political violence.
Rome’s republic, like America’s, had a political system of checks and balances that served it well for centuries. At the top were two consuls, chief executives who led Rome’s armies and held important judicial functions. The Roman Senate was the aristocratic branch, which, among other duties, controlled the power of the purse and had great influence over foreign policy. Finally, the multiple assemblies were the system’s democratic members, passing laws and electing certain government figures.
While the system was much more complex than this basic description, Rome’s secret to success, as the Greek historian Polybius believed, was its mixed system, which took monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements and forged them into a durable government.
Rome’s governance structure was so flexible that it accommodated a centuries-long political struggle between the aristocratic patrician class and the non-noble plebeians. The two groups may have sometimes detested each other, but the plebeians successfully fought for more representation without resorting to coups or assassinations.
But some political systems tend to go bad after a while, as Rome’s magnates found out. By the second century B.C., Rome had conquered all of its major enemies. But what the republic lacked in existential foreign foes it made up for in domestic chaos.
The backbone of the Roman republican army were Rome’s small farmers, those men who fought for their country bravely when they weren’t tending their land back home. But over the years, these farmers—men who risked their lives for the glory of Rome—eventually found themselves crowded out of their own homes, with their plots of land getting smaller and smaller as the Roman aristocracy concentrated more of the land in its own hands.
Into this turbulent context came the Gracchi brothers, populist reformers whose fates marked the beginning of the end of the republic. The elder, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, was intent on ending the land-ownership imbalance that had been affecting Rome. His priority was limiting the amount of land a Roman citizen could hold, thereby breaking up the massive estates of rich Roman senators and distributing the land to the poor. These rich senators fought Tiberius’ agenda, and what started out as a political disagreement quickly descended to murder. Accusing him of tyrannical behavior, Tiberius’ opponents beat him and hundreds of his followers to death.
Gaius Gracchus, Tiberius’ younger sibling who bore a grudge against the men who assassinated his brother, stepped in to continue Tiberius’ reformist dream. An energetic man with big ambitions, Gaius not only continued Tiberius’ land reform plan, but, according to the historian Plutarch, also pushed for laws to lower the price of grain for poor Romans, rein in the Senate’s influence, and pay for soldiers’ clothes out of the state’s coffers instead of making the troops bear this cost themselves.
Gaius, like his brother, lost his life to the Senate’s ire. The Senate blamed him for a riot that started in Rome, sending assassins after him. Rather than face them, Gaius committed suicide. Thousands of his followers were executed afterwards.
The murders of the Gracchi set a deadly precedent that Roman political problems could be solved by the sword instead of by debate. Forty years after Gaius’ death, the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla marched on Rome with an army to settle a longstanding dispute with his mortal foe, the populist Gaius Marius, violating a longstanding sacred tradition that decreed no one was allowed to bear arms within Rome. Sulla later declared himself dictator and murdered thousands of his political opponents after taking control of the city by force.
Not long after Sulla, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome, triggering a series of events that would result in a civil war across the Mediterranean, Caesar’s assassination, and other civil wars that led to the fall of the republic and the rise of dictatorial rule by an emperor. The Romans were so exhausted by the century-long civil strife that stability—even stability imposed by a dictator—was accepted.
We would do well to study Rome’s decline into anarchy and eventual tyranny. It’s true that America has gone through cycles of political violence before: The ’60s and ’70s saw widespread unrest in the streets, terrorist bombings, and several high-profile assassinations. But that doesn’t mean we should write off what’s currently happening in our cities just because it seems like we’ve seen worse before. In many ways, the unrest of the ’60s and ’70s set the ground for the chaos we’re seeing now, and, as Rome proved, political violence can take decades to bring about the ultimate downfall of a democratic society.
The turbulence we are living through today is a sign of a deep illness in America that has been manifesting in fits and starts. During the 2020 riots, unhinged mobs shouted that “silence is violence,” and the media told us that even staying neutral was not enough—one had to embrace the movement wholeheartedly to avoid being labeled a racist. The same people who advocated shutting up people in their homes for months during Covid suddenly justified allowing the riots to unfold.
Last June, a transgender-identifying man tried to assassinate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in his own home in response to a leak announcing that the Supreme Court was planning to overturn Roe v. Wade. The media buried the story. This March, a transgender-identifying woman shot up a Christian elementary school in Nashville, killing six innocents, half of whom were students. These examples don’t even touch on attacks on churches, crisis pregnancy centers, and a federal courthouse. The media either ignores or downplays these vicious attacks.
Is it any wonder that the havoc is so terrible, considering the media and their allies gleefully throw not just gas, but propane tanks on the fire every time they falsely claim that restricting abortion will result in a real-life Handmaid’s Tale, that recognizing the objective and inarguable reality of biological sex constitutes a “trans genocide”, and that defending yourself and your fellow citizens makes you a murderer?
Many members of our ruling classes, whether in politics, the media, or academia, see themselves as “The Anointed,” per Thomas Sowell’s famous phrase. They don’t want anything to get in the way of their utopia. They have already called for overturning centuries of tradition by packing the Supreme Court, ending the filibuster, and even abolishing the Constitution. So what’s a little street violence thrown into the mix? When the “peasants” are afraid of being attacked, that’s just a sign of “white discomfort.”
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What’s particularly toxic about our elites’ support for political violence, tacit or otherwise, is its impact on both the people torching our streets and on innocent Americans who just want to be left in peace. The criminals and vandals only grow encouraged when they see they have the backing of media personalities, tenured professors, and politicians, whereas normal Americans grow apathetic, believing that terms like “law and order” lose all meaning when they see justice is only selectively applied.
These normal Americans, excepting the obvious cases where their lives or the lives of their loved ones are put in danger by crazed mobs, should not respond to force with force. They should instead empower law enforcement to crack down on the maniacs who burn down cities in response to the media’s latest Two Minutes Hate, and they must continuously call out the self-appointed messiahs in our ruling classes who are enabling these madmen.
The deaths of the Gracchi didn’t instantly collapse the Roman republic. Instead, they lit a long fuse. But the bomb did explode. Once you start murdering people because they oppose your policies, there is no return to an earlier, politer era of civil debate. There is just an increasing escalation of bloodshed that will end in civil war, tyranny, or both.