Tuesday, March 25, 2003

James Capozzola writes of the striking resemblance of the end of the Roman Republic to our own times, by which I assume he primarily means the evisceration of any function from the Senate except servility to the emerging executive power. While this is true, on some level, and interesting, it is important to bear in mind the difference between our own Senate and the Romans'. The latter was effectively a hereditary plutocracy which dealt with domestic policy by noblesse oblige and foreign conquest as a source of personal enrichment. (Ok, that last part sounds familiar). Not only was the Senate not representative, it was not supposed to be; in fact the Senate's whole purpose was to preserve its members' prosperity at the expense of everyone else. Actual slaves were often better off than the allegedly free masses who comprised the "clients" of the senators. Rome makes Brazil look like a workers paradise. The Senators who wrote Roman history (Cicero, Tacitus) were pissed off about the appropriation of their power by dictators, and therefore told the story in terms of tyranny vs. freedom. But they're talking about the freedom of a few hundred men.

That said, there are indeed obvious similarities in the current transformation of the Congress into a freedom-frying formality (Tom Paine, Kinsley, Kennan), which is why Sen. Byrd has been frothing at the mouth for months now -- a good example, because Byrd is primarily interested in preserving his august body's prerogatives. Something else worth considering is that the Roman Senate disintegrated not only because of tyrannical ambition, but because it didn't work any more -- it was incapable of administering an increasingly unwieldy empire.

Read: Syme, Roman Revolution, Gruen, Last Generation of the Roman Republic, Tacitus, Annals

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