Thursday, June 19, 2014

Living Through Tyranny and The Reformer's Burden

As we watch our nation's influence in the world ebb, our citizens' dependency on government programs escalate, and our economic engine become mired in crony capitalism, it would not be out of the question for us to hear calls for reform.  In fact, it seems the voices calling for a 'reset' in Washington have only grown louder over the past decade as these unmistakable markers of decline become more obvious and prevalent by the month.  Yet, despite the rhetoric and the fervor, we have not seen a man rise to wield the power necessary to implement the much desired reforms.  

To shed light on this conspicuous absence, it may be helpful to look to a historical example. For that, let us turn to Edward Gibbon's account of ancient Rome. On March 17, 180A.D. Marcus Aurelius, the great benevolent philosopher emperor died.  In his stead, he conveyed the throne to his son Commodus who came to power at a time when Rome had vanquished all its foreign enemies and enjoyed peace and prosperity throughout the empire.

Bust of Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius
Neverthless, Commodus was not fortunate enough to inherit his fathers virtues.  He established a harem of 300 concubines in his palace.  He taxed the people to support a large palace staff and regular entertainments.  His paranoia and jealousy lead to the senseless slaughter of hundreds of senators and thousands of their kin.  His ministers enriched themselves by selling justice to the highest bidder.  In short, his reign brought sorrow to the people and disgrace to the throne.

After Commodus executed several iterations of his ministers to appease the riotous rebellion of the public, his lastly appointed ministers realized that their lives would soon to be next.  So, in an act of palace intrigue, Commodus was poisoned by one of his servants and subsequently strangled to death.  This act of self preservation ended the miserable tyranny of his 15-year reign.

Without an heir apparent, who would replace Commodus?  The Praetorian Guard which quartered in the city would have to support or even make the the choice of Emperor.  Emperors for generations had secured the loyalty of the military by making lavish donations to the troops.  Such donations and urban living had slowly softened the military's preparation and discipline.  Nevertheless, their support was absolutely necessary if an Emperor was to rule with authority.

"The vigor of the soldiers instead of being confirmed by the severe discipline of camps, melted away in the luxury of cities.  The excessive increase of their pay and donatives exhausted the state to enrich the military order, whose modesty in peace, and service in war, is best secured by an honorable poverty."

Fortunately, a man of virtue was sought to fill the vacancy on the throne.  Pertinax, a noble Senator and a man respected for his temperance and wisdom, was solicited to ascend to that great station.  He hesitated at first, believing the news of Commodus death to be a ploy to accuse him of treason.  But, when his death was confirmed, he agreed to assume the royal garments and the Senate celebrated and the Preatorian's ratified the ascension.  

Bust of Pertinax
Thus, with an intelligent and principled man acting as sovereign of the civilized world, he began to reverse the corruption that had infused itself into the body of government and that had been a burden to so much of the Empire during the reign of Commodus.  His first acts were to reduce the palace expenses by half.  The ostentatious living of his predecessor was undone for a simple and austere approach.  He auctioned off the imperial chariots, silks, and attendant luxuries. Pertinax is described as saying to the Senate:

"That he was better satisfied to administer a poor republic with innocence, than to acquire riches by the ways of tyranny and dishonor."  

Further, he forced the resignation of Commodus' imperial ministers and confiscated a portion of their wealth which they had accumulated through graft.  He reduced the taxes on the people and he engaged in economic development by deferring taxes on those willing to cultivate agriculture on vacant land.  These reforms were immediate and effective.  The people began to increase in industry and prosperity.

Yet, there was one more reform which Pertinax pursued, and that was to invigorate the military spirit and discipline of the Praetorian Guard.  He reduced their pay, and increased their military rigor.  Unfortunately, these changes agitated the sentiments of the soldiers who had become accustomed to luxury.  One day, 300 soldiers rallied in nearby barracks and marched toward the Imperial Palace.  With the conspiracy of old domestic servants and the palace guards, the gates were thrown open to them.  Gibbon gives us an account of the encounter:

"On the news of their approach, Pertinax, disdaining either flight or concealment, advanced to meet his assassins; and recalled to their minds his own innocence, and the sanctity of their recent oath. For a few moments they stood in silent suspense, ashamed of their atrocious design, and awed by the venerable aspect and majestic firmness of their sovereign, till at length, the despair of pardon reviving their fury, a barbarian of the country of Tongress leveled the first blow against Pertinax, who was instantly dispatched with a multitude of wounds. His head, separated from his body, and placed on a lance, was carried in triumph to the Praetorian camp, in the sight of a mournful and indignant people."
Thus, just 86 days into his reign, Pertinax's life came to an abrupt end. Gibbon gives us some insight into the discontent his reforms conjured in the body of government:

"A hasty zeal to reform the corrupted state, accompanied with less prudence than might have been expected from the years and experience of Pertinax, proved fatal to himself and to his country. His honest indiscretion united against him the servile crowd, who found their private benefit in the public disorders, and who preferred the favor of a tyrant to the inexorable equality of the laws."
So, we see the challenge that any reformer faces when a class of people are enriched by the 'disorders' of the public.  The root of the problem lies in man's honest desire to promote his own self interest.  And thus, when man is placed in a station that his self-interest is gratified by the abuse or subversion of the self-interest of the public, a dangerous and difficult situation arises.  Such circumstances are difficult to correct:

"But if we attentively reflect  how much swifter is the progress of corruption than its cure, and if we remember that the years abandoned to public disorders exceeded the months allotted to the martial reign of Aurilian, we must confess that a few short intervals of peace were insufficient for the arduous work of reformation."  

Any government that has deviated from its founding principles requires an infusion of vigor and discipline to be restored to former greatness.  These reforms must be applied methodically, consistently, and for an extended period of time if they are to be successful.  Importantly, in a democratic society, the people must also sustain their support of such efforts.

The danger that America finds itself in today is that, like the Praetorian Guard who ratified the selected Emperor, the electorate is increasingly benefited by 'donatives' (e.g. transfer payments) from the government they elect.  As that number grows, and as each voter casts their ballot with honest self-interest in mind, at some point the political choice will be dictated by which candidate promises the largest 'donatives' or the least interference with them.

As if a perverse caricature of this phenomena, when we follow the story after Pertinax's death, we discover that the Praetorian Guard brazenly seized the Imperial Throne and auctioned it off to the highest bidder.

This is a poignant and important lesson for us to learn.  So, as the clouds grow and the lights threaten to dim on the era of American Greatness, may we rediscover our former selves and find the vigor, the courage, and the tenacity to endure the reforms that are so desperately needed in our day.


  1. I appreciated this very much. I've often thought about the self-perpetuating problems within our social and political systems. Campaign financing, gerrymandering, deficit spending, tax structure, and other systems are symptoms of the broken system you point out and they function to keep the most unpopular congress in power. And we are the ones who keep voting them in. As you said, citizens usually act in their own self-interest, and the people in power recognize that, so they tell people what they want to hear. So unless we tighten our belts and vote (and encourage others to vote) in a way that reflects our desire for change, then the question of our demise will be just a matter of time.

  2. Old enough to remember conservatives wailing about the "decline" and end of America last time there was a Democrat in the White House too. That's not to say some of the problems aren't serious, and we might agree with each other on topics such as empire and the surveillance state, but austerity (read: cuts to the social safety net, further consolidating wealth for the wealthy) as proposed time and again by Republicans since Reagan's hoodwinking the nation with trickle down fantasies is not the answer.

    Rome fell because the wealthy reigned complete and conquest trumpted services and domestic concerns. Stretched too thin building an empire, and ignorant of the plight of the common (era equivalent) working man, the wealthy elite strangled the systems of government trying to hold on to their power and status at the expense of infrastructure and social goods the elite had no use for.

    One need only look back to the Republican policies of 2001-2006 that led to the worst financial crisis we've seen since the great depression (which was also a result of consolidated power and wealth in bankers and investors) to see the convenient missing context from what you've written. To say you're learning the wrong lessons from Rome (ignoring for the sake of argument that there really is little similarity now with the economies of that era) is an understatement.

    Let me introduce you to your party's 2012 presidential nominee... the insanely wealthy vulture capitalist who disparaged those outside of his elite class, and promised to open more gates to consolidated money and power for the ruling class.

    There's your true parallel with Rome.

    A Retired History Teacher

  3. Retired History Teacher,

    Who said anything about Republican or Democrat in this post? This is a systemic problem, not a partisan one. Bush messed things up. Obama as followed in his footsteps.

    I think you are being blinded by ideology regarding a bi-partisan problem.



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