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Lessons from the Ancient World about the Political Collapse and Recovery of Self-Governing Communities

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2020

This is a fascinating post by historian Bret Devereaux, who specializes in ancient history (esp. Rome), that looks at ancient self-governing democracies and republics in the Greek and Roman world and describes how they fell into crisis and, crucially, how they were able to recover to avoid losing that self-governance.

But in that large sample size, we also get a sense of what solutions succeed and what solutions fail to hold together a self-governing community in these sorts of pressures. Beset by repeated political crises from 494 to 287 (known as the Struggle of the Orders), the Roman Republic repeatedly survived and grew stronger through compromise and by constructive, inclusive redefinition of the republic to include a broader range of people (not merely the patrician elite, but also the plebeian elite). In no small part, that success seems to have been motivated by the avowed need of elite patricians for the support of the plebeian commons in order to campaign, since the plebeians made up most of the army.

In stark contrast, the effort by conservative (in the general sense, not in the American sense) elements of the Roman senate to ‘hold the line’ and permit no compromise on questions of land reform and citizenship in the Late Republic led quite directly to the outbreak of civil war in 91 (with the Italian allies) and in 88 (between Romans) and consequently to the collapse of the Republic. Initially, the influence and raw power of the elite was sufficient to squash efforts at reform (including the murder of some prominent reformers), but in the long run the discontent those crackdowns created laid the fertile ground for the rise of demagogic military leaders to supplant the Republic entirely, culminating in first Caesar and then Octavian doing just that. In an effort to compromise on nothing, the Roman elite lost everything.

Devereaux then draws a parallel to the 2020 election:

In short, Joe Biden is running on a platform of compromise and a constructive, inclusive redefinition of the polity which explicitly welcomes past opponents to join him at the table. To me, reasoning from historical example, that seems like the correct answer to the current moment.

On the other hand, we have a different candidate (and current President) who is running on a promise to ‘win’ the stasis by main force, to dominate and to win, indeed, until he (or we) get tired of winning, to escalate the tensions to the final victory of the faction. This is exactly the approach that I think a sober reading of historical examples warns us is likely doomed to failure, regardless of what one thinks of the underlying policy aims (which might well have been achieved without the rhetoric and practice of escalation). I cannot help but think that, as happened in the last decades of the Roman Republic, rewarding this sort of rhetoric and behavior will produce more of it from both parties and put our republic on a dangerous path.