This Ancient Roman Senator Described the Downfall of His Republic—And it Sounds A Lot Like Ours
Making Wisdom Popular
Perhaps the greatest politician of the Roman Republic was Marcus Tullius Cicero (107-43 BC). A quaestor (financial official), praetor (judicial official), Senator, and Consul (one of the executives of the Republic), Cicero’s career spanned the final decades of the Roman Republic before its transformation into the Roman Empire after years of civil war and chaos. Educated in both Rome and Greece, Cicero was a prolific writer on philosophy, politics, law, and oratory—particularly the oratory of the courtroom (he was also a lawyer)—writings which have inspired western statesmen for millennia. He was frequently quoted and alluded to by various American Founding Fathers, who were deeply inspired by the example of Republican Rome.
Thus, Cicero’s warnings about the downfall of his own Republic, delivered just several years before it finally fell with Caesar’s “crossing of the Rubicon,” should be of the utmost import to those of us who are citizens of the American Republic, it’s most closely related political posterity.
Written in the early 50’s BC, just prior to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar which began in 49 BC, Cicero’s warning comes from Book 5 of his Republic:
“On ancient customs and old-fashioned men, the state of Rome stands firm.”
The compactness and truth of that line are such that the poet who uttered it must, I think, have been prompted by an oracle. For neither the men on their own (in a state which lacked such a moral tradition) nor the state on its own (without such men in charge) could have founded or long maintained so great and wide-ranging an empire.
Long before living memory, our ancestral way of life produced outstanding men, and those excellent men preserved the old way of life and the institutions of their forefathers.
Our generation, however, after inheriting our political organization like a magnificent picture now fading with age, not only neglected to restore its original colors, but did not even bother to ensure that it retained its basic form and, as it were, its faintest outlines.
What remains of those ancient customs on which the state of Rome stood firm? We see them so ruined by neglect that not only do they go unobserved, they are no longer known. And what shall I say of the men? It is the lack of such men that has led to the disappearance of those customs.
Of this great tragedy we are not only bound to give a description; we must somehow defend ourselves as if we were arraigned on a capital charge. For it is not by some accident—no, it is because of our own moral failings—that we are left with the name of the Republic, having long since lost its substance.
Cicero, Niall Rudd, trans., Cicero: The Republic and The Laws (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 81.