Last week my colleague Steven Jones posted a helpful piece comparing the fall of the Roman Republic and America’s contemporary political situation. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here. It’s worth your time.
While I concur with much of Steve’s analysis, I think his last phrase misses the mark. He ends the piece with: “Thus I would argue that America is indeed in danger of following Rome down her path, but that the risk to America today is not that it will collapse into obscurity but descend into tyranny.” I agree that America is unlikely to collapse anytime soon, but applying the phrase “descend into tyranny” to imperial Rome seems too rhetorical for a couple of reasons.
First, you could just as easily argue that the phrase should be written “ascend into tyranny.” Was the government of the Roman Republic really better than that of the Empire? In order to answer that question, you must consider what the purpose of government is. Only then can you answer questions of better and worse. Is the purpose of government to ensure that as many people as possible get a say in the affairs of state? Probably not, and even if it is, then both the Roman Republic and the Government of the Caesars would be on the worse-end of the spectrum. Even at the Republic’s height, political involvement was limited to a handful of fabulously rich families. Is government’s purpose to protect the interests of the citizenry? If it is, the early emperors did a much better job than the Republic did. The rule of the first emperor Augustus inaugurated two hundred years of relative peace and prosperity for the Romans.
Second, maybe “tyranny” isn’t the best way to describe the growth of imperial power. “Tyranny” can mean cruel and oppressive government, which the Roman Empire was not. Though it’s shocking to hear, the emperor’s government tended to be more efficient and less corrupt than that of the Republic. Even Paul of Tarsus put his faith in the Roman Empire’s justice system. However, “tyranny” can also mean ruling without legitimate constitutional authority. The emperors don’t really fit this definition of tyranny either. Augustus held all his powers constitutionally with the enthusiastic support of the Roman people. Sure, he might have gamed the system, but he did maintain the republican system. Moreover, Augustus’s successor Tiberius actually tried to become a private citizen after Augustus’s death. The Senate and the people of Rome wouldn’t let him. They had become accustomed to having a Caesar run the state, and they begged Tiberius to do for them everything that Augustus had. The rule of one man? Sure. Tyranny? Hardly.
Another idea strikes me as I contemplate the fall of the Roman Republic alongside our own American Republic—How will we know when it’s fallen? Most historians date the fall of the Roman Republic to 27 BC when the people of Rome turned over a sizable portion of the Roman government to Augustus. But interestingly, not a single Roman alive in 27 BC noticed that his republic had fallen. It took almost a hundred years before anyone realized that things had changed. Similarly, when the Roman Empire collapsed in AD 476, no living Roman saw that earth-shattering event for what it was. Again it took almost a hundred years for anyone to notice. So the right question isn’t, “When will our republic fall?” Maybe we should be asking, “Has our republic died already?” I personally think that America’s republic died during Reconstruction after the Civil War and that republican government was replaced with a bureaucracy (invention of the IRS, anyone?). We’ll leave it to later historians to decide.
Maybe what I’m trying to get at is, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons.” Regardless of whether we’re heading for tyranny and collapse or a glorious Pax Americana, our job is still the same. We use what freedom we have to do good, honoring both God and our neighbors.