This is the sixth part in a series on the Repetition of history. The first part dealt with Europe and Ancient Greece, the second part with France and Athens, the third with Germany and Macedon, the fourth with the rise of Roman and American Republics, and the fifth with the entrance into the Late Republican period.
"Of ourselves, this Roman story is told." -Will Durant
Roman society decayed as it left behind its traditional values, relied on foreign labor, and became urbanized and government-dependent, setting the stage for demagogues to manipulate the masses by promising them everything to gain power. Persuasive orators consolidated power by pitting sides against each other in class warfare, tearing at the fabric of the Roman Republic.
The already shaky Rome was destabilized further by the "reforms" of the Gracchi brothers, who were Ancient Roman versions of progressives like President Obama.. This section will draw extensively from the Roman history site unrv.com, which is admin'd by two authors of books on Ancient Rome, which distills information broadly enough to be suitable for a short blog entry.
Manipulating the 'head count' or the 'mob' with popular ideas was a powerful political tool, but none before had used it as effectively as the Gracchi, " we read on the UNRV website. "The Populares party took root in this Late Republican period, and the 'causes of the common man' (or political ambition guised by such causes) became a constant factor in the political wrangling of the capital."
The Populares were Rome's version of the Democratic Party, and their opponents, the Optimates, were the Republican faction.
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus saw an opportunity not only to achieve their own political power, but to stabilize the inequality through reform and new laws benefiting the common people. Reasonable and noble concepts on the surface, however, were underlying with their own contempt for the Senate and optimate party. What could be seen on one side as an attempt to rectify a dangerous and debilitating social system was viewed on the other as nothing more than a power grab and a flagrant attack on the Republican institutional ideas of the time.
Ripped out of today's headlines.
Tiberius Gracchus, upon achieving the office of Tribune, proposed a limit on how much land one could own and the redistribution of excess lands to the poor. Flaunting custom, he took the bill to the citizen assemblies rather than the Senate. It was opposed, and Tiberius enacted measures "effectively shutting down the government until his own bill could be dealt with."
The bill was approved but proved expensive, so Tiberius proposed raising taxes on the wealthy.
The Senate once again opposed the concept, but was not willing to risk Tiberius taking the matter before the Plebes. Reluctantly, this issue was passed, and Gracchus' continued direct challenges to Senatorial authority was backing himself into a corner. He used the people as his mob, threatening the Senate into supporting his bills.
In other words, he was engaging in class warfare.
Despite being termed out, he ran for tribune again. He was accused of seeking a dictatorship and violating the Roman constitution. Enraged by his "constant mocking of Roman law and tradition" the Senators took up arms against him and killed him.
His brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus took up Tiberius's causes.
In the position of harnessing the power of the Roman masses, Gaius had far wider reaching plans for administrative reforms and social equity issues.
He won over the mob by renewing Tiberius's land confiscation laws and extended the grain dole to the poor urban masses.
"It was a measure shocking to old Roman ideas of self-reliance, and destined to play a vital role in Roman history," Durant writes. "In any case, the law turned the poor freemen of Rome from client supporters of the aristocracy into defenders of the Gracchi, as later of Marius and Caesar; it was the foundation stone of that democratic movement which would reach its peak in Clodius and die at Actium [when the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire]."
Just as President Obama resorted to stimulus bills in the wake of the financial crisis, Gracchus "enriched contractors and reduced umemployment, by a program of road building in every part of Italy."
The conservative party saw Gracchus as "a demagogic tyrant extending his personal power through the reckless distribution of state property and funds," a charge that is leveled by modern conservatives against our president.
In a stunning comparison to our modern times, like Obama, Gracchus then sought to extend citizenship to non-citizens. Gracchus wanted to extend it to Latins, and Obama to Latinos.
...Gauis next proposed a law to incorporate all the Latin rights citizens into full citizenship. Unfortunately for Gaius and his allies, this move was extremely unpopular with not only the Senate, but the head count of Rome as well. The lower classes of Roman citizenship would be forced to share their land allotments with the Italians, and the Senate saw an opportunity to strike at Gaius. A senate backed Tribune, Livius Drusus, began to propose laws far more liberal and beneficial to the Roman head count, while decisively against the Italian allies. While not a position traditionally backed by the Senate it was at least not as harmful as complete inclusion of the Italian tribes would have been. It had the added benefit of keeping the Roman mob happy, while temporarily replacing the Gracchus status of popular champion with their own man, Drusus.
Gracchus lost his next election and led a protest in the streets of Rome. It turned into an armed revolt, was suppressed by the military, and he ordered his slave to kill himself.
The city mob that he had befriended made no protest when his corpse, and those of his followers, were flung into the river; it was busy plundering his house.
"With the fast rise and fall of the Brothers Gracchi, the state was set for the rise of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and the eventual last dictator, Gaius Julius Caesar," the UNRV website states.
We found ourselves about midway through the Gracchi saga in the repeated history of Rome. Our fractured society is taken advantage of by demagogues who manipulate the "mob" with appealing promises. Like the Gracchi brothers, President Obama appeals to the masses through redistribution of wealth and seeks to extend citizenship to noncitizens. He flaunts law and the Constitution, even declaring that American citizens don't have a right to a trial by jury before being summarily executed.
If history is any guide--and it is--we can imagine America's fate by examining how the Roman Republic died.