David Frum

09.21.12

Why the Roman Republic Died

This is the last of a four-part series on Tom Holland's Persian Fire and Rubicon. Read part one, part two, and part three.

The long struggle between Greek and Persian ended with an astonishing victory for … neither.

Within a little more than 150 years after the Battle of Marathon, most of the mainland Greek city-states were subdued by their northern neighbors, the kings of Macedon. A decade more, and the Macedonians had overthrown the Persian empire too. It was as if the Cold War had ended with both the Soviet Union and the United States defeated, and the Canadians the winners.

The Macedonian empire quickly cracked up, however, leaving behind multiple successor states under Greek-speaking royal families. These were the richest societies of the Mediterranean world. They were not, however, the strongest. One by one, the remainders of the Greek-Persian wars were subsumed by the fiercest of all the Mediterranean military powers: the Roman republic.

As Rome subjugated both what had been Greece and also what had been the richest part of the Persian empire, Rome's leaders seized wealth on a dazzling scale. The flow of new money triggered ferocious competition in the old ruling class to grab a larger and larger share. Tom Holland's Rubicon tells the story of this competition - and how it destroyed the Republic that had incubated it.

The next time somebody tells you that the Roman Republic fell because of "fiscal irresponsibility" - or because the plebs voted themselves too many benefits from the public treasury - reach for Holland. The end of the Republic was of course a very different thing from the fall of the Roman empire. Indeed, the empire proceeded to much greater strength and stability after the Republic than during. But it is the Republic with which Americans identify most, and the Republic was brought down not by an over-reaching populace, but by the spiraling violence of the competition among Rome's elite to grab the proceeds of the Eastern conquest.

The winners of the elite competition gained wealth and status on a scale never before seen in their political experience. (The first winner, Lucius Licinus Lucullus, still bequeathes to our language the adjective "lucullan.") On mission in the East, Roman generals lorded over kings and claimed the revenues of whole cities as their personal bribes. Back home, they dominated the city as super-aristocrats - and worried in fear that their subordinated former peers would might attack and despoil them. In previous centuries, a Roman aristocrat who made a political misstep ended in obscurity or exile. In the first century before Christ, he was liable to end up dead. The new higher stakes was played with a new savagery - first out of greed, then out of self-defense - until at last there emerged a single winner strong enough to end the competition altogether: Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar.

That is the story vividly told in Rubicon, and despite our distance in time from this world - which Holland in his artistic way helps us to see both as familiar and strange - it is a story that Americans will never stop applying to themselves so long as the United States remains both a republic and an empire.

"Nobody is truly rich unless he can afford to maintain an army," said Marcus Licinius Crassus, who more than qualified under his own rule. In an age when the richest American can afford to pay single-handedly the cost of a presidential election, that saying of Crassus acquires new and sinister resonance.