The GOP’s Replaying the Conspiracy That Predicted Rome’s Fall
Yes, it was hopeless. But more significant than the coup’s failure is the fact that it commanded such support, on the streets and in the Senate, for the end of democracy.
The fact that the MAGA coup of January 6, 2021 had no chance of success should provide no reassurance to anyone concerned with American democracy. Far more significant is the fact that a violent mob, incited by the president, overwhelmed police, stormed the Capitol, and supplemented Republican legislators’ efforts to illegally keep a defeated president in office. To understand why such naked power grabs are the future of American politics, it helps to remember a republican death spiral more than 2,000 years old that history records as the Catiline Conspiracy.
Catiline, whose formal name was Lucius Sergius Catilina, was the scion of one of the oldest senatorial families in Rome, but his career was marked by scandal and corruption. After losing a consular election he considered his birthright, Catiline refused to admit defeat. Instead, in 63 B.C., he marshalled a raggedy coalition uniting oligarchical senators, lower-class Romans and foreign legbreakers to stage an armed uprising and overthrow the existing ruling clique. The Catiline Conspiracy was less an ideological movement or a revolt motivated by real material dispossession than “naked self-interest writ large,” according to historian Mike Duncan.
It was also farcical. Poorly planned and badly executed, Catiline’s faction was easily defeated by the consul, or executive, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The failed Catiline Conspiracy echoes in 2021 not because it destroyed the Roman republic, but because it exposed how rotten the foundations of the republic had already become. Julius Caesar was elected consul three years later. After witnessing Catiline’s hastily improvised failure firsthand, Caesar laid his own plans far more carefully.
The Roman historian Sallust was a contemporary of Catiline’s. His account, known as The Conspiracy of Catiline or Catiline’s War, shows how the episode appeared to patrician Romans who recognized in it not only a threat to their power but to a republican order that was already under severe strain. Setting the stage for the unscrupulous Catiline were familiar echoes of 21st century America. By the time of the Late Republic, economic and political inequality had steadily increased alongside Rome’s explosion in wealth, so “the resources of the plebs were reduced and the power of the few increased.” Rome had created social and economic crises far beyond its supply of honest reformers and structural solutions. It was a fertile climate for unscrupulous politicians looking to benefit from the very real grievances of the people.
Those with the “utmost power” under this arrangement, Sallust writes, were those whose “age and spirit were those of defiance.” When challenged, they lived a life free from dread themselves but used the courts to terrify the others,” the Roman equivalent of lock her up chants. They saw opportunity in democratic fragility, and claimed to be about the business of making Rome great again. “Whoever belonged to a different party than the senate’s,” Sallust judged, “preferred the commonwealth to be disabled rather than that they themselves should thrive less well.”
In 64 B.C., Catiline lost his race for consul. He found losing this most powerful of public positions unacceptable. He turned to the cadre Sallust identified—aristocrats who had fallen into debt, plebeians shut out of wealth and power, veterans of Rome’s endless wars—for redress. They planned to muster an army from outside the city, kill the consul Cicero “in his own home” and take power.
To understate matters, Catiline didn’t think things through. One of his chief lieutenants started alternately promising his mistress “the seas and the summits” and threatening her; the woman, Fulvia, told Cicero everything. A savvy politician, Cicero denounced Catiline in the Senate through a series of famous speeches. Catiline, “with face downcast and suppliant voice,” said it was all fake news. He “demand[ed]” the Senate “not believe anything rashly concerning him,” as he was “a patrician whose own and whose ancestors’ benefits to the Roman plebs were very numerous [and so did not] need the destruction of the commonwealth.” Besides, he continued, Cicero was just an immigrant from a city only recently granted full Roman citizenship.
When that didn’t work—senators heckled Catiline openly—Sallust records that Catiline, “in a fury,” rage-tweeted that “because I have been trapped and am driven headlong by my antagonists, I shall extinguish this fire of mine by demolition.” It’s easy to imagine what Catiline might have said to a secretary of state who refused to manufacture 12,000 votes for him.
Catiline, telling his street gang to stand back and stand by, plotted an attack on Rome. His loyalists insisted that they were under assault from a rapacious Deep State (“not one of us could resort to the law...to keep his freedom”). A conspirator named Manlius appealed to the “citizens’ [economic] pitifulness” as a justification for the coming assault and wrapped it all in a Fox News-ready package about how they seek “neither command nor riches… but freedom, which no good man loses except along with his life’s breath.”
In any event, their attack on Rome never materialized, as Cicero outfoxed the Catalinians. His NSA intercepted communications with Gallic foreigners containing proof of the conspiracy. Cicero, who was not above barbarism of his own, had them killed without due process. And not only them: Roman conspirators, including one of Catiline’s leading aristocratic allies, were executed to forestall any chance of a Catalinian uprising. “So it was that a patrician from the most distinguished clan of the Cornelii, who had held consular command at Rome, met the end which his behavior and deeds deserved,” Sallust writes. The leading voice in favor of sparing such noble Romans such an infamous fate—who wanted to look forward, not back—was Gaius Julius Caesar. As for Catiline, he soon met his violent fate.
The Catiline Conspiracy lasted for about two months in 63 B.C. But it could not have happened without the long legacy of republican decline that began 80 years earlier, after Rome decisively defeated its version of the Soviet Union, Carthage, and experienced its unipolar moment. What might have been a golden age was instead a period of oligarchy, ambition, and then outright fratricide. The brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempted to redress the rising inequality and corruption, only to be killed by the forces of reaction. Questions about who got to be a Roman citizen turned catastrophically violent. The demagogic generals Marius and Sulla contended for power by marching on Rome and purging their political enemies—Sulla did it twice—and established that laws and traditions were nothing more than whatever powerful men said they were. Catiline and his clique were never as powerful as the ascendant demagogue Pompey Magnus nor as rich as Pompey’s unfathomably wealthy frenemy Marcus Licinius Crassus. But after so much devastation of Rome’s republican heritage, it is understandable how unscrupulous men like Catiline would survey the landscape and ask: why not me?
There’s another structural element here. Even after the destruction of Carthage, Rome remained endlessly at war, minting new enemies it told itself it had to conquer—Jugurtha in North Africa, Mithridates on the Turkish coast of the Black Sea, Vercingetorix in France. The wars created enormous social and economic costs, embittered veterans who lost their farms to the oligarchs during their service, accustomed Rome to seeing its salvation through martial measures, generated disrespect for a Senate that really was the preserve of a rapacious aristocracy, and gave demagogic generals the means and opportunity to settle politics with violence. If all that sounds uncomfortably reminiscent of the wages of endless post-9/11 American wars—though, to be sure, hardly a one-to-one match 2,000-plus years later—please preorder my book about what the War on Terror has done to American democracy.
To Sallust, the Catiline conspiracy showed that “the empire of the Roman people seemed to me easily at its most pitiful.” That assessment was surely colored by his affection for Caesar, who was as competent as Catiline was buffoonish, but Sallust spotted the crux of the disaster. It wasn’t necessarily Catiline himself. It was that his conspirators were not deterred by their blatantly illegal and even doomed acts. “[D]espite two Senate’s decrees,” Sallust observed, “no one at all from that great crowd had either revealed the conspiracy through the inducement of a reward or had withdrawn from Catiline’s camp.” All that mattered was that they, and not their supposed adversaries, should triumph.
“The Catiline Conspiracy was another lurch in the Roman Republic's march to dictatorship. When genuine social and economic grievances are left unaddressed, unscrupulous leaders like Catiline will exploit those grievances for their own self-aggrandizement,” says Duncan, the author of The Storm Before The Storm: The Beginning of The End of The Roman Republic. “Especially when rules of political fair play and comity have eroded to the point where raw power politics is all that matters. Ambitious leaders will no longer be stopped by something so inconsequential as losing an election. What is a ballot box to men with swords?”
The Michigan legislature learned the answer to that question in the spring, when armed demonstrators unable to tell the difference between public health lockdowns and tyranny prompted the cancellation of the legislative session. This week, Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature refused to acknowledge an Allegheny County Democrat whose victory the state Supreme Court had ratified. And then there is Trump, whose electoral defeat did not extend to a Trumpified Republican Party, which is why 126 members of Congress and 18 attorneys general backed a baseless lawsuit to invalidate Joe Biden’s victory, and why Republicans in Congress burst into applause on Wednesday in objection to tallying Arizona’s electoral college votes for Biden.
His political maneuvers blatantly fraudulent, Trump appealed to his supporters to rally in Washington. MAGA online forums erupted with exhortations to show up with guns in explicit defiance of the law. “Yes, it’s illegal, but this is war and we’re clearly in a post-legal phase of our society,” one poster declared.
Unsurprisingly, after hearing Trump tell them on Wednesday that “this is a time for strength” and exhorting them to march on the Capitol, MAGA protesters stormed it, breaking through barricades, breaching the Capitol itself, fighting with police and prompting evacuations, lockdowns and terror. The thousands who demanded with violence that the loser of the election be seated as president prompted an immediate recess of the electoral-college count session and overwhelmed Capitol Police. A chaotic, belated response from federal law enforcement—in stark contrast with the aggressive preparedness the feds showed to Black Lives Matter protesters in D.C. in June—followed, while MAGA occupied the Capitol for hours. At least one woman was shot in the Capitol and died.
In 2009, a Department of Homeland Security analyst named Daryl Johnson issued a warning about accelerating signs of far-right domestic terrorism. The resulting backlash from right-wing politicians and media ultimately cost him his DHS career.
“The insurrection we’re seeing today unfolding at the U.S. Capitol is the culmination of years of government inaction concerning the rising threat of far right extremism,” Johnson said, “as well as the reckless, irresponsible statements by the president and other conservative politicians who pander to these extremists and further their conspiracy theories.”
All this attests to a reality insufficiently acknowledged by a society that considers itself the template for democracy. American democracy is not only feeble but young. The U.S. can only claim to be a democracy for all its citizens since the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965. America has known 80 years of Jim Crow, a reaction to a brief period when it appeared multiracial democracy might take root, and only 55 years of post-Jim Crow democracy. And the democracy post-Jim Crow America has is the oligarchical manifestation known as bourgeois democracy, rather than the robustness of socialism to provide the material foundation for meaningful freedom.
The heightening contradictions on the right led Freedom Caucus member Thomas Massie (R-KY) and allies to warn that invalidating the election will undermine not democracy but the undemocratic Electoral College, which Republicans have depended on “for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation.” Here we see a glimpse of what the future holds on the more respectable right. Remnant conservatism that stands in the way of nationalism will be premised not on the national interest but on conserving the undemocratic bulwarks that empower Republicans. By contrast, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who does oppose stealing the election on democratic principle, was heckled as a traitor by MAGA on a flight to the capitol.
There is simply no equivalent phenomenon of violent democratic rejectionism on the left, so nationalists like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who took the contemporary Catiline conspiracy to the Senate floor, tell lies about the danger of “antifa” as a way of rallying right-wing support. Upper-class liberals are more inclined to delusions about Biden ending MAGA through restoring an updated version of the pre-Trump status quo ante. The hopelessness of the January 6 coup could give them a temporary reprieve to maintain that delusion—or it could prod them to reassess their role in the socio-economic circumstances that will produce Caesars to follow Catiline.