Mary Beard’s SPQR: The Romans and the Succession Crisis of Today

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” “A Republic, if you can keep it.” –Answer attributed to Benjamin Franklin in 1787.

As readers know, I’ve been doing a bit of travelling this summer, and when I travel, I like to have something exciting to read on the bus or the train. For this trip, I picked up Mary Beard’s SPQR, a history of ancient Rome beginning with the Cataline conspiracy in 63BCE and ending with Caracalla’s extension of Roman citizen to “all free inhabitants of the Empire” in 212. (SPQR was published in 2015, so I’m a little late to the party.) I wouldn’t call SPQR a — dread word — popularization, since it’s clearly informed by vast scholarship, but it’s not, perhaps, a work of scholarship; there are no footnotes, so we have to take Beard’s sources on trust. Beard also deploys a contemporary, almost breezy style; SPQR reads almost like a podcast, as spoken word. SQPR is very accessible, a quick read, but dense with information; wisdom, even.

Beard is a well-known Cambridge Don and a public figure in the UK; the New York Review of Books has this to say about SPQR:

[H]er opening sentence bluntly asserts, “Ancient Rome is important.” Her title is the standard ancient abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “the Senate and People of Rome,” and as she points out, it still adorns manhole covers and rubbish bins in Rome today. No one could doubt that what she has written has contemporary relevance. Her history evokes a past that visibly impinges upon the present, as modern travelers in Europe, the Balkans, Anatolia, North Africa, and the Near East are constantly made aware.

By the time Beard has finished, she has explored not only archaic, republican, and imperial Rome, but the eastern and western provinces over which it eventually won control. She deploys an immense range of ancient sources, in both Greek and Latin, and an equally wide range of material objects, from pots and coins to inscriptions, sculptures, reliefs, and temples. She moves with ease and mastery through archaeology, numismatics, and philology, as well as a mass of written documents on stone and papyrus.

The London School of Economics summarizes the central thesis of the work:

In ‘Chapter 10: Fourteen Emperors’, Beard takes a novel approach to the study of empire. Fourteen emperors, from Tiberius to Commodus, ruled over a stable and largely similar structure of imperial power. It is these structures, rather than their personalities, that are worth studying, the author argues. While much has been written about each individual emperor (many of whom had colourful reputations), their characters in fact mattered little, as the means of their rule and the day-to-day lives of their citizens remained relatively unchanged.

They all followed the precedent of Augustus, the first emperor, in measuring their success: through building grandiose works, flaunting their generosity to the people and displaying military feats. This was the standard by which the emperors were admired and criticised, and by which they judged themselves. For instance, the Colosseum, now one of Rome’s most memorable monuments, combined these three aspects for the Emperor Vespasian. It was a grand construction project, the celebration of a victory over Jewish rebels and an obvious mark of munificence to the Roman people.

The emperors, however, also inherited Augustus’s problems: namely, an unclear method of succession, which generated family intrigues as well as military coups and was sometimes overcome by strategic adoptions; an uneasy relationship with the Senate; and a confusion in how their power might be represented and defined. Were the emperors gods? And if so, were their family and friends, if they declared them to be? Beard here makes a persuasive case for her approach of focusing on the structure and patterns of power, rather than individual personalities.

In this post, I’ll tease out one structural aspect of contemporary politics — succession — using the method Beard herself employs. From page 535:

I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans — or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilization. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in Western Asia might be ill-advised.

(Here I pause to remark that Graham Allison’s popularization of “The Thucycides Trap,” so-called, does exactly what Beard recommends avoiding. See Naked Capitalism here.)

But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amound to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — b engaging with the history of the Romans… Since the Renaissance at least,

In this post, I hope to understand a little more about our own legitimacy crisis — which takes the form of liberal Democrats challenging the legitimacy of a Presidential succession — by engaging with a similar structural issue faced by the Romans. (Yes, this is a view from the armchair at 30,000 feet, but if you want to survey the terrain, you’ve got to get up high. Eh?)

Beard summarizes the issues of imperial succession as follows (pp 414-415):

Despite the impressive survival rate of the emperors (fourtee rulers in almost 200 years is one testament to stablity), the moment of succession was frought with violence and surrounded by allegations of treachery

Note that if you frame the Beltway as an imperial court, as opposed to the capital of a Republic, Trump’s jarring insistence on the importance of “loyalty” — even if derived from his own weird corporate environment[1] — doesn’t look so out of place.

The names, dates, and details change, but the story remains the same. Some said that Livia poisoned Augustus to ease Tiberius onto the throne; Tiberius was widely believed to have been poisoned or smothered to make way for Gaius [as professional historians call Caligula]; Agrippina is supposed to have dispatched her husband Claudius with some poisoned mushrooms in her successful bid to make her son emperor; and some said Domitian had a hand in the early death of Titus–contrary to a hopeful story in the Talmud which claims that after Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, a gnat flew into his nostril and gradually ate away his brain.

(If anybody here reads Kos, please let me know if the story that “a gnat flew into his nostril and gradually ate away his brain” turns up in a secular imprecatory prayer in re: Donald Trump. It’s certainly worthy of doing so!)

And now Beard employs a media critique[2]:

Many of these stories must be fiction. It takes a lot to believe that the elderly Livia would have painstakingly smeared poison on figs still growing on a tree, then tricked her husband into eating them. But true or not, together they underline the uncertainty and danger in the transmission of power.

How like the stories in the media appropriate to our own day! Beard goes on to describe the imperial court (page 416):

These uncertainties about how to establish a legitimate claim to rule also help to explain the peculiarly murderous image of the Roman court, where danger seems to have lurked on every fig and such an atmosphere of suspicion prevailed that Domitian is said to have had the palace walls lined with reflecting stone so that he could see who was coming up behind.

That’s about as Beltway as you can get, although of course today our reflections are not merely visual, but digital. And the transmission of power (page 416-417):

Without any agreed system for the transmission of power, every relative counted as a potential rival of the emperor or of his likely heir… There were alternative routes to power. One was exactly what the first Augustus had tried to preclude: elevation by the army….

Roman emperors and their advisors never solved the problem of succession. They were defeated in part by biology, in part by lingering uncertainties and disagreements about how inheritance should best operate. Succession always came down to some combination of luck, plotting, violence, and secret deals. The moment when Roman power was handed on was always the moment when it was most vulnerable.

At this point, we recall the instant reaction by the dominant liberal factions in the Democrat Party to their humiliating defeat — and loss of their third, and final, branch of the Federal government, most states already having been lost — in the Clinton debacle of 2016: They sought[3] to revise the “agreed system for the transmission of power.” In rough chronological order: Liberal Democrats sought, through a “faithless elector” strategy, to give the intelligence community veto power over the post-election selection of a President; they advocated the abolition of the electoral college and its replacement by a popular vote; they advocated a “regent” as a new institutional and extra-Constitutional check on the President; they advocated secession, which amounts to Civil War (with Californians being the “fire eaters” of the 21st Century).

All of these tactics[4] have a common thread: Hitherto, the United States and the political class have regarded the “agreed system for the transmission of power” as a solved problem. Liberal Democrats now wish to unsolve, or, better, dissolve this system so that electoral results accord with the desires of their party faction. (I’ll skip over how unhinged it is for an out of power faction to try this!) I think that engaging with Roman history, as presented by SPQR, must compel any fair-minded reader to be less than sanguine about such a systemic change. When Franklin said “If you can keep it,” he was not kidding. Specifically, a system of government where unelected intelligence officials can veto a President’s selection based on information withheld from voters — explicitly advocated by liberal Democrats in their “faithless elector” strategy — is no longer a Republic. Be careful what you wish for.


[1] The Atlantic: “It’s possible [Trump] truly did not realize that the FBI Director is not the equivalent of the security chief at a large corporation.” Perhaps one beneficial result of the Trump administration will be that the noxious meme that “government should be run like a business” — exemplified by [genuflects] Al Gore’s reinventing government initiative under the first, and so far only, Clinton administration — will finally be laid to rest.

[2] Some reviews don’t think much of Beard’s media critique:

It’s a weakness of “SPQR” that Ms. Beard seems more eager to tell us what historians don’t know than what they do. She is so subtle, hedging every bet, that the ceiling fans sometimes cease to circulate the air.

You push past this book’s occasional unventilated corner, however, because Ms. Beard is competent and charming company.

The New York Times. Of course. Other reviewers consider Beard’s skepticism healthy (here, here, and here). (And I love “charming company,” as if Beard were a beshawled and white-haired Agatha Christie, say, with a more elevated style.)

[3] Rather than sucking it up and figuring out how to appeal to more voters than they did; the Democrat post mortem for 2016 still remains secret.

[4] The impeachment effort pushed (so far, only) by liberal Democrats is an agreed mechanism for removing a President, regardless of the case being made for it, and hence out of scope for this post. As Gerald Ford said: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office.” Political, yes. But “agreed” the mechanism is.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. tempestteacup

    This is perhaps also what happens when a society reaches an essentially defensive state of inertia – when it is concerned with defending what exists rather than progressing towards some politically determined destination. After the ascension of Augustus, with the exception of a few skirmishes, the outer borders of the Roman Empire were essentially fixed or contracting. Once the expansionary phase of the Empire ended and the political system ossified into its Imperial form, the transmission of power became the end in itself rather than the means to effect change (those few Emperors who attempted to do so tended to reach a swift, sticky end). Court intrigue then becomes the primary game in town – it happened in Byzantium as well.

    The interminable intrigues of a select, detached, and increasingly fanatical sect of rulers over the spoils of an entropic society certainly sounds familiar today.

    1. visitor

      After the ascension of Augustus, with the exception of a few skirmishes, the outer borders of the Roman Empire were essentially fixed or contracting.

      Ahem, no. The situation you describe took hold following the death of Trajan — over a century after Augustus.

      In between, the Roman empire extended to Pannonia, Dacia, Nabatea, Armenia, Mesopotamia and what is nowadays England. The historical maps show that those conquests were no mere skirmishes, but massive endeavours.

      1. Jon Rudd

        Yes and no. Pannonia and Nabatea were already Roman client states, so neither one really counts as an outright conquest. Trajan’s conquests of Armenia and Mesopotamia were extremely short-lived, lasting only for several years. Dacia and Britannia were unquestionably cases of conquest and in both cases it took several wars to make those conquests stick.
        What’s always fascinated me is the succession issue. The Romans were obviously no fools when it came to matters of law and government, so why couldn’t they contrive a durable and consistent method of imperial succession? The answer could lie in the origins of the imperial office itself, in the military strongman days of the Late Republic. According to one of them (Crassus) nobody could call themselves rich in Rome unless they had enough money to recruit at least one legion. Politically, the ultimate coin of the realm always turned out to be the army and its preferences, without which there could be no empire. This was probably inevitable once Marius transformed it from a force of citizen-soldiers to one of long-serving professionals whose loyalties were to their commanders, not to the Republic.

        1. visitor

          Trajan’s conquests of Armenia and Mesopotamia were extremely short-lived, lasting only for several years.

          Correct, but they were major conquests nevertheless, against a redoubtable foe, and constituted the high-mark of the Roman empire.

          The original comment ascribed the cessation of conquests to Augustus and the entering of a period of territorial stasis with local skirmishes to Augustus; that period actually started with Hadrian.

          1. Jon Rudd

            Augustus’ non-expansion policy is frequently misinterpreted. Before Varus’ disaster in 9 CE the Romans persistently tried to conquer and pacify Germany east of the Rhine. It was that event that decided him against any further acquisitions (partly because the loss of three legions out of 28 temporarily deprived Rome of the necessary offensive power), but that policy did not automatically apply to his successors, as Claudius demonstrated 30 years later.

          2. tempestteacup

            You’re right – using the word skirmishes does not accurately describe the conquests of Trajan, although the fact that they were short-lived suggested the limits of Roman Imperial power.

            More generally, though, I was referring to an attitudinal shift that took place under Augustus and is described on page one of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall:

            The seven first centuries were filled with a rapid succession of triumphs; but it was reserved for Augustus to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth, and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils.

            To return to Lambert’s original comparisons between Imperial Rome and the contemporary American Empire, the moderation Gibbon cites spans the Five Good Emperors – roughly 100 years, at a time when historical change moved at a slower pace and when Roman military supremacy was subjected to less challenge than America today. Moreover, as we know, history does not evolve through a series of paradigm shifts or ruptures; although they sometimes take place (fall of Rome, fall of Constantinople, 1789, 1917), they are the denouement of tectonic movements rather than some unexpected or unheralded conflagration. In other words, there can be gains as well as losses within an overall pattern of inexorable decline – Byzantium’s imperial borders expanded during some periods of better governance despite its overall tendency to decline, arguably, as early as the end of the reign of Justinian I and generalship of Belisarius. And in Byzantium, too, there is a mounting sense of paralysis, with no progressive development but instead a series of defensive campaigns both at the heart of the empire and at its fringes as different power factions squabble for control of existing resources and wealth.

            Another point of comparison – inability of the ruling class to produce organically the type of leaders required to arrest decline because the ruling class has itself ossified politically and intellectually to reflect its entrenched wealth/ownership status. They simply can’t do what it would take to save themselves – late Byzantium is a catalogue of idiotic emperors, fantasists, egomaniacs and depraved whimsy. The analogy between then and now – and I’m not just referring to the current occupant of the Oval Office – may not be direct, but I stand by the view that America’s decline, its symptomatic delusions as much as its concrete effects, fit into a pattern of empires in a state of terminal decadence.

    2. PKMKII

      This is perhaps also what happens when a society reaches an essentially defensive state of inertia – when it is concerned with defending what exists rather than progressing towards some politically determined destination.

      I would argue that the modern day “rhyming” of that with America would be the fall of the Soviet Union. Lambert is right to compare what the current Democratic establishment is doing to the ancient underminers of power, but they didn’t start it. It goes back to Clinton, our first post-cold war presidency, who was accused of being illegitimate due to Perot’s “spoiling” and the affair. Bush II is then attacked as illegitimate due to not winning the popular vote and as being a war criminal. For Obama, it’s the supposed Kenyan birth, and then for Cheeto Benito it’s, again, not winning the popular vote and the frothing about Putin manipulating the election. Without an external and existential enemy to contend with, the political immune system turns on itself.

      Court intrigue then becomes the primary game in town – it happened in the Eastern Roman Empire as well.


      1. Oregoncharles

        Clinton won election with only 42% of the vote. That is legal but not psychologically legitimate, just like Trump’s “win.” .

        Maybe we have trouble with the succession because we have such a s….y electoral system.

          1. Oregoncharles

            No, but it’s nonetheless a problem. Each of these minority presidents has been treated as illegitimate by the other party, and often by the people. It’s one reason the Republicans went after Clinton so hard, even though he was one (of course, that in itself is the other reason.) Bush II was saved by 9/11.

            If we’re going to call it a democracy, which we insist on doing, then the person who gets the most votes should get the job. Perverse results leave an officeholder without the consent of the people.

            We’re used to the Electoral College, but it’s actually really weird.

            1. Carla

              As the excellent Jill Lepore explains, at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1887:

              “[Pennsylvania delegate James] Wilson proposed that the people elect the President directly, but Madison pointed out that the Southern states “could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes.” That is, the South had a lot of people, but a third of them were slaves; in a direct election, the North, which had a lot of people but very few slaves, would have had more votes. Wilson therefore suggested the Electoral College, a proposal that built on a mathematical compromise that had taken the delegates most of the summer to devise. Under the terms of the three-fifths compromise, each state was granted one representative in Congress for every thirty thousand people, except that slaves, who could not vote, counted as three-fifths of a person. Wilson’s proposal applied this formula to the election of the President: the number of each state’s electors in the Electoral College is the sum of its congressional delegation, its two senators plus its number of representatives. Substituting electors for voters conferred on the slave states a huge electoral advantage, once the first census was taken, in 1790. Virginia and Pennsylvania had roughly equivalent free populations, for instance, but Virginia, because of its slave population, had six more seats in the House than did Pennsylvania, and therefore six more electors in the Electoral College. This bargain helps to explain why the office of the President of the United States was, for thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of its existence, occupied by a slave-owning Virginian.”


              I really wonder if there’s ANYTHING in this country that doesn’t somehow go back to slavery, an original sin far worse than anything Adam and Eve could have cooked up.

              1. Procopius

                I was a little taken aback when I saw, “… at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1887:” I presume that’s a typo and you meant to write 1787. Otherwise I’ve somehow wandered into an alternate probability line and have no idea how to get back to my own. This one is not very pleasant.

            2. Brian M

              You are assuming that eliminating the Electoral College would eliminate the “problem” of minority presidents. Is that always going to be true?

              See other systems where multiple candidates run…and no candidate wins (on a first round vote) a majority.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Lambert is right to compare what the current Democratic establishment is doing to the ancient underminers of power, but they didn’t start it.

        But the state change is the open proposal to change the agreed forms of succession. That’s new. The rest is politics, always the undermining (though Whitewater was its own form of state change, even producing an innovative office, the Special Prosecutor, later abolished.)

        1. PKMKII

          But the state change is the open proposal to change the agreed forms of succession.

          There was some noise about eliminating the electoral college after Bush II defeated Gore, but didn’t go much of anywhere. Of course, the Deep State as annointer angle wasn’t present.

  2. stephen rhodes

    Instead of treating the history of the succession of emperors head back to the Roman Republic and its office of constitutional dictator, its tribunes, and its co-consuls.

    And for reflections on the current American situation see Machiavellian Democracy by J P McCormick which plays with Machiavelli’s recommendations for his own 16th century Florence based on his reading of the Roman Republic.

    1. L.M. Dorsey

      Great example of what Beard is talking about. McCormick uses Machiavelli (using Livy) to examine how class divisions and tensions were built into a republican constitution. And the advantages of such an arrangement. A few of McCormick’s articles are available through From the intro to the book cited, tho:

      In this book, I excavate the techniques besides elections by which common citizens attempted to restrain wealthy citizens and public magistrates in prominent ancient, medieval, and Renaissance republics, and I imagine how they might be reconstructed within contemporary democracies. The political writings of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) provide the portal through which I retrieve the following forgotten or abandoned practices of elite accountability:

      o Offices or assemblies empowered with veto or legislative authority that exclude the wealthiest citizens from eligibility (Chapters 3 and 4)
      o Magistrate appointment procedures that combine lottery and election (Chapter 4)
      o Political trials in which the entire citizenry acts as ultimate judge over prosecutions and appeals (Chapter 5)

    2. Stephen Rhodes

      [Thanks to L.M. Dorsey above. Here is another clip from McCormick’s introduction]

      Place under your pillow at night from Machiavellian Democracy 2011 (pp. 7-8) Cambridge University Press:

      The plebian tribunate, the centerpiece of Machiavelli’s prescriptions for popular government, was an intensely controversial institution in assessments of the Roman Republic throughout the history of Western political thought. Yet, inexplicably, scholarship devoted to elaborating Machiavelli’s “republicanism” virtually ignores it. Aristocratic republicans such as Guicciardini, and many more before and after him, from Cicero to Montesquieu, criticized the tribunate for opening the doors of government to upstarts, who subsequently stir up strife, sedition, and insurrection among the common people. Machiavelli, on the contrary, argues that the establishment of the tribunes made the Roman constitution “nearly perfect” by facilitating the plebians’ assertion of their proper role as the “guardians” of Roman liberty

      As we will observe in Chapter 4, when Machiavelli proposes constitutional reforms to restore the Florentine Republic, he creates a tribunician office, the proposti or provosts, a magistracy that wields veto and appellate powers and excludes the republic’s most prominent citizens.* Even commentators who understand Machiavelli to be an advocate of the people, an antagonist of the grandi, or— albeit more rarely—a democrat pure and simple largely neglect the crucial role that the Roman tribunes play in his political thought and consistently overlook his proposal to establish Florentine tribunes, the provosts, within his native city.

      *Machiavelli, “Discursus on Florentine Affairs” (1520-21)
      [emphasis added, two footnotes, and section citation omitted]

      1. Ulysses

        Numismatists have long appreciated how the powers of the tribune of the plebs was considered very important to Augustus and later emperors:

        “Tribunicia Potestas, ‘Tribunician Power’. Established in the early days of the Republic, the office of Tribune of the Plebs ultimately carried with it wide ranging powers and protections, including inviolability of person. On 1 July 23 BC Augustus obtained a lifetime grant of the tribunician power, an important step in the establishment of an autocracy as it gave him the absolute right of veto as well as the authority to convene the Senate. The tribunician power was generally assumed at the commencement of each new reign, though some emperors had already received it during their predecessor’s reign (eg Tiberius, Titus, Marcus Aurelius, etc.). It is of special interest when followed by a numeral as this allows a coin to be assigned to its precise year of issue, the tribunician power being renewed annually for the purpose of regnal dating.”

  3. Enquiring Mind

    Visit Rome, walk around, breathe the air, imagine that you are among citizens and others. Being able to see the same sights and sites as those a few thousand years ago takes on more meaning after reading SPQR. There are no doubt variations on the theme for London (history seemingly on every block), Paris and other cities. Highly recommended reading.

    1. Phil in KC

      Thanks for the link. I second Wilkerson. This is a “must-view” lecture/discussion that has gone unnoticed, except by our astute curators at NC. As I recall, Wilkerson observed that when declining Empires are in trouble externally, they pass over diplomacy and go for the military solution. Think the Spanish in just about any situation pre-1900, the Brits in the Boer War, the French in Indochina, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and us in Iraq/Syria/North Korea/You-name-it-stan.

      As a corollary, Wilkerson went on to observe that as empires decline, so to does the founding society. In these declining societies, again the military is oft viewed as the last bastion of honor,valor, civility, and rationality. Again, does this ring a bell?

      Wilkerson’s point in studying the decline of empires is to find gentler and probably longer glide paths downward for empires that have peaked. He cites the British as being unusually wise and prescient in realizing that the days of their own empire were drawing down, and praises their strategic retreats. As a result, the British have far more influence on the world stage than their numbers, economy, and military would suggest. He concludes that it is likely at some point in this century, or early in the next, at the latest, that the US will have to concede world leadership and dominance to another power or group of powers, and be content merely to be a powerful second-tier nation.

  4. Ed

    Comparing the end of the Roman Empire and in some cases the Republic to the decline and fall of the American empire (and this was done with and by the British too), but the fact is that both governments lasted a really, really long time. If anything, we should be taking lessons from them on what to do.

    1. PKMKII

      Not to mention, this is the wrong period of Roman history to look to if you want to see about an empire falling. That would be the late 4th and 5th centuries.

    2. sierra7

      Is it not true that Rome went thru more than 750 years just in its decline??
      For years I’ve felt that the US will not last as long as half the time it took the Roman Empire to decline.
      Sad, but viewing our actions for decades now it seems more and more to coming to fruition.

  5. Louis Fyne

    Mary Beard presented a few interesting documentaries for the BBC. They’re floating around the intertubes. Check them out.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Mary Beard is a wonderful classical scholar. SPQR is a wonderful read. She is lightyears beyond the propaganda that is Decline & Fall by Gibbon.

      The decline and fall, in modern scholarship … is both complex and unsolved. I am sure with proper paper money and a trillion dollar platinum coin, Romans could have kept their political economy going forever ;-)

        1. Quentin

          Disturbed Voter, What would you otherwise expect? Mary Beard, while definitely not lightyears, is certainly nearly three centuries beyond Gibbons. And who knows if her writings will be called propaganda by someone after the passage of another three centuries. Most likely, no one will give a poisoned fig or whatever for ancient Rome. Yet it remains a good story and moral lesson for our times.

    2. Oregoncharles

      Did she do the one on Sparta – specifically, on the role of women in ancient Sparta? Mind-bending. Sorry I don’t remember the title.

        1. Oregoncharles

          Yes, Bettany Hughes rings a bell. I should have done the search work myself! Really interesting program.

  6. hemeantwell

    I seem to recall that over time the Roman imperium faced more and more difficulty taxing the big estates. This set up an ongoing political-fiscal crisis that, I’d imagine, would flare up around successions. If that’s accurate, does that make the parallel with the current crisis more apt?

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Specifically, as the silver coin went out of circulation, the army couldn’t be paid. This created frequent army mutinies. They then required all property taxes to be paid in gold coin, which was then recirculated to pay for the army. Copper coin also fell out of circulation, leaving only the gold coin … which was carted off as bribes by the Huns and as pillage by the Visigoths. But the Byzantines were strong, as long as they still had gold coin to pay their armies. The rest of society in late Imperial Rome or in the Byzantine Empire had to fall back on highly inefficient barter. The hyperinflation from 250 to 500 … caused all the copper and silver to be buried in people’s back yards.

    2. visitor

      For its extent, its population size and the scope of tasks to accomplish, the Roman empire appears to have had too small a bureaucracy. With emperors worried about seditions, increasingly busy running from one border to another to stem threats from troublesome tribes, and having to devote ever more resources to the military, this made it increasingly difficult to manage the day-to-day of far-away provinces.

      There, the following scheme was set up: local notabilities had to take over the bureaucratic tasks on behalf of an hopelessly overwhelmed imperial administration, most importantly, managing the bookkeeping, collection, and safe-storing of taxes. The records and sums where then checked by imperial bureaucrats and sent to Rome / Constantinople.

      As the situation worsened, the emperor would make those notabilities personally responsible for the payment of taxes in their district. This responsibility was linked to an official delegation of powers for enforcing the payment from the lower rungs of taxpayers.

      Later on, they were given power to levy local taxes, and the armed forces necessary to shake down recalcitrant taxpayers. Naturally, they ended up paying the minimum to the imperial administration and keeping the rest for themselves. Once they had accumulated enough power, they cut lose altogether. Thus began feudalism.

    3. Katsue

      It’s contested. Peter Heather argued in his history of the Fall of the Roman Empire that the major problem faced by the late Roman Empire was that its neighbours had grown more powerful and militarily effective*. It therefore had to maintain a significantly larger military establishment than it had during the early Empire.

      The arrival of the Huns created a crisis which the Eastern Empire survived, but, more or less by accident, the Western Empire didn’t. If the Battle of Cap Bon in 468AD had gone the other way, the Western Empire might well have survived.

      * Itself in large part a consequence of proximity to Rome.

  7. Amfortas the Hippie

    I haven’t read this book, yet(my book budget has been non-existent for 3 years, now). However, beginning around November 3rd of last year, I put the numerous books in my bed back on the shelves, and began re-reading Roman History. Livy(and Machiavelli’s treatment, thereof),Goldsworthy’s “Fall of the West”, and Freeman’s “381AD” and “closing of the western mind”. I’ve also managed, in my 4am quiet time, to run through Tacitus, Julius Caesar, Seutonius and what little Cicero I’ve collected over the years.
    Now I’m deep into Volume Two of Gibbons magnum opus.
    Through it all, and in light of what’s been going on in my contemporary world, I’ve been thinking about Toynbee.
    That’s prolly the next adventure, although it’s not confined to Rome.(Study of History).
    Toynbee’s morphology of Civilisation seems pretty damned germane at the moment: a Creative Minority(Liberal Internationalism, or whatever you want to call it), gets exhausted and bereft of new ideas, and thus becomes a Dominant minority….believing they deserve to rule because they rule, and spending more and more resources and effort to push down any challenge(see Tainter, here, on diminishing returns on hypercomplexity). Meanwhile, the External Proletariat(The Ummah, and others) chaffes at the restraints…while the Internal Proletariat(that’s Us) gnaws at the roots of power.
    Eventually, exhaustion takes it’s toll, and the Internal Proletariat unites around some new Creative Minority, who build what Toynbee called a “Universal Church”(which need not be religious, per se), and a “New” civilisation is born.
    Throw in Quigley and folks like Domhoffer(sp-2) and C. Wright Mills and Bertram Gross, and we have ample fuel for a Symposium(Greek:”drinking party”).
    (another book I’d put in yer preparatory list for that drunken philosophical orgy, is Crane Brinton’s “Anatomy of a Revolution”.)
    With sufficient detachment, it is a remarkable time to be alive.
    Salve Omnes.

    1. PKMKII

      If you want to add another to the pile, I recommend Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome, for the transition from the late Western Roman Empire into the early and then mid-medieval.

      1. rob adams

        Yes, I was just thinking about Inheritance of Rome, among others – excellent draught of history – with plummy depths and stout tannins of detail laced with impressive roundness, leaving a gestalt aftertaste of enlightenment; this book should last more than a century – I give it a 92.

    2. visitor

      Toynbee deeply impressed me when I read his “Study of History” — actually, the 1000+ pages abridgment of it written by Somervell.

      Two further crucial elements that should be mentioned:

      1) That “creative minority” you mention is distinguished by successfully rising to a major civilizational challenge (e.g. how to prosper in a desert, or a jungle, or on scattered islands) — which is what gives it the power and legitimacy to exert it. It loses legitimacy when it faces a new challenge that it cannot take on successfully.

      2) Second, when a civilization is going down, it often engages in a suicidal action by repressing or even annihilating an internal, or neighbouring minority that is already part of its sphere of influence, and that could have taken over successfully from the ruling minority.

      Interestingly, I never see Toynbee or his concepts being cited anywhere.

      1. Andrew Watts

        1) That “creative minority” you mention is distinguished by successfully rising to a major civilizational challenge (e.g. how to prosper in a desert, or a jungle, or on scattered islands) — which is what gives it the power and legitimacy to exert it. It loses legitimacy when it faces a new challenge that it cannot take on successfully.

        The creative minority transforms itself into a dominant minority when it can no longer confront the many challenges a civilization is presented with. This was one of my favorite points that Toynbee pointed out because at the end of the day it isn’t any materialist or environmental factors driving the collapse. It’s always the failure or folly of people at the end of the day.

        Interestingly, I never see Toynbee or his concepts being cited anywhere.

        The Archdruid wrote a lot about Toynbee on his old blog. If you look back through a few of my old comments from 2013 I cited him a few times with regards to the collapse of imperial power.

        Any student of Toynbee is going to operate in a target-rich environment in the present. The ability of the Islamic State to recruits thousands of Westerners from various backgrounds wouldn’t surprise Toynbee at all. The breakdown of mimesis in European countries was something he agonized over during his own lifetime. Contemporary analysts don’t bother understanding this phenomenon and/or they just blame social media propaganda.

        1. Anonymous2

          Did not Toynbee claim that Western Civilisation had ‘failed’ in the C16th and has been on its way out ever since? Seems a bit of a stretch to me.

          1. Andrew Watts

            I don’t think so. Toynbee thought that the pre-existing civilizations could fuse with one another or that Western civilization could absorb the other remaining ones.

    3. Eclair

      Not to denigrate any of the great comments and suggestions for my reading list given here (a veritable little symposium of Roman history), but the image of NC community members all busily ‘gnawing at the roots of power,’ will sustain and delight me in the remarkable months to come.

  8. joecostello

    Beard’s book is ok, I suppose anything to get people to read classical history is helpful. She has a penchant to try novel revisionism, some is ok, others not so much. For example her flippant dismissal of the Gracchi and the concentration of wealth as main component of the republic’s fall in its last decades is simply both wrongheaded and wrong. A much better popular read on the republic’s fall, an era with plenty of lessons for today, is Holland’s Rubicon

    Better yet is the old German Mommsen’s History of Rome, which is about the 500 years of the republic. When asked why he never did history of the empire, his reply, “It’s too depressing.”

    However, the point here is the imperial successions you bring up are not yet of our era, if Trump be Caesar, than as the other old German said, “first time tragedy, second time farce.” And maybe US unlike Rome won’t face 4 civil wars in its last several decades, but what certainly looks to be happening in last couple decades, as what happened under Augustus, is the institutions and many of the practices and beliefs of the republic stayed in place, but the system itself became controlled by the emperor and small oligarchy.

    Gore Vidal, one of the few writers on American politics of the last fifty years who had a knowledge of classical history, told this story at the time of the madness of President W and overwhelming passage of the “Patriot Act,” we all remember that right? Vidal tells of Rome’s second emperor Tiberius and the institutions of the republic remaining, but not the republic:

    When Augustus died, or was murdered, Tiberius became emperor, as the succession was working then. And immediately the Senate and people of Rome sent him an overall mandate, a carte blanche, saying that to anything he proposed — as the emperor living on the Palatine hill — they would automatically concur and accept. He was already a semi-divinity in their eyes. That had started with the death of Augustus who had been deified…

    And I found out what Tiberius’s response had been to the Senate. He sent back a message — because they were very upset that he didn’t respond immediately with a million thanks — that said, ‘I cannot accept this blanket compliance with anything that might come from me on Palatine Hill here. Suppose that I go mad, or mad with power, or corrupt. Suppose there has been a coup in the palace and somebody else is in charge and you don’t know about it. Would you still want the word of the emperor to be automatic law?’

    And they sent back word, ‘Yes, Tiberius. You are the law, all power is with you. Everything that you send us will be accepted and then made law.’ Well, he sent it back with the same objections.

    They went on and on for about three or four times and he was getting nowhere with the Senate and they were getting above their station which he was quick to remind them: it would be his decision and his decision was no. After all, they lived through despots just before he came to the throne. Did they want that again? And they said, ‘We beg you, great emperor,’ and so on. He realized he was getting nowhere with them and he said, ‘I accept your folly but I can only make one obiter dicta. And that is how eager you are to be slaves.’

    That to me is the United States today: eager for slavery.”

  9. Oregoncharles

    Liberal Democrats are hardly the only ones advocating the abolition of the Electoral College; it’s openly anti-democratic (small d). How many times now has it led to a perverse outcome? As it happens, the Dems have lately been the losers from it, but that won’t last forever.

    The Senate is a problem, too, but we aren’t quite ready for that one.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Liberal Democrats are hardly the only ones advocating the abolition of the Electoral College

      I didn’t say they were. I put it in the context of other ways in which the losers of election 2016 sought to change the rules to their advantage, instead of figuring out how to actually win games.

      1. Oregoncharles

        I guess I was adding-to, not contradicting. As I wrote elsewhere here, maybe we have a succession problem because our electoral system is family blogged.

        Of course, the other reason is the Imperial Presidency.

        1. different clue

          Under your theory of majority rule in all things, the few overpopulated water-poor states will be able to outvote the many underpopulated water-rich states. If your theory is adopted, the water-short overpopulation-majority will immediately vote to take all the water away from the water-sufficient underpopulated minority.

          California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and some others will vote to take all the water away from Oregon, Washington, the Great Lakes and some other high-water places. Hey Great! Majority Rule! No more Senators, no more Electoral College. And if you live in Oregon, no more water for you.

          1. StephenVerchinski

            New Mexico has its completed water planning. Aside from the possibility of interbasin water transfers within the state which is being fought by virtually everybody I know, there is no attempt at this point in time to create an infrastructure to take water from places like Oregon.

            Sorry that is nothing but (ahem) a pipe dream.

  10. marku52

    I just finished Micheal Grant’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, after a rec by a commenter here at NC.

    Chapter after chapter: “Yup we’ve got that one going on–Yup, here’s another one”

    And interesting one was the decline of infrastructure, something to do with increasing military expenses, and a change in the tax structure away from local control.

    And obviously, we now have a major problem with succession as well, which we didn’t before.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Yes, we did, but the worst examples are way back in the 19h Century, an ambiguous result that led to a prolonged standoff in Congress and a corrupt settlement.

  11. lyman alpha blob

    Thanks for this. I’ve been meaning to pick up this book and now I will.

    Today’s Democrat party should indeed be careful what they wish for, especially concerning the tactic of giving veto power to the spooks. That didn’t work out so well for a few Roman emperors once the Praetorian Guard (the intelligence community/secret police of the day) amassed too much power. Been a while since I read Gibbon but at one point the Guard simply auctioned off the office of emperor and if I’m thinking of the same story, it was Didius Julianus who won. It didn’t take long before they changed their minds and he wound up being shivved. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned there – money is no guarantee of legitimacy.

    Recently read one you might be interested in – Dying Every Day by James Romm. It’s an account of Seneca’s life in Nero’s court which also has some modern parallels. Like some other pols we know, Seneca also had public and private positions on various issues. He comes across as much more virtuous in his own writings for public consumption but in private seemed much different and it’s still rather foggy what he truly believed.

  12. DJG

    I like your stress on structures rather than personalities in your post. I have to admit, though, being of Italian descent, when I go to Rome, I’m like a salmon swimming up the Tiber atavistically (diamine, I hope that the Tiber can support salmon). I look for long-standing cultural paradigms (like 2,000-year-old references to lasagna recipes).

    It isn’t just SPQR on the sewer covers and the ancient statues that seem to pop spontaneously out of the ground. Rome represents the continuity of Western culture. When I was there last, some friends of mine and I were discussing the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Italy. The problem is that the Church is the remnant of the Roman Empire, still organized in a Roman way. The Church is also an emanation of Roman and Italian culture that still exits. See the Franciscan Movement, among other things. So Italy is never going to be able to get the Church out of culture and politics because the Church and Italy made each other.

    So I felt much better on return to the attention deficit of the U S of A, where a timeline of two weeks is considered historic.

    That said, I understand your comments about the succession crisis. The FBI and CIA are much akin to the Preaetorian Guard, the armed force designed to protect the executive branch that ends subverting the executive branch. (See the Ottoman Empire, the Janissaries, and the Auspicious Event, which is a kind of solution.)

    Yet the succession wasn’t always in question. I was contemplating a statue of Antoninus Pius, looking for familial resemblances, and I found this out later from Wikipedia:
    “He acquired the name Pius after his accession to the throne, either because he compelled the Senate to deify his adoptive father Hadrian,[5] or because he had saved senators sentenced to death by Hadrian in his later years.[6] He died of illness in 161 and was succeeded by his adopted sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as co-emperors.”

    Now Hadrian was a very careful emperor (as was Trajan, his “father”). So was Antoninus Pius. Of course, Marcus Aurelius, who is supposedly so wonderful, all that stoic self-examination, screwed up his own succession.

    The long and the short of it is that I understand the succession crisis: We had that with President W, too. But what worries me more is the egregiously corrupt thinking of people like Begala (who you highlighted yesterday), Miles Gloriosus McCain (the war-loving buffoon), Paul Ryan (our Cataline?), and the Clintons and their dynastic ambitions. (Now why can I envision Hillary Clinton on a ladder in a fig tree painting figs with some tincture of strychnine?).

    The issue may not be succession. It may be empire itself and the corruption of too much money floating around and of being an empire of extractive industries (just as the enormous numbers of slaves, who were extracted and exploited, also are a factor in ruining Rome).

    1. animalogic

      It should be worth noting that problems of succession in Imperial Rome were not only structural, but intrinsic to the “system”. Unlike the Republic there was no legally enforceable means of succession- The US however, has a legally clear process of succession which has worked up to today.
      The Trump situation is not a genuine succession issue: the Russia business is a complete vicious fantasy, oxygenated by those who refuse to accept Trump, not the system itself. Of course, in their overweening arrogance & resentment, many seem willing to Samson like, pull the whole “temple”-system down for the sake of Trump’s political (or, JFK- like ) personal destruction.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > not a genuine succession issue

        I don’t know what you mean by “genuine.” Liberal Democrats are trying to replace an agreed method of succession with a new one, and have made several suggestions (though to me, the initial proposal for faithless electors was the most dangerous, I think the same drivers are behind all the proposals). That’s “genuine.”

        1. animalogic

          Yes – suggestions, proposals even. Wow.
          I guess it will still be a “succession issue” when they are still trying to evict Trump 3 years into his term.
          Everything about the anti-trump people -so far – is foolish & dangerous. Not because of Trump per se, but because they really do seem Samson – like in their mad rush to destroy a president, who, like it or not, did win the presidency.

  13. nihil obstet

    It seems to me that in order to have a succession crisis, you have to have concentrated too much power in one person. The person can act in ways that you regard as illegitimate without your having the power to stop them. In both the Roman Senate of the late republic and empire and the American Congress today, excessive power has been granted the putative first citizen to defend the homeland against enemies and to enforce peace among domestic factions. The easiest example to note is that the U.S. has been at war for our entire lifetimes, and the Congress, the only body that can declare war, hasn’t done so since 1941. I think Beard points out that the Romans of the empire retained the governmental appearance of the republic, but all but the emperor was stripped of power.

    Our way of concentrating power is to grant it to “independent” agencies that are above politics (that is, unaccountable to democratic power), such as the Fed, whose members are chosen by the president. And of course, we have the nutty Supreme Court, whose members were confirmed because of the claim that the confirmation process is only about qualifications, not politics. Thus, we have been treated to confirmation hearings in which the nominee faces the Senators with a shit-eating grin and repeats over and over, “I can’t discuss that issue because it may come before the Court.” Of course, it’ll come before the court, you hack!!! If you can’t discuss your judicial approach because you aren’t going to pay attention to the specific case before you, then just admit that you’re a fraud. And this is before we get into perjury during the hearings.

    An oligarchy has succession crises. We’ve had 17 years of them now.

    1. Stephen Rhodes

      Gorsuch and the Federalist Society are descended from the Founders’ property-owning democracy—and intend to ascend to those heights (dead or alive).

    2. animalogic

      “It seems to me that in order to have a succession crisis, you have to have concentrated too much power in one person. ”
      Succession issues/crisis revolve around the lack of legal/cultural legitimisation & predictability between moving from one governing person/body to the next. Absent predictability/ legitimacy you may open up a space for various contenders to power to unconstrained struggle to obtain power.
      The “Year of the Four Emperors” is a perfect example. On the death of Nero, the last of the
      Julio-Claudians who had ruled for over a hundred years, the empire was faced with … chaos: who could rule ? Those who tried to rule used every “trick” in the book: bribery, propaganda, demagoguery & of course, military violence. That is a succession crisis.

  14. Carolinian

    Of course succession problems aren’t confined to Rome or recent America. See Henry VIII or for that matter much of English history. Supposedly America was going to solve the problem by doing away with kings altogether but unfortunately we still have the royal court which, per joecostello’s Vidal reference above, long to be slaves. The real reason they hate Trump is probably because he doesn’t dismiss and ignore them the way Dubya did. When Trump does kingly things like attacking Syria they get the leg thrill. The exercise of power is their drug as seen by any Bob Woodward hagiography.

    Anyway thanks for the post and the comments. Will definitely hit the local library for SPQR.

  15. RBHoughton

    Rome collapsed because it was a predatory power. Where Roman armies trod they left a desert. It is the worst authority any country could chose as exemplar but first Britain and now America have both based education on Roman/Greek history. Having inculcated that conditioning in the ruling class they used it to administer their empires.

    Had anyone thought about it they would have realized the way ahead was to stimulate trade to give the neighbors every reason to maintain the peace whilst building up the national share of global treasure.

    1. Phil in KC

      If, in the Antique world, your region were to be conquered by an invader, you would want the invader to be the Romans. Their rule was relatively benign. They brought many positive things to the people of conquered territories: clean water, a system of law, schools, protection from barbarians (even barbarians wanted protection from other warring tribes), better and more food and drink, roads, access to markets–in a word, prosperity. If you could accept Roman rule, then things could be pretty decent, especially when considering the alternatives. If you resisted, and resisted violently, then, yes, they’d leave a desert, as at Carthage.

      As I recall reading, many of the tribes bordering the northern extent of the Roman Empire wished only to live in peace under Roman law and Roman rule, such as the Franks. Even the Huns wished to live as the Romans did, and sought to preserve many Roman customs and systems.

      1. witters

        Ah, yes, the wonderful, lovable, imperialism of Ancient Rome! Wonder why we think this, no? For a different view, see David Mattingly, “imperialism, Power & Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire” Princeton & Oxford, 2011.

    2. animalogic

      “Where Roman armies trod they left a desert.”
      A gross exaggeration & historically myopic & colour blind.

  16. Andrew Watts

    I find it difficult to accept this comparison for a variety of reasons. There isn’t any ambiguity in how the line of succession works in the US. There’s also the matter of how political power is transferred and in the course of American history that has been peaceful most of the time. The endless whining about Trump’s election doesn’t compare well to Roman history. The transfer of power in Rome was frequently violent and only Lincoln’s election comes to mind as being the glaring exception to the American rule.

    You don’t have to venture that far back in history to view examples of a similar political crisis during a period of imperial decline. When the last gasp of French hegemony emaciating from the Bourbon monarchy was ended with the War of the Spanish Succession a “imperial/patriotic party” arose in Great Britain. The British were led by one of their longest serving prime ministers named Horace Walpole. Walpole endeavored to make peace with Spain and France but a national policy of isolation was considered a betrayal of Great Britain’s imperial destiny at the height of it’s triumph. A cabal comprised of military officers, merchants, bankers, and aristocrats arose from both the Tory and Whig parties to oppose Walpole’s policies and eventually succeeded in forcing his resignation. The imperial wars that followed Walpole’s ouster led to the birth of the United States and almost disintegrated the British empire in the process.

    The emergence of Trump as a political phenomenon is comparable to the historical influence of John Wilkes. It is fairly common in British-American history for a false tribune of the people to arise to power and influence in a time of political crisis. Although Wilkes might’ve been the first person in Anglo-American political history who made a living by attacking the corruption of others while reveling in his own throughout his political career. George III and his court loathed Wilkes and their criticism added credibility to Wilkes’ pursuit of power. This is something which we should all find familiar when the Establishment repeatedly denounces Trump to little effect in the public mind. Of course, he was eventually proven to be a fraud, and even his friends admitted what a liar and rogue he was, but Wilkes is a very familiar figure in British-American history.

    If you view the end of the War of the Spanish Succession as a historical parallel to the Cold War and the rise of the dip—- imperialists then there isn’t a whole lot of surprises left in store. The dominant minority in power will double down on failure. What was forged through war will be undone by war.

    1. Andrew Watts


      The British were led by one of their longest serving prime ministers named Horace Walpole.

      I confused and mixed up Horace Walpole with Robert Walpole. Horace was the son of Robert and while he sat in parliament he never had his father’s long and illustrious career as prime minister.

        1. Colonel Smithers

          And Lloyd George’s, too, at national level, Lady Shirley at local level.

          At my secondary school, there is a collection of monuments called British Worthies from the 18th century. It’s alleged that each person depicted had / has a virtue that Walpole did not. One of the houses / halls of residence is called Walpole.

        2. Andrew Watts

          Yup, and the reformed Whigs used Walpole’s corrupt political machine as a means to defeat him. Did they prove to be any less corrupt though? I dunno!

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > There isn’t any ambiguity in how the line of succession works in the US.

      There most certainly is in the minds of liberal Democrats, or they wouldn’t be making the proposals they are making.

      1. Andrew Watts

        It doesn’t really matter what they think when the political base of their party is dissipating. Not only did they prove to be incapable of defeating Trump but their approval ratings have fallen during the first six months of his presidency.

        If you want to make the Rome comparison stick then the Democrats would be raising an army to march on Washington with the explicit goal of violently overthrowing the government. They’d also have a list in their possession of their political enemies whom they intend to murder. Instead they whine about the popular vote and the legitimacy of the electoral process.

        Let’s not forget the anonymous cowards of PropOrNot either.

        1. nihil obstet

          How exactly parallel must the experiences of different entities be in order to make a comparison analytically useful? That’s always a judgment call, and obviously my judgment calls for less exact mirroring of incident. Indeed, the two states start from different constitutional premises. In Rome, power could be voted to a dictator in times of threat to save the Republic; this has never been constitutionally accepted in the U.S. In Rome, the Republic failed when the dictators who wielded legitimate power continued beyond the immediate crisis, insisting that they were saving the government, not overthrowing it. You know, like our government insisting that secret courts and mass surveillance are saving the country, not transforming it into something at considerable odds with our Constitution. But there’s no U.S. Marius, no Sulla, no Pompey, no Caesar, and so far, no change of government outside torturing the forms of the law or change using violence, so you can say that the comparison doesn’t stick. I think it’s a good exercise in analyzing why very popular and long-lasting governments transform into something very different.

          Was the 2000 election a succession crisis? I think so. It involved massive illegality in purging voter lists, the Brooks Brothers riot, and the hacktacular intervention of the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the pretense of legitimacy was protected. Significant portions of the country believed throughout Obama’s presidency that his election was not legitimate, resorting to the whole birther tale to argue that he was not legally eligible for the presidency. And now we have arguments about everything from the Electoral College, the emoluments clause, the charges of treason . . . . I would argue that those events are symptomatic of serious issues with how we’ve allocated power in the state, and that historical events can help us analyze them.

    3. DH

      The US Constitution provides a fairly robust structure to help protect democracy. It is really up to the people and Congress to provide the immune system response within that structure. McCarthy comes to mind where the country was heading down some very vile autocratic rule directions related to naming names etc. that was close to Nazi Germany and East German Stasi approaches, but the ship was able to right itself as people started to realize “Have you no decency sir?”

      So it is up to us. Congress has recently showed that with a clear enough message, the people can force some direction to them as we just witnessed in the inane, incompetent attempts to just ram through health care changes that were a lip service response to a campaign rally chant.

  17. flora

    This is a great post.
    What shall I call liberal Democrats’ refusal to accept U.S. traditional electoral norms? Inbred antiquarianism? Opportunistic power grab disguised as virtue? An assertion of hereditary power in a democratic state? Flim-flam?

    Oh, and, looks like I have another book to add to my must-read list.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. DH

      The demand was created by Big Pharma and doctors. Why would we go to war with Mexico? Mexico is just becoming the low-cost supplier supplanting Big Pharma. Kind of like Amazon taking on the department stores.

      The secret to the opiod crisis is to stop building the demand and that needs to start with sate and DOJ investigations of Big Pharma, like what was done after the financial crisis with Wall Street……oh….wait….

  18. edr

    Very interesting and thought provoking essay.

    ” a system of government where unelected intelligence officials [FBI,CIA, NSA] can veto a President’s selection…. explicitly advocated by liberal Democrats [and the neoliberal media] ….. is no longer a Republic”

    Commentators comparison of the Intelligence Agencies with the Roman Praetorian Guard that chaotically made and dissolved Roman rulers seems a timely warning.

    “Liberal Democrats now wish to unsolve, or, better, dissolve [the Electoral College] system so that electoral results accord with the desires of their party faction.”

    Luckily: “how unhinged it is for an out of power faction to try this!)”

    Interesting how that’s a lovely aspect of how the system works, that the losing faction doesn’t have the power to change the system simply because they’re upset at losing an election.

    Toynbee always sounds like something to read:

    Amfortas the Hippie: “Toynbee’s morphology of Civilization seems pretty damned germane at the moment: a Creative Minority(Liberal Internationalism, or whatever you want to call it), gets exhausted and bereft of new ideas, and thus becomes a Dominant minority….believing they deserve to rule because they rule, and spending more and more resources and effort to push down any challenge(see Tainter, here, on diminishing returns on hypercomplexity). Meanwhile, the External Proletariat(The Ummah, and others) chaffes at the restraints…while the Internal Proletariat(that’s Us) gnaws at the roots of power. Eventually, exhaustion takes it’s toll, and the Internal Proletariat unites around some new Creative Minority, who build what Toynbee called a “Universal Church”(which need not be religious, per se), and a “New” civilisation is born.” ….[if the Current Ruling Oligarchy or Ruling Neoliberal ideology doesn’t first kill the new innovators, political innovators and/or technological innovators, etc.. ].”

  19. rob adams

    The Roman Republic never had a voting system – beyond a kind of widespread patronage with a central voting body more similar to the Five Families – but on which the American Republic heavily relies for succession, which is my main argument against too much comparison with Rome, as against 6th-5th Century BC Athens. Not to get too far afield, but it seems to me that the Kos-promoted movement to eliminate the electoral system is in response to systematic gerrymandering for which we should instead be looking to Kleisthenes for an example of how to make things work – which would likely and nevertheless require a constitutional change – that conundrum of political evolution. This and the lottery system of appointing judges , for all their faults, did place a balance of sorts on the perpetual antagonism between the Rich the Rest. Of course that ended badly as well. I think to the dictum of “Vigilance” in the preservation of “democracy” should be added “Energetic Fatalism.”

    1. animalogic

      ” The Roman Republic never had a voting system – beyond a kind of widespread patronage with a central voting body more similar to the Five Families ”
      I’m sorry to say but your view is grossly inaccurate. The Republic had three assemblies for voting on matters: the Curiate Assembly, Tribal Assembly), and the Centuries. And, yes, they were far from being perfectly democratic — which does not mean that they could not express, via voting, the views & wants of different Roman classes. And yes, there was widespread patronage. The patron & client structure was absolutely central to Roman politics & society generally.
      I assume your “five families” reference is to the Mafia ? Funny analogy. The great roman families were committed to the greatness of the state, whereas, the five families were committed to undermining the state, society & individuals.

      1. rob adams

        Thanks for correcting me on a few points. Obviously our readings have produced different conclusions; different points of view always welcome.

  20. Jamie

    “The impeachment effort pushed (so far, only) by liberal Democrats”


    “The impeachment effort pushed (so far, only) by voters who supported a candidate who took millions in bribes from Russia is an agreed mechanism for removing a President, regardless of the case being made for it”

    Regardless of the case being made for it? Wow. So we all agree we can impeach a president if he or she doesn’t like Game of Thrones? Wow.

  21. Scott

    Lambert, After reading ROME to 565 by Boak I wrote the song “Rome”. It is in the playlist on Transcendian Rome. When my CD comes out the short version will be on it.
    Rome to 565 is simply excellent. It does list all the books that the author used to compose his little masterpiece, for it is not a long book.
    When modeling my nation of airports I tried to find precedents & “Best Practices”. Hence I go for the simple workable Airport Authority answerable to a parliament. There, going for a parliamentary form of democracy I am taking what Barbara Tuchman advised for the US in her book “Practicing History”.
    you sir, Lambert have influenced me with your excellent essay “Collapsing in Place”
    I wrote today a letter for my website
    I’m near finishing the excellent “The Deep State” by Mike Lofgren.
    Of essays or stories I need to work up is something opposite to the Dystopian collection so prevalent these days. These things of the common consciousness are too likely to come true when people share no other visions of their present or future.

  22. sierra7

    All excellent posts and comments!
    I do believe we are overlooking the increasingly less registered voters taking the time to vote….wasn’t it somewhere around 80M in the last election?
    That could be the fuse that has been lit and burning for years…..There seems to be no answer to the problems facing US citizenry trying to stop the policies of perpetual war, kicking the lame, sick, downtrodden to the curb; a multi-layered justice system; a philosophy of “kill them all and let God sort them out”. In it’s terminal decline Rome had its “offices” sold to the highest bidders; have we not sold ours to the same????

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