What does a republic in decline look like?
It’s an increasingly pressing question for the United States, where rising economic inequality is creating stress, anxiety and resentment. Endemic racism and ethnic prejudice are leading to clashes over citizenship and voting rights. Rampant corruption and ruthless ambition among elites are triggering political clashes that may crack the once-indestructible foundations of the American Republic — an unthinkable idea even a few decades ago, in the triumphalist aftermath of the Cold War.
Yet the seeds of American decline were sown not in the past 15 years of war and recession but in the 1970s, when economic inequality began to rise, a process that has only accelerated in recent years. As the decline of the Roman Republic shows, sharp inequality, left unaddressed, can be catastrophic, unleashing political and social consequences that can bring even a centuries-old republic to its end.
In 146 B.C., Rome completed its conquest of both Greece and Carthage and emerged as the most dominant power in the Mediterranean. There was no power left to challenge the legions, and over the course of the next century, Rome enveloped the rest of the region on its way to becoming the greatest and most enduring empire in the ancient world.
But as a result of this imperial triumph, the republican system under which the Romans lived collapsed. Since 509 B.C., Rome had been famous for its system of cooperative and participatory government that combined executive magistrates with an aristocratic Senate and democratic assemblies. For centuries, the republic persisted, and no single man ever seized power. But within 100 years of Rome’s imperial victories in 146, the republican system would be dead. The triumph of the Roman Republic was simultaneously the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. [Continue reading…]