Lessons from the Late Republic

The republic to which I refer is not Plato’s classic “Just City in Speech,” nor the American Republic created by the Founding Fathers, but the late Roman Republic. Although Mr. Madison’s form of government was self-consciously modeled on the Roman Republic, since American educational training was captured by the “progressive education” disciples of John Dewey, our school children’s knowledge of the Roman Republic has attenuated to the point of non-existence. But if we are to address correctly the actions of the Wisconsin and other teacher’s unions, we are helped immensely by remembering a few salient facts about the late Roman Republic.

None of these facts are directly about education, but their import for the current American scene should become obvious. First, when we think of Rome we now think of the Empire begun by Octavian, proclaimed Caesar Augustus in 27 BC. And we associate with the Empire control of all the lands bordering the “Roman lake,” the Mediterranean Sea. But by 133 BC, at the height of the Republican period, Rome already had completed its circle of conquests around that lake. It was Republican, not imperial Rome that achieved world domination; just as it was republican America that began its military and economic domination of the world with the Allied victory in World War II, a position completed with the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
  
Second, Rome’s “time of strife” began almost immediately after achieving world domination, because violent conflict became internal, pitting Roman against Roman. Romans had been used to verbal political conflict resolved by the vote; that was the republican way. But something new began to happen. It started when the Gracchi brothers—Tiberius (d. 133 BC) and Gaius (d. 121 BC)—couldn’t get what they wanted out of the Senate, so they worked as tribunes with plebeians. Tiberius tried to distribute land to them (a mob led by senators killed him for his trouble); and Gaius instituted price controls on wheat for the urban poor in Rome, along with giving voting rights to the inhabitants of other Italian cities, who were not yet Roman citizens. Then came riots in the streets and Gaius committed suicide. Matters got worse with Gaius Marius (d. 86 BC), who flouted the law as consul, turned Rome’s citizen armies into professional armies more loyal to their general than to Rome—an effective political mob—which brought on the “Social” or civil war (90 to 88 BC). Sulla (d. 78 BC), the victor of the aforementioned struggle, was even worse. He turned the traditional one-year military “dictatorship” (only used in wartime emergencies) into a permanent position, and used his unchecked power to lay out deathly “proscriptions” on his political opponents. The tendency to replace republican political institutions with raw power exercised by “great men” came to a head with the first triumvirate of Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, and Crassus (60 BC), and was completed in 43BC with the second triumvirate of Lepidus, Mark Anthony, and Octavian—who became the first Emperor—Caesar Augustus. It was a time of extra-legal rule by the power of charisma, personal armies, and political mobs.

One cannot help but see parallels in the current crisis. FDR and George Meany, both staunch union supporters, were perceptive enough to realize that unions for civil servants were harmful because bargaining with compliant government bureaucrats and politicians is nothing like the adversarial bargaining that goes on between private sector unions and management over corporate profits. Just as late Roman Republicans like the jurist-philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero witnessed political and military mobs, we have just been treated to the Wisconsin teacher’s union mob. There are striking parallels in the determination of the Roman and Wisconsin mobs not just to work outside the normal republican political processes, but to try to subvert those republican processes, with the willing help of Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats. The Wisconsin Democrats are not the first to hightail it out of the state in order to halt a bill they don’t like. Here in Texas, Democratic legislators did the same thing in 2003 to halt a redistricting plan; they ran to a motel in Oklahoma, but eventually lost that fight. But the difference—and it is enormous—is that no single individual called out the mob to invade the state capitol building.

Finally, we should remember how far people can go in the heat of political battle, and with what lasting consequences. Cicero lived through the difficult days at the end of the Roman Republic. As a defender of that republic, he went after the would-be dictators who tried to rule Rome in extra-legal ways, like Julius Caesar. Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon River in 49 BC violated Roman law, brought on civil war, lead to his being declared dictator perpetuo in 44 BC, and ultimately to his assassination by republican sympathizers on the Ides of March that year. Cicero then retired to write his great ethical work On Duties; but with the advent of the second triumvirate he re-entered politics, going after “Caesar’s favorite,” the tribune Mark Anthony, in his Philippic Orations, designed to warn the Romans that the triumvirs would do to Rome what Philip of Macedon had done in conquering Athens. On 7 December 43 BC, Cicero was hunted down, captured, and killed. As a final insult, his head and hands returned to Rome and displayed on the speaker’s Rostra (a central stage) in the Roman forum, as a warning to all defenders of the old republican order.

Americans have not yet turned quite so bloody, but they have certainly turned to hatred. The sort of hate Roman political mobs had for their enemies has been on display in the actions of the Wisconsin teacher’s union mob. And the Wisconsin Senate Democrats have certainly shown a willingness to subvert American republicanism, just as the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, and the two Caesars were willing to subvert Roman republicanism. The Wisconsin teacher’s unions have shown through their actions that they are more concerned for themselves and their political power than they are for the children they are supposed to teach. This case is not isolated; but it does show to the world why, for twenty years at least, all the positive momentum in pre-collegiate education has come from those brave enough to reject government schools and their union bosses—the home schoolers, those who have revived private and religious schools, and most recently, those who have developed charterer schools—publicly funded but not under the thumb of the teacher’s unions. The worst aspect of the current unrest is the advent of mob rule, something Cicero knew well. If America is not to lose its educational “head and hands,” the disastrous cycle of teacher unions bargaining with bureaucrats and politicians who are their worst enablers must come to a halt.

We should not be under any illusions about the stakes in the current game. For the American ideal of education for all—real education, not the sophistic imitation peddled by union bosses and Ed.Ds—has become the primary foundation of the American Republic, more important than capitalism or the economy or health-care, as important as are those parts of our common life together. From the sad demise of the Roman Republic, we can learn this valuable lesson: choose a reinvigorated life for American education. Given the hand history has dealt us, this means pulling American education out of the death-grip of unionized incompetence and mob-ocracy. Let us turn to the task helping a thousand experiments in real education bloom—led by parents, teachers, and true educational reformers, not the Deweyite educational establishment. If not, then the prospects for American education—and for America herself—look as dim as the prospects for republican Rome Cicero saw falling apart all about him.              


Ed Houser is a onetime member of a university faculty union, teaches Ancient, Medieval Islamic, and Medieval Latin Philosophy in Houston; and is an occasional contributor to The American Thinker.

The republic to which I refer is not Plato’s classic “Just City in Speech,” nor the American Republic created by the Founding Fathers, but the late Roman Republic. Although Mr. Madison’s form of government was self-consciously modeled on the Roman Republic, since American educational training was captured by the “progressive education” disciples of John Dewey, our school children’s knowledge of the Roman Republic has attenuated to the point of non-existence. But if we are to address correctly the actions of the Wisconsin and other teacher’s unions, we are helped immensely by remembering a few salient facts about the late Roman Republic.

None of these facts are directly about education, but their import for the current American scene should become obvious. First, when we think of Rome we now think of the Empire begun by Octavian, proclaimed Caesar Augustus in 27 BC. And we associate with the Empire control of all the lands bordering the “Roman lake,” the Mediterranean Sea. But by 133 BC, at the height of the Republican period, Rome already had completed its circle of conquests around that lake. It was Republican, not imperial Rome that achieved world domination; just as it was republican America that began its military and economic domination of the world with the Allied victory in World War II, a position completed with the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
  
Second, Rome’s “time of strife” began almost immediately after achieving world domination, because violent conflict became internal, pitting Roman against Roman. Romans had been used to verbal political conflict resolved by the vote; that was the republican way. But something new began to happen. It started when the Gracchi brothers—Tiberius (d. 133 BC) and Gaius (d. 121 BC)—couldn’t get what they wanted out of the Senate, so they worked as tribunes with plebeians. Tiberius tried to distribute land to them (a mob led by senators killed him for his trouble); and Gaius instituted price controls on wheat for the urban poor in Rome, along with giving voting rights to the inhabitants of other Italian cities, who were not yet Roman citizens. Then came riots in the streets and Gaius committed suicide. Matters got worse with Gaius Marius (d. 86 BC), who flouted the law as consul, turned Rome’s citizen armies into professional armies more loyal to their general than to Rome—an effective political mob—which brought on the “Social” or civil war (90 to 88 BC). Sulla (d. 78 BC), the victor of the aforementioned struggle, was even worse. He turned the traditional one-year military “dictatorship” (only used in wartime emergencies) into a permanent position, and used his unchecked power to lay out deathly “proscriptions” on his political opponents. The tendency to replace republican political institutions with raw power exercised by “great men” came to a head with the first triumvirate of Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, and Crassus (60 BC), and was completed in 43BC with the second triumvirate of Lepidus, Mark Anthony, and Octavian—who became the first Emperor—Caesar Augustus. It was a time of extra-legal rule by the power of charisma, personal armies, and political mobs.

One cannot help but see parallels in the current crisis. FDR and George Meany, both staunch union supporters, were perceptive enough to realize that unions for civil servants were harmful because bargaining with compliant government bureaucrats and politicians is nothing like the adversarial bargaining that goes on between private sector unions and management over corporate profits. Just as late Roman Republicans like the jurist-philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero witnessed political and military mobs, we have just been treated to the Wisconsin teacher’s union mob. There are striking parallels in the determination of the Roman and Wisconsin mobs not just to work outside the normal republican political processes, but to try to subvert those republican processes, with the willing help of Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats. The Wisconsin Democrats are not the first to hightail it out of the state in order to halt a bill they don’t like. Here in Texas, Democratic legislators did the same thing in 2003 to halt a redistricting plan; they ran to a motel in Oklahoma, but eventually lost that fight. But the difference—and it is enormous—is that no single individual called out the mob to invade the state capitol building.

Finally, we should remember how far people can go in the heat of political battle, and with what lasting consequences. Cicero lived through the difficult days at the end of the Roman Republic. As a defender of that republic, he went after the would-be dictators who tried to rule Rome in extra-legal ways, like Julius Caesar. Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon River in 49 BC violated Roman law, brought on civil war, lead to his being declared dictator perpetuo in 44 BC, and ultimately to his assassination by republican sympathizers on the Ides of March that year. Cicero then retired to write his great ethical work On Duties; but with the advent of the second triumvirate he re-entered politics, going after “Caesar’s favorite,” the tribune Mark Anthony, in his Philippic Orations, designed to warn the Romans that the triumvirs would do to Rome what Philip of Macedon had done in conquering Athens. On 7 December 43 BC, Cicero was hunted down, captured, and killed. As a final insult, his head and hands returned to Rome and displayed on the speaker’s Rostra (a central stage) in the Roman forum, as a warning to all defenders of the old republican order.

Americans have not yet turned quite so bloody, but they have certainly turned to hatred. The sort of hate Roman political mobs had for their enemies has been on display in the actions of the Wisconsin teacher’s union mob. And the Wisconsin Senate Democrats have certainly shown a willingness to subvert American republicanism, just as the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, and the two Caesars were willing to subvert Roman republicanism. The Wisconsin teacher’s unions have shown through their actions that they are more concerned for themselves and their political power than they are for the children they are supposed to teach. This case is not isolated; but it does show to the world why, for twenty years at least, all the positive momentum in pre-collegiate education has come from those brave enough to reject government schools and their union bosses—the home schoolers, those who have revived private and religious schools, and most recently, those who have developed charterer schools—publicly funded but not under the thumb of the teacher’s unions. The worst aspect of the current unrest is the advent of mob rule, something Cicero knew well. If America is not to lose its educational “head and hands,” the disastrous cycle of teacher unions bargaining with bureaucrats and politicians who are their worst enablers must come to a halt.

We should not be under any illusions about the stakes in the current game. For the American ideal of education for all—real education, not the sophistic imitation peddled by union bosses and Ed.Ds—has become the primary foundation of the American Republic, more important than capitalism or the economy or health-care, as important as are those parts of our common life together. From the sad demise of the Roman Republic, we can learn this valuable lesson: choose a reinvigorated life for American education. Given the hand history has dealt us, this means pulling American education out of the death-grip of unionized incompetence and mob-ocracy. Let us turn to the task helping a thousand experiments in real education bloom—led by parents, teachers, and true educational reformers, not the Deweyite educational establishment. If not, then the prospects for American education—and for America herself—look as dim as the prospects for republican Rome Cicero saw falling apart all about him.              


Ed Houser is a onetime member of a university faculty union, teaches Ancient, Medieval Islamic, and Medieval Latin Philosophy in Houston; and is an occasional contributor to The American Thinker.

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