Many comparisons have been made between the Roman Empire and the United States. The Roman Empire was the most powerful civilization on Earth. Similarly, the United States, for now, is the sole remaining superpower. However, with the good comes the bad and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been compared to the decline and pending fall of the United States. We often forget the fact that the Roman Empire was preceded for 450 years by the Roman Republic, which arose in 509 B.C. with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy.
Of course, there's an interesting correlation with the American Revolution, which also overthrew government by monarchy. Rome was structured around a strong constitution, though little of it was written down. The early years of the Republic were marked by political power held by a strong aristocracy descended from earlier royalty. In a series of events very similar to developments in our own country, the republic devolved into rule by a series of popularly elected political elites who circumvented the constitution for political purposes.
The Roman constitution was a powerful code designed with a complex system of checks and balances and served as a model for our own Constitution. The purpose was not to establish a simple democracy, but a representative form of government, which was, by the rule of law, resistant to the whims of the majority. But, as the society "advanced," professional politicians began promising rewards in exchange for votes.
Initially, two consuls, or highest magistrates, were elected for one year terms. The main deliverative governing body, the Senate, (the model for our own Senate), was comprised of Patricians, members of society with ancestry derived from royalty. The Plebeian Council was composed of representatives of lower societal rank who met in tribal councils and appointed Tribunes, who had veto power over the Senate. Over time, through a series of popular reforms, decisions made by the Plebeian Council would have the full force of law. Plebeians soon began occupying the Senate in a movement to bring "change" to the system of government.
Around 200 B.C. there was an economic crisis, similar to the one we are experiencing today. The plebeians, especially farmers, found themselves unable to afford their homes and they demanded a bailout from the government. When the Senate refused, an uprising occurred, resulting in increased power for the popularly elected Plebeian Council. The country was then essentially controlled by new Plebeian political elites who were, however, mostly concerned with their own power and not about the problems of the people who elected them. As common Plebeians fell further into debt, unemployment rose and farmers could no longer sell their produce, resulting in widespread bankruptcy. People began voting for politicians who promised bailouts. Populist leaders emerged who promised "change." The final decades of the Roman Republic saw an eerily familiar increase in the dependence of the average Roman citizen on their government, along with tax increases to pay for government programs. The Republic had slowly devolved into a democracy wherein people voted themselves benefits they had not earned. Sound familiar? In 133 B.C., Tiberius Gracchus was elected as a Tribune. In a move that would be considered "Obamanesqe," he attempted to "spread the wealth" by proposing a law that would have limited the amount of land any particular individual could own and redistributing land to the poor. He was later murdered but his brother was elected and continued to support populist policies that circumvented the constitution. A new political party, the democratic "Populare" party, gained power. They regularly broke the law in the name of democracy. In a final attempt to reestablish constitutional rule and strengthen the Senate, Lucius Sulla, a member of the conservative "Optimate" party, took control as dictator, passed laws to strengthen the constitution and the Senate and then resigned. Another populist movement (like Acorn) arose in about 65 B.C. to address the problems of the poor. When they were unable to pass all of their reforms legally they began using illegal methods. Eventually, Julius Caesar, a "Populare" politician, was installed as perpetual dictator in 44 B.C., influenced by his greatness as a general and his distribution of benefits, like food subsidies to the population and free land to his former soldiers. He began appointing officials some today would call "czars" (named today after Russian Czars, a word derived originally from the word Caesar) that would not have to be approved by the legislature, but his tenure was cut short by assassination. After Mark Antony was defeated by Octavian at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., the Senate gave Octavian extra-constitutional powers in 27 B.C., effectively terminating the Roman Republic forever.
The summary above is a short synopsis, not a complete history. However, the parallels are unnerving and we can easily see the chilling similarities.
Aristotle warned: "Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms." The Federalist papers show us that the founding fathers understood this all too well. Just as the Roman Senate became more "democratic", so to our own Senate changed from being indirectly elected to direct popular election in 1913. We were founded as a republic partly because democracies become weaker as they grow whereas republics can become stronger. Yet we elect populists, like Chairman Obama, whose unaffordable promises and unconstitutional actions, after the manner of Tiberius Gracchus, Caesar, and Octavian, will be recorded in history as the beginning of the end of our republic. We slip further into a "democracy" of dependence on government and control by it. Inevitably, we too will degenerate into despotism and tyranny. This has already begun. From antiquity through the present, great thinkers like Aristotle and our founding fathers have warned us of the dangers of repeating the mistakes of prior civilizations. Those who survive us will learn how the selfish majority, at the behest of power hungry political elitists, accepted subjugation in exchange for benefits and thereby sowed the seeds (or acorns) of our destruction.
Barack Obama: Plebeian politician to Senator to Dictator wannabe. The USA: republic, to democratic dictatorship and then despotism. It not only can happen, but it will, unless we learn from history and prevent its repetition.
[A note of thanks to Prof. Stephen S. McRoberts for clarifying the nature of the Senate and Plebeian Council - editor]