The precise date and the ultimate causes of the fall of the Roman Republic are difficult to pin down. There is universal agreement, however, on one thing: the fall of the Roman Republic was a bad thing. Perhaps it was the worst calamity to strike Rome since its sack by the Gauls, or perhaps it was an unfortunate necessity to bring in reform, but you would be hard-pressed to find a contemporary scholar or even educated layman who thinks the replacement of the Republic with the Principate was anything but a disaster.
At the root of this attitude is an unexamined conviction that the Republic, for all its undeniable flaws, was basically a good thing. Sure, the Romans kept hosts of slaves, engaged in violent aggression against their neighbors, embodied patriarchy, and eventually descended into mass political butchery all under the Republic, but, somehow, a certain fondness for the Republic is alive and well.
This liberal ambivalence about the Roman Republic is ironically a legacy of the past, in particular a continuing admiration for Cicero but also of antique, anti-tyrannical ideology. Respect for Cicero is quite understandable: not only was he relatively liberal in his attitudes, but he was a superb orator and Latin stylist. No one who studies Latin can fail to appreciate Cicero’s literary and rhetorical talents, and affinity for Cicero’s political positions follows easily from that appreciation.
More important, however, is hatred for tyranny in particular and monarchy in general. In Greece, anti-tyrannical ideology justified the Classical oligarchies and democracies; in Rome, hatred for the old, Etruscan kings was the foundation of the Republic. In the modern era, republicanism has been responsible for revolutions and regicides galore. Joseph de Maistre long ago explained why elites, and especially bourgeois intellectuals, favor republican over monarchical forms of government: people, especially people who think they’re better than everyone else, want to have a shot at supreme power, and republican government offers more opportunities for advancement, not because the populace is any more eager to have competent people running their government than a king is, but rather because there is a regular turnover of people holding high offices.
So now this is rich: Leftism, which prides itself in its cupiditas rerum novarum and its rejection of hierarchy and ancient prejudices, remains in thrall to the very aristocratic outlook it condemns, at least on this one issue of historical interpretation. It is the magic of Classical literature that no one of true refinement can deny its quality, regardless of their ideological proclivities.
The Right, just as much as the Left, must be ambivalent about the fall of the Roman Republic. There’s much to be admired in the pride of the Optimates and their struggles against the Populares, aristocracy against democracy. The democratic faction was filled with well-meaning fools and unscrupulous men of ambition, and with only a few exceptions truly worthy of the power they sought.
That being said, the aristocracy of the Late Republic was hardly any better. Aristocratic officials alternated between military incompetence and financial rapacity, becoming masters of the fine art of looting provinces, while repeatedly losing battles to barbarian armies. Lest one imagine that perhaps the middle class, the equites, was wiser than the patriciate or the plebs, the rapacious tax-farming of these opportunists drove Greece and the Asian provinces to rebel and slaughter thousands of Italians in 88 B.C. Roman morality was an oxymoron, and whenever anyone proved too honest and too competent, his rivals conspired to undermine him. The Optimates were ruling over a wretched and decadent society, and while a few fought to arrest the decline, most reveled in it.
So how are we on the Right to square our respect for the wisdom of our ancestors, who speak so eloquently in favor of republican government with the historical fact that the Roman Republic deserved to fall and those who strove to preserve it were merely delaying an inevitable and salutary development? The key, as usual, is to recognize important distinctions and to not paint with too broad a brush.
The first thing to realize is that the “wisdom of our ancestors” on this matter is far from univocal. Most surviving Latin authors wrote during the Imperial period, when the monarchy was accepted and proving to be quite effective. Individual emperors might be hated, but the office of Emperor was revered.
It was the Greeks rather than the Romans who wrote the most eloquent diatribes against monarchy, usually preferring to call it tyranny, and mostly during the 5th and 4th centuries—Archaic and Hellenistic authors, who had actual experience with monarchy, we often quite sympathetic to it. Only during the Classical period, the bloody age of democracy, did the Greeks excoriate kingly rule.
Indeed, it is a Graeculus, a little Greek, who has most poisoned the minds of modern readers against the rise of the Caesars. Marcus Tullius Cicero is justly admired for his rhetorical and stylistic gifts as well as his philosophical writings, and no man can claim to be truly educated without at least passing familiarity with his life and work. However, while as a man of letters Cicero has few equals, as a man of action and practical politics he leaves much to be desired. Plutarch paired Cicero with the Greek orator Demosthenes, who stirred up the Athenians against Philip of Macedon but when push came to shove on the field of Chaeronea, fled the field of battle.
In truth, Cicero was a man of letters masquerading as a man of action. When placed in positions of authority, Cicero proved exceedingly competent as both a general and administrator. His behavior as consul, however, foreshadowed his later indecisiveness. Despite having proof of Cataline’s treasonous conspiracy, Cicero repeatedly delayed taking action. Even when Cataline was in open rebellion and Cicero held his coconspirators in Rome, it was Cato rather than Cicero who made the crucial observation that stopping a coup d’etat trumps legal technicalities.
After his consulship, Cicero was offered a role in the First Triumvirate; Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar respected Cicero and were interested in recruiting him to their cause. Cicero refused and paid the price: after his exile and recall, he still wound up serving the Triumvirate but as a lackey, forced to defend the illegal actions of other triumviral supporters in court. Initially siding with Pompey over Caesar, Cicero preferred to undermine his allies rather than offer genuine support and in the end accommodated himself to Caesar with ease. Brutus and Cassius did not bother to include Cicero in their plot. Only after Caesar’s assassination did Cicero briefly come into his own as the princeps Romae, the first man in Rome, not because of his special virtues but rather because the rest of his competition was dead. Cicero’s own grasp on power was even more tenuous, and he soon joined his fellows in the afterlife.
Another important distinction is between the Late Republic of Cicero et al. and the very successful Republic that flourished after the Gallic sack of 390 B.C. Under the leadership of Marcus Furius Camillus, Rome not only reformed its government to alleviate social strife but also improved its military organization. These reforms allowed the Romans to repel a new Gallic invasion in 367 B.C., to unite the Italian peninsula, and to ultimately conquer much of the known world. Also remarkable was the “harmony of the orders,” the ability of the different social classes to cooperate for their common benefit, in a word, the Romans’ assabiyah. This state of affairs lasted roughly two hundred years, and the passing of this Old Republic into social strife and civil war is most certainly something to lament. But by 49 B.C., this Republic had been dead for a long time.
Men who strive to bring order to chaos deserve admiration, while those who bring only strife or who undermine those bringing order deserve condemnation. In the Late Republic, praiseworthy men are few and far between: Scipio Nasica, Lucius Opimius, Sulla. Cicero, Cato, Caesar, and even Octavian have checkered careers, though Octavian deserves respect for establishing the Principate. As for the others, Sallust describes them as follows:
Whoever troubled the republic did so with honest-sounding pretensions, some as if to defend the rights of the people, others to make the authority of the Senate supreme; pretending to do good for the republic, they each were struggling for their own power. There was neither modesty nor moderation in those struggles, and each side exploited victory cruelly.
The fall of the Republic and the rise of the Principate is lamentable not because a great and noble form of government perished but because it took so long for one to arise.