(The following essay is also available as a lecture on AI’s Soundcloud. It is republished as an article because the editor felt that its thesis has gained relevance since its original publication. Plus some people prefer reading to listening.)
Three generations after crushing its main economic rival in two bloody wars, expanding its power across the sea, and coming into conflict with major eastern empires, the republic finds itself in a political crisis at home. All of its military success has brought streams of low-wage foreign labor to the homeland, undercutting the economic prospects of the native lower classes and allowing the rich to accumulate ever vaster stores of wealth. At the same time, the military establishment finds recruiting more and more difficult, as the sturdy and loyal native small-holders are driven off their property and forced into the cities to live on the dole.
If this sounds to you like a description of early 21st century America, youâ€™d be right. But it also describes the Roman Republic in the last decades of the 2nd century BC. Bu the 130s, Rome could look back on a century of uninterrupted success. Instead of Germany, Romeâ€™s world wars had been fought against Carthage. Instead of the USSR, her eastward imperial expansion had come at the expense of the Hellenistic kingdoms. But like in the US, Roman imperial success had the same destructive effects at home, leading to the rise of a populist reaction in the mold of Donald Trump.
In this lecture, I will describe the situation in Rome in the late 2nd century BC. I will focus on the the economic and political circumstances that lead to popular discontent, and the eventual rise of a pair of populist politicians–the Brothers Gracchi, who managed to implement some reforms. I will assess the effectiveness of these reforms. Finally I will compare the rise of the Gracchi at Rome to recent American history, and offer some predictions about how â€œThe Trumpeningâ€ will play out.
Three forces allowed the rise of the Gracchi-imperial overreach, economic centralization and imposed diversity. First, to explain the terminology. I realize these terms have a modern ring to them. I think these three terms–imperialism, economic centralization and imposed diversity–are appropriate to the Roman situation in that they describe the Republicâ€™s problems in a general way, and provide ready analogies to our world. I do not mean to suggest any particular historico-philosophical Cause. The factors are of course interrelated and their effects were reciprocal. So you autistes can put the Hegel and von Mises away, at least for the first part of this lecture. Toward the end, Iâ€™ll indulge you with some macro-historical speculation. But for now–imperialism, economic centralization and imposed diversity.
First, imperial overreach. Rome defeated Carthage–her major rival for domination of the Western Mediterranean–at Zama in 202 BC–the Roman 1945. She then embarked on a program of accelerated expansion in the lands that had comprised the Carthaginian Empire. Roman Armies, following in the footsteps of Scipio Africanus, spent the better part of the next two centuries reducing the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish campaigns were grueling, but there was no shortage of Roman patricians eager to lead a few legions into the abyss. The temptation of martial glory was simply too great for anyone to bother with cost-benefit-analysis. Besides, Spainâ€™s silver mines were making a lot of powerful men obscenely rich, so no one objected to throwing a few thousand more legionaries into the meat-grinder.
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