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Ancient Rome Still Defines US Politics of War and Poverty

Our culture of exploitation and military conquest for the benefit of the wealthy few is as old as ancient Rome.

The Death of Caesar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Our culture of exploitation and military conquest for the benefit of the wealthy few is as old as ancient Rome. (Image: Jean-Léon Gérôme)

When presidential candidates run on a campaign of “change,” historians typically roll their eyes. After all, Western political systems haven’t changed in 2,000 years — so it’s highly doubtful that an egalitarian society will emerge any time soon. In Ancient Rome, senators of the elite schemed, bribed and above all else, plotted military operations to expand the Empire, which is an abbreviated way of saying that they conquered foreign lands to enrich their own wealth and power.

Sound familiar?

In S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome, a fascinating read, Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University and award-winning author of several books on antiquity, draws important parallels in her new book between Ancient Rome 63 BCE, leading up to Caesar’s assassination, and US politics, specifically after 9/11. “After 2,000 years,” concludes Beard, “Rome continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.”

When I read the next line in Beard’s book, I thought about the number of democratically elected leaders in the last 30 years that the US government covertly or overtly, (how should I put this delicately) — disposed of — in one way or another.

“The assassination of Julius Caesar,” Beard explains, “on what Romans called the Ides of March 44 BCE has provided the template, and the sometimes awkward justification, for the killing of tyrants ever since.” Today, the president need only call said leader a “tyrant,” or in G.W. Bush’s words, “an evil dictator” and voila! send in the troops. Vietnam, Latin America and presently the Middle East are all examples of Mary Beard’s assessment on Julius Caesar’s assassination, wrapped in the same rhetoric that Roman statesmen used for removing a leader: He’s an evil doer!

There’s only one small problem concerning the elimination of sovereign leaders on the basis of “name-calling”: “Regime change,” as it is now commonly called, violates constitutional and international laws. (Forcible regime change is prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The targeting of civilians constitutes a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, which is prosecutable as a war crime.) When the US government illegally intervenes in the affairs of a sovereign state by plotting the removal of its leader, it’s often because the leader is improving conditions for the poor. For example, if a democratically elected socialist leader uses the profits from their nation’s oil to pay for free health care, food, schools and rebuilding eroding infrastructure for the people, then said leader will immediately be seen as a threat to US corporate control over foreign resources, such as oil, which has benefited multibillionaires at an appalling cost to ecological communities and entire populations. Such “regime change” violations of national and international laws are impeachable offenses. So one would think, right? Wrong. As noted in our recent history, if a president lies about a silly sex affair, then and only then will he or she face impeachment charges.

Predictably, 2,000 years later, such brutal “conquests” that benefit the wealthiest few are characterized by political officials as “just wars.” Today, members of the House and Senate are not dressed in white togas with stripes on their tunics, (the official attire of a senator), but the political ambitions are the same. Likewise, the same ludicrous excuses for war have been used to fool the citizenry for centuries.

It’s pathetically embarrassing when you think about it: 2,000 years and nothing has changed in the least. US military tactics, a culture of violence, decadence and poverty are a direct reflection of ancient Roman politics.

There is an important admirable distinction, however, that Roman senators or elite officials had to abide by: if they proposed war, they were obliged to fight on the battlefield. Translation: If you vote for war, you go to war. If that law were enforced today, most likely US military invasions would come to a screeching halt.

Perhaps President Obama attempted an evolution of sorts in military tactics, but alas, the spirit of Roman conquest lives on in that the US military is relying on new weapon technology, such as drones, to replace soldiers to do the dirty work. Lord forbid that our elected officials would finally, after 2,000 years, say, “enough is enough,” to quote Sen. Bernie Sanders. And of course, the justification for wars has not changed in 2,000 years: to “protect and defend the Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (SPQR)” — The Senate and the Roman People: The United States of America, the Republic and the People.

What’s interesting is that the more the Empire grew under Rome’s brutal invasions from Spain to Syria and from the south of France to the Sahara, including the taxes it took to wage the wars, the more the people suffered. Beard writes: “There was the enormous disparity of wealth between rich and poor, the squalid living conditions for most of the population, over a million inhabitants, and probably for much of the time, even if not starvation, then persistent hunger.”

Clearly, if the Roman political model didn’t provide economic stability in 63 BCE for most of the population, why would it do so now 2,000 years later? The reason things haven’t changed is because it’s a model that has benefited the wealthy few at the expense of the many, century after century.

If a senator wanted to keep his seat in the senate, he would seize the moment by becoming a voice of the people’s discontentment. Trained as orators, Roman senators falsely promised that they would improve living conditions for their own political gain in order to be elected by predominantly influential voters, i.e. the rich. Nevertheless, Roman citizens played a fairly significant role by praising or criticizing their statesmen. In the end, the people had the final vote.

Running for office was a “costly business” in Beard’s words. “It required the kind of lavish generosity that is not always easy to distinguish from bribery.” Sound familiar?

No women ever held political office in ancient Rome. I don’t think I need to explain the history of the suffrage movement; my point here is that Roman politics — for 2,000 years — has been the dominant political model for Europe and for the US in more negative ways than I can possibly explain in this commentary. Women who enter the political arena are still regarded in our society with a good deal of Roman skepticism.

And from whom did we learn the many ways of trashing the Earth? That, too, is a 2,000-year-old habit. The Romans were not exactly environmentalists. Entire forests were cleared to build weapons and war ships. Pollution was hideous in terms of lifestyle waste and filth.

Regarding a punitive system, Roman citizens had a right to a trial, but if a citizen or a senator was accused of being an “enemy of the state,” he immediately lost his right to a trial and all civic rights. Sound familiar?

Roman senators ardently debated the conflict of rights and security. Some of the questions raised in the senate are, once again, quite familiar, as Beard puts it:

Is it legitimate to eliminate ‘terrorists’ outside the due processes of law? How far should civil rights be sacrificed in the interest of homeland security? The Romans never ceased to debate.

As for the “disparity between the rich and the poor,” think of the $750 million or more that was given to Halliburton — to refresh your memories, that was former CEO Dick Cheney of Halliburton — to build the largest US embassy in the world located in Iraq — and the following summary in Beard’s book: While the majority of people were living in rat-infested, degrading conditions, the richest Romans lived in “private houses, fitted out with elaborate paintings, elegant Greek statues, fancy furniture … imported marble columns. There were also a scatter of public buildings designed on a grand scale, built in (or veneered in) marble…”

Two-thousand years later, consider the top executives of banks and weapon industries who live in multimillion-dollar luxury mansions with matching private jets to go with their gold-rimmed pools. There are nearly 4 million Americans that are living in dire poverty. Nearly 1 million Americans are homeless, including children and US veterans.

The 2,000-year-old verdict is in: Not only have we not evolved, in many ways, our contemporary society and politics have become far more vulgar than even Rome’s society. If Caesar were to plot a drone attack 10,000 miles away with the knowledge that nearly 30,000 innocent civilians would be killed as a result, Caesar most likely would be assassinated by his colleagues all over again out of fear that such tactics could be used against them and the citizens of Rome. The justification for Caesar’s assassination: excessive abuse of power.

Also, for most of recorded history, there were military rules of engagement. Today, is it possible to define “war” with any clarity? That’s the question Rosa Brooks raised in her new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: “Humans have sought to draw sharp lines between war and peace. But what happens when the ancient boundary between war and peace is erased?”

Romans might find it inconceivable to intentionally initiate a state of perpetual war for profiteers. Periodically, a vile and bloody war, making off with the women, rapes and raids were all part of the ambitious goals to expand the Roman Empire, but endless wars would not sit well with Rome’s senators nor with its citizens.

To see that our political system has not evolved from the days of Rome, morally, ethically, legally, environmentally, culturally; that we still live in an age of wars; that our political policies still operate under an archaic system that creates dire poverty and desolation for the masses of people — a system that exploits resources with no regard for the pollution it creates in order to benefit the few; that this political system has prevailed over the course of 2,000 years or more is quite stunning, indeed, embarrassing, when you think about it.

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