The Second Triumvirate, formed to avenge Caesar, ended like the first, with only one man standing, but that man, Caius Octavianus (Octavian), Caesar’s eighteen-year-old grand nephew, would decisively change Roman government by replacing the republic with an imperial dictatorship. Everitt characterizes Octavian as “a freebooting young privateer,” who on August 19, 43 BC, became the youngest consul in Rome‘s history and set out, in violation of the constitution, to raise his own private army. “The boy would be a focus for the simmering resentments among the Roman masses, the disbanded veterans, and the standing legions.” Cicero, who had devoted his life to trying to curb the kind of power represented by Octavian, now gave up on the rule of law in favor of realpolitik. He recognized that “for all his struggles the constitution was dead and power lay in the hands of soldiers and their leaders.” In Cicero‘s analysis, the only hope was to try to co-opt Octavian, leading him toward a more constitutional position, while doing everything not to “irritate rank-and-file opinion, which was fundamentally Caesarian.” Cicero would pay with his life for this last, desperate gamble. Octavian, allied with Mark Antony, ordered at least 130 senators (perhaps as many as 300) executed and their property confiscated after charging them with supporting the conspiracy against Caesar. Mark Antony personally added Cicero‘s name to the list. When he met his death, the great scholar and orator had with him a copy of Euripides’ Medea, which he had been reading. His head and both hands were displayed in the Forum.
A year after Cicero‘s death, following the battle of Philippi where Brutus and Cassius ended their lives, Octavian and Antony divided the known world between them. Octavian took the West and remained in Rome; Antony accepted the East and allied himself with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt and Julius Caesar’s former mistress. In 31 BC, Octavian set out to end this unstable arrangement, and at the sea battle of Actium in the Gulf of Ambracia on the western coast of Greece, he defeated Antony‘s and Cleopatra’s fleet. The following year in Alexandria Mark Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra took an asp to her breast. By then, both had been thoroughly discredited for claiming that Antony was a descendant of Caesar’s and for seeking Roman citizenship rights for Cleopatra’s children by Caesar. Octavian would rule the Roman world for the next 45 years, until his death in 14 AD.
On January 13, 27 BC, Octavian appeared in the Senate, which had legitimized its own demise by ceding most of its powers to him and which now bestowed on him the new title of Augustus, first Roman emperor. The majority of the Senators were his solid supporters, having been handpicked by him. In 23 BC, Augustus was granted further authority by being designated a tribune for life, which gave him ultimate veto power over anything the Senate might do. His power rested ultimately on his total control of the armed forces.
Although his rise to power was always tainted by constitutional illegitimacy — not unlike that of our own Boy Emperor from Crawford, Texas — Augustus proceeded to emasculate the Roman system and its representative institutions. He never abolished the old republican offices but merely united them under one person — himself. Imperial appointment became a badge of prestige and social standing rather than of authority. The Senate was turned into a club of old aristocratic families, and its approval of the acts of the emperor was purely ceremonial. The Roman legions continued to march under the banner SPQR — senatus populus que Romanus, “the Senate and the Roman People” — but the authority of Augustus was absolute.
The most serious problem was that the army had grown too large and was close to unmanageable. It constituted a state within a state, not unlike the Pentagon in the United States today. Augustus reduced the army’s size and provided generous cash payments to those soldiers who had served more than twelve years, making clear that this bounty came from him, not their military commanders. He also transferred all legions away from Rome to the remote provinces and borders of the Empire, to ensure their leaders were not tempted to meddle in political affairs. Equally astutely, he created the Praetorian Guard, an elite force of 9,000 men with the task of defending him personally, and stationed them in Rome. They were drawn only from Italy, not from distant provinces, and were paid more than soldiers in the regular legions. They began as Augustus’s personal bodyguards, but in the decades after his death they became decisive players in the selection of new emperors. It was one of the first illustrations of an old problem of authoritarian politics: create one bureaucracy, the Praetorian Guard, to control another bureaucracy, the regular army, but before long the question will arise: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchers?)
Augustus is credited with forging the Roman Peace (Pax Romana), which historians like to say lasted more than 200 years. It was, however, a military dictatorship and depended entirely on the incumbent emperor. And therein lay the problem. Tiberius, who reigned from 14-37 AD, retired to Capri with a covey of young boys who catered to his sexual tastes. His successor, Caligula, who held office from 37-41, was the darling of the army, but on January 24, 41 AD, the Praetorian Guard assassinated him and proceeded to loot the imperial palace. Modern archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Caligula was an eccentric maniac, just as history has always portrayed him.2
The fourth Roman emperor, Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54, was selected and put into power by the Praetorian Guard in a de facto military coup. Despite the basically favorable portrayal of him by Robert Graves (I, Claudius, 1934) and years later on TV by Derek Jacobi, Claudius, who was Caligula’s uncle, was addicted to gladiatorial games and fond of watching his defeated opponents being put to death. As a child, Claudius limped, drooled, stuttered, and was constantly ill. He had his first wife killed and married Agrippina, daughter of the sister of Caligula, after having the law changed to allow uncles to marry their nieces. On October 13, 54 AD, Claudius was killed with a poisoned mushroom, probably fed to him by his wife, and at that same day, the sixteen-year-old Nero, Agrippina’s son by a former husband, was acclaimed emperor in a carefully orchestrated piece of political theater. Nero, who reigned from 54 to 68, was a probably insane tyrant who has been credited with setting fire to Rome in 64 and persecuting some famous early Christians (Paul and Peter), although his reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years as a patron of the arts.
The short, happy life of the American republic
After Augustus, not much recommends the Roman Empire as an example of enlightened government despite the enthusiasm for it of such neoconservative promoters of the George W. Bush administration as the Washington Post‘s Charles Krauthammer, the Wall Street Journal‘s Max Boot, and the Weekly Standard‘s William Kristol. My reasons for going over this ancient history are not to suggest that our own Boy Emperor is a second Octavian but rather what might happen after he is gone. The history of the Roman republic from the time of Julius Caesar on suggests that it was imperialism and militarism — poorly understood by all conservative political leaders at the time — that brought it down. Militarism and the professionalization of a large standing army create invincible new sources of power within a polity. The government must mobilize the masses in order to exploit them as cannon fodder and this leads to the rise of populist generals who understand the grievances of their troops and veterans.
Service in the armed forces of the United States has not been a universal male obligation of citizenship since 1973. Our military today is a professional corps of men and women who join up for their own reasons, commonly to advance themselves in the face of one or another cul de sac of American society. They normally do not expect to be shot at, but they do expect all the benefits of state employment — steady pay, good housing, free medical benefits, relief from racial discrimination, world travel, and gratitude from the rest of society for their military “service.” They are well aware that the alternatives civilian life in America offers today include difficult job searches, no job security, regular pilfering of retirement funds by company executives and their accountants, “privatized” medical care, bad public elementary education systems, and insanely expensive higher education. They are ripe, it seems to me, not for the political rhetoric of patrician politicians who have followed the Andover, Yale, HarvardBusinessSchool route to riches and power but for a Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Juan PerÃ³n — a revolutionary, military populist with no interest in republican niceties so long as he is made emperor.
Given the course of the postwar situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may not be too hard to defeat George Bush in the election of 2004. But whoever replaces him will have to deal with the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, our empire of bases, and a fifty-year-old tradition of not telling the public what our military establishment costs and the devastation it can inflict. History teaches us that the capacity for things to get worse is limitless. Roman history suggests that the short, happy life of the American republic is in serious trouble — and that conversion to a military empire is, to say the least, not the best answer.
Chalmers Johnson’s new book, forthcoming at the end of 2003 from Metropolitan Books, is The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic.
1. See, for example, Dana Priest, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military (New York: Norton, 2003).
2. Shasta Darlington, “New Dig Says Caligula Was Indeed a Maniac,” Reuters, August 16, 2003.