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The Wisdom Of History

Defense litigators would do well to have a solid concept of history.  It can help tremendously in understanding what motivates military members sitting on today’s  courts and boards.

The Historical Focus

In this vein, University of Oklahoma  Classics professor J. Rufus  Fears offers extremely interesting ideas in his books-on-tape lectures.  His focus is the meaning of history.

  • What do we learn from it?
  • What can we distill from the rise and fall of superpowers and empires?
  • Does history teach us anything about the destiny of America as both a democracy and superpower?
  • Are we immune to purported ‘laws of history’ which have marked the destiny of past empires and democracies?
  • In considering the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, what – if anything – can be learned which will serve the “New Rome” – contemporary USA?


Professor Fears argues that 9/11 and America’s ensuing involvement in the Middle East forces citizens to consider these questions anew.   Arguably, current US foreign-policy reflects a belief – planted as far back as World War I – that America must make the world ‘safe for democracy.’   However, what about individuals and nations rejecting democracy?   They have opted for perceived security of ‘wise’ autocratic rule rather than shoulder the awesome burden of self-government.  One can see this as the habitual historic choice of the ancient and modern Middle East, China, Russia, and Latin America.  What should we do about them?

A Fascination with Ancient Rome

For the Founders of  our country, the Roman Republic was a model.  It had both vices to be avoided and virtues to be copied.

Ancient and modern historians  have studied Rome both as a model and useful incubator for “lessons learned.”   Writing in the Second Century BC, Polybius attributed the success of Rome to a balanced constitution and the inculcation of every Roman with civic virtue.  Writing far later in 1770-1780, Edward Gibbon sought to discern reasons for the decline of Rome, in part as a lesson for his British Empire.

Rome began as a small city on the Tiber.   In 509 BC, the Romans expelled the last of their kings.   Rome became a republic, a representative government of sovereign people. Rome boasted a balanced constitution and a tri-partite society – broad popular support, leadership by small group of wise advisors, and strong executive leadership.  These three combined democratic, aristocratic, and monarchial strands.  At first, the Roman people were the ultimate sovereigns, electing magistrates, passing laws, and deciding on war or peace .  About 300 Senators controlled the purse strings and guided foreign policy.

Every child learned Roman history and traditions.  The Roman army was a patriotic citizen militia of males 18 and older – a professional standing army had no place in this era of free people.   The proudest boast of a Roman male was that he  had fought for his country .

In temperament, Republican  Romans were pious, believing that the gods have chosen them to rule.  Faithfulness and honesty were emphasized.  To fuel their expansion, they became fierce warriors – allies would be protected; enemies would be destroyed.

Ancient Rome was seldom at peace.  After uniting the small tribes, Rome expanded – by 270 BC, it had conquered Italy up to the Po River.  A coalition of city-states was established, tied to Rome by individual alliances.   Rome went to war with Carthage 264-241 BC, eventually conquered Carthage, and became a  military, political, and economic powerhouse.


The United States and Rome

The Founders of the United States regarded Rome with both awe and trepidation. They respected its balanced constitution and civic virtue.  They believed the new United States would expand, as had Rome; but many Founders recognized that expansion could lead to Empire and dangerous consequences.   A mega power inevitably creates foreign entanglements which can corrode civic virtue.  Arguably, the American Constitution, designed for 13 small seaboard city-states, could not guide a world power.


A Growing Empire – and a Choice

In any event, by the first century BC, Rome was attempting to rule its Empire with a Constitution made for a small city-state on the Tiber.   By 70 BC, the growing weaknesses of  Rome were self-evident. Wealth had infected numerous aspects of civic life.  Ordinary citizens were better off than ever, but  the gulf between the rich and the poor was rising.   Money corroded the political process; the path to election was to spend lavishly, sponsor gladiator games, or trade campaign contributions for political favors.

By the first century BC, the Senate and governors reflected the decadence of Rome.  Small farming was almost gone, and  the Italian citizen-militia was replaced by a professional army.

Two political parties now dominated.   The Optimates  — many from the Senatorial class — claimed to preserve the old moral values.  The Populares sought  a better future through more new-style democracy.

When pirates terrorized the Mediterranean and took hostages around 70 BC, the Republic seemed powerless to stop them.   Rome handed absolute power to Pompey.  He succeeded in destroying the pirate terrorists.

Romans were at a turning point.   Did they wish to be a superpower or a free Republic?    Did they want a wise dictator like Pompey to provide efficiency, shower them with the  wealth and the prestige of Empire, and provide a tranquil life; or were they still willing to shoulder the awesome, difficult responsibility of self-government?


Next, Superpower Rome under the Caesars

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