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Happy Birthday, Cicero:

Today is the anniversary of the birthday, in 106 B.C., of the great Roman orator Cicero. Cicero was well-known to many generations of Latin students for the text of his eloquent speech in favor of the natural law right to self-defense. In an article a few years ago in Chronicles, I looked at the political lessons which America's Founders drew from Cicero and other Romans. Among the conclusions: the Founders saw how Rome had degenerated from a Republic to a military dictatorship, and traced the degeneration to the moral decline of the Roman citizeny. One of the causes of the decline was the replacement of the militia by a professional standing army.

Per Son:
I believe that the true reason why Rome fell was because it was not able to fund its own defense. That is, it needed to continue to expand to gain resources, but to expand it needed to spend ever-increasing sums of money. In the mean time, with most of the armies on the frontiers, there was little reason for power-seekers to fear disobeying Rome.

People cite moral decline, but lets face it, when was the Roman Empire very moral in the first place. (E.g. The Twelve Caesers).
1.3.2006 11:37am
Anderson (mail) (www):
"Seven Degrees of Separation from the Second Amendment." I want David Kopel on my team ....

Can't say I have much sympathy for Cicero. The diehards like Cato brought down the Republic as much as Caesar did, if not moreso, and Cicero was fine being on board with them.
1.3.2006 12:04pm
btorrez (mail):
Does anyone know when Berwyn was born? (Just a little joke for those Chicago area readers).
1.3.2006 12:28pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
An important distinction between the professional militaries of contemporary America and ancient Rome is that the Legions relied upon plunder and conquest for support. This is most assuredly NOT the case today.

China, on the other hand, is cause for worry, as the Red Army is a self-financing economic unit onto itself, rather like the old Legions.
1.3.2006 12:39pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Per Son writes:

I believe that the true reason why Rome fell was because it was not able to fund its own defense. That is, it needed to continue to expand to gain resources, but to expand it needed to spend ever-increasing sums of money.
Expansion of Rome to cover an increasingly large area meant that commerce expanded, to the benefit of Rome and those nations it occupied. Once they defeated the Carthaginians, I am hard pressed to see that the costs of expansion were that high.

In the mean time, with most of the armies on the frontiers, there was little reason for power-seekers to fear disobeying Rome.
And that was one of Dave's points: relying on a professional military instead of a militia meant that the citizens became soft, and insufficiently capable of dealing with military dictatorship.

People cite moral decline, but lets face it, when was the Roman Empire very moral in the first place. (E.g. The Twelve Caesers).
Cicero was in the Roman Republic--and that's what Dave is talking about. The Roman Empire is after the fall of the Republic.
1.3.2006 12:47pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Cicero was in the Roman Republic--and that's what Dave is talking about. The Roman Empire is after the fall of the Republic.

But according to Sallust, the Republic in its last century was pretty decadent too.
1.3.2006 12:52pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Sallust:
When wealth was once considered an honor, and glory, authority, and power attended on it, virtue lost her influence, poverty was thought a disgrace, and a life of innocence was regarded as a life of ill-nature. From the influence of riches, accordingly, luxury, avarice, and pride prevailed among the youth; they grew at once rapacious and prodigal; they undervalued what was their own, and coveted what was another's; they set at naught modesty and continence; they lost all distinction between sacred and profane, and threw off all consideration and self-restraint.
Sounds familiar.
1.3.2006 12:56pm
Gordon (mail):
An interesting thought - that our professional army could turn into the modern-day equivalent of the Roman Legions of the empire, who toppled emperors in bloody coups and by the late 2nd century A.D. actually put the empire up for auction to the highest bidder (in 193 A.D. - the high bidder lasted only a couple of months before he himself was topppled and murdered).

It seems like this would as much be an argument for a return to the Draft instead of an argument for a return of the Minutemen.
1.3.2006 1:22pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

But according to Sallust, the Republic in its last century was pretty decadent too.
And that's what caused the fall, according to some viewpoints. Wealth, unfortunately, causes a loss of self-discipline. You can see it in America today, where most people have less money than they want, but apparently more than they can handle.

I really don't like the idea of high income tax rates. It seems, however, that a fair number of Americans can't handle having the extra money in their paychecks. It leads rapidly to giving their kids vast quantities of money to blow on alcohol and drugs, and the adults start buying Hummers--just because they can. A rational investment of that money to allow retiring young--is beyond a sizeable fraction of the population.
1.3.2006 1:23pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

It seems like this would as much be an argument for a return to the Draft instead of an argument for a return of the Minutemen.
The only real difference is that the draft grabbed a small number of Americans, while the militia was intended as a general obligation. In practice, by late Colonial times, "expeditionary forces" consisted primarily of the dregs of the society, and in Virginia, for example, no voter could be drafted into these expeditionary forces.

The quality of these units was not very high, and British officers who had experience with them during the French &Indian War assumed that they would be confronting similar quality forces at Lexington and Concord. By this point, there was sufficient popular support for the militia again that they did (at least for the first year of fighting), represent what the militia was supposed to be: the majority of citizens, fighting for their interests.
1.3.2006 1:28pm
Mr Diablo:
What always bothers me when people like Kopel trod off town memory lane with a salute to philosophers who has been dead for two thousand years is that he (like others) want to import their ideas seldom importing any context, and never importing any technology or moral advancement (the Romans in the Republic had slaves, lots and lots and lots of slaves, and a caste-system that was profoundly un-American that the Republicans wanted to preserve).

Stuff changes and concepts and items that did not even exist then, exist now. Some bad, most great as we they have been products of the capitalist/innovative machine that will forever drive man. Let's stop quoting Cicero or Cato or Plato and pretend that doing so makes us intellectual. Such extrapolation of the archaic is insulting to original thinkers of another time.

That said, there is no question in my mind that Cicero would have been opposed to a ban on kevlar-piercing bullets and rapid-fire arms. DUH, people!
1.3.2006 1:36pm
Marcus1:
Interesting article. What are you really saying, though? I mean, are you saying that Gore supporters should have raised arms against the government in 2000 after, in their view, the government wrongfully installed Bush?

This quote seems to support that idea:
Whatever his faults, George III was hardly Caligula or Nero; however illegitimate, the moderate British taxes were hardly equivalent to the mass executions of the emperors. But since the founders believed that the central lesson of the classics was the every illegitimate power, however small, ended in slavery, they were determined to resist such power.
I'm also wondering if your argument is really satisfied by the right to bear small arms. Don't citizens need much more powerful weapons in order to withstand the government?

I don't know of any sane person who thinks they could withstand the government through violent insurrection. I don't even think I know any insane people who believe that.

I'm just not sure how your argument applies to modern life. At best, it seems you're suggesting that even though we obviously can't fight the government any more, it's symbolically important that we retain guns so we at least feel like we can. Seems like kind of a stretch to me.
1.3.2006 1:38pm
ficus:


I don't know of any sane person who thinks they could withstand the government through violent insurrection.

This is true. The model of resistance to tyranny by armed citizens that seems to have been in the minds of the founding generation is obsolete. But having an armed citizenry is not necessarily useless, either.

The most recent example of a country like ours that went from democracy to tyranny is the Weimar Republic. Nobody thinks that that could happen here, mostly because we believe in American exceptionalism.

But suppose we are all wrong, and it does begin to happen here. There would be, I think, a phase of dissolution and strife preceding the actual coup, as in Germany. In the U.S. of today, that kind of thing would play out differently from the way it did in Germany, partly because of all the firearms. There is no way to predict the course of events, but consider. In Germany, the state and its coercive machinery were preserved intact through the transition, so that the coup-maker inherited it all. Here, I think it is fair to guess, there would be chaos and the coup-maker would have no easy time consolidating control. The coup might fail.

The general availabililty of firearms would promote chaos, but, more important than the firearms themselves would be the mentality that goes with them.
1.3.2006 2:28pm
KevinM:
And straight against that great array
Forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome's quarrel
Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
In the brave days of old.

XXXII
Then none was for a party;
Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor,
And the poor man loved the great:
Then lands were fairly portioned;
Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
In the brave days of old.

XXXIII
Now Roman is to Roman
More hateful than a foe,
And the Tribunes beard the high,
And the Fathers grind the low.
As we wax hot in faction,
In battle we wax cold:
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
In the brave days of old.

Macaulay, Lays of Ancient Rome, Horatius
1.3.2006 2:55pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

I'm also wondering if your argument is really satisfied by the right to bear small arms. Don't citizens need much more powerful weapons in order to withstand the government?
Not really. Yes, the government could call in air strikes or nuclear weapon attacks on rebellious cities, but what would be the net effect? It would turn a lot of people in the middle against the government. For a lot of people in the government and military (perhaps at the lower levels), this would also destroy their confidence that they were doing good. Look at what destroyed the Communist government of East Germany: the resistance had reached a point where they could only win by shedding a lot of blood--and the Communists could no longer look themselves in the mirror every morning and say, "We are implementing the will of the people!"

Yes, truly evil people in charge of the government wouldn't let killing a few million of their fellow Americans bother them. But most of the time, the problem isn't truly evil people in charge of a government, but the zealot who believes that he is doing good, and isn't too careful about the methods that he uses.
1.3.2006 3:00pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Kevin M: Bonus points to anyone who can quote Macaulay!

Clayton: Bonus points for putting consistency over ideology!
1.3.2006 3:19pm
Daniel-San (mail):
If I recall correctly, the Framers of the Constitution opposed a standing army as an instrument of oppression. The believed that the need to set a budget one year at a time would prevent such long-term evils as a standing army. Fortunately, other institutions have served to prevent the standing army from becoming the play-thing of power-hungry generals or kings. (Yes, I understand that there are power-hungry generals willing to do odd things with their responsibilities, but they are not threating U.S. cities or plotting overthrow of the U.S. government or taking over small countries to get the land and wealth for themselves, as in the latter days of the Roman Republic).
1.3.2006 3:50pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

If I recall correctly, the Framers of the Constitution opposed a standing army as an instrument of oppression. The believed that the need to set a budget one year at a time would prevent such long-term evils as a standing army.
Close. There was significant argument about whether a standing army was avoidable. Even those proponents of a standing army agreed that it would be best, if possible, to use a militia only--but they did not believe it was possible. Even proponents of a standing army acknowledged (or pretend to acknowledge) that it was at best a necessary evil.

Congress was limited in how long it could fund a standing army specifically to make sure that regular elections in the House could make a standing army go away from lack of funding. The navy was similarly limited, because it was not perceived as very dangerous; there's a limit to how far a navy can project power into a country (at least, until cruise missles and aircraft carriers come on the scene).
1.3.2006 3:59pm
Cornellian (mail):
The armies of the late Roman Republic were loyal to individuals rather than the state. Suppose a U.S. President meets with the joint chiefs in July of an election year and tells them "as your commander in chief, and in the national interest, I have decided to cancel the upcoming federal elections and remain President beyond the usual expiry of my term. Your job will be to enforce my decision against any dissenters." Would the military go along with this? I highly doubt it, but without the military no president could "do a Caesar."
1.3.2006 4:22pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Cornellian is right. The Senate opposed land grants to the soldiers of the Marian legions, b/c that would make the ex-soldiers into clients of their generals. (This anyway is how I recall it.)

So the generals were able to tell their legions, "*I'm* your sugar daddy."

Cornellian's extrapolation about the U.S. makes me wonder if the neutrality of the Army isn't a bad thing. Suppose the President announced that his "inherent Article II powers" (though I am trying to avoid that topic) allowed him to seek a 3d term? Or to incarcerate the Senate Democrats? The Army could decide that the dispute was a political one and just sit it out.

Does that count as "going along"?
1.3.2006 4:55pm
KevinM:
Thanks Anderson. Who was it who said "I wish I were as sure of anything as Macaulay is about everything?" There was a minor Macaulay flare-up in 2000 when Pat Buchanan quoted Horatius: "But how can man die better/than facing fearful odds/for the ashes of his fathers/and the temples of his gods?" Unfortunately, the context was strained and the mood self-pitying.
1.3.2006 5:32pm
ficus:
Anderson:

A disruption of the constitutional order has happened once before in the history of the country, but since there was no standing army the possibility of a military intervention didn't exist. I refer to the adoption of the Constitution, in 1787-89, in contravention of the Articles of Confederation. The Articles required unanimous consent for their revision, but the proposed constitution did not, and in fact took effect without such consent.

Was that bad? Depends on how much of a legalist you are, I think. Certainly the folks in Rhode Island had a legitimate gripe, since their right to veto was sacrificed in the process. But what's Rhode Island among friends?

Seriously, though, if there had been a standing army at the time, would it have been a good thing for the army to have attempted to enforce the law? Wasn't this a civilian matter? And do you think the army is the right agency to distinguish between civilian disruptions that "need fixed", and those that don't?
1.3.2006 5:49pm
Marcus1:
Ficus and Clayton Cramer,

I mean, it's pretty serious speculation going on here. It seems to me Clayton is talking about political considerations, though, which would exist with an armed citizenry or not. Peaceful protesters, I think, would accomplish the same thing.

As far as whether we would still be able to destroy our infrastructure... if we were really facing the possibility of a succesful coup, I don't see us being saved by a scorched earth policy, or that providing an additional disincentive that would tip the scale.

If someone is able to command our military in a coup, I'm afraid we're either going to be ok with it, or we're going to be screwed.

It also seems to me that if an insurrection is raised, the chances are that it will cause more harm than good. Most of our wars and insurrections in America seem to fit that mold, which actually, my constitutional scholar friend tells me was one of the motivators for the Constitutional convention in Philadelphia after the inadequate response to Shay's rebellion, if you're into that kind of analysis.
1.3.2006 7:04pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Ficus, I didn't mean to suggest that the army should intervene. What I thought I was saying was that, rather than be complicitous in a coup, the army could sit on its hands. That might be the same thing, effectively.
1.3.2006 7:20pm
ficus:
Anderson,

I misunderstood you. I thought you were saying that the army should intervene. If you are saying that the army should sit on its hands, then I agree. I think that having the army act as the lifeguard of democracy, which seems to have worked well in Turkey, would not work here. If we get so far into a coup that the army is our last hope, then we're probably sunk anyway.

But I'm not losing sleep over it. You surely know this quote, which by googling I have traced to Jean-Francois Revel (I hope it's right):

"Why is it that the dark night of fascism is always descending on America, but keeps landing on Europe?"
1.3.2006 7:58pm
Scipio (mail) (www):
Ah, Cicero. Only Cato was more assured of his own virtue. But the man was a brilliant lawyer, rhetorician, and advocate.
1.4.2006 9:28am