Despite being a former Latin teacher and Classical history buff, I haven't exactly devoured every modern literary or cinematic treatment of Roman era. I didn't get around to watching I, Claudius until 1991, my eighth year of teaching. (Yes, I am that old.) I have only recently begun watching Kayleen's DVD set of HBO's Rome—in small doses, finding it enjoyable but not binge-worthy.
Comparisons between Rome in the first century BCE and the United States today have become a hoary, moss-ridden cliché. By the time of Marius and Sulla, almost two generations before Gaius Iulius Caesar became dictator for life, the Roman Republic had already become a de facto empire that maintained only the forms of representative democracy. Meanwhile, opposing gangs of Optimates and Populares staged bloody rumbles in the streets almost daily. Historians can argue for days about whether Caesar and his allies did Rome a favor by hastening the demise of the decrepit Republic.
We keep coming back to that word "Republic." It's an incredibly important concept. The majority of nations today keep the word in their official names, deservedly or not. Even North Korea is officially "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea."
According to the historical consensus, the Romans invented the Republic after Lucius Iunius Brutus and his comrades drove out the Etruscan monarchy in 509 BCE. It was like that "democracy" thing they'd heard about from Athens, but with a localized twist. The Romans then preserved that Republic for more than four centuries, through thick and thin; through military conquests, they expanded its benefits throughout Italy and beyond. Officially, none of Rome's great accomplishments in warfare, engineering, agriculture, or the arts could compare with the Republic.
In many parts of the world, "republican" with a small "r" refers to one who favors Roman-style representative democracy. In the United States, "Republican" with a big "R" might once have meant something similar, but now it refers to one who favors corporatist imperialism. "Democrat," on the other hand, refers to corporatist imperialists with more ethnic and sexual diversity.
As much as I despise Episodes I-III of the Star Wars franchise, that whole unstable-late-republic-descending-into-empire theme is spot-on.
What Ben Said
In American legend, we have that famous cautionary story of Benjamin Franklin after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. When a neighbor asked him what sort of government the Convention had crafted, Franklin is said to have replied, "A Republic—if you can keep it." Ol' Ben was fully cognizant of what had happened to republican governments of previous eras, including the spectacular collapse of Rome's experiment.
He was also fully cognizant of the people's responsibility for maintaining a republic, as his response implies. He knew that democracy is not a spectator sport to be left entirely to the professionals.
The Education of L. Vorenus
When you watch the video clip embedded above, note how the learned Greek slave Posca appeals to war hero Lucius Vorenus's love of the Republic when discussing the ins and outs of electoral politics.
Meanwhile, those conspiring to assassinate the tyrant Caesar agree that they are acting to preserve the Republic. Of course, by "the Republic," they subconsciously mean "our obscene personal wealth."
In those crucial years between 100 and 27 BCE, patricians like Marcus Iunius Brutus and new-money aristocrats like Marcus Tullius Cicero certainly gave more than a rat's ass about the Republic. But HBO's series glosses over one important fact: These guys were far more interested in preserving their property and piles of cash. For them, preserving the Republic meant preserving the system that created and helped maintain that wealth. It's all about the sesterces, baby.
As Michael Parenti concludes in his book The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the patricians saw Caesar as more of a threat to their family fortunes than to the by-then abstract notion of republican governance. Yes, Caesar had flouted many ancient customs, but more importantly, he promised the populace what Lenin later offered to the Russian underclasses: Land, Peace, and Bread, plus gainful employment by which plebeians might advance their status.
Posca, while appealing to love of the Republic, also educates Vorenus on what keeps the Republic in motion: the ancient Roman version of the Deep State. The Senate and the Popular Assembly might ratify decisions on policy, and the people might participate in those sacred annual elections. But those policies and elections are decided in advance by a cabal that operates in the shadows. Politicians and businessmen who play along have a chance at success and wealth; those who buck the system, not so much. The Tribune of the Plebs may have veto power over the Senate, but he's just one guy, and he can be bought.
Kucinich Emerges from the Woodwork
The perpetually conscience-stricken Vorenus and his morally impaired mate Titus Pullo are fictional characters. Former Ohio Congressmember Dennis Kucinich is a real person. In 2004, when he came to Houston on his first presidential campaign, I got to shake his hand at the now-defunct Azteca restaurant on Richmond Avenue, known for its vegan Tex-Mex entrées.
I absolutely adore the way Redacted Tonight's Lee Camp has tied together Kucinich's recent appearance on Fox Business and Glenn Greenwald's on Democracy Now! as well as years of Deep State theorizing by Camp's fellow RT personality Chris Hedges. According to all three of these esteemed gentlemen, recent rumblings in the Deep State are far scarier than even the alleged presidency of Donald J. Trump.
Camp freely admits that these gents' references to the Deep State, in regard to the rapid dismissal of National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn, sounds like a press briefing from Tinfoil Hattie. But then, part of the Media Machine's job description is making sure to confirm, frequently and noisily, that ideas outside their narrow range of acceptable discourse are lunatic bait—until it is convenient for those ideas to become mainstream.
Kucinich himself is one of those fringe-y notions. In both 2004 and 2008, the Media Machine determined from the get-go that Kooch was a no-go. Even though he was the last candidate to drop out and yield to Sen. John Kerry in '04, he got zero traction and less coverage in '08. He was subsequently redistricted out of his House seat following the 2010 census.
It's not that dark horses have never won major-party nominations (e.g., the relatively unknown Jimmy Carter in post-Watergate 1976), but since the 1980s, the mass media have a pretty solid record of picking winners and losers in both major parties. And Progressives don't win the Democratic nomination because...well, because they don't, especially since George McGovern's painful defeat in 1972. (You may debate amongst yourselves whether McGovern was truly progressive.)
So Does Voting Even Matter?
If the outcomes of elections at various levels are predetermined, why vote? Call me naïve if you want, but I have taken a leap of faith on the subject, choosing to vote just in case my vote actually counts. In many cases, it clearly does count. Not all elections or individual races are rigged. If they were, the long-standing GOP establishment in Harris County would not have allowed Democrats to run the table in 2016. (You may debate amongst yourselves whether there is any functional difference between the two parties, even at the county level.)
In the presidential race, as Greg Palast keeps pointing out, Republican victories in the Rust Belt have more to do with voter suppression in its many forms than with vote-rigging, vote-hacking, or even mobs of disgruntled white workers. You can also factor in the 42% plurality of registered voters who have given up because neither major party represents their interests (and they don't know enough about the minor parties because the Media Machine isn't talking about those).
I will continue to cast my naïve votes for parties and candidates who vociferously oppose empire.
By the way, none of the preceding is meant, in any way whatsoever, to equate or even compare Trump with Caesar. Caesar, or his modern equivalent, would have had a plague like Trump eradicated years ago.
Blogging Sporadically since 2014
Here you will find political campaign-related entries, as well as some about my literature, Houston underground arts, peace & justice, urban cycling, soccer, alt-religion, and other topics.