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World Opinions | One man brought down democracy in Rome. Trump’s behaving similarly today.

14:00  24 november  2020
14:00  24 november  2020 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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President Trump is actively working to undermine the democratic process by trying to coerce state election officials to overturn the popular vote, alleging baseless claims of voter fraud and refusing to concede. Instead of rallying the country to survive a pandemic that is setting daily records for infections and deaths, he focuses on raising money to contest the election results, funds that might also help him prepare for possible legal cases after he leaves office — a departure that seems unlikely to dampen his fiercely partisan ambitions for the future.

Roman general and statesman Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, left; President Trump at the White House. (iStock; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) Roman general and statesman Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, left; President Trump at the White House. (iStock; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This raises the question: Can one man obsessed with status and money destroy a democratic republic? Ancient Rome shows that the answer is yes. And Rome’s example reveals that this destruction of a centuries-old government can take place in only a few months.

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When one Roman leader trampled democratic norms to seize sole power, the system faltered because its ultimate reliance on a tradition of respect for political norms made it vulnerable. Subsequent leaders learned from and built on this trampling, bringing down the republic forever.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (138-78 B.C.) came from a family that had lost its status in the top rank of Roman society — and its money, too — when his great-great-great grandfather, a successful politician, was convicted of financial fraud. The elite of Sulla’s time made his early life humiliating by looking down their noses at him as someone whose once-distinguished ancestor had squandered the standing and the wealth that his descendants should have inherited.

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Able to afford only a slum apartment, Sulla partied hard to compensate for his social disgrace. His prospects unexpectedly improved when a well-off girlfriend and his stepmother left him money in their wills. He then launched on a career as a commander in Rome’s citizen army, beginning the trajectory that would destroy Rome’s Republic.

Romans had invented the Republic — “Res publica, The Thing of the People” — as a government giving all adult male citizens the vote as a way to prevent the abuses of monarchy. Their new system involved a form of voting that gave greater weight to ballots cast by the rich because ancient Rome moralized money and monetized morals. If you had lots of money — enough, say, to pay for expensive metal armor or a well-trained cavalry horse — then by Roman standards you deserved respect as a good citizen. If you couldn’t afford that costly equipment, you were just a deplorable member of the masses.

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To achieve the social and moral superiority that wealth conveyed, Sulla set out to remake his life by accumulating other people’s property in his early public career. As an ambassador during a war in North Africa, he cozied up to a king there — potentates always gave expensive presents — and as an army officer abroad he also piled up loot on successful military campaigns.

This worked because Republican Rome fought wars in foreign lands aimed at creating profits from plundering the defeated. Commanders and troops alike saw the property of the losing side as fair game, especially their living bodies to sell at high prices in international slave markets.

By the time he hit 40, Sulla had accumulated the funds to fashion himself into a major figure in the contentious arena of Roman politics. Money didn’t just show social status. It also paid for personal favors to generate support in elections. So, when Sulla paid for supplies to feed the hungry troops of another commander who had failed in his duties, Sulla was supporting the war effort but also winning favor from the nonelite citizens in the ranks. Deplorables they might be, but together their votes mattered.

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Subsequently, after an acclaimed military performance in the Social War (91-88 B.C.), he finally won the public recognition that he craved — election as consul, the office at the top of Roman governmental offices and therefore the pinnacle of prestige.

Sulla’s eminence fired the jealousy of Gaius Marius (157-86 B.C.). Marius’s fame as a successful military commander who treated his troops well had propelled him to unprecedented political success. He had been elected to the consulship six times already, winning five terms in a row in an office that tradition said shouldn’t be held consecutively.

Marius had long resented Sulla because people had given him the credit for one of Marius’s military victories. Sulla wore a signet ring commemorating this coup — to Marius’s enduring anger.

As Sulla and Marius increasingly clashed, their fevered political partisanship and status-seeking undermined a crucial source of national stability: respect for an unwritten code of traditions called the “the way of our ancestors.” Sulla initially won the contest to be chosen commander in a war against an enemy kingdom in Anatolia (today Turkey) that promised enormous booty. But Marius stabbed him in the back by convincing the voters to reverse that decision and bestow this prize on him.

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Furious, Sulla shattered the “way of our ancestors” by doing the previously unthinkable for a Roman general: attacking Rome itself. When he dreamed that a goddess gave him a thunderbolt to strike his enemies, he roused his troops to set fire to homes throughout the city to suppress opposition.

When Marius failed to repulse Sulla’s rampaging forces with a hastily assembled band of gladiators, he fled the city. Sulla haughtily chastised the Roman Senate for having victimized him and departed to conduct his foreign plundering expedition.

During Sulla’s absence, Marius initiated a campaign of terror to murder Sulla’s supporters, but died before he could finish the job. His friends kept up the pressure. Sated by his lucrative victories in the east, Sulla returned to Italy to reignite the civil war. He captured the city after a battle before the walls of the capital city on Nov. 1, 82 B.C., that killed countless Romans.

Within a few months, he cemented his victory by forcing the Senate to make him dictator (Latin for “a ruler who all by himself tells people what to do”). Flouting the “way of our ancestors” that insisted that dictator was a position to be held only for as long as it took to repulse whatever immediate danger was threatening Rome, Sulla continued to rule for the rest of the year 81 B.C. He ruthlessly exercised the power of life or death over his rivals and restructured Roman government to the advantage of the elite. He then became consul again to give his violent reforms a veil of legitimacy.

Sulla’s self-serving career inspired a new generation of Roman leaders to ignore the Republic’s tradition of shared governance in their race to acquire personal power. Opposition from die-hard republicans such as Cato the Younger proved too splintered to support the way of the ancestors in the face of Sulla’s murderous power. This path of destruction culminated when in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar had himself proclaimed “perpetual dictator.” This move inflamed the civil war that ended the Republic for good. The winner, Caesar Augustus, announced in 27 B.C. that he was restoring the Republic, with a few improvements. No one failed to grasp that he had created an imperial autocracy — the Roman Empire, as we call it.

By fracturing Rome’s tradition of sharing political power democratically, Sulla in just a few months set in motion the destruction of a centuries-old republic. In today’s climate of conflict in our nation, it seems worth remembering this foreboding precedent and working to support, or perhaps enshrine in legislation, the “way of our ancestors” that defends our republic, starting with the tradition that electors cast their votes to respect the tabulated decision of the people (which is only legally required in some states) instead of the authoritarian will of a would-be dictator intent on burning out his opponents like a modern Sulla.

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