Tuesday, October 03, 2006

History Repeats Itself?

As a sometime student of ancient history, I couldn't help but be fascinated by Robert Harris's op-ed piece in the September 30 New York Times. Mr. Harris, the author of a novel about ancient Rome, recounts in chilling terms the gradual erosion of the system of checks and balances in the Roman constitution; this was done in the name of protecting the state against attacks by pirates (the terrorists of their day). As Mr. Harris says, "powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned." The parallels to our time are painfully obvious.

"Pirates of the Mediterranean

Published: September 30, 2006
Kintbury, England

IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.

The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.

Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: no nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth: “The ruined men of all nations,” in the words of the great 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, “a piratical state with a peculiar esprit de corps.”

Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack. To quote Mommsen again: “The Latin husbandman, the traveler on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the terrestrial paradise of Baiae were no longer secure of their property or their life for a single moment.”

What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of “Civis Romanus sum” — “I am a Roman citizen” — was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.

But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights. The greatest soldier in Rome, the 38-year-old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the Great) arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in the Roman Forum and propose an astonishing new law.

“Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone,” the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. “There were not many places in the Roman world that were not included within these limits.”

Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury — 144 million sesterces — to pay for his “war on terror,” which included building a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented, and there was literally a riot in the Senate when the bill was debated.

Nevertheless, at a tumultuous mass meeting in the center of Rome, Pompey’s opponents were cowed into submission, the Lex Gabinia passed (illegally), and he was given his power. In the end, once he put to sea, it took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean. Even allowing for Pompey’s genius as a military strategist, the suspicion arises that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could hardly have been such a grievous threat in the first place.

But it was too late to raise such questions. By the oldest trick in the political book — the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as “soft” or even “traitorous” — powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.

Robert Harris is the author, most recently, of "'Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome.'”

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Dear Marie,
Thank you for posting this very interesting and chilling analysis. I certainly see parallels to current events. Though Pompey was notably more successful in his war on terror (though I suspect both then and now, either things were, as suggested, staged, or at minimum, exploited, to gain more power than is healthy!