Saturday, September 30, 2006

How democracy in Rome was weakened, following a terrorist attach

The following was sent to me by a friend and influential public policy consultant who lives in India.

Published: September 30, 2006
Kintbury, England
Anthony Russo)

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

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.

Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar
ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being
surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate
on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees,
denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful
wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of serious
physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of
evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the
licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States
an enemy combatant all this represents an historic shift in the balance of
power between the citizen and the executive.

An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that
what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a
centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical
Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.

In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman
republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar the
only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey's special
command during the Senate debate was awarded similar, extended military
sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had
direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume
direction of the state.

It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been
designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the
resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his
treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of
elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to
âbribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar
crossed the Rubicon and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case. But the
disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened the
process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the
political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything
remotely comparable to Rome's democracy imperfect though it was rose

The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended
consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to
protect. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the
same result.


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