Not long ago, certainly within the last couple of years, I yielded to the urge to start a squib when the US senate punted another enumerated power to president Obama. It might have been the power of the purse or maybe the treaty power, but in any event, I opened Tacitus’ (55-117AD) Annals, and tapped out a few notes below. Throughout the imperial period, Roman emperors kept up the façade of republicanism. They pretended to consult the senate and be guided by its votes. The senate in turn, pretended it had a will of its own. If men are willing to live a lie, life can be comfortable for those at the top.
• Tiberius, while securing to himself the substance of imperial power, allowed the senate some shadow of its old constitution, by referring to its investigation certain demands from the provinces.
• So corrupted indeed and debased was that age by sycophancy that not only the foremost citizens who were forced to save their grandeur by servility, but every ex-consul, most of the ex-praetors and a host of inferior senators would rise in eager rivalry to propose shameful and preposterous motions. Tradition says that Tiberius as often as he left the Senate-House used to exclaim in Greek, “How ready these men are to be slaves.” Clearly, even he, with his dislike of public freedom, was disgusted at the abject abasement of his creatures.
• The higher a man’s rank, the more eager his hypocrisy.
• Laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.
• How few were left who had seen the republic!
From an early age, Tacitus built his renown around superb oratorical skills. His political career launched shortly after he married the daughter of Julius Agricola, Governor of Britain. By virtue of his advancement through the offices of quaestor, aedile, and praetor, he was, by AD 93, at the height of his powers. The next logical office was the consulship, which would have put him very close to the Emperor Domitian. From about AD 89 until his death by assassination in AD 96, the tyrant Domitian demanded personal loyalty from senators and all office-holders. The Emperor enforced full attendance in the senate when honorable men were being judicially murdered, so that he could plainly see who did, or did not, condone his actions.
Death was the reward for the merest suspicion of disloyalty. Tacitus kept his mouth shut and did not stand for the consulship. Those left alive after the Domitian terror regarded themselves as survivors who were deeply impacted by the constant fear of being called out by informers. Such was the horror that men could not trust one another to engage in frank discussion of political matters.
Upon the welcomed death of Domitian, Tacitus began writing in earnest, so that Rome should not have “lost memory as well as voice.”
While there is no shortage of writings which compare imperial Rome and an America in decline, I invite the reader to ponder the similar corruption of our ruling and societal institutions. What has happened to the good men and women who stood up to challenge or even question the encroaching despotism? The mechanisms of government, entertainment, and education are in the hands of those who intend further great harm to the remains of our republic. So thorough is their control, and so insatiable is their appetite to create the New Man, they have in recent decades focused on soiling the foundations of civil society itself.
History, both ancient and recent, illustrate the relative ease with which nations slip into tyranny. Perhaps there is no turning back. But, our demise is certain if patriots do nothing beyond their comfortable yet increasingly irrelevant habit of voting every two years. As opposed to Rome during the time of Jesus, we have the peaceful means to stop and reverse our course. Let’s do it.