The Late Republic?

Caesar: Life of a Colossus: Adrian GoldsworthyIn today’s Wall Street Journal, Mark Miller writes, “There are points of similarity between the political culture of late republican Rome and our own, but the differences reveal how far we have to go before we hit bottom — contrary to the dire warnings emanating from certain political quarters today.”

And further:

“As Adrian Goldsworthy makes clear in his excellent biography, Caesar changed the times he lived in by dint of skill, charisma and unfathomable ambition — he indeed bestrode the narrow world like a colossus. . . It would be wrong for us to draw too many lessons for our current world from this outsize figure from classical history. The checks and balances in our own republic were designed to protect against the kinds of political instability or democracy-erosion that leads to Caesarism. But it can’t hurt to be reminded grand political ambitions can sometimes leave the rest of us worse off than before.”

But wasn’t the entire Republican system in Rome set up to prevent the consolidation of power under one man? And didn’t this system last for nearly 500 years? As Goldsworthy shows in his book, the later years of the Roman Republic were marked by astonishing violence and the repeal of centuries-old tradition, custom, and law. It is precisely because this late Republican period was so tumultuous that it is so compelling. And it begs the question (if only for the sake of argument): How much stronger are our current checks and balances than the Roman ones?

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