Economic turmoil, long and spread out, resulted in a tremendous amount of unemployment and the huge accumulation of debt. Foreign enemies, from a mighty rival to more puny but nonetheless dangerous bands of attackers, threatened the nation decades after it had seen its greatest enemies vanquished. Government meddling redirected a substantial amount of wealth to those whom most people did not think deserved any more. For fear of their safety, tremendous power was placed in the hands of the executive to counter the threats posed to society. For want of material security, these same people were given a mandate by the people to rid the nation of economic inequity. Over a long period of upheaval caused by this mess and coupled by widespread political corruption, a republic saw itself destroyed and reborn an empire.
I do not like to speak often of the similarities of Rome and America, as people seem to simplify them in a way that makes the comparisons seem even greater. Nonetheless, as the greatest republic to exist before our own, and as our Founders and their posterity have always looked at that ancient republic as a sort of eagle in the dusty mirror we gaze into, it is fitting to think upon the problems that faced the Romans and to see if we Americans can learn anything from them.
Today, a growing populist movement that began as Occupy Wall Street and has now spread to other cities around the country has surprised people in rise from ridiculed obscurity to its present size, thanks much to the use of social media in organization. There seems to be no central message or motivating philosophy other than frustration with the economy and the blaming of large corporations for our woe. Apart from taking to Twitter to make fun of the messy job these people are doing in coherently getting their absent message across, I really do not take too great a issue with what they are complaining about. The big banks cheated their customers, and then were handed a tremendous amount of money from our government. Rather than allowing these big businesses to be punished for their arrogance and greed, the Bush and Obama administrations indulged them all and let most of them get away unscathed. I would just recommend they camp outside of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department rather than Wall Street.
Thus while I find some of their grievances to be justified, some of the outliers begin to disturb me, and the populist furor seen around much of this is reminiscent of our ancient predecessors. Take, for example, this proposed list of demands
from some of the protesters. While many of the demands on that list are ridiculously untenable to the point of humor, the 11th one is of particular interest as I have seen it popping up now and then a few times over the past two years: forgiveness of all debts. This was a signature reform enacted by the populist Gracchi brothers after the Third Punic War, when the waves of republican degradation began to hit Rome. Marius, Cinna, Clodius, Crassus, and (for a time) Pompey all attempted to win over the masses with similar tactics. This period of back-and-forth, though (for the Populares would certainly be challenged), was very, very bloody. Soon the Romans were not only feeling economically disadvantaged and angry, but they were so very tired as well. Caesar came to solve all of their problems for them, and they willingly submitted to his dictatorship in exchange for relief and peace.
The fervor and populist underpinning of both the Tea Party movement and this new Occupant movement give me some pause as they may lead to shorter tempers and stronger factions. Americans are guilty of the human precondition towards thinking good things are permanent, something which I am sure plagued many-a-Roman senator until they woke up to a tyranny. Revolutions are rarely expected, and not all have a transparent collapse of what came before them. There are always would-be Caesars lurking in the shadows. Popular prejudice is also not as much a safeguard as always expected; the Romans would not stand a king, but they would gladly take a Caesar. Nonetheless, it is only a brief pause for concern as I do believe that the American people and our institutions are resilient enough to temper such things, and still thankfully do not have much stomach for actual politically-motivated violence behind all the "eat the rich" rhetoric. The fact that there is clamoring among both decentralized groupings for transparency and against corruption is hopeful, as is the fact that one of these popular movements is devoted in great deal towards diminishing the power of government. Furthermore, the rancor is not nearly as bad as it has been in the past. We survived the political fighting of the 1830s, the carnage of the Civil War, and the chaos of the 1960s. People today gripe about how our government almost shut down three times this year, forgetting that it suffered actual shut-downs in the 1990s. The "hostility" is very much exaggerated by the media. There is hope yet! But, it is always good to keep a cautious eye out, just in case.