Henningsen: On the transfer of power

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(HOST) As we anticipate a new presidential administration, teacher, historian and commentator Vic Henningsen is reminded of a memorable, and less peaceful, transfer of power that took place more than two thousand years ago.

(HENNINGSEN) On January 10th, 49 B.C, according to the old Roman calendar, Julius Caesar led his army across the river Rubicon, returning to Rome to fight corruption.  

An otherwise inconsequential stream, the Rubicon separated Rome proper from its provinces.  To protect the republic from internal military threat, Roman law expressly prohibited returning generals from crossing it with troops.  Hence, Caesar was committing treason, which he recognized – famously declaring "the die is cast" as he crossed.  This led to civil war, from which Caesar emerged victorious and ruler of the Roman world.  Historians use this event as a convenient moment to mark the end of the 450 year-old Roman Republic. Both the action and the phrase he allegedly uttered have become shorthand for what today we call a "point of no return" or a "tipping point."

But a "tipping point" shouldn’t be confused with a cause.  The "tipping point" is merely the moment at which a change already in progress for some time becomes obvious.  And for over a century, Rome had been rotting from within.

The Roman Republic was defined by a governing structure that, in theory at least, placed sovereignty – supreme political power – in the hands of an enlightened citizenry. Such a structure effectively prevented the rise of a monarchy. But it couldn’t prevent the development of an oligarchy – that is, control by a wealthy elite.  

At the same time, Rome engaged in territorial expansion. Moderate efforts designed to ensure security grew over time into expansion for its own sake.  As the republic grew it became increasingly dependent on far-flung armies for national security. Those armies were more loyal to their commanders – like Caesar – than they were to the Republic.   

Meanwhile, a class system based on income inequality developed in previously egalitarian Rome and the ruling elite became fragmented by factional disputes. For well over a century before Caesar’s fateful decision, Rome was a republic in name only.  
Indeed, Caesar claimed that he acted to restore the Republic. He gets credit for originating the notion that in order to save something, you must destroy it.

To America’s founding fathers, the Roman Republic provided both inspiration and warning.  They sought to frame a republic anchored in the notion of popular sovereignty: an enterprise that would survive as long as the citizenry was virtuous, meaning that individuals must put the common good ahead of individual advantage.  But their enthusiasm was shadowed by their understanding of history – particularly Roman history – which taught that republics fail. When its citizens could no longer maintain civic virtue, the Roman Republic became an empire controlled by a corrupt few.  The hard-headed realists who framed the United States, worried that their revolutionary republic might repeat the Roman experience.  And they were haunted by the knowledge that the Roman Republic wasn’t destroyed by its enemies, but by those claming to be its friends.

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