“Under a democratical government, the citizens exercise the powers of sovereignty; and those powers will be first abased, and afterward lost, if they are committed to an unwieldy multitude.”
— Edward Gibbon, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”
WASHINGTON — The period of the American Revolution coincided with publication of Edward Gibbon's “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776), and ever since we've been vigilant for signs that the U.S. was following in Rome's footsteps.
There's no need to exhaust the already exhaustive list of parallels. But as we approach the political conventions, and are already worn down by ceaseless partisan bickering, the mind easily finds its way to Rome's Coliseum, where powerful political families sought to entertain, pacify and distract the multitudes.
We may no longer feed Christians to lions, but the operating premise feels fresh enough. Keep attention riveted on the circus and people may not notice their discontent. Or the corruption in their midst.
Says Gracchus to Falco in “Gladiator”:
“Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it's the sand of the coliseum. He'll bring them death — and they will love him for it.”
The public's tolerance for blood was somewhat heartier in those days. We don't literally slay our political opponents. Our weapons are more discreet — coded words and strategic messaging rather than swords and tridents. Bloodletting of a higher order.
Similarities otherwise are plentiful. During the heyday of the empire, as today, only the very wealthy could run for high office. Aiding and abetting our chosen few are scores of handlers, bundlers and private funders. The widespread fear of corporate control of the political system under Citizens United turns out to have been a lesser threat than a few individuals wreaking havoc or imposing their own utopian vision by writing checks large enough to fund small nations.