Draining the swamp in ancient Rome: America’s Gracchi moment of truth

Special to WorldTribune, October 26, 2020

By Mark S. Hunter

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” — President John F. Kennedy, 1962

Mark Twain reputedly quipped, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Whoever actually said it, the rhyming of history is nowhere better illustrated that the resonance of events during the last four years in America with the events that ushered in the final descent of the old Roman Republic into tyranny.

From swamp creatures to political disruptors; from endless wars to corrupt and avaricious politicians; from politicians who go to any lengths to further their wealth, expand their power and control the population to organized disinformation campaigns to destroy political opponents – the parallels are uncanny and disconcerting

The unhappy fate of the Roman Republic is known; ours is still in the making.

Late in the 130s bc, the Roman Republic metaphorically crossed the Rubicon (although Caesar’s actual crossing would not happen for another 80 years). In 133 bc, the tribune brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (the Gracci Brothers), took it upon themselves through largely extra-constitutional means to drain the Roman swamp of corruption and dismantle the avaricious elites that comprised a sort of Roman Deep State located within the Roman Senate and extended throughout the Roman administrative-state apparatus. The Gracchi Brothers’ efforts at agrarian reform set off a chain reaction of intense, to-the-death struggles – a tit-for-tat spiral of extra-constitutional measures between the tribunes and senators and leading eventually to the assassination of Tiberius and later, his brother Gaius. The Brothers Gracchi saga managed to grease the skids for the Republic’s final descent into tyranny – a tragic decent that began during the Punic Wars a century earlier but would finally culminate with the rise of Julius Caesar, dictator perpetual, in 44 bc.

By 133 bc, Rome had fallen under the control of what today we would call political crime families ensconced in the Senate, who worked hand-in-glove with government functionaries and actors outside the formal political system. These elites were amassing vast and unprecedented wealth while the rest of Rome was being impoverished. Senators were manipulating the Roman political system to their personal benefit and to the great detriment of the Roman people. Foreign conflicts that had turned into “forever wars” were draining the Roman treasury. The burden fell especially heavily on the land-owning Roman Legionnaires, who not only had to fight the wars but also were helpless to prevent their farms from deteriorating and failing in their absence and their land reverting to state (i.e., Senate) ownership. Once seized by the state, these lands were being divvied up among the Senate crime families through a series of what today would be called shell companies and fake tenants kicking back to the big guys in the Senate. The wars also created an influx of foreign slaves brought home as booty and used as cheap labor on the Patrician-owned farms to displace Roman workers.  With such enormous wealth and power in the hands of a few, enormous corruption was inevitable, which in turn, inevitably, drove a wedge between the ruling elites and the common folk (the plebs), who increasingly found themselves in the dirt under the boot of the state.

Under Roman law, only land-owning citizens could fight in the legions. In most cases the serving plebs were farmers.  This was a source of pride and historically one of the strengths of the republic – a citizen army made up of men who owned a piece of the state franchise. Military service was not, however, by a set enlistment as modern Americans might imagine, but rather was a commitment for the full duration of the current wars. As these “forever wars” began to grind on, the lands farmed by families without adult men were falling into decline and outright bankruptcy, forcing them to be sold off in desperation. The wives and families were then forced into the cities in pursuit of work, usually being left destitute and in poverty. Once the war-de-jure was over, the booty lands were then administered by the Senate, allowing Senators to benefit directly from the spoils of wars.  The final insult was that the plebs who fought the wars, now landless, returned home without a farm to till and were unable to find employment themselves because large patrician farms (latifundia) increasingly were worked by the influx of slave labor, a direct result of those very wars. Enter the Gracchi Brothers.

The constitution of the Roman Republic as it was then practiced was a strange, yet effective balance/struggle between the two factions of Roman society, patricians and plebs. The wealthy, high-born patrician interests were manifest in the Senate, whereas the commoner, plebian interests were protected by the tribunes and their assemblies. In truth, however, by this time, the real political power lay in the Senate where lifetime tenure and wealth garnered through corruption allowed them to buy anyone’s vote. The genius of the original Roman constitution was manifested in a constant and institutionalized struggle between the two factions of society. But, over the years, the checks and balances of this arrangement eroded, leaving the Senate establishment of patricians free to exploit the plebs pretty much at will. To better control the plebs of the Assembly, the patricians had over the years managed a Roman version of “court packing” by expanding the number of tribunes from 4 to 10, effectively allowing more targets for potential bribery, if necessary, to control the plebian assemblies.

Imagine, if you will, a Roman politician in 133 bc pontificating about how great things were because of their forward-looking policies – cheap labor and more leisure time – oblivious to the fact that cheap labor and leisure time to the plebs simply meant no work, no property, no money, no life.

Tribune (tribunus plebis) Tiberius Gracchus proposed reforms that were straightforward and, he argued, well within Roman law, custom and tradition. The large land holdings had been agglomerated illegally by the Senate’s flouting and ignoring ancient custom and tradition and by simply ignoring and refusing to enforce or repeal laws enacted in earlier times to prevent just such an accumulation of enormous land holdings in a few hands. Tiberius proposed that the huge patrician estates be broken up and distributed among plebians.

In retrospect, such a proposal was doomed to fail from the outset. No holder of land would consent to having property taken from him (especially in the case of tenants and owners who had purchased/leased the land from one of the Senate crime families) notwithstanding a promise to be paid compensation.

Moreover, Tiberius had committed the cardinal sins of advancing his proposal through un(extra)-constitutional means. First, he flouted the inviolate, iron-clad tradition that legislation may be proposed in the plebian assembly (Concilium Plebis) if and only if its introduction first received consent from the senate. Tiberius submitted his reform proposal without first receiving Senate consent. Second, he violated the sanctity of the tribune veto when he had fellow tribune Marcus Octavius, whom likely had been bribed by the senate, thrown out of the assembly for vetoing his agrarian reform proposal.

These actions gave the Senate pretexts for responding with its own extra-constitutional actions, such as threatening to impeach Tiberius at the end of his term, which likely would have resulted in his death. Further, intentionally playing on the Roman historic fear of tyranny, they ran a disinformation campaign against him with the people, claiming he was betraying the state and seeking to be made king of Rome. This was the Roman volatile equivalent of calling someone a racist in modern America.

In response, Tiberius sought to inoculate himself against impeachment and possible murder at the hands of the Senate by running for re-election, which violated a 300-year-old tradition (which some historians believe to have been codified in an ambiguous statue) that limited a tribune to one term.

But, the larger failure in this tragedy was the failure of the Senate even to recognize the existential threat to the Republic their avariciousness and lawlessness had created; and then, its failure to address the issue seriously to avert the Republic’s collapse, which its actions had set in motion. The problem faced by the Roman Republic was not an easy problem, and its solution was far from obvious. There was moral ambiguity aplenty as those of good intentions found themselves sullied in the swamp in which they had to wade. A healthy republic would surely have contentious fights, debates, and arguments over the solution. But this is what a successful republic is supposed to do. An unhealthy republic does exactly the opposite: deny the existence of the problem; refuse to stop corrupt actors inside and their cronies outside the political system; censor all debate; and refuse to bring the malefactors to justice, which is precisely what unfolded in Rome after the Gracchi Brothers entered the picture and appears to be unfolding in America today.

Intractable in their position of corrupt power, the Senate elites seemingly held all the cards. The status quo suited them just fine – no reforms required. Even a sick host can serve the parasites that continue to feed on its dying body.

Feeling he was denied any recourse, Tiberius upped his game and sought power he could leverage outside the confines of the constitution – the masses.  In making his proposal and succeeding in passing it through the plebian assembly by illegally nullifying the veto of a fellow tribune (by having him thrown out of the assembly), Tribune Tiberius Gracchus made himself a champion of the plebians. Tiberius, and later his brother Gaius, taunted and tormented the establishment Senate elites and aroused the ire of the masses against them to threaten the Roman swamp with extinction. At one point, Tiberius even vetoed the ceremonial morning “opening of the city” (somewhat akin to ringing the morning bell to open trading on the U.S. Stock Exchange) in an exercise of his veto power against the establishment to shut down commerce and public business – no markets; no courts; and, god forbid, no banks! For the first time the Senate saw a real limitation of its power as the masses, through its tribune, said a resounding “no.”

Forget the details of the whole episode. The Gracchi crisis is the story of a political disruptor who crashed the establishment’s party and threatened not only to kick over their apple cart, admittedly by dubious means, but also to cut down their entire orchard. The corrupt elites, whose power, control and wealth the disruptor threatened, intensified the extra-constitutional struggle and used any means necessary, including murder, to protect their corrupt existence.  In retrospect, the Gracchi moment in history was the Roman Republic’s last opportunity to right the ship of state and correct its course before it got caught in the current of lawlessness and swept into a whirlpool of destruction.

All the signs were flashing red, and yet the ruling establishment could not bring themselves to rise above corrupt self-interest to act as statesmen. They lost the final vestige of public trust, which is the real currency of a republic. They had destroyed the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of the people. The Brothers Gracchi, like Donald Trump today, were but a symptom. Trump’s ascendance to power was a warning sign, and the disinformation campaigns, the silent coup attempts, and the overall, hyped-up hysteria of hatred used by establishment elites to destroy him, also are signals flashing red today that an extra-constitutional power struggle is underway and certain to intensify if/when he is reelected.

Are modern-day patricians so blinded by their globalist schemes to re-engineer the world as we know it, so determined to replace our God-given human rights with tightly controlled permissions from political overlords, so consumed by their lust for power, wealth and control over human populations (as illustrated by their abhorrent behavior in manipulating this latest coronavirus scare into a global scamdemic of epic proportions) – are they so obsessed with controlling the narrative that they would trash without blanching individuals’ most basic rights of free speech, religion, assembly, due process, equal protection of the law (to name but a few) to impose their demented utopian vision on the world? Can they no longer comprehend the plight of common Americans? Do they even care?

The tragedy, and lesson of the Roman Republic isn’t just that the deep state prevailed, but how it prevailed by undermining the very precepts of the Republic; how it incited reformers, out of desperation, to adopt the patricians’ own nefarious methods in attempting to combat their corruption and drain the swamp. In politics, lessons are learned – even the bad ones. Unable to convince the consul to stop the reelection of Tiberius, the Roman Senate instigated a riot providing cover for a brutal beatdown in which Tiberius and 300 of his followers were murdered. Historians believe the murder actually occurred during a plebian assembly that was in the process of voting to reelect Tiberius.  It was a blood purge destined to become common place in Roman politics. For the political class, the lesson was to make sure the plebians never challenged their authority again. But for the plebians that saw through the sham “reforms” the Senate touted after murdering Tiberius, the lesson was to reject everything coming out of Rome as hopelessly corrupt. The republic had died, though it would still take several decades for the corpse to be pronounced dead.

Soon after the Gracchi Brothers had left the scene, Sulla, a truly horrible and evil man, in order to protect patrician interests, marched his army into the city of Rome and reclaimed power for the Senate, implementing another blood purge of political opponents in the process.  Proclaiming the constitution needed reforming, Sulla then proceeded to implement “reforms” by decree that would neuter plebian access to the machinery of government altogether.

The rest, as they say, is history, and it’s ringing resonantly in one’s ear. Caesar becomes the final battle waged between a corrupt political class and the commoners seeking someone to be their voice. Caesar plays the game by the establishment’s rules, using the spoils of war in Gaul to pay off his legions who likely would return home propertyless anyway. When the Senate contrives a phony scandal to investigate and destroy him, Caesar refuses to return to the city without garnering popular support at his back. And, for all their cries of “custom and tradition” to prevent Caesar’s bringing his army into the city, Senators were laughed at by a population that had seen Sulla do exactly the same thing years before, leaving the patricians a laughingstock of hypocrisy. The prospect that Caesar was just doing all this for his own power really didn’t matter to the masses because he was their champion bringing them into the oligarchy of power they had been locked out of for too long.

America is having its own Gracchi moment. Anyone who is willing to look can see branches of unfathomable governing power – the legislative branches, the courts, the governors’ mansions, local, state and federal bureaucracies, the governing alphabets, such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, EPA, IRS, CPS, DMV, just to mention a few– all  having been weaponized as political tools to attack outsiders, the plebs, while protecting a modern American patrician class and their poisonous ideologies.

This is all being done with populist verve and a patina of righteous moral virtue to “save America” with a great reset, when in fact, the motivation is to maintain their own entrenched grip on political power and wealth while expanding their control over the population. They puppet-manage a self-professed, leftist vanguard as their disposable agents of destruction to arouse the mob as a weapon to annihilate the existing order. The double standard in the application of law to America’s political class and their chosen agents as contrasted to the way the law is applied to everyone else is a clear symptom of a sick republic. Ironically, enabled by the very technology now being leveraged to control information, people are increasingly outraged by a corrupt deep state using American power, both at home and abroad, for their own enrichment.  Endless wars and trade policy that benefit the well placed, but few others.  Agencies designed to spy on enemies are used with impunity to spy on and entrap citizens.  The Washington political class and the leftist media with whom they sleep, thinks this goes away with the defeat of Trump. But as the Roman Senate discovered, winning at all costs has ramifications, which will bring about their own demise. American patricians are likely to discover their scandalous attempts to “build back better” after the destruction they are wreaking will amount to nothing less than erecting the scaffold on which they ultimately will hang.

So, one must ask: When does political corruption in a republic go from being endurable “routine” business as usual to being perniciously deadly? Is it when “forever wars” are waged for the enrichment of the political/big-business class that can garner and manipulate the spoils of that conflict? Has the point been reached when the soldiers, families and taxpayers that bear the scars and costs of those wars are unceremoniously left homeless and impoverished? Perhaps it’s when politicians in prestigious positions of power use the wealth gained from influence peddling to buy any vote or person? Has the threshold been reached? Has the institutionalized corruption so metastasized that the only treatment is a form of poisonous political chemotherapy that inevitably will kill the patient (bring down the republic) if it fails to eradicate the corruptive disease first? Have we reached the stage where the curative reform required to destroy the cancerous corruption is so drastic it will hopelessly kill the corrupted host? And, even if successful, is the toxic treatment destined to leave the patient an enfeebled shell of the original? This is where the Republic of Rome found itself almost four centuries after its founding, and it may well be where the United States finds itself today, in a position called Zugzwang by world-class chess masters – damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The tragic comedy of the Roman Republic’s implosion ended with the assassination of Caesar. Afterward, the Senate proudly went to the people and said they had reclaimed the republic from a tyrant. The problem was, there no longer was a republic to save. They had killed it along with the Gracchi, and all that was left in the aftermath of Caesar’s murder was civil war and 500 years of tyranny.

Mark Hunter is Professor of Humanities at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Florida