As Rome changed from a Kingdom to a Republic and finally to an Empire, individual political rights steadily declined. In the Empire, the Emperor ruled autocratically, arbitrarily killing any who opposed—or who were suspected of opposing—him. The legislative powers held earlier by the Roman Citizen’s Assembly and then by the Commoner’s Assembly were stripped and transferred, ultimately to the Emperor.[i] Emperors, in turn, learned they had to pay off the military to stay in power. That strategy lives again today as some of those seeking re-election promise ever-more generous benefits to those who vote for them.
Illustrative is the tale of Commodus (161-192 A.D.), son of the venerated Marcus Aurelius, and his successor. Upon his becoming Roman Emperor, Commodus promptly withdrew the army from a difficult campaign—much to the disgust of his generals. He gave each of the plebians (free citizens of Rome) the unprecedented gift of 725 denarii each (1 denarius = $20).[ii] He had coins minted naming himself “Munificentia Augusta”. Commodus obtained the funds for this munificence by taxing the Senatorial Class—taxing the richest one percent more so he could distribute largesse to the plebeians. “While the Senate hated Commodus, the army and the lower classes loved him.”[iii] He was unrestrained in his own personal behavior and merciless to any who opposed him. He put so many of the nobility to death that hardly any of the former leaders of Rome survived.[iv] His generosity left Rome broke. Gibbons, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, reports: “Though every measure of injustice and extortion had been adopted, which could collect the property of the subject into the coffers of the prince; the rapaciousness of Commodus had been so inadequate to his extravagance, that, upon his death, no more than eight thousand pounds were found in the exhausted treasury to defray the current expenses of government and to discharge the pressing demand of a liberal donative, which the new emperor had been obliged to promise to the Praetorian Guard.”[v]
Why did even the almost bankrupt new emperor have to “discharge the pressing demand” for a money donative to the army? In an empire, or tyranny of any sort, the tyrant can only retain power with the support of the army—just as in a democracy the president can only retain power with the support of the voters. Roman emperors quickly learned that they had to buy-off the Praetorian Guard both to obtain and to stay in power. The Praetorian Guard were allowed within the City of Rome and provided the real muscle to enforce the emperor’s whims. That is why the emperor who followed Commodus had to promise to pay off the Praetorian Guard even though Rome was broke. After only 86 days of rule, however, the Praetorian Guard got rid of the new emperor and put the emperorship up for auction. Didius Julianus outbid Sulpicianus at the gates of the Praetorian camp and was promptly crowned. He, in turn, lasted only 66 days, but that is another story of the army replacing one tyrant with another.[vi] Donativum[vii] to the soldiers and Congiarium[viii] to the plebians—both gifts of money—were routine parts of the Roman political process.
They are also a routine part of the American political process. Pay-offs to likely voters are pandemic in America: the Earned Income Tax Credit, exemptions from taxes and fees and ever more grants of free services and benefits to those who are in the favored group, and the opposite for those who are not. This generosity has become an essential part of the electoral process—even when everyone acknowledges the country is already broke and must borrow money just to meet current debts. Analyze each re-election speech you hear and make a list of how many promises it contains of even more benefits to voters. For example, the recent State of the Union speech promised: more money for school teachers, extending reduced interest rates on student loans and the tuition tax credit, amnesty for illegal immigrants in school or military, funding for universities doing research, subsidies for new energy sources, more tax credits for clean energy and cutting energy use in business buildings, vastly increased construction projects (using half of the savings from pulling the army out of Iraq and Afghanistan), cutting the payroll tax by $40/person, and tax credits for businesses that hire veterans. Who couldn’t like that stuff? Just like who could turn down 725 denarii?
The Praetorian Guard should have been protecting Rome, not auctioning off the emperorship. Now whole sections of the electorate seem willing to auction off the presidency, heedless of the competence of who they are electing or re-electing. Don’t doubt that the promises in the State of the Union are a donative. Were they legitimate proposals for legislation, they would have been made three years ago when the president had total control of Congress, not now—so tardily—in an election year.
We need voters who value the priceless right we have to pick the leaders of our country, not as something to be sold to the highest bidder, but rather as a privilege to choose who will make America prosperous and great. That is our great challenge in this election year.
[iv] Will Durrant, Caesar and Christ, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 447
[v] Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Emnpire, Abridged and Illustrated, (New York: Gallery Books, 1979), 39.
[vi] Id, 41-42.