Seeing the current upheaval in Wisconsin over collective bargaining rights, I am reminded of the state of Rome in the aftermath of the Third Punic War. Despite the Republic’s comprehensive destruction of Carthage, the winds of mutiny blew in the ranks of the Roman army. For while citizen soldiers were spilling their blood on the shores of North Africa, or on the plains of the Iberian Peninsula, patricians back home were grabbing up all of the remaining public lands. Public lands promised to the victorious soldiers as reward for their loyal service. And the veterans had enough. But instead of correcting this gross injustice, the Senate and the consuls – the very patricians benefitting the most from the land grab bonanza – allowed it to continue unabated. And so lay injustice at the feet of the plebeians. And so rise the noble men to champion their cause. The Gracchi Brothers, descended from an ancient nobile plebeian family. The Gracchi Brothers, grandfathers of modern socialism.
As patrician landholdings swelled, and thousand-slave plantations were established, the veterans of Carthage sat idly in the streets of Rome, and barely eked by on the dole. That is until Tiberius Gracchus, and later his brother Gaius, rose to the tribunate. Influenced by the Athenian ideals of democracy, Tiberius proposed sweeping land reforms that would redistribute the public lands to the plebeians, the second-class citizens of Rome. For a time, it looked as if his idealism was going to reshape the very structure of the Republic. However, both brothers ended up overestimating the will of the people, and in the end paid the ultimate price for it. Within 70 years, the very Republican structure that was the bedrock of Rome lay in ruins, dismantled by the patrician class. The people reached a crossroads in the dying Republic, and took the Via Sinistra, down into the Age of the Emperor.
2100 years on, and we in the United States find ourselves at a similar crossroads. Around us, the very infrastructure that took our country into modernity is being dismantled piece by piece. The Union-busting mandates of Republican governors. Deteriorating bridges. Sewage systems that leak into the aqueducts. Roads resembling the Sarajevo of the mid-90’s. An un-revered educational system succumbing to cancer. Land grabs by the banks in their foreclosure frenzies. And the complete deregulation of the buffers between us, the plebeians, and the ravenous financial institutions.
This political and financial brinkmanship has since gone unpunished, unchecked, even in the midst of economic crisis. Instead, such behavior was rewarded with bailouts. For these juggernauts were “too big to fail”. We the people were handed the bill for their criminal indiscretions, whereas they were given a patrician dole, a corporate handout to aid them in their asset raids, and their million dollar executive retreats.
Yet for every cause there is an equal effect. This blatant criminality shall not go forever unpunished. The uprisings in North Africa remind us that there is a critical threshold, a point of no return, a Rubicon. And once the Rubicon is crossed, things can never return to the way they once were. Either the Republic transforms into something more sinister, or it re-emerges from the ashes as a shining light of justice and human rights.
2100 years on, and I can hear the faint voices of Tiberius and Gaius springing from Madison. And as infrastructure continues to be ruthlessly dismantled, their voices shall grow louder and louder until they can no longer be ignored. And so rise the Champions. And so rise the Gracchi. But will they this time overestimate the collective will of the people? Or have the people learned their 2000 year-old lesson? Trust not the wolves in patricians’ clothing.