Showing posts with label Julius Caesar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Julius Caesar. Show all posts

15 July 2021

A Republic, If You Can Keep It

On June 30, 2021, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem announced that she was sending 50 National Guard troops to Texas to help secure our border, that the deployment would last between 30 to 60 days and that it would be paid for by "private donation."  The donor was not a South Dakotan, but from Tennessee:  Willis Johnson, billionaire Republican donor, who made his fortune building an "international junkyard empire." — Argus

Many of us South Dakotans were irate at the thought of our National Guard being hired out per some out-of-state billionaire's behest.  From Governor Noem's Communication Director, Ian Fury:

“The Governor has authority under SDCL 5-24-12 to accept a donation if she determines doing so is in the best interest of the State. The Governor has additional authority to accept donated funds for emergency management under SDCL 34-48A-36.”

But "experts say it sets a troubling precedent in which a wealthy patron is effectively commandeering U.S. military might to address private political motivations."  And South Dakota State Senator Reynold Nesiba (D) said, “This could set a dangerous precedent to allow anonymous political donors to call the governor and dispatch the Guard whenever they want."

To which I - and many others said – No kidding. 

Allow me to share why:

Once upon a time Rome was a Republic consisting mostly of free farmers surrounding the city-state of Rome. But Rome was always paranoid. They always thought their neighbors were out to get them, and the best thing was to conquer them first. (See the Punic Wars.)  

By 267 BCE, they'd conquered the entire peninsula of Italy.  Then they went abroad, and fought Carthage (present day Tunisia) in three Punic Wars. In between the First and Second, Rome conquered the entire Greek world. And by the end of the Third Punic War, here's what they'd gained, territorially:

Rome 145AD

But in order to do this, Rome built the largest military of its day. Now soldiers had originally been free farmers who went off to fight and then come back home to their lands. But after 100 years of war, the  army was no longer made up of "citizen soldiers" or "free farmers". For that matter, the free farmers were pretty much bankrupt, and trying to find a job in the city. The Roman equivalent of factory farming were latifundia, plantations that produced cash crops – cattle, wine, olive oil, wine. They were owned by patricians (BTW, all the Roman Senators were patricians, and most were very wealthy), run by overseers and worked by slaves. (They didn't have John Deere back then.) There were no controls over the overseers, and no attempt to treat slaves humanely. Cato the Elder argued that it was cheaper to work slaves to death and buy more than to treat them well. (Fun guy.) After a while, the landowners found it cheaper still to produce wheat and barley in overseas colonies using slave-labor (Sicily, Spain, Africa): the original outsourcing.
  • BTW, slaves were everywhere: Almost the entire population of Carthage was enslaved after the 3rd Punic War - farm & factory labor – and all those Greeks (a favorite source for tutors and skilled labor). Julius Caesar's campaign in Gaul (cd France) sent back 1,000,000 slaves. This flood of slaves meant it was often cheaper to buy a slave than hire a worker, and even when it wasn't, the presence of so many slaves kept wages very low; around 30% of Italian population were slaves.
Now the irony is that while the Senate saw itself as the guardian of republican liberty, for most of the Republic it spent most of its time and energy protecting the right of a few hundred families to get and keep almost all the land, wealth, and power in Italy. To do this, bread and circuses become the order of the day: low-cost food and free admission to entertainment and bath houses. This kept the poor shut up, if not happy. 

But let's get back to the military, which expanded rapidly, constantly. Rome was more or less at perpetual war (at least around its vast borders) until its fall around 476 CE. Back home, the senators squabbled over who got to be governor of the richest provinces, and who would be one of the two consuls elected every year by the Senate. The consuls ran the executive branch of government and for years the judiciary. Each consul was also the equivalent of a commander-in-chief, commanding an army of two legions strong (20,000 men).  Almost every Senator wanted to be consul.  The fights over that office led to blood feuds, which I'm not going to go into (look up the Gracchi brothers - you could start HERE).  

Rome 117AD

Rome, ca 117 CE

Late in the Republic, Marius (157-86 BCE) and Sulla (138-78 BCE) were rival generals. Marius was a wealthy plebian general, who bought his Roman citizenship. Sulla was a (rare) poor patrician general, who was opposed to any and all reforms. Marius made some changes to the army, but the most significant was making his men swear an oath of loyalty to him, not the Republic, not the Senate. Of course, every other general did the same.  From then on, the legions followed their general, whatever or whoever they were fighting.

Sulla and Marius' rivalry exploded into violence in 88 BCE, when Sulla took his troops and marched on Rome.  This was the first time that Roman troops marched on Roman citizens, but it would not be the last. Marius responded in kind. The result was a 5 day blood orgy of horrific looting, rape, arson, pillage, mutilation and killing.  But then Marius died (of natural causes!). Sulla took over, and retired in 79. Everyone felt the Republic would be just fine now, ignoring the fact that these two had just shown future generals how to take over Rome. And Julius Caesar, 21 when Sulla retired, was the man to do it.

Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) traced his descent all the way back to Aeneas, son of Venus, daughter of Jupiter; after his death, he would be deified. He made his name as a military commander in Gaul, and he made sure everybody knew about his exploits by writing the Commentaries. He was superb at power politics, willing to pay, bribe, subvert, seduce, or marry anyone he had to in order to get ahead. In 60 BCE he formed a triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus to take over Rome. Crassus - banker, provider of fire-insurance and owner of silver mines, was the equivalent of a billionaire in his own day. Pompey had mopped up the Spartacus revolt with typical brutality, and was mega-rich thanks to provincial governorships in Asia. He also married Caesar's daughter Julia, but when she died in 54 BCE, so did their alliance. 

By 52 BCE, Julius Caesar had conquered all of Gaul and invaded Britain. He came back as a conquering hero, with 13 loyal legions (at least 65,000 troops) totally loyal to him and him alone. The Senate was terrified, and made Pompey sole consul of Rome, with absolute power. Pompey "asked" Caesar to come back as a private citizen, leaving his legions behind, a polite way of telling Caesar that he was going to be outlawed, killed, and his property confiscated. Well, nuts to that, and in 49 BCE he "crossed the Rubicon" with his troops into Rome and launched a four year civil war. Pompey eventually fled to Egypt, where Cleopatra beheaded him as a favor to Caesar. In 47 BCE, Caesar was absolute ruler of Rome.

His assassination three years later was supposed to bring back the Republic - that's what Brutus and Cassius said they wanted. Instead, it brought all-out war, in which it was every general and Senator for himself. The winner was Octavian, Caesar's adopted son and heir, whom few would have bet on to win: young, inexperienced in battle, relatively unknown. But Octavian hired the best generals, plus he had patience, a genius for administration, and always spoke out firmly on behalf of conservative values. It also didn't hurt that, as Caesar's heir, he was fabulously wealthy. Octavian, at 32, became master of the Roman world, and was transformed into 

AUGUSTUS CAESAR (b. 63 BCE, r. 31 BCE-14 CE)

And he had a long life and a long reign: 45 years as absolute ruler of Rome, even though he began by proclaiming that the Republic was restored. Throughout his reign, he always maintained a pretense of maintaining the Republic. He publicly declined the dictatorship, was never called emperor, and while he held every office of power and the title of Augustus (or revered one), he made sure that everyone knew that his favorite title was princeps: "first among equals" or "chief citizen."

He maintained the facade of the Republic: elections were held, the assemblies met, the Senate passed laws. But before anything passed, Augustus sponsored it and approved it. He had absolute power, and everyone knew it: you just didn't say it bluntly. At least, not at first. Later, no one worried about it. 

By the time he died in 14 CE, almost everyone who could have remembered the Republic was dead. The only thing Roman citizens knew was imperial power, and, frankly, they liked it. They were addicted to it:  the power, the wealth, the constant flood of goods and services, the mastery.  Freedom seemed to be a small price to pay.

"There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: "A republic, if you can keep it." The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health."  (Link)

Transforming the United States military (on any level) into hired mercenaries, at the beck and call of any billionaire and their political cause, is no way to keep it.

PS - From the "How Low Can They Go?" files from South Dakota:  State AG Jason Ravnsborg, who struck and killed Joe Boever on a remote highway on Sept. 12, 2020, and was only charged three “Class 2” misdemeanors for it, is up for trial at the end of August, and plans to defend himself by claiming that his victim was suicidal and threw himself into Ravnsborg's windshield.  (HERE)  Because God forbid that Ravnsborg should take any responsibility and pay a maximum total of $1,500.  I'm still working on getting the stench out of my nose from this one.

15 March 2013

The IDES Are Coming

Here we are, the 15th of March and it's a Friday. Ides was a term the old Romans used to mean "the middle of the month." Way back then under a different calendar, ides referred to the 15th day of the months of March, May, July and October. For the rest of the months, being shorter, their ides referred to the 13th day of those months.
There are those out there who are superstitious about the number 13 and those who consider the Ides of March to be an unlucky day. However, for an up and coming guy like Julius Caesar who scoffed at seers, soothsayers, fortune tellers and their like, it didn't make any difference to him if the ides fell on a 13th or a 15th. But, in hindsight, he couldn't say he hadn't been warned. TWICE.

In 49 BC, as Julius crossed that shallow river known as the Rubicon in northeastern Italy, an Etruscan haruspex (one who read sheep entrails for a living) by the name of Titus Spurinna, warned old Jules about the Ides of March. That was five years in advance of Julius' demise. Got no idea what high school guidance counselor recommended that up-to-your-elbows messy career to the Etruscan, but as it turned out, Titus sure found his calling when he predicted that one right. That was warning # 1.

Then later, in 44 BC as Julius went his merry way toward the Theater of Pompey, a site frequently used by the Roman Senate for meetings, he ran into a second seer who had also put out a warning. Caesar joked with this guy that the Ides of March had come and yet he was still here. Prophetically, the seer responded that yep the Ides had come, but they'd not yet gone. And we all know how that turned out.

So, maybe we should take a look at the Ides of March. Maybe it does have an unlucky omen to that day. Let's see if past history gives us a pattern of death, destruction and despair.

44 BC   A good place to start. Julius Caesar got shanked 23 times by 60 conspirators. The crowd of eager participants must've really been thick around Jules because it appears that 37 of them didn't get a chance to dip their daggers.

280 AD  Sun Hao of the Eastern Wu had to surrender to his enemies after losing all his battles. That was good for the upcoming Jin Dynasty, but not so good for Hao. Guess whether you believe that was a lucky or unlucky day depends upon which side you were on.

351 AD  Constantius II elevates his cousin Gallus to Caesar of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. Bad decision. Gallus subsequently plots to get rid of his benefactor. Not to make you paranoid, but it seems that no good deed goes unpunished.

933 AD  King Henry of Germany decides to break his truce with the Magyars, so he sends them a dead dog. If the Hungarians had employed the services of a good haruspex to read the dog's entrails, perhaps they'd have realized they were about to receive the pointy end of the sword.

1493 AD  Chris Columbus returns to Spain after his first trip to the Americas. He's all a blubber about the land he found. Look out Native Americans, a new real estate agent is coming to town.

1564 AD  Akbar the Great of India abolishes the per capita tax. The result was corruption and disgruntled revenue officers.Nice try Akbar, but the subject of taxes keeps coming up. More later.

1781 AD  General Cornwallis with 1,900 British troops defeats an American force of of 4,000 soldiers near present day Greensboro, South Carolina. Whatever happened to safety in numbers? Las Vegas odds makers would have lost their buckskin shirts on that one.

1888 AD  Start of the Anglo-Tibetan War. The Brits were trying to keep the sun from setting on their far flung empire, while the Tibets were angling to keep their tax revenue to themselves. There we go with tax money again. Anyway, it was another war and those events almost always turn out badly for one side or both.

1916 AD  President Wilson sends 4,800 troops under the command of General Black Jack Pershing over the Mexican Border to chase Pancho Villa. Jack never caught Pancho, but used the military experience in Mexico as prep for Wold War One. Pancho did not come out so good in the end. He got assassinated by his fellow countrymen and his skull was later stolen from his grave.

1917 AD  Tsar Nicholas II, ruler of all the Russias, abdicates his throne. If he thought he had his back against the wall at that point, he was a little premature on the schedule, but the Bolsheviks got around to taking care of that.

1931 AD  The S.S. Viking is off the coast of Newfoundland to get sensational filming of the annual seal bludgeoning when it gets stuck in the ice. Rocking the boat somehow sets off dynamite stored on board. 27 people die in the explosion. Wonder if that's where the old saying came from.

1939 AD  German troops occupy the last bits of Czechoslovakia which then ceases to exist. Bad day for Czechs.

1990 AD  Iraq hangs a British journalist who wanted to report on an explosion in their rocket factory. Saddam, after assuring PM Thatcher that it would be a fair and open trial for the journalist, secretly orders that the execution take place before Ramadan.

2011 AD  The Syrian War begins and is still ongoing.

And for item number 15 of unlucky events tied to the Ides of March, we are back to taxes again. In 1918, the U.S. Congress set the deadline for federal income taxes being due as March 15th. I'm sure there was no connection between our Senate voting for that date as opposed to the Roman Senators bleeding Julius Caesar dry on the Ides of March. However, in 1954 Congress wised up and pushed the date further away to April 15th in an attempt to remove those possible negative connotations.

Enjoy your day, you now have one more month to hold onto your hard earned money.