So we endure another governmental calamity: the federal government shutting down. With our love for drama nothing sells better than doomsday stories.
Shutting the government down is nothing new. At the beginning of the 5th Century BC Rome’s under class, the plebeians, decided they had enough of upper class, patrician rule. They simply stomped out of Rome setting up a possible doomsday scenario.
The plebeians pitched camp on the Sacred Mount demanding that their rights and interests be addressed. Since plebeians made up most of the soldiers in the Roman Army at the time, and since the expanding Roman city-state was constantly at war with one of its neighbors, the plebeians figured it was a good time to initiate negotiations in what could easily be called the first pre-union, sit-down strike in history. Oh, and it left Rome some-what defenseless. Always a good bargaining chip to play in the art of the deal.
It would be a far stretch to call this the first socialist demonstration but the march out of Rome started a 200 year Struggle of Orders or the Conflict of Orders. It was the classic rich, noble, land-holding aristocrats versus the poor workers and farmers that also included a few non-noble well off citizens in the plebeian fold. Like most privileged-ruling elites throughout history, Roman patricians controlled most of the wealth and simply closed governmental doors behind them once they overthrew and consolidated power from the Etruscan kings who once ruled over them.
We have no Etruscan kings to overthrow. In fact, historians are not sure what really happened to the Etruscans after the Romans wrestled control from them. Just like the past, though, we do have a burgeoning group of (patrician) billionaires with “charitable” trust funds that have put a firm down payment on our republic. And, although they may not shut the government down per say, their sponsored-elected elites have no problem pulling the power plug for them. This allows them to avoid the embarrassment of stomping across the Potomac like a bunch of demonic minions cast out the promised land.
Government shut downs are not new. They do seem to happen more often. Shut downs occurred in Gerald Ford’s and Jimmy Carter’s administrations in the 1970’s and again in the ’80s during Ronald Reagan’s administration; and twice under Clinton and once under Obama.
This does not include the numerous primate-like chest thumping rituals the two parties demonstrate across the aisle at one an other. Each side threatening to let the banana bunch in the middle rot so nobody gets any bananas. This lopsided-logic that a bunch of rotten bananas is worth more than one good banana is baboon backwards. And then when the media gets into the swing of things the treetop chatter soon becomes a blame game of he-said, she-said, “what about…” and “I know you are but what am I…” in an ever spiraling drama filled-debate to sell a story and keep everybody agitated.
Now most of us have heard about the fall of the Roman Empire but not so much about the fall of the Roman Republic. The Roman Empire got started during the 1st Century BCE. It was teetering when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River after being in Gaul. His return to Rome created a free for all civil war on who would control Rome. Shortly there after, and for all practical purposes, Rome’s government shut down as various factions fought it out not with ballots but armies.
We are all familiar with Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE. Two of Caesar’s stanch allies, Mark Antony and Octavian, vindicated his death and defeated Caesar’s assassins: Brutus and associates. Mark Antony and Octavian then divided the former Republic between them. But two men with grand imperial plans soon proved that greed gets the better of any governmental agreements. It was to be a short-lived arrangement and could be argued a pre-imperial shut down. Octavian later defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE to become sole ruler of the newly-founded empire. The Roman Senate then made him princeps or “first citizen” and gave him the name Augustus. After nearly a century of civil wars the Republic was dead.
The Republic, however, began in 509 BCE when the Romans over threw of the Etruscan kings who had ruled over them for hundreds of years. Once free of the Etruscans, the Romans established a republic. One institution that carried over from the overthrow was the Senate. This appointed body of 100 well-heeled advisers to the king was soon to be expanded to 300 of Rome’s noblest and wealthiest men.
One thing that did not carry over was a codified system of written law. This is not to say that these patricians of the Republic were not civic or legally minded; it was more about their interest in maintaining their social position, wealth and prestige in the new republic the than putting something legal in writing.
As Rome expanded and defeated other near-by enemies, it began creating new cities and a complex society. Rome’s influence was growing beyond the Tiber River. Security was a prime concern as Rome had to continually defend itself against the various tribes and Gauls that would attack and plunder Rome. The security of the Republic fell on the shoulders of the farmer/soldier — the plebeian.
One vexing problem to the citizen soldier was debts. It was not uncommon for plebeians to lose everything, including their freedom, from debt accrued while serving in the army defending the Republic. Since the Roman army at this time was made up of mostly farmers, and since Rome was at war most of this time, soldiers were not around to bring in a crop. Also, Rome’s invading and marauding enemies could lay waste to soldiers’ farms putting them further in debt.
These continued wars meant that a farmer could be called into service at any time. Not only was this farmer still responsible for paying his taxes, he was also responsible for his military kit: weapons, armors etc. Eventually these citizen-farmer/soldiers fell further into debt. The debt left him with only one asset: his person as collateral for his debt.
There were several options open to the creditor. However, there was very little wiggle room for the defender of Rome who now found himself in debt to his patrician overlord. The insolvent soldier could find himself without his farm, in prison, flogged or as a patrician’s indentured servant working off his debt.
Rome’s military success also brought in more public land for the growing Republic. The problem was that these newly acquired large tracts of lands were often rented out to the wealthy patricians and not to the debt-ridden farmer/soldier. The classic scenario of the rich get richer simply because they can.
Another consequence of Republic’s military success was immigration. With less land available more people began to crowd into Rome increasing the urban populations. Despite the increase in the plebeian population, they were still under represented in government. The were also out voted at the polls. Roman voting was broken down in an electoral-like tiered-class structure that was heavily skewed in favor of the patrician classes with the plebeians voting last. With majority rule it was not uncommon for the election to be decided well before the plebeians even had a chance to vote.
Eventually the plebeians were able to convince the patricians to give them government representation in the newly created office of tribune. Tribunes had had veto power over laws. Rome also established the Twelve Tables in 450 BCE. On these tables laws and procedures were written down for all to read creating a “rule of law.” It was the beginning of codifying Roman laws much like Hammurabi’s codes.
Unlike the plebeians march out of Rome 2,500 years ago, our governmental shut downs are political grand stand events. It is the play of recalcitrant politicians fighting to get 15 minutes of stage time. The shut down quickly ends out of fear that maybe the plebes will realize that we do not need a group of spoiled patricians prancing around trying to fix some self-created government crisis.