What Ancient Rome Tells Us About Today’s Senate

The U.S. Senate’s abdication of duty at the start of this Memorial Day weekend, when 11 Senators (nine of them Republican) did not even show up to vote on authorizing an investigation of the January 6 insurrection, makes the item below particularly timely.

Fifty-four Senators (including six Republicans) voted to approve the investigative commission. Only 35 opposed it.

But in the institutionalized rule-of-the-minority that is the contemporary Senate, the measure “failed.” The 54 who supported the measure represented states totaling more than 190 million people. The 35 who opposed represented fewer than 105 million. (How do I know this? You take the list of states by population; you match them to Senators; you split the apportioned population when a state’s two senators voted in opposite ways; and you don’t count population for the 11 Senators who didn’t show up.)

The Senate was, of course, not designed to operate on a pure head-count basis. But this is a contemporary, permanent imbalance beyond what the practical-minded drafters of the Constitution would have countenanced.

Why “contemporary”? Because the filibuster was not part of the Constitutional balance-of-power scheme. As Adam Jentleson explains in his authoritative book Kill Switch, “real” filibusters, with Senators orating for hours on end, rose to prominence as tools of 20th-century segregationists. Their 21st-century rebirth has been at the hands of Mitch McConnell, who made them routine as soon as the Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2006.

The essay below, by a long-time analyst and practitioner of governance named Eric Schnurer, was written before the Senate’s failure on May 28, 2021. But it could have been written as a breaking-news analysis of the event.

Several days ago I wrote a setup for Schnurer’s essay, which I include in abbreviated form below. Then we come to his argument.

Back in 2019, I did an article for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome. Like many good headlines, the one for this story intentionally overstated its argument. The headline was, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” Of course it was bad! But the piece reviewed scholarship about what happened in the former Roman provinces “after the fall,” and how it prepared the way for European progress long after the last rulers of the Western Empire had disappeared.

Many people wrote in to agree and, naturally, to disagree. The online discussion begins here. One long response I quoted was from my friend Eric Schnurer. I had met him in the late 1970s when he was a college intern in the Carter-era White House speechwriting office where I worked. Since then he has written extensively (including for The Atlantic) and consulted on governmental and political affairs.

In his first installment, in the fall of 2019, Schnurer emphasized the parts of the America-and-Rome comparison he thought were most significant—and worrisome. Then last summer, during the election campaign and the pandemic lockdown, he extended the comparison in an even-less-cheering way.

Now he is back, with a third and more cautionary extension of his argument. I think it’s very much worth reading, for its discourses on speechwriting in Latin, among other aspects. I’ve slightly condensed his message and used bold highlighting as a guide to his argument. But I turn the floor over to him. He starts with a precis of his case of two years ago:

I contrasted Donald Trump’s America then—mid-2019—with the Rome of the Gracchus brothers, a pair of liberal social reformers who were both assassinated. Of course, the successive murders of two progressive brothers at the top rung of national power would seem to suggest the Kennedys more than, say, Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren, to whom I compared them. But that’s to say that no historic parallels are perfect: One could just as fruitfully (or not) compare the present moment to America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period we managed to make it through without ultimately descending into civil war.

Yet, historical events can be instructive, predictive—even prescriptive—when not fully de-scriptive of current times and customs.

What concerned me about the Roman comparison was, I noted at the time, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me.”

In the 1960s, such developments were in the future, although perhaps apparent then to the prescient …

The question that raised was the extent to which the tick-tock of republican decline in Rome could provide a chronometer something like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ famous “doomsday clock”:

If we could peg late summer 2019 to the Gracchi era—roughly up to 120 B.C.—with the fall of the Republic equated to Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon and subsequent assumption of the dictatorship (roughly speaking, 50 B.C.), we could set our republican sundial at, more-or-less, “seventy years to midnight.” But time under our atomic-era clocks moves more quickly than in ancient Roman sundials, so how could we equate a seventy-year margin on a sundial to our own distance from a possible republican midnight?  We’d need another contemporary comparison to understand not just where we stood, but also how fast we were moving.

A year later I wrote about the developments of 2020 that seemed to move us closer to midnight. I compared last year’s Trump to Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix: Despite common descriptions of Trump as a would-be Caesar, Sulla is, in terms of temperament and background, a closer match to The Donald: “Sulla, a patrician who indulged a fairly libertine, sometimes vulgar, lifestyle even throughout his several marriages, was nonetheless the champion of the economic, social and political conservatives.”

Of perhaps greater similarity—and great concern, in my view—was the increasing hollowing out of the Roman state from a “common good” into simply another form of private corporation benefiting the already-wealthy and powerful who could grab hold of its levers and hive off its components … After a tumultuous reign, Sulla retreated to his villa at Mar-a-Lago, er, Puteoli, and Rome fell into a period of relative quiescence.

That took us from the 120’s B.C. in July 2019 to roughly 80 B.C. by August 2020:  By that measure, our republican doomsday clock had lurched forward about 40 Roman years—a little more than halfway to midnight—in roughly a year …

But as U.S. politics fell into a period of relative quiescence lately, with Trump ensconced quietly at Puteoli—er, Mar-a-Lago—and a relatively calming, moderate and institutionalist Everyman (if no Cicero …) installed in the White House, I didn’t think much further about the Roman comparison.

That is, until last week, when I made an off-hand comment about a young family member’s misbehavior, jokingly complaining, “O tempora, O mores!”: “O the times, O the customs”—the most famous line from the most famous speech by Rome’s greatest lawyer, politician and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero. I was suddenly struck by the similarity between the circumstances of Cicero’s famed oration and those we face now in the wake—and denial—of the assault on the Capitol of January 6.

I have a personal fondness for what have become known as Cicero’s “Catilinarian Orations”—a series of speeches he delivered at the height of a failed conspiracy to assault the citadels of republican governance and seize power. I read them in the original in my high school Latin class, at a time when my major focus was on school politics and, as the immediate past student body president, I was leading a similar (in my mind) effort to beat back a coup attempt by the would-be conspirator who had been defeated electorally by my chosen successor.

As a result, I found reading Cicero’s words uncovering, indicting, and overcoming Lucius Sergius Catilina (known to us as Catiline) and his co-conspirators, and thereby preserving democracy, rather thrilling.  These orations—especially the first—have become famous as among the greatest speeches in history, not least because of the self-promoting Cicero’s promoting them as such. But to read them in the original is to recognize them as deservedly so.

Latin is an extremely complicated but flexible language. Its elaborate system of agreements between nouns, adjectives and verbs allows for words to be ordered in sometimes almost-random-seeming patterns requiring extensive detective skills to puzzle out the actual meaning of a sentence. At the peak of my Latin studies, for example, I could probably translate an average sentence in the great Latin epic, The Aeneid, at the rate of about one per hour. Reading Cicero in Latin, however, is like spreading warm butter over a piping-hot piece of bread: It simply flows.

Cicero could reach unequaled heights of high dudgeon with the simplest of sentences.  He reached for his greatest in the opening lines of his first Catalinarian Oration to the Roman Senate. The immediacy of the language fairly leaps off the dead pages as if alive itself, overpowering the reader with the desperation of Cicero’s fight for democracy, his courage in the face of danger, his importuning his at-first-impassive audience seated in their clean white togas amidst the marble walls and red-cushioned banquettes, slowly distancing themselves from the censored Catiline as Cicero’s oratory builds in mighty waves.

Catiline was yet another aristocratic yet amoral politician who had aimed at absolute power by appealing cynically to the reactionary foot soldiers of Sulla’s former army and their “blue-collar” supporters. But he nonetheless was headed to a loss in the consular election of 63 B.C., which would have ended his political ambitions, so he conspired to overthrow the Roman state, intending literally to decapitate the official vote count on election day by killing the consul overseeing it—Cicero—and seizing violent control of the government.

Cicero could be considered something of a moderate, an institutionalist who revered the Republic as he rose to power in its capital despite being what the Romans called a “new man,” one who had made his own way from an undistinguished upbringing in the hinterlands (“Cicero” means “chickpea,” a literal and uncomplimentary nod to the family’s roots).

Upon uncovering the conspiracy, Cicero called an emergency meeting of the Senate to denounce this attempt to short-circuit the election and end republican government through violence. Cicero was surprised that Catiline dared pompously to show himself at the day’s proceedings, as if his efforts to undermine the state were perfectly proper, and to deny he was doing what everyone knew he was doing: “When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?”

But what is most notable about the famed opening of this first and greatest oration is Cicero’s clear astonishment at the blasé reaction of much of the Senate to this open assault on republican values. “O the times, O the customs,” he responds, and then continues:

“The Senate understands these things, the Consul sees them; yet this man still lives. He lives? Indeed, he even comes into the Senate, he takes part in public debate, he notes and marks out with his eyes each one of us for slaughter!”

Despite the fact that, at this point, Catiline’s intent to murder Cicero and various other members of the Senate, to stop the vote count and overturn the foregone election results, and unlawfully to seize the levers of government through violence is well known to all of them, a good number of these very same legislators and leaders shrug the whole thing off. Some sympathized with his political program; others were implicated in the plot; still others were basically in the same boat as Catiline, having committed similar crimes and sexual debaucheries that limited their political futures; and still others were perfectly fine with ending the trappings of republicanism if it meant they retained their power and Senate seats. And some simply couldn’t be roused to care.

The conspiracy ultimately collapsed and was defeated, but not without further militant uprisings aided by Rome’s enemies abroad. Catiline, a demagogue but in the end not the best of politicians or insurrectionists, was killed. Democracy, and the old order of things, seemed to have survived, and matters returned to a more-or-less normal state under Cicero’s stable hand.

But it turned out to be a brief reprieve. The rot had already set in. What mattered most in the long-term was not the immediate threat of the insurrectionists, but rather the complacency, if not sympathy, of the other ostensibly-republican leaders. It revealed the hollowness of not just their own souls but also the nation’s.

Another 10 months in America, another 15 years forward on the Roman sundial. At this rate, we’re about a year before midnight.