I’VE BEEN WORKING a lot with ancient Roman history. And it’s a bit jarring this week as I’m reading about the Romans facing some of the same kind of struggles we are facing in this country, and that other countries are facing.
I’m talking about the rise of the strongman.
Cicero was a Republican. Not the kind of Republican we see today. In fact he was the opposite in some ways. A Republican in Roman times was someone who supported the idea of a republic. Instead of being ruled by a strongman such as a king or a dictator, a republic is ruled by representatives of all the people.
Cicero fought to preserve the Roman Republic in the face of some pretty famous strongmen: Julius Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, Mark Antony, and Caesar Augustus.
Founding fathers of the United States loved what Cicero had to say. Thomas Jefferson named him as someone who contributed to the idea in the Declaration of Independence that the public has rights.
The Roman Republic died.
It started when Julius Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey formed what historians call the First Triumvirate (rule by three). Caesar ended up on top, before he ended up with a knife in his back and in a hole in the ground.
In that interlude, between strongmen, perhaps Cicero saw the possibility of a return to the Republic. So when the next wave of strongmen started to surface, Cicero spoke out against them.
Gutsy, he urged the Senate to declare war on Mark Anthony. And he said young Augustus should be praised and then disposed of.
Bad timing. The Second Triumvirate included both of those men.
They declared Cicero an enemy of the people. Soldiers hunted him down and brought back his head and hands. Romans put those body parts on display at the speaker’s platform in the Forum of Rome, the place where public meetings were held.
When the best public speaker of his day ends up on the speaker’s platform in this condition, it sends a fairly strong warning to anyone else thinking about criticizing the strongmen.
We still have the right to speak our mind. Yet one of our best advocates for free speech, the media, has been declared the enemy of the people. Over and over. It’s not a fluke. It’s a policy.
Ditto, encore, and again?
People reading history as I do can’t help but see similarities.
It’s frightening because we know where it led in the past. And we know that humans have a tendency to repeat the mistakes of the past. So we wonder if it’s happening again.
It might seem like a big jump to go from where we are to where the Romans went with Julius Caesar as their first dictator. But it didn’t take the Romans very long to get there once the strongmen started flexing their muscles, intimidating others, and getting away with breaking laws—and later with making up their own laws to their benefit.
In Rome, the seed was sown in around 82 BC when a dictator named Sulla murdered hundreds of senators and installed many of his own.
The Senate became too frightened to speak up. They withdrew and deferred to the strongman. They became more ceremonial than practical.
Get the point.
We are blessed in this country, which was built on the Roman idea of a Republic. Their Republic lasted about four centuries before it collapsed and fell into the hands of one dictator after another.
We’ve lasted 2½ centuries.
A leader Christians can support
We vote on Tuesday. Here are the words of Jesus to his followers, describing the kind of leaders Christians should be and should support.
Jesus called the disciples together and told them, “You’ve seen how rulers of other nations work. They flaunt their authority and dominate their people. That’s not how it’s going to work for you.
If you want to become a great leader, you have to become a great servant. If you want the top position, assume the servant’s position.
The Son of Humans didn’t come here so everyone could serve him. He came to serve them.
He’s here giving his life in a ransom payment to liberate a lot of people” (Matthew 20:25-28 Casual English Bible).