Studying history is always the best way to understand our current world and current events.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Reading Livy’s classic, History of Early Rome, this last month has been very enlightening. There are so many parallels between Rome and current events in America.
Burke really was correct: if we don’t read history, we are doomed to keep making the same mistakes.
Here are some of the most striking lessons I learned as I studied Livy the past few weeks.
1. Senators were originally the heads of clans, who spoke for their people and had as much power collectively as the king. Another name for Senators was “Fathers,” or patres, and their descendents were called the patrician or noble class.
Families are the basis of all free nations, but class systems are always the enemy of freedom. We need to find ways to promote the family, not just the families of the wealthy, in society.
And we need our Senators to truly act like fathers and great leaders.
2. “…angry men must also be strong, if they would achieve their purpose.” If we’re frustrated about the current steady stream of scandals in Washington, we must do something effective to make a difference.
3. Rome was founded with three branches of power: the Senate, the commons, and the executive (who controlled the military). One had money, another population, and the final military might. It’s the same today.
4. Early Roman leaders believed that war should only be undertaken to require restitution for wrongs, and also that war should always be formally declared. Any other kind of war was unjust.
If a war is started to require just restitution, and if it is formally declared by the right national officials, it is a “just and righteous war.” Any other kind of war is neither just nor righteous.
Under this definition, we haven’t had a just or righteous war since World War II.
Of course, that’s not a knock on the military, who serve and protect our freedoms. But part of our national decline is that we don’t follow our own Constitution and legally declare war when needed.
As a result, we naturally engage in a lot of unjust and unrighteous behavior in the name of national security.
5. The Roman king Tarquin was one of the worst tyrants Rome ever had, and he was the first to go out and campaign for votes and give a public speech trying to get popular support. He was known as a tyrant, and these techniques of public campaigning were looked down on for centuries.
The American founders knew this history and largely shared this view. We should consider this today.
6. Tarquin also tried to add members to the Senate when those already there wouldn’t follow his lead.
Franklin D. Roosevelt later attempted a similar approach when he tried to increase the size of the Supreme Court that thwarted his programs.
7. At one point, Rome created a system where every citizen had a vote but only the very wealthy and powerful had any real power. Thus the people were highly impressed with their democratic system, but the power was in the hands of elites.
(As I said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.)
8. At another point, most citizens didn’t have a vote but the laws allowed them almost unfettered freedom. They enjoyed “complete freedom of action, if not political rights.”
The people were much happier during this era than when they had votes but no real power.
Both types of government are bad for freedom in the long term.
9. “The passions of the mob are notoriously fickle.” The voters swing one way now, and the other at the next election. Again, this is our current dilemma. They usually go with whoever promises them the most.
10. Livy wrote:
“Rome was no longer a monarchy; she enjoyed free institutions. The people of Rome would sooner open their gates to an enemy than to a king. There was not a man in the city who did not pray that the end of liberty, should it come, might also be the end of Rome.”
This reminds me of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech. Today a majority seems to prefer socialism to liberty.
11. Many Romans really believed in a class system. They genuinely believed that some people are just plain better than others, simply because of who their parents are. This view of class led them to justify slavery, aristocracy, and different rights for different classes.
The American founders argued that rights are inalienable and must be equal — for everyone. Period. Today, we seem to be returning to a class view of society. This is one of the greatest dangers to our freedoms, and it comes from both the Left and the Right.
12. “Human nature, however, does not change…” The American founders believed this, and they wrote the Constitution to protect us from the power of man, regardless of technological and societal advancement.
The Constitution is as powerful for freedom today as it ever was — if we would just dump the 17th Amendment and then actually follow the Constitution.
Livy noted that tyranny is always the result when any person or agency in government has “unlimited powers without any sort of check upon them.” The founders applied this.
Yet we are moving away from the most important checks in the Constitution. For example, of the top 16 protections of freedom in the Constitution, as I taught in my online audio “Hanging by a Thread,” fully 11 of them are now ignored and the other 5 are drastically weakened.
The early Romans understood this principle: put checks on everyone in government, then closely adhere to your constitution.
The American founders understood this. Why can’t we? The document is there. We can read it. And stick to it. And be free. Why is this so difficult?
13. The Romans established juries in order to give people from the accused person’s own community — who knew the person well — a power over the accusations of the courts and government. That’s what juries really are. The American founders called them “juries of the vicinage,” meaning of your vicinity, your neighbors.
The juries we use today are not really juries because the members don’t know the accused and as a result seldom protect the accused from the government. This change occurred in 1895, and it is one of the major losses of our freedoms. The Court made several technical defenses of this change, but freedom is lost nonetheless.
This reminds me of when the Roman upper class got rid of the right to appeal court cases, then the actual leader who ended appeals (Appius) was caught in a crime and upon being convicted yelled out to the crowd “I appeal.” Everyone either laughed or got very angry.
Today almost nobody knows that Americans have lost the right to have juries of their actual peers — people who know them personally and can tell if they’re being railroaded by the government or actually did commit a terrible crime.
In fact, we’ve come so far down since the founding that most people think this is a bad idea, because they don’t know that the whole point of juries is for a person’s neighbors to have the final say—to protect them from the government.
Americans have lost this right, this freedom, but hardly anyone knows or seems to care.
One man emailed me that he was okay with the government spying because he has nothing to hide. He also noted that he understands the slippery slope, and he seemed like a smart person.
But his comment really frustrated me. It reminded me of some of the people in Germany who did nothing when the Nazis came for the Jews — they just comforted themselves that they weren’t themselves Jews, so why worry?
I know this isn’t what this man meant, but it seemed too similar.
This is precisely how freedom is lost. We should stand up for it when anyone is losing it, no matter what.
14. “Men who are fighting for their own liberty and prestige are very different creatures from men who are called upon to use their judgment, unclouded by passion, when the fight is over.”
What we need today is a lot more judgment and wise thinking from our regular citizens.
15. When the kings and Senate in ancient Rome fought each other to the point that neither could get anything done, they finally created the office of the Censor, and gave him power to just do whatever was needed — regardless of the executive or the Senate.
But because the Censor was just one person, he was easily attacked by the other branches of government. So the Censors created a huge bureaucracy, and this ran Rome and made most of the decisions no matter what the executive or Senate wanted to do.
Today the bureaucracies in America and many other “free” nations actually exert much more power than our elected officials. This is a serious problem, and the main reason things change very little when the voters put a new party in office.
16. Livy wrote:
“The military tribunes, however, had their answers ready: waiting until people were out of town, they secretly recalled the senators and got a decree passed in the absence of the People’s…”
Really? Secret courts and secret decisions? Secret tribunals that benefit the military-industrial-complex and skirt the oversight of the people’s representatives?
Wow, these Romans were really corrupt. No wonder they lost their freedoms. Thank goodness we’re not like them. Oh, wait…
Can you say “FISA”?
This is only a small example of all that Livy teaches about Rome, and by extension our modern government.
I wish more people would read the classics. They teach us so much about ourselves. Indeed, knowing America today and understanding Washington D.C. and what is really happening is almost impossible without knowing Rome.
To know Rome is to know Washington, sadly. There are differences, but there are also numerous similarities.
The good news comes at that end of Livy’s book. He laments the way Rome is in decline, but enthusiastically says that families, the bravery of the military, and the great contributions of entrepreneurs and the working class are the hope of the nation.
Speaking of entrepreneurs and the working people, he wrote that “it was only human nature that the quicker a man was to seek the lion’s share of danger and hard work, the slower he would be to snatch what he could find for his own enrichment.”
In our day, as it was in Rome, the future belongs to those who work hard, take risks to improve themselves and the world, and care more about the happiness of others than for their own benefits. There are still many such people, and on them hang the future.
If you are such a person, your leadership is needed. This is one of the greatest lessons of history.
Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.