In the autumn of 68 B.C. the world's only military superpower was dealt a
profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart.
Rome's port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two
prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.
The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much
attention from modern historians. But an event that was merely a footnote five
years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous
significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made
decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution,
their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is
Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this
spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: No nation would
have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were
loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among
citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack.
to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had
developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the
concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship,
elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Ordinary citizens were accustomed
to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of "Civis Romanus sum" - "I am a
Roman citizen" - was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.
But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people
were willing to compromise these rights. The greatest soldier in Rome, the
38-year- old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the
Great) arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in
the Roman Forum and propose an astonishing new law, the Lex Gabinia.
"Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but
what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over
everyone," the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. "There were not many places in
the Roman world that were not included within these limits."
Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman
Treasury to pay for his "war on terror," which included building a fleet of 500
ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Such an
accumulation of power was unprecedented.
Once Pompey put to sea,
it took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire
Mediterranean. Even allowing for Pompey's genius as a military strategist, the
suspicion arises that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could
hardly have been such a grievous threat in the first place.
was too late to raise such questions. By the oldest trick in the political book
- the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed
as "soft" or even "traitorous" - powers had been ceded by the people that would
never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing
puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man
in the empire.
Those of us who are not Americans can only look on
in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the
individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The
vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for
terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in
court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of
"serious" physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the licensing of
the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy
combatant - all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power
between the citizen and the executive.
An intelligent, skeptical
American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11
could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I
suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the
It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case.
But the disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened
the process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the
political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything remotely
comparable to Rome's democracy - imperfect though it was - rose again.
The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of
unintended consequences: It fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to
protect. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the
Monday, October 02, 2006
The Roman war on terrorism and the decline of the Roman Republic
Did the Roman reaction to a terrorist attack undermine the Roman Republic? Here is an interesting article by Robert Harris: