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Does the U.S. Senate Resemble Ancient Rome?

two towering pillars amidst a landscape of ruins
The Roman Temple of Hercules at the Amman Citadel, an ancient Roman landmark Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

Over the weekend, this space held the third installment in the “Lessons of Rome” chronicles by my friend Eric Schnurer. This one went into the comparison between the Roman Senate, in the era of Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy, and the current one in Washington.

If you haven’t read it yet, please give it a try—among other reasons, for the speechwriter’s view of classic Latin rhetoric. This third piece also updated the “doomsday sundial”—a Roman Empire twist on the famous “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—and set its time to “a year before midnight.”

Now, some reader reactions. First, from a reader with extensive experience in national government:

Thank you for conveying the very thoughtful observations of Eric Schnurer comparing our situation to that of late republican Rome.

One striking element is the complacency highlighted by Schnurer at the time of Cicero, and so evident now in the mistaken belief that “it” can’t happen here because we’re “exceptional.”  

As political scientist David Faris observed in a recent interview on “Vox,” we could not be more wrong. Republicans are working to deprive the majority of its ability to control the agenda or to change the leadership. If they succeed, the result will be undramatic but definitive: “People are going to wake up the next day and go to work, and take care of their kids, and live their lives, and democracy will be gone.”

For all their failures (which have become ever more obvious), the Founders did not have this outlook. They had a lively fear that “it” could indeed happen here, and they constructed the government they made to preclude that outcome.  

Our misfortune is that, partly because of the deficiencies of that design (owing largely to several forced compromises) and partly because of later developments (such as the emergence of parties and of the filibuster), we face the reverse of one of their fears: a dictatorship not of the mob but of an entrenched minority. And we don't seem to be coping with that danger any better than did Ciceronian Rome. So we come to where Faris placed himself in his interview: “My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024.”

He did not quite despair, nor evidently does Schnurer. But the hour is indeed late, and time by our “atomic clock” is swiftly passing.


People bike past the remains of the ancient Colosseum in Rome
Andrew Medichini / AP

This is the latest installment in a series that began back in 2019, with an article I did for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome.

Many people wrote in to agree, disagree, or otherwise react. The online discussion begins here. But the most sustained line of response has been from my friend Eric Schnurer, a writer and long-time advisor to state and local governments.

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. In a third and more cautionary extension of his argument this summer, he concentrated on the U.S. Senate.

Now, chapter four: crossing the Rubicon. Schnurer argues that this is more than just a familiar phrase. And he says that a U.S. Rubicon moment is in view—which would be triggered by a possible indictment of Donald Trump. Over to Eric Schnurer:


Crossing the Rubicon:
If the United States, in recent years, has been tracking the decline and fall of Republican Rome, when do we pass the point of no return?

By Eric B. Schnurer

As James Fallows has observed, Americans long have been fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and frequently fret whether a similar fate awaits our own. But the more pressing comparison is the collapse of the Roman Republic: How did a wealthy, powerful, and successfully self-governing people—proud of their frontier origins, piety and traditional values, and above all their origin story in throwing off monarchical rule—essentially commit democratic suicide and settle, more-or-less willingly, for a half-millennium of dictatorship?

Over the last two years I’ve been charting how our politics today increasingly resemble those of ancient Rome. From rising economic inequality, political violence, and governmental dysfunction on through the generally lackadaisical reaction of the Senate to a losing chief-executive candidate’s conspiracy to murder many of them, overthrow the government, and thereby block certifying his defeat, events in ancient Rome have remarkably paralleled some you might recognize more recently.

History isn’t destiny, of course; the demise of the Roman Republic is a point of comparison—not prediction. But the accelerating comparisons nonetheless beg the question: If one were to make a prediction, what comes next? What might signal the end of democracy as we know it?  There is, it turns out, an easy answer at hand.

While there is no precise end date to the Republic, there was a bright-line occurrence generally recognized as the irreversible beginning of the end for participatory government. In fact, it is such a bright line that the event itself has become universally synonymous with “point-of-no-return”: Julius Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon.

And there is indeed an event looming—probably before the end of this year— that poses almost precisely the same situation as what provoked Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon: the possible indictment of former president Donald J. Trump.