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Fouche on Potential and Probable Uses of Power

My sometime Chicago Boyz colleague, Joseph Fouche, had an interesting if somewhat meandering post on how power is used, not used and possibly abused.

The Chains of the Improbable vs. The Chains of the Impossible

An old Vulcan proverb advises us that only Sulla could march on Rome. This proverb may contradict another ancient proverb that claims that all roads lead to Rome. This seeming contradiction is resolved when you include little used roads, off the beaten track, the roads not taken. Sherlock Holmes once chided John A. Watson, M.D., saying, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Some roads to Rome are impossible, leading to the insurmountable. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix took a road that, while thought impossible, proved to be merely improbable.

Sulla, consul of Rome for the year 88 B.C., was in camp preparing to take his army east to fight King Mithridates VI of Pontus. Two envoys arrived to tell him that his command had been taken away by the vote of one of the people’s assemblies in Rome. These envoys of the Roman people expected that Sulla would do the only thing possible: lie down there, obedient to their commands, as every Roman army commander before him had done. Unfortunately, what they thought was impossible was only improbable.

Sulla gathered his men, announced what the will of the Roman people was, and asked them what the will of the army was. Sulla’s soldiers answered by stoning the envoys of the Roman people to death, much to the surprise of the envoys of the people. Sulla’s soldiers then petitioned Sulla to take an impossible road, a road never taken, and lead them to Rome to reclaim his Mithridatic command. Sulla, much to the surprise of his own officers, who thought such a course impossible, decided to heed his men and march on Rome. His officers resigned en masse except a happy few. But the poor bloody legionaries of Sulla’s army eagerly began the march on Rome.

Envoys from Rome streamed towards Sulla’s army as it marched north.These envoys were shocked and grew increasingly shocked as they protested to Sulla that surely, surely it was impossible that he wanted to march a Roman army through the city limits and into Rome itself. The law forbade it. The unwritten constitution forbade it. The Republic forbade it. The gods forbade it.

Sulla responded to the effect of, “Go tell the Romans that I don’t lie here obedient to their commands. I’m coming to Rome and hell’s coming with me.” The tone of these envoys’ entreaties and the mood of the people of Rome grew increasingly hysterical as the improbable dawned on them: not only could a Roman army commander march an army on Rome, it was increasingly probable that Sulla would march armed Roman legionaries right into the heart of Rome itself to deal with his political enemies. Indeed, Sulla led his men across the sacred pomerium that divided the “public thing” (res publica) of sacred Roma herself from land that was merely the property of Rome. Sulla’s veteran legionaries easily dispatched the hastily gathered mob of gladiators and other ruffians that his political opponents had thrown together at the last moment in a futile attempt to stop them.

Sulla had revealed that the impossible was merely the improbable.

Sulla spent the rest of his life trying to disguise this state of improbability as a mere state of impossibility.

He failed.

That was merely Fouche’s introduction. The post is well worth reading in full.

The post caught my eye because of Sulla, a Roman who did a monstrous thing but who was himself no monster. Much like a surgeon whose patient’s body is riddled with cancer, Sulla attempted to buy the old Roman Republic time and restore a semblance of political health by ruthlessly cutting out a tumorous faction and ratcheting back a host of constitutional gimmickery that had been welded onto Roman government over the years by ambitious politicians. Older, original rules of the game, or new ones in their spirit, were restored after blood shed in the proscriptions was scrubbed from the forum. Sulla even formally stepped down from the supreme power he held, like Cincinnatus, to further drive home the point to his fellow Romans regarding the sanctity of their traditions – though reportedly Sulla remained, even in a debaucherous retirement, a terrifying figure and stringpuller.

Fouche is correct that Sulla’s extreme measures failed. The underlying structural problems of the Republic were rooted in an increasing concentration of wealth, primarily in land ownership by Patricians and politically favored trading opportunities in “the East”, held mostly by the elite of Rome’s Italian “allied” city states, that left many Roman citizens too impoverished to perform military service or to be active in politics, except as dependent members of a clientela. The Republic’s legions and it’s political virtue had been based on an economically independent smallholding class who were being despoiled by politically powerful Patricians. Sulla’s reforms may have tempred political conflict within the ruling class for a time, but they also aggravated the social grievances that provided the Populares with political support from ordinary Romans and tilted the delicate political balance in the Republic toward extreme oligarchy.

In his retirement, observing the young Julius Caesar, whom Sulla had reluctantly spared, his toga fashionably loosely belted, long sleeved and wearing boots, like the ancient kings of Alba Longa, Sulla remarked “ He contains many Mariuses“. Caesar did. And unlike Marius but like Sulla, Julius Caesar was successful, Sulla having shown him the way to cross a Rubicon.

Power is power but power coupled with legitimacy endures. Sulla to Caesar to Augustus is the continuum.

2 Responses to “Fouche on Potential and Probable Uses of Power”

  1. Mercutio Says:

    " Sulla to Caesar to Augustus is the continuum" is  not the continuum but rather a continuum.

    Despite its troubles, late Republican Rome was a kick-ass organization that was vigorously expanding.  When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, we was returning a conquering hero.   His mission actually had been accomplished.

    A declining polity, facing frustration if not defeat, celebrating Pyrrhic victories that invite snickers abroad, would present a very different set of circumstances.

  2. Joseph Fouche Says:

    The late republic had a great deal of vigor. But it was obscured by the antics of a dysfunctional ruling class. The mos maiorum (the republic’s tacit "constitution") kept the conflict of ambition with ambition constructive and in check after c. 394 B.C. However, political conflict’s tendency to escalate as ambition strives against ambition eroded its ability to regulate elite behaviors, a tendency aggravated by the absence of a common threat like Carthage. As political conflict escalated, its sublimated violence became increasingly naked, fueled by easy money. Jugurtha caught the spirit of the late republic when he observed, "Everthing in Rome is for sale". The Roman elites turned on each other with increasing fury, escalating the intensity and violence of their internal strife until the old patrician and plebian nobility was thoroughly culled. The Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, Anthony, Octavian, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius continued the strife, eventually culminating in Nero’s suicide. With Nero’s death the curtain came down on the old republic’s aristocracy. Power fell into the hands of new elites like the Flavians and Antonines who lacked even a semblance of family republican heritage. They tapped the power of Rome but anything resembling the old republic was dead.

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