All roads do lead there eventually I guess - it's pretty much impossible to read our own Founders without being drawn back time and again. Gibbon's work of 1776, Joseph Addison's play Cato (beloved by G. Washington), the pseudonyms dotting the pages of the Federalist Papers.. it's in the air.
So I've been detouring into Classical history, and I have to say - once you start to catch the allusions of 18th (and 19th!) century writing a whole new world opens up. The texture of their world just fills out in an a startling way.
... and I've got to confess some of that fascination's started to rub off.
I've made some headway in the (translated I'm afraid) originals - Livy, Tacitus - I'm just starting Virgil's Aenid*. Add to that scads of secondary sources** ... it's a fascinating story.
And a sadly familiar one.
It's no surprise, really. You build a similar ratmaze of rewards and punishments in society, you should hardly be surprised if some of the same problems crop up.
And Lord is it familiar.
It's no new thing of course for the citizens of a republic to see kings and tyrants in every corner. Hardly new to split into factions and see the threat of a new Ceasar and cancelled elections whenever the other faction is in power. (In fact, I had this very conversation with a friend today, and he was certain GWB had been trying for a third round himself)
Caesar however was not of the Optimates.
Caesar was a Populares. It would be a little misleading to call him a Democrat in today's terms, but perhaps Andrew Jackson makes a decent comparison for the modern American mind - certainly Jackson was called so at the time. Military adventurer (arguably extra legally so!), and a self-styled champion of the common man - the poor and underprivileged. A man of the people, who would spank the elites and bring justice to the masses.
Or to be more blunt - when the dictator came - when you do see a Republic crash down and a Caesar, a Napoleon, a Stalin rise to become the strongman - it's with the applause of "the people" - the democratical element of society. (As only makes sense really - as one of our own bewigged gentlemen observed, the aristocratical element have no reason to rock the boat.)
That is - when dictatorship has come, it's come generally from the Populares.
That day came for a reason. The Optimates had overstepped reason and decency. They had abused their position. They had created an environment when a man could answer the call of his country, then come home to find in doing so he'd lost his land, becoming a tenant on his own fields. Where imported slaves did drive down the cost of labor to the point a free citizen was reduced to scraps.
And that I think is why reading over and over the last days of the Republic is so hard.
It inspires the most claustrophobic feeling - of being trapped between those who've abused their freedom and fellow citizens for self interest, and those who willingly hand power to a tyrant, killing mankind's liberty for over a thousand years.
Blood may indeed buy liberty.
But it will not keep it. That is the place of virtue.
* Between that and the Illiad I see now where so much of the Dawn Treader story I loved as a kid came from. But the Aenid is dense as heck unless the Illiad's fresh in your mind, fair warning. For added texture, make certain you know some about Augustus and the Julii before wading in.
*mad props to Dan Carlin's Death Throes of the Republic by the way. Awesomely done!