The Fifteenth Philippic

Day by day it becomes more difficult for calm minds to speak rationally of U.S. politics. Our state was described best 2,061 years ago by Marcus Tullius Cicero, in his Second Philippic, when he asked Marcus Antonius: “Who can determine whether you were more impudent, desperate, indecent or cruel?”

Cicero wrote his Second Philippic after Antony attacked him in the Roman Senate on Sept. 19, 44 B.C.

Julius Caesar had been assassinated on March 15.

Cicero said that the assassins — Mark Antony not among them — had done the right thing: They killed a man who had assassinated the Republic, to become king.

Antony, Cicero said, was stirring up civil war, not for the republic, for liberty or for justice, but for his own profit.

The great Latinist Ronald Syme called the Second Philippic “an eternal monument of eloquence, of rancor, and of misrepresentation.”

Subtract the eloquence, and we have the state of U.S. politics today.

The state of our politics reflects the state of our nation.

Most of us know that Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March. But that’s about all we know. Most of us don’t know what came before or what came after.

Perhaps this will refresh your memory.

By the time Julius Caesar was assassinated, the Roman Senate had allowed two generations of mini-tyrants to reduce the senators to 600 trembling cowards, minus a few brave men, who spoke up at risk of their lives — not their political lives: their lives.

So when a new tyrant came along, it was nothing new for the senators to bow their heads and shuffle along. And hold their hands out for a few million sesterces.

In the generation before Julius Caesar, the Gracchus brothers, the tribunes Tiberius and Gaius, had proposed land reforms: chipping into the senators’ estates to give land to poor people and veterans of wars.

The brothers were assassinated.

Their political opponent, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, became consul in 81 B.C., then dictator — a formal title — and proceeded to “proscribe” — that is, murder — thousands of his political opponents: the poor people and their tribunes.

Caesar sided with the Gracchus brothers. He had to hide out during the proscriptions — during the mass murders.

When Caesar and Pompey and their armies, and Marcus Crassus and his banks established the first triumvirate, in 60 B.C., the Senate had allowed itself to become a nullity. Elections had become a joke. The richest and wealthiest tribes always voted first, and their votes were counted, so by the time it was the poor people’s turn, there was usually no reason to vote.

Cicero — the great orator and defender of the Republic — said that the notion of equality among citizens was obnoxious. Of course the good people — the optimates — should have more power, more wealth, get a better deal on taxes.

Caesar’s assassination did not end any of these things. It set off 14 years of civil wars, which ended in a dictatorship disguised as a republic. By which time the people were willing to settle for just about anything. And what they got was centuries of dictatorships, while the empire crumbled.

And the Roman senators bowed and scraped, and held their hands out for a few more sesterces.

It took years to destroy the republic. Years of impudence, desperation, indecency and cruelty. Years of cowardice at the highest levels of government.

I am not suggesting anything here … I’m just saying.

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