The Lust for Power Led to Rome’s Decline and Fall

Power, and the desire for more, is always corruptive, as illustrated by the life of Gaius Marius.

Rome, as the old saying goes, wasn’t built in a day. It wasn’t ruined in a day, either, nor by a single person. In the Epilogue to his Caesar and Christ (1944), historian Will Durant noted that, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. The essential causes of Rome's decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.”

I don’t really disagree with Durant’s statement. However, if pressed to describe in one word why the ancient Roman Republic fell, I wouldn’t choose any that Durant mentions here. I would not choose corruption, nor any of the other usual suspects: war, socialism, slavery, the welfare state, envy, civil strife, foreign invasion, erosion of character, taxes, bureaucracy, spending or debt. Those were all important factors but they were symptomatic rather than causative, as I explained in this 2014 essay, “The Fall of the Republic."

More than anything else, the drawn-out demise of Rome’s 500-year-old Republic must be laid at the doorstep of the most corrosive influence in the affairs of humankind. It’s a mental poison that twists and warps even the best of men and women if they allow it to take root in their souls. I refer to power—the exercise of control over others. Simply the pursuit of it, whether one ultimately attains it or not, is itself an intoxicant.

Since most people don’t want someone else to control them, one who wishes to control others must sooner or later convince his victims (if he doesn’t kill them first) that it’s good for them to either embrace it or refrain from resisting it. That invariably requires lies and deception and, ultimately, force and violence. The more I observe the ways that power-seekers behave—present company as well as the hordes from history’s dustbin—the more I’m convinced that power is the principal way that pure Evil manifests itself.

Marius and the Corruption of Power

I recently had my perceptions reinforced as I read my friend Marc Hyden’s new book, Gaius Marius, the Rise and Fall of Rome’s Saviour. Hyden’s subject, Marius (157 BC – 86 BC), was arguably a good man in his early life—a Roman patriot, a military hero whose reforms helped to defend the Republic, and a diligent public servant in the ancient government. As he worked his way to the top, however, his ambition for power transformed him into an enemy of the very Republic he once swore to protect.

Marius allowed the lust for power to consume his soul. He came to possess “more power than any good man should want, and more power than any other kind of man ought to have,” to borrow an eloquent phrase from U.S. Senator Daniel O. Hastings from Delaware, in another context in 1935. Marius’s story is evidence of Montesquieu’s observation that “constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it goes.”

To position himself for ever higher authority, he betrayed trusted friends and cut corners at the expense of Roman law and tradition. Marius wasn’t the first in history, nor would he be the last, to go from good to bad to irredeemable because of power’s curse. Maximilien Robespierre was another. Robespierre started out as a thoughtful, Enlightenment reformer who championed liberty and opposed the death penalty. On his way to the pinnacle of power during the French Revolution of the 1790s, he crushed liberties, introduced the famed “Terror” and ordered the guillotining of thousands. Before he lost his physical head by the very same “National Razor,” he lost his mind, even creating a new religion he called “the Cult of the Supreme Being” with himself as its high priest.

Hyden traces the formative years of Marius in a rural, non-patrician family, austere in lifestyle with no ancestral history of involvement in politics. He tasted power first as he rose through military ranks, aided by superiors who noticed admirable skills, a leadership bearing, and the adulation of his men. At some point, one senses that the power curse kicked in and began to overwhelm his better nature. Marius, consciously or not, decided a little power wasn’t enough and that power derived from voluntary acquiescence wasn’t nearly as sexy as power that comes from stomping on others. To position himself for ever higher authority, he betrayed trusted friends and cut corners at the expense of Roman law and tradition.

And So Goes the Republic

In the bigger picture, Marius’s ascent mirrored the disturbing developments of the Republic’s last century in which he lived. Hyden notes,

The government was no longer [representative of] a minimalist approach to protect its citizens’ most basic rights while honoring their long-held virtues. It became a mechanism for obtaining personal glory, wealth and welfare, always at the expense of the taxpayers, a conquered people or the hardworking legionaries’ backs. The commoners, the aristocracy and the state itself slowly became thoroughly corrupted. The proletariat increasingly demanded larger and larger handouts.

The Republic’s Constitution was, like Britain’s of today, an unwritten one but strongly rooted in centuries of custom, precedent, and popular acceptance. One of its provisions was term limits for the top position, that of consul. A single term was deemed enough for any man, at least within any ten year period, to avoid the concentration of power that could undermine the liberties the Constitution guaranteed. Marius talked himself (and the Roman Senate) into believing that he was Rome’s most indispensable man. He “served” six terms as consul, not all consecutive, and died seventeen days into his seventh, unprecedented consulship.

So a man who began his public career as a defender of the Republic ended up contributing mightily to its slide into tyranny. Less than a century later when Augustus became Emperor for life amid the ruins of what was once perhaps the freest society on the planet, it would be apparent to the wise and reflective that Marius was key among those who actually ensured the Republic’s death. Power and irony are often co-conspirators.

This Is How Liberty Dies

Too many times in history to count, this is how freedom is lost. Bad men of power always lurk among those with good intentions, the former using the latter’s gullibility and naivete to advance their own agenda. This is how Constitutions are thwarted. Documents once established to bind and limit the power-seeking fall, one slice at a time, in the face of a host of “special occasions”: emergencies real or imagined, short-term benefits, the lure of glory, or an impatience to “do something now.” Men of power love it when the masses allow their appetites for these things to be manipulated. Hyden describes the slippery slope in Marius’s day:

The Republic’s constitution was also increasingly circumvented, bent and ignored until it appeared to be more of a suggestion rather than the rule of law. The Republic’s forefathers had prudently instituted constitutional forms and limits on power for good reason, but the people seemed eager to disregard the founder’s foresight out of myopic convenience. In Rome, it was discovered that when a politician bent the nation’s rule of law out of expediency, other statesmen increasingly followed the poor example. The law was then incrementally perverted, and each action was often more perverse than its predecessor. The cycle continued, and the results were devastating as Rome struggled to exist as a functional republic.

Marius, Hyden reports, “ruled equitably for most of his illustrious career, but by the end of his long life, he had no use for due process as he condemned many to death for no other reason than they offended him or supported his nemesis, Sulla.” In what sounds like a monotonous replay of so much of today’s welfare state politics, he bribed the electorate with “public” money to cement his authority. He “repeatedly formed partnerships with unscrupulous politicians to achieve his desired ends.” And he abandoned his once-austere lifestyle “for one of lavish luxuries and, at times, seemed to flaunt his tremendous wealth and honors.”

“The sad truth,” notes Hyden, is that humans rarely become more virtuous once they acquire power. With but the rarest of exceptions, that may be history’s most enduring truism.

I leave it to the interested reader to learn more from Hyden’s book about this fascinating Roman. As you read it, consider it more than the story of one life of antiquity. Think of it as an exegesis of power. The Roman historian Tacitus knew well what he was talking about when he wrote in 117 AD, “Lust of power is the most flagrant of all the passions.”

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