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Month: May 2014

The “Grid,” A Representation of Selfhood and Identity in D.J. Wadie’s “Holy Land”

In “Holy Land,” D.J. Waldie investigates the nature and development of self through an exploration of his environment, the suburb in which he was raised and has spent his life. A central focus of the narrative is on the “grid”, the layout and design of this suburban environment. Through his description of life in the suburb, defined by the limitations and possibilities imposed by the grid, Waldie reveals how environment directly shapes and defines identity. A theory on human nature, that identity develops from the circumstances of the environment it is exposed to, emerges from his narrative. Yet Waldie’s portrayal of the grid goes deeper than simply explaining how environmental circumstances mold identities. Rather than just a literal account of city planning, Waldie’s “grid” can be seen as a metaphor for the human life

Environments shape identities; the circumstances of where we live condition us to behave in specific ways and to accept certain norms and realities. A certain habitus develops among people living together in a specific place. This is decidedly true in the suburban experiment in which Waldie lived. For the thousands of young war veterans moving into suburb, the grid offered the possibility for finding and defining a unique identity. Indeed, as Waldie writes, the suburb (and the grid it was built in) was “a compass of possibilities” (Waldie 4), allowing a generation coming of age to develop a new idea of self. The style of living in the suburb offered was novel and untested, and thus the habitus which would emerge was unlike any developed before. The grid presented an opportunity for a community to discover itself and develop habits, while the repetitive nature of the grid, the order that it established, made these habits into norms. It was impossible to escape from the social conventions of the suburb, which were manifest from its design. Waldie reveals this by writing that “he thought he was becoming his habits, or – even more- he thought he was becoming the grid he knew” (Waldie 1). Waldie is theorizing on human nature and our conception of selfhood, arguing that we develop identities and norms based on where we live. The habitus of the suburb, the norms and conventions developed by the young generation purchasing and living in the newly built houses, the redefinition of selfhood in a claustrophobic and ordered style of living– these all became elements of Waldie’s identity. He was shaped by them by participating in them, and his conception of selfhood revolved around them. Yet these all are products of the grid, the design of the suburb, and thus Waldie can argue that by becoming his habits he was “becoming the grid he knew”.

The grid, while capable of liberating possibilities, also limited them. The grid was an environment of monotony and similarity, where lives were spent in close proximity and intersected constantly. Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, the people living within it would retreat into their own houses, finding and developing their own unique identities there. Waldie writes that “it is as if each house on your block stood on its own enchanted island, fifty feet wide by one hundred feet long. People come and go from it…. But the island is remote” (Waldie 13). The monotonous and claustrophobic design of the suburb allows for little exploration and expression of unique identity outside of the home, yet inside each “enchanted island” the individual could separately and “remotely” discover themselves. Waldie is commenting on another aspect of human nature and identity-seeking, the fact that we often retreat into ourselves or our sanctuaries in order to explore and define our identity. In an environment of monotony and similarity, it is difficult to differentiate between selfhood and otherness, between what makes us unique against others. This must be especially true in Waldie’s suburb, where the monotony imposed by the grid and the racial and religious restrictions imposed by the city left little in the way of differences among people. We can only recognize our selfhood and embrace our unique identity by removing ourselves from that monotony and trying not to recognize it. Waldie’s environment, that of the grid, then shaped the way people approached their identities and their recognition of selfhood. It limited the discovery of selfhood, forcing it to take place away from the monotonous similarity of outside and instead in the dynamics of the family and the home.

Waldie’s focus on the grid goes deeper than a literal description of environment and a theory of human nature built around it. He writes, “The grid is the plan above the Earth. It is a compass of possibilities” (Waldie 4). Waldie’s description of the grid as a canvass of potential is allegorical of the human condition. Until it is designed and constructed, the grid can be developed into anything. Indeed, Waldie writes that “every map is a fiction. Every map offers choices” (Waldie 47). There is no inherent form which the suburb must take. This is equally true for the human life and its associated identity. There is no inherent human condition or identity; we are all canvasses of potential, compasses of possibilities. The “grid” of our life, the layout and design of our identity and selfhood, is developed overtop our human form like the grid of the suburb is designed overtop the ground. Waldie’s theory on human nature, when seen through a non-literal reading of his grid, is that every human is a “tabula rasa,” a blank slate, and identity can be developed in any shape or form just as the design of the grid presents limitless possibilities.

Yet Waldie spends considerable time in his memoir describing the development and evolution of the grid, how the land it sits upon changed owners numerous times and how different designs had been produced. He writes “the streets in my city are a fraction of a larger grid, anchored to one in Los Angeles… the Los Angeles grid is a copy of one carried from Mexico City to an anonymous stretch of river bank…. That grid originally came from a book in the Archive of the Indies in Seville…. That grid came from God” (Waldie 22). Though the grid is “a compass of possibilities,” it is nonetheless one whose design had been influenced by outside forces, such as the pressures of a design requirement or the history of the ground beneath it, before it was even built. So too are the identities we develop influenced by external forces even prior to the development of the identity itself. Our family history, like the history of the ground beneath the grid, determines who and what we will become, in turn shaping our conception of selfhood. The design of a larger grid system, such as the one which Waldie’s suburb existed in, is similar to the larger social and cultural framework into which we are born and which defines the fundamentals of how we define our identity and conceptualize ourselves.

The grid of Waldie’s suburb remained unchanging; the basic layout of the neighborhood remained static. Yet the elements within that grid were in constant development and change, and Waldie relates that change in his memoir. Buildings were developed, built, and then brought down. Trees were planted and replanted. People moved in and out of houses. Again, seen as a metaphor for the human life, the nature of the grid is revelatory of Waldie’s conception of the nature of selfhood. Humans possess a deep and fundamental identity, our “grid”. The framework of this identity, like the fundamental layout of the grid, remains largely unchanging through time. Yet elements of our identity are in constant flux and are constantly being redefined, just as the suburb built upon the grid is always changing. Selfhood is not static, but rather constantly being developed. Waldie’s exploration of the development and changes in his grid is revelatory of that.

Waldie investigates the nature and development of self through focusing on the “grid” of his suburb, the design layout which shaped the identities of the people who lived there. The grid presented both a possibility for the development of new identities and rediscovery of selfhood by offering a completely new style of living, and also limited the exploration of unique identity in its monotony and similarity. Waldie explores this through his description of his suburb and its development. Yet the grid can be seen as more than just a literal suburb layout; it serves as a metaphor for human nature. Like the possibilities of the grid, the possibilities of our lives and our identities are limitless; yet like the grid, our identities and conceptions of selfhood are shaped by externalities outside of our control.

Greed, Power, and Prestige – Explaining the Fall of the Roman Republic


“When toil is replaced by an attack of indolence, and self-control and fairness by one of lust and haughtiness, there is a change in fortune as well as in morals and behavior.”[1] This claim, made by the Roman historian Sallust, can be easily substantiated when the characters and actions of the leading men in Rome during the Republic’s collapse are analyzed. For hundreds of years, the Roman Republic was sustained through the practice of traditional customs of honor and conduct. Restraint, honesty, and fairness ensured that the commonwealth was governed by Rome’s “best men,” and accordingly the Republic grew to supreme eminence in the Mediterranean. With an influx of wealth and the absence of outside threats, however, these traditional values began to degrade and become irrelevant. By the 1st century B.C.E., the most prominent men in Rome were corrupted by greed, jealously, and ambition. Individuals such as Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar brought the state to chaos, disorder, and eventually tyranny in their quest for ultimate prestige and power. Historians writing on the fall of Rome focused much energy on the character of these men, exploring their qualities to explain why and how the Roman Republic collapsed. Through a description of their moral failures and political dishonesty, these historians wove the narrative of the Republic’s violent and chaotic demise. It is from the retelling of the lives of the prominent Romans at the time that the underlying causes of the Republic’s demise – greed, power, and prestige – are most readily revealed.

A view held widely by historians and contemporaries of the fall of the Republic was that the absence of traditional morals and customs had corrupted politics, and as a result the political system was unstable and, therefore, unsustainable. Sallust argued that the collapse and fall of the Roman Republic was caused through this degradation of traditional values. This process was exacerbated by an absence of external threats and an influx of wealth from conquered territories. He wrote,

“Before the destruction of Carthage the Roman people and senate managed the commonwealth placidly and restrainedly between them. There was no struggle amongst citizens either for glory or for domination: dread of an enemy maintained the community in its good practices. But, when that source of alarm left their minds, recklessness and haughtiness – things, to be sure, which favorable circumstances attract – made their entrance”[2]

Sallust claimed that political stability was maintained because of the “dread of a common enemy,” for no individual could recklessly pursue glory or domination while the Republic was threatened by an outside force. For much of the Early and Middle Republic, Rome’s power and safety was often under peril. Yet following the conquest of Italy and the Second Punic War, Rome’s eminence in the Mediterranean grew steadily. Through the subjugation of Greece in the early 2nd century B.C.E and the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C.E, the Romans eliminated the two main existential threats to their state. The Roman leadership could now pursue glory without restraint, for Rome’s safety was no longer in question. This pursuit of glory and the power that came with it, however, eventually became reckless. Prominent individuals sought to outdo each other through any means possible, often resorting to corruption and violence to achieve their aims. Traditional norms of competition and political harmony accordingly vanished and the state was plunged into disorder, chaos, and civil war. Cicero too shared this view, having wrote, “Everybody demands as much political power as he has force behind him. Reason, moderation, law, tradition, duty count for nothing.”[3]

This disregard of tradition was recognized by authors writing on the end of the Republic as a primary cause of the fall, especially Plutarch. He drew comparisons between prominent individuals of the Late Republic to illustrate this collapse of custom. Contrasting Metellus, who Plutarch regarded as upstanding for upholding the ancestral customs, with Marius, who had disregarded tradition in his pursuit for power, Plutarch wrote, “Here was a man who seems to have been in other respects remarkable among the Romans for his good sense and particularly remarkable for upholding the dignity of the consular office free from fear and favor in accordance with the ancestral laws and customs which he regarded as immutable decrees.”[4] Metellus’s character is thus celebrated as “particularly remarkable,” for he maintained the traditional customs of order and moral integrity. Plutarch believed that because of this Metellus “upheld the dignity of the consular office.” In contrast, then, Marius’s disregard for custom is presented as dishonorable and unworthy of such an esteemed office. Indeed, Plutarch wrote that “the man whom [Marius] feared particularly was Metellus… who because of his genuine good qualities was naturally opposed to those who used dishonorable methods in their approach to the masses.”[5] The honor of Marius’s actions was thus called into question, a strong critique against a man who disregarded tradition in the pursuit of personal gain. Again, Plutarch reinforced his support for the ancestral traditions by associating Metellus’s good qualities with an opposition to Marius’s dishonorable methods.

Plutarch further directed attention to the unfettered pursuit and love for glory among the leading men of Rome during the fall of the Republic. The dangerous nature of envy and insatiable ambition is a common theme in his biographical sketches of these men. Plutarch, always a moralizer, used his history of their quests for glory as a caution against immoderate ambition, writing, “This proves how wise Euripides was… when he recommended us to beware of ambition, which he calls the most destructive of all powers and the most damaging to those who worship her.”[6] He argued that the pursuit of glory gave “no rest or peace until it ended in an inglorious death and a national disaster,”[7] calling into dispute the ultimate value of ambition. Plutarch further saw the desire for unrestrained power as a quality detested by the people, writing “what made Caesar most openly and mortally hated was his passion to be made king.”[8] When put into context with Caesar’s eventual assassination, this claim serves a clear warning to those who seek power about the deadly downfalls of such a pursuit. Power was also described as having negative influence on the individual’s character. Plutarch wrote, “Great powers bring about a change in the previous characters of their holders – a change in the direction of over-excitability, pomposity, and inhumanity.”[9] In short, the reader of Plutarch’s biographies was reminded that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and as much could be seen in the bloody rules of Marius and Sulla.

In his telling of their lives, Plutarch often attributed the motivations and actions of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar to a desire for ever greater prestige and power. The character of these individuals, as described by Plutarch, was shaped by their ambition and love of distinction. He wrote that “Pompey no doubt was actuated simply by his boundless love of power,”[10] and that Marius was gripped by a passion that “proceeded from his own envious nature and lust for power.”[11] Meanwhile, Crassus longed “for trophies and triumphs.”[12] Of Caesar, Plutarch wrote that “his- main efforts were directed towards becoming the first power in the state and the greatest soldier”[13] and that he was “born to do great things and to seek constantly for distinction.”[14] Describing Sulla, he wrote, “[now that he] had become a person of some importance among his fellow-citizens and was enjoying the sensation of being honored, he went so far in his passion for distinction as to have a signet-ring made with a representation of his achievement.”[15] Considering Plutarch’s negative commentary about the quest for glory and power, it is significant that he described Rome’s most prominent individuals as men of such insatiable ambition. After all, it was these men who were primarily responsible for bringing about the collapse of the Republic. By attributing their actions, and the corresponding chaos which ensued, to their quest for glory, Plutarch was again giving a warning against unfettered ambition. Here were men of great quality and capability who, instead of serving the state, tore it apart in their reckless pursuit of singular power. Accordingly, by connecting the collapse of the Republic to the ambition of these prominent men, Plutarch finds a satisfactory explanation as to why Roman politics became so toxic and, eventually, unsustainable.

Of course, this pursuit of glory, when moderated, was not itself a bad thing. Indeed, the competitive drive for glory and prestige was what had earlier powered the Roman aristocratic system, producing from the ruling class individuals who were willing to devote their full energy to the welfare of the commonwealth. Yet this competition was long restrained by tradition and moral norms which ensured a stable transition between leaders and a peaceful sharing of authority. The marked difference between Roman politics before and during the Late Republic was that peaceful and productive competition among the ruling class was no longer so willingly tolerated.

As he had done with their pursuit of glory, Plutarch devotes much attention to describing the envious nature of the prominent Romans in the Late Republic. Detailing the rivalry between Crassus and Pompey, born out of envy, he wrote, “It was in the course of these campaigns, they say, that there first began that jealous rivalry for distinction which [Crassus] felt towards Pompey.”[16] Similarly writing on the envious relationship between Marius and Sulla, Plutarch provided insight into Marius’s jealous nature, saying “[Sulla] greatly irritated Marius, who had the keenest sense of his own honor, no notion of sharing glory with anyone else, and was quick to take offence.”[17] Plutarch further revealed how jealousy led to discord and disorder the by detailing how “Marius nearly went out of his mind with rage and jealous anger at the idea of Sulla stealing the glory of his achievements, and he was planning to have the statues [of Sulla on the Capitol] forcibly removed”[18] Indeed, in his envy of Sulla’s accomplishments, Marius also took steps to undermine the continued growth of his prestige. Plutarch wrote that “Marius was casting a jealous eye on him and, so far from being glad to give him further opportunities to distinguish himself, was standing in the way of his advancement.”[19]

Thus, the ancestral traditions which had sustained the system had begun to collapse, and envy and jealousy began to manifest themselves in violence and conflict. Plutarch considered the collapse of the Republic to be the destructive result of this envy, writing that, “Greed and personal rivalry… had brought the empire to such a pass… here the whole manhood and might of single state was involved in self-destruction – a clear enough lesson of how blind and how mad a thing human nature is when under the sway of passion.”[20] Detailing the relationship between Sulla and Marius, soured by a mutual jealousy, he further demonstrated how the Republic was brought down through unrestrained rivalry and competition. He wrote, “The hatred between these two… led them on… through the shedding of blood in civil war and irreconcilable antagonisms, to tyranny and the utter confusion of the whole state.”[21]

Antagonistic jealousy between prominent Romans was contrary to traditional precedent, and was symptomatic of the growing decay in Roman politics. No longer competing by bettering the position of the commonwealth at the expense of an external enemy, the ruling class now competed for absolute power. In order to achieve this, they turned against one another, ending the “placid and restrained” style of governance and aristocratic unity which Sallust had described. As a result, the integrity of the state was imperiled. The Romans whose lives Plutarch wrote about were presented as flawed individuals, and he associated their flaws with the chaos in Roman politics. By directing attention to their envious characters, Plutarch was again presenting his audience with a moral warning against unrestrained jealousy, which he saw as a destructive tendency. In demonstrating the negative ramifications of these individuals’ attempts to outshine each other, Plutarch was recommending to his audience moderation in their actions and desires. Furthermore, as he had done with his analysis on the quest for glory, Plutarch was seeking an explanation for why the Republic collapsed after centuries of stability. He saw the violence which paralyzed and ultimately ended the Republic as having been motivated by the hostile envy the leading men of Rome had for each other. Writing frequently on their jealous and violent actions against each other, he thus not only described the history of their lives but provided a narrative of the Republic’s collapse.

As Plutarch had done with Marius and Metellus, he contrasted the envious nature of the leading men of Rome with an individual whom he felt was free of the quality. Describing Cicero, he wrote “It must be said that although he was so unreservedly fond of his own glory, he was quit free from envy of other people. He was, as can be seen from his writings, most liberal in his praises of his predecessors and contemporaries.”[22] Cicero, as described by Plutarch, was an individual not immune from the corruption of his time, for he too shared a desire for glory, but he was not driven by jealousy. He was not motivated by jealous hatred of more prominent colleagues or a desire for unrivaled supremacy. Unlike his more powerful contemporaries in the Triumvirates, Cicero played no major role in leading the violence and chaos that plagued the Republic. Unlike Caesar, Sulla, and Pompey, he had not come into and held power as a tyrant. The stark contrast Plutarch provides of Cicero’s actions and those of his contemporaries is associated with the difference in their characters, further reinforcing Plutarch’s moralizing on the dangers of unbridled envy.

Underlying the qualities of unrestrained ambition, envy, and a desire for power was greed. Indeed, it was greed which prompted and accelerated the collapse of moral integrity and tradition, hastening the fall of the Roman Republic. Polybius, in his discourse on the cyclical nature of political systems, wrote that greed was the catalyst to the development of an oligarchy, which in turn would devolve into tyranny. Speaking of the leading men in a hypothetical political system, he wrote that “They dedicated themselves to rapaciousness and unscrupulous money-making… and in the process, they changed aristocracy into oligarchy.”[23] Though Polybius was writing well before the fall of the Republic and was simply theorizing on the changing nature of a political system, his analysis can, and indeed was, applied to the circumstances in Rome by later historians.

Sallust had much to write about the impact of greed on the Roman political system and its corrupting influence on moral integrity. He argued that “avarice undermined trust, probity, and all other good qualities; instead, it taught men haughtiness, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to regard everything for sale.”[24]Greed, then, undermined the traditional morality of the Roman people, which prior to the influx of riches was not plagued by “haughtiness” or “cruelty”. As the good qualities which had kept the stability of the commonwealth intact accordingly disappeared, Romans began to violently turn against each other in their pursuit of more wealth. Sallust described this when he wrote, “In the wake of riches… men were attacked by luxury and riches along with haughtiness; they seized, they squandered; they placed little weight on their own property and desired that of others.”[25] This, in turn, disrupted the political system, for avarice envied not only property but also power and glory. Sallust continued, “After riches began to be a source of honor and to be attended by glory, command and power, prowess began to dull, poverty to be considered a disgrace and blamelessness to be regarded as malice.”[26] Riches, he said, were to be attended by glory, command and power; power in Rome was to be held by the wealthiest and, therefore, the greediest. As a result, prowess and capability was no longer honored with highest office. Rather than the “best man” holding power in Rome, it was the wealthiest. Meanwhile, poverty and virtue, which had earlier been the idealized qualities of a Roman, were seen as a disgrace; the traditions which had held together the Republic were thus disregarded, and those who held onto them were pushed from prominence by those who were willing to buy their way into power.

As he had done with their other qualities, Plutarch highlighted the avaricious nature of the prominent Romans during the fall of the Republic. In doing so, he again was providing his audience with a critique of greed and explaining how these individuals brought about the collapse of the commonwealth. Writing on Marius, Plutarch concluded that he “would not have brought his career… to so ugly a conclusion… [if not for] his insatiable greed.”[27] In Marius’s fate Plutarch demonstrated how avarice would lead to an ultimately unfavorable demise for the greedy individual. Plutarch further reinforced the avaricious nature of Marius’s character in writing that, upon his death, he lamented “his own fate in having to die before he had attained each and every object of his desires.”[28] Crassus, too, was seen by Plutarch as representing the worst of a greedy character. He wrote that Crassus was “the most avaricious person in the world”[29]. Yet even more significantly, Plutarch argued that the extent of Crassus’s greed could “best be proved by considering the vastness of his fortune and the ways in which he acquired it,”[30] for he “amassed most of this property by means of fire and war; public calamities were his principle source of revenue.”[31] Similarly, the public calamities of civil war, violence, and disorder were the principle sources of power for Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar. Greed for property and greed for power consumed the leading men of Rome, prompting them to bring the Republic into chaos so that they could achieve the objects of their desires. It was irrelevant that they achieved these desires through the destruction of their state, so long as their greed was satisfied.

Thus, ambition, envy, and greed were the defining qualities of prominent Romans during the 1st century B.C.E. Historians such as Plutarch and Sallust focused much attention on the moral characters of the leading men in Rome during the fall of the Republic, highlighting these failings to explain the collapse of the commonwealth. Yet it was not just the inherent qualities of these men that undid the Republic; it was their actions, born out of these qualities, which brought about the violence and disorder. Bribery, backroom alliances, political violence, and proscriptions became common features of Roman politics, and prominent Romans used them all to gain for themselves supreme power. Historians and contemporaries of this time were aware of the corrupt nature of politics in the Late Republic, and wrote heavily on the deeds which brought perpetuated and worsened this corruption.

As the influence of tradition and moral custom was gradually abandoned by Rome’s ruling class, a corresponding degradation of politic conduct occurred. Candidates to office had become accustomed to using dishonest methods to achieve their aims. Pandering to the masses through extravagant banquets, games, and shows, the most prominent and wealthiest Romans were able to secure popular support and therefore defeat their less-wealthy opponents. Offices, positions, and powers were openly being bought and sold, with bribery and electoral violence rife in the system. Polybius, in his work on constitutions, theorized that this would occur. He had said, “Finding that their resources and merits were not enough to enable them to get what they want, they squandered their fortunes on bribing and corrupting the general populace in all sorts of ways.”[32] By winning votes through populism and bribery, men of dishonest character were able to secure electoral victory. Support was retained in office through lavish spending on the public. A precedent had been set which completely undermined the stability of the Republic.

Plutarch directed attention to these dishonest deeds, recalling the moments when the leading men of Rome had won power and support through money and largesse. By doing so, he was revealing to the reader how these individual’s moral failings manifested themselves into political action, a demonstration both of the follies of such qualities and the Republic’s decline. Marius, he wrote, “did everything to win popular support, ingratiating himself with the common people and giving in to them. In so doing he was… lowering the standard of his high office.”[33] Such a criticism was significant, in that Plutarch argued that Marius’s actions were lowering the standard of the Consulship. As such, these actions were portrayed as dishonorable, unworthy of high recognition in Rome, and yet Marius won his power through them. Associating his actions with dishonor, yet showing that Marius nonetheless was successful with them, Plutarch had made clear that the Republic’s decay had begun. Plutarch also wrote of Marius that “in civilian life his supremacy was restricted so he resorted to attempts to win the goodwill of the mob, not minding so much whether he was the best man so long as he could be the greatest.”[34] Such a statement is revealing of the nature of politics and competition between prominent Romans near the end of the Republic. Marius was a spectacular general yet an ineffective statesman; hence, he was not “the best man” in Rome, and would have likely lost an election in the earlier Republic. Yet through pandering to the mob, he found that he could win their goodwill, secure election, and thereby become “the greatest” man in Rome. Politics in the Late Republic had therefore become a competition not judging value or capability but rather populist appeal, threatening the quality and integrity of the state’s leadership.

Sulla had also come into office through dishonest means. Plutarch wrote, “He was elected praetor in the following year, having won the support of the people partly by flattery and partly also by bribery.”[35] Clearly, bribery and populism had become a common way to secure office, a symptom of the undermined integrity of the state. Yet Sulla, who would rise to supreme power in Rome, found it necessary to employ such methods of politicking when engaging in his struggle for control. Plutarch wrote that “in order to corrupt and win over to himself the soldiers of other generals, he gave his own troops a good time and spent money lavishly on them. He was thus at the same time encouraging the others to treachery and his own men to debauchery.”[36] Through his generosity in finances and discipline, he was able to undermine his opponent’s military efforts while building support for his own cause. Yet, as repeated often by the ancient historians, luxury was a corrupting influence. The soldiers were led to “debauchery” and “treachery,” as were, as can be seen throughout the biographies of the other leading men in Rome, most involved in the political struggles of the time. Cicero, observing the happenings of his time, recognized the change that had occurred in political conduct. In a letter where he warned about Pompey, he said ““He is confessedly working for absolute power. What else signifies this… pouring out of money… They would never have come so far if they were not paving their way to other and disastrous objectives.”[37] Pompey too, then, was an individual who participated in the norms of his day, those of bribery, pandering, and plotting.

Plutarch and Cicero presented Caesar as perhaps the most willing and most successful populist, winning the goodwill of the masses through massive and elaborate shows and bribery. Describing his methods of winning support, Plutarch wrote that, “He spent money recklessly, and many people thought that he was purchasing a moment’s brief fame at an enormous price, whereas in reality he was buying the greatest place in the world at inconsiderable expense”[38] Caesar is said to have been buying “the greatest place in the world,” showing that supreme power and glory in Rome was now something that could be purchased instead of rightfully achieved. The enormous wealth held by prominent Romans of the time and the willingness of politicians to spend lavishly on a greedy public in order to win support can be seen in Caesar’s actions; he was said to have spent lavishly and recklessly with enormous costs. Indeed, it is said of Caesar that with his “lavish expenditure on theatrical performances, processions and public banquets he threw into the shade all attempts at winning distinction in this way that had been made by previous holders of the office.”[39] Caesar, the most prominent man in Rome for a time, was thus also one of the most corrupting on the system. Cicero, writing on Caesar, realized that his populism had elevated him to his position of supremacy and presented a grave danger to the Republic. He wrote, “He wasted all the power of his intellect in pandering to popular humors. Thus, having no regard to the senate and to good men he opened for himself that path to the extension of his power which the… manly spirit of a free people could not endure.”[40] Caesar’s rise to power and eventual tyranny, which Cicero said the spirit of the Roman people could not endure, can thus be explained through the support he garnered through his massive expenditures and populism. His dictatorship was the culmination of these practices, which had become precedent after decades of a degrading political system.

Plutarch also wrote that “candidates for office came to get his backing and after bribing the people with the money which he gave them, won their elections and went on to do everything likely to increase his power.”[41] This system of mutual support was common in Roman politics and culture. When mixed with the corruption of the times, it meant that the system became controlled by powerful and wealthy individuals who sought to improve their position. As can be seen in the case of the Triumvirates, they could manipulate elections, legislation, and votes by their use of money and influence. Plutarch thus called Caesar’s use of money to secure his position to attention as a means to explain how Caesar’s tyranny was established. Caesar’s eminence in Rome was also an important consideration when analyzing the bribery and populism that had become rife in Roman politics. Because of his prominence, he was capable of having much influence on the nature and function of the political system. By participating in the corrupt practices of his time, he was thus not only benefiting from them but also strongly reinforcing the precedent of their use. If a man like Caesar was able to win supreme power through dishonest means, others would surely have followed his example. The stability and integrity of the Republic had been doomed by the practices these prominent men had followed.

A marked change had occurred in Roman politics leading up to the fall of the Republic, in that office had come to be won through bribery and populism instead of being achieved through prowess and honor. This allowed individuals whose talents or desires were detrimental and destructive to the commonwealth to find their way into power. Indeed, unlimited power, and eventually tyranny, became achievable through winning the support of the mob. Polybius had predicted that this would happen in his work on constitutions when he said, “Once people had grown accustomed to eating off others’ tables and expected their daily needs to be met, then, they found someone to champion their cause… they instituted government by force.”[42] As the masses became accustomed to greed and desire, qualities which were already becoming established norms in Roman political culture, they came to support whoever would provide them with the most luxury. As can be seen by the careers of Marius and Caesar, ultimate power was indeed obtainable in such a way. The Republic was transformed away from being a system where the aristocracy competed honestly through honor in order to hold authority for a limited time.

Yet bribery and populism were not the only symptoms of a system that was disintegrating. Throughout the late 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.E., bloodshed and violence were not uncommon methods used to achieve power. The leading men and their supporters would not hesitate to kill or banish in order to silence opposition or to secure their position. Polybius had theorized that violence would dissolve the state into chaos, and would be the last step to bringing about a revolution in the system. He had written, “They banded together and set about murdering, banishing, and redistributing land, until they were reduced to a bestial state and once more gained a monarchic master.”[43] As can be seen in the case of Sulla’s proscriptions and the civil wars between Pompey and Caesar, these violent tendencies in Roman politics did indeed bring rise to tyrants.

Plutarch and Sallust recognized how violence came to play an important role in Roman politics, and they analyzed the violent actions of the leading men in Rome during the Republic’s collapse in order to describe how they dishonestly came to achieve and secure their supremacy. Because violence had become a norm, men in positions of power began to find it necessary to employ it against their opponents, lest they themselves be eliminated and removed from power by violent means. Plutarch wrote as much when he said, “The man who wanted to be on top had to get rid of the one who at present held that position: the man who was for the moment on top had, if he wished to stay there, to get rid of the man he feared before it was too late”[44] Sallust too recognized this trend, and, writing on it, pointed out how such violence would bring about the downfall of the commonwealth,

“The nobility… annihilated many mortal beings by the sword or by exile and made themselves more fearful than powerful for the future – a circumstance which has often been the downfall of great communities, in that one side wants to conquer the other by whatever means and to extract from the conquered too bitter a vengeance.”[45]

Violence, then, did not secure power for those who practiced it, but rather created an environment of fear in Rome. With a precedent set that eminence could be won through murder and bloodshed, anyone who aspired to greatness would feel the need to employ violence both to achieve power and to hold onto it. There was no way the Republic, which had maintained its stability through justice and restraint, could survive such a change in the way politics was conducted. Political circumstances leading up to the fall of the Republic were markedly different than those during the Republic’s height, when, as Sallust wrote, politicians “exercised command by conferring kindness, not causing dread, and when wronged, they preferred forgiveness to pursuit.”[46] By drawing this contrast, Sallust demonstrated how the Republic had maintained its stability in the past through the good qualities and actions of its leadership; in turn, he highlighted the corrupt and depraved practices of the Roman leadership during the collapse of the Republic.

Plutarch, writing on the animosity between Caesar and Pompey, had said that, “Caesar had long ago decided that Pompey must be removed from his position of power; and Pompey, for that matter, had come to just the same decision about Caesar.”[47] Considering the violent norms of the time, the civil war and violent chaos that was incited by these two men in their struggle against each other is no surprise. As Plutarch had made note of, both men realized that they must get rid of the other if their designs on supreme power were ever to be realized. The Republic’s downfall was born out of their political competition, a competition that was waged with bloodshed. Writing on Sulla, Sallust said that he, “having taken the commonwealth by arms, had had a wicked outcome…. Everyone started to seize and loot; one man desired a house, another land; the victors showed neither restraint nor moderation but did foul and cruel deeds against their fellow citizens.”[48] Sulla’s proscriptions were a highpoint of violence in the system, and during his rule murder, looting, and condoned theft were commonplace. He too, then, was influenced by and further perpetuated the norms of violence that had become ingrained in the system. Pompey was also shown by Plutarch to be an individual willing to make use of violence to achieve a political goal. Responding to Caesar, who had asked whether Pompey would come to the support of laws calling for the redistribution of land if they were threatened, Pompey said he would. Significantly, it is written that Pompey said “against those who threaten to use swords I shall bring both a sword and a shield”[49]. Pompey, then, was also prepared to fight violence with violence, thus worsening the chaos that had already endangered the Republic and perpetuating the violence which was gradually bringing about its fall.

Ancient historians writing on the fall of the Roman Republic found explanations for why the commonwealth had collapsed in the qualities and actions of Rome’s leading men. From these ancient historians, as well as contemporaries of the time, the moral failings of the Rome’s ruling class are highlighted. The Republic’s fall can be attributed to their actions, which were manifest from the qualities of their characters. It was argued that greed, developed because of the influx of wealth from Rome’s conquests, had incited an insatiable desire for glory, power, and prestige. The ancient traditions which had sustained the Republic through goodwill and placidity accordingly decayed. The most prominent and powerful men in Rome, filled with this greed but also driven by envy, wanted to outcompete and outshine each other in order to achieve unrivaled supremacy. To do this, they employed the corrupt political methods of their time – violence, bloodshed, and bribery – thereby weakening the institutions of the Republic and eventually bringing the whole state into chaos and civil war. In such an environment, the Republic as it had existed ceased to function; the path to dictatorship and tyranny had been opened. The fall of the Republic, as revealed by Plutarch, Sallust, and Cicero, had been brought about because of the corrupt character of Rome’s leading men.

Works Cited

[1] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 2.5.

[2] Sallust, The Jugurthine War, 41.1.

[3] Cicero, Letters to Brutus, 1.10.2-3.

[4] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 42.

[5] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 28.

[6] Plutarch, Sulla, 4.

[7] Plutarch, Crassus, 14.

[8] Plutarch, Caesar, 60.

[9] Plutarch, Sulla, 30.

[10] Plutarch, Crassus, 14.

[11] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 45.

[12] Plutarch, Crassus, 14.

[13] Plutarch, Caesar, 3.

[14] Plutarch, Caesar, 58.

[15] Plutarch, Sulla, 3.

[16] Plutarch, Crassus, 6

[17] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 10.

[18] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 32.

[19] Plutarch, Sulla, 4.

[20] Plutarch, Pompey, 70.

[21] Plutarch, Sulla, 4.

[22] Plutarch, Cicero, 24.

[23] Polybius, Histories, 6.8.

[24] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 10.4.

[25] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 12.2.

[26] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 12.1.

[27] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 2.

[28] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 45.

[29] Plutarch, Crassus, 6.

[30] Plutarch, Crassus, 2.

[31] Ibid

[32] Polybius, Histories, 6.9.

[33] Ibid

[34] Plutarch, Marius, 28.

[35] Plutarch, Sulla, 4.

[36] Plutarch, Sulla, 12.

[37] Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 2.17.1.

[38] Plutarch, Caesar, 5.

[39] Plutarch, Caesar, 5.

[40] Cicero, Philippics 5.49.

[41] Plutarch, Caesar, 21.

[42] Polybius, Histories, 6.9.

[43] Polybius, Histories, 6.9.

[44] Plutarch, Caesar, 28.

[45] Sallust, The Jugurthine War, 42.7.

[46] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 9.5.

[47] Plutarch, Caesar, 28.

[48] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 11.4.

[49] Plutarch, Pompey, 47.

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