Self-Inflicted Wounds

After vanquishing its external foes, the late Roman republic had every reason to be satisfied with its global position; domestically, too, the basic facts were highly favorable: relatively strong economy, unified society, and high esteem for the rule of law had laid the foundation for a political organization that would have passed for a fairly modern democracy. But within a few generations, elite irresponsibility had turned Rome into a corrupt and militaristic dictatorship. Sallust focuses on a key turning point, the years following a burst of military adventurism (under Marius and Sulla) and preceding Julius Caesar’s final overthrow of the Republic:

Never in its history–it seems to me–had the empire of Rome been in such a miserable plight. From east to west all the world had been vanquished by her armies and obeyed her will; at home there was profound peace and abundance of wealth, which moral men esteem the chiefest of blessings. Yet there were Roman citizens obstinately determined to destroy both themselves and their country….A deadly moral contagion had infected all their minds….although all disturbers of the peace in this period put forward specious pretexts, claiming either to be protecting the rights of the people or to be strengthening the authority of the Senate, this was mere pretence: in reality, every one of them was fighting for his personal aggrandizement. –Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline (Penguin Classics), pp.37-39.


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