Wisdom from the ancients

One can learn much from the ancients.  Thucydides tells us much about human nature, as does Aristotle.  The great Greek playwrights probed the human psyche and provide still the best analyses.  Economics, though strictly speaking, was not a discipline they examined, with the exception perhaps of Xenophon.

Two great ancient Roman historians, Livy and Tacitus,  give great insight that all libertarians ought to treasure.

Livy wrote volumes on the early history of Rome, though sadly much has been lost to us today.  One of most remarkable tracts was History of Rome.  In the 5th century BC, Rome was still small yet growing, constantly at war with her neighbors, under threats from the likes of the Volscani, Aequi, Veneiti and others.  There was to be a recurring theme: internal strife caused by sharp class divisions temporarily suspended by warfare.

One of the serious early concerns was agrarian reform, which was really tantamount to land redistribution.  Here’s the account of re-elected consul Aemilius and his attempt to curry favor with the plebians:

Aemilius had already in his former consulship advocated the grant of land to the plebeians. As he was now consul for the second time, the agrarian party entertained hopes that the Law would be carried out; the tribunes took the matter up in the firm expectation that after so many attempts they would gain their cause, now that one consul, at all events, was supporting them; the consul’s views on the question remained unchanged. Those in occupation of the land-the majority of the patricians complained that the head of the State was adopting the methods of the tribunes and making himself popular by giving away other people’s property, and in this way they shifted all the odium from the tribunes on to the consul. (3.7)

So, it is not just in modern times that governments use threats of force and distribution of stolen property as a means of ensuring their power.

A few years later, the tribune Terentillus challenged the consul’s authority and urged passage of a law that stipulated that all power of the consuls comes from the people, that the consuls (though they were supposed to adhere to the law, and were by no means “kings”, they still still ruled for the most part by fiat) cannot rule according to their whims.  This would be in essence what we would consider constitutional governance.

Gaius Terentilius Harsa was a tribune of the plebs that year. Thinking that the absence of the consuls afforded a good opportunity for tribunitian agitation, he spent several days in haranguing the plebeians on the overbearing arrogance of the patricians. In particular he inveighed against the authority of the consuls as excessive and intolerable in a free commonwealth, for whilst in name it was less invidious, in reality it was almost more harsh and oppressive than that of the kings had been, for now, he said, they had two masters instead of one, with uncontrolled, unlimited powers, who, with nothing to curb their licence, directed all the threats and penalties of the laws against the plebeians. To prevent this unfettered tyranny from lasting for ever, he said he would propose an enactment that a commission of five should be appointed to draw up in writing the laws which regulated the power of the consuls. Whatever jurisdiction over themselves the people gave the consul, that and that only was he to exercise; he was not to regard his own licence and caprice as law. (3.8)

To put down the threat of losing power, as is the case with modern governments as well, to what ends did the consuls turn?

The following year the new consuls, P. Volumnius and Ser. Sulpicius, were confronted by the proposed law of Terentilius, which was now brought forward by the whole college of tribunes. During the year, the sky seemed to be on fire; there was a great earthquake; an ox was believed to have spoken–the year before this rumour found no credence. Amongst other portents it rained flesh, and an enormous number of birds are said to have seized it while they were flying about; what fell to the ground lay about for several days without giving out any bad smell. The Sibylline Books were consulted by the `duumviri,’ and a prediction was found of dangers which would result from a gathering of aliens, attempts on the highest points of the City and consequent bloodshed. Amongst other notices, there was a solemn warning to abstain from all seditious agitations. The tribunes alleged that this was done to obstruct the passing of the Law, and a desperate conflict seemed imminent.

As though to show how events revolve in the same cycle year by year, the Hernici reported that the Volscians and Aequi, in spite of their exhaustion, were equipping fresh armies. Antium was the centre of the movement; the colonists of Antium were holding public meetings in Ecetra, the capital, and the main strength of the war. On this information being laid before the senate, orders were given for a levy. The consuls were instructed to divide the operations between them; the Volscians were to be the province of the one, the Aequi of the other. The tribunes, even in face of the consuls, filled the Forum with their shouts, declaring that the story of a Volscian war was a prearranged comedy, the Hernici had been prepared beforehand for the part they were to play; the liberties of the Roman were not being repressed by straightforward opposition, but were being cunningly fooled away. It was impossible to persuade them that the Volscians and Aequi, after being almost exterminated, could themselves commence hostilities; a new enemy, therefore, was being sought for; a colony which had been a loyal neighbour was being covered with infamy. It was against the unoffending people of Antium that war was declared; it was against the Roman plebs that war was really being waged. After loading them with arms they would drive them in hot haste out of the City, and wreak their vengeance on the tribunes by sentencing their fellow-citizens to banishment. By this means–they might be quite certain–the Law would be defeated; unless, while the question was still undecided, and they were still at home, still unenrolled, they took steps to prevent their being ousted from their occupation of the City, and forced under the yoke of servitude. If they showed courage, help would not be wanting, the tribunes were unanimous. There was no cause for alarm; no danger from abroad. The gods had taken care, the previous year, that their liberties should be safely protected.


Next we turn to Tacitus and his examination of early Imperial Rome in his Annals.  During the reign of Tiberius, Rome was wealthy and powerful.  It’s senators basked in ostentatious wealth and grandeur and governed with almost unlimited power.  The emperors ruled by dictate and lived in palaces that would make the Bourbons jealous.  Intrigue at the royal court was a game of intense rivalry and violence.

In this passage, Tacitus displays brilliant insight into the degrading of the human condition that state largesse has.

He [Tiberius] also increased the incomes of some of the Senators. Hence it was the more surprising that he listened somewhat disdainfully to the request of Marcus Hortalus, a youth of noble rank in conspicuous poverty. He was the grandson of the orator Hortensius, and had been induced by Augustus, on the strength of a gift of a million sesterces, to marry and rear children, that one of our most illustrious families might not become extinct. Accordingly, with his four sons standing at the doors of the Senate House, the Senate then sitting in the palace, when it was his turn to speak he began to address them as follows, his eyes fixed now on the statue of Hortensius which stood among those of the orators, now on that of Augustus:- “Senators, these whose numbers and boyish years you behold I have reared, not by my own choice, but because the emperor advised me. At the same time, my ancestors deserved to have descendants. For myself, not having been able in these altered times to receive or acquire wealth or popular favour, or that eloquence which has been the hereditary possession of our house, I was satisfied if my narrow means were neither a disgrace to myself nor burden to others. At the emperor’s bidding I married. Behold the offspring and progeny of a succession of consuls and dictators. Not to excite odium do I recall such facts, but to win compassion. While you prosper, Caesar, they will attain such promotion as you shall bestow. Meanwhile save from penury the great-grandsons of Quintus Hortensius, the foster-children of Augustus.”

The Senate’s favourable bias was an incitement to Tiberius to offer prompt opposition, which he did in nearly these words:- “If all poor men begin to come here and to beg money for their children, individuals will never be satisfied, and the State will be bankrupt. Certainly our ancestors did not grant the privilege of occasionally proposing amendments or of suggesting, in our turn for speaking, something for the general advantage in order that we might in this house increase our private business and property, thereby bringing odium on the Senate and on emperors whether they concede or refuse their bounty. In fact, it is not a request, but an importunity, as utterly unreasonable as it is unforeseen, for a senator, when the house has met on other matters, to rise from his place and, pleading the number and age of his children, put a pressure on the delicacy of the Senate, then transfer the same constraint to myself, and, as it were, break open the exchequer, which, if we exhaust it by improper favouritism, will have to be replenished by crimes. Money was given you, Hortalus, by Augustus, but without solicitation, and not on the condition of its being always given. Otherwise industry will languish and idleness be encouraged, if a man has nothing to fear, nothing to hope from himself, and every one, in utter recklessness, will expect relief from others, thus becoming useless to himself and a burden to me.

These and like remarks, though listened to with assent by those who make it a practice to eulogise everything coming from sovereigns, both good and bad, were received by the majority in silence or with suppressed murmurs. Tiberius perceived it, and having paused a while, said that he had given Hortalus his answer, but that if the senators thought it right, he would bestow two hundred thousand sesterces on each of his children of the male sex. The others thanked him; Hortalus said nothing, either from alarm or because even in his reduced fortunes he clung to his hereditary nobility. Nor did Tiberius afterwards show any pity, though the house of Hortensius sank into shameful poverty. (Book II)

Does this sound all too familiar?  State diversion of resources, stealing property, and the end result: industry will languish.

Thucydides repeated throughout that “human nature being what it is…” and Livy wrote “Human nature, however, does not change…”  Greek tragedies have a familiar theme: a man, full of hubris, thinks he can do no wrong.  Filled with this, he sets about in pursuit of goals believing the he alone has the power to alter and transcend reality.  In the end, the nemesis appears, their hamartia or fatal flaw is revealed, the man becomes chastened, and ate’, the final fall occurs.

We are living today in a rebirth of Greek tragedy and Roman history.  We have leaders filled with such hubris, that they alone can reorder the economy and only through their wisdom can we be saved.  They believe that through bailouts, theft, redistribution, stimulus, printing money, and other acts of destruction, that a better end will result.

Obama’s fall is soon.  And does not this attitude resemble the entirety of Keyenesian and Monetarist economic ideas.  Just leave the economy to the wise masters, let them print the money, prime the pump, nationalize industries, inflate the currency, lower interest rates, and all will be well.  No market could possibly arrange and allocate resources nearly as well.

Except that it does.

And at the same time we are undergoing the greatest act of theft and stealing of others’ property in or nation’s history.  And to distract the nation, we get “enemies”: doctors who perform unnecessary procedures, protestors who simply wish to stop the theft, Fox is not a real news network (because it won’t repeat the party line), anyone who disagrees with the administration is racist, more escalation of wars, and  enshrinement and institutionalizing of destruction of liberty.

Does our senate today resemble the august deliberative body of a republic, or a corrupt institution of an empire?

The ancients provided the wisdom for us to learn from.  It’s time we do.


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