24 April 2016

What ancient Roman history and ‘elite overproduction’ tell us about near-future doom

Ned Resnikoff

The Roman Republic was decaying long before Julius Caesar marched on the city in 49 B.C. and toppled it for good. One of the pivotal moments in that decay came just three decades earlier, during the brief dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix.

Comparisons between 21st century America and the late republic are a bit of a cliché, and frequently overwrought. But there's one choice Sulla made that has a direct parallel in modern politics.

Although Sulla ruled as dictator for just one year before retiring into private life, he achieved quite a bit. Not only did he butcher thousands of potential rivals, he also instituted sweeping reforms, some of which contributed to the republic's eventual demise. For example, Sulla doubled the size of the Senate, from about 300 men to roughly 600. As Cambridge classics scholar Mary Beard detailed in her recent book "SPQR," this had the side effect of burdening Rome's political system with a bigger elite than it could possibly handle.


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