The Legacy of Rome

Rome was the greatest thing that ever existed on the face of the Earth. Of this, I am convinced.

I’m become fascinated with Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome. This book is incredible.

A few nights ago, I was reading about how Gaius Marius first received Cornelius Sylla, one grey morning, amidst his clients. This was a full decade before Sylla became his future archenemy and long before they became the protagonists of Rome’s first civil war.

Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sylla. Might vs. Luck! Who won?

But before I get to the point, I must reveal a few things about the notion of client as entertained by the Romans. A funny thing this Roman custom of clientship. It has always been an organic one, and although now we have different names for it, ranging from mentor-mentee to the relation existing between a rich person and a poorer one, it respects the laws of nature.

Cesare Maccari (1840–1919), Cicero Denounces Catiline (1889), fresco, 400 x 900 cm, Palazzo Madama, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In nature as in society there are powerful people and then there are people who lacking power have cultivated other merits instead. Intellect, ambition, passion, beauty, devotion, loyalty, love, all can serve as currency in a skewed relation between someone who has everything except for power and money, and that someone who does.

In Rome, this relationship was based on the clientelism principle. Basically, a powerful man, be that a rich man or an influential patrician, would have a ‘court’ of followers who he called clients.

These clients would show up each morning before sunrise at his door, begging to be admitted to his presence in the hope of eliciting some form of assistance (money, influence, political support , legal aid, etc). In exchange for these, the supplicants would become his clients and owe him loyalty, fidelity and obeisance.

The patron would command then a mass, a political mass of people, who would be required to cast their votes, fight to protect him, accompany him to the Forum on a good or a bad day, at little or great personal peril to their lives.

Cicero’s Oration against Catiline in the Senate by Andrew Gusev.

My mind wandered at this point in time into the future, coming closer to the present day by five, six, even seven hundred years. I had just realized that what the Romans had going for them in Antiquity, they managed to bequeath to the Middle Ages in the form of the seigneurial and feudal system of political-military allegiance.

How bizarre that I did not think of this before?!

How odd that I did not see the clear uninterrupted connection between white draped toga wearing Roman patricians and their nominal ‘courts’ of roving clients and the early medieval seigneurs who had retreated to their latifundia in the rural areas of the late Empire, creating or bringing with them the seeds of clientship.

For what difference is there between the old Roman way of clientship and the feudal way of becoming your lord’s man and promising to serve him loyally when called upon, in return for land and protection?! The only one I can think about is land changing hands. But that is actually a normal occurrence given the demonetization of the Late Empire and early to mid-Middle Ages.

And what’s even much more impressive is how quickly modernity has seen fit to steal that page from History, write in a different character to play the role of the patron and make clients out of all of us.

That new character’s name is Government. And the name of the game is social security, the dole, social insurance, social aid, you name it, for it doesn’t matter.

The State has examined the merits of keeping the proletariat happy, and since keeping them happy is a costly proposition, what started as a distribution of wheat, games, and money, or the famous panes et circenses, to the poor, has now become a staple of our day and age.

The deleterious effects of such policies had already been denounced by patricians and optimates and responsible members of the populares party in Ancient Rome, 2,100 years ago.

A general tendency of the recipients to beg instead of finding gainful employment, the moral decay and the ethical depravity engendered by the state legally buying off social peace took almost no time to spell the doom of the Roman Republic.

Interesting enough instead of taking heed of History’s lessons, nowadays Government has created a so-called social net that is supposed to catch all those whose improvidence or bad luck has waylaid.

But what was intended, at least on the surface, to safeguard society from the accidents of market economy and capitalistic setbacks, has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For, as it happened before, people will seldom choose in life the path of resistance, preferring thus a life of ease to one of hardship. This is why a vast portion of all societies will rather beg or feel entitled to receive, instead of working to better themselves.

For why work, spend your waking hours in toil and labour, exposed to risks, taking chances, for trivial rewards, when you can lounge and bask in the sun at the expense of public treasure?!

Of all the historical lessons that could have been retrieved from the majesty of our past, the State had to pick this one?!

That begs the question of the true nature of the social contract. What is the role of government in this defective relationship? Purveyor and enabler of an immoral state of dissolution? Are we, citizens, all seen as potential “clients” of the state, or is the modern term of wards more appropriate to our context?!

Are we rendered so infantile that we see ourselves as louts, loungers, and do-nothings that we encourage State to regard us as subjects who deserve its patronage, instead of citizens with rights and responsibilities?!

Correct me if I’m mistaken. But aren’t we supposed to have a legal binding contract with the State, one that dissolves our allegiance to It whenever It fails to meet its obligations?!

Are we so morally defective and mentally incapacitated that we see ourselves as unable or unworthy of making a life for ourselves outside the protection and benefaction of our Guardian and Lord Protector, the Almighty State?!

Can we not see that one day soon we will be perceived as an indolent mass that requires neither social protection or economic assistance given that nothing may come of nothing?!

Has anybody stopped to think for a minute what would come of us if everybody stopped working?! Could the vast machinery of state be supplied by idle hands? Who would help who if nobody worked?!

Can we not see the writing on the wall that if we make it another century, our parasitical existence will become a burden to the State?! Because the State is all of us, and the only way some of us can get a break in times of need is if all of us work hard while the sun is shining and the hay is making.

The fact that our misguided sense of entitlement is growing exponentially, and that government has started to quench that unquenchable appetite for more state intervention, using their fiat money printing machines at full throttle, leaves me very apprehensive indeed.

It seems as though we learned nothing from history. For we are rushing with reckless abandon towards the precipice of our downfall.

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