The glory that goes with wealth is fleeting and fragile; virtue is a possession glorious and eternal.
Because the Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years, America’s Founding Fathers looked to it for lessons on how to create a nation that could endure for centuries. Much of our constitutional theory was directly borrowed from the ancient Roman republic as can be seen in the personal writings of the Founders and formative publications like the Federalist Papers.
Many of the Enlightenment’s greatest philosophers and politicians, including the Founding Fathers, studied Roman history for clues as to why strong nations ultimately decline. One of the most famous of these theories is called the “Punic Curse”. It got its name from the Third Punic War when the famous Roman general, Scipio, destroyed Rome’s chief rival. Upon razing Carthage in 146 B.C., Scipio turned to an accompanying philosopher and with tears predicted a similar fate for Rome. For when Rome’s main foe was vanquished, Scipio knew that the commercialization of Roman society would proceed without constraints, causing a fatal decline in founding virtues. In fact, with Rome’s security assured for the time being, the unleashed merchant culture undermined Roman character as explained by the Roman philosopher, Sallust:
Fear of enemies preserved the good morals of the state. But when the people were relieved of this fear, the favorite vices of prosperity—license and pride—appeared as a natural consequence. Thus the peace and quiet which they had longed for in time of adversity proved, when they had obtained it, to be even more grievous than the adversity. For the leaders started to use their positions, and the people their liberty, to gratify their selfish passions, every man snatching and seizing what he could for himself. So the whole community was split into political parties, and the republic, which hitherto had been the common interest of all, was torn asunder.
This “Punic Curse” was fundamentally caused by Rome’s newfound luxury undermining its traditional values of frugality, discipline, and patriotism. Aristocrats, who originally tied their fates to the moral fabric of society, now sought profit at any cost, including the corruption of politicians, moneylenders, tax collectors, and magistrates. At the same time, common citizens abandoned the countryside and flooded into the city searching for an easier life. As generations passed, Rome’s leaders tried to purchase support from the poor urban masses with extensive (and sometimes frivolous) public works, free food, and philanthropic services. But the treasury could pay for these expensive programs only by increasing taxes on farms, making life artificially easier in the cities and more difficult in the countryside, whereas the opposite condition historically helped maintain Rome’s virtuous core. Thus, farmers, the traditional bastions of the republic, grew to resent an increasingly urbanized society.
As the social fabric of Rome fractured, so too did its republican government. Around 130 B.C., an antagonistic two-party system took shape inside the Senate, which had long been the republic’s seat of power. The Optimates, also known as The Best of Men, held firm control over the Senate as conservative defenders of tradition and moderation, while the Populares were the out-of-power party which incited urban unrest to gain political leverage. Despite their name, the Populares were not commoners themselves, but wealthy politicians advancing their own political agenda by posing as champions of the people.
Based upon his famous study of how governments degenerate, historian Polybius saw the manifestations of the Punic Curse as symptomatic of a cyclic process taking hold in Rome. He observed that when a state “attains supremacy and uncontested sovereignty, it is evident that under the influence of long-established prosperity, life will become extravagant and the citizens overly fierce in their rivalry regarding office and other objects of desire.” He predicted that Rome’s “change for the worse will be due first to the love of political office . . . and second to extravagance and proud displays of personal wealth.” Sallust later extolled those earlier times when “virtue was held in high esteem,” “avarice was a thing almost unknown,” and justice was “upheld not so much by law as by natural instinct.” Sallust honored early Romans as better citizens who combined “boldness in war with fair dealing when peace was restored.” But all that changed, he lamented, after Rome emerged as the lone superpower:
To the men who had so easily endured toil and peril, anxiety and adversity, the leisure and riches which are gradually regarded as so desirable proved a burden and a curse. Growing love of money and the lust for power that followed it engendered every kind of evil. Avarice destroyed honor, integrity, and every other virtue, and instead taught men to be proud and cruel, to neglect religion, and to hold nothing too sacred to sell. Ambition tempted many to be false, to have one thought hidden in their hearts, another ready on their tongues, to become a man’s friend or enemy not because they judged him worthy or unworthy but because they thought it would pay . . . . Poverty was now looked on as a disgrace and a blameless life as a form of mental disorder. Riches made the younger generation prey to luxury, avarice, and pride. Honor and modesty, all laws divine and human, were alike disregarded in a spirit of recklessness and intemperance.”
Several decades later the young historian Titus Livy lead the intellectual charge against Rome’s moral decline from the Punic Curse. In his books, he asked fellow Romans to understand what caused “the decay of national character.” Livy reiterated that “wealth has brought avarice in its train, and the unlimited command of pleasure has created in men a passion for ruining themselves and everything else through self-indulgence and licentiousness.” (125, 243) He blamed Romans themselves for bringing vice to their city:
Rome was originally, when it was poor and small, a unique example of austere virtue; then it corrupted, it spoiled, it rotted itself by all the vices; so, little by little, we have been brought into the present condition in which we are able neither to tolerate the evils from which we suffer, nor the remedies we need to cure them.
Another trend accompanying the precipitous move toward corrupt rule was the feminization of Roman culture and its effect upon character. This factor is best understood by recognizing that “virtue” has its root from the Latin word vir, meaning “male human being,” and its derivative virtus, which signifies “manliness, valor, and excellence.” This linkage of manliness with moral excellence was natural to the Roman mind that embraced courage above all other virtues. Like most participants in classical cultures, Romans recognized that the masculine qualities of power, bravery, and aggression were needed for their fledgling communities to survive, but the security and wealth that came with superpower status allowed the feminine traits of pleasure, art, and flexibility to undermine stern masculine rule. And nothing better quantifies this feminizing trend than the declining number of Roman citizens serving as its soldiers. During the Republic, the Roman army was almost exclusively composed of regular citizens fighting under the leadership of a committed aristocracy. That philosophy continued into early imperial times, but to an ever-lessening degree—the percentage of Italian soldiers conscripted into Rome’s army declined from 65 to 20 percent during the first century, with mercenary troops doing most of the soldiering in their stead. By the second century, the founding belief that Romans earned citizenship by masculine prowess displayed on battlefields had become an anachronism.
With all of the Punic Curse’s effects contributing to Rome’s decline in dramatic ways, a traditionalist movement emerged during the first decade of Augustus’ rule to try to reestablish old-time order. Frightened by the possibility of civil wars incited by unchecked populism revolting against a corrupt upper class, Romans yearned for the simpler life of early Rome as documented in Livy’s History of Rome—which was hugely popular across the Empire. A new party formed to reverse the decline of Rome’s founding spirit and reintroduce ethical standards into politics and culture. This party, with Augustus as its vanguard, stirred up public support until, in 18 B.C., it forced the Senate to pass social laws regulating luxury, matrimony, and even appropriate dress. With these initiatives enacted, Augustus and his partner the Senate tried to remake by legislation what philosophy could not achieve by using reason—the waning virtues of the now-dead aristocratic era. Without a core belief system to serve as a guide, party politics easily undermined any moral direction, and the Empire could rely only upon uninspired bureaucratic power to sustain it. By the second century A.D., the country that had been built by an aristocracy committed to cultivating virtues was reduced to a cosmopolitan bureaucracy composed of clever dilettantes, corrupt politicians, and unprincipled lawyers.
In the ethical vacuum of this period, citizens enjoyed the benefits of a wealthy empire but lacked a coherent belief system to motivate them. For what was lost with the fracturing soul of Rome was the magic that rallied its people, regardless of class, toward a common vision. Throughout its republican history, even Rome’s poorest citizens were proud of possessing something that transcended their all-too-short lives—a sentiment strong enough to alleviate the crushing hardship of poverty. This sustained the republic through her direst times, an aspiration of inestimable value. For her first five hundred years, declaring oneself “Roman” was to announce allegiance to a better way.
In 1935, historian Will Durant wrote in his Story of Civilization the observation:
It is almost a law of history that the same wealth that generates a civilization announces its decay. For wealth produces ease . . . it softens a people to the ways of luxury and peace, and invites invasion from stronger arms and hungrier mouths.
Do you think that America suffers from the Punic Curse?
There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
- John Adams
The Punic Curse