PART XIII: PAST AS PROLOGUE?
Never mind that censorship and stifling of free speech, which Augustus engaged in in earnest, was a price of this Roman order. That wealth and power continued to be gathered to a smaller and smaller oligarchy until the emperor had nearly become a self-styled god. That the privatization and professionalization of the Roman army created a permanent breach between soldier and civilian, elevating the former at the expense of the latter. That the role of an emperor as absolute ruler largely discouraged anything resembling peaceful transfer of power once an emperor died. That in the power struggle that inevitably followed the death of an emperor, the army itself became a force for major destabilization and chaos that helped deal a fatal blow to Roman civilization.
Rome ultimately had no one to blame for the death of its republic other than its own feckless representatives. The Senate, divided, short-sighted and crippled by self-interest, proved itself unworthy of the task of managing a far-flung empire, and paid the price. But did it have to fail? Did a body politic founded in freedom and dedicated in principle to the will of its citizens have to become so dysfunctional and broken that autocratic rule seemed like a blessing by comparison?
Rome came to a crossroads all rising powers reach, where, having outgrown their initial identity as a state among states, must decide what kind of power they must be. It is a question of cui bono: who benefits? A rise in power comes with a significant increase of wealth, and for the lawmakers controlling access to it, the temptation is powerful, almost irresistible, to funnel it upward. Divisions arise, class differences widen. The common good becomes less and less for the benefit of the common. Resentment flares. Parts of a society start to see other parts as a threat for wanting what they have, others for being denied what was previously theirs by right. Lines between classes become battle lines, with the Senate House as the battlefield. Representative factions become bitter enemies, no longer looking for a common good but the opportunity to destroy the other.
This happened in Rome. I believe any hope for this to be curtailed, for a new common good to be established, died with the Gracchi. Just my opinion. But it was beyond this point that the rule of law had been so abrogated, so many red lines crossed, so many traditions holding Senatus Populusque Romanus together erased, that men of ambition began taking the law into their own hands.
All empires have this turning point. Hard choices often have to be made to prevent it from turning for the worse. And hard choices are deeply unattractive to even the most self-aware of societies, let alone ones like Rome. I'm sure you're waiting for me to ask "when will our hard choice come?" I hope that is the question, and not "when did we make our choice?"