“Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic, madam – if you can keep it.”
This well-known exchange between Benjamin Franklin and Mrs. Eliza Powel has gotten quite a bit of attention recently, circulating on social media and in the news. Americans have become increasingly aware of the fragility of our republic—how vulnerable it is to ignorance, fear, and violence. Franklin’s words from more than 200 years ago speak poignantly to the political upheaval we find ourselves in today.
The good doctor’s insight, though true, was not original. It was a sentiment many shared throughout history, including the founders of our republic and the framers of our Constitution. All of the men who helped to shape the American order well understood how susceptible their chosen system was to corruption and decay, and they understood this because they were students of ancient history.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of many of today’s leaders. Classics, having lost its erstwhile position of importance in pre-college curricula, has been relegated to the ivory tower of academia (when it is lucky enough to survive the knife of philistine administrators). Yet a cursory scroll through one’s newsfeed is sufficient proof that events from two millennia ago, just as those from two centuries ago, still have much insight to offer us. One such event is the Battle of Actium, which took place on September 2, 31 B.C.
The Battle’s Setting: Civil War
That early September battle, fought in the Ionian Sea off of Epirus in Greece, marked the final gasp of the Roman Republic. Although the republican form of government had been in crisis for decades, this clash between Mark Antony and Octavian, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son, laid it fully and finally to rest.
Throughout the century, Rome had been ravaged by civil war due to economic unrest and the rise of strong-man generals in control of formidable private armies. Matters came to a head in the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. Antony and Octavian worked as partners in the so-called Second Triumvirate, waging war against Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius, defeating them decisively at the Battle of Philippi in Macedonia in 42 B.C.
But by 33 B.C., as eminent historian H.H. Scullard recounts in “From the Gracchi to Nero,” the Second Triumvirate had run its course, and Mark Antony and Octavian were in open conflict, with Antony allied with his lover Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. In 32 B.C., as both consuls for the year, along with more than 300 senators, joined Antony’s forces, and the conflict reached a boiling point in 31, when the forces of Antony and of Octavian, now consul himself, met in Greece.
[Read the rest of the article here.]
[The article was originally posted at The Federalist on September 2, 2017.]