For thousands of years, people have written about the Roman Republic, how it achieved its empire, and why it collapsed. Scholars of each generation have specialized in different aspects of Rome’s republic. Modern scholars tend to focus on laws, institutions, power structures, and the geographical and historical circumstances that made the Roman Republic so successful. In the writing of my book, Killing for the Republic: Citizen-Soldiers and the Roman Way of War, I was indebted to these scholars, many of whom knew far more about their particular topic than I do. However, I have also noticed that it is currently out of fashion to consider the spiritual and moral fabric that bound the Roman Republic together.
This is perhaps part of a broader trend that downplays the public life of the spirit. Eric Voegelin opened his epic, eight-volume History of Political Ideas with the conviction that beliefs create a political people. Political units are evoked when convictions are articulated in language and linguistic symbols. In a modern age obsessed with legal systems, formal declarations, and political institutions, Voegelin argued that such things were secondary. Ideas make laws; myths create nations. A constitutional order does not constitute a people, it is itself created by ideas.
So what ideas animated Rome? We have very little hard textual evidence about the early years of the Roman Republic, but by the time a traceable historical record surfaces in the late 3rd and early 2nd century, the Roman Republic had emerged as a culture of public service and sacrifice. Like all ancient peoples, the Romans could behave viciously. They held slaves, sometimes broke agreements, and became increasingly militaristic as a people. However, unlike other ancient peoples, they also created a set of superior civic mores that would be extended abroad through means both peaceful and violent.
Those writers who lived during and immediately after the Republic all tell this story in their own ways. When you read such accounts about the Roman Republic—from Cicero, Livy, Polybius, and Plutarch in particular—they all agree that although Rome could be defeated in battle, it created an unbeatable civic culture that even their enemies learned to appreciate.
This started organically in the citizen-soldier’s home, where young men and women were habituated to honor their ancestral gods, work hard on the farm, represent family traditions in public, and serve the broader republican community. Men were expected to be fierce and independent defenders of their farm and their republic, hence the Roman obsession with dueling and a tendency to mutiny. But this was balanced by a complementary stress on order, discipline, and hierarchy, which, again, began with the authority of the father and the mother as heads of the household. Sons and daughters should sacrifice for their republic because they were taught that familial and communal honor were more important than individual glory.
The Romans appreciated this kind of tension, which is why their republic was the first to master checks and balances in its constitution. The Roman use of collegiality, term limits, age requirements, and a mixed government of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy was deeply studied by early modern founders of republics in places like northern Italy and the United States.
It is interesting to note when Cicero or Livy, who loved Roman republican ideals, exonerate or censure the Romans. Sometimes they justify or whitewash a Roman atrocity, but even more striking is when these authors pause a historical narrative to explain how the Romans themselves failed to live up to their own ideals.
This tendency is more pronounced in their accounts of the Roman Republic’s fall. Polybius predicted the decline of Roman civic virtue, Sallust and Cicero lived during its dying days, and Livy somberly reflected on a political culture that had died. But they never dismiss the public life of the spirit. These authors believed Roman civic virtue was what bound its unique constitution together, what allowed them to absorb devastating military defeats, what encouraged conquered peoples to be absorbed by and fight for Rome, and what produced a culture that demanded service and sacrifice from its leaders. From the moment they were born, Roman citizens were habituated to exhibit civic virtue. Augustine of Hippo, who was sometimes the Romans’ harshest critic, still said they earned their empire by exhibiting virtue better than all their neighbors.
So why does this matter today? I wrote Killing for the Republic because I fear my own republic is watching the disintegration of its own public life of the spirit. Citizens are routinely habituated to view politics cynically. We are also tempted to behave selfishly—to pursue our own economic benefit at the cost of others and to become an activist based on an identity of our own choosing. The classical liberal order is pushing individualism to extremes that make republican harmony impossible, which is why understanding a premodern republic’s virtues is so valuable right now. It is time to be reminded of the successes and failures of a republic whose understanding of civic virtue propelled it to greatness in its own day and then inspired the republics of our own time.
Steele Brand is an assistant professor of history at The King's College and a former US Army tactical intelligence officer. He is the author of Killing for the Republic: Citizen-Soldiers and the Roman Way of War.