A Pandemic Survival Lesson From Ancient Rome

By Cliff Ennico

May 12, 2020 7 min read

As a lifelong student of history and philosophy (my two college majors), I always look for the bigger picture when following events in the news.

While many history-minded commentators are comparing the COVID-19 pandemic to previous epidemiological disasters, such as the bubonic plague pandemic, which devastated Europe in the 1350s, or the Great Plague that devastated London in 1665-1666, not so many have looked for historical antecedents to the (almost) unprecedented intrusion of government into our lives the past few weeks.

Make no mistake about it. Whatever your views of democratic socialism, it is what we are all living now. Government, believing (in good faith, let it be said) that it is acting in our best interests, is now telling us who can leave their homes, who stays indoors, how many people are allowed in a supermarket at one time, what we wear when we do go outdoors or get our hair cut — micromanaging our lives in ways few of us would have tolerated before the pandemic.

It is also a sad commentary on world events that authoritarian governments such as those of China and Russia are doing a better job of managing the pandemic than democratic, market-oriented governments (one outlier being Belarus, whose dictator-for-life has chosen to keep his economy open on the theory that it is "better to die on your feet than live on your knees").

One of the inconvenient truths of human history is that while democracy is "the worst form of government, except for all the others" (Winston S. Churchill), in times of crisis, nothing beats top-down, military-style autocracy.

The ancient Romans knew this better than anyone.

In the earliest days of the Roman Republic (roughly 500 B.C. to 50 B.C.), Rome was governed by a "senate" that made and enforced the laws (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Republic). Unlike today's legislative bodies, the senate was not popularly elected but rather consisted of representatives of the wealthiest and most influential families (or clans) in the region surrounding Rome — an oligarchy, if you will, not a democracy.

The senate elected two of its members (called "duovirs" or "consul") to perform the executive functions of government for two-year periods. Term limits for the consuls were "de rigeur" — rarely did they serve consecutive terms — and although senators generally served for as long as they wanted to, they were subject to removal if they engaged in improper or illegal behavior.

During peacetime, the senate system of government worked well enough. What's really interesting about the system is what happened during periods of crisis, such as Hannibal's invasion of Italy in the early second century B.C. or the Social Wars of the early first century B.C.

When Rome was threatened, the Senate suspended government as usual and appointed one of its members — the one with the most and best military experience — to serve during the crisis as sole ruler with virtually dictatorial powers. This individual was called the "imperator" — literally, "emergency person" (see the Wikipedia page for imperator) — and this is probably where the word "emperor" originated.

During its 500-year existence, the republic appointed an imperator on about a dozen occasions — some of the best known are Cincinnatus (after whom Cincinnati, Ohio, is named) and Scipio Africanus (the guy who whipped Hannibal and the Carthaginians about 200 B.C.). And each time — here is the truly amazing thing — the "imperator" voluntarily handed power back to the Senate when the crisis passed and government as usual could resume.

The fact that for nearly 500 years, none of these individuals chose to make their emergency powers permanent and become a dictator for life is a tribute to the moral values the Roman system of education instilled in its young people. This system ended, as every student of history knows, when a wild and crazy imperator named Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., broke with tradition and appointed himself "dictator perpetuo" at the head of a huge army, ending the republic and giving birth to the Roman Empire. A couple of years later, he took a couple dozen daggers in the back, showing that old traditions die hard.

Probably the greatest weakness of democratic government is that it is slow to react in times of emergency. By its nature, democracy relies on the consensus of the governed, and consensus takes time to build. When a democratic system works the way it should, government is restrained from taking action (and is sometimes gridlocked) until a sizable majority of citizens determines that action is appropriate (and is willing to pay the price for such action).

Many intelligent, highly educated people are looking at the way China and Russia have dealt with the coronavirus and are wondering if an authoritarian system is a superior way to deal with pandemics, climate change and other emerging threats to our safety that require long-term planning.

This is nothing new — the intelligentsia were similarly impressed by Soviet Russia and fascist Italy during the Great Depression of the 1930s and predicted democracy's obsolescence. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

The ancient Romans got it right — imperators have power only until the crisis passes. Patrick Henry got it right — give us liberty, or give us death.

Heck, even the dictator of Belarus got it right.

Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: LoggaWiggler at Pixabay

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