There Will Be Blood: Beware the Ides of March!
His immortal cry of betrayal echoes today from 2065 years ago: "And you, too, Brutus!"
The long knives that felled Caesar finally finished the fall of the Roman Republic, the Liberator’s Civil War, and ushered in the age of the Principate, and an empire that stayed unbroken for 1200 years.
Rome was a stratified society, and the iron customs of its constitution brooked no civil violence. But by the later second century, Roman imperialism had assimilated the entire Italian peninsula, conquered Macedonia, Spain, Algeria, and Southern France. Roman society was stressed out by the unequal outcomes of imperialism. The ordinary citizen who fought Rome’s wars was being left behind while a globalized elite raked in the super-Croesan booty of world conquest. Such massive, head-spinning shifts in wealth inequality cried out for reform.
Yet what the republic received was a populist surge that the beneficiaries — the Optimates, the fabled Yuppie class of Rome — would not abide. Hence, the people’s leaders — the Gracchi Brothers — were in short order brutally murdered, along with hundreds of their followers.
This is important: Rome’s ancient taboo on civil violence had held for nearly 400 years. Then, in what amounts to an historical instant, the fasces that had for centuries been the enforcer of political restraint became instead the fasces of bloody license. Such suddenly authorized mayhem (and authorized by the elite!) became the new precedent for doing political business, for settling scores, and for just winning, baby.
So after the brutal slaying of Tiberius and Gaius, and their followers, the winner in each new power struggle did not — could not — shy away from the lure of the blood purge. Indeed, the presentation of dominance and submission became more eagerly embraced with each gruesome civil repetition.
Moreover, the seductive allure of the political blood purge just grew bigger and bigger. The lesson: Once extreme and violent ritual is ratified by the powers that be — promising political finality to the club-wielders — the option is not only activated: It becomes absolutely irresistible. Moreover, the rewards in activating this potion will always be greater by far than the risks: Especially if the initial precedents succeed. Hence, the very act of establishing a new regime's legitimacy required the violent (and bloody) overthrow of its precedent.
This is where we get the term-of-art Damnatio memoriae — where the very memory of the old regime was literally erased: The faces on murals, the names on inscriptions, the very heads on statues. To Constantine, 26 emperors were so erased from public memory; 25 in contrast, were deified after death. How much more satisfying the tangible finality of this sort of regime change — and how perfectly consecrated by the Twitter/Facebook damnatio memoriae ban on dead named Emperor Trump!
So this is the first consequence of regime change — and constitutional change — through ritual blood violence: Violence itself takes on higher authority. In other words, a shift in rule is not truly authoritative until it is consecrated through violence. Attaining legitimacy itself requires the ritual enactment of violent, bloody overthrow. In other words, the true transfer of power is not fully etched in stone until the anointed replaces the incumbent in violent ceremony.
But it gets worse.
Creating an expectation that true changes in the constitutional order must be accompanied by violent political ceremony, not only makes such blood ritual necessary to the workings of the constitutional system, it makes violence an integral and seamless part of the constitutional order itself.
Moreover, the evolution of political ceremony creates a terrifying expectation: That for political change and the transfer of power to be fully embraced by people and elites alike, there must be blood. Blood is the seal, the imprimatur, the license to celebrate a new order.
We see this so clearly in the great saga of France.
For France, the blood-bathed violence of First Regime change and political succession by revolution meant that future big transfers of power would be fully legitimated only if accompanied by equally violent — and bloody — ritual constitutional transformations:
Jacobin to conservative revolution: The fall of Robspierre
Republic to Empire: The Coup of 18 Brumaire — Year VIII — hurtles France on a different path, that of Napoleon.
Bourbon to Constitutional Monarchy: The July revolution of 1830
Louis Philippe to 2nd Republic: The February Revolution of 1848
Republic to the 2nd Empire: The Coup d’état of 1851
Louis Napoleon to 3rd Republic: The Government of National Defense, first regime of the Third Republic.
Republic to Praetorian Vichy: Petain, Principate Puppet.
Liberation to 4th Republic: Provisional Government of the Republic.
Colonial war to 5th Republic: Organisation Armée Secrète and the painful rebirth of the French nation.
Imagine if you would the implications of a national saga punctuated at every decisive stage by the sanguine battles of revolutionary politics. Each of these constitutional transformations was legitimated in violence and blood.
Yet France is not Ancient Rome: This is our comrade country, our compatriot-in-arms, our bosom republic — yet observe how effortlessly History records for it an arc of republican progress punctuated by battle and blood. The first revolutionary struggle imprinted the deep necessity of violent political ritual on the genetic motherboard of the nation: so that revolutionary violence became the cause celebre of French political identity.
Remember, we are brother republics, America and France. We were essentially born together; we certainly share democratic paternity and fraternity. Yet the French branch grew in a very different way, so we tell ourselves. They became seduced by Les Barricades, by the drug of la résistance. We like to reassure ourselves that we have taken a different path.
But have we? As did perfervid Roman Optimates, we plunged into bloody violence in the houses of Congress itself: Not on 6 January, 2021, but again and again in the late 1850s, before the nation exploded into existential civil war.
Two takeaways from history's Iron Code. First, from Rome: Violent and highly-ritualized change in the constitutional order, once coded into national DNA, takes over and becomes the dominant model of authoritative regime change.
Second, from France: Once violence and blood becomes celebrated as the glorious and authentic representation of such change, it forever becomes the sought-after gold standard of political legitimacy.
In America, Blue’s impassioned embrace of la résistance after 2016 has all the hazy dispensation of Victor Hugo, cinematically reassembled for the nostalgic yearning hearts of Blue revolutionaries “of all ages.”
We may deny what is happening, with as much noise as we can muster, but the constitutional order of the United States of America is hooked now on the ceremonial fix, and the exhilarating, ratifying high, of violent political ceremony. The lady doth protest too much over 6 January, and yet has not a word for now-sanctified “protests” that are actually the sacramental blessing of violent, bloody riots in pursuit of political squeeze.
Rioting and mayhem are now seeded like burrowing parasites into our constitutional DNA. Furthermore we, as self-blinded observers, are not well placed to interpret the sanctioned havoc that is our political future.
Just wait, and watch.