Learning from History – Marcus Crassus

I have written before about how important the era of Gaius Marius and Lucius Sulla was in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Empire. In his zeal for reform, Marius ignored centuries of Roman law and tradition as he sought to remake the Republic in a more egalitarian fashion. Sulla, on the other hand, sought to return to the old ways, but had to break the rules in order to save them. When Marius used his mobs to oust Sulla, despite the latter’s apparent victory in the consular election, Sulla raised an army, marched on Rome, and made himself dictator. With unlimited power, Sulla was able to restore rule of law to Rome. However, the next generation of Romans did not adhere to the old ways, rather they took from Sulla the lesson that supreme power is found at the point of the spear.

Everyone has heard of Julius Caesar, of course. Caesar was a young protege of Marius who survived Sulla’s proscriptions and whose leadership would bring an end to the Republic once and for all. However, there was another man who survived the wars between Marius and Sulla and without whom Caesar could never have obtained power in the first place, and that is Marcus Crassus. Crassus was on the opposite side of Caesar in the civil wars, and lost much of his family fortune during Marius’ proscriptions. In the aftermath, however, Crassus used every means at his disposal to regain his lost wealth, and more. For example, Crassus started Rome’s first fire brigade. However, this was not an altruistic endeavor, but a moneymaking one. When a fire broke out in the city, Crassus and the brigade would arrive, but rather than putting out the fire they would stand by while Crassus offered a paltry sum to purchase the burning building. If the owner agreed, the brigade would put out the fire and Crassus would generously rent it back to the former owner. If he disagreed, the brigade would stand by and watch it burn to the ground.

Tactics like this soon made Marcus Crassus not only the richest man in Rome, but created a massive system of patronage that he could call upon when needed. Patronage was important in the late Republic. A wealthy patron could call upon his followers to vote for his policies, to attack his opponents, or even to riot upon command. Modern America has a similar system, though few call it what it is. Tammany Hall is an obvious historical example. This organization, founded in the late 1700s in New York City, became a powerful political machine by the late 1800s. Tammany Hall generously assisted New York residents, especially new Irish immigrants, and in return expected that these people would dutifully support politicians selected by Tammany itself. In this way, it exerted near total control of New York politics for nearly a century. Efforts in the early to mid 1900s by then-governor Franklin Roosevelt and future Mayor Fiorello La Guardia eventually stripped the organization of its power.

Political patronage in America today is not as obvious as it was in the past, but it still exists. The Democratic Party uses much of its political power and capital in distributing taxpayer dollars to various interest groups, and in return those groups support Democratic politicians. In Washington state a few years ago, the Democratic legislature and governor passed a law that forced home care workers to become part of the Washington Federation of State Employees, a powerful public-sector union. In doing so, these workers now had to pay union dues, which were then turned around and contributed by the union leadership to Democratic campaigns. You can see how this law was a payoff by politicians to their powerful patrons. The same thing happens on a national level, with racial interest groups, green energy groups, refugee and immigration groups, and more.

With his great wealth, Marcus Crassus was able to exert control over Roman politics. Despite his great power, however, Crassus worried that his influence would be dampened by the military successes of his rivals Caesar and Gneus Pompey. Perhaps to prove his military bona fides, Crassus crushed Spartacus in the Third Servile War and crucified six thousand captured slaved along the main road to Rome. He left their bodies to rot, a reminder to the people of Rome that he too could take decisive action when necessary. (I note that while brutal, this action seemed to have its intended effect; there was no Fourth Servile War.)

Crassus’ power reached its peak shortly after this victory. Rather than ruling Rome outright, he found it more beneficial to be the power behind Caesar’s throne. He financed the younger man’s rise in both the military and the Roman government. Along with Pompey, Crassus and Caesar formed the political alliance known as the First Triumverate. Crassus took the governorship of the rich province of Syria as his portion, but this proved his undoing. In an attempt to expand his power, he was killed in battle with the Persian Parthians. His death ended the Triumverate, as Caesar and Pompey could not get along without Crassus’ moderating influence. It was in the civil war between the two generals that the Roman Republic finally came to an end.

If America is the modern Rome, who is our Crassus? I have already suggested that President Donald Trump is actually our Sulla, the last attempt to return to the rule of law and to our ancient traditions. If anyone resembles Marcus Crassus today it must be former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While Crassus made his fortune with the fire brigade and other real estate schemes, Bloomberg built his upon gaining a monopoly for financial reporting systems used by newspapers. By the time of this writing, Bloomberg’s wealth is estimated to be over $60 billion, which is more than ten times that of Donald Trump before his own run for office.

Michael Bloomberg is apparently willing to spend every last penny to gain as much political power as he can. He become the mayor of America’s largest city as a Republican, following in the footsteps of Rudy Giuliani. He ruled the city as an authoritarian, attacking rising street crime through his controversial stop-and-frisk program. Though constitutionally dubious, the program did significantly reduce crime and violence in the city. He also made headlines for his attempt to ban large sodas in an effort to reduce obesity rates. When the time came for him to step down after two terms, as was the city’s law, he simply ignored it and ran for a third. He got a court to strike down the term limit. He also spent millions to create an anti-gun organization that has been working to restrict 2nd Amendment rights throughout the nation.

Bloomberg has been flirting with the presidency for several years now, but he has apparently decided to go all-in for 2020. Like President Trump, he is running an unorthodox campaign. Unlike Trump, who ran as a populist and connected directly to the voters with his Twitter account and massive rallies, Bloomberg is using his money and patronage to buy as many votes as he can. He donated millions to various political campaigns throughout the country, and in return those victorious politicians have endorsed his run for the White House. Bloomberg originally built his fortune in the newspaper business, and still wields enough control that his papers have been banned from reporting on anything that might hurt his campaign. He has hired campaign staff and social media influencers by offering huge salaries and free food, and has used his influence in the billionaire community to block donations to his rivals. Despite not polling high enough to merit inclusion in the primary debates under Democratic Party rules, Bloomberg simply wrote a check to the Democratic National Committee and bought himself a spot on the stage. Bloomberg has used his massive fortune to carpet bomb primary states with advertising, drowning out other candidates.

In short, Michael Bloomberg is the perfect portrait of the billionaire buying the White House that President Trump’s critics imagine him to be. Bloomberg himself appears to have no solid political principles, beyond his own power. Whether his strategy can win him the White House, much less the Democratic primary, remains to be seen. While Crassus seemed content to operate as the power behind the throne, it is unclear if Bloomberg will be satisfied with anything less than absolute power. Some conservative commentators suggested early on that his campaign was less about winning and more about taking control of the Democratic Party and making sure that socialists and populists alike are frozen out of power. Time will tell. For now, I simply suggest that his rise is yet another sign of the decline of the United States of America. Many politicians have lacked principle, but until now few have been so open about it.

Further reading about Bloomberg’s methods can be found in this Twitter thread by @blakezeff: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1227976156936171520.html

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