The Fragility of a Republic

Following brief military service with Lucius Sulla and Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, a singularly well-educated young man arrived in Rome in about 83 B.C. Well grounded in both the history and culture of Greece as well as his Arpinum and Roman heritage, he thirsted to be the best and “far to excel the others.” What he particularly thirsted for was honor and position in Republican Rome. In the next 40 years, he would almost single handedly hold the restored Republic together through his gift with words and his adroit political alliances. In the end even his adroitness could not overcome the lust for power by those with whom he sparred. As he fled the country for which he had dedicated his life, he was decapitated in 43 B.C. by assassins employed by those who feared his eloquence could not be bent to the emerging imperial rule.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in Arpinum, south of Rome, to a family of provincial importance but no Roman aristocratic connection. Once embarked on his quest, he would forever be hindered by being considered a “new man” by the Roman aristocracy and shunned by them until much later in his career. Perhaps with his strong background in stoicism and the Greek philosophers, he would have been attracted to speak for the mass of citizens in any case, but the absence of the possibility of aristocratic support, would make his advancement all the more dependent on the provincial tribes and a near thing each step up the ladder. He did, nevertheless, advance, and with his oratorical skill, he assumed rank at the earliest possible time: Senator in 79 B.C., Quaestor in Sicily in 75 B.C., Aedile in 69 B.C., Praetor 66 B.C., and Consul in 63 B.C.

These positions gave him direct familiarity with both the financial, judicial and administrative challenges of administering a republican state strained by strong class differences and imperial aspirations. It also required him to form, while always working for the best that could be achieved for the Roman people, partnerships with a never ending series of political allies and opponents, most whom were possessed of ambition at least as strong as his. Pompey, the great Roman general was beneficiary of his skill and traitor to his protection as were Julius Caesar, Crassus, a frequent opponent, Brutus, Mark Anthony and Octavian, later Augustus. As the republic slipped inevitably away, weakened by spilled blood and corrupted by unprincipled ambition, Cicero’s death became a milepost to mark its demise and the rise of the Second Triumvirate and Imperial rule.

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This example in history is intended to make the point of the fragility of republican rule. Time has not changed man’s dual nature. Benjamin Franklin made the same point coming out of Independence Hall in A.D. 1789 as he told the crowd that they had been “given a republic if you can keep it!” John Adams added that our Constitution was made “for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

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We assume that because we have survived a nasty civil war that we can endure any threat to our union, but like Achilles at Troy, we are vulnerable. It is through that cleft as was foretold by both Mr. Adams and Mr. Franklin which the nasty virus enters and by which we can be felled. Carelessness in protecting our republican values will doom us. If we do not value our republic, we will surely loose our freedoms and our greatness. At present we are far too casual in protecting the bulwark of our liberty. Many of my readers take our status quo as assured and will even wonder what it is I am prattling on about.

It is no easy feat to maintain our liberties; Rome failed, and we could fail if we are not ever vigilant. Being vigilant does not simply mean being good people. I write often of our nation’s goodness. We are fierce competitors but have the biggest hearts of the entire world. We are only too ready to come to the aid of all those nations from which we sprang and from which we now continue to draw our renewal. Our vulnerable heel is the failure of each of the 310 million we now are to understand what it means to protect a republic and to teach the importance of individual freedom and personal responsibility to our next generation. We must continually acclaim successful efforts to keep the light of liberty alive in America. I fear that today Liberty is completely taken for granted.

Being republicans means we must juggle the demands that are common in any government, while not stepping on the banana peel that lurks right under our poised foot. It was no different in Roman times. Many of Cicero’s contemporaries were as attached to honor as was he. Many also sought to honorably serve the state as their calling, and a few of these even spoke movingly of Cicero’s honesty and ability, while, nevertheless, participating in authorizing the grisly deed that stilled his mighty voice.

Man cannot trust in man unaided to always do the right thing. We are, after all, human. It makes no difference, however, whether it is by intent or accident. Even the best intentioned can lead us down a road from whose shackles we cannot escape if we be not on guard. Thank heavens we have such a guiding hand. It is our sacred Constitution, the best governing charter devised by man. It is one which recognizes the peril and pits into which we can fall and gives us contending branches of government and uses our own human nature to assure too much power cannot be accumulated by one branch to nullify the others.

My fear is that public apathy built on ignorance, mass communication which sees larger percentages of our population receiving their knowledge of the world through fewer news organizations and the havoc that can be caused by weapons of mass destruction tilting that balanced mechanism in ways unhealthy for us all. In the face of the real danger to us all in which we live, our only defense is knowledge at the level of the individual citizen of what freedom means, what it costs, what sacrifices it requires and why that is important to the preservation of the way of life we all enjoy. Education and shared reverence for Liberty must be our cause. With them the individual political questions of what and how to serve our population will be revealed. Without them we are lost.

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