Pirates, Power, and Precedents

Breaking News: Ostia, Italy Autumn 68 BC

Twenty miles from the capital, the port city of Ostia is in flames. Terrorists from Asia Minor have caught Rome by surprise. A Roman fleet is sinking beneath the sea, and two powerful senators have been taken hostage. All of this was orchestrated not by a state-actor like Carthage, or Egypt. Instead, it was an enemy of all humanity: pirates. In the aftermath, Pompey the Great calls for increased executive power to quickly crush this dangerous threat and restore order to the Mediterranean. 

Battle of Cape Ecnomus 256 BC between Rome and Carthage one of the largest naval  battles in history .It was won by Rom… | Ancient warfare, Punic wars, Roman  history
Image of a Roman Naval Defeat

Breaking News: New York, United States September 11th, 2001 AD

As a horrified nation watched on television, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan collapsed into flaming rubble after two Boeing 767s rammed their upper stories. A third airliner, a Boeing 757, flattened one of the Pentagon’s five sides.” Unlike Pearl Harbor, this atrocity was not committed by an enemy state. Instead, a band of terrorists under the banner of Al Qaeda shocked America and the world. President Bush addresses the grieving nation, vowing “to win the war against terrorism”

September 11: Newspaper headlines from the day after 9/11 attacks
Headline of Los Angeles Times on September 12th 2001

Parallel Problem and Prophesy

Clearly, America’s parallels with Rome go far beyond the Fasces of the Lincoln Memorial and George Washington’s praise as the Western Cincinnatus. America celebrates our link to this ancient republic through our architecture, monuments, and senate. Our founders, like Thomas Jefferson, were students of history. He was inspired by Rome and ancient leaders like Cyrus when laying the foundation of our nation. We must be just as circumspect of the past, and not ignore the Roman Republic’s late history, or we may repeat their mistakes. The bad news is we have already started to. 

Secret Symbol of the Lincoln Memorial - National Mall and Memorial Parks  (U.S. National Park Service) - Ranger Journal
Image of Lincoln Monument. Fasces stand beneath both of his hands

The Roman Republic’s demise did not start with Caesar crossing the Rubicon. In a major way, it accelerated after Ostia. In the aftermath of the attack, Pompey and his allies convinced the senate to pass the Lex Gabinia. Before this law was passed, Rome had strict rules to restrict the power of military leaders by containing their authority to specific territories and for set periods of time. Under the Lex Gabinia, Pompey would have a massive army and complete authority over the Mediterranean and fifty miles inland for three years. The Greek historian Plurach wrote, “Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone”. With this immense power, Pompey squashed the pirate threat in only three months. He used his army to gain immense personal wealth which he invested in maintaining political power. While the pirates were quickly defeated, a dangerous precedent was set. Julius Caesar would go on to gain similar authority for his campaign in Gaul. However, he concluded his expedition by crossing the Rubicon, marching his army on Rome, and starting a brutal civil war that ended the Republic.

Pompey the Great's death | www.historynotes.info
Bust of Pompey the Great

The September 11th attack and the pirate raid of Ostia have clear similarities. Both attacks terrified the populous that believed themselves to be invincible, and as a result, greatly increased the executive’s power to wage war. In the wake of tragedy, people are all too willing to trade civic rights for security. Quickly the United States government suspended habeas corpus for suspected terrorists, created loopholes for justifying torture, allowed evidence gathered without a warrant to be admissible in court, and permitted branding legal residents as enemy combatants. Forty-five days After 9/11, Congress passed the massive 342 page long Patriot Act which further sacrificed personal liberty at the altar of security. The ACLU summed it up well stating, “the Patriot Act eroded our most basic right — the freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into our private lives — and thwarted constitutional checks and balances.”  This assault of the American Constitution emphatically demonstrates that our cherished rights and liberties are just as fragile as the checks and balances in Rome. 

The September 11th attacks prompted the war in Afghanistan and Iraq without formal approval from Congress due to the dead letter War Powers Act. Congress has failed to declare war since World War Two despite our innumerable armed conflicts! This is just another example of how unchecked executive power has become. 20 years after 9/11, America is still stuck in a Middle East quagmire. Still, the commander in chief has the ability to wage war with impunity.  How long before this power is pointed inward as Caesar did?

Crossing the Potomac

In 2016, the United States would elect a demagogue who worked tirelessly to unravel the foundation of our democracy. Luckily he failed, but our nation did not emerge unscarred.  In 2020, the former President mobilized the army’s 82nd airborne division and 3rd US infantry regiment D.C. during the George Floyd protests. Armed with rifles and bayonets, these troops never clashed with protestors, yet their presence in the Capital stands as a dangerously close call. Next time, cooler heads may not prevail. 

Trump wanted 10,000 troops to quell protests - ABC News

Image of military forces mobilized to DC

Fragile Liberty 

The aftermath of September 11th and the burning of Ostia, stand as stark reminders that cherished liberty is more fragile than we think. It only takes a few mistakes and ambitious politicians to set dangerous precedents that cannot be undone. The Patriot Act, unrestrained executive authority to wage war, and the role of armed forces in domestic life are problems we must wrestle with. We must understand our precarious present in the context of history. The precedence we set can lead to autocracy like in Rome, or we can learn from their lessons and “preserve the blessing of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.”

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