‘The Capital Levy’: Syme on Financiers & the Roman Revolution

[On Caesar Augustus’s overthrow of the Roman Republic and creation of the Principate:] The class of knights [the equestrians] … is the cardinal factor in the whole social, military and political structure of the New State. In the last generation of the Republic the financiers had all too often been a political nuisance. When at variance with the Senate, they endangered for gain the stability of the Commonwealth: in alliance they perpetuated abuses in Italy and throughout the provinces, blocking reform and provoking revolution. The knights paid for it in the proscriptions — for knights were the principal and designated victims of the capital levy. Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution [1939] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 355.

If you have room to read one history to illuminate this dark winter, I’d recommend Syme. A brilliant, intense writer of the old school, he was a meticulous scholar. Like his contemporary and peer, Steven Runciman, he did not fear the moral dimension of history. Without question, much of his passion came from the lessons of World War I and the imminent prospect of World War II.

As I’ve said, it’s dangerous to draw too close analogies between empires past and present. But Americans should draw lessons from the Roman republican experience. Our founders did routinely and explicitly.

When one encounters the psuedo-history of the Originalists on the Supreme Court and their praetorian guard, the Federalist Society, one wonders at how little they know – or, perhaps, are willing to acknowledge – of the Roman context of America’s founding documents.

The Founders knew what proscriptions were and prohibited in the US Constitution their not distant cousins, bills of attainder and forfeitures. (Art. III §3 ¶2) All had studied Cicero and knew his state-sanctioned murder was part of what Syme calls ‘the capital levy’ – a gruesome double entendre.

The Founders knew how the Roman Republic had ended. They knew the lesson of the knights.