by Revilo P. Oliver
IN America’s Decline, pp. 263-280, I gave an account of a pseudo-historical novel about Marcus Tullius Cicero written as “conservative” propaganda by Mrs. Marcus Reback (“Taylor Caldwell”). A Pillar of Iron (1965) is written with great literary skill and vividly tells a story that will capture the attention and sympathy of all readers who know so little about Cicero and the last days of the Roman Republic that they are not offended by the many and gross anachronisms. Not a few such readers have even been taken in by the authoress’s pretense that she was quoting Cicero’s own words in the statements she attributes to him in her often wildly imaginative fiction.
Mrs. Reback’s preface, in which she claims to have done years of research and found historical sources that are now lost or never existed, is merely a hoax, of course, of a kind in which quite a few writers have more innocently and learnedly indulged(1). But she has made mischief, and one not infrequently sees some of her most preposterous inventions quoted as statements actually made by Cicero. I am not infrequently asked for the precise source of something Cicero could not conceivably have said, but which is innocently attributed to Cicero by some man who thought he was using a translation by Mrs. Reback. There are quite a few such spurious quotations now in circulation.
I have just been asked about an eloquent denunciation of bureaucracy as it now exists in the United States and all nations that have become diseased with “social welfare.” Not only did Cicero never say anything of the sort, he could not have understood it. I amused myself for quite some time by trying to translate the supposed quotation into a statement in Latin that would have conveyed its meaning to Cicero. Even using the rather distant analogy of Ptolemaic Egypt as a point of departure that would have been familiar to Cicero, I could not express the idea in less than a typewritten page. Bureaucracy, you see, was an affliction of which the Roman Republic was happily ignorant.
In the Republic, men who held political office were personally responsible for all decisions they made, and their assistants were their own servants, slaves or liberti (slaves they had emancipated). It was assumed that a man’s servants acted only on his orders, and when he left office he naturally took them with him, and his successor brought his own crew from his own household. There were few civil offices, and the Urban Praetor, for example, during his year of administering the domestic affairs of Rome, had to make all decisions in person, assisted only by secretaries who wrote to his dictation, scribes who produced fair copies of his decrees, and bookkeepers who kept accounts, all of whom were the servants he brought with him when he took office and, of course, took with him when he left.
Under the Empire, Republican terminology and forms were embalmed and carefully preserved as much as possible, so that thoughtless Romans of any generation perceived no change, except perhaps some minor “improvements,” much as many Americans today imagine that they are living under a government established by the Constitution, just because they are still permitted to go through the vain exercise of casting votes for men who will be called Presidents, Congressmen, and the like. It was a long time, therefore, before there appeared anything that can properly be called a bureaucracy in Roman government.
This must be distinguished, of course, from other forms of political corruption. Claudius, for example, was ruled by his liberti, who thus became enormously powerful and wealthy and were slavishly courted by real Romans whose greed overcame their self-respect. But that was because Claudius, although intelligent and even a scholar in his youth, was physically, mentally, and temperamentally unfit for the imperial rule that was thrust upon him by a mob of rioters who were “democratically” determined to prevent restoration of the Republic. Everyone remembers the opening of Book XII of the Annales of Tacitus, where the three great freedmen confer to decide whom they will have the old dunderhead marry after the death of Messalina, each naturally trying to overreach the other two by installing his own candidate as the next Empress, but all taking it for granted that the vain old numbskull they manage will do whatever they want.
One should not press the American analogy that comes to mind. Almost everyone has heard the quip that when President Wilson asked Mrs. Galt to marry him, she was so surprised she almost fell out of the bed. And quite a few know, from the memoirs of Colonel Sperling, that before Wilson could surprise the lady, he had to make a special trip to New York City to obtain permission from his supervisor, “Colonel” House. Now when the bogus colonel (his title was given him by the Governor of Texas for cooperation in political looting) gave permission for the marriage, he was acting as the agent of “Barney” Baruch, the Jewish satrap who had trained Wilson for the Presidency and whose fellow aliens had procured his election.
Claudius’s liberti were not comparable to House. So far as we can tell or have any grounds for conjecture, the three aliens (race uncertain) who had been manumitted and “naturalized” (!) as Romans, Callistus, Narcissus, and Pallas, manipulated an incompetent man, who had grown gross and stupid, for their own personal profit and not as agents of any conspiracy. That is a fundamental difference.
A real bureaucracy was not fully developed in Rome until the debased and demoralized inhabitants of the Empire, of whom only a very few had even drops of Roman blood in their veins, had forgotten the Republic, except as an item of ancient history mentioned in the schools, and knew that they were the subjects of a Dominus et Deus whose rule was absolute until he was assassinated and replaced by a new Lord and God. It was in that decadent society, of course, that the Christian plague became epidemic and eventually pandemic.
Rome did eventually develop a full-fledged bureaucracy, which served as a model for bureaucracy as it developed in the modern world, and which naturally presents some very striking analogies to the machine of rule under which we now suffer, and also a few significant contrasts. If you are interested, the only study of that Roman bureaucracy of which I know is by Dr. K.L. Noethlichs, Beamtentum und Dienstvergehen: zur Staatsverwaltung in der Spatantike (Wiesbaden, 1981). I am sure there is no English translation of this work, and I know of no comparable study in English or, for that matter, in French, Italian, or Spanish. (I need not remind you that there may well be such a work, perhaps stimulated by the one in German, of which I have not seen a notice in the very limited time I can now devote to the learned periodicals.)
The subject is an intricate and difficult one, for while we know that there was a vast bureaucracy in the last two centuries of the doomed Empire, the many extant inscriptions which give the titles of bureaucrats do not define their functions; the histories, by late and decadent writers, are usually ambiguous in their few references to specific duties of bureaucrats; and Dr. Noethlichs had to rely principally on imperial legislation, preserved in the great collections of late Roman law, which was designed to correct or prevent abuses of power by bureaucrats and to punish provable corruption. He was thus able to draw a fairly complete and satisfactory picture of Roman bureaucracy in the late Empire.
He begins his study in 313, when Constantine’s lamentable victory over Maxentius opened the road to absolute power for the ruthless dominus who, ironically, is best known today for having first made use of the seditious Christian rabble to destroy his rivals and consolidate his personal authority, for which he was rewarded by having his reputation perfumed by some of the most brazen liars among the Fathers of the Church. It was Constantine’s reorganization of the state and its finances that brought the bureaucracy to its full development, and there was little substantive change before 468, the date at which Dr. Noethlichs ends his study, when Roman administration was largely disrupted by the convulsions that preceded the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476.
I cannot summarize here the intricate bureaucracy that is so well described by the German author, much less criticize his work, which I am not competent to do, although I will remark that he may not sufficiently allow for the habit of great malefactors in government to shift guilt to the subordinates who carried out their orders. (If, after six years, you are finally caught in obeying secret Jewish orders secretly to supply Iran with all the munitions of war, look astonished and blame Colonel North!) I am not at all sure that the several Roman Emperors who deplore the acts of one or another bureaucrat were all much more honest than American Presidents.
I learned much from this book, but little that astonished me. One detail for which I was not prepared was the practice of the late Roman emperors in designating the service of their chief bureaucrats as militia. In other words, the work of civil administrators was assimilated to service in the army, which, by that time, was a force of mercenaries, chiefly barbarians who were recruited outside the Empire and rewarded with “Roman” citizenship when they were retired at the completion of their service. Their allegiance was only to the Emperor, whom they obeyed without question or compunction so long as they did not sell him out to a rival who promised better wages.
Although the army did defend the frontiers of the Empire against foreign nations (except, of course, the international nation of Jews, who were snugly ensconsed in the Empire and naturally battening on it), the army was always potentially and often actively the enemy of the citizens who were taxed to pay it. If the great engine of oppression that the Empire had perforce become had not had the mercenary army at its orders, it could not have endured for a fortnight.
The great engine of oppression also depended on the militia of the bureaucrats, who were in fact a vast corps of mercenaries, and, although recruited from the citizen population, were equally at the orders of their master, to whom they gave allegiance, since, in that “cosmopolitan” age, there was no longer a true nation with a racially homogeneous population and hence no possibility of patriotism, which is allegiance to such a nation. There was, of course, an endless babbling of vapid talk about “serving the people” and the rest of the drivel that is used to conceal governmental realities, but the bureaucrats were, like the soldiers, the enemies of the citizens, whose taskmasters they were and from whom they extorted taxes, other services, and ovine obedience to “regulations.”
Bureaucracy in the decaying “Roman” Empire was, in all essentials, what it is in the Soviet Union and what it has become in the United States, a militia, a huge and ever more numerous army of mercenaries, armed with “regulations” and laws and, whenever they wish, with the weapons of the police forces they control, owing allegiance only to their employers, the masters of the vast engine of taxation and oppression they serve ruthlessly and without compunction. They are your taskmasters and, in fact, your enemies. You do not pay them; they are paid with the ersatz-money they extort from you at the behest of their commanders. They may be Americans in the sense that they were born in the United States and many are even Americans by race, but they cannot have a loyalty to a nation that committed suicide and no longer exists.
Some old-fashioned Americans do not like to cringe before their bureaucratic herdsmen, but I do not know what they can do, except belatedly regret that they listened to the holy men and malicious “do-gooders” who persuaded them to exchange their nation for a multi-racial cesspool and to damn their children to “democratic” degradation and equality in mindless slavery to their implacable enemies’ hirelings.
(1). For example, the title-page of Francis Glass’s Vita Georgii Washingtonii (posthumously published, 1835; reprinted, George Washington University, 1976) bears, in somewhat overwrought Ciceronian Latin, a passage that is identified as “Ciceronis fragm. xv, ed. Maii, p.52.” In it, Cicero quotes from the Sibylline Books a prophecy that clearly portends the military and political achievements of George Washington, many centuries later, and the birth of a new nation in a tellus ingens atque opulenta that was to be discovered across the Atlantic; Cicero even says that Accius alluded to the prophecy in his tragedy, Nyctegresia (now lost). It seems that the passage, which is the epigraph of the printed volume, was composed for it as an amusing jeu d’esprit by the learned Professor Charles Anthon, who intended only to entertain scholars, and although some well-educated readers probably were deceived at first by the adroit fabrication, they would have seen that it was a hoax as soon as they found that there was no such Fragment 15 on p. 52 or any other page of the then famous Cardinal Mai’s editions of the fragmentary works of Cicero that he was the first to discover in palimpsests and publish. Educated readers, I say, might have been taken in by the hoax at first, because there really is a “prophecy” of the discovery of land beyond the Ocean in one of the tragedies of Seneca, and Anthon doubtless counted on that to aid his facetious mystification. Mrs. Reback, however, must have been well aware that many of her readers knew no more Latin than she did, and would be deceived by a solemn hoax that she perpetrated, not for learned amusement, but as propaganda for the Jews and the John Birch Society. That goes far beyond the limits of literary playfulness, and I am unwilling to forgive her.
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Source: Liberty Bell magazine, June 1987