Monday, July 14, 2008


This was a Roman legal concept. Consuls, Pro-Consuls acting as provincial governors, and other of the highest executive postitions like commanding generals in specific military actions, say Gaius Marius in Spain, or Scipio in Africa, were given Imperium which included freedom from all prosecution, criminal and civil.

One who held the title of Imperator was not above the law, an Imperator, was the law.

In many ways this was a practical and workable solution. The Romans believed that a governor, or commander in the field, often months away from any contact with the Senate or Rome needed the authority to do as he saw fit rather than asking for legal rulings at every step of the way. If there was an insurrection, that needed to be put down, by any means neccessary. If a property confiscation took place in the course of that action, the confiscator needed to be secure in position and not be forced to go back and forth to Rome constantly to defend those actions in court.

Thing was, when the job was over, so was the Imperium. Once the title and the position were finished, all legal bets were off. In his novel, titled "Imperium", Robert Harris tells about Marcus Tullius Cicero's prosecution of Varrus after his term as Governor of Sicily. Varrus was, by all contemporary accounts, a vicious and rapacious thug who raped, robbed and plundered his way through one of the richest provinces in the Roman Sphere. While he held the imperium, he was immune from prosecution of any kind, civil or criminal. When his term ended and he returned to Rome, all bets were off. What began as a civil suit became instead and indictment of the Senatorial class who viewed the world as their own personal playground where they could, with Imperium, indulge what ever depravities crossed their minds. Cicero tried to put a stop to that by holding men accountable for the actions they made. It worked, at least, it worked that one time.

Just like when Nixon was driven from office, all the while claiming his own type of imperium (interview with David Frost, 1974, "If the President orders it, that makes it legal.) The Romans who were on the greasy end of the retribution stick chose to learn their own lessons from the legal system of Imperium.

Many of the worst offenders simply chose to remain abroad. They would take their term of Imperium, loot blind what ever was in front of them, then retire to the eastern provinces of Cappodocia, Macedonia, Egypt, or some other oriental province where money bought luxury and ease.

One holder of Imperium, was Julius Caesar. While pro-consular Military Governor of Gaul, he unilaterally began the Gallic wars. He ordered his legions into action without approval or authority from the senate, and he kept them in the fields until he was stopped by the twin barriers of the Rhine and German resistence. He knew that he had started the war entirely to gain money. The commanding general's share of the spoils in Roman law was huge. He had the largest share of any property or treasures looted, and he had the sole ownership of all captives sold into slavery. Ceasar took on his mantle of Governor mostly broke from his runs for office, he was heavily mortgaged and deeply in cash debt, mostly to Crassus. Caesar was of noble lineage, some of the most noble of Roman Nobles, a direct descendant of both Aeneus and of Venus. Thing was, he was worse than broke, he was in deep debt.

Ten years in Gaul, and Caesar wanted to return to Rome as the richest man in the Empire (and Rome was, by this time a Republic by reputation only), except of course, Crassus. The big problem that he was was that in order to enter Rome itself, he had to lay down his Imperium. Caesar knew that if he did that, decades of lawsuits and criminal prosecutions would ensue. At best, after years of legal wrangling he would be financially ruined and have to return to the status of very noble and very broke, or at worst, banishment, expulsion, and poverty abroad as an exile. Caesar and his legal team came up with all manner of twistings and inventive interpretations of Roman Law, he would run, in absentia, for Consul, or other high office that carried its own Imperium, although the requirement for candidates to stand for office in person would have to be waived. When all of his twistings and turnings of the laws upon their very heads failed, Caesar, still with his Imperium, simply used that very power to break yet another Roman Law. His crossing of the boundary at the Rubicon set off a bitter and bloody civil war. His main goal, throughout his tenure as "Dictator" and then "Dictator for Life" was mainly about avoiding prosecutions for crimes he knew that he had committed. He wanted to avoid a reckoning and judgement. He did. Caesar won, and the Roman Republic was never again anything close to that. It became, instead, under Caesar's heir Octavian, a hereditary monarchy.

President Bush, and his advisors have been claiming their own version of roman Imperium. They have claimed that we are a nation of powerful men, unanswerable to either the people through Congress, the laws through the courts, or simple human decency. They have overturned two hundred and fifty years of checks and balances. They have conducted policy meetings in secret where maps of foriegn countries were spread out on the table and various oil companies were allowed to divvy up the promised loot like a christmas pie. They have then began wars on whims to deliver those promised spoils. They have, worst of all, against the laws of this nation, against the laws of all nations, and against simple human decency instituted a regime that has detained human beings without charges or legal recourse, many of them innocent, they have tortured "confessions" out of those innocents and so perverted any concept of right, truth, and justice that there may never be any accounting or reckoning ever possible. Jose Padilla, Khalid Mohammed, and other victims of the torture regime have been driven to the point of clinical insanity by their treatment. They are so far gone that they have lost the ability to be reliable eyewitnesses to their own lives.

Through this all, Bush and his minions are claiming "Imperium" and saying that they are above, immune, and far beyond all accountings or investigations. By demanding that immunity be granted retroactively in their offenses against the fourth amendment they have admitted that they knowingly broke the law of our land for years. Otherwise, they would not have needed that protection. Hopefully there are courts left in this country that remember the opinion brought down by John Marshall in Marbury vs. Madison which held that Congress cannot simply vote to ignore the Constitution without the cumbersome process involved with amending the Constitution first.

Like the natural result of a system of "Imperium" is someone like Caesar simply using it to seize full and total hereditary power, the swift, and always certain result of an American "Imperium" will be law breaking thugs listening to our communications without cause or warrant or oversight of any kind, snatching people off the the streets both here in our country and abroad, holding them without charge, or indictment, torturing them and then putting them on trial for their very lives using the fruits of the dungeon for evidence.

That this long list of crimes and abuses happened almost from the instant the behaviors began shows the dangers that our founders thought they had protected us against.

It may well be, that as I have said, and now echoed by legal scholars (not old and tired jingle whores, but law professors and shit like Glenn Greenwald and Jonathon Turley) are now saying, like I have said, that our own system of laws and courts might have been too debased and perverted by the rampant lawlessness of recent years and that the International Courts might have to be brought in.

Bring them in I say. I would rather live under foreign laws that the perverse twistings of Authoritarian Gangsters. I am tired of only being able to pretend to my freedoms.



Blogger Paul said...

You almost didn't have to add the Bush parallel part. I do love the closing line, though. a bit different from your last post.

I'd be interested to know what you think of the version of Pancho and Lefty that I just posted. I know that TVZ was a friend of yours.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Ralph Hitchens said...

I'm just another annoying historical nitpicker. My reading of Roman history suggests that Caesar was a far nobler character than the Frat Boy. In the century-long seesaw of Roman politcs from the Gracchi to Augustus, Julius Caesar -- like the brothers Gracchi and his uncle Marius -- was on the side of those who favored diluting the power of the Senatorial aristocrats (Caesar's own social class) and expanding economic welfare and suffrage for the common man. Generally speaking. Bush, not so much. So we should draw a distinction between two fundamentally different types of constitution-abrogaters, in my opinion.

11:22 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

ralph, probably, had i been a roman i would have been with the caesarian faction. just as i would have supported first, marius, and then caesar's other uncle, sulla.

the point, is that, regardless of his motives, noble or otherwise, caesar broke and did end arounds on many Roman Laws which resulted in the complete and utter destruction of even pretense at republic and brought about centuries of imperial rule.

the first, the julian emperors, made it a point to talk about "restoring the republic" but by the time of nero even lip service had ceased.

regardless of our perceived motives, the results speak for themselves.

11:58 AM  
Blogger BadTux said...

The system was broken in Rome, just as it is broken here in the United States. The government in place was inadequate to rule the empire, mired in petty squabbling, unrepresentative of the people. Rather than offer a solution, Julius Caesar offered dictatorship. It was the sort of "might makes right" solution that George W. Bush would be proud of, if George W. Bush had any knowledge of history at all, but it did not solve the problem -- it merely moved the source of the problem to the Imperial class rather than the Senatorial class.

So I'm not going to whitewash Julius Caesar. Many do, but the precedent that he set was the end of the Roman Republic. Let us hope that the precedents set by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush (all of whom ignored the law whenever they felt like it) do not similarly spell the end of the American Republic.

- Badtux the History Penguin

12:16 PM  
Blogger PortlyDyke said...

I agree with Badtux -- the Roman Republic was broken, which gave Caesar the ability to demolish it -- and I think that it was broken in precisely the same way our system is broken right now: Political power as a means to wealth was the driving force of the declining republican forms in Rome.

I see one striking (and perhaps, comforting) difference between Shrub and Mr. Dog (see Eddie Izzard): Caesar was extremely careful to cultivate and protect his popularity among the Roman citizenry.

Without this, crossing the Rubicon would not have been possible.

Despots need rotten systems in order to succeed. I fear that, without addressing the power/wealth paradigm which runs through our political system stem to stern, it won't matter much who's at the helm.

1:47 PM  
Blogger jurassicpork said...

This seems to correspond with what I know about Roman history. In fact, I've drawn eerie parallels of my own (on my last blog) between Bush and Caligula.

One wee little nick pick, though, Stevie: Please stop calling him "President" Bush. Who all know who the real president is and he speaks with a Tennessee accent.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous carolyn said...

Tangentially, the book I'm reading right now strongly implies that Crassus's money and influence came pretty much straight from arson:

"Large cities like Rome sponsored firefighting crews, which had become as much a public service as aqueducts and roads. In Republican times, select senators supervised an official brigade (familia publica) of firefighting slaves. Its failings opened gaps for entrepreneurs to establish private brigades (familia privata.)

"The most notorious entrepreneur may be Marcus Crassus, who, 'if we may scandal him with a truth,' according to Plutarch, secure his wealth 'by fire and rapine, making his advantages of the public calamities.' In particular, 'observing how extremely subject the city was to fire,' Crassus amassed 500 slaves who were builders and architects, then searched out buildings on fire, bought them and those of their nervous neighbors for a trifling, and used his men to halt the spreading fire, probably by tearing down adjacent structures. In this way, Plutarch marveled, 'the greatest part of Rome, at one time or other, came into his hands.' One suspects that arson accounted for not a few such fires. The unholy trinity of money, politics, and firefighting thus began early."

Modern parallels are left as an exercise for the reader.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Bukko_in_Australia said...

I keep running into things that remind me I should read the two-volume edition of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" that I picked up from my Dad's bookshelves when I came back to the U.S. in your spring for his funeral. The books are from 1938, so they might be my grandfather's. So much of then is echoing today.

What it all boils down to, with Julis Caeser or Pretendisent Chimpy, is "Who's got the weaponry to stop them?" Laws don't mean squat unless you have the swords to punish the violators. J.C.'s legions couldn't be taken on, and the money/media/military-corporate power of the Cheney Death Cult would have rolled over the feckless Demofucks, assuming they had half a mind to get in the way.

Good luck, MB. It seems like the implosion is at hand. Of all the bloggers I read regularly, you seem like the one who will come through best.

9:33 AM  
Anonymous oddjob said...

Laws don't mean squat unless you have the swords to punish the violators.

Or as another writer of that era put it:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Peter of Lone Tree said...

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,
--- Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips,
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue ---
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

-- William Shakespeare

3:05 PM  
Blogger tenacitus said...

I liked your post, a book that you might really like is Michael Parenti's The Assassination of Julius Caesar.
Since most reformers were murdered eventually reformers would have to raise and supply an army.

5:52 AM  
Blogger litbrit said...

An apt comparison, MB. And so well-written.

I am late to the party only because I have not had the opportunity to read more than one or two sentences for the past, oh, several weeks. Oy. And I wanted to really savor this piece.

I do not possess anywhere near the depth of knowledge about Roman history that you do, but I think it's safe to say that, having refused to pay attention to history, America is all set to repeat it yet again. Hell, we're already repeating it.

Me, I agree that our current political system sucks, but historically meaningful reform can only--and indeed, must--begin at the local level and climb upward. Which is happening, to a small degree, in Florida.

When more than just two political parties are considered "heavyweights", or at least, have decent representation at the state levels and then in Congress, we'll be on our way. Until then, running third, fourth, and fifth-party candidates for the nation's highest office is mainly an exercise in protest, and while this may be morally justified in so many ways, it has not yet succeeded in placing a third-party person in the White House and it inevitably winds up draining votes from one of the two frontrunners, most worryingly the Democratic one, as Nader did in Florida back in 2000.

7:59 AM  
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