Republic in Transition — the role of Micropatriological Realism’s «Activation Energy»

The following essay has been written by C. Sörgel for a macronational academic course. «Activation Energy» theory related to the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, or Principate, at the end of this essay.

In the period of the Late Republic, surviving sources point to the great constitutional concerns of the Roman Republic at the time. In 67, this was surrounding the lex Gabinia that would give Cn. Pompeius command of the entire Mediterranean and 50 miles inland in all coastal regions — provinces of Rome or not. In 66, it was the lex Manilia, that would transfer command to Pompey in the final Mithridatic war. From Cicero, we have the concerns of Quintus Hortensius who spoke on behalf of all senators but one – C. Julius Caesar and M. Tullius Cicero – and argued that one person should not possess such an immense amount of power. Cicero argued, however, that Pompey should be given command of such a large territory because the practical needs outweighed the constitutional concerns raised by Q. Catullus and Q. Hortensius. Both men were right in doing so. Hortensius made a position based on principle, whereas Cicero made the expedient and short-term decision based on the populace’s needs. Both arguments were correct, but not mutually exclusive.

When the auctoritas senatus was legitimate and the Republic was healthy, republican political culture permeated the classes of the Roman system. The Republic was government by the whole of the Roman polity, where all three classical positive political systems coexisted in one state. According to Polybius in Book 6, republics require the inclusion and involvement of all political institutions and all socio-political levels of society where all three of them have power (kratos): the dēmos, the aristoi, and the officials with power (basileos, tyrannos, strategoi…). All members of one order of society must accept the power of the others, that is — all must respect the rule of law. All healthy republics require the respect of the rule of law and, likewise, the respect for a republican political culture or, stated differently, the “respect for existing traditions.” This republican political culture translates into the limitation of unlimited conduct without self-control and is particularly exemplified by members of the senatorial aristocracy.[1] This political culture is inherent in Roman society, which from the time of the secessiones plebis had developed as a cultural paradigm: to act with restraint and to respect both traditions and the law. Another way to say this, as Professor Arthur Eckstein has, is to call a republic a rule by mediocrity, shown by the senatorial aristocracy’s belief in common leadership where the auctoritas senatus is upheld by politicians who show both self-restraint and also great care in advising the Roman people in their legislative assemblies. Giving one outstanding man, therefore, the power to wage Rome’s wars undermined that political culture and called into question the legitimacy of the Senate, the single most powerful institution in the Republic. Whereas there were two consuls, there were no unitary positions such as Pompey’s power as privatus cum imperio proconsule. Granting power to one person, as Hortensius says, would be to prepare Rome for regnum.

Cicero, however, argues that the festering crisis of the pirates and the delay of the Mithridatic War was more exigent than the concerns for the constitution. He explains, “when the safety of the entire community was at stake, our people preferred to be guided by its own distressed feelings” for the destruction of the pirates (Cic. Man. 19.56). In advocating for the lex Manilia, Cicero raises the situation before the lex Gabinia when Roman officials were kidnapped and killed by pirates and when Rome was cut off from her provinciae (17.52-53), and even chased off the Via Appia (18.55). Cicero looks back to precedents in Roman history when addressing Q. Catullus’s argument, as well, and references the command of C. Marius in the Jugurthine Wars and to the distant past when P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus conquered Carthage and Numantia (20.59-60). Clearly there is precedent in the Republic for the command of one man over such sorts of campaigns. As Eckstein summarises Cicero’s argument, the constitution of the republic is flexible and able to bend for those with extraordinary money, prestige, or vitality to take on added and extraconstitutional powers outside of tradition. The best example of the flexibility of the Republic can be found in the legendary Hannibalic War, when P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus major was commander in Spain and then at Zama when he defeated Hannibal. Elected consul in 205, Africanus was elected both younger than the traditional age and served as commander for three years.[2] Though the powers of privatus cum imperio proconsule granted to Pompey in 67 with the lex Gabinia or imperium maius with the lex Manilia in 66 were not traditional and contradicted Roman political culture, it was the people’s liberty to grant Pompeius these powers by law.

Both of these arguments are not mutually exclusive when concerning the running of government. While in this context both are opposed politically, there can be limits to both arguments. In Hortensius’s and Catullus’s cases, Pompey can be given this power yet with greater restrictions than the lex Gabinia allowed for in 66 or even for the command against Mithridates in 67. In true republican fashion, the command for both campaigns could have been shared by Pompey and L. Licinius Lucullus as had been shared many times before. In Cicero’s case, there is a clear constitutional concern for granting one man such power equal to the consuls: the imperium maius, the power that would be attained by future emperors. No matter how flexible the Roman constitution is, it is especially important to defend the constitution of a state which has no firm basic law, such as that of written constitutions. However, it appears that no politician advocated for this middle way between the senatorial and the Pompeian approaches to the issue of the war against Mithridates.

In the narrative of history, the Roman people agreed with Cicero, and for clear reasons. The Romans had already given Pompey command against the pirates with the lex Gabinia, and now another threat had emerged in the East where Mithridates had slyly recaptured Pontus after Lucullus’s best efforts and fair tactics in granting the citizens of Asia Minor reduced interest rates and forgave debts — against the desires of the equites. In this case, the Roman people had chosen expedient government that solved the issues facing the Roman state over the “bumbling along” of the government led by the senatorial aristocracy. Pompey returned to Italy amongst worries of a new Sulla, though he quickly dismissed his army after his return to the Italian mainland.[3] The precedent of the senate granting one man control of his own private army to be sent on consular-like missions extends back to C. Marius, but it will likewise also be a part of the imperium maius that will form part of the legal basis for the Principate.[4] Though one should not consider this as a countdown to the Principate, it is a logical way to consider it as the foreshadowing and quickening of the bringing of Polybius’s anakyklosis.[5] As the aristocratic running of the Republic becomes victim to democratic methods of the populares, the hastening of Polybius’s cycle of political states aptly leads to the beginning of the transition from the Late Republic to the Early Principate. The significance of Cicero’s and Hortensius’s arguments will become all the more valid in only two decades time with the arrival of C. Julius Caesar as dictator — especially as Caesar is so unlike Pompey by not laying down his arms when he returns to Italy from Gaul.

These arguments are likewise important for moderns, as it enables us to reflect on the decay of our own constitutions and the changes in our most fundamental laws and political culture.[6] These concerns were at hand when the United States Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to draft the law of the land that would replace the Articles of Confederation. The drafters, familiar with the classics, would have been familiar with both Polybius and Cicero and the events of the Late Republic would be their utmost concern. With the creation of a document such as the Constitution of the United States, rather than another founding law in addition to the Articles of Confederation, the United States is less concerned with the matter of political culture and instead with the written words and the interpretation of the legal document and the subsequent 27 amendments.

These arguments are also especially important for micronationalists and micropatriologists — id est, people who study micronations. Micropatriology is especially concerned with the development of political systems and how the polity should best be constructed both in law and as a system in regard to how developed demographically the state is. The “activation energy theory” specifically posits that certain political institutions and organisations can be too advanced or too primitive depending on the conditions of the state.[7] This theory can be seen at work in the Late Republic. Whereas most micronations possess too advanced a political system for such basic conditions, Rome’s political institutions had the opposite problem beginning in 133: Rome had too basic a political system for such advanced and imperial conditions that it found itself in by the mid-2nd century.[8] When the constitutions and political institutions do not fit their geopolitical or intranational situations, there is bound to be conflict on the internal sociopolitical level until the constitution of a state is reformed to fit within the conditions of that state. A similar theory is found in international relations theory, where the power dynamic between states becomes distorted and can be rectified only with a transition of power either with peaceful reforms to the international system (that is, with international law) or by resorting to war, the ultimate test of interstatal power.[9] However, activation energy theory attributes these similar issues to the intrastatal level, not the interstatal. In the case of Rome, a city-state with institutions for a low “activation energy” has catalysed through its unique political system to become an imperial city. The transition under study, the Late Republic to the Early Principate, covers the intrastatal transition crisis as Roman institutions begin to reflect the need of change in the constitution of the Republic. As a result of direct imperial expansion by the mid-2nd century with the Third Punic War, Fourth Macedonian War, and the gift of Asia Minor by the Pergamine king Attalus — in addition to Rome’s provinces in Sicily, Sardinia & Corsica, both Cisterior and Ulterior Spains, and both Transalpine & Cisalpine Gauls — Rome’s low-level city-state required reforms to a more developed and advanced system.

[1] Arthur Eckstein, “How Polybius Analyses the “Constitution” of the Republic of Rome,” in Course Packet: Rome from Republic to Authoritarian Rule (n.p., 2014), 7.

[2] Arthur Eckstein, HIST326 Course Packet, (lecture, University of Maryland, College Park,2014).

[3] Arthur Eckstein, “The Age of Pompey, 78-62 B.C.,” in Course Packet: Rome from Republic to Authoritarian Rule (lecture, University of Maryland, College Park, 2014), 15.

[4] Arthur Eckstein, “Food for Thought,” in Course Packet: Rome from Republic to Authoritarian Rule (lecture, University of Maryland, College Park, 2014), 16.

[5] Arthur Eckstein, “How Polybius Analyses the “Constitution” of the Republic of Rome,” in Course Packet: Rome from Republic to Authoritarian Rule (n.p., 2014), 7.

[6] Especially political culture when discussing Westminster systems such as Britain or Israel.

[7] William Soergel, “Activation Energy: Political and Scientific,” Veritum Sandus, 3 June 2012, accessed 11 October 2013,

[8] Arthur Eckstein, “The Age of Pompey, 78-62 B.C.,” in Course Packet: Rome from Republic to Authoritarian Rule (lecture, University of Maryland, College Park, 9 October 2014), 15.

[9] Arthur Eckstein, “The Anarchic Structure of Interstate Relations in the Hellenistic Age,” in Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 79-117; on the role of international law or the “international society of states”: 82-83; on Realist analysis and power-transition crises: 104-106.