I spent part of the weekend watching the History Channel. What I learned was surprisingly relevant to today’s world.
I started with a documentary about 300 Spartans vs the 10,000 Persians, the story behind the new movie 300. The traditional telling of that story contains several historical inaccuracies. not the least of which being that there were at least 1000 of them in total, 300 Spartans and 700 volunteers from other city-states like Athens who rarely get credit for their heroism and self-sacrifice.
Next came other documentaries about the Greek and Roman eras, including one about Caligula. You probably know the story. He was the son of a well-respected Roman emperor, raised in seclusion during an time of political division, and although he was tremendously popular when he was crowned, his disrespect for democracy (like appointing his horse to the Senate), failed military campaigns and delusions of grandeur (declaring himself a living god on par with Zeus) quickly turned the people against him, ultimately leading to assassination by his own guards.
The parallel to the underqualified, overconfident, self-important leaders of today is obvious. Fortunately, there are safeguards like term limits and alternatives like impeachment so we don’t get to the point of actual assassination. But the historical lesson is there: bad leadership weakened the empire itself. The Roman Empire was so stricken by internal conflict and civil unrest that its enemies saw weakness and began pushing back. The people of Europe, northern Africa and the mideast who had been subjugated by the Romans took back their lands over centuries of bloody conflict that ultimately decimated the great empire. The enlightened, educated, artistic, and democratic culture of the Romans was crushed, and it took centuries for another such civilization to arise in its place.
We often think of democracy as the pinnacle of political evolution. We must also think of it as a fragile system, at risk as much from mismanagement within as from barbarian hordes outside.