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Does budget battle signal end of American republic? Not so fast

Isn’t America going the way of Rome? So the op-ed writers and pundits are asking, as if the recent, seventeen-day U.S. government shutdown crisis and threat of a debt default is a sign of the American republic at its end.

Rome had its oligarchs and populists, they say; we have ideological division and partisan deadlock. In the last days of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger faced off first in the Senate and then on the battlefields of a civil war. 

Where will our impasse lead?

Are we Rome? The answer is simple: No. We’re not the Romans. The analogy with the Late Roman Republic is striking but, fortunately, we're not nearly that bad.

We have the Great Recession, poverty, bankrupt cities, crumbling infrastructure, but our politicians aren’t about to face off at 20 paces.

The Romans had decades of state-sanctioned violence, coups and counter-coups, and military dictatorship before they reached the standoff between Cato and Caesar. They had blood in the Forum, severed heads on the Speakers’ Platform, and rebel slaves on crucifixes lining the Appian Way. They had gladiator revolts and armies marching on their own capital city.

We have the Great Recession. We have poverty, bankrupt cities, and crumbling infrastructure, but our politicians aren’t about to face off at 20 paces. 

The Tea Party carries signs, not spears. Our gridiron gladiators don’t storm Capua – they go on strike. Neither Senator Cruz nor President Obama is about to lead an army over the Rubicon.

The recent standoff was a case of ineptitude and jockeying for the next election. It was political theater, not a revolution. 

The members of Congress might stand up, one by one, and say, “I am Spartacus!” If they do, it will be a scene out of Hollywood and not Plutarch. The White House dug in its heels but not, like Cato, until the bitter end.

Unlike Rome, we are not a republic in decline, and for that we can thank one thing. 

The founders of our country studied Roman history. They absorbed the lessons of Rome’s successes and failures and crafted a constitution that followed Rome’s energy and freedom without its chaos and collapse. It wasn’t perfect – think only of slavery and the Civil War – but it provided a framework for self-correction.

Above all, the American system follows a recipe for success that the Romans once knew and then forgot – compromise. That, and the ability to change with the times, are secrets to any republic’s survival. 

The Romans forgot that, and lost their republic. 

In Washington, for all its wicked ways, the dealmakers always win in the end. The American republic will muddle through, dazed, happy, and delighted to leave Caesar and Cato for the printed page and the shining screen.

Barry Strauss, professor of history at Cornell, is the author of the forthcoming "The Death of Julius Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination" (Simon & Schuster, March 2015).