Roman emperors didn’t seize absolute power all at once. They acquired it incrementally, one small compromise at a time.
The term dictator, for example, did not originally refer to an absolute tyrant, but to a temporary, elected leader during a time of war. Julius Caesar was so good at the job that the Roman Senate kept re-electing him, finally handing him the title of dictator perpetuo. Like anyone who has ever awarded someone a lifetime contract, the Senate soon had regrets, the Ides of March came and senators started getting stabby.
Octavian Caesar learned from his uncle’s experience and did not accept the title of dictator perpetuo, choosing instead to slowly collect job descriptions: imperator (military commander), princeps senatus (kind of like Harry Reid), censor (supervisor of both the treasury and the state religion), tribune (chief advocate of the lower classes) and some others, each attained through political maneuvers called “settlements,” which seemed like good ideas at the time. Rome was still a republic, but one man was president, speaker of the house, chief justice and supervisor of the Federal Reserve, plus leader of the largest labor union and an archbishop. Eventually, they named him Augustus, then went a small step further and made him god.
The latest chapters in the Saints bounty scandal bring to mind the rise of empire in Rome. Last Friday, a three-person internal review panel, acting under the authority of the NFL Players Association, ruled to overturn the bounty suspensions commissioner Roger Goodell levied against four former Saints players. The panel decided that since Goodell’s case tangentially involved salary-cap violations (the money earned from the alleged bounties represented compensation above and beyond the cap), there was a jurisdictional overlap between Goodell and the system arbiter, Stephen Burbank.
Burbank himself ruled in June that Goodell had the authority to issue the suspensions. And Goodell now reserves the right to review and possibly adjust the suspensions that the panel overturned. Logically, we have crossed the Rubicon.
The whole appeals process sounds delightfully Roman. Augustus knew how important the veneer of the Republic was to Rome, so he kept all of the apparatuses and titles of government in place. He and a few of his successors sometimes let themselves get snared in the loopholes they left in the due process, but they always escaped by pulling aces from their completely stacked deck. Augustus found it wiser to maintain the illusions of procedure and checks and balances than to just march the legions down the Appian Way, though that particular Plan B was never completely off the table.
Who is the “system arbiter,” then, but a functionary kept in place for appearance’s sake, like the consuls Augustus kept around as figureheads? (Emperors liked to demur that they were mere citizens when they wanted other officials to take the heat for unpopular policies, just as Goodell became a lowly employee of the owners during last year’s lockout.) Who is this review panel but a trio of convenient prelates, once-powerful legislators reduced by imperial edict to glorified paper-pushers? The owners, who learned of Goodell’s wrath when he smote Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones for unwritten salary-cap violations last year, are a toothless senate, the NFLPA is just a plebe, the collective bargaining agreement the Roman Constitution, a document revised and amended at Gladius-point.
Soon, the four suspended players will be summoned to league headquarters for a meeting with Goodell. All Roman citizens were entitled to an appeal before the emperor if they were convicted of a major crime. As you might recall from Sunday school, the disciple Paul requested an appeal before Nero after a conviction in a lower court, and his long voyage and years in exile are recounted in Acts of the Apostles. Tellingly, the Bible says nothing about the verdict of Paul. Tradition says that Nero freed him and allowed him to keep preaching, but that doesn’t sound very Nero-ish. No matter Paul’s fate, Sunday school taught us that the Roman appeals process involved huge sums of money, perilous travel and interminable delays, and that it took a saint to endure it all.
Roman emperors did sometimes overturn decisions, and there is still a chance that Goodell will renounce or scale back the bounty suspensions. Still, it is hard to see this brief victory for the suspended players and the union as much more than a carefully executed gambit, like a completion allowed by a cornerback hoping to bait the quarterback into a pick-six. Goodell allowed the players to probe his governing contraption for weaknesses. They found one. He can now circumvent it until he spackles it up, carefully making sure that his future rulings avoid mention of the salary cap, and that all salary-cap rulings are issued through Burbank.
The battle over the salary-cap technicality tacitly acknowledges the commissioner’s absolute power over other disciplinary matters; questions about whether he had ample evidence to levy the suspensions in the first place have been back-burnered. And soon, the circular logic of Goodell making a ruling on Goodell’s abuse of power will have the awesome legal power of precedent: He can reduce these sentences and gain the absolute power to choose not to next time. It sounds more like a plot point in a swords-and-sandals epic than something that can happen in 21st century America, yet here we are.
The early emperors were able to consolidate power because, like the commissioner, they did such a great job. They ruled through a time of prosperity, power and, once the civil war got straightened out, peace. Julius and Augustus were visionary statesmen and shrewd generals. They got results, which made it easy to hand total control over to them and wink when they overstepped their few remaining limits.
Over time, of course, this unchecked power led to Caligula, Nero and a long decline and fall. It took fewer than 70 years for Rome to go from the relative enlightenment of Augustus to getting a horse for a senator. The phrase “conduct detrimental to the league” could be interpreted in sweeping ways, and a lot of palace intrigue can be concealed behind the distractions of bread and circuses. Eventually, free speech and well-meaning dissent came come under fire. In Ancient Rome, even the satirists, who were originally respected and honored by emperors as reality-check providers, eventually fell under suspicions. Many were arrested, disgraced and left with no choice but suicide.
Wait, that’s what happened to the satirists -- the smart-alecky, skeptical writers -- of ancient Rome?
Forget everything I said before. Hail, Caesar!