November 6, 2021

Didius Julianus was the Roman Emperor who bought his crown at auction.

Here’s the story. The madman Emperor Commodus (the one in Gladiator) was murdered on the last day of AD 192. Succeeded by Pertinax, an upstanding statesman. He tried to discipline the Praetorian Guard, an elite corps of soldiers tasked with protecting the emperor, and grown overly powerful. They killed Pertinax after three months. Now, it had become customary for a new ruler to gift the Praetorians with a cash bonus. So they held an auction to see which aspirant for power would offer the biggest bonus. In effect, auctioning off the rulership itself. The winner was Didius Julianus, bidding an extravagant sum.

Three months later, he too was murdered. It’s said he hadn’t fully paid up.

In the grand sweep of history, this episode is a small footnote. Yet it’s well remembered, not just for its titillation, but mainly because it signaled something important. The once noble empire being reduced to this sad farce showed it was hollowed out and off the rails. This is where “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is reckoned to have really begun.

Now America is in Didius Julianus time. We just had a madman president. Losing re-election, he conspired mightily to remain in power, culminating in his supporters storming the Capitol. His deranged ego unable to face, like a man, his defeat, he concocted a preposterous lie that the election was a fraud. Thoroughly disproven at every turn. One warped soul creating such a lie is understandable. Less so the millions of his cultists for whom it’s become an article of faith, central to their whole political ethos.

The fools worshipping their false god are sacrificing, on the altar of his ego, their very brains, as devotees of his “stolen election” catechism. But this is not so much about the last election as the next one. Which his party of cynical opportunists assiduously works to steal themselves. Exploiting Trump’s big lie as a pretext for measures to supposedly forestall election theft which actually aim to perpetrate it.

We saw this pathology ascendant even in deep blue Trump-loathing New York State where, on November 2, two ballot propositions to enable election day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting were both defeated. Why would voters reject such options to make it easier for them to vote? Because Republicans campaigned against the proposals as inviting election fraud. Which in reality is virtually nonexistent. Yet voters swallowed this bilge. The real reason Republicans oppose making voting easier is because they think it disadvantages them. Trump himself openly said that if every citizen can vote, you’ll never see Republicans elected again.

Few Americans have ever heard of Didius Julianus. Indeed, few know much history at all. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s not just the race history Republicans are making such an issue of. It’s the larger picture of America’s place in history, its import, what it all means. Too many have no concept of what actually made America great. That’s why they can vote so irresponsibly. The craziness warping our whole body politic into a grotesque zombie of its former self. All because one sicko couldn’t accept losing. It makes the tale of Didius Julianus seem bland in comparison — and shows America is, like Rome in his day, hollowed out and off the rails.

The Roman Empire actually limped onward for centuries after Didius Julianus, but its greatness was now in the rearview mirror. “Make America Great Again?” What a sad ironic joke.