“What is the theme of your conference?” asked a potential traveler to Rome.
“How republics perish,” I replied.
“Don’t you mean democracies?” he persisted, referring to the title of a good but far-from-profound book by Jean-François Revel. I congratulated him on getting the point of the title of our second Rome Convivium. After all, I explained, democracies always perish—and rather quickly, if we can judge from the histories of fifth-century Athens and Jacobin France—passing through the stages of constitutional order, mob rule, demagogic dictatorship, and autocracy, though not necessarily in the same sequence.
Democracies are a bit like a homicidal unicorn: They do not exist, and that is a good thing. Republics are something different. They come in many different types, from the aristocratic (Venice) to the comparatively popular (America before 1860), but they are all based on law and tradition. The ancient Romans lost the essence of their republic in gaining an empire long before Julius Caesar seized power, but they also preserved much of their republican legacy in the “principate”—that is, the early empire. Much of the credit goes to Augustus and his collaborators, who worked hard to rebuild the moral and religious foundations on which Roman greatness was based. Americans, as our country hardens...