The NY Times published a fascinating Op-Ed piece by Robert Harris, "Pirates of the Mediterranean", on Ancient Rome's "War on Terra" which was triggered by an attack by a rag tag group of "ruined men of all nations" and the disastrous consequences of Rome's over reaction.
In the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.
Pompey the Great decided to respond to the nationless enemy combatants with an overwhelming show of force consisting of 120,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 500 newly built ships. This force almost emptied out the Roman Treasury. In order to carry his plans out, Pompey had to give himself "not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone" under a new law called Lex Gabinia, which, coincidentally enough, was passed illegally. I think that's Latin for "Patriot Act."
When members of the senate tried to block its passing, Pompey used the oldest political trick in the book by whipping up panic and dismissing any "dissenting voices as 'soft' or even 'traitorous'". The powers ceded to Pompey by the people to help him in his "war on terra" were never returned.
Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.
It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to bribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon — and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.
I can't wrap it up any better than the author of the piece, so I'll step aside here and let him do it:
An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.
The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the same result.
It's time to dust off the copy of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and reread it.