It’s 532 AD. The mighty Western Roman Empire is in ruins. In the East, however, their empire still flourishes. At its heart is the great city of Constantinople, ruled by the most powerful man in the world; the Emperor Justinian. One of the greatest men of all time, and his entire reign was almost brought to an end by the mighty power of political parties…
During the reign of Justinian, chariot racing was far and away the most popular sport in the empire. Within the sport there existed two factions: the Blues and the Greens. But the followers of these teams were more than just sports fans. The teams were a combination of fanatical sports enthusiasm, social class, and political party. The upper classes tended to favor the Blues, and the common man tended to follow the Greens. They hurled insults back and forth, they fought with each other, occasionally they would murder people in the other group. But it wasn’t until a botched execution that a man from each group survived that the two groups came together and turned their fury on the Emperor.
This coming together of the two parties led to five days of riots, the Nika Riots, that all but destroyed Constantinople. Much of the city was burned, and if it hadn’t been for Justinian’s amazing wife, Theodora, he would have fled the city in terror at the combined rage of the two parties. Instead, he stayed. He bribed the leaders of one side and then sent his troops at the rioters. Tens of thousands of people were killed when all was said and done. All because two opposing political parties came together for a moment in time.
But political party extremism has been around forever. Even Plato writes about the tendency of the ancient Athenians to often vote against their best interests in order to support their favored political party. The Romans were well known for their political factions full of deception, bribery, and seduction. Any time you look back on history to a group that has any sort of democratic or republican ideas, you will find political parties at each other’s throats.
Here in the United States of America it is no different. Since the brutal election of 1800 there have existed at least two major political parties in this nation at any given time. While some of the groups have risen and fallen, there have always been others that spring up to take their place.
The question you often hear, though, is “Are the parties more divided today than they ever have been?” It’s a good question, and one worth looking into. Is the political party extremism that we see all around us today unique in American history?
In short… no.
Americans have always been divided, and things have actually been far worse in the past, especially in the mid 1800’s during the build-up to the Civil War. One of the most famous instances involves a senator by the name of Preston Brooks who beat another senator, Charles Sumner, nearly to death in the middle of the Senate chamber floor. He just walked up to the man and started wailing on him. Other men eventually separated the two, but the attacker, Brooks, was able to stroll out of the building and faced only the most minor of legal issues because of the whole thing. He was actually treated as a hero in the South and got re-elected soon after the whole instance.
Things weren’t much better at the state level. One state representative murdered another rep with a bowie knife in the middle of their session. He murdered a man in the middle of doing government business! He was found not-guilty, got re-elected, and then tried to kill another representative a few years later (he was stopped by the cocking of pistols throughout the chamber, according to legend).
Just imagine that our representatives today were actually fighting and murdering each other. Yeah, they piss and moan a lot and generally don’t get anything done, but they aren’t brandishing weapons in the middle of a debate like the representatives of old were wont to do.