by Tom Cohen

What is past is prologue and must be read carefully if we are to understand our time. It’s almost passe to compare the unraveling of the Roman Republic with our current political malaise, our internecine fighting, our ceaseless arguments. The fact is, regardless of historical era, people are easily misled by others. Politicians, whatever their merits, are usually concerned with or driven by their own needs and by the needs of their supporters. It is up to the people to see through the nominal lip-service that a politician pays and plays and not fall for the lies told for political gain.

In the late second century before our era, the Roman Republic was coming apart at the seams. Rome had engaged in 134 years of uninterrupted warfare from 280 to 146 BC (excluding, of course, a single year of peace when Gaius Atilius and Titus Manlius were consuls in 235 BC). This external expansion fueled internal growth as gold, booty, and slaves were dragged into the capital. This made the ruling class obscenely wealthy. These military campaigns brought new markets and taxable territories under Rome’s rule. Inevitably, however, a crisis emerged as the aristocracy took much of the new land and wealth for itself. And, like death and taxes, it is a fact of life that economic inequality creates political imbalance. And, because quantity has a quality all its own, the scale of the economic inequality in Rome created the circumstances for revolution: an unhappy population and out of touch elites.

As a result of this looming disaster, several politicians from the aristocracy proposed reforms that would seize some of the land held by the aristocracy and return it to the working classes. Two brothers, named Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus ran for office and garnered popular support for this forcible redistribution of wealth. This inevitably put them into conflict with the aristocratic elite and senatorial class who refused reform. In order to fight the Gracchus brothers, the aristocracy resorted to paying street thugs to incite violence. Tiberius, the elder brother, was assassinated in 133 BC as a ineluctable statement by the aristocracy that they would fight any attempts at reform.

Ten years later and the status-quo growing continually worse, Gaius, the younger brother, created an even more revolutionary series of reforms. He called for what we might consider reasonable measures today. Things like: term-limits for elected officials, judicial oversight, a ban on capital punishment, food subsidies, and a redistribution of land. In addition to these already revolutionary reforms, Gaius called for Roman citizenship to be extended to some of the disenfranchised masses of Italy.

The senatorial response to these near-revolutionary reforms was fear and a complete refusal to compromise. They escalated the already tense situation in Rome, and they turned to funding street gangs who would fight Gaius. The eventual solution that the aristocracy reverted to was a concerted and coordinated manipulation of the political process. To undermine Gaius Gracchus, the senators placed their own candidate, a man named Marcus Livius Drusus, forward to compete with Gaius for the people’s support in an upcoming election. Drusus was given the charge of garnering support not by opposing Gaius’s reforms by calling for even more progressive reforms. He would make the mobs of Rome promises that they could not refuse.

These promises were, of course, “too good to be true” and were an act of political cynicism. It was cynical because the aristocracy promised to give the people what they wanted without any intention of actually implementing them. With Drusus, the senators hoped to win the people over. Therefore, when Gaius called for land to be loaned cheaply to the poor, Drusus called for land to be given freely to the poor. Or, as Plutarch writes in his life of Gaius:

The nobles had recourse, and invited him [Drusus] to attack Gaius and league himself with them [the people of Rome] against him, not resorting to violence or coming into collision with the people, but administering his office to please them and making them concessions where it would have been honourable to incur their hatred. (Source)

The aristocratic elite felt so threatened by the people’s candidates and calls for reforms that they consistently backed candidates who were nominally populist, but they were truly loyal to the causes of the elites. Once Drusus had replaced Gaius as the people’s hero, Gaius was voted out of office and assassinated by the senators and their supporters.

All of this happened in a Rome that had faced immense social pressure, change, and inequality over the previous century. Instead of legitimately looking for solutions or listening to those who represented the people’s material and civic interests, the ruling class disguised one of their own [Drusus] and instructed him to make empty promises. Their intentions were pure, unadulterated cynicism.

Behavior like this, which is to say unethical political behavior with the sole purpose of maintaining the status quo instead of seeking solutions, lead to the downfall of a Republic which had lasted several centuries. It was inevitable that other, more ambitious, and aristocratic individuals saw what power could be created by posturing themselves as heroes of the lower classes.

Over the next seventy years, a number of external threats (like invasions, wars, and civil wars) so frightened the Roman people that they turned to a succession of strongmen who continued the unravelling of the republic. First, there was a general named Gaius Marius who was elected to an unprecedented number of consecutive years as consul. Marius was overcome by Sulla who was given the title of “Dictator” by the people and senate so that he would have the power to restore sanity. Sulla eventually surrendered his title, with the purpose of restoring Rome to its republican ideals. But it wasn’t enough, the thread had been pulled, the republic unraveled. And, by the time a charismatic populist like Julius Caesar had risen on the political stage, the Senate and People of Rome were powerless to stop him.

This historical survey is merely to demonstrate that a series of like events, wherein the established ruling class undermines the efforts for lawful reform through the proper political machines–regardless of the ethics of those reforms–and assumes upon itself the power of populism, creates extremely precarious circumstances. Populism is a Pandora’s Box of power. And, whoever wields that power, especially for cynical purposes, unleashes a force which will be increasingly used until that power transforms into a tyranny.