What is past is prologue and must be read carefully if we are to understand the present. It’s almost passe to compare the unraveling of the Roman Republic with our current political malaise, our internecine fighting, and our ceaseless arguments. The fact is, regardless of historical era, people are easily misled by others. Regardless of their claims, it is self interest that drives politicians. It is up to the voters to see through whatever nominal lip-service politicians pay and not fall for lies told for political gain.
In the late second century before the Common Era, the Roman Republic came apart at the seams. In the years leading up to this collapse, Rome engaged in 134 years of uninterrupted warfare from 280 to 146 BCE (excluding the single year of peace when Gaius Atilius and Titus Manlius were consuls in 235 BCE). 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, a crisis emerged as the aristocracy’s greed took hold. And, like gravity, it is a fact of life that economic imbalance creates political imbalance.
As a result of this looming disaster, several politicians proposed reforms to seize aristocratic properties and to redistribute it to the lower class. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were a pair of brothers who ran for office and garnered populist support for this redistribution of wealth. Inevitably, they found themselves in conflict with the aristocratic elite and senatorial class who refused reform on principal. 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 BCE as the aristocracy’s statement that they would not tolerate change.
Ten years later, 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 like: term-limits for elected officials, judicial oversight, a ban on capital punishment, food subsidies, and a redistribution of land. In addition to these so-called destabilizing 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 Drusus, forward to compete with Gaius for the people’s support in an upcoming election. The aristocracy instructed Drusus to call for more progressive reforms than Gaius and thereby siphon off Gaius’ support.
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)
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 and maintain the status-quo.
The aristocratic elite felt so threatened by the people’s call for change that they backed candidates who only nominally supported the people and were in truth loyal to the elites. Once Drusus had replaced Gaius as the people’s favorite, Gaius was voted out of office and assassinated by the senators and their supporters.
All of this happened in a Rome that faced immense social pressure, change, and inequality over the previous century. But, legitimately looking for solutions or listening to those who represented the people’s material and civic interests, the ruling class acted with 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–read unconstitutional–number of consecutive years as consul. Then Sulla, who supplanted Marius, was given the title of “Dictator” by the people and Senate of Rome so that he would have the power to restore sanity. Sulla eventually surrendered this ominous title, with the purpose of restoring Rome to its republican ideals. But it wasn’t enough, the thread had been pulled, and the republic unraveled. By the time a populist candidate like Julius Caesar rose on the political stage, the Senate and People of Rome were powerless to stop him.
This purpose of 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 extreme circumstances where norms are quickly defied. Whoever instigates populist power, especially for cynical purposes, is responsible for the manifestation of tyranny.