The Encyclopedia Britannica defines populism as a “political program or movement that champions the common person, usually by favorable contrast with an elite… Populist politics, by this definition, revolves around a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the will of the people in order to consolidate his own power.” Does this definition bring any prominent political figures to mind? Someone who rose to power by virtue of an “us against them” political campaign that pitted the masses against the establishment elites? Someone whose behavior repulsed longstanding members of the political class? Someone who sought to return their country to its past greatness under his own personal stewardship? Despite being most commonly applied to modern contexts, the populist approach is not new. In the era immediately predating the fall of the Roman Republic, this term applied to a range of men that stretched from Plebian tribunes all the way to Julius Caesar.
Nearly every Roman leader revered the wisdom and the virtue of their forefathers. They were traditionalists, primarily interested in maintaining the status quo of the Roman state. If we understand the term “conservatism” to mean a school of thought that is heavily interested in preserving traditional values and is typically uncomfortable with the rejection of norms and conventional morality, then the vast majority of Rome’s ruling elites were conservatives. But in the late stages of the Republic, a new political force began to emerge: populism. In the second century BCE, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus reacted to an empire populated by destitute people and homeless legionaries by employing radical measures of land reform and redistribution. In 63 BCE, Lucius Sergius Catilina enlisted a number of dispossessed military veterans and social vagrants whom he thought could help him ascend to power. And throughout the forties BCE, Gaius Julius Caesar saw himself as a champion of the people as well as a war hero and took pride in the fact that his army was more loyal to him personally than to the Roman state. If most Romans were conservatives, then these new leaders were populists. All three were rebels who imagined themselves to be purifying forces who stood not for the maintenance of the corrupt aristocracy, but for the advancement of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the deprived. Each believed that reform could only be achieved through their own personal ascendance to power. Consequently, each man was assassinated for fomenting revolution and trying to destroy the Roman state.
Tiberius Gracchus was perhaps the foremost example of populist philosophy operating in the Roman world. As a Plebian tribune, he possessed veto power over Roman consuls (military generals) and had his immunity from physical assault codified by Roman law. In their histories, both Plutarch and Appian establish Tiberius to be a key ally of the populares faction, one who sympathized with the agrarian poor in Italy and saw it as his duty to vocalize their interests. Appian describes Tiberius delivering an “eloquent discourse” on the Italian race, “lamenting that a people so valiant in war, and related in blood to the Romans, were declining little by little into pauperism and paucity.” Appian goes on, “After speaking thus he again brought forward the law, providing that nobody should hold more than 500 jugera of the public domain,” which, according to Appian, “was extremely disturbing to the rich.” Tiberius was effectively putting a cap on how much land each Roman noble could own. And with land came the people who lived on it, the resources you could extract from it, and the taxes you could collect from it. In his prescriptions for combatting widespread poverty and scarcity, Tiberius comes across as the prototypical Marxist, approximately 2,000 years before Marx’s time. According to Appian, Tiberius advocated for collective ownership of property and resources, as well as compassion and empathy for the working class, who, through agriculture and military service, ensured that the gears of the Roman imperial machine continued to turn. Delighting in Tiberius’s apparent enthusiasm for the advancement of the rural poor, Appian says that what Tiberius “had in his mind in proposing the measure was not money, but men,” and that the tribune “admonished the rich to take heed,” and said that “they ought to bestow this very land as a free gift.” Tiberius clearly took his role as a Plebian tribune seriously and seemed to genuinely care about making sure the Senate was aware of the suffering of the masses — a compassion that was not shared by the rich power brokers whose wealth Tiberius was advocating to be redistributed. There was also a pervasive feeling among many Senators that Tiberius was accruing too much power for a man in a non-senatorial position. His ideas and political maneuverings earned him ill will from the majority of Senators, who saw his attempts to reconstruct the Roman state as illegal, revolutionary, and ultimately dangerous. Like most Romans, their foremost priority was the preservation of the state that their glorious forefathers had created. Faced with Tiberius’s populist reforms, however, the Senators found that some of their fathers’ laws could be forgotten when convenient. In a blatant rejection of Roman tradition and law, they mobbed the idealistic tribune and clubbed him to death in broad daylight.
Unlike Tiberius, whose legacy is assured by Appian’s flattering portrait, Catiline suffers greatly from some dramatically negative press. The Roman author Sallust wrote an account so unfavorable it borders on character assassination. Sallust’s history traced the decline of the Roman Republic back to what he understood as an onset of gluttony and avarice into Roman culture, and he identifies Catiline and his fellow conspirators as agents of this nefarious spirit. It is difficult to discern any semblance of objective truth in Sallust’s account of the Catiline Conspiracy, but it is clear that Catiline drew his support from people Sallust found to be unsavory. Sallust identifies Catiline’s supporters as anyone who had contracted an immense debt, who had been convicted of murder or sacrilege, and “all who were hounded by disgrace, poverty, or an evil conscience.” Sallust concludes, “all these were nearest and dearest to Catiline.” Were the renegades Sallust describes social castoffs and miscreants, or impoverished and discontented military veterans? The latter interpretation is lent more credence when Sallust says that Catiline tried to overthrow the government because of his own debt, but also because “veterans, who had squandered their property and now thought with longing of their former pillage and victories, were eager for civil war.” Even if Catiline did not care one bit about the penniless masses, this extremely biased account nonetheless provides some evidence that he drew his support from the people who felt abandoned and left behind by the traditional power structure of the Roman Republic. Such a leader — one who capitalizes on the anger and resentment felt throughout the lower rungs of society in order to further his own personal agenda — fits with how we typically conceptualize populists in the modern era. Catiline was ultimately killed in battle, fighting a civil war to usurp control of the Roman state.
Unlike Tiberius Gracchus, Julius Caesar is not remembered as an ideologue. Nor is he portrayed as a malignant despot like Catiline. Caesar was a supremely proud man who fashioned himself a hero to his troops. His biographer Suetonius describes the lavish and extravagant rewards which Caesar heaped upon his soldiers as compensation for helping him to attain the status of war hero and the popular support that came with it. Suetonius says Caesar was the “sole and ever ready help of all who were in legal difficulties or were in debt and of young spendthrifts…”
He took no less pains to win the devotion of princes and provinces all over the world, offering prisoners to some by the thousand as a gift, and sending auxiliary troops to the aid of others whenever they wished, and as often as they wished, without the sanction of the Senate.
Caesar also managed to enact agrarian land reform that very much resembled the ideals of Tiberius. By all accounts, Caesar viewed the attempts of his rival Pompey and his allies within the Senate to remove him from the consulship as the political maneuvering of a few power-hungry elites trying to eliminate a more popular opponent, one who had the true support of the people. Caesar’s brand of populism had a lot to do with the latter part of the Britannica’s definition, in that he was a charismatic leader who characterized his followers “in a favorable contrast with the elites” of Roman society. Suetonius claims that Caesar, armed with the support of his loyal army, the Plebian tribunes, and the populares faction, “grasped the opportunity of usurping the despotism which had been his heart’s desire since early youth.” Caesar by no means envisioned a cultural revolution — quite the opposite. He envisioned himself to be the savior Rome needed, the guiding hand that would put the republic back on the right path, one determined not by the corrupt establishment, but by the ordinary citizen. Caesar was stabbed to death by members of that very corrupt establishment, who feared and stood to suffer under his dictatorial rule.
Despite existing in distinctly different eras, these three men each shared certain characteristics in their leadership, and all attempted, with varying success, to fundamentally change the apparatus of the Roman state. In the pursuit of this endeavor, all three lost their lives. Of course, not all populist figureheads meet a premature, violent death. But that the fact that these three men did demonstrates how radical their political behavior was for that time and place. Each man used different visions of the “common people” as means to return Rome to a past period of glory and greatness, under their control. Catiline and Tiberius were smaller-scale precursors to Caesar’s eventual triumph — or his tragedy, depending on your interpretation. Roman societal norms encouraged unchecked ambition in its noble families, but also detested and forbade tyranny or kingship. In his pursuit of what he perceived to be the authentic Roman state, Caesar became a walking contradiction, a dictator who sought to preserve a republic. The Romans traded a corrupt senate for an emperor, and Caesar destroyed Rome while trying to make it great again.
The rationalizations that populist figures use are oftentimes legitimate. By all accounts, Rome was operating under an exceedingly corrupt system, one reliant on slavery, foreign vassals, and peasant farmers, and controlled by a few families who had been wealthy for centuries. Their examples show how populism can bring legitimate grievances to the forefront of politics. A good case can be made that the destruction of the senatorial aristocracy could have allowed for the creation of a more equitable and just society. But when populist leaders come to power, that seldom seems to occur. The point here is not to assert that history can be precisely mapped onto the present. The point is to illustrate that the centralization of power in one person lends itself to corruption and despotism. The history of Rome suggests that forms of politics based on exclusivity and tribal tendencies — in which a leader places all of the blame for the country’s woes on “the other” and promises to return his supporters to prosperity and greatness — are exceptionally dangerous. Instead of uniting groups with a singular guiding mission, populism pits citizens against each other. And in the era predating the fall of the Roman Republic, populism’s reign ended as it began — in a contentious and often bloody struggle.
Conor Morrissey is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.