Our article today comes to us from Crystal Ferreira, a teacher at Polyhistoria. Today, we’ll be discussing empires, Trump, and social media.
I teach two classes about the fall of the Roman Republic that explore some of the ways the Roman system validly anticipates modern political problems. Direct communication to the public by populist leaders and the strategies used by their opponents to defeat them are two of the parallels we explore in the classes.
Looking at ancient forms of populism can be both instructive and revealing, and it can help us have a better understanding of the contemporary phenomenon of populism. Likewise, it can also help us understand what sort of impact the communication-style of a populist leader, like Trump, may have on the next leader that takes his place.
In the last years of the Roman Republic, the long shadow of populism was cast by two legendary brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Their political agendas and methods were distinctly populist.
They were born into the old and noble Sempronia family. Their father held all the major political offices in the Republic: tribune of the plebs, praetor, consul, and censor. Their mother was a patrician, Cornelia Africana, daughter of Scipio Africanus, a hero of the war against Carthage.
One of the first things that the Gracchi brothers (and later, Clodius and Caesar) teach us about populism today is that contrary to what is generally believed, populism is not a bottom-up political movement, the desperate voice of the marginalized masses, the political expression of a final, radical, democratic push by those who for too long have been excluded and are not going to take it any longer. Instead, populism is the brainchild of the elite. That’s how it was during the Roman Republic, and the same is true today.
What’s more, the Roman Republic teaches us a few lessons about the effective strategies used to out-politic an incumbent populist leader.
Here’s what Plutarch says about Gaius Gracchus’ rise to populist power:
“When Vettius, a friend of his, was on his trial, he defended his cause, and the people were in an ecstasy, and transported with joy, finding him master of such eloquence that the other orators seemed like children in comparison, and jealousies and fears, on the other hand, began to be felt by the powerful citizens; and it was generally spoken of amongst them that they must hinder Caius from being made tribune.
“After this, they (the Senate) brought other accusations and writs against him, for exciting insurrection amongst the allies, and being engaged in the conspiracy that was discovered about Fregellæ. But having cleared himself of every suspicion, and proved his entire innocence, he now at once came forward to ask for the tribuneship; in which, though he was universally opposed by all persons of distinction, yet there came such infinite numbers of people from all parts of Italy to vote for Caius, that lodgings for them could not be supplied in the city; and the Field being not large enough to contain the assembly, there were numbers who climbed upon the roofs and the tilings of the houses to use their voices in his favour.”
See, the Senate believed that Gaius Gracchus was no saint and that he was using the power of the people for his own political interests. But they couldn’t do anything about it.
Gaius manages to get himself elected as tribune of the plebs (a person elected to represent the people) for a second consecutive time in 122 BCE.
And now, the senate is freaking out because they think they have someone who is well on their way to becoming king on their hands.
Seeing how wildly popular Gaius was with the people, the Senate decides to fight fire with fire and endeavors to win the people’s favor and thereby pull Gaius’ supporters to the side of the Senate.
The Senate puts forward their own tribune. A tribune of the plebs that was supposed to be working for the people’s interests who would secretly work for theirs.
They went to a guy, also from a good family, named Marcus Livius Drusus. He gets on board and what he does is the most cynical display of political gamesmanship I’ve ever seen.
With the Senate’s support, he goes in there with one plan and one plan only—be against the designs of Gaius Gracchus. His plan is that whatever Gaius Gracchus is offering the people, we’ll promise more.
It was an amazingly cynical and yet brilliant plan at the same time. Once again, a politically cornered entity—the Senate, that had been thoroughly outmaneuvered in the political chess game by Gaius–finds a way to overturn the board.
And it has the desired effect.
When Gaius proposes two colonies be established overseas (and this was popular with the lower classes, but expensive, so the Senate usually frowned upon it), the Senate criticized him. Then Drusus came out and instead of proposing two colonies, he proposed twelve and the Senate supported it.
When Gaius offered land to the poor people but wanted them to pay just a little amount of money, Drusus criticized any amount of money that should go to the public treasury—the land should be given away for free, and the Senate supported him.
The whole time, Drusus goes to great pains to ensure he’s never seen as the benefactor, politically or economically, of his legislation but rather that he proposed his measures, backed by the Senate, to further benefit the people.
Here’s what Plutarch writes about it:
“But the senate, apprehending that he would, at last, grow too powerful and dangerous, took a new and unusual course to alienate the people’s affections from him, by playing the demagogue in opposition to him, and offering favours contrary to all good policy. Livius Drusus was fellow-tribune with Caius, a person of as good a family and as well-educated as any amongst the Romans, and noways inferior to those who for their eloquence and riches were the most honoured and most powerful men of that time. To him, therefore, the chief senators made their application, exhorting him to attack Caius, and join in their confederacy against him; which they designed to carry on, not by using any force, or opposing the common people, but by gratifying and obliging them with such unreasonable things as otherwise they would have felt it honourable for them to incur the greatest unpopularity in resisting.”
Every time Gaius wanted to propose something, the senate opposed him. Every time Drusus wanted to do something, the Senate goes along with it. So, Drusus seems much more effective and giving to the citizenry.
As a result, when Gaius tries to run for office again, to get a third year as a tribune, he’s defeated.
As for our next presidential elections, it comes down to the political strategies used to defeat, or succeed, Trump. If a populist leader is used to defeat a populist leader, then, yes, you can expect the use of social media to continue.