DECORAH, IOWA – Populism has a long and colorful history in American politics, from Huey Long on the left and George Wallace on the right, to — more recently — Ross Perot in 1992 and Donald Trump today. But the roots of populism stretch much further back in time — more than two millennia, to the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.
For most of its history, the Roman Republic was governed by old political families and reliable power brokers who knew how to keep the masses in line. Elections were held, but they were deliberately designed to give the ruling classes the lion’s share of the popular vote. If the Roman aristocracy, which voted first, chose a man for office, officials often would not even bother to count the ballots cast by the lower classes.
On occasion, disgruntled farmers, tavern owners and donkey drivers would rise up and press their rulers for debt relief and a real voice in government, but these revolts were put down quickly with promises of better times ahead and by hiring a few off-duty gladiators to rough up the chief troublemakers. In the late second century B.C., the aristocratic Gracchi brothers tried to bring about a political revolution from within, only to be killed by the conservative nobility.
The man who ultimately brought down the system was a wealthy and ambitious nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher, a populist demagogue who refused to play by the rules. Clodius had always been eccentric and unpredictable in ways that both shocked and amused the Roman populace. As a young man, he had incited a mutiny among his brother-in-law’s troops. Then, when pirates captured him, he took deep offense at the small ransom they accepted for his release.
Nothing was sacred to Clodius. The more audacious his behavior, the more the public loved him for it. In Rome, for example, Clodius, a noted ladies’ man, committed sacrilege by dressing up as a woman and infiltrating the female-only religious festival of the goddess Bona Dea, with the aim of seducing Pompeia, Julius Caesar’s wife. The scandal led Caesar to divorce Pompeia, and gave rise to the famous quip that Caesar’s wife needed to be beyond suspicion.
After escaping punishment by employing a large legal team and doling out generous bribes, Clodius entered politics in an effort to secure the respect of the ruling class, which was quick to dismiss him as a buffoon. What Clodius’s critics failed to realize was that he was smart, determined and very much in touch with the frustrations of the common people.
After the elite rebuffed him, Clodius began breaking every rule in his quest for power. He gave up his standing as a nobleman and officially joined the plebs, positioning himself as the leader of the angry Roman working classes. Using his natural charm, fiery rhetoric and keen sense of how to play establishment politicians against each other, he rammed through legislation establishing the first regular handout of free grain in Western history. This provided him with a huge following among the common people, especially those who had lost their jobs in recent economic upheavals. He became the king of the Roman streets and unleashed a populist uprising unlike anything the Republic had ever seen.
Rome’s ruling classes had no idea how to control Clodius, whom they continued to despise. If the Republic were going to be destroyed, the famous orator and establishment politician Cicero lamented, at least let it fall by the hand of a real man.
Exacting revenge, Clodius engineered Cicero’s exile and laid his plans to rise to the top of the political pyramid. During his campaign for the praetorship, an elected magistrate that ranked just below Rome’s ruling consuls, the elections had to be postponed twice because of fighting in the streets between his followers and the faction of his enemy, Annius Milo. When Clodius happened to meet Milo along the Appian Way, a fight broke out between their guards, and Clodius was gravely wounded. Reckoning that a dead rival was less of a threat than a live and angry one, Milo ordered his men to finish him off.
But though Clodius had been killed, the populist forces he unleashed remained very much alive, and they quickly found new champions, most notably Caesar. The ruling classes stood by dazed and helpless as control of the state they had run for centuries slipped from their hands.
In 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Rubicon, engulfing Rome in civil war. Caesar’s murder on the Ides of March was followed by a revolt that destroyed, once and for all, the power of the ruling classes. An autocratic empire arose, and the Roman Republic vanished forever.
Philip Freeman is the translator of “How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians and How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life,” both from Princeton University Press. © Project Syndicate, 2016
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