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8 January 2021updated 17 Jan 2024 7:28am

The fall of the Roman republic is a warning about today’s degenerate populists

It’s not just the events this week in Washington, as Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, that should worry us, but the erosion of norms they represent.

By Jonn Elledge

When Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune of the people in 133 BC, the Roman republic was a democracy, of sorts. Little more than 100 years later, it was neither a democracy nor a republic. At risk of sounding hysterical, the fall of the republic holds more lessons today than feels entirely comfortable.

The job of the tribunes was, in theory, to protect the interests of the people against the ruling class. What did for Gracchus was that, unlike most of his predecessors, he took that job description seriously, redistributing state-owned land from the rich, who had illegally occupied it, to the poor, who had none. What’s more, he tried to do it without consulting the Senate, then immediately stood for a second term – not technically illegal, but very much not the sort of thing you were supposed to do. 

Whether he was motivated by genuine egalitarianism, practical concern about the risks of inequality or simple hunger for power is a matter about which historians have argued for centuries. What is not up for debate is how it ended: with Gracchus and several hundred of his supporters dead in the Forum, murdered by a posse of senators.

There’s no way of reading all this as a direct allegory for what happened in Washington this week: you’d have to be generous to the point of delusion to imagine that Donald Trump was in any way motivated by concern for anybody else, and it was his supporters who committed the violence. But many of this story’s themes – populism, inequality, the sudden intrusion of blood into supposedly sacrosanct democratic spaces – resonate nonetheless. 

[see also: The storming of the US Capitol by a mob is the logical end to Donald Trump’s presidency]

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More than that, the tale of Tiberius Gracchus matters because of what it started. Nine years after Gracchus’s death, his younger brother Gaius was elected to the same role, and tried to enact similarly radical reforms. He escaped being murdered only by killing himself before the mob could reach him. A decade or so after that, a successful general, Gaius Marius, realised he could use populism to get elected to the top job of consul. He ended up holding the post for a record seven terms, five of them consecutive. You weren’t really supposed to do that, either – but it turned out that, with sufficient backing, you could. 

His conservative opponents won the civil war that followed his final consulship in 87 BC, thanks to a general named Sulla, who took the unprecedented step of marching his army into Rome. You definitely weren’t supposed to do that – but with men more loyal to their boss than to the state, there was very little to stop him. After two years as dictator, during which thousands were slaughtered, Sulla stood down, retired, and eventually died in his bed. But the precedent had been set. Half a century after Tiberius Gracchus, it was blindingly obvious that, with the support of the mob, a loyal enough army, or both, you could bypass the traditional electoral routes to power in Rome. 

And so, people kept doing it. Clodius, Pompey, Caesar, Mark Antony: each of them won power by breaking behavioural conventions that had stood in Rome for centuries, and each generation went a little bit further than the last. This process only stopped in 31 BC, when Octavian (who would later be known as Augustus), the last man standing, was in a position to rule for life. The republic was done. Augustus and his family reigned as emperors for the next century. 

This is what scares me about the scenes in Washington this week, and a dozen other things: not just the events themselves but the erosion of norms and the escalation they represent. In the US, Trump’s lies and shamelessness won him one election and came perilously close to winning him a second. What’s more, it is now clear that losers can refuse to accept election results with little personal consequence. On this occasion it didn’t work. On another, it might. And after the descent from Eisenhower to Nixon to Reagan to Bush to Trump, would you bet that the Republican Party of 2024 or 2028 will have more integrity than today’s? 

[see also: Ban Donald Trump’s Twitter account – for good]

It’s a downward trend that exists beyond America’s borders. Here in Britain these past few years, we’ve seen ministers commit offences that would once have barred them from high office but now, somehow, no longer do: Liam Fox stood down on his own timetable even after breaking the ministerial code, and David Davis stayed on as Brexit minister after failing to release the impact assessments for Brexit; Priti Patel is Home Secretary today despite being forced to quit Theresa May’s cabinet for holding unauthorised meetings with foreign ministers. Both the 2016 EU referendum and the 2019 general election were won on the basis of lies, for which no one has ever been held to account. Boris Johnson makes promises daily that even he must know will never be kept. But why govern honestly, when it’s clear that deceit has few consequences? Why wouldn’t the next guy try the same tricks, only more of them? 

After Gracchus, and Marius, and Sulla, there was always going to be another populist with an army marching on Rome. So what will come next, after Johnson and Trump? 

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