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the Gracchi

Make demagogues great again

This year’s eyebrow-raising, jaw-dropping American electoral campaign has evoked in some observers the memory of the ancient Roman Republic, especially as it neared its bloody end. Commentators have drawn parallels between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Julius Caesar. That would be an insult – to Caesar. Can anyone imagine in Mr. Trump’s mouth the statesmanlike arguments Caesar is supposed to have used to try to convince the Roman Senate not to give in to anger and fear and inflict capital punishment illegally on Roman citizens? The hallmark of Mr. Trump’s campaign (at least until other problems emerged recently) has been the sheer anger it has exuded (and incited). So a more promising analogy from Roman history might therefore be the so-called popularis – roughly, ‘populist’ – ‘demagogues’ of the Late Republic.

Put off by Trump’s demonizing of Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists, or his call to throw his chief competitor into prison? Consider this excerpt from a speech that the historian Sallust (Iug. 31), himself a retired ‘demagogue’ and a master of that style, attributes to a Roman tribune named Gaius Memmius before the assembly:

‘But who are these men who have seized control of the state? Hardened criminals with bloody hands and unquenchable greed, as vicious as they are arrogant! They have sold for profit their good faith, dignity and respect – everything honorable and dishonorable. Some of them have slaughtered tribunes of the people while others protect themselves by unjust prosecutions or unleashing massacres among you. The more evil they do, the more secure they are: they have made you afraid despite your apathy when they should be afraid because of their crimes.’

Memmius seems to surpass even Mr Trump in anger and truculence. Concitatio invidiae, or ‘arousal of indignation’, was the characteristic rhetorical mode of the Roman populist ‘demagogue’, usually a Tribune of the People seeking to stir Roman voters into action when he thought their leaders in the Senate were up to no good. In Memmius’ case, the problem was (allegedly) bribery of senators on a massive scale by a foreign king and its cover-up. The outrage is understandable, though the violence of the language is shocking, even irresponsible, to our ears.

After such a fusillade, did riot or massacre ensue? No. Memmius had, after all, told his audience ‘there is no need for violence, no need for secession.’ But the Senate, cowed, yielded to popular pressure and ordered the king to come to Rome to give evidence. Memmius won his point, but he could not have done so had he not mobilized the common people of Rome; and to do this he had to employ anger and indignation. After all, for the most part, people had better things to do than spend hours listening to speeches in the Forum, shouting outside the Senate-House, or standing in line all day to vote. Normally they seem to have accepted that senators, who devoted their lives ostensibly to serve the Republic, were the experts. But there was always room for doubt about what they were up to when you weren’t looking, or when they were outside the public gaze in their own (untelevised) meeting-chamber.

Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Half of 1st century AD by Glauco92. CC BY-SA 3.0 by Wikimedia Commons.

Though Cicero was himself a master of their techniques, he hated populist ‘demagogues’. They pretended to be ‘friends of the people’ while exploiting the great power enjoyed by the people in the republican system to advance themselves at the expense of the Senate and ‘the good men’, whose power mostly resided in that institution. The criticism is not unlike that levelled at today’s populists. But it is inadequate, as a brief look at Cicero’s targets shows: men like the brothers Gracchi, whom Cicero attacks posthumously as divisive and hostile to the ‘good men’, or like Publius Clodius, Cicero’s own bête noire, who had sent him, the ‘savior of the Republic’, into exile. Yet the Gracchi had been killed by those ‘good men’ for championing the rights of ordinary citizens and restraining some excesses of the rich and powerful, and Clodius, the late Republic’s ‘bad boy’ politician who still gets pretty bad press from scholars, had sent Cicero into exile for blatantly violating Roman statute and long-standing constitutional norms by executing at least five Roman citizens without a formal – that is, a legal – trial.

Was Clodius wrong? Other ‘demagogues’ played a crucial role in correcting failed senatorial policies: getting rid of the aristocrats who kept losing costly battles against the Germanic invaders of the late second century and putting the gifted general Marius in charge; or devoting the necessary resources and appointing the best military man of the age, Gnaeus Pompey, to clean up the plague of piracy that had spread throughout the Mediterranean, raiding even Rome’s port at the mouth of the Tiber as Roman officials looked on. (Some might reply that these decisions by the people also hastened the Republic’s end, but that’s for another day.)

None of this would have happened if the ‘demagogues’ hadn’t made pests of themselves. Seen in this light, their outrage was a necessary ‘hook’ to mobilize the crowds needed to strike ‘the fear of the people’ into the Senate and the ‘powerful few’ (pauci potentes) who dominated its proceedings. As it happens, Memmius’s anger did not carry him far from the truth. He accuses those who dominate the Senate of slaughtering plebeian tribunes with impunity, plundering the treasury, accepting massive bribes from foreign potentates, usurping the law for their own ends, while shamelessly ‘parading before your eyes priesthoods, consulships, and triumphs, as if they held these things as an honor rather than as plunder.’ But he wasn’t exactly making it up. The Gracchi brothers, heroes to Roman plebeians, were indeed slaughtered, their bodies thrown into the Tiber like the city’s refuse.

Even the most upright provincial governors, like Cicero, could pocket an extraordinary sum from their ‘patriotic service’ – not to mention victorious commanders in war, who whatever the technicalities of the law could generally turn a handsome personal profit from the army’s plunder. Bribery of Roman officials by the subject peoples in the provinces seems to have been endemic– to prevent greater depredations that would otherwise be unleashed on them – and, since these same communities were also often cash-strapped, wealthy Romans were happy to finance it on extortionate terms … enforced by those very same Roman officials. And so on. Roman senators often richly deserved the indignation that was directed at them by populist ‘demagogues.’

So the Roman ‘demagogues’ encourage reflection on the nature of populism, ‘demagogy’, and the rhetoric of popular outrage, of which we have seen and heard a good deal this year, not only in the United States. These may not always be a bad thing, and we should take care not to taint with loaded terms every call to a normally quiescent citizenry to wake up and challenge ‘business as usual’. But Mr Trump has a lot less to be outraged about than did the Roman tribunes. And there is an important ethical difference between the kind of populist anger that is sharply trained on ‘political elites’, the ‘powerful few’, and that which Mr Trump so often directs against the less powerful – immigrants, legal or otherwise, foreigners in general, religious or racial minorities, and women – chiefly, it appears, to appeal to the resentment of white blue-collar and suburban voters, especially males, who fear that they have lost their former dominance.

Maybe it’s time to make demagogues great again.

Featured image credit: “The Gracchi” by Jean-Baptiste Claude Eugène Guillaume. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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