Political scientists agree that populism is rampant in modern societies. The roots of the political ideology can be found in various instances of history. The word populism comes from the Latin populus, meaning the people. Thus, populism refers to a political engagement that emphasizes the interests and needs of ordinary people.
It is not a matter of mere symbolism that the Roman Republic’s government was abbreviated as SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus. It was an imperative of the Roman constitution that the basis of its governance was the “populus.” The Republic was a society ripe with conditions which allowed politicians to apply the populist discourse. The following five populists greatly influenced the development of the late Roman Republic.
The Populares vs. Optimates: The Political Divide of the Late Roman Republic
Throughout the late Roman Republic, the political climate was divided into two major political factions: the populares and the optimates. The antagonism caused by the factionalism inherent in the last decades of the Republic was a defining factor in the decline and eventual fall of the political system that consummated the rise of the new imperial government.
The populares sought to increase the power of the people while advocating primarily for the interests of the urban poor and the plebeians. Their political agenda involved a stern challenge to the authority of the traditional elites of the Senate. Due to their opposition to the oligarchic rule of corrupt aristocrats, the politicians of the populares are often likened to modern populists.
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Against them, the optimates were associated with politicians representing the traditional elites, the wealthy landowners, and the Senate. They aimed to maintain the status quo and preserve the power and influence of the traditional ruling class. Famous among the optimates were the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero and the general and later dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
Though the divide between the populares and the optimates can be described through an ideological perspective, the conflict is better understood as based on political interest, driven by competition for power and influence. The struggle for power was consequential in the rise of strongmen like Julius Caeser and populist politicians, such as the Gracchi brothers, whose ambition culminated in the Republic’s fall.
1. Tiberius Gracchus: The Late Republic’s First Populist
Born in 163 BCE, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was one of the first significant populares politicians who fought for populist reforms that catalyzed the conflict between the optimates and populares. His roots were of both plebeian and patrician origin. Important to note is that by this point in the Republic, many of the aristocratic ruling class were also from plebeian families. This was due to the eventual equalization of political opportunities between the plebeians and the patricians that arose due to the Conflict of the Orders.
Tiberius’ plebeian background meant that he was eligible to run for tribune of the plebs, an office which, in 133 BCE, he succeeded in winning. The tribunate of the plebs was one of the most prestigious magistracies, as tribunes were allowed to veto almost any political activity and they were deemed sacrosanct, meaning that their bodies were considered holy and untouchable. Thus, as tribune, Tiberius had earned a position of considerable power, especially in championing the cause of the common people.
During his magistracy as tribune, Tiberius proposed redistributing land from wealthy landowners to Roman citizens, particularly the economically marginalized. Involved in this reform was a limitation on the quota of land any individual could own in order to establish public land for redistribution to the poor.
The reform was met with stark opposition from the optimates. Tiberius opted to pass the reform through the popular assembly, bypassing the Senate. This was a radical violation of traditional aspects of the Roman constitution, and his opponents feared that Tiberius aimed at tyranny.
In 133 BCE, a group of optimates senators led by Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica attacked Tiberius and his supporters and clubbed him to death. Despite his violent death, Tiberius’ reforms were of vast consequence to the political stage of Rome. His land reform program was adopted by later populist politicians, such as his brother Gaius Gracchus and later by Julius Caesar. More importantly, Tiberius set the precedent for antagonism against the traditions of Roman governance and allowed for the rise of powerful military strongmen.
2. Gaius Gracchus: The Tribune that Followed His Brother’s Footsteps
Gaius Sempronius Gracchus was born in 154 BCE and was the younger brother of Tiberius Gracchus. Following in his brother’s footsteps, Gaius was elected tribune of the plebs in 123 BCE and adopted the populares method of conducting politics. As tribune, Gaius proposed several reforms that, aiming to improve the lives of ordinary citizens, could be considered populist.
One such reform suggested extending Roman citizenship to all the peoples of Italy, who long hoped to be included in the benefits of full Roman citizenship. Gaius also advocated for establishing price controls on grain to reduce food prices for the poor and create new colonies to provide land for landless citizens.
As with his brother before him, the optimates resisted Gaius and his ideas for change. His radical reforms and his representation of the people’s interests were seen as populist appeals that threatened the traditional Roman elites. His opponents feared that with the popularity Gaius held among the people, he would soon seek to usurp the power of the Senate and establish a monarchy.
Though he was deposed from his position as tribune through the influence of his political opponents, Gaius won back support and was elected to the same office again in 122 BCE. His second term as tribune of the plebs, however, was marked with even more violence and political turmoil. In 121 BCE, Gaius and his supporters were attacked by a mob of political opponents in the Roman Forum. While he attempted to flee the scene, he was eventually cornered on the Avantine Hill. Not wanting to be taken captive, Gaius committed suicide by falling on his sword.
3. The Seven Time Consul Gaius Marius
Cereatae, where Gaius Marius was born in 157 BCE, was a small Italian village whose citizens, though they received Roman citizenship already in the late 4th century BCE, were eligible for full citizenship and hence permitted to participate in voting only in 188 BCE. Marius had a wealthy background, but because he was a “new man,” the first of his family to enter the political sphere, he faced difficulties being accepted into Roman society’s upper echelons.
Through much effort and financial funneling, Marius entered political life and reached the heights of success, including becoming consul seven times, which was unprecedented then. In 119 BCE, as plebeian tribune, he pushed through a law that limited the intervention of the wealthy in elections, an act that indeed fell in line with the populares agenda.
Marius’ most long-lasting endeavors concerned his military reforms and prowess. From 112 to 106 BCE, Rome was involved in an exasperating war with Jugurtha of Numidia. Marius capitalized on the political pressures from the failures of Roman generals in the Jugurthine War. Through careful political manipulation and a boastful confidence that he would end the war, he became the consul of 107 BCE and took command of the armies in Numidia. Within a year, he defeated Jugurtha and returned to Rome triumphant.
One of the significant issues in Rome at the time was a shortage of military manpower. Conscription into the army required men to own property. Because of ever-increasing inequality, many citizens were landless and without property. In 107 BCE, when Marius was recruiting for the Jugurthine war, the senate authorized him to disregard property qualifications. This was the first step in the major military reform that would grant Marius a pedestal in history.
Between the years 113 to 101 BCE, Rome faced another threat. Germanic and Celtic tribes were migrating forcefully into Roman territories and defeated early attempts at resistance. Breaking with tradition, the Roman constitution was ignored, and Gaius Marius, who already had a reputation as a successful military commander, was elected consul five years in a row in 104 BCE. Marius was given the freedom to construct an army on his terms. Again, he replaced the previous land-owning male citizens with voluntarily conscripted landless recruits, whom he used to create a professional standing army. With this transformation of the army, Rome no longer lacked manpower, and Marius succeeded in destroying the migrating tribes.
Apart from this revolutionary military reform, Marius was a strong advocate for the needs and interests of common people, as well as the rights of soldiers, who were often neglected by Roman elites. His political career was untraditional, and the personality cult with which he conducted politics was undoubtedly the epitome of populares discourse.
4. The Scandelous Populist Publius Clodius Pulcher
Publius Clodius Pulcher was one of the most controversial political figures of the late Roman Republic. Though he was born into a fully patrician family, his behavior and politics were anything but traditional. Clodius was a known supporter of Julius Caesar and the populares faction. His politics were often involved in a colorful pampering of the people. One of his most populist acts was securing himself into adoption by a plebeian family in order to run as tribune of the plebs, an office that was exclusive to plebeians. As tribune, Clodius passed several populist measures, including a law that allowed anyone accused of a crime to be tried before the people rather than the Senate.
One of his most scandalous exploits was Clodius’ decision to dress up as a woman and sneak into the women-only religious festival of the Bona Dea, held at the house of the pontifex maximus, chief priest of Rome. This act roused extreme opposition, and he was prosecuted for sacrilege, though he was acquitted.
A dramatic and charismatic personality, Clodius gathered around him a large following. He used his supporters as a mob to wreak havoc in the streets of Rome. He was violently killed in 52 BCE in a street fight between his followers and those of his enemy, Titus Annius Milo. His death sparked an enormous outrage, and his body was carried to a pyre that burned the senate house.
5. Julius Caesar: Dismantling the Late Roman Republic
The infamous story of Julius Caesar is well known. Born in 100 BCE, Caesar was Gaius Marius’ nephew. Apart from this familial relation, Caesar was greatly influenced by Gaius Marius and saw himself as Marius’ successor. He is one of the most studied figures in ancient history.
Caesar rose to infamy through his conquests in Gaul, Britain, and parts of Germany, which marked him out as a legendary Roman general. In 49 BCE, Caesar defied the Roman Senate and crossed the Rubicon river with his army, sparking a civil war that lasted for years. Victorious Caesar was appointed dictator for life in 44 BCE. His rule, however, was short-lived, as he was assassinated by a group of senators led by Brutus and Cassius, who feared that Julius Caesar aimed to undermine the Republic and establish an autocracy.
Though he at first joined the optimates faction, Caesar would later support the populares. What established him as a populist leader was that he championed the cause of the people and took numerous measures to improve the lives of common Romans.
Caesar implemented reforms that redistributed land to landless Roman citizens. The topic of land reform had been controversial since Tiberius Gracchus’ radical populist agenda. Such policies infuriated the aristocratic, conservative stratum of high society and were seen as dangerous attempts at currying favor with the masses.
Hoping to help with increasing unemployment among the lower classes, Caesar initiated several public works projects. These included building new roads, and aqueducts, among other infrastructure improvements that earned Caesar huge support. Furthermore, Caesar helped enact policies that provided debt relief to Roman citizens struggling financially.
Throughout his career, Julius Caesar displayed a keen use of populist rhetoric, using his oratory skills to connect with and appeal to the common people. Though controversial to the conservative classes of Roman politics, the people loved Caesar.
There is no doubt that populism is complex and hard to define. Political scientists have debated for years about how to come up with a comprehensive definition of populism. Looking back through history, these five cases of Roman populism are a truly enlightening spotlight on the populist phenomenon.