Liberals and Conservatives: Roman Style!

julius caesar marble statue
Photo by Skitterphoto on

While enjoying the awesome Youtube series Historia Civilis and its coverage of the last days of the Roman Republic, I picked up a terrific book on the history of Rome, its politics and how people lived.  I’ve been fascinated by the political and social struggles of the Roman Republic because there are interesting parallels to contemporary life here.

The Roman Republic had a similar political system to what we find in many Western democracies: it had a Senate (from the Latin senex or “old man”) and it had elections, though they tended to be pretty biased toward the land-owning elite and used a convoluted system based on social class. To keep the power of the Senate (and its elite) in check, the Republic also had a Tribune of the Plebs that differed than the Senate and frequently drew from the lower classes.

Further, although the Republic had extended its borders to the Italian peninsula and beyond, politics and citizenship were still biased toward actual residents of Rome, and especially toward certain families with a long, distinguished history.  Cicero, for example, was a novus homo or “new man” from the provinces newly entered into political life, and that fact dogged his career.

Over time, this system started to break down.  By 137 BCE, a man named Tiberius Gracchus (grandson of the famous Scipio Africanus) was increasingly about the plight of small farmers in the Italian countryside, and their vulnerability to landed gentry that displaced them.  When he was elected to the Tribune of the Plebs in 133 BCE, he started pushing for land reform.  Not surprisingly, this started a hornet’s nest of debate and some even spread rumors that Tiberius Gracchus was setting himself up as a king (a grievous sin in Roman culture that even later Emperors avoided).  By 129 BCE, in classic Roman style, he was found dead from mysterious circumstances.  Professor Mary Beard, who wrote SPQR, points out that Tiberius Gracchus may not have been altogether altruistic and may  have also held a personal grudge against the Senate for past slights, but his message of land reform was enough to ignite the populace.

But the debates about land-reform, and rights of the gentry versus general populace didn’t stop with Gracchus’s death.  The two factions gradually coalesced around two factions:

  • The optimates  or “conservative” faction.  They were concerned about changes to the Roman Republic and wanted preserve the traditions of the Republic, including governance by the optimī or “the best”.
  • the populares or “reform” faction.  They opposed the conservatives and sought to reform Roman society.  The meaning of the name is “for the people”.

Professor Mary Beard points out that these factions weren’t political parties in the modern sense, but different politicians held allegiance to one or the other.  Julius Caesar, despite coming from a well to do family, was a Populares probably because he was more interested in opposing the old order for his own personal gain, than actual concern of the people (except where it served his interests).  Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (e.g. “Pompey”) sided with the Optimates, but was no less ambitious than Caesar, and the Optimates needed a champion on their side.

In any case, the Populares, starting with Gracchus, pushed for reforms such as:

  • Restricting the size and amount of property that Roman citizens could own.  Some of the landed elite of Rome held multiple, multiple properties both within Rome and many villas in the countryside.  Cicero, a man of middling wealth, owned over a dozen individual villas, cottages, and other properties.  Men like Caesar’s one-time ally, Crassus, were far more wealthy.
  • Improvements to the “grain dole”.  Since many Roman farmers were being pushed into the city to find work (as their lands were being bought up), Rome needed a more consistent solution to address the rampant poverty in the city.  With the new grain dole, the government (and not private contractors as previously done) would buy grain monthly from certain reserved countryside areas and provide to Rome’s poorest citizens according to the census.  Such a system did not exist anywhere else in the Western world until modern times.
  • Expand citizenship to more people in the Italian peninsula, and even colonies abroad.
  • Fight the corruption in Roman elections, which were often rampant with bribery and other dirty tricks.

The struggle between Optimates and Populares was messy and not always clear cut.  For example, a powerful senator named Clodius fought on the side of the Populares, but used privately-hired thugs to terrorize other senators to vote his way until he in turn was killed by Milo’s thugs.  Until then, weapons were not allowed at all within the city limits of Rome, but by the time of Clodius the ancient customs were ignored and gangs fought on the street.  On the other side of things, Cato the Younger, was a staunch conservative, but had a reputation (unlike his peers) for honesty and integrity even if he came across as grating and excessively moralizing at times.

In the end, none of it mattered.  Both Caesar and Pompey had massive private armies, and decades of military experience and fought a lengthy, protracted civil war that ended with Caesear’s victory.  He pushed the Senate to make him a lifelong dictator, and shortly thereafter was assassinated by his peers. Once his adopted son, Octavian, swooped in to takeover as “first among equals” following a civil war with Marc Antony, it was all over.

Interestingly, when Julius Caesar returned to Rome after the Civil War, he made good on a number of Populares reforms and anti-corruption reforms that remained well into the waning days of the later Roman Empire.  However, the two factions pretty much melted away by the time that Emperor Augustus Caesar (Octavian) took over.

The reason why I mention all this is that it’s fascinating to see the struggles between Roman reformers, and Roman conservatives, just as the same struggles happen today.  There were scoundrels on both sides, men of virtue, and plenty of power-hungry opportunists too.  Many of the battle cries of the different factions might sound eerily familiar today too, as if not a whole lot has changed in 2000+ years, and we’re just repeating the same patterns over and over across the generations…

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: