A dry history text book lulls us into the complacent idea that one time always splits neatly into the next on a precise date. This way of thinking leads us to misinterpret our own time.
There is nothing quite like the look on someone’s face when I explain that Julius Caesar wasn’t an emperor and didn’t intend to end the Roman Republic forever. It moves into an even stranger dimension when I explain that Augustus, who came after Caesar, had to pretend for a long time that he was not the real, autocratic power and the senate was still there for hundreds of years after it became a ceremonial institution within an empire. There never was a precise moment Augustus(played by Brian Blessed) came out on stage and said “Ho, ho I’m the emperor of the Roman Empire!”
But surely, people back then had some idea when Julius Caesar took over that some new and drastic change was taking place even if they didn’t know what it was? Then I mention Caesar wasn’t even the first guy to march on Rome. A guy called Sulla had already been the first to do that. He used it as a way to destroy his political opponents and reshuffle the deck of the senate in his favor. People expected more of the same from Caesar and for the republican system to go on as it had for hundreds of years.
If I want to keep shaking up the prim and tidy version of history I can mention that the military reforms of a guy called Marius re-aligned incentives so that troops first owed their pay and pensions to their general, not to the government, making the emergence of miltary strongmen like Sulla and Caesar possible and inevitable. At the time he did it, Marius was just trying to increase his own power and prestige in Rome and the senate went along with it so he could deal with the immediate crises presented by armies of Germanic barbarians.
As the republican system proved too inflexible to deal with crises, precedents and rules were worn down one at a time until the old system gradually became something else we now call an empire.
This fluid version of history makes people uncomfortable because it makes them start to think about their own time in a new way. When history is a mesh of gradualisms rather than clean breaks on memorized dates a smug sense of security evaporates. Anyone might reflect “The ancient Romans thought the Roman empire would never end in its heyday.” This feels comfortable enough because it fits well with the tidy history of discrete periods. The Romans had their time in the sun. So did the dinosaurs.
It feels far less safe to think: “The ancient Romans did not even realize their government had ended as it was happening! Nobody even really intended for it to end up that way!”
In reality, once Marius smashed term limits for consulship and made his military reforms, the Roman Republic was effectively over in a practical sense. The control of the government over the military had been compromised and all government requires monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Once one learns to think in terms of the fluid version of history, it becomes possible to see where crucial pivot points lay that went without recognition or fanfare when they happened. Furthermore, there is an interplay of multiple pivot points.
The rogue generals unleashed by Marius’ personal ambition might not have been able to overturn the republic had the popular opinion been overwhelmingly in favor of the system.
The Roman Republic had a long tradition going back to its origins as a small city state of cooperation and compromise between the classes. Periodically, the proles had revolted and gotten concessions giving them limited representation in government and some safety nets. Perhaps the greatest concession the plebs ever got was a special political office created just for them, the tribune of the plebs. To compensate for their votes being counted less, they got two tribunes who had veto powers.
As Rome grew richer and more powerful, this last obstacle to the elites became intolerable. As Roman territory became concentrated in the hands of just a few wealthy families, pleb revolt in favor of land reform was taken up by a tribune named Gracchus. Gracchus came from a wealthy family and was viewed as a class traitor(kind of how Trump is now.) This threat to the mega-estates of the ultra-rich resulted in Gracchus actually getting beaten to death by the senate.
As if this wasn’t enough, Gracchus’ brother tried to step in and carry on the cause. He ended up committing to suicide to avoid also being beaten to death by the senators. For some reason reform attempts were never quite the same after that and the social tensions rather than being resolved just simmered as the elite tried to sit on the pot lid. With this tension and disenchantment already well established, it’s unsurprising in retrospect that rogue generals could count on considerable popular support.
It seems a rule across time and place that any elite class tries to eliminate all obstacles to the exercise of power and cut any bothersome obligations or responsibilities to a larger society. In a smaller-scale society like a city state, there is a limit to how far the elite can separate from the obligations of societal leadership. However, when there is a huge increase in wealth and territory, the elites try to use this rocket fuel to break free of the gravitational pull of the lower classes so they can rule the world below as they will from their untouchable elysium in outer space.
If we apply the more fluid way of history to our own time, we realize the neo-liberal cultural revolution that took hold in the 1960s effectively ended forever in 2016 and we have entered a new historical period. Even those who desperately want to restore the old social order do so with a tribal sort of viciousness in stark contrast to the harmonious star trek utopia they had envisioned for mankind barely one year ago. Even as they yearn to go back, they are unable to appreciate the irony of how their fanaticism only fuels the formation of faultlines that will define a new age.
Once we learn to ignore the dull farting tuba noise that is textbook history, we can see how Trump is a transitional figure and a pivot point. Those who believe in the system of periodic shoeboxes might say “He is trying to be a Caesar!” of course without understanding what that really means.
Trump is more like a Gracchus, a Marius, or even a Clodius Pulcher that aligns forces in a new direction. Like transitional figures in the Roman republic, he will know not what he does as he helps begin the 21st century in earnest.
16 replies on “The Augustus Principle”
I’ve thought of Obama as Marius, Trump as Sulla, just because I think of Marius as Left, Sulla as Right. The same general idea, though.
And the atmosphere definitely got suddenly more ominous in 2016 — I mean the feeling that you could be beaten up for being on the Right. I didn’t have that feeling of a decisive shift toward grim pre-violence in 2008.
So maybe Trump’s the Marius, as you suggest.
But was there a sub-plebeian class analogous to the browns-homos-SWPLfemmes coalition that the anti-Marius elite employed as heavies?
Of course, the analogy doesn’t have to be perfect. Isomorphism isn’t required.
The current feminist anti-sex-bully witchhunt does feel like a world-historical event to me.
You may have a point about Obama. Had he:
-Changed the policies left behind by George W. Bush instead of slavishly perpetuating them.
-Avoided gleefully inflaming the tensions of both race and class as he did.
The neo-liberal orthodoxy probably could have rolled on for another few decades. Though Obama was a do-nothing president he may be remembered as the key accelerationist by discrediting both the social order of Civil Rights and seriously damaging most people’s belief in voting as a viable way to implement social change. Just as bad as “Trayvon could have been my son.” was even more endless wars and bailouts for Wall Street with no arrests. Simply by his existence, White America suddenly realized PoCs could never be appeased.
Obama was a relatively popular president who left office with favorable approval ratings, but if we are looking at pivot points, the damage he did led directly to the end of the old system.
George W. Bush did huge damage to the system and squandered decades of public good will but he was just one bad president. Had Obama been the reformer he campaigned as and the elites made some concessions, their dominance over society would have been safe for awhile yet.
So yes, Trump may be the opportunistic Sulla once Obama, the Marius, opened the fatal gash.
The quiet nickname for heads of the major geographical US Military Commands is “Proconsul” for good reason. More than one has risen to high Political rank already.
As I recall, Gracchus ended up ruling by threat of veto, and alternated praise of his supporters with insults and cronyism. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t hold power long.
One core difference between Rome and most of the modern Westphalian nation-states is that the Senate wasn’t a governing body, it was the formalized forum for the ruling families, all of whom held their own clientele. Imagine if Justin Treadeu had his own personal clientele, but every other political in Canada had their own clientele, or to use the Anglo-Saxon tradition, retinues. In this case, Gracchus wasn’t only fighting another political body, he was fighting the ruling assembly of factions, while he himself was ripping apart his own power base.
The accession of Trump to the presidency revealed to us the system is in reality run by a fraternity of elites with interconnected patronage more like the Roman senate was.
Since Trump ascended to power independent of the traditional patrician alliances as a popular demagogue he seems to be shut out from most of normal executive powers associated with a president or a consul. Trump is in practice a lot like a tribune of the plebs!
I’ve never exactly understood why the peak rich refuse to acquit any power to the average people and push for every advantage possible. It’s not like most Americans have problems with people who get rich building stuff but the rent seekers and financial empire builders mostly get and stay rich off of political power and laws favoring them over the producers and middle class. A lot of the income tax laws vastly favor financial shenanigans over actually producing wealth from raw materials. What I call real wealth production. The Japanese know this and it’s why they favor real production and clamp down on financial shenanigans.
There’s is one video I saw that gave me an idea. I saw a video made by one of the Johnson and Johnson heirs about the rich and how many of them are conflicted about this. Trumps daughter was in it. Amazing these people would spend what an average American made in a year on bar tabs. It seemed to me that the rich had a lot of pressure from their hoards of advisers and financial minions to never give up anything. Maybe these minions feel that any backup in scraping all the wealth they can get would drastically crush their take off the riches stream of revenue. These people are their closest advisors and really the only people who they would interact with continuously besides other clueless uber rich and I bet their only advice is to make more, make more and that any let up in the squeeze will mean they will lose everything. At the level of wealth these people are at that’s nonsense but imagine you have no useful skills at all, which most don’t, and are uber wealthy…what would you do without it? PANIC.
If any faction, or elements within a faction, stops fighting for the money, they will be in a weaker position when the fight gets uglier (The resources get smaller). The current in-fighting is with pie that’s just not growing anymore, or slightly shrinking.
Ulric makes a good point here. Beyond a certain point, getting the next billion dollars may just be about sucking oxygen out of the room so opponents cannot rise to challenge you as well as building an impregnable bulwark of scale.
I think favor trading also plays a part. The super wealthy essentially have a giant stack of IOUs that that need to be paid to regulators and politicians. As long as their wealth is growing faith is kept and the IOUs still have value. It is basically a protection racket. What is interesting about the aftermath of the financial crisis is that the politicians used public funds to prop up the banks so that they would be able to keep paying the IOUs to the political class.
Very good and very true.
See also this book:
The “Form” remained the same but the “Reality” was very different.
Great article, but to be fine-line-precise about it all, you should say, “Sometimes there are definite lines to history, sometimes there are absolutely none, and sometimes something in-between.”
If I can avoid it, I try not to waste ink on obvious disclaimers that just distract and sap momentum. “Definite lines” is the default interpretation and obviously there are events like The Battle of Hastings that suddenly, immediately, and decisively change everything forever.
When I first started writing online almost a decade ago I would try to cover every single point one at a time until I learned in real life no one willingly reads essays like that. Have to choose the most important points. I could have gone into detail on how both Sulla and Marius marched on Rome and even traded places or how some of the Gracchi brothers’ reforms were kept but later gradually rolled back when the masses had calmed down. There’s a lot more complexity worth discussing there, but I didn’t want that to be the focus of this essay.
I just thought of a one word disclaimer. I’ll add the word “always” to the first sentence.
*smile playing on my face*
YOU are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.
I have a confession: I have just started blogging under this name, and it is MY first few comments that have been wildly SUB-PAR.
But your directness in confronting me does show a certain maladroitness in you socially. I actually like that. No bullshit, no wandering from the main point. Just draw the bow and fire.
In time, I hope to prove worthy of you. G.
I agree in principle, and somehow we both wrote about approximately the same thing almost simultaneously… but I disagree on word choice.
Perhaps it’s just my perspective as someone who’s not well-read, but I think “history” should be the word that’s saved, rather than the sacrifice.
The word that should be sacrificed instead is “truth”: given the broadest scope of possibilities, both the person putting forward a point and the people listening to the signal are sure that what is being talked about is “truth”. “What I am saying is right because it is true”. People rarely -consciously- think “What I am saying is right because it’s what happened in the past”. That they happen to use evidence from the past here and there is, as you say in somewhat different words, irrelevant. Their intent, and what they take away from it is, as far as I can tell, something I think is more accurately called a “truth”. Everyone is aware “history” changes and has tides and directions, even or perhaps especially those who say you’re on “the wrong side of history”. People aren’t anywhere near as aware of this for “truth” – 1+1=2 always, white+nationalism=evil always, etc.
That and we’re a lot more likely to use history than anyone we’re talking about, so I think we’re hobbling ourselves by putting any negations on history, misleadingly written as it may be.
Every time I think about Julius Caesar the first thing that follows is he should have killed his enemies instead of holding them close.
…good advice for Trump maybe?
The ant people march along to the beat of Trump as do the naysayers
Oh and another thing, normies whether they like it or not can’t help be SWAYED by the evident egomania drive that characterizes Trump. His all or nothing-ness. Love him or hate ’em he is swinging the pendulum. Perhaps even further than before it has been swung? All eyes gazing upon Trump and his next move… TwitterTM