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.