The events of the modern revolutionary canon display many similarities: terror and mass execution and deportation, as seen in the French Reign of Terror, Stalin’s purges, and the Nazi decimation of the German Socialists; the attempt to establish an ideal system, such as that embodied in the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and the economic ideas of Karl Marx; and the classist struggle between populist sentiment and the reigning power structure.
By comparing the actions taken by those who transformed Rome to these common threads, the question of just how much the first century BCE in Rome can be considered a revolutionary period, in the modern sense of the term, can be opened up.
The most obvious correlation between the Roman situation and modern revolutionary periods, besides the reality of civil war itself, can be found in the Proscriptions of the Second Triumvirate. Anthony Everitt details in his book Augustus how Mark Anthony, Lepidus, and Augustus oversaw a campaign of semi-chaotic, semi-targeted executions, during which prominent republicans and Optimates and their supporters, having survived the wars between Caesar and Pompey, were systemically put to death.
Everitt adds, “The triumvirs marked down not only their political opponents who they saw as public enemies (hostes), but also personal foes (inimici)”(79). There was no legal protection from the proscription, and the triumvirs had complete control over whose name went on the list, and added to it at intervals. This starkly resembles the Stalinist attitudes towards the purges of the late 1930s and the French Terror. There is a strong attitude of class warfare, betrayed by the triumvirs‘ promise, which they honored, not to punish “‘any member of the masses’”(Appian, Qtd in Everitt, 80). Appian’s The Civil Wars offers a detailed description of the personal terror experienced at the time, perhaps most powerfully the fear of denunciation as a class enemy.
Whether or not the Populares, or more specifically the radical Caesarian faction, had a unified ideology and were attempting to put in place any kind of ideal system is a harder question to answer. Certainly, the Enlightenment texts preceding and surrounding the American and French revolutions, and the Marxist-Leninist texts that gave backdrop to the Russian revolution, lack an obvious ancient counterpart that would have given the movement ideological cohesion.
Caesar’s writings were mainly straightforward, military journals, and the closest he came to political writing was his Anticato, yet this seems, from commentary, to have been more of an attack on Cato personally than a political manifesto (the text itself has not survived). Neither Pat Southern’s book Julius Caesar, nor Tim Holland’s Rubicon paint the picture of an ideologue. Perhaps the situation is in part explainable by the fact that much political material was communicated orally, rather than in writing, and as such the ideological consistency of the movement may be historically imperceptible.
Perhaps the strongest point for the anti-revolutionary argument can be found in the top-down nature of all the seizures of power that occurred during the period. Although the Caesarian movement was genuinely populist, and the popular mood was in favor of autocracy – in part due to the necessity of bread rationing with the growing population of Rome; in part due to the expanded size of the empire and the need to streamline decision making; in part due to long-standing popular anger against the senatorial class – nonetheless, all major shifts of power were accomplished by coups and internal political maneuvering. None of the key Republican figures – Pompey, Cato, Cicero, etc – were the victim of a popular uprising; Caesar and Augustus were swept into office by their armies, not by the people.
This, however, does not alter what Everitt reports of the situation in 27 BCE: “The Senate was not quite the body it had been. Now men from the Italian countryside had filled the many gaps left by the old governing families …There was an Italian rather than a Roman identity. Even more controversially, leading men from Gaul and Spain …were recruited as senators”(209). The ruling class of Roman politics had irreversibly changed; the old had been largely purged. People who had never dreamed of having access to power now had it.
The transformation of Rome from Republic to Empire cannot be described as directly equivalent to a modern populist revolution: the absence of intellectual leaders and an obvious unifying ideological sentiment – such as ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité!’ – together with the militaristic, top-down nature of the shifts in power, with little more than passive participation required from the people en masse, attest to this. However, the ruthlessness with which the old ruling class was purged, and the degree to which the face of Rome had changed by the end of Augustus’ rule, speak of a truly revolutionary time, whether or not it was truly populist in execution.
Andress, David. The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2005.
Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Harper Collins, London, 1993.
Everitt, Anthony. Augustus, Random House, New York, 2006.
Holland, Tom. Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, Abacus, London, 2004.
Southern, Pat. Julius Caesar, Arcadia, Mount Pleasant, 2001