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Crossing the Rubicon

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Tuesday, 28 June 2016

When Caesar crossed the Rubicon and began his descent into Rome in early 49 BC a large part of the Roman political class, unable to form resistance against his seasoned soldiers simply left Rome and decamped to Greece.  They both hated and feared Caesar.

One reason why they hated him is that they saw Caesar’s supporters as a collection of lowlifes who were raffish, unscrupulous and on the make.  Put another way, they were political outsiders.

On the other hand, as a populare, a supporter of the rights of the people, Caesar enjoyed significant support from ordinary Romans.  He was seen as someone who would do things for them, as opposed to the Roman political class who were only interested in themselves.


Sound familiar?  Well, Caesar invented Caesarism which is a form of populism in which individuals place their faith in a leader to rid a political system of what they see as its corrupt elements and do things for the ordinary person. 

For Caesarism to take hold of the public imagination two conditions need to be fulfilled.  The first is a general condition of uncertainty, be it political, economic, or both.  The second is a loss of faith in the political class by the ordinary person to deliver, to take at least some account of the needs and wants of ordinary people.

Both of those conditions existed in late republican Rome.  Such conditions also define the contemporary world.  In both cases an increasing number of people seek a leader who will both improve their lives in a material sense and rid them of a corrupt self-interested political class. 

In this regard, Caesar was following in the footsteps of the tyrants of sixth century Greek poleis such as Pisistratus, who similarly were aristocrats who chose to side with the people rather than with the aristocratic class which wielded political power.

The leader needs to be a celebrity, as Caesar made himself, and to have large amounts of money, which Caesar acquired by brutally conquering Gaul.  There was a lot of money to be made out of slaves.

The history of late republican Rome helps to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon.  America, and the Western world in general, are not in good shape economically.  The younger generation, or those who Candice Malcolm christened ‘generation screwed’, face an uncertain future.


On the Right, Charles Murray has described the decay of the white American working class into welfare dependency.  On the Left, Joel Kotkin has analysed both the rise of the ‘clerisy’ and the proletarianiszation of the American middle class.

In such insecure times it is no wonder that Americans look for a saviour, be it Bernie Sanders on the Left, or Donald Trump on the Right.  No one is looking at Sanders or Trump in terms of whether they are competent to run the country in a sensible fashion, sensible meaning in accord with the rules of the political class.

Rather, they are looking for a saviour, someone who will break down the way in which politics are currently conducted. They want someone who will be a circuit breaker, who will restore America to its true path.  They want someone who will give them hope that the American dream is still alive.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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