Why shouldn’t I review a book written 2,000 years ago?
I can’t say reading Plutarch for the first time gave me a definitive roadmap for how a republic turns to dictatorship, but a few themes are suggestive, such as the aggregation of wealth by the would-be dictators, and the constant military campaigns.
Each of the leaders either began or became extraordinarily wealthy in the course of their “public service.” Military conquest afforded them both taxing authority on conquered people, as well as the chance to be awarded extraordinary “talents” for victories won. Extraordinary wealth, in turn, allowed them to purchase loyalty, both military and civil, from leading Romans. Plutarch describes some of Caesar’s strategic use of wealth in advance of crossing the Rubicon.
A constant campaign of military conquests – almost always successful – also aided the rise of the dictators. Their popularity rose with each victory, limiting the Senate’s ability to do anything but:
1. Fund further conquests and
2. Award triumphs to the the victors.
One (possibly hopeful?) lesson of Plutarch is just how many violent demagogues it took to finally transform Rome from a Republic to a Dictatorship/Empire. Plutarch tracks the rise and fall of five such strongmen, each in his way worse than his predecessor, from Marius to his rival Sulla, through the wealthy Crassus, to Pompey, and finally ending in his rival Julius Caesar. Although clearly the Senate and republican institutions suffered from weaknesses even at the start of Marius’ reign (of terror), the succession of leaders who flouted the forms and reality of republicanism made Caesar and the turn to Emperors more probable.
Does this mean that – in order to completely erode our institutions – we need President Trump to be succeeded in 2020 by Kanye West,1 followed by some as-yet unknown MME fighter in 2024? Maybe.
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- I’m only partly kidding about Kanye by the way, as he’s got the name-recognition, unbridled narcissism, lack of empathy, and apparent misogyny to rival Donald Trump. He also seems to want to run. ↩