Friday, July 16, 2021

a pioneer of sado-populism

Some thoughts on

The first emperor – Caesar Augustus and the triumph of Rome
Anthony Everitt
John Murry Publishers 2006

Half way into the series Domina (about Augustus’ longest-serving wife, Livia Drusilla), I realised I needed some help to find my way through the imperial family clan, so started reading Everitt’s book in the middle, matching the historic events I had reached in the series, around 30BCE, after he had seen off Mark Antony. And after finishing both, I went back and started from just after the murder of Julius Caesar, seeing that I read Robert Harris’s excellent trilogy on Cicero not too long ago and had a reasonably good idea of what happened before 44 (looks like I haven't reviewed Harris's trilogy, but I mentioned it here).

From 44 BCE to 14 CE, the story is how a republic ruling over much of the known world is overthrown and replaced by an autocratic regime that was to last several centuries. Funny how my school books portrayed this as an entirely positive event and somehow didn’t dwell much on the mass murder of all supporters of the republic, including, most famously, Cicero. Everett doesn’t spare us the details of the “proscription” based on incentivising slaves, family members and everybody else to murder the blacklisted individuals. Strangely, he still uses the word barbarians for the populations beyond the boundaries of the empire without pausing to reflect on the barbaric things the Romans did to their own fellow citizens.

So, basically, let’s imagine the January 6 storm on the Capitol (in Washington, not Rome) had been led a bit more efficiently, and the invaders had murdered all Democrats in the House and put rewards out for the heads of all Democrat politicians in the rest of the country. The Trump clan would rule by default over several generations and get to write the history of events. In analogy to the Augustus story, people two millennia down the line would be led to believe that this was entirely a good thing. Because, you know, the old republic was corrupt, and you can’t run an empire efficiently if you have to debate everything in the Senate first. Also, all those people who didn’t look like the dear leader’s family were just barbarians. Scary thought.

Everitt wrote and published this biography at a time when the Trump presidency was just a joke in the Simpsons, and western democracies still appeared much more stable than they look now. For our more troubled times, there are many warnings in the book. For instance, it is worth noticing how carefully Augustus avoided the impression that he might want to install a dictatorship – although effectively he did. Learning from the mistakes of his adoptive father Julius Caesar, who had pardoned his enemies and flagged up his role as a dictator, Augustus took no prisoners, but otherwise operated within the legal framework of the republic, drawing his real power from the legions who were loyal to him and the military talents of his friend Agrippa. Today, as ruthless populists again threaten democratic rule, it is worth looking out for the subtle ways in which they can hoover up power that they may never give up again.

I’ve recently seen the term “sado-populism” being used on twitter (in the context of Johnson ending England’s covid measures regardless of the suffering that will cause). That could be discussed as a thread linking Augustus to the present day.

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