Many people believe America is facing a historical dilemma known as Caesarism.
To explain, Caesarism is the rise to power of an authoritarian leader who destroys democratic institutions and tramples rights. The term Caesarism comes from Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, the two politicians who laid the Roman Republic to rest.
Historians and writers usually focus on Julius Caesar, who was the more colorful of the two. After all, Caesar was a successful general who had an affair with Cleopatra. However, Augustus, or Octavian, were the more successful of the two Caesars.
Hence, many people will wonder if we will soon see the rise of an American Caesar. That is a dictatorial leader who will destroy American democracy and replace it with something else.
Who was Julius Caesar?
There are many myths about Julius Caesar out there. For example, many people think Julius Caesar was the first Roman Emperor.
That’s wrong. Historians regard Augustus Caesar, Julius’s great nephew, as the first Roman Emperor. However, Augustus never used the title Emperor.
Instead, Julius Caesar was a successful politician and a victorious general who took the Roman title of dictator. In the Roman Republic, a dictator was a powerful administrator whom the Senate and People of Rome gave emergency powers.
Caesar’s “innovation” was to serve as a permanent dictator. However, Caesar never made himself a King or emperor. Instead, Julius preserved and tried to strengthen the institutions of the Roman Republic.
Julius’s Caesar’s project was to reboot the Roman Republic, not destroy it. However, Caesar’s actions hastened the demise of the Republic.
In fact, Julius Caesar spent most of his life seeking and holding traditional political offices. Caesar spent decades in Roman politics trying to reform the system.
Interestingly, Caesar was a populist and a progressive who kept trying to implement policies to benefit ordinary Romans. In particular, Caesar kept trying to rebuild Rome’s broken welfare system.
Those efforts led to many conflicts with Rome’s oligarchy. In Caesar’s time, oligarchs monopolized Rome’s political system and used to shift all the Republic’s wealth to them.
Ironically, Caesar, a member of Rome’s traditional aristocracy, found himself in opposition to the oligarchy while building political alliances with its members. Interestingly, many of Caesar’s enemies were self-made new men such as Pompey and Cicero, who wanted to be part of the oligarchy.
Hence, Julius Caesar resembles US President Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) a patrician from an old family who put himself in opposition to the oligarchy. However, events pushed Caesar to take drastic actions that destroyed the Republic.
From Politician to Conqueror
By 59 BCE, Caesar realized he needed military power to survive. Notably, Caesar’s biggest rival, Pompey, was Rome’s greatest general. To get military power, Caesar formed an alliance with Pompey and another powerful leader, the financier Sulla. Historians call this arrangement the First Triumvirate.
In exchange for acknowledgement of Pompey’s colonial settlements in the Eastern Mediterranean and distribution of land to veterans of Pompey’s armies. The Triumvirate named Caesar governor of Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy) and Transalpine Gaul (part of Southern France).
Cisalpine Gaul gave Caesar a prime military recruiting ground while Transalpine Gaul could serve as a base for conquests in Europe. Caesar’s plan was to conquer modern France and surrounding area.
Caesar’s plan was to build a powerful army supported by Gaul’s resources. To elaborate, Caesar hoped to create crack troops by fighting Gaul’s fearsome inhabitants. To finance the army, Caesar would seize Gaul’s resources.
The goal was to build a powerful army loyal to Caesar to counter Pompey’s forces. Moreover, Caesar’s army would be right next to Italy in Gaul, just a few days’ march from Rome. In contrast, Pompey’s armies were in the East and Spain, a long march or voyage from Italy.
Caesar went to such lengths because he was afraid for his life. Julius Caesar correctly feared that his opponents would kill him if he did not have military protection. Additionally, the protection could give Caesar the brute force he needed to force his will upon the Republic.
By 50 BCE, Caesar’s army was ready. However, Caesar tried to make a peaceful settlement. Instead, the oligarchs illegally preventing some of Caesar’s political allies from voting against a measure to remove Julius from his command.
Fearing for their lives, those allies or tribunes fled to Caesar’s base in Gaul. In response, the Roman Senate declared Caesar a “public enemy.” Under Roman law, such a declaration was a pretext for killing Caesar. Or in mob parlance putting a contract on Caesar’s head.*
To survive, Caesar had only one choice: invade Italy. Under Roman law, it was illegal for Caesar to enter Italy as long as he was serving as Gaul’s governor. Yet if he relinquished power, Caesar would have no defense against his enemies.
Consequently, Caesar led two of his legions across the Rubicon River, which marked the border between Gaul and Italy. By crossing the Rubicon, Caesar became an outlaw. However, Caesar was an outlaw in command of a loyal and powerful army.
Caesar’s soldiers knew they could only get paid and receive land (the Roman equivalent of a veterans’ pension) if their commander won. Hence, Caesar’s men had a powerful motivation to fight and win. More importantly, Caesar’s men were veteran soldiers with extensive training and military experience.
Caesar’s army was so powerful that Pompey fled to Greece when he heard it was coming. Pompey knew that his disorganized forces were no match for Caesar’s crack troops.
With Pompey gone, Caesar’s forces easily overran Rome as most of the Senators fled. The new Senate proclaimed Caesar dictator.
Importantly, Caesar did not set out to become a conqueror. Instead, he was a politician forced to adopt violence to survive. A lesson Americans need to understand.
Unlike modern tyrants such as Napoleon I, Napoleon III, Lenin, and Hitler, Caesar did not set out to destroy the Republic. In contrast, Caesar was a republican who thought he was fighting to preserve the Republic.
Caesar’s invasion of Italy led to a civil war which Caesar won. After his victory in the Civil War, Caesar tried to restore the Republic. However, Caesar’s radical innovations frightened conservative Romans, including some of his own supporters. Eventually, a group of those conservatives lynched Caesar in the Roman Senate itself.
Octavian to Augustus
Octavian, Caesar’s heir, soon took up his cause. Unlike Julius, Octavian had no faith in the Republic. Augustus won because he recognized the Republic was dead.
As a child of a lawless new era, Octavian used extreme measures Julius refused to consider. For example, Octavian paid hit men to track down and murder one of his principal critics, the great conservative orator and lawyer, Cicero.
Through a combination of talent and ruthlessness, Octavian made himself dictator by eliminating all of his rivals. Octavian became the absolute ruler of Rome.
Strangely, Octavian had no formal title. Instead, he was the boss who appointed all the officials. On paper, the Republic still existed. However, all authority was in Octavian’s hands and the people liked it.
In 22 BCE, only Octavian, now Augustus Caesar, could quell mobs attacking the Roman Senate, historian Edward J. Watts notes.* By 22 BCE, Augustus Caesar was the Roman state.
One reason Romans welcomed Octavian’s dictatorship was that he restored peace and order. Most Romans now believed an all-powerful ruler was necessary to maintain society. When Octavian died, his stepson Tiberius succeeded him and the office of Roman Emperor was born.
The name Caesar became so synonymous with Emperors that it became the Russian title Czar and the German title Kaiser. The idea of one-person rule persists to this day. Notably, the Roman imperial model inspires the modern position of president as practiced in the US, Latin America, China, Russia, and elsewhere.
An American Caesar?
The example of Julius Caesar shows that gridlock, corruption, and political violence can turn ordinary politicians into conquerors and tyrants. Caesar toiled for decades in Roman politics and they rewarded with death threats and charges of corruption.
Hence, any elected official could turn into an American Caesar if pushed too far. That politician could Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative, left or right. I think any US politician ranging from US Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) to US Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) could turn into an American Caesar.
Americans need to be afraid after the violence of 6 January 2021 and two attempts to impeach a sitting President in a little over a year. Since then, there has been talk of prosecuting a former president (Donald J. Trump) and a prominent presidential candidate (Hillary R. Clinton).
On 6 January 2021, American entered an age of political violence. If we cannot contain or prevent political violence, the United States could see the rise of an American Caesar.
*See Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny By Edward J. Watts page 221 for a modern take on Caesar’s conflict with the Senate.