In 133BC, Tiberius Gracchus was a popular politician who championed much needed land reform in the Senate. He flouted some of Rome’s unwritten traditions. One night the Optimates, that is the Party of Aristocratic, Conservative Senators, beat him and his followers to death with clubs and dumped them into the Tiber.
A decade later his younger brother Gaius came forward with much the same proposals, yet with slightly more modest methods. Unable to stop him, the Senate passed his legislation, yet conveniently sat idle, refusing to actually enforce it. Once again, the political order broke down, and Gaius was murdered by many of the same men who killed his brother.
Several decades later, a conflict arose between two Roman politicians, Marius and Sulla; here is the Roman Civil War that they have yet to make a film about. Marius the reformer was ultimately defeated by Sulla the conservative. In the aftermath, Sulla killed men at a scale previously unheard of. Ten thousand Romans lost their lives. A teenager named Gaius of the Julii was a teenager during these times, going into hiding for several months, narrowly escaping death.
When this young man, Julius Caesar, came into prominence as an aspiring reformer of Rome’s political system, he too came into conflict with the conservative Optimates, headed by Cato and Pompey. But unlike his Populares predecessors, he was able to outmaneuver his foes. Yet when victorious, Caesar showed clemency to the defeated faction, reinstating them in the Senate.
His nephew and heir, a diligent student of history, saw what happened to his uncle. He was able to outmaneuver both foes and ostensible allies, taking full control of what was evidently becoming an Empire at 36 years old.
But the normalization of political violence as a political tool had took root. Augustus had every single Optimate Senator murdered in short order. He had their supporters murdered. He had their children murdered. Then he was able to dismantle the political system that the conservatives had been ostensibly defending, and carrie out the remainder of his reign with a benevolent, gentle hand.
Yes, the Populares had been exceeding the powers of the Tribunate. But what is political murder other than a complete rejection of coming to an accommodation within a political system? In the end, the extremist, abusive mechanism that the Optimates had been using was turned against them, amplified beyond their wildest reckoning, and all their power was undone.
That’s an important lesson we can learn from antiquity. The problem isn’t the abuse of institutions that happen today. The problem is what today’s children will grow up learning and believing is possible and normal within a political system.