Republics, power, and populism: their rise and fall

Mike Duncan, writing in the Washington Post on the fall of the Roman Republic:

Some in the Roman leadership could see clearly by the 130s and 120s B.C. that this socioeconomic dislocation was becoming an acute problem. They could see that, out in the countryside, families were losing their land, and in the cities, grain shortages were leading to panic and starvation. These poor families were certainly not sharing the benefits of Rome’s imperial wealth and power. So a new breed of popular reformers led by the Gracchi brothers, introduced laws aimed at restoring some dignity to those left behind — land redistribution, subsidized grain and a general reduction in the power of the senatorial oligarchy.

But most in the Senate resisted these efforts. More than anything else, the senatorial families remained narrowly focused on their own elite political rivalries and were obsessed with maintaining the balance of power inside the Senate. No one, for example, could afford to let a rival get credit for a popular land redistribution bill or a popular grain subsidy. The constantly revolving rounds of senatorial infighting wound up blocking all popular reform, risking the long-term health of the republic for a short-term political advantage.

This stubborn resistance to change opened the door to a darker side of popular resentment at the elites. When reasonable attempts at reform failed, populist demagogues were able to exploit the resentment, anxiety and desperation of burdened families. They promised to take land from the rich and redistribute it to the poor, offered free grain to the urban population and promised to prosecute senators for corruption. But these demagogues were much less interested in actually following through on these promises. It was not social reform they cared about but rather the acquisition of power. They saw popular anger simply as a means to an end.

Worth following up with some Wikipedia reading on the Roman Republic.