It was the summer of 133 B.C. In Rome, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, Tribune of the Plebs, and his supporters gathered in the pre-dawn hours and occupied the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill high above the Forum. The political situation was tense and had been escalating ever since he passed a land reform bill over the Senate’s opposition earlier that year. To protect himself and his legislation, Gracchus was now running for an unprecedented second term in succession as tribune. The Senate opposed this unconstitutional procedure. Many Senators thought that Gracchus wanted to ride a wave of popular support to make himself tyrant. For their part, Gracchus and their supporters feared for their lives.

Rome was a republic. Its champions saw it as the epitome of what the ancients called a mixed constitution. The historian Polybius, writing during Gracchus’s lifetime, praised it as a regime that balanced monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Rome’s powerful magistrates, headed by two consuls annually elected for one-year terms, represented the monarchical element. The Senate (literally, the Elders), a council of ex-magistrates who supervised the regime, represented the aristocracy. The people took part in electoral and legislative assemblies—the democratic element. Furthermore, the people had special representatives, the ten tribunes, elected annually for one-year terms. The tribunes had the power to veto the action of any other part of the Roman government, but they rarely used that potent tool. Ordinarily the tribunes were ambitious men, on the way up, and took care not to offend the powerful. Gracchus was different.

Many Senators thought that Gracchus wanted to ride a wave of popular support to make himself tyrant.

He wanted to solve the knotty problem of land, poverty, and the army. The ideal Roman soldier was a peasant farmer. To serve in the military he had to meet a minimum property requirement—the Romans did not want to give weapons to landless men. By 133 B.C., however, things were out of joint. While off for years fighting Rome’s wars, many soldiers had lost their farms to creditors at home. To add to the problem, they also lost the ability to graze their herds on so-called “public land,” that is, land that the Romans had confiscated in the process of conquering Italy. Wealthy and powerful senators had gobbled up public land in violation of an earlier law limiting private ownership of such land. Gracchus wanted to solve the crisis by settling Roman citizens on public land in Italy and thereby making them eligible for military service.

To his supporters Gracchus was a hero, to his opponents a rogue aristocrat. Who was Gracchus? His father, also Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, had served twice as consul; his mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of the great Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal and a general whom J. F. C. Fuller judged greater than Napoleon. His great-uncle had conquered Macedon; his brother-in-law had destroyed Carthage. Gracchus was, in short, a man of the establishment—and then he turned reformer. Some said he was a revolutionary. He started out with a certain amount of restraint and with the backing of other powerful elites, but he quickly generated enormous opposition. He responded by becoming increasingly radical and lost some of his original elite support. He certainly broke the rules, and he threatened powerful interests by proposing to redistribute land from the rich to the poor, with only limited compensation paid to those who lost property; the land belonged to the Roman people anyhow, he argued, and the rich had taken it in an illegal power grab.

He was a powerful speaker, as even Cicero, who was no admirer, attests. Earlier that year when addressing the crowd from the Rostra, the speakers’ platform in the Forum, Gracchus spoke on behalf of his proposed law. As Plutarch notes, he pointed out that many of those who would benefit had lost their land while away fighting for their country in the legions

“The wild beasts that roam over Italy,” [Gracchus] would say, “have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchers and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.”

Over enormous opposition Gracchus’s bill was passed, but its future was a question mark. Its opponents tried to use another one of the ten tribunes to thwart Gracchus, but he countered by having the man deposed from office. Then he intervened in the senate’s bailiwick of financial affairs and foreign policy by taking control of a bequest to the Roman state from abroad and earmarked it to fund the commission that would redistribute land. All was turmoil in Roman politics. And so Rome reached the violent summer of 133 B.C.

On that day on the Capitoline Hill, Gracchus and his supporters expected trouble, and they were right. At a meeting of the senate, Scipio Nasica, the Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of Rome’s state religion, demanded that the consul stop the tyrant, but the consul refused. He said that he didn’t want to condemn a Roman citizen without trial. So Nasica stood up and called on everyone who wanted to save the state to join him. A number of senators did—clearly, they were prepared because their attendants came to the meeting with staves and clubs to use as weapons. As they exited the senate house, Nasica covered his head with his toga. It was a sign of priestly piety, but the Romans were no pacifists; the altars of paganism were stained with blood.

On the Capitoline Hill, Gracchus’s followers picked up legs from wooden benches crushed by the crowd as they fled, but it was not enough to protect them from the angry senators. What followed was a massacre: three hundred Gracchans were killed, including Tiberius Gracchus himself. Their bodies were hauled down from the hill and dumped in the Tiber River to float out to sea, in spite of pleas from their families for burial.

Every single one of these populares was murdered.

So ended what some called the first factional conflict in Rome since the abolition of the monarchy (traditionally, 509 B.C.) to end in bloodshed and the murder of citizens. Modern scholars see it as the start of the Roman Revolution, the intermittently violent—sometimes very violent—process that convulsed the republic and ended up making Rome a monarchy again, this time under the Caesars, about a century after Gracchus’s bloody tribunate.

That tribunate also marked the seminal moment for a phenomenon that would shape Roman politics for the next century: the populares (singular, popularis). The term populares refers to a series of politicians in the Late Roman Republic who said that they were acting on behalf of or with the help of the people. The ancients considered Tiberius Gracchus to be the first of four great populares, the others being his brother, Gaius Gracchus (People’s Tribune, 123–122 B.C.), Saturninus (People’s Tribune, 103 and 100 B.C.), and Sulpicius (People’s Tribune, 88 B.C.). Also worthy of mention is Cicero’s archenemy Clodius (People’s Tribune, 59–58 B.C.). Then there were populares consuls: Cinna (cos. 87–84 B.C.), Lepidus (cos. 78 B.C.)—father of the Lepidus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar—Marius (six times consul between 107 and 86 B.C.), and the most famous popularis of them all, Caesar. Not only was Caesar consul (five times consul between 59 and 44 B.C.), but also dictator, eventually dictator in perpetuity—a new office and one entirely out of keeping with a free republic (four times dictator between 49 and 44 B.C.). If you want to take the fevered temperature of politics in the Late Roman Republic, consider this: every single one of these populares was murdered.

Although no popularis, Cicero too was murdered in the death throes of the republic. The junta that took over the Roman state a year and a half after Caesar’s assassination on March 15, 44 B.C., purged him. Before his death, Cicero had worked heroically to form a united front on the part of the wealthy and virtuous in Rome—or, as he later widened it, in all Italy—to save the republic from the populares, whom he blamed for bringing Rome to its knees. He failed but is rightly honored for his courage. Yet we need to ask if the populares were in fact guilty as charged. And we need to consider what lesson we might draw for today. What, if anything, does the story of ancient populares tell us about modern populists?

Begin with definitions. “Popularis” has much in common with the modern word “populist” but the two are not synonyms, although some treat them as such for convenience’s sake. I have done so myself: mea culpa. Opponents of the populares thought of them not as principled populists but as panderers of the crowd, rabble-rousers, and fomenters of violence. They condemned them as careerists and unprincipled opportunists.

Populists today represent an ideology, at least a vague ideology: populism. Populism is a modern term derived from the Latin word populus, the people or the common people. The People’s Party in the United States coined the term “Populists” in the 1890s. Many see populism as democracy’s ugly twin. While democracy respects the rule of law, adheres to constitutional limits, and seeks a balance between classes and groups, populism is ambiguous. It promotes the people while denouncing the elite and cares less for law than results.

Admittedly, populism is a loosely defined if not nebulous and constantly shifting ideology, but the term “populares” is arguably vaguer. The ancients did not talk about populism, because the populares represented neither a political party nor a coherent program. And the ancients emphasized the tactics of the populares as much as the substance of their policies. To the Romans, populares were not just popular champions but men who tended to get business done via popular assemblies instead of by consulting the senate. And as their opponents often complained, a popularis might cynically manipulate the people for his own selfish ends. Still, the ancients had no doubt about the general bent of the populares: they agitated on behalf of the liberty of the people and the improvement of their material condition at the expense of the wealthy, educated, and restrained.

Another difference between populares and populists is that the former had visible opposite numbers while the latter did not. The Populists were a political party, but there was no party of The Elitists. Populares were not a party but a tendency and so were their opponents, men who called themselves the boni (the good men) or the Optimates (the best men; singular, optimas). Similarly, they sometimes referred to the populares as the improbi (the bad men). The optimates believed in government by a narrow elite of wealth, birth, and public achievement—that is, the senatorial nobility; some optimates also accorded a measure of political power to the equestrians or Roman knights, a non-senatorial but very wealthy social group. Optimates preferred to accord little or no power or authority to the common people or their political institutions.

Still, for all the differences between ancient populares and modern populists, the two offer a similar diagnosis: there is something rotten in the state because the elite is mistreating the people and denying them their liberty, property, and happiness. They call for overthrowing the elite and empowering the people. They often use emotion, in particular, anger. Cicero, for example, records a description that paints the tribune Clodius as one of the furies. He writes:

As for this monster, what crimes did he not perpetrate—crimes which, without reason or plausible hope, he committed with the fury of some savage beast, maddened with the violence of the brutal mob.

True, this portrayal is less than fair to Clodius, a political opponent who led to Cicero’s exile from Rome (he was soon recalled). Yet even on a sympathetic account, Clodius did stir up the urban guilds and engage in violent tactics.

The Populists were a political party, but there was no party of The Elitists.

To return to the comparison between ancient and modern, in both cases the leader plays a crucial role. He or she is often charismatic, from the Gracchi to Eva Perón. Not infrequently, populist leaders are demagogues, that is to say, someone who appeals to prejudice rather than reason. One can think of examples from Cleon the Athenian to George Wallace. The Greek term from which our word derives, dêmagôgos, literally means “leader of the people” and did not originally have a pejorative meaning. It quickly gained that connotation in ancient times, however, as successive generations of Athenian democratic politicians raced to the bottom in order to outbid each other in the pursuit of popular favor, offering ever greater benefits (paid for by redistribution or conquest) and pursuing ever less dignified rhetorical stagecraft—the people preferring slapstick to Aeschylus, after all.

Cleon said that righteous indignation in the heat of anger made for better treatment of wrongdoers than calm and patient reasoning:

For after a time the anger of the sufferer waxes dull, and he pursues the offender with less keenness; but the vengeance which follows closest upon the wrong is most adequate to it and exacts the fullest retribution.

The populares were not democrats. They came from the ruling elite and had no intention of turning over governmental decision-making power to the poor. Nor do modern populist leaders need to be democrats; in fact, as often as not the leader is a dictator who gets things done for the people without fussing overly about how he does it. So, William Jennings Bryan was a democrat but Hugo Chávez was not. Neither, of course, were various fascist leaders through whose policies there runs a vein of populism. As for the populares, Tiberius Gracchus bent the constitution, but he was a piker compared to Caesar, who, according to a plausible report by Suetonius, dismissed the republic as a mere name, a thing without form or substance.

Lincoln defined democracy as government of the people, for the people, and by the people. Populism, by contrast, advocates measures for the people but not necessarily of or by the people; on that, populares and populists would agree.

Politics sometimes comes down to a popularity contest, but sensible people know that it shouldn’t. That points to the problem with populism. Just because the people want something doesn’t make it good. The people of Athens, for example, voted to massacre the men and enslave the women and children of Melos during the Peloponnesian War, but the deed rightly lives on as a byword for atrocity. The Roman people enthusiastically reaped the plunder of empire won by violence, theft, destruction, and enslavement and demanded not so much peace as a greater piece of the pie—hitherto hogged by the Roman elite. The people of America’s Old South wanted slavery (and so few Northerners were willing to fight them over it that Lincoln had to justify the Civil War as a war to save the Union, not a war to abolish slavery). That didn’t make slavery right, of course, although Stephen A. Douglas and others tried to justify it under a doctrine of “Popular Sovereignty.”

The highest standard in politics shouldn’t be popularity but justice. Rather than adopt the most popular policies, a good regime should choose policies that promote the common good. But how can we establish such a regime? By turning the government over to experts? By making it a series of town meetings instead? By appointing a dictator? Classical political thinkers argued that a mixed constitution, one that combines the best traits of different forms of government, was the practical road to a good and just regime. To be sure, Plato and Aristotle envisioned ideal regimes that would embody the highest form of justice, but they were unrealistic. Aristotle sees a more practical path in what he calls a polity, a regime that blended the wealth of the rich and the freedom of the poor and employed measures—from education to redistribution—to create a large and dominant middle class. Thanks to anti-poverty and full employment programs, most citizens would belong to the middle class. That majority group would be neither rich nor poor but moderately prosperous and content with its lot. It would dominate politics and endow it with its moderate outlook on life. Because there would be relatively few differences of wealth, citizens would be relatively similar and equal. Aristotle believed that the result would be a prudent, stable, and just regime.

Cicero considered equality neither desirable nor possible.

As brilliant as Aristotle’s description is, and as stimulating and provocative, it feels light, years away from life today. Cicero’s mixed constitution is messier, less egalitarian, and less stable, which might all be reasons why it speaks more forcefully to our current condition. The rogues, knaves, fools, and infrequent heroes who spring out of his imperishable prose and onto each other’s throats with venom, vitriol, and the occasional dagger would have no trouble fitting in with the Washington or Whitehall elite.

Cicero advocated a “tempering of the republic” (On the Laws, 3.12), a mixed constitution that was a dynamic balance rather than a blending. He considered equality neither desirable nor possible. The purpose of the state was to protect private property and hence to permit inequality. The people were united by a common law, but inequality would lead to disagreement about its interpretation. Democracy was tantamount to mob rule, but a narrow oligarchy would fail to take the interests of the people into account. The solution was not similarity and equality, as Aristotle recommends, but rather a balancing of the interests of the various groups in society. Thus the people would have libertas (liberty), the nobles would have auctoritas (authority, influence, weight, dignity), and the magistrates would have potestas (power). So Cicero puts it in his De Republica (On the Republic, 1.69, 2.57). In De Legibus (On the Laws), he offers a simpler division. He says, “when power is in the people [and the popular Assembly] and authority is in the senate, a moderate and harmonious state of the commonwealth will be maintained.” He offers a nice Latin tag: potestas in populo, auctoritas in senatu. Cicero leaves no doubt about the relative distribution of powers. “The Senate shall be the master of public policy,” he writes, “and everyone should defend what it decrees.”

“What rights did the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus leave to the good men (that is, to the boni or optimates)?” is the rhetorical question asked by Cicero’s brother Quintus, a speaker in one of Cicero’s dialogues (On the Laws, 3.20). Quintus no doubt accurately reflects the opinions of his class when he blames the populares and the institutions they employed —the tribunate and the popular Assembly—for making the lowest equal to the highest and for introducing violence and revolution.

Cicero was an elitist but not a knee-jerk one. Although generally aligned with the optimates, he called for a more broadly based ruling group than the diehards who wanted to keep power in the hands of a few old senatorial families. He called for a concors ordinum (concord of the orders), a union of the two most elite groups in Roman society, the nobles (those whose ancestors were senators), and the equestrians or Roman knights (those of great wealth but not senatorial status). He described this as a consensus omnium bonorum (consensus of all good men) and eventually envisioned it including tota Italia (all of Italy).

Nor did Cicero entirely neglect the interests of the people. He had no doubt that “the best men” should govern and that private property should be sacrosanct, but he believed that the people should have a modicum of liberty. He did not, for example, want to abolish the People’s Tribunes because he thought they could serve to calm the people as well as to incite them. He was all in favor of the people voting as long as there was no secret ballot (as Rome had in certain cases), so that the optimates could supervise the vote and correct it as necessary. “Let the people’s vote be free but observed by the optimates,” he proposed.

Cicero recognized that government by the elite should also be government on behalf of the people. It was the job of Rome’s magistrates, he wrote, to increase the glory of the people (On the Laws, 3.9). He stated that those who administer the republic should

keep the good of the people so clearly in view that regardless of their own interests they will make their every action conform to that; second, to care for the welfare of the whole body politic and not in serving the interests of some one party to betray the rest.

He bemoaned the current state of affairs and looked toward something better:

Now, those who care for the interests of a part of the citizens and neglect another part, introduce into the civil service a dangerous element—dissension and party strife. The result is that some are found to be loyal supporters of the populares, others of the optimates, and few of the nation as a whole.

For Cicero, agitation by elite leaders on behalf of the people—a kind of populism, if you will—was neither just nor prudent. In fact, he blamed the populares for the troubles of the republic. The best regime, he thought, was a broad-based oligarchy in which the people have limited but genuine powers.

But what would happen if the oligarchs—“the best men”—misbehaved? What if they abused their power and oppressed the people? That is precisely the problem of the Late Republic.

But what would happen if the oligarchs—“the best men”—misbehaved?

In its early days the gap between rich and poor in Rome was relatively narrow. But as Rome conquered an empire, enormous wealth poured in and it was not shared equally. In fact, as they turned from prosperous farmers into rich herding magnates, Italy’s one percent grabbed the public land on which the poor had depended for herding their livestock and converted it to private use. The rich took the lion’s share, and then they took the mouse’s share too.

The problem that Tiberius Gracchus addressed was the driving of the Italian peasantry off the land. It was a multiplex crisis: social, economic, humanitarian, political, and military, since Roman soldiers were supposed to meet a minimum land-ownership requirement. Inequality threatened the stability of the republic by striking at the twin institutions of the small farmer and citizen-soldier. A citizenry composed of small landowners tended to be conservative, moderate, and invested in the future of their society—and so less likely to be swayed by a demagogue. Service in the nation’s militia would only add to such a citizen’s patriotism and sense of civic duty. On this, Greco-Roman thinkers agreed. Yet Rome’s elite was willing to gamble with their society’s future by letting the agrarian crisis go unresolved.

It was a bad bet. The failure of land reform ultimately transformed the Roman legions from an army of small farmers to an army of landless proletarians. They no longer had the property to give them a stake in society, but they did have swords. For ambitious military leaders they were political foot soldiers, legionaries who demanded land on demobilization—or else. And so Rome evolved from the era of the Senate and its loyal commanders under Cato and Scipio to the day of dux and dictator under Marius and Sulla and Pompey and Caesar. The final outcome of the agrarian crisis and the struggle between optimates and populares was Augustus, Rome’s first monarch in 500 years. He “renovated” the republic (as the Latin phrase he proudly advertised, res public restituta, may be translated) and turned it into the Roman Empire. He thereby achieved stability but at the cost of liberty. By the way, Augustus was careful to provide land for his veterans. Tiberius Gracchus’s proposed solution was much cheaper!

Whatever blame accorded to populares for their opportunism and demagoguery is more than matched by the greed and inflexibility of the optimates for failing to share the wealth of empire with ordinary citizens. Although giants walked among the politicians of the Late Republic, there were too few men of vision, moderation, and willingness to compromise. They couldn’t foresee that the price of inflexibility would be liberty itself.

Their character did not rise to the occasion. Cicero recognized the extent to which a regime depended on the good character of its leaders. It was one thing to grant auctoritas to the senators, but another for them to be worthy of it. He understood the danger to the commonwealth posed by corrupt elites. Cicero wrote:

Corrupt leaders are all the more pernicious to the republic because not only do they harbor their own vices but they spread them among the citizenry; they do harm not only because they are themselves corrupt but because they corrupt others—and they do more harm by the example they set than by their own transgressions.

Cicero needed no lessons in how power corrupts. He wrote:

The great majority of people . . . when they fall prey to ambition for either military or civil authority, are carried away by it so completely that they quite lose sight of the claims of justice.

He added that unfortunately it was the greatest souls and most shining geniuses that had the greatest ambition for power and glory, making them all the more dangerous. He was thinking of Caesar in particular but the same could be said of Cato, Pompey, Brutus, and, to a degree, of Cicero himself. Indeed, it applies to a wide segment of the optimates, in their words and deeds, from the response to Gracchus in 133 B.C. to their last stand a century later at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. In their unwillingness to compromise or recognize the legitimate claims of the people they opened the door to populares with armies at their backs. And so the defenders of the republic contributed to its demise.

Cicero recognized the extent to which a regime depended on the good character of its leaders.

Rome offered one solution to the problem of bad elite actors: if senators, they faced ejection from the senate by the censor, a sort of one-man Supreme Court when it came to public morals. That was hardly adequate, however, for dealing with an elite that was mean and foolish instead of generous and shrewd.

And so we come to populism. When an elite is corrupt, narrow-minded, and grudging; when it fails to recognize the legitimate claims of the people; when its injustice and misbehavior is not merely a rhetorical trope but a fact, then it is legitimate, indeed necessary, for the people to challenge it. In an ideal world, the challenge will be legal, constitutional, and respectful. It will root its claims not in the brute power of the people but in a philosophically defensible principle of justice. Far from engaging in demagoguery, its rhetoric will be as polite as the table manners of the guests reclining on the couches in a dining room of a Roman villa. We don’t live in an ideal world, however, any more than Cicero’s myopic and rigidly principled contemporary Cato the Younger lived in Plato’s Republic—Rome in its turmoil and corruption was more like the Sewer of Romulus. We no longer live in a world run by America’s founders, those eighteenth-century gentlemen in powdered wigs; actually, we never did, because those same gentlemen skewered each other in print and murdered each other in duels.

Modern populists, like ancient populares, are likely to be vulgar, angry, and confrontational. Such tactics are regrettable, but at times they are necessary. Principled populists will limit any resort to class conflict, will aim at the rule of law and not at mob rule, and will try to compromise with the elite rather than engage in revolution. Or, more likely, nowadays, when everything’s a revolution, they will talk radical change but strike a bargain. Shrewd populists will want to adjust the regime, not destroy it.

Wise elites will take populist movements as a wake-up call.

Wise elites, for their part, will take populist movements as a wake-up call. Instead of merely denouncing populism as false consciousness, bigotry, resentment, bad manners, mental illness, peevishness, superstition, or class warfare, and instead of adopting a “Problems? What problems?” attitude when faced with protests, they will inquire as to whether genuine grievances might underlie populism’s appeal. Then, having recognized human suffering, they will try to ameliorate it in turn. In that way they will do the right thing while also saving their political skins.

The problem of populism is the problem of elitism. The more just and astute the elite is, the less angry the people are. The more the elite treats politics like a big tent, in which no one should be left out, the less likely they are to face populist challenges.

Let’s go back to where we began, in Rome in 133 B.C. If the Roman elite had compromised with Tiberius Gracchus instead of blocking and then killing him, or if they had co-opted his land reform and made it their own, then they might have rescued the republic from a century of war and revolution. They might even have spared their great-grandchildren the loss of political liberty that Augustus’s monarchy entailed. To do that, however, would have taken moderation, courage, and wisdom—leadership, in a word—that is beyond the reach of all but the greatest statesmen.

We don’t live in Plato’s Republic, alas, so we will have populism. Let’s respond to it wisely.