Tom Holland is a British writer, historian, and broadcaster. Among his many books are Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2003), Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom (2008), and In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (2012). His latest book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, will be published by Basic Books in October. (August 2019)
Back in the dying days of the Roman Republic, it had pleased the conservative senators who defined themselves as “optimates,” the best, to disparage their opponents as “populares”: populists. Yet the popularis tradition was one which, no less than their own, had long been part of the fabric of Roman politics. That it came to be weaponized by a succession of notorious Caesars—Caligula, Nero, Commodus himself—did not mean that it was necessarily incompatible with the functioning of a republic. The realization that mockery of elites and the trampling of political convention might be transmuted into popularity with the plebs had not inevitably doomed Rome to autocracy.