July 13th, 100BC, saw the birth of Gaius Julius Caesar, a man who would change the world. One of his lasting changes was the introduction of the modern calendar. He replaced the Roman moon-related calendar by one based on the sun, and gave us our year of 365.25 days with an extra day every fourth year. He added three extra months and has July named after him.
It was, of course, his military conquests and political changes that earned him fame. He was at the watershed as the Roman Republic broke down and was transformed into the Roman Empire. Although its apologists spoke grandly of ‘Republican virtues,’ the fact was that the old system that worked for a city could not cope adequately with the vast territory Rome now controlled. In practice, well-born senators appointed each other to the governorships of provinces that they then looted.
The territory under Rome was hugely enlarged by Caesar’s conquests in Gaul and Germany, and he needed land for his veterans. Although well born himself, Caesar backed the popular cause against most of the aristocracy. He was, perhaps, an early populist. Had he left his army at Italy’s frontier, as the rules required, he would have been defenceless against trial and probable execution in Rome. In crossing the Rubicon with his army, he set in motion the events that changed Rome into an empire governed by all-powerful rulers.
When he took control, Caesar set about implementing reforms that would transform Rome. He extended Roman citizenship far beyond Italy’s borders, creating a unified state of its disparate provinces. He centralized its bureaucracy into a single government, and put into effect the land reforms that supported his veterans. He was proclaimed ‘dictator’ for life, and carried out populist reforms that made the common people regard him as their champion. He undermined the wealth and power of Rome’s élite senators, which is why they killed him.
The model of a strong leader with authoritarian powers, backed by a loyal army, is one that has been followed many times since in many places. Napoleon Bonaparte is probably the most famous example. Populists in modern times have to pay lip service, at least, to democratic mandates, although in Venezuela Chavez and Maduro have shown how readily the democratic process can be subverted.
T H White, who authored many of “The Making of a President” books in the 1960s and early 1970s, also wrote a play called, "Caesar at the Rubicon" (1968). At its end, Caesar finally crosses the river to head for Rome with his army. His closing line as he does so is, "If men cannot agree on how to rule themselves, someone else must rule them." When societies descend into conflict and chaos, they should know that the eternal Caesar waits at the eternal Rubicon, sitting astride his white horse with his army behind him, and with that old, old sword at his side…