We may have underestimated the ways in which a Roman popularis (s.) could motivate the passions of the people. Populares (pl.) were individuals who, in the last years of the Roman republic (133-49 BCE), were able to successfully use the concerns of the Roman populace — that is to say, the population at Rome — to their political advantage. In practice, they would circumvent the authority of the Roman Senate and magistrates by making proposals directly to the popular assembly, thereby forcing the Senate to either accept or be seen to oppose the populace.
The Senate was itself an oligarchy of statesmen who held among their number all of the offices of state at one time or another — in order to be admitted to the Senate, one had to have successfully been in office. Although the Senate and the populace had their differences, rarely did anyone from among their number take up the popular cause against their own kind. When populares sprang up in the latter part of the 2nd Century BCE, the series of events which followed largely settled the matter in the Senate’s favor. Through a combination of compromise and violence, the Senate made it plainly apparent that it was well enough prepared to guard their own order within their home city.
But Rome ruled much more than just a city. She controlled either directly through governors or indirectly through client kings an ever-increasing empire. This empire allowed those men on military campaign or in governorships to become extraordinarily rich as they exploited local markets and took a cut of the taxes as the fee for collecting them on Rome’s behalf. This was not only common, but expected practice — though some took it too far and were prosecuted. Not enough were, however, and so the already-wealthy grew wealthier. Those very, very few who found their way from the lower classes to the Senatorial oligarchy likewise grew rich and on the whole, based on the distinctly conservative nature of Roman politics, did little to agitate for popular ends.
Popular revolt from within the city of Rome simply did not work. The Senate would close ranks and defend their home. So rather than draw support for popular causes strictly from the populace, they drew their support from the army. The wealth that had come with the exploitation of imperial lands allowed many “new men” (homo novus) in the Senate to raise large armies at their own expense or to simply fund them, the prime example being Caesar. But even before Caesar, Caesar’s uncle Marius had already garnered the army’s support through reforms which allowed the least wealthy among the Roman people — namely those without land — to serve in the army with the hoped-for result of gaining their own plot of arable land at the end of their service.
By this measure, rather than seek the army’s support, Marius simply created the army. The lowest classes of people in Rome were inevitably the ones most drawn to service, particularly as it became apparent that a great deal of wealth could indeed be gained by a career as a legionary. By so incentivizing those who joined, Marius turned the army from a smaller, exclusive organization of wealthier members of society to a professional fighting force whose members had life-time incentives to serve in the army — notably serving the army, not necessarily the state. The loyalties of the legionaries ultimately lay with individual leaders, people like Marius and his rival Sulla; today we might say their following represents a “cult of personality.” However you decide to view it, the fact remained that Marius militarized the people, whose livelihood now rested on the success of their leader.
The result of all of this was a long, drawn-out civil war that flared into all-out massacres between Roman factions, flaring most brightly in the chaos that reigned over the Mediterranean from the day Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January of 49 BCE to the death of Sextus Pompeius in 35 BCE and the brief period of peace which followed. For more than a decade without stopping, Romans killed each other on a scale that had never before witnessed; violence on a truly revolutionary scale. The destruction drew in the remaining Mediterranean states, ultimately destroying the old international order and forging a new one in which single-party — or more accurately single-ideology rule became manifest in the person of an autocrat who we popularly call “emperor” or princeps among academics. This individual practiced near-absolute control for a time before slowly loosening many of the emergency powers and provisions put in place in the final years of the crisis which ultimately precipitated the demise of a functioning republic.
In every instance of the conflict, the one who could most incense (or exploit) the passions and anxieties of the people could seize control by appealing to the army. Often swayed, the army of people allowed their leader to take control of the situation in Rome with the purpose of either changing the system or “restoring” it. The result of both “restorations” at Rome was not a true return to the past because, simply put, such things are impossible. The final, most stable system under Augustus was ultimately tolerable to the Roman people because of the peace and stability it brought after decades of devastation. More to the point, it was peaceful and stable because it kept the armies paid and loyal to the person of the emperor and his proxies.
The militarization of the people is not foreign to our more recent history. To the extent the leaders of the Confederate States of America were able to attempt secession from the United States was based entirely on their ability to impassion the support of the people and, ultimately, militarize their number. In the South it remains a maxim that Confederate soldiers did not fight for secession or to keep slavery; instead they fought because the United States, from their point of view, was trying to impose their will on them. That was almost certainly what the people of the South believed, but for the leaders it was a war rooted in economics, which was in turn ultimately tied to the Confederacy’s dependence on slavery for free labor. The Confederate people and the Confederate soldier largely did not own slaves, but they were fighting — perhaps unwittingly — for the right of their leaders and their wealthy friends to continue profiting from the bondage of others. And just as in the case of the Romans, the people of the South became the army of the Confederacy.
In the ancient world, the army thus represented the political as well as military mobilization of the people. In the present day, the mobilization of the people into a militarized organization has largely gone out of fashion with the totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century. Emerging in their place are systems of governance which can mobilize their people in the most convenient and intrusive way, via social media. Social media represents the outlet by which the people can express their concerns and anxieties to their leaders, and in turn their leaders can hear their constituents and frame the narrative. Both President Obama and Donald Trump owe their elections, in large part, to their following on social media, and there is no reason to expect this to change.
But is it accurate to say that social media is an accurate representation of the country? It almost certainly is not in the same way the Roman army was certainly not an accurate representation of the country. What is at stake is whether or not that segment of the populace which has been mobilized can be successfully won over by a popularis. Thus mobilized, they act — perhaps voting, perhaps donating, perhaps taking up arms; which will be determined by the circumstances of the time. What can be said with accuracy is that history is replete with examples of populations exploited by populares whose societies are transformed into something that is ultimately self-destructive.