Alea iacta est: a Tale of Two Rivers

CW: General Mention of Suicide

When Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions, he set off a chain of events that led to the end of the ailing Roman Republic. A system that had stood for almost half a millennium was irrevocably damaged in less than five years. Washington, as any fan of Hamilton would know, sits on the Potomac River. When Trumpists crossed this river on the 6th of January 2021 did they set off a similar chain of events? 


I would argue yes: both events led to further manipulation of the political system by the men at their heads and both accelerated a path towards liberal non-democracy: a state in which generally liberal views are contrasted against an undemocratic system.


Caesar, until his assassination, succeeded. The January 6 riots did not, at least in their original intention. Caesar and Trump are undeniably different figures, while both of them were or are incredibly rich individuals, the former was considerably more so compared to his peers than the latter. Caesar was the second most famous general of the Roman army when he crossed the Rubicon as well as a highly accomplished politician, the latter was famous for being a reality TV star with a slew of failed businesses. Caesar was the epitome of a political insider by this point in his career, Trump at least branded himself as an outsider. However, there are parallels between the two men at the hearts of these movements and the long-term impact of the events could trend in similar directions. Whether we care to admit it or not, both have loomed large on the stage of their times and both reshaped the political atmosphere in which they operated.


Many of us would, I think, agree that America as a democracy has failed or is failing, in a similar way to how the Roman Republic was on the brink when Caesar cast the die. The nation is one of only five that has some members of its judiciary subject to some form of election. In a number of states the highest state courts judges can be elected either directly or through a confirmation or retention election, where courts are supposed to be apolitical in order to impartially interpret the law, these courts are politicised by elections potentially endangering the rule of law. The individuals running the county’s elections are themselves elected politicians and the elections are scrutinised by partisans. Its highest judges are more akin to politicians rather than the impartial arbiters of the law as we expect our High Court justices to be in Australia. From the nation’s inception it has been possible to win a plurality in the popular vote in a presidential election while losing the election itself (this happened in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2020). Not to mention that there are more ageing American politicians that need to learn how to say goodbye than there were Roman senators when Caesar’s civil war broke out.


And why, we ask, did these true patriots cross the Potomac? To prevent a reality TV star with a slew of defunct businesses turned leader of the free world with the most impeachments of a president in history from losing his new hobby to a man who ran on a platform of getting rid of him. Want to know why Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions? Because his political opponents were removing him from office and if he came without an army, he would surely be prosecuted for crimes committed while consul years earlier. I wonder who now is being prosecuted for crimes committed in office.


After his victory over Pompey, Caesar championed the political accession of his supporters, cementing his influence in the Senate and while Trump may have done more harm than good for the Republicans in the 2022 midterms, the rise of various Trump-backed supporters has led to a much more radical and pro-Trump composition of the House. The Roman general also ruthlessly punished the leaders of the conservative faction (Scipio and Cato both committed suicide rather than face his wrath) and under the radical conservative House, the Republicans have upheld their promise to return the favour of impeachment to the Democrats with Speaker Kevin McCarthy ordering an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden. 


The flow-on effects of January 6 will not lead to the end of the American Republic and the rise of an imperator, but it has and will continue to fundamentally reshape the landscape of American politics. Not since 1814, when the British forces took Washington, has a group successfully ‘invaded’ the Capitol building. This event makes political violence acceptable; a state where political violence is acceptable cannot reasonably be called a democracy. The United States continues to trend towards a liberal non-democracy, and while the Roman Republic was by no means truly democratic to begin with, we might argue that Caesar’s victory also created a liberal non-democracy (Caesar was of course quite progressive for his day). Caesar championed land redistribution and debt cancellation for the poor and reformed the census to create a more equitable tax system. On the other hand, he created masses of new senators to stack votes in support of his legislative agenda and had himself appointed dictator for life. In our day, we see the United States slip towards non-democracy such as Republicans seeking to reduce voter-turnout in order to gain and retain power.


The similarities between Caesar and Trump and the crossing of the Rubicon and the Potomac may not appear obvious at first. This might be due to the fact that we see the former event as a successful step in maintaining power and the latter event as a desperate last attempt resulting in numerous criminal indictments. However, when we look beyond the events themselves and instead towards their outcomes and what they represent about the systems in which they occurred, the similarities become clear. January 6 was a momentous occasion in American history and its echoes, like Caesar’s choice to enter Italy, will reverberate through the country’s political history.

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