Two Cheers for the Great Man Theory of History

Thus British military historian Charles Oman in the incipit of Seven Roman Statesmen of the Later Republic (1902):

There was a time, not so very long ago, when the taunt was true that history was written as if it were a mere string of anecdotal biographies of great men. But for the last forty years the pendulum has been swinging so much in the other direction, that it has become necessary to enforce the lesson that the biographies of great men are, after all, a most important part of history. It is well to have conceptions of the streams of tendency and the typical developments of every age, but the blessed word “evolution” will not account for everything, and it is absurd to neglect the influence of the great personalities.

“Trends,” “forces,” “developments,” and so on are fine as far as they go, other than the fact that they don’t have agency.


The first life Oman treats is that of Tiberius Gracchus, and his third paragraph sketches him as a type recognizable in our own recent past and present: the unconstitutional and anticonstitutional fixer, who considers any opposition to his ameliorating schemes as evidence of a murderously depraved heart. Why should one be bothered by laws and norms when he is really passionate about a cause? We invent all manner of excuses for this–e.g. “public health”–but the problem of non-political solutions to political problems is as old as politics itself, and always indicates a sickness unto death in the state. Oman puts it like this:

Tiberius Gracchus is one of the most striking instances in history of the amount of evil that can be brought about by a thoroughly honest and well-meaning man, who is so entirely convinced of the righteousness of his own intentions and the wisdom of his own measures, that he is driven to regard any one who strives to hinder him as not only foolish but morally wicked. The type of exalted doctrinaire who exclaims that any constitutional check that hinders his plans must be swept away without further inquiry, that every political opponent is a bad man who must be crushed, has been known in many lands and many ages, from ancient Greece down to the France of the Revolution.

Those with some familiarity with Roman history know that Tiberius Gracchus wanted to right economic wrongs through unconstitutional coercive action, which, too, may sound familiar. Plus ├ža change, and all that. Oman credits him with “brains” and “heart,” but also remarks that he had “enough self-confidence to think that he was foreordained by the gods to set all to right.” Many–as they say–such cases. “Such was the genius,” Oman continues, “of the first of Rome’s many self-consituted saviours of society.” Sadly, this movie always ends the same way.


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