June 15, 2023 - 9:00am

When a relative of a senior politician makes money in complicated circumstances, questions are asked. That’s especially the case when foreign interests are involved.

At the moment, it’s Hunter Biden — son of Joe — who’s under scrutiny. Despite the best efforts of hostile Republicans, the younger Biden has yet to be indicted (unlike Donald Trump).

Of course, if a senior Democrat — or someone close to him or her — were found to be under foreign influence, then the Right would be justified in their hostility.

On Twitter, the venture capitalist David Sacks drew a provocative parallel: “In the days of Roman Republic, Senatorial families were oft paid patronage by foreign kings.” In this way they could be relied upon to “intervene on the king’s behalf.” Sacks goes on to cite the case of Jugurtha, king of Numidia, as an especially blatant example.

This prompted a reply from Elon Musk: “Perhaps we just need a modern day Sulla”. That’s not just a provocative parallel — it’s downright disturbing. Sulla, or Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, to give him his full name, was a pivotal figure in Roman history. Born almost 40 years before Julius Caesar in 138 BC, he made his name as a general, crushing foreign kings (including Jugurtha).

In 82 BC, Sulla seized power in Rome itself, becoming its first military dictator. Losing no time, he re-established traditional values after a period of political upheaval — and rooted out corruption including the influence of foreign powers. Then, after three years, he did something unexpected: he voluntarily retired. Quite clearly, he wasn’t about power for power’s sake. Rather, he was there to do a job — and, so, once he’d done it, he went back to his farm.

He might have been remembered as a great reformer — but he wasn’t, because his methods were those of a bloody tyrant. Sulla is most infamous for his use of proscription, which was the Roman equivalent of cancel culture, only with more decapitations. Still, there’s no denying its effectiveness: his enemies wound up dead and their property confiscated.

In speaking of a “modern day Sulla”, I very much doubt that Elon Musk had these old school tactics in mind. But, equally, when it comes to fixing the country, I’m sure that a lot of conservatives and reformists long for a leader who doesn’t mess about.

In this respect Sulla serves as a warning about unintended consequences. Yes, he strengthened Rome in the short-term, but by violating republican norms — especially the curbs on the amount of power any one man could hold — he fatally undermined what he thought he was defending.

In 44 BC, Julius Caesar — a survivor of the faction opposed to Sulla — declared himself dictator for life. Of course, Julius wasn’t allowed to live much longer — but his heir, Octavian, took up the reins while using Sulla’s method of proscription to wipe-out the opposition. Though the republic continued as a polite fiction, Rome had become an empire with Octavian as its first emperor, Augustus Caesar.

There’s a lesson here for modern day conservatives. We cannot accelerate our way back to good governance. In particular, we must reject short cuts that trample over democratic norms. Even if all that we want is to restore order and go back to our farms, the long-term consequences could be anything but conservative.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.