The early kings of Rome were absolute dictators who ruled Rome before the days of the Roman republic. The kingship was not an hereditary position — the dictator was elected by the Roman Senate from among its own members, but once elected the king had power over the Senate, which basically carried out his wishes.
Dylan’s song “Early Roman Kings”, from his forthcoming album Tempest, evokes these despots, I think, as emblems of the corporate powers that have taken over the American republic. (“They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers, they buy and they sell — they destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well.”) We are now ruled by “elected” officials, but are only offered choices provided by the monied interests, who function as the early Roman Senate once functioned.
Once elected, our leaders can basically do anything they want, with the permission of their corporate masters — including suspending the most basic provisions of democratic government, like habeas corpus, as Barack Obama has done, by fiat. Obama’s relentless war against the U. S. Constitution places him squarely in the tradition of the early Roman kings, who recognized no power higher than their own.
In any case, Dylan’s early Roman kings symbolize political apocalypse — lunatic and merciless tyranny. Amidst this horrifying vision, Dylan’s own persona emerges as a kind of opposition to this tyranny, promising to fight the tyrants as viciously as the tyrants oppress us all.
The result is a song that is more prophetic than political — a snapshot of the horrific mess we’re in and a suggestion of the rage and violence that will be required to extricate ourselves from the mess.
When posterity contemplates the ruin (or perhaps even the miraculous recovery) of the American republic, Dylan’s song will certainly be among the few works of art recognized as responsive to the actual temper of the times we’re living in now.