The violence of late republic, Part 1: Vigilante Senators

The final years of the Roman republic were marked by waves of increasingly intense violence among the urban population of Rome. These waves of violence — co-opted for their political capital — became the battle standards of the ruling oligarchy, intensifying the urban violence of the city to a series of world-spanning civil wars likewise marked by increasing levels of violence. The primary factions which characterized these final stages of the republic are today conventionally divided between the optimates and the populares. These names reflect the source of power utilized by members of each camp, with the optimates relying on the “best practices” and power structures of the republic and the populares the favor of the Roman populace.

The origins of this divide can be traced to the aftermath of the the wars fought with Carthage, culminating in the destruction of the city of Carthage in 146 BCE. Lands and people previously under Carthaginian suzerainty passed to Roman authority: imperium Romanum. Prior to and between the first Punic Wars, Rome had accumulated a relatively small number of foreign territories, preferring the conservation of the “international” status quo of the Mediterranean basin to the ancient analog of “nation-building,” preferring instead to act as guides for the international community — an Italian hegemon among Hellenistic states. Such was the case when in 168 BCE, C. Popillius Laenas drew a circle on the ground around Antiochus IV and declared that the king would not leave the boundary until the Roman senate had their answer. The cause was ostensibly the preservation of peace, but peace here meant denying Antiochus the conquest of Egypt. At stake was nothing less than stability of the Italian economy — and thus the preservation of Roman hegemony — through the starvation of its communities, or so the senate might have put it. If the Seleucid king succeeded in the conquest of his southern rivals in Alexandria, it would be he and not the pliable, Roman-dependent Ptolemies who would set the price of grain exported to Italy. Whereas for a time the acquisition of Sicily (241 BCE) proved sufficient to feed the burgeoning population of Roman Italy, even before Carthage’s destruction in 146 BCE, Rome was well on its way to the reliance on Egyptian grain which would be leveraged to such great effect in the final civil war. Economic stability for the Romans was thus equated with Roman security and hegemony.

A recent offering of uncleaned Roman coins from the Balkans available for purchase.

What had begun as a legitimate concern for the security of the state became a presumption of power, one in which the ruling oligarchy believed that Roman authority trumped all other claims. The origins of this belief might be said to come from the rape of Lucretia and the subsequent overthrow of Tarquinius Superbus, conventionally dated to 509 BCE — this was certainly what the Romans told themselves. Tracing their origins to the trauma of rape, Lucretia embodied the purity of the archaic Roman state, forcibly violated by the corrupting influences of avarice and the meddlesome foreigner present in Superbus. In turn, the rape of Lucretia was but the first in a series of such violations of Roman boundaries — social, economic, and political, however vague and amorphous those boundaries might be — providing the early republic with a reason for its existence, a fabled story of heroism against oppression. The assault on their homes by figures such as Lars Porsena or the resurgent Tarquinius Superbus were followed by military action intended to neutralize the Etruscan threat to their north. Just as preemptive military action was seen as necessary by the Bush administration in 2003 to protect against the use of (imagined) weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein, so too would the Romans would act on spurious claims against enemies which had in the past proven troublesome. It is to this struggle — the struggle to secure the state and populace at the start of res publica — that Romans could trace the beginnings of a policy, conscious or not, of defensive conquest.

The state of political discourse in 2002-03. Replace “military” with “police” and what has changed?

Appealing as this traditional reading might be, it tells us more of about the way Roman’s conceived of their own past and mores than it does about reality. Whatever visage of fact might be preserved in those stories, their authenticity cannot be satisfactorily corroborated. And so in attempting to understand the origins of internal conflict in Rome, it is informative to look at the first historical moment of the Roman republic, the sack of the city by Gauls around the year 390 BCE. It had come following the failure of Roman arms at Allia, which allowed the victories Gallic Senones to enter and raze Rome but for a few dubious hilltop holdouts. We can only imagine the bloodshed that must have ensued, for whereas the wealthy have historically been able to afford fleeing harm’s way, we must assume that the fate of the urban poor likewise followed historical trends. In the case of the 4th century BCE, the fate of the poor did not only mean being stranded without assistance, it meant innumerable sexual violations, rape, mutilation, torture, slavery, death — or all.

The trauma of the loss in 390 BCE created a sort of collective cultural wound in the Roman psyche, one which came to regard the world around them as suspicious and dangerous. I am of the opinion that it is to this trauma which the stories of the early republic appeal, a call to arms in the face of the destruction wrought by the Gauls in the midst of reconstituting the Roman state. The Roman spirit — virtus — is here the hero and the state its prize, one which can survive the likes of the foreign invader. They sought to cast their ancient enemies in a heroic guise as even better than the Gauls defeated them, for — they would tell themselves — they had triumphed not over mere barbarians, but kings. If Romans could overthrow Etruscan kings, they could recover from the loss at the hands of the Senones and “once more” strengthen themselves against future foreign incursions. Little wonder we see such xenophobic disdain among the literate population of Rome in the ”post-390.

Hollywood, California, 1920.

The foreigner became the harbinger of destruction, and the adoption of their ways would result in a weakening of the state within — self destruction. Men such as Cato the Elder would point to the free foreigner in the Forum or at the market as the cause of the present generation’s wayward tendencies, citing such novelties as actors and philosophers as threats to Roman culture, and therefore the state. To this class of men, the state was was itself inherently tied to the ancestral traditions of discipline, piety, and hard work — the very virtues which had saved them in her times of emergency. Those with the means to create such luxuries as comedies and poetry — ones such as Plautus, an elder contemporary of Cato — were not considered legitimate “contributing members of society” by the members of the ruling elite. Only those who labored — or more accurately, those who induced others to labor on their behalf upon their land — for only real Romans had land — from sunup to sundown counted in a society which saw itself as composed entirely of hard-bitten farmers.

This preoccupation with the land is not unique to Roman society; indeed, it was not until the twentieth century that land ceased to be the deciding factor in the accumulation of wealth. In the Roman psyche, land became representative of one’s ability to manage a household, the Roman sense of the term (domus) encompassing something more akin to a family business than simply one’s nuclear family. Cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and the innumerable, nameless men, women, and children held in bondage all counted as a part of the Roman domus. It from this portion of the Roman citizenry that the senate drew its lot of soldiers for military service, more often than not abroad in defense of Roman interests. Managed by the elite of the city, these interests in due course became the personal interests of these principle men, and as foreign ventures accrued more riches for the wealthy of Rome, so the call for military forces abroad intensified both in quantity and length of service. It would not be going too far to say that the collective interests of the elite in time became the interests of the state, and where the interests of the economic elite hazarded to venture, there the state would follow: Carthago delenda est.

This guiding hand of the ruling elite would result in two major outcomes. The first was the sudden accumulation of empire at the conclusion of the Punic (246-146 BCE) and Macedonian (214-146) wars. This new empire opened avenues for income which had hitherto been largely small-scale. The practice of tax-farming, for example, provided incentive not only for the state to contract this service to private individuals, but likewise created an incentive to abuse this power in both recouping what had been paid to the state and drawing additional profit from the pockets of Rome’s provincial subjects. The state might have been enriched by the expansion of its power, but it was the ruling class — not the commonwealth — who benefited the most. In time the wealthy would come to view the interests of the state as their personal prerogative, and would defend them as such.

The second result of the foreign policy crafted by the ruling class we have mentioned, namely the necessity of calling on greater and greater numbers of the propertied class to military service. In a misogynistic society like ancient Rome, only men were eligible for military service, and in a society in which the eldest male of the household — the paterfamilias — was expected to be the fount of familial livelihood, one can imagine how powerful the loss of such a member would be to the household. One is reminded of the appeals made by American farmers to the Federal government at the prospect of having all their labor taken for service in the twentieth century’s world wars. But whereas American society, for all its ills, made room for American women to take many of the jobs once occupied by men, the ultra-conservative nature of Roman society all but precluded this from occurring in any meaningful way. Simply put, a Roman household deprived of its paterfamilias was unlikely to be able to support itself in the interim — not because they lacked a man, but because of the cultural context in which they existed. As a result, desperate families — unsure of whether the paterfamilias would even return — found themselves with the unenviable choice between annihilation through poverty and starvation or the immediacy of relief in the form of cash for the sale of their meager scrap of soil. Unsurprisingly, many took the latter option, and in the instances where men did return from abroad, the loss of the family farm would only added their number to that of their family’s among the urban proletariat.

An American Auschwitz: Whitney Plantation, St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana.

And what of their land? The revenues provided by overseas ventures enabled the ruling elite — large landowners in their own right — to buy up the plots of families desperate for relief in the face of an absent or dead paterfamilias. The lands themselves became fine additions to the existing plantations of the economically advantaged. Deprived of their traditional sources of income, the newly urban poor would have no choice but to turn to the salvation of “trickle down” wealth made manifest by the vague and often manipulative character of the patron-client relationships in ancient Rome. In effect, free people were made economic dependents of the very people who deprived them of their means of income in the first place — economic servitude. And as Roman interests abroad increasingly became a source of the elite’s personal revenues, a greater proportion of propertied Romans entered economic destitution.

The situation at last reached a crisis when the number of landless outpaced the number eligible for military service. When earlier I said that “only real Romans had land,” I was not joking: in order to be eligible for military service in the middle republic, one had to own land. But in the historical irony which has historically plagued the brave souls who serve their country, the act of service likewise made these men a part of the economic destitute. The massive selloffs of land by desperate families resulted in a greater accumulation of wealth in the hands of the already-wealthy in the form of mega-plantations (latifundia), which came to characterize the Italian countryside of the latter 2nd and early 1st centuries BCE. Without land, even veterans would lose their eligibility for service — and therefore men asked to sacrifice all for the state were met with the trauma of loss and rejection upon their return home. We are reminded of the way Vietnam veterans were treated at home, and the unfulfilled promises of equitable freedom made to slaves in the United States during the Civil War, such as the famous “forty acres and a mule”:

Men, women, children freed from bondage follow Sherman’s army, Georgia, 1865.

…that each family shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground … in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection until such time as they can protect themselves or until Congress shall regulate their title. The quartermaster may … place at the disposal of the inspector one or more of the captured steamers to ply between the settlements … to afford the settlers the opportunity to supply their necessary wants and to sell the products of their land and labor.

Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, Special Field Orders No. 15, January 16, 1865.

The matter of the disenfranchised landless found its patron in the person of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (b. 166 BCE). A member of the senatorial elite himself, he is said to have been personally affected by the site of so many latifundia, described by Plutarch as “filled with chain-gangs of foreign slaves, by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates, from which they had driven away the free citizens” (Vit. Ti. Gracch. 8.3). It is important to note that Plutarch was here writing at a remove of more than two centuries and was seemingly reliant on a pamphlet distributed by Tiberius’ younger brother, Caius (ibid. 8.7), and so just as we cannot resolutely determine the facts surrounding the alleged events of 509 BCE, so we cannot at all be sure that the episode happened as Plutarch (or rather Caius!) described. But whether it happened as Plutarch says is largely immaterial, for the elder Gracchus was then on his way to a military assignment in Numantia and would either through experience or conversations with soldiers have been cognizant of the fate which awaited the men with whom he served in North Africa — that of the landless prole, while he himself would return to a life of luxury and political office among the ruling elite of Rome. I do not care to speculate on how Tiberius Gracchus might have felt at the realization, but I can say that as a fellow human being, such knowledge would weigh heavily on my mind and induce guilt and no small amount of shame — such deplorable circumstances for those asked to sacrifice all.

The first attempt at land reform was met with the stern opposition of those whose interests might be diminished, namely the plantation owners who made up the ruling elite. Through their agent Marcus Octavius, an equal in political office to Gracchus, they sought to block any attempt at the redistribution of land which they had purchased for very little, but from which they now drew considerable profit. Their opposition was represented to the populace at large as a threat to the stability and security of the state, much in the same way fiscal conservatives decry the expansion of social services in the United States, while from the camp of Tiberius Gracchus, the matter was represented in criminal terms — the seizure of property from Romans placed under duress by the avarice of the wealthy, leaving “Gaius VI-amphorae” a beggar in the streets. And just as how in the United States today the people are willing to forgive the exorbitant transgressions of economic superiors, the Roman population appears to have been just as willing to take a passive stance on the matter, so long as their economic security could be secured into the future. But those with money are historically loathe to part with their profits:

But although the rectification of the wrong was so considerate, the people were satisfied to let bygones be bygones if they could be secure from such wrong in the future; the men of wealth and substance, however, were led by their greed to hate the [agrarian] law, and by their wrath and contentiousness to hate the law-giver [Tiberius Gracchus], and tried to dissuade the people by alleging that Tiberius was introducing a re-distribution of land for the confusion of the body politic, and was stirring up a general revolution.

Plutarch, Vit. Ti. Gracch. 9.3.
Octavius unconstitutionally deposed by Tiberius Gracchus.

The response was renewed popular support for land reform (read: wealth reform), though it had not come without violence. Upon at last acquiescing to Gracchus’ proposal, likely with no small amount of intimidation, Marcus Octavius was assaulted by a body of Gracchus’ supporters, requiring the intervention of members of the senatorial elite to rescue their man. Plutarch tells us that Tiberius was opposed to the violence — if only after the fact (ibid. 12.4-5) — but he likewise understood the tenuous grasp with which the elite now retained control. Through his use of the people’s voice in the proposal of legislation, Gracchus had succeeded in circumventing the political power of the ruling elite, and so it was only on account of their agent that Gracchus could not reach his objective: “and therefore Tiberius resorted to a measure which was illegal and unseemly, the ejection of Octavius from his office; for he was at a loss of any other way to bring his law to the vote.” (ibid. 11.2)

This slight would not be forgiven. For even though their personal wealth still far exceeded that of the lower economic strata of Roman society, the ruling economic elite of Rome saw in Tiberius Gracchus the makings of a tyrant in the Hellenic fashion, one who acquires supreme power through some combination of demagoguery and violence. In the assault upon Marcus Octavius they saw the violent harbinger of revolution, and it was therefore decided among a body of senators to assassinate Gracchus. With an armed posse consisting of personal slaves and members of their economy-dependant clientelae, the senators appealed to the consul to act against Gracchus, but finding the state unwilling to act illegally even in the face of illegal action, this band of elite men took it upon themselves to act in their own personal interests, amalgamating those interests with the interests of the state in their justification. Using their elite status to clear much of the crowd — and assaulting those who disregarded it — they attacked Gracchus and his core group of supporters.

The men who assassinated Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE were led by a kinsman of the tribune, a particularly wealthy and powerful individual who was then pontifex maximus, chief priest of Rome. It would be as if the Chief Justice of the United States personally led the other members of the Supreme Court in an assault upon the Capitol, resulting in the slaying of the Speaker of the House and a good portion of the Congressional staff. Such was the attitude of the optimates, a conflation of personal interests with the public interests of the state, which itself provided justification for their use — or circumvention — of the state apparatus for their personal agenda, in effect gelding the power of the magistrates at the whims of the moneyed elite. By not acting against the plot — which by the presence of armed men must have been obvious, and it was indeed most likely known in advance by the consul, himself a member of the ruling elite — the state resolved to confirm the power of oligarchical wealth, even if came at the cost of popular support. For the pontifex maximus, the cost was paid in an early retirement to a lucrative governorship in Asia Minor, where he could safely live out the rest of his days far from an openly hostile Roman populace. For the rest of the elite, it would mean compromising on the matter of land reform, for they regarded the threat which Gracchus personally posed to be greater than that of the starry-eyed Roman sheeple he led, a populace whose whims could be changed with mere wishes of comfort — not yet the angry mob who murdered the innocent Helvius Cinna in a rage over Julius Caesar’s assassination.

And so the matter of land and wealth reform remained static, the ruling elite paying lip-service to the people while banishing to exile the remaining supporters of Tiberius Gracchus. But just as the slight which had incited Nasica could not be forgiven, so the cause propounded by and the lynching of Tiberius Gracchus would not be forgotten. Understandingly all too well the lengths to which the opposition would be willing to go to preserve their supreme affluence, nevertheless, ten years after his brother’s entry to the same office, Caius Gracchus was elected tribunis plebis and took up his brother’s mantle.

To be continued…


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