Category Archives: Academics

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.
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Confirmation Bias

con·fir·ma·tion /ˌkänfərˈmāSH(ə)n/ n : the action of confirming something or the state of being confirmed.

bi·as /ˈbīəs/ n : 1. prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair; 2. a concentration on or interest in one particular area or subject; 3. a systematic distortion of a statistical result due to a factor not allowed for in its derivation.

con·fir·ma·tion bi·as /ˌkänfərˈmāSH(ə)n ˈbīəs/ n : The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.

10 Uncomfortable Statements that Need Retelling

1. The removal and subjugation of Native Americans from 1812-1924 would today qualify as “ethnic genocide.”

2. The first police departments in the United States were created to capture escaped slaves.

3. The American Civil War was fought over slavery: The South was fighting for the right to preserve their way of life, which was premised on the economic benefits of keeping others in bondage, i.e. slavery.

4. Iraq was not involved in 9/11 and did not have weapons of mass destruction in 2002-3.

5. News media is not hyping anti-police sentiment: The police’s actions are simply under greater scrutiny by the public because of advances in mass communication (i.e. the internet), the effect of which most police and certain elements within society do not like.

6. Confederate flags are technically illegal to fly under U.S. Federal law since they literally represent a group in rebellion against the United States of America, but ironically most people who display these flags today consider themselves “patriots.”

7. Monuments to the Confederate cause are inherently white supremacist in character because they memorialize the sacrifice made by some Americans for the preservation of the Southern economy, i.e. slavery. Most were erected following Reconstruction in the context of freed African-Americans being subjected to continuing, normalized oppression via social abuse (e.g. racial discrimination, vigilantism, lynchings) and state-sanctioned abuse (e.g. Jim Crow laws, the criminal conviction exclusions clause in Section 1 of the 13th Amendment).

8. A U.S. flag with a blue line across it or a red line across it or rendered in black-and-white – and other such variations of the flag – are technically illegal under U.S. Flag Code as they constitute a desecration of the flag and by extension the republic for which it stands, but ironically most people who display these variations of the flag consider themselves “patriots.”

9. Public housing and Native American reservations function as socioeconomic ghettos, receiving little and diminishing state assistance over the course of a few generations until eventually becoming abandoned (“slums”) or absorbed by the area around it (“gentrification”). Economic conditions further “price out” these communities such that they can no longer afford to repair or stabilize their own communities internally, rendering all such efforts fruitless without aid from wealthy donors or the state.

10. Public policy in a capitalist society will naturally tend towards diminishing investment in public programs, forcing individuals to become more reliant on personal economic means. Those lacking economic means beyond a certain and increasingly expensive threshold will be incapable of providing for themselves, thus requiring public assistance, which itself continues to diminish in potency. The effect of being incapable of reaching the aforementioned threshold of viable economic independence compounds with time; those people and communities which have historically been economically underprivileged will continue to become further incapable of achieving viable economic independence, while those who are “on the fence” will continue to face the prospect of falling below that threshold as its conditions become increasingly untenable. In a society which measures success based on economic stability, those individuals or communities incapable of maintaining viable economic independence will, in time, become social pariahs.

Review of ‘The Army in the Roman Revolution’ by Arthur Keaveney (2007)

Keaveny, Arthur. 2007. The Army in the Roman Revolution. London: Routledge.

In the late 2nd and early 1st centuries BCE, the Roman army underwent major reforms which changed both its organizational structure and ideological orientation.  Foremost among these was the recruitment of men from among the capite censi, a class of landless urban peasants who had previously been exempted from military service.  Although there is evidence to suggest that capite censi — like slaves — had previously been enrolled as soldiers in the army, it has become something nearing scripture to see the year 107 BCE as a watershed moment.  In that year, Marius, having experienced difficulty filling the ranks of the army bound to fight Jugurtha, admitted members of the capite censi.  It is as that moment, the narrative continues, that the aspirations of the peasant-soldiery for land first began to hold the state hostage to their demands in a cycle that would bring about the series of disastrous civil wars which ultimately undid the republic.
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Review of ‘Marius’ by Federico Santangelo (2016)

Santaneglo, Federico. 2016. Marius. London: Bloomsbury.

Biographies have fallen largely out of style among historians, particularly since they have been on the whole fetishized accounts of great men in history — or the exact opposite, polemical narratives aimed at “correcting” the historical record.  There are, of course, exceptions, among them is Santangelo’s present account of the life of Gaius Marius, a controversial figure in history if there has ever been one — but one who has gained much by the greater controversies which followed in his wake under figures like Sulla and the two triumvirates. That Marius’ life and career have been in need of a new account is self-evident to students of ancient history: the last major appraisal of his life in English came in R.J. Evans’ 1994 biography.  That recent history has demonstrated the pressing need for the study of demagogues and their abuse of popular politics makes this critical look at Gaius Marius all the more relevant to students and the public alike.
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Review of ‘Swords Against the Senate’ by Erik Hildinger (2002)

Hildinger, Erik. 2002. Swords Against the Senate. Cambridge: Da Capo.

At its core, Erik Hildinger’s 2002 book Swords Against the Senate seeks to recreate the events which shaped the first stages of the Roman Republic’s collapse, spanning the half century from before the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE to Sulla’s rise to the dictatorship in 82-81 BCE.  In so doing, Hildinger is drawn in two directions in trying to tell a single narrative.  The first is the social and political process whereby the Roman military became increasingly politicized as political violence became regularized in Roman society.  Ultimately the land reforms and other popular measures which ultimately brought down the Gracchus brothers were directly tied the issues surrounding the Roman army in the years following campaigns in Spain, culminating with the sack of Numantia in 134 BCE.  Having been away for so long, Roman soldiers returned to farms devastated by a lack of upkeep, forcing many to sell their lots to large estates and move to the urbs at Rome.  This formed the basis of the popular “Roman mob,” whose fickle attention was both the weapon and ruin of popular leaders.  The battle between those in power – particularly the senatorial aristocracy who held oligarchic sway in Rome – and the populists led to the rise of “strongmen” characters like Marius, Cinna, Carbo, and Sulla.  Ultimately the people who cast their lot with these leaders who yield far less benefit than they were promised or had hoped to receive, particularly in the counter-revolutionary measures taken by Sulla during his dictatorship, measures aimed at tamping down on the power of populares and their vehicle, the tribunate.

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A Reading List for the Fall of the American Republic

Not that anybody asked, but I want to share my current personal reading list – much of which is motivated by current events.  It obviously skews towards my personal interest in ancient history, particularly Roman history, but I hope that others might likewise find it useful.  I welcome any suggestions, recommendations, and feedback.  They are listed in the order in which I am planning to read them, though I am tackling a number of them concurrently and will undoubtedly change the order as I proceed.
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The Army was the true populus romanus, “the Roman people”

We may have underestimated the ways in which a Roman popularis (s.) could motivate the passions of the people.  Populares (pl.) were individuals who, in the last years of the Roman republic (133-49 BCE), were able to successfully use the concerns of the Roman populace — that is to say, the population at Rome — to their political advantage.  In practice, they would circumvent the authority of the Roman Senate and magistrates by making proposals directly to the popular assembly, thereby forcing the Senate to either accept or be seen to oppose the populace.

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Soldiers in the city of Pompeii

I wrote this in response to a reader’s question on  The reader had been reading an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis when she asked to know more about soldiers stationed in the city of Pompeii at the time of Mt Vesuvius’ (in)famous eruption of 79 CE.  The original text of my response has been edited and expanded to include additional commentary, as well as images.

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