Even in the darkest moments of the human condition, the desire for freedom and self-determination has never been extinguished. Even in societies which generation after generation kept others in bondage, time has preserved for us the aspirations of slaves seeking liberty and greater control over their fate. Roman society was particularly generous, granting the children of freedmen the full rights of citizenship, an especially coveted status that would enable the numerous descendants of freedmen to enter public life and eventually rise to positions of influence among the highest authorities in the Empire.
Individuals who today state that many slaves were “better off” in their servitude and even that they preferred bondage are sadly deluded, ignoring the evidence of history — and of their own eyes. Human trafficking in the present is simply the latest way of referring to the ongoing slave trade, one which may at times mirror low-wage employment. But any form of compulsive, imposed dependence is itself a form of oppression, and one which unwillingly restricts self-determination is nothing less than slavery. Indentured servitude is another such polite way of expressing the same basic idea, though in this case the promise of freedom is held out as motivation, like a carrot on a stick, but much like the cartoon analogy, the prize is all too often an illusion. Some see this reality, others do not or choose to ignore it, but all work towards a single common goal. Unlike most common goals, however, this particular goal is shared in name only, for despite the fact they all seek the same end-state, they work towards it individually rather than collectively.
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. Continue reading →
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.
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.
I wrote this in response to a reader’s question on Academia.edu. 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.