Collective Action and the Maturation of the Roman Republic

Livy 2.32 Secessio Plebis, 449 BCE

“A fear overcame the senators that if the army were dismissed, then secret assemblies and conspiracies would arise. And thus, even though the draft was made by a dictator—because they had sworn a consular oath they were still believed to beheld by this sacrament—they ordered the legions to depart the city on the grounds that the war had been renewed by the Aequi. This deed accelerated the rebellion.

At first, there was some interest in the murder of the consuls (to absolve them of their obligation); but when they then learned that no crime would release them from their oath, they seceded on to the Sacred Mount across the Anio river, which is three miles from the city, on the advice of a man named Sicinus.  This story is more common than the one which Piso offers—that the secession was made upon the Aventine hill.

There, the camp was fortified without any leader with a trench and wall quietly, as they took nothing unless it was necessary for their food for several days and neither offended anyone nor took offense. But there was a major panic in the city and because of mutual fear all activities were suspended. Those left behind feared violence from the senators because they were abandoned by their own class; and the senators were fearing the plebians who remained in the city because they were uncertain whether they stayed there or preferred to leave. How long could a mass of people who had seceded remain peaceful? What would happen after this if there were an external threat first? There was certainly no home left unless they could bring the people into harmony; and it was decided they must reconcile the state by just means or unjust.”

  1. timor inde patres incessit ne, si dimissus exercitus foret, rursus coetus occulti coniurationesque fierent. itaque quamquam per dictatorem dilectus habitus esset, tamen quoniam in consulum uerba iurassent sacramento teneri militem rati, per causam renouati ab Aequis belli educi ex urbe legiones iussere. [2] quo facto maturata est seditio. et primo agitatum dicitur de consulum caede, ut soluerentur sacramento; doctos deinde nullam scelere religionem exsolui, Sicinio quodam auctore iniussu consulum in Sacrum montem secessisse. trans Anienem amnem est, tria ab urbe milia passuum. [3] ea frequentior fama est quam cuius Piso auctor est, in Auentinum secessionem factam esse. [4] ibi sine ullo duce uallo fossaque communitis castris quieti, rem nullam nisi necessariam ad uictum sumendo, per aliquot dies neque lacessiti neque lacessentes sese tenuere. [5] pauor ingens in urbe, metuque mutuo suspensa erant omnia. timere relicta ab suis plebis uiolentiam patrum; timere patres residem in urbe plebem, incerti manere eam an abire mallent: [6] quamdiu autem tranquillam quae secesserit multitudinem fore? quid futurum deinde si quod externum interim bellum exsistat? [7] nullam profecto nisi in concordia ciuium spem reliquam ducere; eam per aequa, per iniqua reconciliandam ciuitati esse.

The secessio plebis was repeated at key times in Roman history and became a fundamental instrument to force the ruling (and moneyed/landed) class to make political compromises with the larger number of citizen soldiers upon whom the city (and the Republic) depended for its safety (and, really, existence). Modern labor strikes are not directly related to this Roman action–they developed with the rise of the Industrial state. In a short analogy, labor is to capital as the army was to the Roman state.

In the US educational trade presses and general news media there has been an appalling lack of coverage of the massive labor strike ongoing in higher education in the UK. This action may turn out to be one of the most important collective labor actions in the English speaking world in over a generation. It comes at a time when educators in the US have also pursued collective action (West Virginia, with other states considering following suit); it also comes after more than a decade of rapid and radical change to higher education in the UK.

Labor unions are, in my ever so humble opinion, probably the last possible bulwark against not just the corporatization of higher education but also against the completion of our anglo-american metamorphoses in to technology-driven plutocracies. (And it may be too late.) But I take the limited coverage in our presses as a sign that such subjects are threatening to the very media corporations that deny collective bargaining to their ‘workers’ in the gig economy. 

So, this Livy is in honor of all of our colleagues, students, friends, and teachers who are standing together in the UK for the #USS strike.

Related image

Spending Cuts Lead a Professor to Sell Books

Palladas of Alexandria, 9.175

“I am selling Kallimakhos and Pindar and all these
Cases of grammar, since I have a case of poverty.
Dôrotheus has cut my living wage,
Signing off an unholy message against me.
But you, dear Theô, guard me, don’t allow me
To waste my life conjugating with poverty.”

Καλλίμαχον πωλῶ καὶ Πίνδαρον ἠδὲ καὶ αὐτὰς
πτώσεις γραμματικῆς πτῶσιν ἔχων πενίης.
Δωρόθεος γὰρ ἐμὴν τροφίμην σύνταξιν ἔλυσε
πρεσβείην κατ’ ἐμοῦ τὴν ἀσεβῆ τελέσας.
ἀλλὰ σύ μου πρόστηθι, Θέων φίλε, μηδέ μ’ ἐάσῃς
συνδέσμῳ πενίης τὸν βίον ἐξανύσαι.


This story may sound depressingly familiar to modern contingent faculty. It resonates with classicists and humanists in particular…


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