Guarding the State Against Revolution

Inspired by the collective labor action in the UK, I posted Livy’s account of the first Roman strike (secessio plebis) yesterday. Here are a few additional passages.

Caesar, Civil War 1.7.5-7

“Whenever in the past the senate has made a decree asking officers to make sure that the republic meet no harm—and in this wording the senatus consultum is also a call to arms for the Roman people—it has been made under the condition of evil laws, a violent tribune, or during a secession of the plebs when they had occupied the temples and mounts. [Caesar] explained that these examples from an earlier age were paid for with the fates of Saturninus and the Gracchi. (At that time none of these things were done or even considered. No law was suggested; no assembly was called; no secession was made.)

quotienscumque sit decretum darent operam magistratus ne quid res publica detrimenti caperet, qua voce et quo senatus consulto populus Romanus ad arma sit vocatus, factum in perniciosis legibus, in vi tribunicia, in secessione populi, templis locisque editioribus occupatis. 6Atque haec superioris aetatis exempla expiata Saturnini atque Gracchorum casibus docet. (Quarum rerum illo tempore nihil factum, ne cogitatum quidem. Nulla lex promulgata, non cum populo agi coeptum, nulla secessio facta.)


Cicero, Republic II.58

“For that very principle which I introduced at the beginning is this: unless there is equal access in a state to laws, offices, and duties so that the magistrates have sufficient power, the plans of the highest citizens have enough authority, and the people have enough freedom, the state cannot be guarded against revolution. For when our state was troubled by debt, the plebeians first occupied the Sacred Mount and then the Aventine.”

Id enim tenetote, quod initio dixi, nisi aequabilis haec in civitate conpensatio sit et iuris et officii et muneris, ut et potestatis satis in magistratibus et auctoritatis in principum consilio et libertatis in populo sit, non posse hunc incommutabilem rei publicae conservari statum. nam cum esset ex aere alieno commota civitas, plebs montem sacrum prius, deinde Aventinum occupavit.


Cicero, Republic II.63

“Therefore, because of the injustice of these men [the decemviri], there was the largest rebellion and the whole state was transformed. For those rulers had created two tables of laws which included most inhumanely, a law against plebeians wedding patricians, even though marriage between different nationalities is permitted! This law was later voided by the plebeian Canuleian Decree. The [decemviri also pursued their own pleasure harshly and greedily in every exercise of power over the people.”

ergo horum ex iniustitia subito exorta est maxima perturbatio et totius commutatio rei publicae; qui duabus tabulis iniquarum legum additis, quibus, etiam quae diiunctis populis tribui solent conubia, haec illi ut ne plebei cum patribus1 essent, inhumanissima lege sanxerunt, quae postea plebei scito Canuleio abrogata est, libidinoseque omni imperio et acerbe et avare populo praefuerunt.


Here is the opening summary from Brill’s New Pauly on the secessio plebis (2006: von Ungern-Sternberg, Jürgen)

“Roman tradition terms as secessio (from Latin secedere, ‘to go away, to withdraw’) the remonstrative exodus of the Roman plebeians from the urban area delimited by the pomerium on to a neighbouring hill. This action was on a number of occasions the culmination of confrontation between the patricians ( patricii ) and the plebs . The first secessio in particular may have been instrumental in the formation of a self-conscious plebeian community under the leadership of at first two, later apparently five people’s tribunes ( tribunus plebis ), to whose protection all plebeians committed themselves by a lex sacrata (‘law subject to the sanction of execration’)”

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The Aventine Hill

A Tyranny of Luck and a Stranger

Sallust, Letter to Caesar 2.3

“While the courts just as in previous eras have been run by the three orders, those political factions still rule them: they give and take what they may, giving the innocent the runaround and heaping honors on their own. Neither crime nor shame nor public disgrace disqualifies them from office. They rob, despoil whomever they please. And finally, as if the city has been sacked, they rely on their own lust and excess instead of the laws.

And for me this would only be a source of limited grief if, in their typical fashion, they were pursuing a victory born from excellence. But the laziest of people whose total strength and excellence come from their tongue are arrogantly administering a tyranny gained through luck and from another person! For what treason or civil discord has obliterated so many families? Who whose spirit was ever so hasty and extreme in victory?”

Iudicia tametsi, sicut antea, tribus ordinibus tradita sunt, tamen idem illi factiosi regunt, dant, adimunt quae lubet, innocentis circumveniunt, suos ad honorem extollunt. Non facinus, non probrum aut flagitium obstat, quo minus magistratus capiant. Quos commodum est trahunt, rapiunt; postremo tamquam urbe capta libidine ac licentia sua pro legibus utuntur.

Ac me quidem mediocris dolor angeret, si virtute partam victoriam more suo per servitium exercerent. Sed homines inertissimi, quorum omnis vis virtusque in lingua sita est, forte atque alterius socordia dominationem oblatam insolentes agitant. Nam quae seditio aut dissensio civilis tot tam illustris familias ab stirpe evertit? Aut quorum umquam in victoria animus tam praeceps tamque inmoderatus fuit?


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The Rise and Fall of Republican Rome as Stages in a Life: Which Age Are We?

Seneca the Elder, Historical Fragments, 1 [=Lactant. Inst. Div. 7.15.14]

“Seneca outlined the periods of Roman history in “life-stages”. The first was her infancy under the king Romulus, who parented Rome and educated her. Then there followed a childhood under various kings thanks to whom the city grew and was shaped by many practices and institutions. Then, while Tarquin was king and Rome began to become more adult, it could not endure servitude and, once the yoke of arrogant rule was thrown off, preferred to heed laws instead of kings.

Once the Roman adolescence ended with the close of the Punic war,  it began to show the full strength of adulthood. For, when Carthage was subdued, that city which was an ancient rival for power, Rome extended her hands over the whole earth, both land and sea until every king and nation had bent to her power.

But, since there was no reason left for wars, Rome began to use her strengths poorly and wore herself out. This was the first step of old age: when Rome was wounded by civil wars and suffering from internal evil, she returned again to the practice of individual rule, as if she had devolved into a second infancy. Thus she lost the freedom which she defended when Brutus was its agent and champion and grew weak in old age, as if she had not the strength to support herself unless she could use the ‘cane’ of kings.”

Seneca Romanae urbis tempora distribuit in aetates; primam enim dixit infantiam sub rege Romulo fuisse, a quo et genita et quasi educata sit Roma, deinde pueritiam sub ceteris regibus, a quibus et aucta sit et disciplinis pluribus institutisque formata. At vero Tarquinio regnante, cum iam quasi adulta esse coepisset, servitium non tulisse, et reiecto superbae dominationis iugo maluisse legibus obtemperare quam regibus, cumque esset adulescentia eius fine Punici belli terminata, tum denique confirmatis viribus coepisse iuvenescere. Sublata enim Carthagine, quae diu aemula imperii fuit, manus suas in totum orbem terra marique porrexit, donec regibus cunctis et nationibus imperio subiugatis, cum iam bellorum materia deficeret, viribus suis male uteretur, quibus se ipsa confecit. Haec fuit prima eius senectus, cum bellis lacerata civilibus atque intestino malo pressa rursus ad regimen singularis imperii recidit quasi ad alteram infantiam revoluta. Amissa enim libertate, quam Bruto duce et auctore defenderat, ita consenuit tamquam sustentare se ipsa non valeret nisi adminiculo regentium uteretur.

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Head of Old Man, 1st Century BCE. Torlonia Museum (Rome)

Coarse Wit, Captive Audiences: The Oratorical practices of Gaius Caligula

Suetonius, Gaius Caligula 53

“Of the liberal arts, Caligula paid the least attention to literature and the most to rhetoric. He was as eloquent and witty as you would want, especially when he could launch an attack on someone. Words and phrases used to find him whenever he was angry—his articulation and voice too rose up so that it was impossible for him to stay in the same place thanks to excitement and he was heard well by people standing far away.

When he was about to give a speech, he used to threaten to unsheathe the tool of his nocturnal strains, and he despised work composed smoothly and with style so much that he used to say that Seneca wrote “only school-essays” and was “sand without lime”. He was also in the custom of responding to the successful speeches of orators and of working on accusations and defenses for major matters brought to the senate; when his stylus progressed well, whether he was adding guilt or lightening responsibility with his own oration, the whole equestrian class was invited to hear him by edict.”

LIII. Ex disciplinis liberalibus minimum eruditioni, eloquentiae plurimum attendit, quamtumvis facundus et promptus, utique si perorandum in aliquem esset. Irato et verba et sententiae suppetebant, pronuntiatio quoque et vox, ut neque eodem loci prae ardore consisteret et exaudiretur a procul stantibus. Peroraturus stricturum se lucubrationis suae telum minabatur, lenius comptiusque scribendi genus adeo contemnens, ut Senecam tum maxime placentem “commissiones meras” componere et “harenam esse sine calce” diceret. Solebat etiam prosperis oratorum actionibus rescribere et magnorum in senatu reorum accusationes defensionesque meditari ac, prout stilus cesserat, vel onerare sententia sua quemque vel sublevare, equestri quoque ordine ad audiendum invitato per edicta.


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Lucretius on the Origin of the Social Contract

[Lucretius lived during Roman civil strife, but a generation before Caesar]

De Rerum Natura 5.1145-1160

“The race of man, tired of living in a state of violence
was languishing in feuds and they were eager
to submit themselves to law and strict judgments.
Otherwise, each man would turn himself to vengeance
More harshly than our current laws allow,
And this is why man has avoided living in a state of violence.
From here comes the fear that alters life’s rewards
Since violence and pain entrap the man who wields them
And tend to return most to those who acted first.
It isn’t easy to lead a quiet and peaceful life
If you break the faith of a community’s written peace.
Even if you deceive the races of god and man,
There’s no way to be sure to keep a secret forever.
Often many men reveal themselves by speaking in sleep
Or confused by a lengthy illness, they finally
Disclose their deeply hidden memories and sins.”

nam genus humanum, defessum vi colere aevom,
ex inimicitiis languebat; quo magis ipsum
sponte sua cecidit sub leges artaque iura.

acrius ex ira quod enim se quisque parabat
ulcisci quam nunc concessumst legibus aequis,
hanc ob rem est homines pertaesum vi colere aevom.
inde metus maculat poenarum praemia vitae.
circumretit enim vis atque iniuria quemque
atque unde exortast, ad eum plerumque revertit,
nec facilest placidam ac pacatam degere vitam
qui violat factis communia foedera pacis.
etsi fallit enim divom genus humanumque,
perpetuo tamen id fore clam diffidere debet;
quippe ubi se multi per somnia saepe loquentes
aut morbo delirantes protraxe ferantur
et celata [mala] in medium et peccata dedisse.

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Poisoned Husbands and Wives on Death Row

 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Words and Deeds 2.5.3

“The poisoning-court, once unknown to Roman customs and laws, was instituted after many Roman matrons had been implicated in the crime. After these women in question had poisoned their husbands in a secret plot, they were indicted based on the testimony of a single serving-girl. A number of one hundred and seventy were condemned to death by the court.”

Veneficii quaestio, et moribus et legibus Romanis ignota, complurium matronarum patefacto scelere orta est. quae, cum viros suos clandestinis insidiis veneno perimerent, unius ancillae indicio protractae, pars capitali iudicio damnatae centum et septuaginta numerum expleverunt.



Rome Was Built By Expanding Citizenship

Velleius Paterculus, History of Rome 2.16.4

“Gradually, then, by granting citizenship to those who had not carried arms or had put them down rather late, the population was rebuilt as Pompeius, Sulla and Marius restored the flagging and sputtering power of the Roman people.”

Paulatim deinde recipiendo in civitatem, qui arma aut non ceperant aut deposuerant maturius, vires refectae sunt, Pompeio Sullaque et Mano fluentem procumbentemque rem populi Romani restituentibus.


Any student of Roman history understands that Rome’s expansion and strength relied in part on its ability to absorb and assimilate hostile populations. Today we often forget that the Italian peninsula was far from a uniform culture. (And a tour through modern Italy will confirm the persistence of many differences).  The process, of course, was not without pain and hard compromises, as Vergil echoes in Aeneid 6 during Anchises’ prophecy to Aeneas (851-3):

tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

“Roman, remember that your arts are to rule
The nations with your empire, to enforce the custom of peace,
To spare the conquered and to subjugate the proud.”

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