Library:The Assassination of Julius Caesar

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The Assassination of Julius Caesar
AuthorMichael Parenti
First published2003

The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome is a book written by Statesian political scientist Michael Parenti, published in 2003 by The New Press. The book discusses "the issues of popular struggle and oligarchic power that were being played out decades before [Caesar] was born, continuing into his life and leading to his death."


Over the years Charles Briody tried to improve upon my childhood altar boy's Latin with ad hoc lessons, mostly on the telephone now that we live at opposite ends of North America.  I must confess that all his best efforts never got me much beyond the Gallĭa es omnis divisa in partes tres level.  For this I have only myself to blame.  Luckily, all the major (and most minor) ancient sources are available in various English translations.  Briody also generously provided me with some crucial literature and notes of his own, and did a most helpful reading of the manuscript.  So too did Iain Boal and Daniel Shoup who, like Briody, gave me the benefit of their substantive criticisms and their classical education.

Peggy Karp did a close and especially valuable reading of the manuscript.  Jane Scantlebury helped me locate sources, and tendered advice and encouragement over the long duration of writing.  She also contributed a useful critique of the manuscript.  Susan McAllister went over an early version of the opening chapter for me, and provided other needed assistance.

Peter Livingston saved the day—and the book—labouring hard to snatch from the jaws of my treacherous computer precious text and endnotes that had been mysteriously devoured.  He thereby saved me many impossible months of reconstructive effort.  Willa Madden, my webmeister, also conducted helpful operations against the wanton vicissitudes of electronic storage.  Richard Wiebe and Andrea Segall brought several useful sources to my attention.  And Sheeda Jamsheed helped me navigate my way through the University of California library to dig up some materials.  My editor at The New Press, Colin Robinson, was enthusiastic and supportive all the way.  His assistant, Abby Aguirre, was most helpful.  Production editor Sarah Fan walked the book through its various phases with reassuring proficiency.  And Holly Knowles provided an excellent index.

To all these fine people I extend my heartfelt thanks.

Introduction: Tyrannicide or Treason

"O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!  Then I, and you, and all of us fell down, whilst bloody treason flourish'd over us."  —JULIUS CAESAR ACT III, SCENE 2

On the fifteenth of March, 44 B.C.E., in a meeting hall adjacent to Pompey's theatre, the Roman Senate awaited the arrival of the Republic's supreme commander, Julius Caesar.  This particular session did not promise to be an eventful one for most of the senators.  But others among them were fully alive to what was in the offing.  They stood about trying to maintain a calm and casual pose—with daggers concealed beneath their togas.

Finally Caesar entered the chamber.  He had an imposing presence, augmented by an air of command that came with being at the height of his power.  Moving quickly to the front of the hall, he sat himself in the place of honour.  First to approach him was a senator who pretended to enter a personal plea on behalf of a relative.  Close behind came a group of others who crowded around the ceremonial chair.  At a given signal, they began to slash at their prey with their knives, delivering fatal wounds.  By this act, the assailants believed they had saved the Roman Republic.  In fact, they had set the stage for its complete undoing.

The question that informs this book is, why did a coterie of Roman senators assassinate their fellow aristocrat and celebrated ruler, Julius Caesar?  An inquiry into this incident reveals something important about the nature of political rule, class power, and a people's struggle for democracy and social justice—issues that are still very much with us.  The assassination also marked a turning point in the history of Rome.  It set in motion a civil war, and put an end to whatever democracy there had been, ushering in an absolutist rule that would prevail over Western Europe for centuries to come.

The prevailing opinion among historians, ancient and modern alike, is that the senatorial assassins were intent upon restoring republican liberties by doing away with a despotic usurper.  This is the justification proffered by the assassins themselves.  In this book I present an alternative explanation:  The Senate aristocrats killed Caesar because they perceived him to be a popular leader who threatened their privileged interests.  By this view, the deed was more an act of treason than tyrannicide, one incident in a line of political murders dating back across the better part of a century, a dramatic manifestation of a long-standing struggle between opulent conservatives and popularly supported reformers.  This struggle and these earlier assassinations will be treated in the pages ahead.

This book is not only about the history of the Late Republic but about how that history has been distorted by those writers who regularly downplay the importance of material interests, those who ideological taboos about class realities dim their perception of the past.  This distortion is also manifested in the way many historians, both ancient and modern, have portrayed the common people of Rome as being little better than a noisome rabble and riotous mob.

In word and action, wealthy Romans made no secret of their fear and hatred of the common people and of anyone else who infringed upon their class prerogatives.  History is full of examples of politico-economic elites who equate any challenge to their privileged social order as a challenge to all social order, an invitation to chaos and perdition.

The oligarchs of Rome were no exception.  Steeped in utter opulence and luxury, they remained forever inhospitable to Rome's democratic element.  They valued the Republic only as long as it served their way of life.  They dismissed as "demagogues" and "usurpers" the dedicated leaders who took up the popular cause.  The historians of that day, often wealthy slaveholders themselves, usually agreed with this assessment.  So too classical historians of the modern era, many of whom adopt a viewpoint not too different from the one held by the Roman aristocracy.

Caesar's sin, I shall argue, was not that he was subverting the Roman constitution—which was an unwritten one—but that he was loosening the oligarchy's overbearing grip on it.  Worse still, he used state power to effect some limited benefits for small farmers, debtors, and urban proletariat, at the expense of the wealthy few.  No matter how limited these reforms proved to be, the oligarchs never forgave him.  And so Caesar met the same fate as other Roman reformers before him.

My primary interest is not in Julius Caesar as an individual but in the issues of popular struggle and oligarchic power that were being played out decades before he was born, continuing into his life and leading to his death.  Well into my adulthood, most of what I knew about ancient Rome was learnt from Hollywood and television.  In my head were images of men in togas, striding about marbled palaces, mouthing lapidary phrases in stage-mannered accents, and of course images of chariot races and frenzied arena crowds giving thumbs-down to hapless victims.

In my woeful ignorance I was no different from many other educated Americans who have passed from grade school to the postdoctoral level without ever learning anything sensible about Roman history.  Aside from the tableaux furnished by Hollywood and television, all that I knew of Julius Caesar I owed to two playwrights, William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.  If one has to be misinformed about a subject, it might as well be from the wonderful pens of Shakespeare and Shaw.[1]  Fictional representations of history do not usually strive for accuracy, their primary goal being to entertain rather than to educate.  Still they often are more literal than literary in the way they impact upon our minds.  And we had best monitor our tendency to treat the fictional as factual.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a powerful play that draws heavily from Plutarch, in an imaginative yet surprisingly faithful way.  Literary critics do not agree on whether Shakespeare wants us to consider the assassination as execrable or laudable.  We are left to wonder whether Caesar is to be admired or denounced, whether Brutus is noble or loathsome, and whether he or Caesar or Antony or anyone is the hero of the play.[2]  For all its ambiguities, Shakespeare's treatment is a politically safe rendition.  He focuses on immediate questions of tyranny versus republican freedom.  Those are exactly the parameters within which the senatorial assassins confined the debate.

Likewise, Shakespeare shares the Roman elite's view of the common crowd as a mindless aggregation easily led hither and thither, first adulating Pompey, then bowing to Caesar, later hailing Brutus for saving them from tyranny, only in the next breath to be swayed by Antony.  In Julius Caesar, the common people seemingly are capable only of mindless violence and degraded disportment.  All this is in keeping with the dominant stereotype of the Roman proletariat that has come down to us.

George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra is charmingly written and highly engaging.  Shaw's Caesar is a benign aging fellow, who reluctantly settles for an avuncular relationship with Cleopatra.  Upon their first encounter, when she has yet to discover his identity, she repeatedly calls him "old gentleman."  It is clear from the outset that there can be no romantic interest between them because of Caesar's age and the young queen's immaturity.  At the end of the play, as Caesar departs for Rome, he voices his doubts that he will ever see Cleopatra again, but he promises to send her the young handsome Mark Antony, much to her delight.

In real life, when she was still in her teens, well before she met Caesar, Cleopatra already had slept with Antony.  It happened in 55 B.C.E. when a Roman expeditionary force was in Egypt to restore Ptolemy to the throne.  Antony was serving as commander of the cavalry.[3]  Some time later, still predating Caesar's arrival, Cleopatra bestowed her favours upon a second Roman lover, Pompey's son Gnaeus, who was in Africa raising troops for his father.  And Shaw notwithstanding, in late 48 B.C.E., though Caesar was fifty-three and she but twenty-three or so, she proved ready enough to bed her third Roman.  It is said that Cleopatra was a woman of lively turn and enticing talents.  She also had a keen sense of the political.  That this Roman conqueror had the power to secure the Egyptian throne for her must have added to the attraction she felt for him.  It developed into a protracted love affair.  Eventually, she bore  Caesar a son and moved to Rome in order to be closer to him, thereby demonstrating that some things never change.

Although he was engaged in other sexual liaisons and possessed of a wife, Caesar found time to give Cleopatra a lavish welcome befitting a queen, erecting a gold effigy of her in a consecrated area.  He established her in a sumptuous villa across the Tiber, from which she held court, while political leaders, financiers, and men of letters, including the renowned Cicero, danced in attendance.

To his credit, Shaw does insert an iconoclastic sentiment not found in Shakespeare or among regiments of historians who have written about the Late Republic.  In a prologue to Caesar and Cleopatra that is almost never performed, the god Ra tells the audience how Rome discovered that "the road to riches and greatness is through robbery of the poor and slaughter of the weak."  In conformity with that dictum, the Romans "robbed their own poor until they became great masters of that art, and knew by what laws it could be made to appear seemly and honest."  And after squeezing their own people dry, they stripped the poor throughout the many other lands they conquered.  "And I, Ra, laughed; for the minds of the Romans remained the same size whilst their dominion spread over the earth."  Very likely SHaw was inviting his audience to draw a parallel to the small colonialist minds that held sway over the vast British empire of his own day.

There is another instance of Shaw's iconoclasm.  In Act II of Caesar and Cleopatra, Lucius Septimius refuses Caesar's invitation to join his ranks and prepares to depart.  Caesar's loyal comrade-in-arms, Rufus, angrily observes:  "That means he is a Republican."  Lucius turns defiantly and asks, "And what are you?"  To which Rufus responds, "A Caesarian, like all of Caesar's soldiers."  Left at that, we have the standard view espoused by Shakespeare and most historians:  The struggle is between those fighting to preserve the Republic and those who make themselves an instrument of Caesar's power.  But Shaw goes a step further, hinting that Republicanism vs. Caesarism is not really the issue.  So he has Caesar interjecting:  "Lucius:  believe me, Caesar is no Caesarian.  Were Rome a true republic, then were Caesar the first of Republicans."

That response invites the dissident query pursued in this book:  how republican was the Late Republic?  More than 2,000 years after Caesar, most students of that period have yet to bid farewell to the misapprehensions about the republicanism embraced by Lucius and most others of his social set.  They have yet to consider that republicanism might largely be a cloak for oligarchic privilege—as it often is to this day—worn grudgingly by the elites as long as it proved serviceable to their interests.  At the same time, as we shall see, ordinary Roman citizens had been able to win limited but important rights under the Republic, and did at times make important democratic gains, including occasional successes around land redistribution, rent control, debt cancellation, and other reforms.  As far as the Senate oligarchs were concerned, such agitation and popular victories were the major problem, perceived by them as the first steps down the path of class revolution.

To this day, dubious film representations about ancient Rome continue to be mass-marketed.  In 2000, while I was working on this book, Hollywood brought forth Gladiator, a swashbuckling epic about revenge and heroism, offering endless episodes of arena bloodletting.  Unencumbered by any trace of artistic merit, Gladiator played before packing houses in the United States and abroad, winning a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award.  The story takes place during the reign of the venal Emperor Commodus, more than two centuries after Julius Caesar's death.  Worth noting is how the Roman Senate is depicted.  We are asked to believe that the Senate was populated by public-spirited men devoted to the people's welfare.  But the people themselves are portrayed as little more than a rabble.  In one scene, two Senate leaders are seated in the Colosseum.  When one of them complains of the unsavoury proceedings below, the other opines that the crowd is interested only in bread and circuses, war and violence:  "Rome is the mob. [...] The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate.  It is the sands of the Colosseum.  [The emperor] will bring them death and they will love him for it."  This view of the Roman populace as mindless bloodthirsty riffraff unfortunately remains the anti-people's history purveyed by both the entertainment media and many classical scholars.

I cannot recall exactly when I moved beyond the stage and screen images of Rome and Caesar and became seriously interested in the Late Republic as a subject of intensive study.  It was years ago, by way of my self-directed readings in ancient Greek history and political philosophy.  At first, it appeared to me that the Romans could never be as compelling and absorbing as their Mediterranean cousins.  But indeed they are, at least from 133 B.C.E. to about 40 B.C.E., the years covered in this book, most of which fall in that period designated the Late Republic.[4]

To assist the many readers who might be unfamiliar with ancient Rome, the first three chapters deal with Rome's history and sociopolitical life.  Chapter Four treats the plutocracy's bloody repression of popular reformers and their followers from Tiberius Gracchus (133 B.C.E.) down to Caesar's early days.  Chapter Five offers a critical portrait of the historians' hero, Cicero, with a narrative of how he mobilised the forces of political repression on behalf of elite interests.  The next five chapters deal with Caesar's life and related political issues, his death and its aftermath.  The final chapter caps the whole subject of ancient Rome, taking to task the stereotype of the Roman people as a "rabble" and "mob."

When the editors of The New Press told me they wanted to include this book in their People's History Series, I agreed.  By my view, any history that deals with the efforts of the populace to defend itself from the abuses of wealth and tyranny is people's history.  Such history has been written over the past century by such notables as W.E.B. Du Bois, Philip Foner, Herbert Aptheker, Albert Mathiez, A.L. Morton, George Rudé, Richard Boyer, Herbert Morais, Jesse Lemisch, Howard Zinn, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, and others.

But writing "history from the bottom up" is not an easy task when it comes to the Roman Republic, for there exists no trove of ordinary people's letters, diaries, and memoirs; no back issues of labour publications and newspapers; no court, police, and government documents of the kind that compose the historical record of more recent centuries.  Most of Rome's written histories, libraries, and archives were lost over time or were deliberately destroyed by the fanatical proselytisers of Christianity who conducted a systematic war of eradication against pagan scholarship and culture after they came to power in the fifth century C.E.  In any case, as far as we know, the small farmers, proletarians, and slaves of Rome left no written record to speak of.

So one must read against the grain, looking for evidence of the Roman people's struggle in the self-serving words and repressive deeds of the wealthy oligarchs.  A people's history should be not only an account of popular struggle against oppression but an exposé of the anti-people's history that has prevailed among generations of mainstream historians.  It should be a critical history about a people's oppressors, those who propagated an elitist ideology and a loathing of the common people that distorts the historical record down to this day.

Here is a story of latifundia and death squads, masters and slaves, patriarchs and subordinated women, self-enriching capitalists and plundered provinces, profiteering slumlords and urban rioters.  Here is a struggle between the plutocratic few and the indigent many, the privileged versus the proletariat, featuring corrupt politicians, money-driven elections, and the political assassination of popular leaders.  I leave it to the reader to decide whether any of this might resonate with the temper of our own times.

1 - Gentlemen's History: Empire, Class, and Patriarchy

"Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!" —JULIUS CAESAR ACT I, SCENE 2

The writing of history has long been a privileged calling undertaken within the church, royal court, landed estate, affluent town house, government agency, university, and corporate-funded foundation.  The social and ideological context in which historians labour greatly influences the kind of history produced.  While this does not tell us everything there is to know about historiography, it is certainly worth some attention.

Historians are fond of saying, as did Benedetto Croce, that history reflects the age in which it is written.  The history of seemingly remote events vibrate "to present needs and present situations."  Collingwood made a similar point:  "St. Augustine looked at Roman history from the point of view of an early Christian; Tillemont, from that of a seventeenth-century Frenchman; Gibbon, from that of an eighteenth-century Englishman...."[5]

Something is left unsaid here, for there is no unanimity in how the people of any epoch view the past, let alone the events of their own day.  The differences in perception range not only across the ages and between civilisations but within any one society at any one time.  Gibbon was not just "an eighteenth-century Englishman," but an eighteenth-century English gentleman; in his own words, a "youth of family and fortune," enjoying "the luxury and freedom of a wealthy house."  As heir to "a considerable estate," he attended Oxford where he wore the velvet cap and silk gown of a gentleman.  While serving as an officer in the militia, he soured in the company of "rustic officers, who were alike deficient in the knowledge of scholars and the manners of gentlemen."[6]

To say that Gibbon and his Oxford peers were "gentlemen" is not to imply that they were graciously practiced in the etiquette of fair play toward all persons regardless of social standing, or that they were endowed with compassion for the more vulnerable of their fellow humans, taking pains to save them from hurtful indignities, as real gentlemen might do.  If anything, they were likely to be unencumbered by such sentiments, uncomprehending of any social need beyond their own select circle.  For them, a "gentleman" was one who sported an uncommonly polished manner and affluent lifestyle, and who presented himself as prosperous, politically conservative, and properly schooled in the art of ethno-class supremacism.

Like most other people, Gibbon tended to perceive reality in accordance with the position he occupied in the social structure.  As a gentleman scholar, he produced what elsewhere I have called "gentlemen's history," a genre heavily indebted to an upper-class ideological perspective.[7]  In 1773, we find him beginning work on his magnum opus, A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while settled in a comfortable town house tended by half-a-dozen servants.  Being immersed in what he calls the "decent luxuries," and saturated with his own upper-class pre-possession, Edward Gibbon was able to look kindly upon ancient Rome's violently acquisitive aristocracy.  He might have produced a much different history had he been a self-educated cobbler, sitting in a cold shed, writing into the wee hours after a long day of unrewarding toil.  No accident that the impoverished labourer, even if literate, seldom had the agency to produce scholarly tomes.  Gibbon himself was aware of the class realities behind the writing of history:  "A gentleman possessed of leisure and independence, of books and talents, may be encouraged to write by the distant prospect of honour and reward:  but wretched is the author, and wretched will be the work, where daily diligence is stimulated by daily hunger."[8]

As one who hobnobbed with nobility, Gibbon abhorred the "wild theories of equal and boundless freedom" of the French Revolution.[9]  He was a firm supporter of the British empire.  While serving as a member of Parliament he voted against extending liberties to the American colonies.  Unsurprisingly he had no difficulty conjuring a glowing pastoral image of the Roman empire:  "Domestic peace and union were the natural consequences of the moderate and comprehensive policy embraced by the Romans. [...] The obedience of the Roman world was uniform, voluntary, and permanent.  The vanquished nations, blended into one great people, resigned the hope, nay even the wish, of resuming their independence. [...] The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom."[10]  Not a word here about an empire built upon sacked towns, shattered armies, slaughtered villagers, raped women, enslaved prisoners, plundered lands, burnt crops, and mercilessly overtaxed populations.

The gentlemen historians who lived during antiquity painted much the same idyllic picture, especially of Rome's earlier epoch.  The theme they repeatedly visited was of olden times as golden times, when men were more given to duty than luxury, women were chaste and unsparingly devoted to their family patriarchs, youth were ever respectful of their elders, and the common people were modest in their expectations and served valiantly in Rome's army.[11]  Writing during the Late Republic, Sallust offers this fairy tale of Roman times earlier than his own:  "In peace and war [...] virtus [valour, manliness, virtue] was held in high esteem [...] and avarice was a thing almost unknown.  Justice and righteousness were upheld not so much by law as by natural instinct. [...] They governed by conferring benefits on their subjects, not by intimidation."[12]

A more realistic picture of Roman imperialism comes from some of its victims.  In the first century B.C.E., King Mithridates, driven from his land in northern Anatolia, wrote, "The Romans have constantly had the same cause, a cause of the greatest antiquity, for making war upon all nations, peoples, and kings, the insatiable desire for empire and wealth."[13]  Likewise, the Caledonian chief Calgacus, speaking toward the end of the first century C.E., observed:

"[Y]ou find in [the Romans] an arrogance which no reasonable submission can elude.  Brigands of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea.  The wealth of an enemy excites their cupidity, his poverty their lust of power. [...]  Robbery, butchery, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create a desolation and call it peace. [...] [Our loved ones] are now being torn from us by conscription to slave in other lands.  Our wives and sisters, even if they are not raped by enemy soldiers, are seduced by men who are supposed to be our friends and guests.  Our goods and money are consumed by taxation; our land is stripped of its harvest to fill their granaries; our hands and limbs are crippled by building roads through forests and swamps under the lash of our oppressors. [...]  We Britons are sold into slavery anew every day; we have to pay purchase-price ourselves and feed our masters in addition."[14]

For centuries, written history was considered a patrician literary genre, much like epic and tragedy, concerned with the monumental deeds of great personages, a world in which ordinary men played no role other than nameless spear-carriers, and ordinary women not even that.  Antiquity gives us numerous gentlemen chroniclers—Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Cicero, Livy, Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian, Dio Cassius, Valerius Maximus, Velleius Paterculus, Josephus, and Tacitus—just about all of whom had a pronouncedly low opinion of the common people.  Dio Cassius, for one, assures us that "many monarchs are the source of blessings to their subjects [...] whereas many who live under a democracy work innumerable evils to themselves."[15]

The political biases of ancient historians were not interred with their bones.  Our historical perceptions are shaped not only by present socioeconomic status but by the ideological and class biases of the past historians upon whom we rely.  As John Gager notes, it is difficult to alter our habitual ways of thinking about history because "without knowing it, we perceive the past according to paradigms first created many centuries ago."[16]  And the creators of those ancient paradigms usually spoke with decidedly upper-class accents.

In sum, Gibbon's view of history was not only that of an eighteenth-century English gentleman but one of a whole line of gentlemen historians from bygone times, similarly situated in the upper strata of their respective societies.  What would have made it so difficult for Gibbon to gain a critical perspective of his own ideological limitations—had he ever thought of doing so—was the fact that he kept intellectual company with like-minded scholars of yore, in that centuries-old unanimity of bias that is often mistaken for objectivity.

To be sure, there were some few observers in ancient Rome, such as the satirist Juvenal, who offer a glimpse of the empire as it really was, a system of rapacious expropriation.  Addressing the proconsuls, Juvenal says:  "When at last you leave to go out to govern your province, limit your anger and greed.  Pity our destitute allies, whose poor bones you see sucked dry of their pith and their marrow."[17]

In 1919, noted conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter presented a surprisingly critical picture of Roman imperialism, in words that might sound familiar to present-day critics of U.S. "globalism":

"...That policy which pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generated war, the policy of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome interventionism.  There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack.  If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented.  When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest—why, then it was the national honour that had been insulted.  The fight was always invested with an aura of legality.  Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbours, always fighting for a breathing space.  The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome's duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs."[18]

Still, the Roman empire has its twentieth-century apologists.  British historian Cyril Robinson tenders the familiar image of an empire achieved stochastically, without deliberate design:  "It was perhaps almost as true of Rome as of Great Britain that she acquired her world-dominion in a fit of absence of mind."[19]  An imperialism without imperialists, a design of conquest devoid of human agency or forethought, such a notion applies neither to Rome nor to any other empire in history.

Despite their common class perspective, gentlemen historians do not achieve perfect accord on all issues.  Gibbon himself was roundly condemned for his comments about early Christianity in the Roman empire.  He was attacked as an atheist by clergy and others who believed that their religion had flourished exclusively through divine agency and in a morally flawless manner.[20]  Gibbon credits Christianity's divine origin as being the primary impetus for its triumph, but he gives only a sentence or two to that notion, being more interested as a secular historian in the natural rather than supernatural causes of the church's triumph.  Furthermore, he does not hesitate to point out instances of worldly opportunism and fanatical intolerance among Christian proselytes.  Some readers may find his treatment of the rise of Christianity to be not only the most controversial part of his work but also the most interesting.[21]

Along with his class hauteur, the gentleman scholar is likely to be a male supremacist.  So Gibbon describes Emperor Severus' second wife Julia Domna as "united to a lively imagination, a firmness of mind, and strength of judgement, seldom bestowed on her sex."[22]  Historians do take note of the more notorious female perpetrators in the imperial family, such as Messalina, wife of Emperor Claudius, and Agrippina.  They tell us that Agrippina grabbed the throne for her son Nero by poisoning her uncle and then her husband, the reigning Claudius.  Upon becoming emperor, Nero showed his gratitude to his mother by killing her.  Nero was not what we would call a family man; he also murdered his aunt, his ex-wife, and a half-brother who had a claim to the throne.

Except for a few high-placed and notably lethal females, Roman women are virtually invisible in the works of most gentlemen historians.  Even when noticed, they are not likely to be seen as of any consequence.[23]  That there were no female historians to speak of in antiquity, nor for many centuries thereafter, only compounded the deficiency.  In the last few decades, thanks mostly to the emergence of feminist scholarship, the research on Roman women has improved, despite the paucity of surviving data.  Ordinary Roman women, we know, tended to die younger than their male counterparts because of malnourishment, mistreatment, exhaustion, and childbirth.  Almost half of all Roman brides were under the age of fourteen, many as young as twelve, with consummation coming at the time of marriage even if before menarche.  Women of all ages almost invariably lived under the rule of some male, be it husband, guardian, or paterfamilias (head of the extended family or clan).[24]

Through much of Roman history, females were denied individually given names as well as surnames.  Prominent gens names such as Claudius, Julius, and Lucretius gave forth the obligatory feminine derivatives of Claudia, Julia, and Lucretia.  Sisters therefore all had the same name and were distinguished from each other by adding "the elder" or "the younger" or "the first," "the second," and "the third."  Thus Gaius Octavius' daughters were Octavia the elder and Octavia the younger.  Denying them an individually named identity was one way of treating females as family property, mere fractional derivatives of the paterfamilias.[25]

Women of common caste performed much of the onerous work of society as laundresses, domestic servants, millers, weavers, spinners, and sometimes even construction workers, all in addition to their quotidian household chores.  As far as we know, even when they laboured in the same occupations as men, they were not permitted to belong to craft guilds.[26]  Bereft of opportunities for decent livelihood, some of the more impecunious females were driven to selling their sexual favours.  Prostitution was given standing as an employment and taxed as such.  Owning a brothel was considered a respectable venture by some investors.[27]  In general, the great mass of poor women had little hope of exercising an influence on political issues, though numbers of them must have participated in public protests.

The devoted, self-sacrificing wife was a prized character in Roman writing.  Examples abound of matrons who faced exile or risked death to stand fast with their husbands.[28]  But Roman matrons could also be rebellious on occasion.  As early as 195 B.C.E., they successfully pressured the magistrates to repeal the lex Oppia, a law passed during the austerity of the Second Punic War restricting the use of personal ornaments and carriages by women.[29]  That they would mobilise themselves in this willful manner sorely vexed many a patriarch.

By the Late Republic (approximately 80–40 B.C.E.) and during the first century of the empire, Roman matrons made a number of important gains relating to marriage, divorce, property rights, and personal independence.  Some of them even owned substantial property, and administered commercial operations.  During the civil strife following Caesar's death, the Second Triumvirate posted a list of 1,400 particularly wealthy women whose property was to be assessed.  The women organised a protest in the Forum before the magistrates' tribunal, and demanded to know why they had to share in the punishment of the civil war when they had not collaborated in the crime.  "Why should we be taxed when we have no share in magistracies, or honours, or military commands, or in public affairs at all, where your conflicts have brought us this terrible state?"[30]  Whatever influence women exercised in business affairs, they never gained full civil rights, nor could they sustain much visibility on the political landscape.[31]

Upper-class wives had the reputation of being overly generous with their sexual favours.  Sallust clucks about the women who "publicly sold their chastity."[32]  Horace fumes about the matron who becomes well practiced "in lewd loves, then seeks younger adulterers, while her husband's at wine."[33]  Writing early in the second century C.E., Juvenal seems to anticipate the venomous misogyny that would soon pour from the pens of the Christian church fathers.  Roman matrons, he tells us, are wanton hussies, engaged in their illicit pursuits at the expense of the hapless cuckolds who are their husbands.  They have long discarded the virtuous devotions of the forebears, along with the "naturally feminine" traits of modesty, chastity, and domestic servitude.[34]  In like fashion, a historian from our own era registers his disapproval of the growing sway exercised by high-placed improvident women in the Late Republic whose "unwholesome influence" engendered a "growing license" and "did much to debase the moral and social standards of the day."[35]

In truth, Roman matrons were doubtless no more promiscuous than their own husbands, whose own commonplace dalliances were largely overlooked, given the double standard of that day.  Under the patriarchal system, a man was free to kill an allegedly unfaithful wife, while himself patronising prostitutes or keeping a concubine.  The codes against adultery initiated by Emperor Augustus were aimed at wives, with no prohibitions imposed upon husbands.[36]  One of the many Roman writers who see only virtue in Rome's earliest epoch and decadence in their own times is Valerius Maximus.  He approvingly cites examples of husbands of yore who divorced their wives or otherwise treated them severely for acting in what we might consider mildly independent ways, such as walking abroad with head uncovered, talking to a common freedwoman, or attending public games without the husband's knowledge.  "While women were thus checked in the old days, their minds stayed away from wrongdoing," Valerius assures us.[37]

Powerful men such as Julius Caesar often treated women from well-placed families as disposable strategic assets, to be bartered in arranged marriages designed to fortify one's fortune or help forge political coalitions—a practice that continued within European aristocratic circles down through the ages.  Women were also a source of sensual divertissement for Caesar as for most other Roman men.  A few—such as his first wife Cornelia, his longtime mistress Servilia, and, in his last years, Cleopatra—did win Caesar's love, though none could ever claim exclusive command of his sexual attentions.

Many Roman husbands were hopeless philanderers who fixed upon loveless marriages to advance their careers, pocket ample dowries, or simply enjoy a convenient concupiscence.  Still there were instances of deep conjugal links being forged.  Valerius gives several examples of husbands who were stricken at the loss of their wives.  So does the younger Pliny, who himself expressed genuine love for his wife.[38]

Along with the gender bias, some gentlemen historians let slip a noticeable ethno-class bigotry.  The progenitor of all historians of the Late Republic is Cicero.  Hailed by Balsdon as "perhaps the most civilised man who has ever lived," Cicero has been revered by classics professors and Latin teachers throughout the ages.[39]  This most civilised man was not above stoking the crassest ethno-class prejudices.  Cicero sneered at the Greeks and Jews, both the slaves and freedmen among them, who rallied to the side of democratic leaders, declaring that "men of those nations often throw [...] our assemblies into confusion."  The Greeks are given to "shameless lying," the Jews to "barbaric superstition."[40]

Some latter-day historians have taken their cue from Cicero.  Theodor Mommsen describes the Roman Forum as a shouting fest for "everyone in the shape of a man" with Egyptians, Jews, and Greeks, both freedmen and slaves, being the loudest participants in the public assemblies.[41]  Cyril Robinson notes that many proletarians were "of Greek or Oriental origin [...] [whose] loose and feeble character made them bad citizens."  The "purity of Roman blood began to be contaminated by the admixture of this alien element."  Those of "Oriental blood" were "incapable of assimilating the national habits of decency and restraint," although "not all Greeks, of course, were vicious or unwholesome characters."[42]

J.F.C. Fuller tells us that Rome's "Latin stock was increasingly mongrelised as Greeks, Asiatics, Spaniards, Gauls, and other [slaves] were absorbed through manumission and became citizens."[43]  Another esteemed classicist, Jérôme Carcopino, flirts with a racist blood theory of history, writing that interbreeding between Roman aristocrats and their female slaves or freedwomen, followed by frequent emancipation or adoption of the offspring, left "many of the best families in the city infected with an actual hybridisation, similar to that which has more recently contaminated other slave-owning peoples."  This mixed breeding "strongly accentuated the national and social decomposition" of Rome.[44]

In ancient Rome, as in societies before and since, class oppression was supported by class bias.  The lowly were considered low because of deficiencies within themselves.  Class bias, in turn, was often buttressed by ethnic prejudice.  Many of the poor, both slaves and free, were from "barbarian" stock, and this further fueled the tendency to loathe them as wastrels and brigands, troublesome contaminants of respectable society.  So ethnic and class bias conveniently dovetailed for those who looked at their world de haut en bas, and this included not only the likes of Cicero but many of the writers who came after him.

2 - Slaves, Proletarians, and Masters

"Our hearts you see not; they are pitiful;

And pity to the general wrong of Rome—"


Rome's social pyramid rested upon the backs of slaves (servi) who composed approximately one-third the population of Italy, with probably a smaller proportion within Rome property.[45]  Their numbers were maintained by conquests, piratical kidnappings, and procreation by the slaves themselves.  Slavery also was the final destination for individuals convicted of capital crimes, for destitute persons unable to repay debts, and for children sold off by destitute families.  War captives were worked to death in the mines and quarries and on plantations (latifundia) at such a rate that their ranks were constantly on the wane.[46]

A step above the servi was the great mass of propertyless proletariat (proletarii), consisting of city-dwelling citizens (plebs urbana), foreigners, and freedmen (ex-slaves).  Rome had a downtown urban centre of temples, ceremonial sites, emporia, public forums, and government offices.  Downtown was encircled by a dense ring of slums.  There being no public transportation, the proletarians had to be housed within walking distance of work sites and markets.  The solution was to pile them into thousands of poorly lit inner-city tenements along narrow streets.  Such dwellings were sometimes seven or eight floors high, all lacking toilets, running water, and decent ventilation.  The rents for those fetid, disease-ridden warrens were usually more than the plebs could afford, forcing them to double and triple up, with entire families residing in one room.  Some luckless renters could afford only dank cellars or cramped garrets not high enough to stand in.[47]

Charcoal braziers and oil lamps were a constant fire hazard.  Building codes were not to appear in Rome for centuries to come.  Tenants who escaped the typhoid, typhus, and fires that plagued the slums still lived in fear of having the structures collapse upon them, as happened all too frequently.  The ingenuity for which Roman architecture is known was not lavished upon the domiciles of the poor.  As Juvenal ironically describes it:  "Rome is supported on pipe-stems, matchsticks; it's cheaper thus for the landlord to shore up his ruins, patch up the old cracked walls, and notify the tenants.  They are expected to sleep secure though the beams are about to crash above them.[48]  Cicero himself owned tenement properties whose rental income he used to maintain his son as a student in Athens.  In a letter to a friend, he sounds every bit the speculative slumlord:  "[T]wo of my shops have collapsed and the others are showing cracks, so that even the mice have moved elsewhere, to say nothing of the tenants.  Other people call this a disaster, I don't call it even a nuisance. [...] [T]here is a building scheme under way [...] which will turn this loss into a source of profit."[47]

The narrow rutted streets were crowded with tradesmen, artisans, jobbers, beggars, shoppers, and loiterers.  Street vendors hawked salted fish, warm pans of smoking sausages, cups of pudding, and jars of wine.  Musicians, acrobats, and jugglers, with their sad little trained animals, performed for the passing crowd.  Large dirty pots placed at intervals along the streets served as pissoirs for passerby, a concession to fullers and laundry workers who—soap being unknown to the Romans—used the accumulated urine to treat or wash their cloth.[49]  (Uric acid is still applied today in such cleansers as borax.)  We can presume that the clothes were given a final rinse in freshwater.

For those who could afford it, wine was imbibed during and between meals.  Romans of the Late Republic usually drank it more than half diluted with water.  Wine was their coffee, tea, and spirits.  "And olive oil was their butter, soap, and electricity:  they cooked with it, anointed themselves with it at the baths, and burnt it in their lamps."[50]  The poor person's sustenance was grain, consumed in the form of bread and porridge.

With rampant poverty came a high crime rate.  Rome had no street lighting and no police force to speak of.  As night fell, the populace secured itself behind bolted doors.  Only the opulent few, who could afford an ensemble of slaves and strongmen to light the way and serve as bodyguards, dared to venture abroad, and even they thought twice about it.  Juvenal writes acerbically of the hazards posed by street toughs:  "It makes no difference whether you try to say something or retreat without a word, they beat you up all the same. [...] You know what the poor man's freedom amounts to?  The freedom, after being punched and pounded to pieces, to beg and implore that he be allowed to go home with a few teeth left.[51]

Most plebs urbana and their families lived from hand to mouth, toiling long hours for trifling sums.  In the countryside, the plebs rustica fared no better than their city cousins.  When possible, they would try to ease their straitened circumstances by taking on the more perilous chores offered by latifundia lords who, like American plantation owners of the antebellum South, sometimes preferred to use free labourers for risky tasks.  By the owner's reckoning, the death of a day jobber merely increased the population of the netherworld, whereas the death of a slave represented the loss of a tidy investment.[52]

A rung above the propertyless proletarii were the small farmers, settled on their own parcels of land in the provinces around the city, with enough property to qualify for military service.  And just above them was a small middle class of minor officials, merchants, and industrial employers, who lived in apartments situated away from the stench and noise of the inner city but still within the manageable distance of the Forum and the baths.[53]

Looming over the toiling multitude of Rome in "almost incredible opulence" were "a few thousand multimillionaires."[54]  One magistrate estimated that the number of solidly rich families was not more than 2,000.[55]  This elite stratum, the "officer class," included the equites or equestrians, a class of knights, so designated because their property qualified them to serve in the cavalry—although by the Late Republic many of them probably had never been on a horse.  The equestrians were state contractors, bankers, moneylenders, traders, tax collectors, and landowners.[56]  They occupied a social rank just below aristocrats and well above commoners, serving as a reservoir for recruits into the aristocratic class, as families of old lineage died out from time to time.  Being large property holders who generally had little sympathy for the poor, the knights shared many of the same interests as the nobility, although occasional conflicts did arise between the two elite groups.[57]

At the very apex of the social pyramid was the nobilitas, an aristocratic oligarchy representing families whose lineage could claim one or more members who had served as consul (the highest office of the Republic).  Equestrians and nobles differed more in political lineage than family fortune.  Both groups were members of the officer class; both held wealth in land, slaves, trade, and finance.  Both lived in seemly mansions, enjoying gourmet meals served on plates of gold and silver, lavish gardens, game preserves, aviaries, stables of the finest horses, fish ponds, private libraries, private baths, and water closets.  Their estates were situated on tracts the size of veritable townships, large enough to house swollen retinues of slaves and personal servants.  Cicero was an equestrian who owned seven or eight estates and several smaller farms, along with his urban tenements and other business ventures.[58]

The old nobility too was not above pursuing speculative capitalist ventures.  Thus Julius Caesar's friend and ally Crassus, a landed aristocrat, became one of the wealthiest men of the Late Republic by buying up urban sites upon which tenements had collapsed or been ruined by fire, then rebuilding new tenements whose rents provided ample recompense for his capital outlay.[59]

Class supremacism permeated republican Roman society right down to its domestic codes.  There was a strict prohibition against marriage between a member of the aristocratic class and a citizen who had risen from the class of freedmen.  Aristocrats also were forbidden to marry actresses and women of other such dubious professions.[60]

In Rome's Late Republic, as in any plutocracy, it was a disgrace to be poor and an honour to be rich.  The rich, who lived parasitically off the labour of others, were hailed as men of quality and worth; while the impecunious, who struggled along the paltry earnings of their own hard labour, were considered vulgar and deficient.  Though he wrote later on, during the time of emperors, Juvenal might as well have been speaking of earlier republican society when he noted that a rich man's word was treated as good as gold because he was possessed of gold, but a poor man's oath "has no standing in court [...] Men do not easily rise whose poverty hinders their merit."[61]

Rome's oppressive class nature was nowhere more evident than in the widespread practice of slavery.  Roman slavery was long treated none too harshly by gentlemen historians.  Gibbon, for instance, tells us that a slave did not live without hope, given "the benevolence of the master."  If he showed diligence and fidelity for "a few years" he might very naturally expect to be granted his freedom.[62]  More recently, Jérôme Carcopino enthuses about Roman laws that "lightened [the slaves'] chains and favoured their emancipation [...] The practical good sense of the Romans, no less than the fundamental humanity instinctive in their peasant hearts, had always kept them from showing cruelty toward the servi.  They had always treated their slaves with consideration. [...] With few exceptions, slavery in Rome was neither eternal nor, while it lasted, intolerable."[63]  No slaveholder could have said it better.

"It is not until recent times," notes K.R. Bradley, "that the realisation has begun to set in among scholars that there is something distinctly unpalatable about slavery in antiquity.  Indeed in some quarters apologetic influences are still at work."[64]  One reputable historian who still celebrates the happy side of slavery is Lionel Casson.  He accords a grudging nod to the ill-fated souls who laboured under the whip in the fields or died in such numbers in the mines, saying only that they were burdened by "tasks that involved sweat and drudgery."  Then he dwells upon the favourable conditions supposedly enjoyed by slaves who assisted in running luxurious households, or occupied government posts.  Some even amassed substantial fortunes as investors.  Sometimes "free men with bleak prospects would sell themselves into slavery in order to qualify" for these plum positions.[65]  A great many manumitted servi, rhapsodises Casson, "were able to escape from slavery and mount the steps of the social ladder, in some cases to the very top."  One former servus gave his son an excellent education, and the boy grew up to be the famous writer Horace.  "In but two generations the family had risen from slavery to literary immortality."[66]

The impression one gets is that Roman slavery was a kind of affirmative action programme, and Rome was a land of opportunity ouverte aux talents.  In fact, such impressive instances of upward mobility were the rare exception.  Manumission was usually granted only after many years of servitude.  Even then, liberty was fettered with liabilities.  Frequently the manumitted servus had to leave behind his spouse or children as slaves.  Freedmen could neither serve in the military nor seek public office.  They bore the names of their former masters to whom they continued to owe service and make payments.[67]

Slaves usually had to buy their freedom by meeting the original purchasing price.  Obviously, the vast majority could not hope to accumulate such a sum.  Some of the luckier ones had their freedom paid for by relatives who were already free and working.  Only a select few had the opportunity to pocket tips as doorkeepers or performers, or glean windfall gratuities in specialised occupations such as skilled craftsmen, doctors, and prostitutes.

Manumission was largely motivated by the owner's desire to escape the onerous expense of having to feed and shelter chattel for their entire lives, especially ones no longer in the full productive vigour of their youth.  Many of the manumitted were granted testimonial emancipation in the master's will, that is, only after his death deprived him of any further opportunity to exploit them would they be set free.  As Bradley reckons, "most of the servile population probably never achieved freedom at all [...] [M]anumission was a real but fragile prospect for slaves, and it conceals the years of hardship that preceded its attainment."[68]

All slavocracies develop a racist ideology to justify their dehumanised social relationships.  In Rome, male slaves of any age were habitually addressed as puer or "boy."  A similar degrading appellation was applied to slaves in ancient Greece and in the slavocracy of the United States, persisting into the postbellum segregationist South of the twentieth century.  The slave as a low-grade being or subhuman is a theme found in the writings of Plato and Aristotle.  In the minds of Roman slaveholders, the servi—including the foreigners who composed the larger portion of the slave population—were substandard in moral and mental capacity, a notch or two above animals.  Cicero assures us that Jews, Syrians, and all other Asian barbarians are "born to slavery."[69]  The Roman historian Florus sees the Spartacus slave rebellion not as a monumental struggle for liberty but a disgraceful undertaking perpetrated "by persons of the meanest class" led by "men of the worst character [...] eager to take vengeance on their masters."[70]  Gibbon describes Rome's slave population as "a mean and promiscuous multitude."[71]  More recently we have Sir Ronald Syme asserting that the Roman slave market was flooded with "captives of alien and often inferior stock."[72]  Most present-day classical writers, however, do not embrace the slaveholder's supremacism, at least not overtly.

By definition the relationship between master and slave is a coercive one.  Not surprisingly the master is preoccupied with questions of control, with instilling loyalty and obedience into these recalcitrant underlings, using a combination of lenient and harsh methods.  In the first century C.E. the Roman agricultural writer Columella set forth advice on how best to manage servile farm labour.  The slaveholder had to avoid excessive severity and gratuitous cruelty not out of humane consideration but because such things were counterproductive.  Slaves could be better controlled if provided with decent living conditions, time off from work, and occasional opportunity to voice grievances.[73]

The uncertain promise of eventual emancipation sometimes made manumission an effective control mechanism.  The slave was encouraged to observe long-term compliance in the hope of eventual freedom.  Servile family attachments were another useful restraint.  Married slaves with children were less likely to abscond and more ready to cooperate.  And their offspring added to the owner's wealth.  But the slave family existed only as long as it served the interests of the master.  It was constantly in danger of disruption since the slave was a disposable form of property.  Slave owners readily broke up servile families "when economic considerations made the sale of their slaves attractive or necessary."[74]

Good treatment did not guarantee good slaves.  One might recall Frederick Douglass' observation drawn from his own unhappy bondage in the American South:  The slave who has a cruel master wishes for a kind one, and the slave who has a kind master wishes for freedom.  Kindly treatment alone could eventually undermine control by nursing heightened expectations.  It was necessary then to impose a coercive, fear-inspiring dominion.  A Roman slave could be flogged, branded, mutilated, starved, raped, or crucified, without recourse to self-defence.  "Against a slave everything is permitted," wrote Seneca, the Stoic, who inveighed against the cruel treatment of servi while availing himself of their services.[75]

In accordance with an ancient rule, if a master was murdered by one of his slaves, all the others in his household faced execution.  In this way every servus might feel an interest in guarding the master's safety.  A failure to report suspicious doings or secret plots could cost slaves their lives.  One could only pray that one's master expired in an unambiguously natural fashion, for if there was any suspicion of foul play, the investigating authorities would put all the late owner's slaves to the torture.[76]  Roman law did not admit the torture of a free man but required it to exact evidence from slaves, both male and female.  But servi who betrayed their masters by volunteering damning information against them in court ended up being punished rather than rewarded.[77]  For while prosecutors and plaintiffs wanted to win cases, they were disinclined to encourage disloyalty among slaves.

Those who think Roman slavery was such a benign institution have not explained why fugitive slaves were a constant problem.  Owners did not lightly countenance the loss of valuable property.  They regularly used chains, metal collars, and other restraining devices.  Slaves who fled were hunted down and returned to irate masters who were keen to inflict a severe retribution.[78]  Slaveholders consulted oracles and astrologers to divine the whereabouts of runaways; they posted bills offering rewards; they appealed to state authorities and engaged professional slave catchers (fugitivarii).[79]

Cicero enlisted two successive provincial governors in search for a slave who had purloined some of his valuable books and fled abroad.[80]

Every slave society has known its uprisings.  Rome was no exception.  The three biggest rebellions, occurring in the last two centuries of the Republic, reached the level of open warfare, with many thousands of armed men on both sides, including the famous one waged by Spartacus and his brave hearts in 74–70 B.C.E.  All were mercilessly crushed.  There were numerous other slave uprisings but they were small-scale, short-lived, and unsuccessful, apart from the relatively few slaves who managed a permanent escape.[81]

Some domestic slaves who enjoyed the favoured circumstances of a wealthy household doubtless were materially better off than many slum-dwelling plebs, though servile accommodations and food rations on even the richest estate were usually kept at meager levels.  Some urban slaves could sneak away and participate in marketplace debates or even join guilds.  But most endured long hours of service, daily humiliations, whimsical mistreatment, and the threat of heavy whippings.  Ammianus Marcellinus tells of owners in his day who might have slaves flogged 300 times for a minor offence such as being slow to bring hot water.[82]  The younger Seneca describes some of the indignities endured by household slaves:

"When we recline at a banquet, one slave mops up the disgorged food, another crouches beneath the table and gathers up the leftovers of the tipsy guests.  Another carves the priceless game birds; with unerring strokes and skilled hand, he cuts choice morsels along the breast or the rump.  Luckless fellow, to live only for the purpose of cutting fat capons correctly... another, who serves the wine, must dress like a woman and wrestle with his advancing years, he cannot get away from his boyhood; he is dragged back to it; and though he has already acquired a soldier's figure, he is kept beardless by having his hair swooped away or plucked out by the roots, and he must remain awake throughout the night, dividing his time between his master's drunkenness and lust; in the chamber he must be a man, at the feast a boy.[83]"

Sexual exploitation of Rome's servi by their masters, though pandemic, is ignored by virtually all present-day historians.  Among ancient writers it was openly acknowledged that slaves should make their bodies available on demand.  Horace parades his preference for household slaves, both male and female:  "I like my sex easy and ready at hand."[84]  And Petronius has an ex-slave in his Satyricon reminisce about how he sexually serviced both his master and mistress for fourteen years, an arrangement that Roman readers doubtless found familiar and believable.[85]

The poet Martial—who was the closest thing ancient Rome had to a gossip columnist—alludes repeatedly to sexual intimacies that masters enjoyed with their household servi.  He ironically hails a certain Quirinalis for not needing a wife because he fornicates with maid servants and fills his townhouse and country place with the resultant offspring.  "A genuine paterfamilias is Quirinalis."[86]  We hear nothing about how the maid servants felt about all this.

Affluent women sometimes took advantage of their class status to pursue carnal knowledge.  So Martial chides one man whose seven sons all advertise the features of their mother's servile adulterers, among whom are the cook, the baker, and even the husband's own sodomite underling.  The poet refers to a woman of advanced years who uses her entire dowry to redeem her favourite lover from slavery, thereby ensuring regular satisfaction for herself; a master who beds his housekeeper; another who buys back his maid in order to keep her as his concubine; those who seek out slave boys for their pleasure; and a husband who lingers with maid servants while his wife accommodates litter-bearers:  "You are quite a pair, Alauda."[87]

Martial himself longs for "a plump home-born slave."  When he passes up the chance to buy "a lad" for 100,000 sesterces, a friend of his immediately meets the price.  In his unsparingly coarse manner, Martial tells how his "cock grieves" over the lost opportunity.[88]  Of course, the boy in question had no say in the matter.  The owner unilaterally set the boundaries and chose the mode of gratification, using the child as he pleased.  Slavers regularly catered to pedophilic tastes, selling young boys and girls for sexual purposes.  Depilatories were used to remove the hair on a boy's body, keeping him as young-looking as possible.  Boys were made to ingest various potions thought to delay the onset of puberty.  Even worse, slave dealers frequently resorted to castration, despite successive laws forbidding it.[89]

Such instances of child barter, rape, and sexual mutilation go unmentioned by those latter-day scholars who, like the slaveholders themselves, seem to have a keener sense of slavery's hidden benefits than of its manifest evils.

The image of a mutually loving master-slave relationship in ancient Rome, as Finley notes, seems "to draw modern commentators irresistibly into sentimentality and bathos."[90]  But the relationship was anything but mutual.  No matter how mawkishly costumed, Roman slavery cannot be passed off as a love relationship.

When a favourite of his named Sositheus, "a delightful fellow," died, Cicero observed "I am more upset than perhaps I ought to be over the death of a slave."[91]  Here Cicero is monitoring his feelings, aware that the slaveholder must maintain proper class boundaries by not growing too attached to a mere servus.  The love a master feels for his slave is patronising and paternalistic.  While the love a slave feels for his master is at least partially exacted by the steeply asymmetrical power relationship, generated as much by uneasy necessity as by genuine affection.  No wonder it existed more firmly in the master's imagination than in the slave's heart.  We will never know how Cicero's Sositheus, who lived and died in servitude, may have felt about their relationship had he been given an opportunity for freedom and decent employment.

During the American Civil War, many masters and mistresses in the Confederacy were astonished to find that their slaves—supposedly so well treated and so devoted and faithful—would manifest the most outrageous ingratitude at the first opportunity, insolently disregarding commands that could no longer be enforced, or fleeing to freedom, even enlisting in the ranks of the Union Army to fight for the emancipation of their brethren.  The journalist Whitelaw Reid, travelling through the South immediately after the war, noted the refrain repeated tirelessly by erstwhile slaveholders, "We have been the best friends the n***er ever had.  Yet this is the way they treat us."[92]  We can safely assume that this kind of hidden "ingratitude" existed among many Roman household slaves.

The "faithful slave" was a favourite theme among ancient writers, most of whom were themselves slaveholders.  Both Valerius and Appian provide a number of stories of slaves who showed extraordinary devotion to their masters.[93]  No doubt, touching friendships could blossom between master and slave.  Vulnerable captives, torn from hearth and home, will sometimes seek survival and security by attaching themselves emotionally to those who would life-and-death power over them.  But we should not make too much of it.  The Roman slaveholders, like the American slaveholders of the antebellum South, lived in persistent fear that their "faithfully devoted" slaves were quite capable of rising up and massacring their overlords.  In the younger Pliny's words, slaveholders were permanently exposed to "dangers, outrages and insult [...] No master can feel safe because he is kind and considerate:  for it is their brutality, not their reasoning capacity, which leads slaves to murder masters."[94]  Hence the Roman proverb, "A hundred slaves, a hundred enemies."

The Panglossian view of benign bondage ignores the inhumanity that inheres in forced servitude.  Slaves had to truckle to their masters and all other superiors.  They were marginalised creatures often denied the most elementary social bonds.  They suffered a nearly total lack of control over their labour, their persons, and in most regards their very personalities.  Slaves themselves—not just their labour power—were commodities.[95]  Presumably not thinking of his delightful Sositheus, Cicero made this perfectly clear when he remarked that it was preferable to lighten a ship in emergency by throwing an old slave overboard rather than a good horse.  And the elder Cato advises his readers to sell old or sick slaves along with old or sick draught animals "and everything else that is superfluous."[96]  So every slaveholder was locked into an intrinsically injurious construct that is the inescapable essence of slavery:  The degrading exploitation of one human being so that another may pursue whatever comforts and advantages wealth might confer.  Ultimately, the same can be said of all exploitative class relations perpetrated by those who accumulate wealth for themselves by reducing others to poverty.

3 - A Republic for the Few

"So often shall the knot of us be call'd

The men that gave their country liberty."


As legend has it, Rome was founded in 753 B.C.E. and named after its first monarch Romulus. Early in the sixth century B.C.E., a succession of Etruscan kings reigned over the city. Detested by the common people because of its exploitative rule, the monarchy was overthrown around 510–509 B.C.E. and a republic was proclaimed. Executive rule passed to a pair of consuls, elected for one-year terms and subject to each other's veto. The consuls remained the highest magistrates throughout the history of the Republic. They levied and commanded Rome's armies, enforced the laws, gave audience to foreign delegations, and presided in the Senate over the popular assemblies.[1]

Early Roman society was sharply divided between a landed aristocracy of patricians and a mass of commoners called plebeians. Only patricians could enter the Senate or occupy leading governmental or religious posts. During the fourth century B.C.E., some of the more affluent plebeian families won access to top official positions, gaining seats in the Senate and entry into the nobility by winning the consulship. By the middle of the third century, plebeians and patricians had won the right to intermarry, and the richer elements of both groups melded into one aristocracy.[2]

The Republic was also an empire. During the fourth and third centuries B.C.E., Rome embarked upon a series of conquests and alliances that extended its dominion over most of the Italian peninsula. With the defeat of its arch commercial rival, Carthage, in what is known as the First Punic War (264–261 B.C.E.), Rome took control of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. In the Second Punic War (218–202 B.C.E.), the Carthaginian general Hannibal launched his famed invasion of Italy, crossing the snow-covered Alps with an army and a troop of elephants. Hannibal fought his way down the peninsula, destroying two Roman armies in the doing, only to be worn down and eventually defeated.[3] Rome expelled Carthage from Spain, turning the greater part of the Iberian peninsula into Roman provinces.

In 146 B.C.E., after a half-century of peace, Rome attacked and destroyed Carthage itself, transforming its territory into a colonial province called Africa (roughly coextensive with present-day Tunisia). Contrary to popular myth, the invaders did not pour salt or lime into Carthage's topsoil in order to leave it forever barren. Carthage eventually flourished once again but as a Roman provincial city.

The Roman imperialists then moved eastward to fish in troubled waters, intervening to assist Greek cities threatened by Macedonian and Syrian armies. But after beating off these threats, Rome subjugated the Greeks themselves, welding their numerous polities into one province. By the end of the second century B.C.E., Rome reigned as supreme mistress of the Mediterranean.

As with other imperial powers before and since, the Roman empire brought immense wealth to its ruling class and imposed heavy burdens on its common citizenry. The aristocracy pursued a policy of almost continuous warfare. War offered opportunities to plunder the treasure of other countries and take advantage of depressed land markets in Italy itself. Many small landholders, the mainstay of the Roman infantry, fell in battle. Many more had to serve long enlistments that left them unable to tend their farms. Wealthy investors bought up these holdings for a pittance. War also brought a replenished supply of captive slaves to till the newly acquired tracts.

The ager publicus, the publicly-owned fertile lands in regions south and east of Rome, had been farmed for generations by collectives of smallholders who paid a modest rent to the state treasury. These collectives, run by free labour, had produced enough to victual the entire city. That Rome could be fed by common farmers, with not a penny of profit extracted by the rich, was more than the rich were willing to tolerate. To protect the smallholders a law was passed that forbade any individual to hold more than 500 iugera (about 310 acres). "For a while," writes Plutarch, "this law restrained the greed of the rich and helped the poor. [...] But after a time the wealthy men, by using the names of fictitious tenants, contrived to transfer many of these holdings to themselves, and finally they openly took possession of the greater part of the land under their own names."[4]

By the second century B.C.E., through a combination of opportunistic buyouts and sheer violence, the wealthy few carved out from the ager publicus vast estates for themselves, to which they had no right except that imposed by their money and their hired thugs. In time, the laws were changed to allow unlimited concentration of public and private lands in their hands.[5] As Appian reports, "the powerful [landholders] were becoming extremely rich, and the number of slaves in the country was reaching large proportions. Meanwhile the Italian people were suffering from depopulation and a shortage of men, worn down by poverty, taxes and military service."[6]

The dispossessed farmers emigrated to towns and provinces where they joined the ranks of the proletariat, serving as a cheap labour supply and contributing to the growth of new urban markets and city slum congestion. Some remained in the countryside, living from hand to mouth as landless jobbers.[7]

Large-scale mining and agriculture were carried out, then as now, by rich owners whose prime concern was the maximisation of profits, with little thought given to the attrition visited upon the workforce or the land. As the elder Pliny observed, men relentlessly accumulated landed property and probed the earth, "digging into her veins of gold and silver and mines of copper and lead; we actually drive shafts down into the depth to search for gems and certain tiny stones; we drag out her entrails in search of a jewel merely to be worn upon a finger! How many hands are worn away with toil that a single knuckle may shine resplendent! [...] All these avenues from which wealth issues lead but to crime and slaughter and warfare..."[8]

With a further touch of wisdom Pliny continued: When compared to all the universe, the earth is "but a pinprick," yet "here it is that we fill positions of power and covet wealth, and throw mankind into an uproar." Here we launch "civil wars and slaughter one another to make the land more spacious!" and here "we expel the tenants next to us and add a patch of turf to our own estate by stealing from our neighbours—to the end that he who has marked out his acres most widely and banished his neighbours beyond all record may rejoice in owning—how small a fraction of the earth's surface? Or when he has stretched his boundaries to the full measure of his avarice, may still retain—what portion, pray, of his estate when he is dead?"[9]

The Republic's political structure was not fashioned whole in accordance with some rational design. It emerged from prolonged conflict between the citizenry and the aristocracy, a jerry-built mixture of popular protections and elite entrenchments. Less than two decades after the kings were expelled, the people began a struggle, lasting over 200 years, to win the right to popular elections and legislative assemblage. The commoners demonstrated and rioted, embarking on highly organised strike actions or "secessions" when called upon to serve as soldiers. Democracy, a wonderful invention by the people of history to defend themselves from the power of the wealthy, took tenuous root in ancient Rome.

Still, as a democracy Rome left much to be desired. In the Forum, the central marketplace and open plaza of the city, candidates and commoners could mill about in informal groups, dilating on sundry issues. But full-dress debates before the entire assemblage were limited to those invited to speak by the summoning magistrate. Ordinary citizens could not directly participate, except occasionally to applaud, cheer, shout, or groan. And citizens could vote only "yea" or "nay" on proposals submitted by one of the magistrates, without the right to amend any clause.

Lacking a representative system, the assemblies were open to all citizens. In actual practice, only a relatively small portion of the eligible population could be accommodated in the open-air venues, usually the more prosperous and mobile who had the time and wherewithal to attend. Yet common plebs and to a much lesser degree even foreigners and slaves sometimes made their presence felt. In the Centurial Assembly (comitia centuriata), which elected consuls and praetors, voting took place in block units organised around traditional military groupings that were heavily rigged to favour the propertied classes. More democratic was the Tribal Assembly of the People (comitia tributa), in which each family tribal group voted as a unit. Reformers like the Gracchi brothers and Julius Caesar regularly preferred the Tribal Assembly to the Centurial Assembly when trying to pass reform legislation.[10] With enough unity and mass mobilisation, poor city dwellers in alliance with voters from outlying districts might pass measures that were opposed by the dominant aristocratic faction in the Senate.

The various magistrates (consuls, praetors, aediles, and quaestors) were elected by the assemblies.[11] To be elected to any of these top four ranks of magistracy carried life membership in the Senate. The closest thing to a popular democratic office was the Tribunate of the People, created after decades of popular agitation and threats of armed secession. Ten tribunes elected each year by the assemblies were to act as the protectors of popular rights. They could veto bills and even senatorial decrees. They eventually gained the right to submit legislation themselves and prosecute errant officials. One had to be of plebeian lineage to qualify as a tribune, one of the few instances in the Late Republic when the patrician-plebeian distinction still obtained.

A tribune who won favourable attention from the senatorial elites might eventually be supported by them in running for the quaestorship. If victorious, he gained admission into the Senate. The promise of such a prestigious advancement blunted the democratic verve of many a tribune. Furthermore, one tribune's proposals could be vetoed by any of the other nine, thus dampening the efforts of a dedicated innovator. By the second century B.C.E.—despite exceptional moments of independence—tribunes were as likely to be instruments of the Senate as champions of the people.[12] Members of the Senate (if they were of plebeian ancestry) could hamstring the tribunate by getting themselves elected tribunes, as did the conservative Cato. Still the tribunate was greatly valued by the common people as the key protection of their republican liberties.

Ordinarily, elections were contested by candidates who were either wealthy themselves or bankrolled by wealthy backers. Those with modest purses had but a dim chance at the polls. Bribery and the buying of votes were widespread. Rarely did candidates proffer discernible programmes. To distinguish himself from his opponents, a candidate emphasised his personal integrity and leadership, the prestige of his family name, his association with important personalities of the day, his public service, and his heroic war record—a favouring of style over substance that present-day voters might find familiar.[13]

In sum, the Roman political system permitted the wealthy few to prevail on most issues.[14] One historian finds nothing wrong with this: "There was, indeed, some justice in a system whereby those who bore the chief burden of fighting and financing the city's wars, should also possess the chief voice in directing the city's course."[15] In fact, the very rich did not bear the chief burden of fighting. That dangerous task fell mostly on the shoulders of yeomen and townsmen, and later even the proletariat. The rich did bear much of the financial burdens of war, often using their own funds to raise armies. But they usually were more than recompensed by pocketing the lion's share of the booty.

Rather than contributing to the commonweal, the wealthy fed off it. They avoided paying rents for the public lands they or their forebears had expropriated. Cicero's aristocratic wife, for instance, paid no taxes or fees for public forest lands whose timber she marketed for personal profit.[16] Senators paid no taxes and little of the other costs of governance. The money they lent to the state was paid back to them with interest from funds the state raised by taxing less privileged populations at home and abroad. This system of deficit spending—of borrowing from the rich and paying them back from taxing poor commoners—amounted to an upward redistribution of income much like the kind practiced by indebted governments today, including our own.

The most powerful governing body was the Roman Senate. Numbering several hundred men of wealthy background who had served, or continued to serve, as magistrates, the Senate determined foreign policy, appointed provincial governors, and held the purse strings of the Republic. The Senate's approval was sought for most measures before they were submitted to the assemblies. The Senate controlled recruitment and deployment of army units and top military appointments. And it made decisions on war and peace, after formal consultation with the popular assembly.

Within the Senate itself was the inner circle of nobles (nobiles) who exercised a controlling influence over the election of major magistrates, especially the consuls and praetors who wielded executive and military power, and the censors who supervised public morals and voting lists. Candidates from families of senatorial renown generally won the higher magisterial offices. During most times, "twenty or thirty men from a dozen families" held what was almost "a monopoly of power."[17] Thus, seven Metelli gained the consulship within fifteen years.

Inequalities prevailed within the Senate itself. No senator could speak unless called upon by the presiding consul, and those of consular rank (the nobility) were always invited to speak first, often leaving little time for senators of lesser eminence. Sallust, himself a low-ranking senatorial newcomer, complained that a small faction of senators governed, "giving and taking away as they please; oppressing the innocent, and raising their partisans to honour; while no wickedness, no dishonesty or disgrace, is a bar to the attainment of office. Whatever appears desirable, they seize and render their own, and transform their will and pleasure into their law, as arbitrarily as victors in a conquered city."[18]

The nobles maintained their influence mostly with their wealth, social prestige, and the protection and patronage they extended to their paid followers or clientele (clientela), along with the threats and actual applications of force they might employ. As necessity dictated, they used their clientele as voting blocs, agitators, and armed cadres. This system wedded portions of the lower class to the rich. Influential patrons spent many a morning at home in audience to a throng of followers who came to press for a favour, pass on useful information, receive an assignment, pay their respects, and secure a modest hangout of money or food. As Max Weber notes, patronage created relationships of personal dependence that gave Roman political life its private armies and lasting semi-feudal character.[19]

In the second century B.C.E., the senatorial nobles began to divide into two groups, the larger being self-designated as the optimates ("best men"), who were devoted to upholding the politico-economic prerogatives of the well-born. Cicero describes the optimates as "the foremost men and saviours of the state."[20] The smaller faction within the nobility, styled the populares or "demagogues" by their opponents, were reformers who sided with the common people on various issues. Julius Caesar is considered the leading popularis and the last in a line extending from 133 to 44 B.C.E.

The optimates sometimes encountered opposition within the Senate itself, and not just from the smaller group of populares. Asconius notes that the optimates opposed a quorum requirement because low attendance in the Senate allowed them more readily to carry the vote.[21] Brunt believes that many senators, even a majority, were open to compromise with Caesar, but they were overawed or in other ways beholden to the Senate's leading figures.[22]

Sympathy for the optimates is part of a long-standing tradition. Tacitus, himself a senator, describes the Senate oligarchs who assassinated Caesar and fought against Octavian and Mark Antony as "the most ardent patriots" and "the last army of the Republic."[23] Four centuries later, St. Augustine would write that the assassins were "a party of noble senators, who had conspired to defend the liberty of the Republic."[24] And in the late eighteenth century, Gibbon saw the oligarchs as "the republicans of spirit and ability [who] perished in the field of battle."[25]

Many present-day historians also look with undampened enthusiasm upon this Republic for the Few. Dickinson waxes rhapsodic about Rome's constitutionalism while saying next to nothing about its severe economic inequality and undemocratic political features. Grant would have us believe that senatorial consulship candidates "possessed the inherited training of their class, which very often produces [...] an attitude of selfless sacrifice to the needs of the community as a whole." Robinson heaps praise on senatorial elites bred to a strong tradition of subordinating their individual ambitions to the commonweal. And Scullard reassures us that the Roman constitution—a "balanced" mix of regal, aristocratic, and democratic powers, as represented respectively by the consuls, the Senate, and the assembly as never seriously threatened by the enormous influence of the Senate. That august body "contained the men who possessed the greatest administrative experience and political wisdom."[26]

The practice of hailing a "balanced" or "mixed" constitution as the finest and most stable of all governing arrangements goes back to ancient times. Referring to the three forms of governance: "kingship, aristocracy, and democracy," Polybius argues, "It is clear that we should regard as the best constitution one which includes elements of all three species..."[27] Cicero concurs, favouring a system with all three, though seemingly not in equal measure.[28] Indeed, it is not clear what an "equal" blend of the three could be, given their inherently contradictory and antagonistic essences. It has long been presumed that the diversity of constitutional forms makes for an optimal result. In reality, it creates a system of impediments that makes popular reform nearly impossible.

As with Polybius and Cicero, so with Aristotle, and so with the framers of the United States Constitution in 1787 (who were heavily influenced by their reading of the classics and their own propertied-class concerns)—all have been mindful of the levelling threats of democratic forces and the need for a constitutional "mix" that allows only limited participation by the demos, with a dominant role allotted to an elite executive power.[29] That same concern predominated among those who contrived the constitution of today's capitalist Russia. Such has been the real nature of the mixed constitution. Diluting democratic power with a preponderantly undemocratic mix does not create an admirable "balance" and "stability." In actual practice, the diversity of form more often has been a subterfuge, allowing an appearance of popular participation in order to lend legitimacy to oligarchic dominance.

Unfortunately, many classical historians are less discomforted by senatorial plutocracy than by proletarian egalitarianism. Their fear is that the people and their demagogic leaders are given to committing "democratic excesses," a concern that goes back at least to Plato. Theodor Mommsen, for one, could not contain his distaste for radical reformers of the Late Republic such as the praetor Marcus Caelius Rufus, an aristocrat who in 48 B.C.E. launched a campaign to cancel all debts and free the slaves. Rufus was accused of planning to seize the town of Capua with armed slaves. The following year, the tribune Publius Dolabella and others incited street frays against house rents and creditor claims. To Mommsen, both Rufus and Dolabella were "fools" and "the communists of that day," instigators of "a rabble engaged not in political activity but solely in a bandit war against poverty."[30]

The impetuous multitude, we are told, needs to be restrained by aristocratic moderation and probity, the latter ingredients existing more persistently in the imaginations of some commentators than in actual history. There is no denying that the Senate oligarchs were concerned about preserving the rule of law—as long as it served the interests of wealth, and thwarted the reformers who sought some modest redistribution of income and privilege. In Roman constitutional practice, there was nothing to prevent the Senate from passing any decree it so desired. The nobles protected the constitution—an unwritten one based on custom and practice—to the extent that it fortified their oligarchy. It was their constitution, their law, and indeed their Republic, made to accommodate "sacred traditions" including, above all, their long-standing class interests. This point is regularly eschewed by those who hail the senatorial aristocrats as defenders of republican virtue.

4 - "Demagogues" and Death Squads

"Set honour in one eye and death i' the other. —JULIUS CAESAR ACT I, SCENE 2

Throughout the ages, in keeping with their ideological proclivities, gentlemen historians have tended to dismiss the populares of the Roman Republic as self-aggrandising demagogues who affronted constitutional principles by encroaching upon the Senate's domain. Among the first to impress this image upon history is Cicero, who charged that popular agitators were psychologically unbalanced "owing to a sort of inborn revolutionary madness, [they] batten on civil discord and sedition." They are "reckless and abandoned men" possessed of "vicious aims," whose "own natural disposition incites them against the state."[1] In our own era, historians such as P. A. Brunt tell us, "[Rome's] established structure was under attack only by agitators, often or always self-interested adventurers..."[2]

One of the more prominent of these "agitators" was Tiberius Gracchus, a man of aristocratic birth and strong democratic leanings. More than three decades before Julius Caesar was born, Tiberius addressed some of the afflictions that beset Rome and Italy, most notably the crying need for a more equitable land distribution. Elected to serve as a tribune in 133 B.C.E., Tiberius Gracchus mobilised people from within and without the city in order to pass his lex agraria, which sought to revive the dead-letter law of 367 B.C.E., limiting the amount of public land that could be leased to any individual. The surplus acreage expropriated by large holders was to be redistributed to the poor by three elected commissioners.[3]

In drafting his law, Tiberius consulted a number of eminent citizens including magistrates and former magistrates. Wealthy individuals who deserved to be penalised for the crimes associated with their land grabs were only obliged to surrender their illegal holdings to those most in need of land. "And for this they were compensated. Surely many would agree that no law directed against injustice and avarice was ever framed in milder or more conciliatory terms," argues Plutarch in a surprisingly sympathetic cast. The land was being bought back at a fair market price from those who had stolen it. "Even though this act of restitution manifested such tender regard for the wrongdoers, the common people were content to forget the past so long as they could be assured of protection against future injustice." The wealthy landowners, however, detested the lex agraria "out of sheer greed," and they hated Tiberius for proposing it, continues Plutarch. They did their utmost to turn the people against the law, alleging that Tiberius' real intent was to foment revolution, impose his autocratic will, and undermine the foundations of the Republic.[4] These same charges were to be levelled against Caesar almost a century later.

Fragments of Tiberius' speech, by which he introduced his lex agraria have come down to us. With bitter eloquence he describes the plight of landless commoners, many of whom were army veterans: "Heartless and homeless, they must take their wives and families and tramp the roads like beggars. [...] They fight and fall to serve no other end but to multiply the possessions and comforts of the rich. They are called masters of the world but they possess not a clod of earth that is truly their own."[5] Such class-conscious sentiments voiced before an assemblage of plebs stoked the rancor of the oligarchs. "[T]he conspiracy that formed against [Tiberius] seems to have had its origins in the hatred and malevolence of the rich rather than in the excuses that they put forward for their actions," writes Plutarch, who describes Tiberius Gracchus as one who chose his words with care while appealing to men's sense of compassion.[6]

Most other historians have a different view. Dio Cassius sees Tiberius as "turning aside from what was best" (his prominent family connections and fine education) in order to drift "into what was worst" by bedeviling and disturbing all established customs," and making "any statement or promise whatever to anybody."[7] A chorus of latter-day scholars agree, claiming that Gracchus "did untold harm to the Republic," was "high-handed," "rash," "self-righteous," "plunged into illegal courses," and "unnecessarily provocative and ill-judged."[8]

What exactly were the rash and illegal methods that Tiberius Gracchus pursued? Instead of putting his land-reform bill before the Senate, which was loath to consider it, he chose a more democratic course established a hundred years earlier, though seldom invoked since. He took the measure straight to the Tribal Assembly of the People, which was well attended by commoners far and wide in anticipation of such a move. The bill passed but was unexpectedly vetoed by another tribune, Marcus Octavius, an ally of the optimate coterie. This move arguably was itself unconstitutional since a tribune's veto was intended to protect the citizenry against official tyranny and not stifle the vox populi on substantive issues.[9]

On the advice of some leading citizens, Tiberius took the dispute about Octavius' veto to the Senate, where "he was treated so contemptuously by the rich," according to Appian, that he returned posthaste to the Forum. There he proposed that Octavius be deposed. True a tribune was inviolate because he stood as the people's protector. "But if a tribune should depart from his duty, oppress the people, cripple their powers, and take away their right to vote," argued Gracchus, "he has by his own actions deprived himself of his honourable office by not fulfilling the conditions upon which he accepted it." Tiberius overwhelmingly won the votes of the tribes, and Octavius was removed from office, thus allowing passage of the lex agraria.[10]

Tiberius proposed other reforms. He wanted to reduce the period of military service (at the time it went from age seventeen to forty-six), give people the right to appeal jury verdicts, and allow equestrians to sit on juries hitherto composed exclusively of senators. After noting these efforts, Plutarch departs from his otherwise sympathetic view of Gracchus and concludes: "In short, Tiberius' programme was designed to cripple the power of the Senate in every possible way, and it was inspired by motives of anger and party politics rather than by considerations of justice and the common good."[11]

Shortly after the lex agraria was passed, an Asian king bequeathed his kingdom and its revenues to the Roman state. Tiberius proposed that some of this windfall be used as a start-up capital for the needy farmers who were allotted land parcels under the new law. This incurs the disapproval of some latter-day historians. For Mommsen, his move was tantamount to "tampering with the public finances." For Handford, it was a "serious encroachment on the Senate's hitherto undisputed control of financial and foreign affairs."[12]

Tiberius then sought reelection to a second term. As officers of the state, senior magistrates were prohibited from seeking immediate reelection to the same office, but the tribunate was an office of the plebs. TIberius' bid was neither illegal nor unprecedented. Yet this move too has been roundly condemned by various modern-day historians as "tactless and provocative," symptomatic of "mob leadership," "transgressing traditional observances," and showing "undue hastiness and folly."[13]

Tiberius Gracchus' lex agraria would have given thousands of uprooted families a chance to work the land, thereby easing the congestion within Rome. It would have reversed the depopulation of the Italian countryside, and replenished the yeomen stock. Facing a popular upsurge against their illegal land holdings, the oligarchs could not easily attack Tiberius' law. So they attacked Tiberius himself. They took every opportunity to denounce him as a demagogue and tyrant who was intent upon crowning himself king. They deprived him of a sufficient expense allowance to administer the land-reform programme. The chief promoter of these affronts was the Publius Nasica, one of the largest owners of public lands, who bitterly resented being obliged to surrender any of the ager publicus, and who, as Plutarch writes, "abandoned himself completely to his hatred of Tiberius."[14] Having stolen the ager publicus for themselves, the big owners now were convinced it rightfully belonged to them.

Tiberius feared he would be assassinated for his reformist efforts. His apprehension proved well grounded. When the Tribal Assembly gathered to vote on TIberius' reelection, Nasica, with other senators and a large gang of hired thugs, descended upon the meeting and slaughtered him and some 300 of his supporters, none of whom had taken up arms. When Mommsen writes that Gracchus had a "bodyguard from the gutter," he is referring to this complement of unarmed Romans of humble station who stood by Tiberius and gave their lives on behalf of equitable reforms.[15]

The common people felt bitterly about the killings and spoke openly of revenge. When they encountered Nasica, writes Plutarch, "they did not try to hide their hatred of him, but grew savage and cried out upon him wherever he chanced to be, calling him an accursed man and a tyrant" who murdered "an inviolable and sacred person." Fearing for Nasica's safety, the Senate voted to send him to Asia though it had no need of him there. Nasica departed Italy undercover even though he was Rome's high priest (pontifex maximus). He wandered about ignominiously in foreign lands for a brief period, then took his own life at Pergamum (close to the Aegean coast of present-day Turkey).[16]

By recourse to an improbable anecdote, Lucius Annaeus Florus condones Tiberius' murder. He tells us that the tribune fled to the Capital with his attackers in hot pursuit. There he exhorted the people to save his life, but he touched his head with his hand suggesting that "he was asking for royalty and a diadem." This gesture so incensed the crowd that they were easily roused to take up arms and join in putting Tiberius to death "with apparent justice."[17] That Tiberius would start negotiating for a crown while being pursued by a gang of assassins, and that an otherwise sympathetic audience would suddenly turn upon him with weapons because he touched his head, all seems perfectly plausible to Florus.

It is a time-honoured practice to blame "rush" and "provocative" reformers for the violence delivered upon them by reactionary forces. Speaking for any number of modern-day historians, Andrew Lintott says the hostility of those who attacked Tiberius Gracchus "was not simply inspired by the land bill itself but by the tactics which Gracchus employed."[18] Cyril Robinson blames the hecatomb of 133 B.C.E. on its victims, referring to "the reckless and irregular tactics of the Gracchian democrats." The civil violence that brought death to Tiberius is something "for which partially at least he shared the blame."[19] Scullard goes further: the oligarchs, the murderers themselves, are not to be blamed at all. The "prudent" senators were forced to confront "the overzealous reformer." "The urban mob that thronged the assembly in Rome [...] was becoming increasingly irresponsible and unrepresentative of the needs of the people as a whole," leading to "mob-rule or dictatorship."[20]

These critics do not tell us what reform programme Tiberius could possibly have legislated that would not have incurred the ire of the wealthy landholders. Even if he had followed the traditional course, leaving the lex agraria to the tender mercies of the Senate, and had employed the utmost finesse and moderation, the large holders still would have buried the measure. As it was, Tiberius' law was more than generous in offering an undeserved compensation to the rich, undeserved because they themselves had never paid restitution for the land they had swiped years before, nor for the injuries they had inflicted on the smallholders of that day.

The truth is, TIberius' sin was more substantive than stylistic. It was not that he failed to hew closely to established practice. The Senate itself often departed from its own constitutional procedures when expediency dictated—as when they launched their armed assault to massacre Tiberius and hundreds of his supporters. It was that he attempted to reverse the upward redistribution of wealth. He had the audacity to advocate reforms that gave something to the poor and infringed upon the rapacity of the rich.

After Tiberius Gracchus' assassination, the Senate hesitated to abolish the three-person commission that was in charge of land reform. "From fear of the multitude," as Plutarch puts it, the nobles allowed the distribution of public land to proceed.[21] But they contrived to undermine the commission's workings. By 129, they had taken many disputed cases out of its hands and entrusted them to the consuls, whose frequent and deliberate absences greatly impeded the programme. In time, land reform was entirely undone.

Considered among the greatest of populares, second perhaps only to Julius Caesar, was Tiberius' younger brother, Gaius Gracchus. Being keenly aware of his brother's fate, Gaius was reluctant to pursue office. His mother Cornelia, a woman of some note, demanded that he refrain from the perils of public life sot hat she might have some peace from pain: "You [...] the only survivor of all the children I have had. [...] Stand for the tribunate after I am dead [...] when I shall no longer be aware of it."[22] But Gaius found it impossible to withstand the entreaties of those who desired reform. He eventually emerged as an eloquent and fiery speaker, one of the greatest orators Rome ever produced. Against the combined opposition of all the distinguished nobles, he was elected tribune in 123 B.C.E.

Upon assuming office, he embarked on a comprehensive reform programme that included the redistribution of public lands on behalf of the indigent, the construction of roads into more fertile districts in order to advance Italian agriculture, the sale of grain to impoverished plebs at a reduced price, and shorter enlistment terms and free clothing for soldiers. Gaius also advocated granting Italian allies the same voting rights as Romans so that they might live as citizens rather than subjects. He put equestrians on juries, thus breaking the Senate's monopolistic privilege of serving as jurors in criminal cases. And he proposed adding 200 new seats to the Senate, to be occupied by the knightly order.

Gaius Gracchus recommended that the various classes should vote not in hierarchical sequence that favoured the nobility but by lot, "thus all being made equal in political influence whatever their wealth."[23] He introduced a bill that prohibited any magistrate who had been deposed by the people from holding office again. Another bill of his reaffirmed the ancient principle that protected a citizen's life against summary judgements by magistrates—as when the Senate put his brother Tiberius to death without trial, and murdered many of his supporters.

Plutarch notes that Gaius Gracchus supervised every project with extraordinary speed and application, impressing even those who disliked him. Gaius was "attended by a host of contractors, craftsmen, ambassadors, magistrates, soldiers, and men of letters, all of whom he handled with a courteous ease that enabled him to show kindness to all his associates. [...] In this way he gave the clearest possible proof that those who had represented him as a tyrannical, overbearing, or violent man were uttering nothing but malicious slanders."[24]

In 121, in response to Gaius' initiatives, the Senate passed what was later called the senatus consultum ultimum, a decree that allowed for a suspension of republican rights "in defence of the Republic." It gave magistrates license to discharge absolutist power, including political repression and mass murder. After repeated threats against his life, Gaius and 250 supporters, including another popularis, Fulvius Flaccus, were massacred by the optimates' death squads in 121 B.C.E. These assassins then rounded up and summarily executed an additional 3,000 democrats. The victims' relatives were forbidden to mourn publicly for the dead.[25]

Given the magnitude of these crimes, it is disheartening to find that through the ages, many historians have been more critical of the victims than of their victimisers. Cicero is among the earliest commentators to denounce the Gracchi and voice approval of their murders. He saw them as demagogues who pandered to the worst elements.[26] Likewise Dio writes that Gaius "was naturally intractable" and easily "played the rogue," becoming a mortal threat to "the nobility and the senatorial party."[27] Florus dismisses the reform struggles waged by the Gracchi as "seditions."[28] Valerius Maximus repeatedly denounces the Gracchi for engaging in "villainous attempts." He treats Gaius' death as "a good example," and applauds the Senate's "wisdom" in killing Tiberius Gracchus "who dared to promulgate an agrarian law." The Gracchi and their "criminal supporters [...] paid the penalty they deserved."[29] For Velleius Paterculus, the Gracchi were animated by "pernicious views." Gaius was prompted by a desire "to prepare a way for himself to a kingship." And the murder of Fulvius Flaccus, his ally, was justified because he shared Gaius' "king-like power" and "was equally inclined to noxious measures."[30]

In the early Christian era we have St. Augustine telling us that the Gracchi transgressed against society "when they threw everything into confusion"; they and other populares that came after them pursued "civil wars, most iniquitous and justifiable in their causes."[31] Modern writers like H.H. Scullard say that Gaius "unwisely formed a bodyguard of friends" that "provoked" the optimates into killing him.[32] Christian Meier justifies the optimates' homicidal fury, arguing that Gaius defied the "unwritten law" as defined by the Senate, and "it seems" his supporters were the first to resort to violence.[33] Otto Kiefer sidesteps the whole issue of aristocratic culpability by using a neutral construction: the Gracchi "perish[ed] in furious street fighting."[34]

That the senatus consultum ultimum was used to cut down Gaius Gracchus and thousands of his followers seems not to trouble P. A. Brunt, who argues legalistically that the decree did not confer any new authority but simply allowed the magistrates to disregard existing statutes by "acting on the principle that the highest law was the public safety."[35] But the "highest law" is often a cloak for the lowest deeds. Were the Gracchian reformers endangering society? Or were they infringing upon the prerogatives of the few? To be sure, like most ruling elites, the optimates saw no difference; to them, any trespass against their privileged interests was tantamount to endangering the social order as they knew it.

After the massacres of 121, violent expropriation of land by the rich and powerful owners accelerated.[36] The land commission was dissolved outright in 118 at the instigation of the Senate, and allotments to smallholders became a thing of the past. By 111, the rents that the big landholders had paid to the state for use of public lands were abolished, thereby effecting a complete privatisation of the ager publicus. The fertile public lands now belonged completely to wealthy absentee slaveholders.[37]

About twenty years after Gaius Gracchus was murdered, another popularis, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, while serving as a tribune, proposed a law to distribute affordable grain to the proletariat. He also sought to establish a court to hear cases of "debasing the majesty of the state," a measure directed against the optimate faction. He was joined by another reform-minded senator, Gaius Servilius Glaucia. In 100 B.C.E., the Senate declared another senatus consultum ultimum, under which both men were placed under custody in the Senate House. An optimate death squad broke into the Senate House from the roof and murdered them. The killers were never prosecuted.[38]

Marcus Livius Drusus, a tribune, wanted to extend the voting franchise to larger portions of Italy, distribute corn at subsidised prices,provide land allotments in the manner of the Gracchi, and set up a compromise plan for reforming the law courts. For his efforts he was stabbed to death in 91. His assassin was never sought out.[39]

Another tribune, Sulpicius Rufus, a friend of Drusus, attempted to carry on with these reforms. After a number of open clashes with reactionary forces, he was hunted down by the optimates' death squads and killed, probably in 88 B.C.E. Even a conservative like Velleius allowed that the limited concessions advocated by Drusus were intended to placate the multitude so that, being grateful for small favours, they might consent to the far larger rewards dispensed to the wealthy.[40] Most ancient and modern historians dismiss these post-Gracchian reformers as "demagogues."[41]

A leading popularis was Gaius Marius (Caesar's uncle by marriage), who came from a minor provincial family and lived the life of a peasant and soldier in his earlier years, eventually winning fame as a general. In 119 B.C.E. he was elected a tribune of the people, then consul in 107 and five more times thereafter, an unusual honour. Marius was the first to waive property qualifications for military service and enlist even the penniless proletarians, a reform largely impelled by the increasing shortage of property-owning yeomen. In alliance with Saturninus and Glaucia, he pushed for the provision of land for his army veterans and for subsidised grain sales. Eventually he broke with Saturninus and failed to stop his death. In 87, locked in struggle against Sulla, Marius joined with Lucius Cornelius Cinna to storm Rome and kill hundreds of aristocrats and their collaborators. He died of pleurisy the following year at the age of seventy-one. Despite his spectacular career, Marius had no clear policy for political reform. Much of his popularity and subsequent legendary reputation among the common people came from his relatively modest provincial origins, his early military exploits, his willingness to promote commoners to responsible positions, and his occasional ability to scourge the nobility.[42]

Foremost among reactionary leaders who regularly transgressed republican rights in service to aristocratic interests was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who in 88 B.C.E. marched his forces right into Rome in violation of an ancient constitutional prohibition against bringing armies within city limits. In 87, thousands of unarmed citizens, including a number of wealthy equestrians who were followers of Cinna,[43] were slaughtered by Sulla's death squads, their primary crime being the desire to revive the egalitarian reforms of Sulpicius Rufus, including a more democratic voting system for the Tribal Assembly. "[T]he Forum was heaped with bodies and the sewers ran with blood" is the way one writer describes the slaughter of Cinna's democrats.[44] Cinna himself was murdered by traitorous lieutenants soon afterwards.

After several years of foreign wars, Sulla reentered Rome in 82. He defeated a rebellious Samnite army and butchered all its troops including those who had surrendered. He then issued a proscription (proscriptio) against hundreds of Romans, to which hundreds more were added in the passing months. A proscription consisted of a list of persons who were declared outlaws by the state authority. Their property and possessions were confiscated, and in effect a bounty was put on their heads. Their killers were rewarded and their protectors punished. As a method of political purge, proscription was brought to brutal perfection by Sulla. He slaughtered some fifty senatorial opponents suspected of not being cooperative enough, along with 1,600 knights and 2,000 commoners (some estimate as many as 10,000 victims), so determined was he to eradicate the democratic faction that opposed him.[45] Many fell victim on the flimsiest suspicions, some because their possessions were coveted by the executioners. As in any inquisitional terror, many came forward as accusers, pointing their finger at others in order to demonstrate their own loyalty and keep themselves above suspicion.[46]

Like other dedicated reactionaries before and since, Sulla also employed his dictatorial power to accumulate a huge personal fortune.[47] Declaring himself dictator not for the usual six months but indefinitely, he removed control of the criminal courts from the Assembly and gave it to the Senate. He appointed 300 new members to the Senate selected primarily for their conservative proclivities, and increased the number of state priests. He ruled that tribunes could never aspire to higher office, so to block the ascent of democratic leaders like the Gracchi. Nor could they any longer convene meetings of the people or initiate legislation in the Assembly. All legislative proposals had to receive the Senate's preliminary assent. And although the tribunate's veto power was not abolished—probably because the Senate could use it to block a troublesome consul—it was seriously circumscribed.

Sulla undid Gaius Gracchus' court reform, restoring a senatorial monopoly over the judiciary. In sum, he rolled back hard-won democratic gains and installed a strikingly reactionary constitution. The Senate emerged with nearly complete control over legislation, courts, and executive magistrates, with more powers than it had enjoyed centuries past.[48]

Sulla abolished the right of the plebs to buy cheap grain, thereby imposing serious hardship on them. During his dictatorship, and into the following decades, usurers or larger landholders drove half the rural residents of Italy from the countryside. Their farms were transformed into plantations, vineyards, olive groves, orchards, and pastures for cattle and sheep, worked by slave labour and tenant farmers—a momentous social upheaval involving immeasurable suffering, yet scarcely mentioned by public figures or historians of that day.[49]

The struggle around Sulla's new order continued long after his retirement in 81 and his death in 78. An immediate demand made by the democrats was for the restoration of the rights and prerogatives of the people's tribunate. In 76, the tribune Gnaeus Sicinius dared to speak of restoration, for which he died a victim of "patrician perfidy," reports Sallust.[50] A popularis proscribed by Sulla was Quintus Sertorius, who advocated citizenship for the peoples of the Iberian peninsula, and who for a number of years waged a resourceful guerrilla war against Sulla's forces in Spain. One of Sulla's colleagues offered any Roman who killed Sertorius a huge cash award and 20,000 acres of land.[51] Sertorius was eventually hunted down and assassinated in 73. Looking back on Sulla's reign, Cicero wrote, "All was basically admirable, though temper and moderation were somewhat lacking."[52]

Some historians have not a critical word about Sulla's "reforms." Scullard manifests none of the concern about the loss of constitutional balance and freedom that he unfailingly evinces when discussing the Gracchi: "As army commander and dictator [Sulla] could act with greater independence." Sulla understood that the Senate had to "resume firm control and become an effective governing body once again." In a similar vein, Mommsen refers to Sulla's "patriotic and judicious moderation" and his steadfastness in establishing the oligarchy on a more independent footing. Meier tells us that Sulla "was simply a realist" who "simply performed the tasks that he felt incumbent upon him, though admittedly in a somewhat unconventional fashion." And Keaveney devotes an entire book to promoting a mostly positive view of the dictator, with appreciation for his restorative efforts and republican virtues.[53]

In 66 B.C.E., the reform-minded tribune Gaius Manilius introduced a law to democratise the voting system in the tribal assembly. Domitius Ahenobarbus, a leading protagonist in Sulla's reign of terror and a violent opponent of popular reform, had members of his clientela attack the assembly and kill a number of Manilius' partisans. The Senate congratulated Ahenobarbus for his civic spirit and annulled Manilius' law.[54]

Of special note is Publius Clodius Pulcher, a tribune allied with Julius Caesar. Clodius affected an older spelling of his patrician family name, Claudius, as being more in keeping with common-style pronunciation. He even renounced his patrician rank and had himself adopted into a noted plebeian family so that he might serve as a tribune in 58. From that office he sponsored a law to curb the partisan use of censors. He outlawed executions of citizens without trial, a measure aimed at the death-squad killings. And he got a law passed that reestablished the right to organise the collegia, the popular craft guilds and unions. Many guilds had been abolished by senatorial decree six years earlier. Clodius' law put these peoples' organisations on a legal footing and on a paramilitary basis, readying them for armed defensive action against the optimates' private armies. Their ranks consisted of freedmen, the poorer citizenry, and even slaves. He proposed a law to give full political rights to all freedmen and many slaves.[55] The Senate oligarchs constantly tried to drive a wedge between Clodius and the citizenry by alleging that his followers were made up exclusively of slaves and criminals.

Clodius fought to have free grain allotted to the proletariat, and he prohibited the magistrates from using "bad omens" and other priestly pap to obstruct popular assemblies.[56] The free grain distribution modestly improved the material welfare of the plebs, the liberalising of assembly procedures enhanced their sovereignty, and the organising of collegia augmented their political power.

Most of our gentlemen historians, both ancient and modern, disapprove of Clodius' efforts at grassroots mobilisation on behalf of a popular agenda. In 57, a scandalised Cicero denounced Clodius as a rapscallion of the worst sort for going "from street to street openly offering the slaves their freedom [...] and he takes slaves for his advisors."[57] Others uncritically embrace Cicero's opinion. Plutarch calls Clodius "the boldest and vilest" and "the most notorious and low-lived demagogue of his time." Asconius dislikes Clodius for inciting "the sediment of the city's slave population." Velleius looks not too harshly upon his murder (discussed below), calling it "an act of bad precedent, but beneficial to the public."[58]

Latter-day historians are almost unanimous in denouncing Clodius as "loose and dissolute," a "rogue," "scoundrel," "unscrupulous adventurer," "reckless demagogue," and "gang leader" who "organised street-rowdyism" and "recruit[ed] men for violence," "an anarchic tribune of the people."[59] Gelzer labels Clodius "a demagogue of the wildest kind" for advocating free grain distribution and organising political clubs among the proletariat. Lintott, sounding much like Cicero, assures us that Clodius pursued "urban political power as an end in itself," and needed to be resisted "by bands of professional fighters, whether mercenary thugs, gladiators, or soldiers."[60]

To be sure, Clodius was capable of raffish ventures. In 61 he was accused of dressing as a woman and stealing into the inner sanctum of the Vestal Virgins in order to tryst with Caesar's second wife, Pompeia. The authorities pronounced the incident a sacrilege. Caesar did not react too harshly against his political ally Clodius, but he did divorce Pompeia. He insisted that she had not slept with Clodius, nevertheless "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion." Clodius was brought to trial but acquitted by a 31–25 vote because, Cicero charged, the jury was populated by a needy disreputable lot whose sympathy for the accused was won with bribery. Afterwards in the Senate, Cicero pronounced a sentence on him: "Clodius, [...] the jury has not preserved you for the streets of Rome, but for the death chamber,"[61] a menacing prognostication that was to prove all too true.

On 18 January 52, Clodius was travelling along the Appian Way with about thirty slaves. He encountered a band of 300 mercenaries, mostly gladiators, led by the optimate Titus Annius Milo, a friend of Cicero and husband to Sulla's daughter. Wounded in the ensuing fray, Clodius was carried to a nearby inn. At Milo's command, the gladiators pursued their prey, killed the innkeeper, then dragged Clodius out to the highway, stabbing him repeatedly until they finished him off.[62]

As word spread around the city, the stunned population lingered all night in the Forum. THe next day, an outraged crowd carried the corpse, naked so as to expose its many lacerations, into the Senate House. There they made a pyre of seats and tables and burnt the body and the building. They then proceeded to the murderer's house, holding it under siege until driven off by Milo's archers. The proletariats rampaged through the city, beating and killing those they suspected of sympathy with Milo, attacking especially persons who were richly attired.[63]

Milo was brought to trial, with Cicero serving as his attorney. In that time-honoured fashion of defence lawyers who have no case, Cicero defended his client by attacking the victim, accusing "the audacious and despicable monster" Clodius of being "a robber and a traitor," who incited "the frenzied attacks of scum." In contrast, Milo was "a fine and gallant gentleman" who acted only to defend himself. Clodius had sought to thwart Milo's bid for the consulship; he was a revolutionary menace to the Republic while Milo was Rome's stalwart defender. Clodius repeatedly threatened Milo's life, but "[n]othing in the world could have induced Milo either to [kill Clodius] or even want it done." Clodius had been lying in wait to ambush Milo because he was driven by rage and hatred. But in Milo "there was no trace of such sentiments."[64]

Here Cicero was dissembling, as was his wont. In an earlier private letter he himself had acknowledged that Milo was openly threatening to murder Clodius: "I think Publius [Clodius] will be brought to trial by Milo, unless he is killed first. If he now puts himself in Milo's way in a rough-and-tumble I don't doubt that Milo will dispatch him with his own hands. he has no qualms or hesitations about doing so."[65]

During the trial, popular feelings were running so high against Milo as to unnerve Cicero, preventing him from finishing his defence oration. Milo was found guilty and forced into exile, the severest penalty that could be imposed upon an aristocrat. To their credit, many historians do not accept Cicero's charge that Clodius attacked Milo. An armed body of thirty is not likely to ambush an armed contingent of 300, especially if the latter includes a substantial number of highly-trained gladiators. Most describe the murder on the Appian Way as a chance encounter: the two parties just happened to be passing each other, and sparks flew causing an unpremeditated clash. Appian tells us that Clodius and Milo eyed each other suspiciously as they passed by, but then one of Milo's slaves, "either by order or because he wanted to kill his master's enemy," drove a dagger into Clodius' back.[66] It is difficult to imagine that a slave could gain such easy access to the well-guarded Clodius, or that he would take such a risky and consequential initiative on his own.

A month after Clodius' death, Q. Metellus Scipio charged that Milo's defence had been a lie. Metellus maintained that Clodius, accompanied by twenty-six slaves, had set out from Rome to address officials in Aricia, and that Milo, with a complement of over 300 armed men, had rushed to overtake him. Eleven of Clodius' men lost their lives in the attack and others were wounded, while only three of Milo's men sustained injuries. According to Metellus, the next day Milo rewarded twelve of his men, probably gladiators, with payments for their service against Clodius. He also freed a number of them, so they could testify in court as freedmen if need be.[67]

Some time after Metellus went public, a well-known freedman named Aemilius Philemon announced that he and four other persons had witnessed the murder of Clodius. When they protested, they were abducted and held captive for two months in a house belonging to Milo. This report stirred much feeling against Milo. In his trial statement, Cicero never once refers to the particulars raised by Metellus or Philemon, not even for purpose of refutation.[68] Nor does he explain why Milo was coursing the Appian Way with such a large, heavily armed force of professional killers. Instead Cicero claims with a straight face that Milo's retinue consisted largely of a boy's choir and a collection of female servants, "whereas Clodius, who was habitually escorted by whores, prostitutes, and homosexuals" now had a group of toughs who looked like they could have been handpicked.

Why then did Clodius get the worst of it? Because Milo always made it a practice of being ready for him, argued Cicero. And, as the gods of war would have it, the outcome of armed clashes are never predictable. Furthermore, Clodius, "drowsy from too much lunch and drink," mistakenly thought he had cut off his prey from the rear, only to find himself in the midst of Milo's followers.[69] We are left to conclude that, having thus blundered, he and a number of his accomplices were then cut to pieces by Milo's implacable choirboys and maids.

Four years after killing Clodius, Milo returned from exile to join forces with others in Italy in an attempt to stir a rebellion against Julius Caesar. He was swiftly captured and executed by the praetor Pedius, Caesar's nephew.

With Clodius out of the way, the optimates launched death-squad attacks upon his partisans, similar to the kind they had employed in the past against the followers of the Gracchi and other populares.[70] In sum, just about every leader of the Middle and Late Republics who took up the popular cause met a violent end, beginning with Tiberius Gracchus in 133 and continuing on to Gaius Gracchus, Fulvius Flaccus, Livius Drusus, Sulpicius Rufus, Cornelius Cinna, Marius Gratidianus, Appuleius Saturninus, Gnaeus Sicinius, Quintus Sertorius, Servilius Glaucia, Sergius Catilina (discussed in the next chapter), Clodius Pulcher, and Julius Caesar. Even more reprehensible, the optimates and their hired goons killed thousands of the populares' supporters.

Could it really be that the reformers' tactics were so disquieting as to justify mass murder by the "bludgeon-men" (as Mommsen calls the optimates' death squads)?[71] Something other than procedural niceties and personal rivalry was at the root of all this ruling-class butchery. The populares' real sin lay not in their supposedly unconstitutional methods but in the economic democracy of their programmes. Were the Gracchi violating custom and constitution when they essayed under the law to reclaim the ager publicus for the smallholders whose forebears had tilled it for centuries? In any case, what constitutional right justified the repeated use of death-squad violence against them and other populares and thousands of their followers for the better part of a century?

As with just about every ruling class in history, the Roman nobility reacted fiercely when their interests were infringed upon, especially their untrammelled "right" to accumulate as much wealth as possible at the public's expense. If not their only concern, accumulation was a major preoccupation. In a word, the nobles were less devoted to traditional procedures and laws than to the class privileges those procedures and laws were designed to protect. They never hesitated to depart from their own "hereditary constitution," resorting to extraordinary acts of bloody repression when expediency dictated. They treated egalitarian reforms and attempts to democratise the Republic's decision-making process as subversive of republican rule. What should not go unnoted is how readily some past and present historians embrace this same position.


  1. In addition, one might consider Thornton Wilder's lesser-known and thoroughly fictional construction of Caesar in the last six months of his life:  The Ides of March (New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1948).
  2. For a good overview of the literary commentary on Shakespeare's play, see Vivian Thomas, Julius Caesar (New York:  Twayne Publishers, 1992).
  3. Appian, The Civil Wars V. 8.  In about 41 B.C.E., Antony wrote to Octavian that he already had been intimate with Cleopatra nine years earlier, which would have been two years before Caesar set foot in Alexandria; see Suetonius, Augustus 69.2.  See also, Victor Thaddeus, Julius Caesar and the Grandeur that Was Rome (London:  Brentano's, 1928), 245.
  4. Most historians do not give precise dates to designate the Late Republic era.  Many leave the impression that it is the period sometime after Sulla to the downfall of Caesar, about 75–44 B.C.E.  For some, 133 B.C.E. and the ensuing years of the late second century would be considered part of the Middle Republic.
  5. Benedetto Croce, History as the Story of Liberty (London:  George Allen and Unwin, 1941), 19; R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1956, originally 1946), xii.
  6. Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life (London/New York:  Penguin Books, 1984), 65, 75, 86, 128.
  7. See my History as Mystery (San Francisco:  City Lights, 1999), 171–176.
  8. Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, 157 and 175.
  9. Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, 173.
  10. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, II, 33 and III, 61.
  11. For example, Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings II.1.4–10 and II.3.1.
  12. Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline 10.6.  On Sallust's own corrupt ways while serving as proconsular governor of Africa Nova in 46 B.C.E., see Dio Cassius, Roman History XLIII.9; and Cicero A Declaration Against Sallust 7.  It is believed by some that Cicero is not the author of this broadside.
  13. Sallust, Histories book 4.
  14. Tacitus, Agricola XXX–XXXI.
  15. Dio Cassius, Roman History XXX–XXXV.  fragment CVII. Peter Burke notes Tacitus' class bias.  Unable to write the word "cook" to describe the one person who did not desert Emperor Vitellius in his last moments, Tacitus refers obliquely to "one of the meanest" in the emperor's household:  Burke, "People's History or Total History," in Raphael Samuel, ed., People's History and Socialist Theory (London:  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 4–5.
  16. John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism:  Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York and Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1983), 266.
  17. Juvenal, Satires VIII.88–90.
  18. Joseph Schumpeter, "The Sociology of Imperialism," in Two Essays by Joseph Schumpeter (New York:  Meridian Books, 1955), 51.
  19. Cyril E. Robinson, History of the Roman Republic (New York:  Thomas Y. Crowell, 1965), 146.
  20. See Willson Whitman's introduction to Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, condensed edition (New York:  Wise & Co., 1943), ix–xi; and Gibbon's own self-exculpatory comments about the controversy in Memoir of My Life, 161–162.
  21. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, XV and XVI.  For a detailed discussion of the historical myths relating to the rise of early Christianity, see my History as Mystery, chapters 2 and 3.
  22. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I, 111.
  23. Two notable exceptions are J.P.V.D. Baldson, Roman Women (London:  1962); and the sympathetic essay by M.I. Finley, "The Silent Women of Rome" in his Aspects of Antiquity, 2d ed. (New York:  Penguin Books, 1977), 124–136.
  24. Keith Hopkins, "The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage," Population Studies, 18, 1965, 124–151.
  25. Finley, "The Silent Women of Rome," 124–136.
  26. Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves:  Women in Classical Antiquity (New York:  Schocken Books, 1975), 199–201.
  27. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, 201.
  28. There was Pompey's woeful Cornelia who willingly shared his grim fate at Pharsalus:  Lucan, The Civil War VIII.87–108; and Brutus' Porcia who silently endured a self-inflicted wound to prove herself worthy of being her husband's confidante:  Plutarch, Brutus XIII.  See also the examples offered by Tacitus, Annals XV.71.7 and XVI.34.2; and Pliny the Younger, Letters VI.24.
  29. Otto Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (London:  Abbey Library, 1934), 52–54.
  30. Appian, The Civil Wars IV.32–33.  The wives of Mark Antony and Cicero both possessed large holdings.  Carcopino makes the improbable claim that during the first and second centuries C.E., Roman women "enjoyed a dignity and an independence at least equal if not superior to those claimed by contemporary feminists":  Jérôme Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1940, 1968), 85.
  31. Richard Bauman, Women and Politics in Ancient Rome (New York/London:  Routledge, 1995); also, Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society:  Women and the Elite Family (Princeton, N.J.:  Princeton University Press, 1984), passim.  Pomeroy is one of the very few who treats women of the lower classes as well as the Roman matron in her Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, 150–204.
  32. Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline, 13.
  33. Horace, Odes VI.iii.
  34. Juvenal, Satires VI.
  35. Robinson, History of the Roman Republic, 426.
  36. Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, 7–63; and Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, 160.
  37. Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings VI.3.10–12.
  38. Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings VI.6.2–3; Pliny the Younger, Letters IV.19, IV.21, VII.5.
  39. J.P.V.D. Baldson, "Cicero the Man," in T. A. Dorey (ed.), Cicero (New York:  Basic Books, 1965), 205.
  40. Cicero, Pro Flacco, 1, 5, 12, and 67.
  41. Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, a new edition by Dero A. Saunders and John H. Collins (Clinton, Mass.:  Meridian Books, 1958), 49 and 327.
  42. For these and other such unfortunate examples, see Robinson, History of the Roman Republic, 109, 177, 183, 213, 219, 288, and 301.
  43. J.F.C. Fuller, Julius Caesar:  Man, Soldier, and Tyrant (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1965), 20.
  44. Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, 102.
  45. A few historians estimate higher. Hopkins puts the slave population at 35–40 percent of the population of Italy: Keith Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 9.
  46. Keith R. Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C.–70 B.C. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989, 1998); Mommsen, The History of Rome, 25–30 and 93.
  47. 47.0 47.1 Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, 23–44; Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, rev. ed. (Baltimore/London: John Hopkins University Press, 1998 [1975]), 37–38; Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961), 221; and Arthur D. Kahn, The Education of Julius Caesar (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 405.
  48. Juvenal, Satires III.191–196.
  49. Cicero, To Atticus, XIV.9, and XIV.11.2.
  50. The poet Martial aimed a couple of his epigrams at the fuller's foul-smelling urine crocks: Epigrams VI.93, XII.48; see also Thadeus, Julius Caesar and the Grandeur that Was Rome, 4; Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, 42.
  51. Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, 19 and 25.
  52. Juvenal, Satires III.288–304; and Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, 45–46.
  53. Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, 28.
  54. Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, 202; Mumford, The City in History, 219; Ernst Mason, Tiberius (New York: Ballantine Books, 1960), 29.
  55. Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, 66.
  56. Mentioned in Mommsen, The History of Rome, 543.
  57. For a detailed study, see E. Badian, Publicans and Sinners: Private Enterprise in the Service of the Roman Republic (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972).
  58. P.A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), 68–73.
  59. H.H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68 (London: Methuen, 1959, 1963), 182; Mumford, The City in History, 219; Mommsen, The History of Rome, 543–544; Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic, 34; Joseph Vogt, The Decline of Rome (New York: New American Library, 1965), 166.
  60. Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, 32–33.
  61. Finley, Aspects of Antiquity, 127.
  62. Juvenal, Satires III.137–147,159.
  63. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire II, 31.
  64. Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, 56.
  65. K.R. Bradley, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control (New York: Oxford, 1987 [1984]), 19. On the ways that conservative ideology, especially anticommunism, has coloured the scholarship on ancient slavery, see M.I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Mythology (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980), 61ff.
  66. Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, 61.
  67. Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, 64.
  68. Kahn, The Education of Julius Caesar, 119.
  69. Bradley, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire, 83, 107, 111.
  70. Cicero, On the Consular Provinces 10; and Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, 177–178, n.99.
  71. Lucius Annaeus Florus, Epitome of Roman History III.20.1.
  72. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire II, 31–2.
  73. Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1939, 1960), 446.
  74. Columella, Res Rusticae, summarised and nicely discussed in Bradley, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire, 21–33.
  75. Bradley, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire, 60 and 79.
  76. Seneca, On Mercy I.18. On the fatal cruelty a household slave might face, see the incident Seneca relates in On Anger III.40.i.
  77. Mason, Tiberius, 37; also see the incident in Tacitus, Annals XIV.42–43, treated in more detail in Chapter Eleven.
  78. So it was with every case given by Valerius Maximus; see his Memorable Deeds and Sayings VI.5.5–7.
  79. In some instances, runaways and criminal slaves were put to punishing toil in a specially cruel establishment called an ergastulum: Mason, Tiberius, 37. M.I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (London: Chatto and Windus, 1980), 111.
  80. Cicero, To His Friends V.9.2, V.10.1, V.11.3, XIII.77.3.
  81. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, 114–115.
  82. Ammianus Marcellinus, Histories XXVIII.4.16.
  83. Seneca, Epistle 47.5–8.
  84. Horace, Satires I.2.116–119.
  85. Petronius, Satyricon 75.11.
  86. Martial, Epigrams I.84.
  87. Martial, Epigrams VI.39, II.34, III.91, IV.66, VI.71, XI.70, XII.58.
  88. Martial, Epigrams I.58 and I.90.
  89. Bradley, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire, 115–116; and Martial Epigrams IX.6.
  90. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, 105.
  91. Cicero, To Atticus I.12.4.
  92. Page Smith, Trial by Fire, vol. 5 of A People's History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York/London: Penguin, 1982), 657. For instances of the slave's "ingratitude," see Burke Davis, Sherman's March (New York: Vintage, 1988), 29, 166, 183–184, 191, 247; James M. McPherson, The Negro's Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991) passim; Joseph T. Glatthaar, Officers Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White (New York: Meridian, 1990).
  93. Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings VI.8.1–7; and Appian, The Civil War IV.43–44.
  94. Pliny the Younger, Letters III.14.
  95. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, 73–75, 96; Bradley, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire, 60.
  96. The remarks of both Cato and Cicero are reported in Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, 88; see also Plutarch, Cato the Elder 13.