August 14, 2011

The Roman People

Roman history can often be seen as a progression from monarchy to republic and then to principate- from imperial expansion to imperial contraction. This neglects another way of seeing the development of the Roman state- a crucial way of seeing that state indeed because it focuses on the internal politics of it rather than its external or symbolic politics. This is to see the Roman experience as mediated through the interpretative prism of class. Rome was divided constitutionally into two groups- senators and populares- however we can also see within the later Roman world an economic division that bulked as large- between the rich (generally of the senatorial class but including many equites as well) and the poor. T.P. Wiseman in a recent collection of essays argues this point very strongly. He suggests that we need to see key moments in Roman history- from the murder of the Gracchi brothers in the 100s to the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC- as part of a story of conflict between the classes within Rome. The senate and its supporters from Scipio Nasica to Cicero set themselves up as, and described themselves as, defending the constitution when actually they were really defending a partisan idea of that constitution.

This is important. Firstly it is an old understanding of the history of the Roman world. No less a figure than Machiavelli argued that Rome's politics were about class conflict and that conception that he had, derived from ancient authors, was what he believed was the motor of Roman politics. Machiavelli as much as Wiseman and Fergus Millar thought that Roman politics was essentially democratic- at least when compared with his other archetypes of Republican government- Venice and Sparta. Machiavelli argued that this conflict riven society was impelled towards universal empire by the fact of the conflict taking place within it. Wiseman doesn't make such a generalisation but what he does to is throw a light back on what Machiavelli does not describe and that is the process which culminated in the principate. His description in an essay on political assassination of the role of election in the rise of Caesar to dictator makes it clear that he people supported the General in order that they might balance aristocratic power. In a sense what we see here is the transition from democracy to monarchy: that transition was made possible by a senatorial class who turned to violence to support oligarchic ambition.

This is far too schematic- and many a historian of Rome will turn in repugnance from what I've just written and how I have mis-characterised a great scholar. However there is something interesting here in the process of Rome's movement to the principate. Our conventional accounts from Cicero or Tacitus present a aristocratic point of view: there were, Wiseman argues, more plebeian accounts but they have not survived. What we see as the development of corruption and downfall of freedom, and those whom we see as supporters of law and right against tyranny, may have been more complicated. Class conflict introduces into Roman history a dynamic that probably explains more of the popular support of the principate but also gives clues as to why the system of the Republic broke down. If Greek historians like Cassius Dio were right that the essence of Roman politics until the death of the Gracchi was compromise, then it suggests that aristocratic extremism conjured up a popular reaction which swept away the traditional republican system and replaced it with something else. If so then the rhetoric of Tiberius and Augustus focusing on a return to normality becomes explicable as a way of attempting to reconcile class as well as political warfare.