Monday, July 14, 2008

XLII days

Finished reading Imperium by Robert Harris at the weekend. This is a novelised account of the career of Marcus Tullius Cicero up until his election as Consul of Rome and it's pushed my knowledge of Roman history back by a further generation. I knew that a series of civil wars between Pompey and Caesar were won by Caesar, who became dictator of Rome. The old Republic effectively died then, though it lived on in name. Caesar's death brought about more civil wars, which resulted in victory for Augustus, the first Emperor, and gave us 400 years of Empire.

Imperium has taught me how the Republic went bad to start with. It wasn't the defining moment by any means but it gave an already tottering structure a further push.

The Roman Republic had already lasted 400 years. It was a pretty forward thinking system (for a male-led society that had slaves and gladiators) that shared power among the noble families, laying on a sense of noblesse oblige that kept public buildings maintained, the public utilities functioning and the people fed. Thus it kept the people happy too, and they got a direct say in the running of the government via the tribunes, elected by and for the tribes of Rome. It was ideal for running a small city state, but sadly the city state ran away on its own success and acquired an empire that the Republic really wasn't equipped to handle.

For instance, it didn’t know what to do with Pompey the Great when he returned home from a highly successful military campaign. Generals were given short-term appointments to meet a specific need, and once that need was over, they returned to civilian life. That didn't suit Pompey at all and he soon grew bored and fidgety, which in a successful general who commands massive loyalty is a very bad thing.

Then pirates attacked Ostia, the port of Rome, burning several ships, and Rome was gripped by a 9/11 type panic. The pirates are coming! It's the end of the world as we know it! Save us! Someone! Anyone! Though actually the "anyone" they looked to was the man of the moment, Pompey.

Pompey's military assessment was that the pirate menace was too distributed to be handled by the traditional Roman power sharing system. It needed one man to be given supreme command of the Mediterranean area, able to call upon vast military powers on demand, plus authority over all coastal areas up to 50 miles inland. He also had a modest proposal for who that one man might be. The notion was put to the vote by Aulus Gabinius, a pro-Pompey tribune.

This completely flew in the face of the Roman way of doing things and it was vehemently opposed by the aristocrats. Any one of the tribunes had the power to veto any proposal and one of them did so, which meant very bravely standing up on the rostrum in the Forum and saying so in front of a baying mob of citizens who all wanted Pompey as their new Director of Homeland Security.

(A linguistic aside. A rostra is the battering ram mounted in the bow of a traditional armed galley. The platform from which the tribunes addressed the people was decorated with the rostra of several captured vessels. Hence it was called the rostrum, from which we get the word.)

And so, Gabinius stood up in front of the people, pointed at his opponent, and shouted, "he's vetoing the bill! Does he represent you?" "No!" they cried. "We want Pompey and we want him, now! Give us a P, give us an O ..." "Yes, yes, yes," said Gabinius, forestalling any chance of their spelling out Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and possibly losing the momentum of the moment. "But meanwhile, in that case, let's unelect him!" "Yay! Go representative democracy!" the people cried, and they proceeded to do just that, there and then, on the spot, tribe by tribe. 18 tribes were needed for a majority. When 17 had declared their intention, the man was asked if he wanted to reconsider his veto. He withdrew it and the law was passed. Pompey got his power and another seam split in the side of the Republic.

Thus popular fear and panic was combined with shrewd manipulation of the constitutional democratic process to trample age-old traditional freedoms, and liberty died a little more.

Thank goodness that nowadays we've moved beyond that kind of thing.

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