Thursday 8 September 2011

The 'feral underclass' in ancient Rome

During social conflicts around debt in the early Roman Republic, the patricians were split between conciliating the plebeians and a more robust approach:
[N]aturally harsh as he was, and rendered even more uncompromising by the hatred of the commons and the fervid support of the nobility, [Appius Claudius] roundly declared that the mob had nothing whatever to complain of: the disturbances were not due to their sufferings but to their disregard for law and order; they were not angry - for they had nothing to be angry about: they were merely out of hand. That, he continued, was the natural consequence of the right of appeal: the appeal had destroyed consular authority; for now that the law allowed an appeal to those who were equally guilty, the consuls could never act - only threaten.
-Livy, Ab urbe condita 2.30 (in The Early History of Rome, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt)
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose:
This is criminality, pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated. (David Cameron)

I've dealt with plenty of civil disobedience in my time, but the riots in August shocked me to the core. What I found most disturbing was the sense that the hardcore of rioters came from a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism. Equally worrying was the instinctive criminal behaviour of apparently random passers-by. (Ken Clarke)
I don't doubt that the Cameroons would now identify some very definite social reasons for rioting in ancient Rome beyond 'disregard for law and order'. But they're Tories, innit: they always accept real social factors a generation after the event. But let's salute them: they've been fighting the corrosive effects of 'liberal dogma' for two and a half millennia. That must take it out of you.

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