Saturday 31 December 2011

Class and class struggle in early Rome

Despite its grandiose title, this post - long delayed by being away from my copy of Livy's Ab urbe condita - does not offer an outline of class struggle in the early Roman Republic as a whole. It is intended, instead, to provide a brief introduction to how Livy frames conflict between the orders. (This is based on The Early History of Rome, the Penguin translation of the first five books of Ab urbe condita, which ends with the sack of Rome by the Gauls.)

The early Republic was a Beutegemeinschaft, a society based on capturing and distributing loot through annual warfare. Success in war kept the gold flowing and was thus integral to the survival of the state, which exported its tensions. For this, the patricians - Rome's ancient aristocracy, the political and religious elite - required the consent of the far larger plebeian class, who did most of the fighting.

This was exploited by the plebeians in the first secessio plebis in 494 BC - a general strike in which the plebeians, rather than respond to military summons, left the city, gathered on the Mons Sacer and threatened to found a new town. Grievances included disadvantages in the allocation of land in colonies, armed Roman settlements built to subdue captured enemy territory, and the patricians' exclusive privileges. The patricians made significant concessions, including the institution of plebeian tribunes, representatives of the plebs who could influence the legislative process. The ongoing tug-of-war between the tribunes and the Senate occupies much of Livy's account.

Most of what we learnt in school, though, was about Rome's foreign wars, not her internal struggles. This is hardly surprising, since the conflict of the orders offers none of the dramatic bloodletting of Porsena's siege of Rome or the wars against Veii; but in truth the social conflict, mostly confined to forums and laws though it is, provides thrills aplenty. It also has the advantage of being less overgrown with fictions and the rigid narrative framework all accounts of foreign wars had to follow.

Livy includes a beautiful vignette that encapsulates the patricians' fears at the opening of his fourth book. Faced with the prospect of a bill brought by the plebeians that would legalise intermarriage between the orders - an unthinkable travesty to the aristocracy - the consuls M. Genucius and C. Curtius respond (4.1):
In all communities the qualities or tendencies which carry the highest reward are bound to be most in evidence and to be most industriously cultivated - indeed it is precisely that which produces good statesmen and good soldiers; unhappily here in Rome the greatest rewards come from political upheavals and revolt against the government, which have always, in consequence, won applause from all and sundry. Only recall the aura of majesty which surrounded the Senate in our father's day, and then think what it will be like when we bequeath it to our children! Think how the labouring class will be able to brag of the increase in its power and influence! There can never be an end to this unhappy process so long as the promoters of sedition against the government are honoured in proportion to their success. Do you realise, gentlemen, the appalling consequences of what Canuleius is trying to do? If he succeeds, bent, as he is, upon leaving nothing in its original soundness and purity, he will contaminate the blood of the ancient and noble families and make chaos of the hereditary patrician privilege od 'taking the auspices' to determine, in the public or private interest, what Heaven may will - and with what result? that, when all distinctions are obliterated, no one will know who he is or where he came from! Mixed marriages forsooth! What do they mean but that men and women from all ranks of society will be permitted to start copulating like animals? A child of such intercourse will never know what blood runs in his veins or what form of worship he is entitled to practise; he will be nothing - or six of one and half a dozen of the other, a very monster!
We're not supposed to like these consuls (whose speech, of course, is fabricated wholecloth by Livy). The points made, though, are familiar: the belief that rampant disobedience to authority is crippling the commonwealth, as the Tories affirm; the notion that society, politically correct as it is, rewards the lazy and insubordinate; and lastly, a fear of what, in a different day and age, the Americans called miscegenation, which will lead to human beings becoming as beasts. There's nothing more heartening than reading millennia-old rants warning of the imminent collapse of human civilisation - it puts the Daily Heil in perspective.

We might call Livy's stance on all this broadly call patriotic: he firmly disapproves of internal strife that weakens Rome against her enemies. To this end, he demands justice for the plebeians and repeatedly censures the more arrogant of the patricians: but he also wishes the plebeians would cease to cause trouble. That Livy's narrative should be dominated by his desire for internal peace is hardly surprising. He was writing towards the end of the first century BC, when the period of vicious and hugely destructive civil wars - still within living memory - had ended with the dominance of Augustus, who is praised for restoring concord (even as Livy holds modern morals to be depraved).

Even as the plebeians fought for increased rights, they nonetheless had a stake in Roman society. In consequence they should not be reckoned the wretched of the earth but, perhaps, something of a labour aristocracy, set above the landless and the unfree. 'We propose that a man of the people may have the right to be elected to the consulship', argued Canuleius (4.1): 'Is that the same as saying some rogue who was, or is, a slave?'Social stratification eventually lead to the absorption of the richer plebeians into a broader Roman aristocracy, the nobilitas. It wasn't until the Social Wars and the slave risings of the first century BC that the dispossessed again threatened the integrity of Roman class society.

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