Ancient History & Civilisation


Party politics in a modern sense were unknown at Rome. The electorate did not vote for party candidates who represented definite policies, although exceptionally when an individual was known to favour a certain policy his chances of election might be affected by this: for instance, Scipio gained office partly on the strength of his strategic programme for invading Africa. In the main, however, men were elected as the result of the strength of their social backing, which derived from family, gens, friends and clients. But the nobility, which comprised the families of those candidates who had successfully reached the consulship, was not generally of one mind. Schisms and factions would naturally arise from political or personal causes, and the leading senatorial families would tend to fall into cliques. The extent to which an elaborate system of groupings and counter-groupings emerged has been differently estimated but it can hardly be denied that such groups formed the real, if unadvertised and unofficial, basis of Roman public life. The subject cannot be traced in any detail here, but a few examples may be given.14

The five chief gentes at the beginning of the Hannibalic War were the Fabii, Claudii, Cornelii, Aemilii and Valerii. Until Cannae a coalition of the Scipios (Cornelii) and Aemilii held sway, but then gave place to the Fabian faction. By 212 the Claudii, supported by Fulvius Flaccus, had become more prominent, but the fortunes of the Scipios began to rise again when young Scipio succeeded Claudius Nero in Spain. The influence of the Scipios grew steadily, though challenged by Fabius and the ‘die hards’, but while Scipio was in Africa a coalition of the Claudii, Fulvii, and Servilii jealously tried to undermine his position by political intrigue at Rome. His victory at Zama gave Scipio the most powerful position yet held by a Roman general, and men may have wondered whether this popular hero would challenge the senatorial oligarchy and try to establish a tyranny by overthrowing his rivals at home. He was, however, content to sink back into the life of a private citizen, but his personal influence was great. He was elected censor and madeprinceps senatus in 199, and many relatives and friends held office during the first decade of the second century. There is no doubt that his sympathies were philhellenic. Not only had his ready adoption of Greek habits in Sicily annoyed Cato, but when in the east he visited Delphi and Delos where he dedicated gifts to Apollo and received the honour of proxeny. Apart from his personal interest in Greek culture, epigraphic evidence demonstrates that he supported a phil-hellenic policy. During the war with Antiochus he and his brother proclaimed freedom for the Greek cities in Asia, as Flamininus had for those in Greece: they would liberate all cities which had supported the Roman cause or which surrendered at once. In a letter recognizing the autonomy of the inhabitants of Heraclea-by-Latmus, the Scipios emphasized their goodwill towards all the Greeks and promised similar treatment to all who surrendered. The freedom granted was genuine, for a few years later Heraclea was allowed to carry on a war with Miletus without interference from Rome.15

Clearly Scipio Africanus supported the philhellenic policy of the Senate, and the man who had won Spain, Africa and Asia would realize the impossibility of putting the clock back and of trying to limit Rome’s interests to Italy, as some of his contemporaries wished. Indeed, it is probable that his was one of the first minds to wrestle with the problem of Rome’s imperial mission. The terms he imposed on Rome’s enemies together with his philhellenic tendencies give the clue to his policy: the Greeks were to be free, the barbarians to be crushed; the old monarchies were to be humbled, but not completely overthrown; client princes were to guard against their possible revival; in short, a balance of powers was to be established, all dependent on Rome, who was to allow free life to flourish under her protecting aegis. Hannibal and Antiochus could both bear withness that their conqueror’s policy was moulded by the two thoughts that were later formulated by Virgil as ‘parcere subiectis et debellare superbos’.

The extent of the opposition which Scipio encountered is a matter of debate. An attempt to range the Roman nobility in two camps, a philhellenic group and a group opposed to Hellenism, results in oversimplification, since it is far from certain that all the philhellenists were united. Scipio at first possibly helped Flamininus with the political object of weakening the Claudii and the national object of applying a more genuine philhellenic policy, but the situation was changed when his political opponents drove Hannibal to the Court of Antiochus. Military necessity, as he conceived it, led him to criticize Flamininus’ scheme for the complete evacuation of Greece.16 But while the philhellenists were quarrelling, the old conservative element of the Fabian group was championed by Cato. Born at Tusculum in 234 of good yeoman stock, Cato spent the earlier years of his life, when not on military service, in working on his own estate like a Cincinnatus. His ability, combined with rugged honesty, simple living and dogged perseverance, soon attracted the notice of Valerius Flaccus, who helped him to a political career in Rome. He reached the quaestorship in 204, when his enmity towards Scipio was engendered, and the aedileship in 199; his praetorship in Sardinia in 198 was marked by the suppression of usury. His upright character and oratorical ability won for him the consulship in 195, and all the conservatively-minded Romans who wished to restore the ancient simplicity of earlier days found a rock to cling to amid the surging seas of Hellenism. But though Cato might oppose the repeal of sumptuary laws and check magisterial abuses, his narrow nationalism was doomed to failure. Notwithstanding his victories in Spain, he failed to break the influence of his opponents, and in 195 Africanus descended into the political arena and won a resounding victory for himself and his family at the polls. Led on by fear of Antiochus, a motive which may have contributed to Scipio’s desire to seek office and to his successful candidature for the consulship of 194, he urged that Greece should be held as a barrier against the king. This policy, which was not adopted, annoyed both Flamininus and Cato, though for different reasons. In the elections for 192 Flamininus’ brother Lucius defeated Africanus’ cousin Nasica; this points to a desire to continue a policy of non-interference in Greece. But before the year was out Antiochus had landed in Greece; Flamininus’ diplomacy was good in its place and he was allowed to carry on in Greece, but the warnings of Africanus appeared to be coming true, so that his group again leapt into the saddle. The consuls for 191 were P. Scipio Nasica and Manius Acilius Glabrio, a novus homo and supporter of the Scipios. The year was marked by success: Acilius drove Antiochus from Greece; Livius, another supporter of the Scipionic group, defeated the King’s navy; and Nasica crushed the Boii. Relying on this rising tide of popularity, Africanus could urge the necessity of pushing home the victory against Antiochus. He could not seek the consul-ship again without violating the constitution, but when his brother Lucius and his friend C. Laelius, another novus homo, were elected consuls for 190, he was associated with the eastern command. The Scipionic group was at the height of its power. But while the fate of Asia was being decided on the plains of Magnesia, Cato and his fellows were securing the decline and fall of the victors.

In 190 Cato prevented Minucius Thermus, a supporter of the Scipios, from celebrating a triumph over the Ligurians. The next year he introduced scandal as a political weapon in the elections for the censorship. Glabrio, Scipio’s friend and the most popular candidate, was accused of having misused some booty taken at Thermopylae. The prosecution was supported, or even instigated, by Cato, his fellow candidate, who had served on his staff. Proceedings were dropped as soon as Glabrio’s reputation and election chances had been undermined; but Cato himself failed to win office despite, or because of, this effort. In the same year the Scipios were superseded, Asia being allotted to Manlius Vulso and Aetolia to Fulvius Nobilior. Neither lacked opponents and they were recalled later through the efforts of Aemilius Lepidus, the consul of 187, who censured Fulvius’ conduct at Ambracia, while L. Aemilius Paullus blocked Vulso’s demand for a triumph. If Lepidus and Paullus were supporters of the Scipios, rather than agents of Cato, the Scipionic group apparently had begun to revive. Cato, however, decided to hunt bigger game.

In 187 two tribunes, the Petillii, were instigated by Cato to demand in the Senate that L. Scipio should render an account of 500 talents which he had received from Antiochus as pay for his troops. Africanus, who knew the shaft was really aimed at himself, disdained reply and indignantly tore up the account-books in the Senate. The question turned on whether the money formed part of the ‘booty’ at the general’s own uncontrolled disposal or whether it was part of the war indemnity approved by the Senate and Roman people to whom an account should be rendered. The attack was not directly an accusation of maladministration, nor was the Senate a court of law; a demand was merely made to put the matter in order. When the Scipios maintained the correctness of their behaviour, the matter was dropped: the Senate thus supported Africanus against tribunician interference in financial affairs. Nothing daunted, Cato took steps to enforce his demand elsewhere. Another tribune, Minucius Augurinus, formally accused Lucius Scipio of refusing to render an account; he imposed a fine and demanded surety which Lucius refused to pay, perhaps from pride. When Lucius was threatened with imprisonment if he persisted in his refusal, Africanus persuaded another tribune, Sempronius Gracchus, to veto proceedings, so that the matter fell through. The question of Lucius’ guilt hardly exists; it was a matter of definition. The next year he gave splendid games in an attempt to retrieve the falling popularity of his house. In 184 an attack was launched against Africanus himself. The accusation, made by a tribune, M. Naevius, was perhaps treasonable dealings with Antiochus (p. 242). Africanus merely replied that it ill befitted the Roman people to listen to any accusations against one to whom the accusers owed it that they had the power of speech at all. At this the people dispersed and the charge was not perhaps pressed home. But Africanus realized that his influence was gone; his brother failed to win the censorship; his own health was bad and neither his brother nor son were competent to take his place. So he withdrew to Liternum near Naples into political exile away from a country which had grown tired of its saviour. He died the next year, as did another who had devoted his life to his own country’s service – Scipio’s old foe, the exiled Hannibal.17

In 184 Cato and his patron L. Valerius Flaccus were elected censors and the latter succeeded Scipio Africanus as princeps senatus. The recent scandal of the Bacchanalia may have weakened the position of the liberal philhellenes, so that Cato was now able to lead a reaction. He tried to check luxury and he revised the list of the Senate and the muster-roll of the equites with severity. If in his censorship he was too reactionary and accomplished little permanent reform, he at least drew attention to some of the evils of his day and tried to re-establish a greater sense of moral responsibility, which was the necessary preliminary to any far-reaching reforms. But he was after all a novus homo and despite his influence Roman policy must have been largely shaped by a middle bloc of nobles, representing average senatorial opinion. This was led during the next few years by the Fulvii, perhaps in alliance with Aemilius Lepidus who was censor with Fulvius Nobilior in 179. By about 173, however, the influence of the Fulvii had declined and new leaders emerged from such families as the Postumii and Popillii, whose more aggressive policies and methods shocked some of the older patrician nobility. But after some stormy clashes and the national victory over Perseus, greater concord was established within the Senate and the fiercer quarrels of earlier days were forgotten. Cato might continue to the end of his long life to attack his political opponents, but many of these tussles were fought more for social or personal than political causes. Not until the end of our period do we find a serious political clash, when once again he crossed swords with a Scipio, the younger Nasica, who opposed his desire to destroy Carthage and who could remark sarcastically that thanks to the Senate’s merciless policy there were no longer any nations before whom Rome need either fear or blush.18

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