Ancient History & Civilisation


The Roman Republic

Rome, from the third to the second century before our era, was the most aristocratically governed city that existed in Italy or Greece… If the Senate was obliged to manage the multitude on domestic questions, it was absolute master so far as concerned foreign affairs. It was the Senate that received ambassadors, that concluded alliances, that distributed the provinces and the legions, that ratified the acts of the generals, that determined the conditions allowed to the conquered – all acts which everywhere else belonged to the popular assembly. Foreigners, in their relations with Rome, had therefore nothing to do with the people. The Senate alone spoke, and the idea was held out that the people had no power. This was the opinion which a Greek expressed to Flamininus, ‘In your country,’ he said, ‘riches alone govern, and everything else submits to Rome.’        N. D. Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City

(1864, English translation 1956)

I reiterate that in this system (the Roman political system of the late Republic), public office could only be gained by direct election in which all (adult male) citizens, including freed slaves, had the right to vote, and all legislation was by definition the subject of direct popular voting. That being so, it is difficult to see why the Roman Republic should not deserve serious consideration not just as one type of ancient city-state, but as one of a relatively small group of historical examples of political systems that might deserve the label ‘democracy’.

Fergus Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (2002)


Luxury and Licence

‘I have neither a building nor a vase nor a costly robe nor a high-priced slave or slave-girl. If there is something I have to use, I use it. If there is not, I do without. Anyone may use and enjoy what is theirs, and that is fine by me.’ But then Cato goes on, ‘They blame me because I do without so many things. But I blame them because they are unable to do without.’

Cato the Censor, in Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.24

The Romans’ conquests in Italy, then in Greece, were due partly to their military skill and values, partly to their superior and ever-increasing manpower and their appeal to local upper classes or factions within them. Obedience to Rome seemed the lesser of political evils to people whose standing and property were at risk from their own lower classes or from surrounding barbarian enemies. ‘Freedom’, by contrast, was late to emerge as a Roman offer to states in Greece.

As Romans and Greeks were thrown into new, closer relationships, a conflict of cultures was necessarilyinvolved. Greeks evidently interpreted offers of ‘freedom’ in a spirit which Romans, expecting loyalty and obligation, did not. At Rome, meanwhile, increasing exposure to Greek customs greatlyenlivened ‘traditional’ Roman life. By c. 200 BC there were quite a few senators who would have spoken and understood Greek: some modern historians reckon that as many as half were capable of it, though, in myview, that is an overestimate. Rome had been exposed to Greek artists, Greek cults and Greek-speakers for centuries now and her conquests in south Italy had long brought her up against Greek culture. But there are many levels of knowing a language and many degrees of what we call ‘Hellenization’. Owning Greek objects and Greek slaves is one thing; thinking in Greek and admiring the heart of Greek culture (wherever we place it) is another.

Certainly, Greek culture had started to make a transforming mark on Latin. From the 240s the Latin language had begun to acquire its own literature, directly modelled on Greek (beginning with the Odyssey).1 The first Latin authors reflect the results of Rome’s military progress southwards through Italy and beyond: the first Latin playwrights come from the Greek-speaking south including Tarentum; the first historian, the senator Fabius Pictor, was moved to write a history in order to explain the war with Carthage, and he wrote it in Greek, purelyfor a Greek audience. The great Latin comic dramatist Plautus originated from central Italy (Umbria) and also followed Greek models. Above all, the first Latin epic poet, Ennius, came from the toe of Italy and spoke two languages besides Latin. He wrote in erudite Greek poetic forms and produced a remarkable epic poem, the Annals, which ran from the Trojan War to the triumph of his Roman senatorial patron, Fulvius Nobilior. The triumph was given to Nobilior for conquering Rome’s former allies, the Greeks of Aetolia. Ennius could no doubt elaborate on the triumph’s occurrence a thousand years after the supposed fall of Troy, which was dated with misplaced learning to the 1180s BC.2

Nonetheless, this poetic literature was all in Latin. The most widely enjoyed, Plautus’ comedies, had a strong Latin tone in their settings, even their food, and their roles for freed slaves, which were much more pronounced than in Greece. What sort of ‘Greekness’ would a Roman senator most relate to? Not to the classical Greekness of an Athenian democrat, philosophizing about difficult questions of knowledge and necessity, accepting equal votes from the peasantry and sighing for the beauty of a young male athlete. Nor to the splendour of a Hellenistic king. Roman ideals could relate more readily to the Spartan ideals of austerity and a ‘peer group’, but their own formation and pursuit of riches were not at all those of a good Spartiate. There was no neat overlap with any one sort of Greek life. What mattered in Rome’s so-called ‘Hellenization’ was the social and moral context in which Greek ways were received: Romans could collect art, poets and skilled slaves, but they were not made into true Greeks merely by being philhellenes, any more than the francophile Russian nobles of Tolstoy’s War and Peace were fundamentally French. In Roman circles, the master-exponents of Greekness were kept sociallyin their place. Greek poets became onlythe clients of the Roman rich; the ‘talent’ from the Greek world brought yet more skills, arts and luxuries to Rome, but theyarrived as slaves and war-captives. In this respect, the Roman triumph over Macedon in 167 was seen as a turning point which brought anything from Greek musicians to Greek cooks and skilled prostitutes into Roman society. After the 160s the utilitarian brothels of Plautus’ plays (c. 200 BC) would have seemed a poor second to the skills of the new Greek-style courtesans at Rome. Homoerotic ‘Greek’ sex became more fashionable for Romans, although it was still not to be conducted between free citizens. These years of cultural awakening are fascinating because the new Roman context imposed such challenges on the immigrant Greek artists. In February 166, at games for a victoryover the Illyrians, famous Greek flute-players and a chorus of dancers were put up on a temporary stage in the Roman circus. As their artistic routine seemed boring to the Roman spectators, theywere told to liven it up bystarting a mock battle. The chorus split into two and obliged, whereupon four boxers climbed up onto the stage with trumpeters and horn-players. The waiting tragic actors, brought from Greece, had to change their performance, so much so that the Greek historian Polybius, probably one of the crowd, could not even bring himself to describe it for his serious Greek readership.3

Inevitably, the new fashions and new imports activated traditional Roman fears of ‘luxury’. Several laws to limit it are attested within fifty years, although they were not the first in Roman history. They fitted with deeper Roman attitudes. Austerity and parsimony were admired in the stories which were told about the receding seventh to fourth centuries BC. Roman fathers were expected to emulate them and educate their sons in restrained conduct. The censors, two magistrates, had acquired the duty of supervising public morals: when the lists of Roman citizens were periodically drawn up, they could place a ‘black mark’ against anyone whose behaviour had been disgraceful. In the new age of eastern conquest there was so much more to reprehend. ‘Luxury’ was attacked as ‘Asian’ and ‘eastern’, picking up the old stereotypes applied by Greek thinkers and historians from Herodotus onwards. But there was also truth in the stereotypes. The art and architecture, metalwork and cultural skills of the Macedonian and ‘Asian’ Greek monarchies were vastly more advanced than the crude levels of art and culture which had prevailed at Rome before the 180s. There was also the continuing example of the Ptolemies in Egypt, the luxury of whose kings had a quality of Dionysiac fantasy and royal splendour. At Rome, so hostile to one-man rule, such extravagance was wholly unacceptable.

Laws against luxurywere not imposed in this period bythe people’s assemblies so as to curb an extravagant upper class. Rather, members of the Senate (not all of them) brought the proposals forward.4 One often-feared luxury was the excessive entertaining of guests at public banquets. It was indulgent, but it was also a way in which Roman holders of public positions could court too many supporters. Laws also tried to limit the consumption of excessive imports. Of course the laws were contested, or merely ignored, but they belonged in a wider context of concerns. The triumphs from the 180s onwards were occasions for big public feasts, and, as we shall see, for novel ‘spectator sports’ which provoked rivals’ concerns: three times, between 187 and 179, senators tried to limit the money spent on circus-games. Theyalso tried to ban the import of animals for ‘hunting’ in the arena: a populist tribune frustrated them. Laws also tried to limit bribery and to regulate the stages at which men could hold public offices. Like this political opportunism, luxury could intensify competition within the upper class at a time of exploding opportunities. The crisis of the aristocracies in the Greek city-states during the seventh and sixth centuries BC was being replayed at Rome, but with weapons of a vastly greater scale.

The supreme Roman voice against luxury and the accompanying tensions was the famous Cato the Elder, fragments of whose Latin writings survive. Cato emphasized his ‘parsimony and austerity’ and his years of working the land among its ‘Sabine’ stones.5But he was certainly no peasant or spokesman for poor farmers: he was from a well-off Italian family. Beginning in 217, Cato’s career ran on into 149, peaking in 184 when he served as censor and showed a famous severityeven to some of the Roman senators. Posteritywould uphold him as the strictest of all traditional Romans, but Cato’s traditionalism was the conservatism of an arriviste, a new man made good. The style of his household became legendary. Cato would sometimes retreat to the simple cottage which had formerly been used by the austere, exemplary Curius. There, his wife would suckle children of their slaves so that they would imbibe loyalty to the master with her milk; plain plates and cups were the dinner-service (not the silver and gold cups acquired in new shapes in Greece) and Cato had the unpleasant habit of turning sick or old slaves loose so as not to be a burden to his estate.6 Cato was not opposed to making money: it was a virtue, he believed, for someone to increase his inherited estate.7 Nor did he abhor trade, though he did think it horriblyrisky. What he loathed was moneylending because it was an ‘unnatural’ and infamous pursuit.8 He also feared the political effects of ill-gotten gains abroad. For that reason, he spoke against those senators who in 167BC wished to attack Rome’s former ally, the island of Rhodes.9

It was not that Cato had any fondness at all for Greeks as Greeks. Memorably, his speeches and writings attacked their intellectual pursuits, their philosophy, their poetry and their doctors. They were the ‘most wretched and unruly race’,10 championing nakedness and frivolity; their doctors were conspiring to kill off the ‘barbarian’ Romans. Romans’ fashion for Greek examples, Cato said, was disgraceful, especially as Romans and Italians had heroes in their own past who were just as great. Cato’s complaints reflected Rome’s increased wave of Greek contact. When the Athenians sent leaders of their philosophy schools to Rome on an embassy in 155 BC, one of them, the sceptic Carneades, pleaded on one dayfor justice in politics, on the next day for injustice. Cato was so disgusted that he wanted the philosophers to leave Rome at once and return to corrupt their own youth, not the youth at Rome.

Nonetheless, Rome’s youth had been very much taken with these Greeks’ cleverness. What Cato opposed was a rapidly rising tide, and he himself had been buoyed up, of course, on its groundswell. He had studied in Athens: his work On Agriculture drew on Greek sources, as did his work Origins, on the beginnings of Italy’s peoples and places. He had profited from a basic Greek framework, but nonetheless he detested its frills and excessive cleverness. There was also a one-sidedness in his attitude to Carthage. Cato had served in the Hannibalic War and, when the Carthaginians ceased paying their indemnity for defeat (in 151), there was debate at Rome on what to do to them next. Cato, the Hannibalic veteran, was for destroying Carthage totally. He even emphasized the danger by exhibiting a fresh fig in the Senate which had ‘just’ been picked in Carthage, as if the place was forty-five minutes away from Rome.11 But his policy of destruction was feared for a reason which ought to have swayed him: if Rome was left with no foreign enemyto fear, would not ‘luxury’ and softness proliferate even more? Nonetheless, Carthage was destroyed.

These sorts of contradiction continued to be posed to traditional Roman ways of thinking by the spread of Roman power abroad. Friendly Greek cities instituted cults of Rome as a goddess and even approached Roman magistrates as if they were like the courtiers or princes whom they knew in their own Greek world of kings. Such personal honours ran flatly against the freedom and equality which the senatorial class prized among its members. As Romans became more imperious, their own social structure was even played back to them by a reluctant subordinate, King Prusias of Bithynia.12 In the 170s Roman envoys came to Prusias’ court in north-west Asia, but he cleverly parodied the realities of the situation by dressing and presenting himself as a freed ex-slave, a truly Roman sort of dependant. ‘You see your freedman, myself,’ he told them, ‘who wishes to gratify you in everything and imitate what happens among you.’ Prusias then travelled to Rome and, brilliantly, went a stage further on entering the Senate. ‘Hail, saviour gods,’ he greeted them while grovelling in adoration both to the threshold and to the senior senators inside the building. He seemed so utterlydespicable that he was given a friendly response. Arguably, the laugh was with Prusias who was ironically parodying the self-image of his arrogant new Roman masters.

Rebuffs received from Rome could even touch off secondary culture-clashes farther afield. In spring 168 the Seleucid King Antiochus IV at last broke into the rival territoryof Egypt’s Ptolemies, onlyto be confronted and halted there byan imperious Roman envoy. Obliged to withdraw, Antiochus staged a festival of his own in Antioch, in deliberate rivalry of the Roman generals’ contemporary celebrations of their victory over Macedon. In the new Roman fashion, Antiochus staged a show of wild beasts in combat, but then baffled his guests by waiting on them personally in an ostentatious show of affability during his gigantic royal banquet.13 A year later, he stopped in Judaea, where he heeded the request of a faction of Jews in Jerusalem; they wished to subdue their opponents and adopt Greek customs while abandoning traditional Jewish practices. Antiochus supported them, as if to work off his anger after his recent rebuff in Egypt by Rome.14 The result was a nationalist uprising by outraged fellow Jews and a bitter war (the ‘Maccabean Revolt’). It resulted in a newly powerful Jewish state and a new theology of martyrdom for those Jews who died in the course of it. They were said to have gone directly to Paradise, the first mention of this historically fertile idea.15

Above all, a culture-clash was lived out by the man to whom we owe so much of our knowledge of Rome’s advance from 220 to 146, the last of the great Greek historians, Polybius, a Greek from Megalopolis. He was born into a prominent political family in the Achaean League, but in 167 he was deported to Rome with a thousand others, as a hostage suspected of hostility to the Romans. While a hostage, he befriended important Romans, including the young Scipios (hunting was one important bond with them). Later he travelled widelyin Spain and the West, even down the coast of west Africa. Yet again, a fine Greek history was to be written by an exile. Polybius’ original plan was to write a historydown to 167 BC but he prolonged it because he lived to see the ‘troubled times’ of Rome’s years of domination.16 He himself played a part in them, by assisting in the very settlement which was imposed by Rome on Greece in 146 BC, after the ruthless destruction of Corinth. Polybius had a difficult role to explain: he had been a ‘fellow traveller’ and a participator in Roman actions which otherwise he would be expected to have opposed.

Polybius is the historian in antiquity with the most explicit view of what historians should be and do. While attacking his predecessors (much to the benefit of our knowledge of them) he emphasizes the value of ‘pragmatic history’.17 It is the history of events and actions as theyaffect cities, peoples and individuals, and it must be written by a ‘pragmatic’ individual, someone who travels to the sites in question, interviews participants and personally studies documents. Polybius is the declared enemy of library-worms like his learned predecessor Timaeus. There is much of Thucydides in his aims, except that, once again, Thucydides’ exclusion of the gods as an explanation of history proved to be too austere for an admirer’s simpler mind. In Polybius’ view, the defeats of the kings of Macedon and Antiochus IV in one and the same year (168) were a revenge for their predecessors’ beastly decision to combine in a pact in c. 200 BC and meddle against Ptolemy V of Egypt, a child-king at the time. Thucydides would have enjoyed pointing out that this ‘revenge’ was only a coincidence and that the ‘pact’ which it supposedly avenged was almost certainly a fiction publicized by the Romans.

Nonetheless, Polybius searches for explanations of change and is explicit about formulating them. Admittedly, what he makes explicit is less penetrating than what is implicit in Thucydides. It also confronts us in his turgid sort of polytechnic Greek. But his vision across the entire Mediterranean, from Spain to Syria, is wholly to his credit and his accounts of other peoples, landscapes, myths and resources are a fine testimony to a Hellenistic Greek mind.

His observations of the Romans are particularly important. Here, at last, survive the impressions of an educated Greek who lived at Rome, learned a little Latin and formed friendships with individual upper-class Romans during these fascinating years. In Polybius’ histories, Greek speakers do castigate Romans and their behaviour as ‘barbarian’.18 They are not just ‘barbarians’ because they are foreign speakers. Polybius also presents Roman customs as foreign, ‘theirs’, not ‘our’ Greek way. Romans could be exceptionally savage: ‘one can often see,’ Polybius wrote, ‘in cities taken by the Romans not only the bodies of human beings but dogs cut in half and the severed limbs of other animals.’19 But Romans were deliberate in their ruthlessness, unlike the stereotype of the ‘irrational’ barbarian, someone who combined savagery and panic. When comparing Romans with peoples other than Greeks, Polybius does not call them barbarians at all.

Most suggestively, he shares perceptions of contemporary Roman behaviour which were expressed by stern Cato. For Polybius, too, most Romans were madly keen to make money, just as Cato’s complaints and maxims confirm. Through his Greek education, Polybius prized restraint, patriotism and austere self-control, qualities which were supported byhis distorted image of ancient Sparta. In his Roman context, Cato trumpeted the same values. The two men knew each other personally, but the similarity of their professed values was not the result of Polybius’ greater intelligence shaping what Cato thought. It was the result of a similar outlook, independentlyformed. A bridge between their shared values was their fondness for the simple Greek of the classical Athenian, Xenophon, the enemyof luxury, the admirer of bravery and military prowess and the champion of ‘moral’ life, including the common bond of hunting.

For Polybius, too, the year 167 was a turning point because of the new wave of ‘luxury’ which the conquests in Greece released into Rome. The young, he complained, would now pay ‘more than a talent’ for a boy-lover; similarly, Cato warned the Roman people that they would ‘see the change for the worse’ in their constitution when ‘good-looking boys were being sold for more than the price of fields’.20 Polybius and Cato shared a disapproval of the new ‘luxury’ and a view that it would contribute to political decline: in his histories, Polybius is concerned to give the gist, where possible, of what his speakers actually said. But unlike Cato, Polybius had a predictive, explanatory theory, the idea that one constitution follows another in a necessary cyclical pattern which is repeated through time. In the year of Cannae, Polybius believed that the Roman constitution had been at its peak. It was not a ‘mixed’ constitution in his view, one which was blended from the differing elements of oligarchy, democracy and so forth. Rather, it was in an oligarchic phase, but held in balance by elements of monarchy and democracy which served as checks against change and degeneration.21 According to Polybius’ theory, such change would inevitably occur, linked to changes in the citizens’ ‘customs’ and behaviour: oligarchy would change to democracy, democracy to degenerate mob-rule and then back to monarchy, the starting point. Polybius continued writing as a very old man: he was said to have died aged eighty-two, in the mid-120s therefore, from a fall off a horse. His simple theoryof Rome’s constitutional elements owed more to his Greek education and its framework than to the Roman reality. Were the Roman consuls really so ‘king-like’ and where was a democratic role for the ‘people’ in a full-blooded Greek sense? Like a Greek in India, he allowed his theory to distort his understanding of what he saw and heard. But his predictions were to have a particular resonance in the next hundred years for the Rome which he knew as a resident.

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