Ancient History & Civilisation

Roman Politics, 201-150 BC

Roman politics was changing in the early part of the second century. The Senate was filled mainly with the equestrians enrolled en masse during the war and the new generation of the established families whose senior members had been lost in the war, who had now reached maturity. The heavy casualties inflicted by Hannibal had drastically thinned the ranks of the older, experienced senators and particularly the ex-consuls. The Punic Wars had also produced an increase in the number of permanent provinces, reflected in a corresponding rise in the number of praetors elected each year. There had only been one of these magistrates in 265, but this was increased to two during the First War, to four in the early 220s and finally to six in the decade after 201. Before 265 the praetorship had carried purely judicial responsibility in Rome itself and many consuls never held the post. Flamininus was the last man to do so in 198. In the early second century many praetors went out to command overseas provinces, commanded armies and won victories, perhaps even securing a triumph. They returned to Rome with glory and wealth, both of which added to their chances of future electoral success. There were still only two consuls elected in each year, and the simple arithmetic meant that only one in three praetors could hope to secure the highest magistracy. This gready increased the already fierce competition in the consular elections. The dominance of the old, established families was weakened. Their wealth, extensive network of clients and family reputation still brought them much electoral success, but it was now far less likely that it would permit them to hold the consulship more than once. More families could now challenge for the higher offices, although it must always be remembered that the majority of senators were still unlikely to reach the praetorship. Provincial commands were actively sought by most magistrates, so that far less use was made of pro-magistrates than during the war. Most provincial governors served for a single year and needed to take immediate advantage of the opportunities for profit. In this climate of tighter competition, there was increased regulation of the political career. Minimum ages were set and enforced for each office - 30 for the quaestors, 36 for aediles, 39 for praetors and 42 for consuls - and a ten-year interval imposed before the same magistracy could be held again by an individual. For half a century this system worked.

Roman war-making in the early decades of the second century was highly profitable. A great part of the wealth derived from booty and the sale of war captives into slavery remained in the hands of the commanders who led the Roman armies in these campaigns. Warfare in the Hellenistic east proved especially lucrative. During the Second Punic War Marcellus' ovation after the capture of Syracuse and Scipio's African triumph had included unprecedentedly lavish displays of plunder. In the next decades the triumphs of Flamininus over Philip V, Lucius Scipio over Antiochus, Cnaeus Manlius Vulso over the Galatian tribes of Asia Minor, and Aemilius Paullus over Perseus were each said to have been the most spectacular and richest processions ever seen in Rome. Those senators able to gain military commands were becoming more and more wealthy, especially the few who secured the leadership of major wars in the east, and the gap between rich and poor in the Senate was widening. This wealth allowed families to increase their prestige by lavish spending on public entertainments, like the gladiatorial fights which were becoming increasingly popular. It is also in this period that construction of monumental buildings in Rome began to gather pace, as successful commanders constructed basilicas, temples and aqueducts from their spoils. In this way senators commemorated their achievements and helped their own and their families' chances of future electoral success.14

Political careers were increasingly expensive as men were forced to spend extravagantly to keep pace with their rivals. Electoral success was costly and put many men in debt, making it all the more pressing for them to profit from the senior magistracies. Manlius Vulso was accused and nearly condemned for provoking a war with the Galatians which had not been approved by the Senate and was not in Rome's interests. Only the number of his friends and political allies at Rome narrowly prevented his condemnation. A rich man could use his wealth to win many such allies, making loans to aid those struggling to keep pace with the costs of political life, but this required ability which not everyone possessed. Most of the commanders who won spectacular victories came under fierce attack from rivals in the Senate. Manlius Vulso and Aemilius Paullus both had to struggle to win the right to celebrate their triumphs. Flamininus' brother Lucius was expelled from the Senate by the censors in 184, charged with improper behaviour, including executing a captive at a feast to please a male prostitute. The most successful attacks of all were directed against Publius and Lucius Scipio.15

Africanus was only in his mid thirties in 201, still too young to have held the consulship according to tradition and the soon-to-be-enacted legislation. It is difficult to see how his career after the war could ever have equalled his achievements in Spain and Africa. Elected consul for the second time in 194, he campaigned competently against the Ligurians and Cisalpine Gauls, but achieved nothing spectacular. A public announcement that he would serve as his brother's legatus secured Lucius the Asian command, particularly as it was known that Hannibal had fled to Antiochus' court. In fact the old adversaries did not encounter each other again in battle, nor was Africanus present at Magnesia, as a result of illness - perhaps a diplomatic one allowing his brother to gain full credit for the victory. By the standards of most senators, even the generation who reached maturity between 218 and 201, Scipio had spent little of his adult life in Rome. His first consulship had been dogged with controversy, with the rumours of his willingness to use questionable means to secure the African command and the Pleminius scandal. Although a brilliant soldier and an inspirational commander, Africanus was a poor politician who had difficulty achieving his objectives in the Senate quietly and without confrontation. In the next century Pompey the Great, another successful soldier who was inexperienced in the day-to-day politics of Rome, failed to make best use of his riches and prestige when he at last returned to Rome. Scipio Africanus was the most distinguished ex-consul of his day, named first on the senatorial role as princeps senatus for at least a decade, his own wealth and achievements adding to those of his family, but he was also politically vulnerable. In the Roman system there were always ambitious men waiting to attack any prominent senator who appeared vulnerable.16

Within a few years of their return from Asia, both brothers were prosecuted in the courts, and although surviving accounts of the trials are contradictory, the main charges involved the misappropriation of funds during the Syrian War. Both men refused to answer the accusations and relied upon their past achievements and reputation to prove that they were true servants of the State. Africanus publicly tore up his brother's account books for the war to demonstrate his contempt for the charges. When his own trial was reconvened on the anniversary of Zama, he declared that he intended to go up to the temples of the Capitoline triad and give thanks for his victory. The mass of the court, apart from the prosecutors and their slaves, and all of the many onlookers thronging the Forum promptly followed him, abandoning proceedings for the day. Despite this display of the charisma which had once inspired his soldiers, and his continued popularity with the People, the prosecution was renewed and few senators actively supported the brothers. Africanus, depressed by the ingratitude of the State he had served so well, went into voluntary exile in his villa at Liternum, where he died soon afterwards in 187, or 184 according to a less probable tradition. Lucius pleaded ill-health and withdrew from politics.17

Cato, the same man who as quaestor in 205 had attacked Scipio's behaviour in Sicily, was associated with the attacks on the brothers and many of the other prominent figures over the next decades. He was a novus homo, one of the many equestrians whose proven courage prompted their enrolment into the Senate during the war. He was not the only new man to reach the consulship in these years, but this and his censorship helped to forge the great influence which he came to wield. Throughout his career, Cato presented himself as the defender of traditional Roman morals and virtues against the corrupting influence of foreign, and especially Greek culture. As consul in 195, he spoke unsuccessfully against the repeal of a law passed in 215 during the height of the war which had restricted the amount Roman women were allowed to spend on clothes and jewellery. As censor in 184 he rigorously purged the ranks of the Senate and Equestrian Order of men he considered to be unfit, notably Lucius Flamininus. During his long life he took part in forty-four prosecutions, far more than most senior senators who were much more likely to defend their friends in court than prosecute their enemies. Always he criticized the public philhellenism of men like Titus Flamininus, and the growing popularity amongst the Roman elite of Greek education, philosophy and religion.

Cato is one of the most unappealing figures from Roman history. In his manual on farm management, de Agriculture, he recommended selling slaves who had become too old to work, although he did not explain where he would find a purchaser. It is easy from the modern perspective to condemn him as a mere reactionary, his hostility to Greek learning just another reason to dislike such an apparently puritanical figure. This is to misunderstand the nature of Roman politics in this period. A 'new man' needed to compete with the established families, whose names were familiar to the electorate from the achievements of past generations. To be successful, he needed to make his own name as famous and instantly recognizable as theirs, and the best way was to emphasize a single attribute at every opportunity. Cato chose to portray himself as a simple Roman from a patriotic, but relatively poor family, who despite his political success continued to live a frugal lifestyle in contrast with the decadence of those around him. In his Origines,the first prose history of Rome written in Latin, he did not mention Roman generals by name, refusing to celebrate past victories solely through the role of aristocratic commanders rather than the whole State. To add to the snub, he did give the name of the bravest elephant in Hannibal's army, one Surus (the Syrian). Yet Cato was not so implacably opposed to foreign influences as his public statements may suggest. De Agriculture, was influenced by the extensive Punic literature on this subject. Although affecting to despise Greek culture and literature, he seems to have had a fair knowledge of it, making a joking reference to Homer in a conversation with Polybius. Cato's contributions to Latin literature reflected a desire to rival its achievements, rather than an utter rejection of Greek learning.18

In the last century Rome's growing involvement abroad had brought her far more directly into contact with Hellenistic culture. Some senators embraced the ideas and lifestyle, each striving to show himself more philhellenic than his peers. Others, like Cato, competed in the opposite way by public rejection of Greek influences. Traditionally the Romans had been willing to introduce foreign religions into their city, absorbing them into the State religion. In 205 the discovery and interpretation of a Sybilline oracle led to the Senate deciding to introduce the cult of the Idaean

Mother. After negotiations with the kingdom of Pergamum, the black stone representing the goddess was brought by sea to Ostia. There it was greeted by a crowd of distinguished matrons, headed by Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, Africanus' first cousin, who had been chosen as the best man in Rome. The women carried the stone by hand, passing it one to the other until it was formally installed in the Temple of Victory on the Palatine. In 186 another eastern cult, the rites of the wine god Bacchus, was brutally suppressed throughout Italy by order of the Senate. In this case an imported religion was perceived as a threat to the State, because its practices were considered immoral and perhaps also because it was not regulated by senatorial priests.19

Rome was now more firmly part of the wider Mediterranean world, governing as provinces the major islands and Spain, whilst in the east it acted as arbiter in disputes between its allies. In time, the deep love of Hellenistic culture would take root in the Roman aristocracy, without changing its essential nature. Great quantities of booty and slaves flooded into Italy as a result of the successful wars. The wealthy invested in huge rural estates or 'latifundia' worked by servile labour. Later concern developed that this trend towards large estates had supplanted the small peasant farmers who had always provided the backbone of the legions, but in the early decades of the century Rome was in a confident mood. The great test of the Hannibalic invasion had been overcome and now they were reaping the rewards of their might. When abroad the behaviour of Roman magistrates and ambassadors became increasingly arrogant.20

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