Monday, 18 August 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: proletariat or body-politic

As no reliable, direct records of Roman history are extant prior to the sacking of the city by the Gauls in 390 BC, politicians and historians had considerable license in constructing the mythology, building prophetic parallels and claim firsts that may or may not have happened exactly in the Romans’ favour.
One example was in the creation of the Republic, which preceded the institution of democracy in Athens by a bald year—with the ousting of the city’s final monarch and the pledge of the populace never again to embrace monarch—and pain of death for any usurper. The democracy practiced among both great civilizations is quite different—with citizenship not a birthright, slavery and suffrage vested in only land-owning males—than contemporary democracies and were quite different in terms of leadership from each other. The composition of the consul evolved many times over the centuries, but in general, candidates were elected by their peers to a term of office of one year—no reelection could be sought for consecutive years and often there was the counter-balance of co-magistrates—each with the power to veto (I forbid) any decision of the other. Because the annual election to select new leaders was also subject to veto and considerable delay, usually a compromise was brokered—lest any politician be accused of hording too much power. No duly selected consul could claim emergency powers or institute martial-law, but such situations of course arose quite often. In order to manage the ship of state during war and invasions, a separate individual was selected—no campaigning—as dictator, given absolute power to prosecute the task he was elected for, and then expected to graciously retire. All dictators of Rome kept good to this oath—until Julius Caesar. Even with this new form of government, a large demographic, the majority of the population, were not free from tyranny, however, as the patrician class excluded the plebeians, the artisans and soldiers, from high office, both secular and religious.

Disenfranchised, the plebeians saw little benefit from the wars they fought and had little influence over defensive policy. Insurmountable debt was also a common problem—the common people having become inescapably indentured to the usury of the elite, with a lot of debts piling up while away at war and households bought on credit. The plebeians pushed for social reform in stages, mostly through their most powerful weapon—withdrawal (secession plebis) or a sort of a general strike that left the city defenseless. More than once, the city was invaded and the senate lured them back with rhetoric—saying it was no good for the hands and mouth to begrudge the lazy stomach. Some changes were forth-coming: though not outright land re-distribution or debt-forgiveness but a limit on how much land the wealthy could own, not eligibility to stand for consul but the creation of office of tribune chosen by and for the plebs (also with crucial veto-powers), and perhaps, most importantly the Twelve Tables (Leges Duodecim Tabularum) that listed the laws of Rome on display in the commons for all to read and memorise to protect from capricious justice—which mostly sided with the rich and powerful. There was, however, at least one insult in the codex, committing one unwritten law, a social more, to the bronze tablets forbidding the marriage between a patrician and a plebeian citizen.