Friday, March 04, 2016

Ancient Rome and modern Liberty

A connected set of stories from Roman history shows that freedom means nothing without economic independence and civil rights.

Professor Mary Beard's “SPQR”[i] takes as its starting-point the failed Catiline Conspiracy in 63 B.C. Cicero, then one of the two Consuls, ordered the immediate execution without trial of a group of co-conspirators, and was hailed as Father of the Fatherland for saving the city from bloody revolution.

But this action helped him to his own downfall. On his last day in office, two of his rivals prevented him from giving the customary valedictory speech on the grounds that he himself had not allowed the accused Catalinarians to speak before condemning them. Some years later (58 B.C.) the Roman people voted to exile anyone who executed without trial and Cicero left Rome ahead of another vote specifically naming him.

When he came back, he found that his house had been razed to the ground and a temple to Liberty meaningfully set up in its place, blocking a rebuild:

“By building and consecrating the temple on the former house of then-exiled Cicero, Clodius ensured that the land was legally uninhabitable. Upon his return, Cicero successfully argued that the consecration was invalid and thus managed to reclaim the land and destroy the temple.”[ii]

The politics then was as murky as now: Cicero had accused Clodius of being involved in the conspiracy, even though the latter had sided with him during the crisis; and a thirty-something Julius Caesar had suggested the unusual step of imprisoning the suspected rebels instead of killing them - was this a matter of legal principle, or a ploy to keep alive secret allies? 

Cicero died in 43 B.C. at the behest of someone else he came to oppose, Mark Antony, and his head and hands were set up in the Forum as another visual political statement. 

 But when and why was “Libertas” made a goddess?

Her first temple in Rome was built long before, in 238 B.C.[iii] – not the “Iuppiter Libertas”[iv] of which the Emperor Augustus boasted[v], but instead (it is said[vi]) by Tiberius Gracchus. The “tiny”[vii] edifice stood somewhere on the Aventine Hill by the River Tiber, perhaps next to the temple of Juno Queen (and near those of Flora, Ceres and the Moon)[viii], as shown in the images below (please ignore the yellow indicator on the latter):

Temple of Juno (large); Temple of Libertas said to be nearby


Map, showing temples in the neighbourhood

Roman coin, said to be of "Jupiter and Libertas" - possibly not the first temple

This building, too, had a point. Tiberius Gracchus had given Italian agricultural labourers rights to land and hence an entitlement to military service. He was hated by the rich land owners, who saw the reforms as a threat to their wealth and power and as undermining their use of slave labour on their estates. On the other hand he was understandably very popular with the plebs, and the Liberty temple nailed his colours to the mast.

He, too, was killed:

“The senate failed in an attempt to bar him from standing again, but a group of enraged senators, led by his hostile cousin Scipio Nasica, charged into an election rally of Tiberius', broke it up and, alas, clubbed him to death.”(ix)

Perhaps “enraged” is not the right word here: it sounds like a sort of mitigation on the grounds of passion. A better term should be found for the coldly organised violence of plutocrats.

Professor Beard says that Rome’s history is relevant to us today, and surely it is. A powerful elite outsourcing work to cheaper labour , depriving their fellow citizens of access to the means of production and so eating away at their personal independence; the leader of the moment using public panic to ride roughshod over the due process of law; belated calls for the former “saviour of the nation” to be held to account, but coming from political enemies who may have their own shadowy agendas; show-democracy giving way to a succession of tyrants.

“Nihil sub sole novum”: there is nothing new under the sun. 


There is another resemblance between Catiline and Tiberius Gracchus: both enlisted the support of peasant farmers:

"Promoting his policy of debt relief, Catiline initially also rallied many of the poor to his banner along with a large portion of Sulla’s veterans. Debt had never been greater than in 63 BC since the previous decades of war had led to an era of economic downturn across the Italian countryside. Numerous plebeian farmers lost their farms and were forced to move to the city, where they swelled the numbers of the urban poor. Sulla's veterans were in bad economic straits as well. Desiring to regain their fortunes, they were prepared to march to war under the banner of the "next" Sulla. Thus, many of the plebs eagerly flocked to Catiline and supported him in the hope of the absolution of their debts."

Debt, recession, discontent among the lower orders, populist politicians, reactionary fat-cats backed by the Establishment, calls for debt relief... Very modern.

[i] “SPQR: A history of Ancient Rome”, Profile Books (2016)
[vi] See note [ii]


All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.


James Higham said...

Would have been interesting but for Mary Beard. That killed it.

Sackerson said...

She's knowledgeable and, I can vouch for it, courteous.