“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman.” Karl Marx
“History is full of examples of political-economic elites who equate any challenge to their privileged social order as a challenge to all social order, an invitation to chaos and perdition. The oligarchs of Rome were no exception.” Micheal Parenti ( p. 2).
The book’s primary narrative thread, having to do with the class conflict leading to the assassination of Julius Caesar et al, cannot be fully appreciated unless placed in a social-history context.
To my mind, one of the great virtues of Parenti’s book is the excellent three-chapter introduction describing Rome’s Late Republic (133 - 44 B.C.) social and political structure. Sensitive to the fact that his own concepts of Rome were conditioned by mass media illusions (illusions sadly not challenged in schools), the book conveys the reality of Roman society to readers who suffer the same media/education brainwashing. He writes:
“In my woeful ignorance I was no different from many other educated Americans who have passed from grade school to the postdoctoral level without ever learning anything sensible about Roman History. (p. 4)
“Well into my adulthood, most of what I knew about ancient Rome was learned from Hollywood and television...To this day, dubious film representations about ancient Rome continue to be mass-marketed...In 2000, Hollywood brought forth Gladiator, offering endless episodes of arena bloodletting...(p. 4, 9)
“[Accordingly] to assist the many readers who might be unfamiliar with ancient Rome, the first three chapters deal with Rome’s history and sociopolitical life.” (p.9)
Parenti does not disappoint in his rendering of Rome’s history and sociopolitical life. Following is a ‘small’, but I believe essential, part of his introductory narrative.
Late Republic (133 – 44 B.C.) Social/Economic, and Political Structures
Social/Economic Structure (pgs. 27-31):
Nobilitas: an aristocratic oligarchy representing families whose linage could claim one or more members who had served as consul (the highest office of the Republic)
Equestrians:(equites) officer class, class of knights; property qualified them to serve in the cavalry. The equestrians were state contractors, bankers, moneylenders, traders, tax collectors, and landowners. Numbering about 2,000 multimillionaires, they could potentially enter the Nobilitas class. Common economic interest with nobilitas; they generally sided with nobilitas against commoners.
Middle Class: very small consisting of minor officials, merchants and industrial employers.
Small farmers: settled on own parcel of land in the provinces around the city and qualify for military service
- Plebs urbans living and working in the city
- Plebs rustica living and working in the country
Slaves (servi): composed approximately one-third of the population of Italy. They came from the populations of conquests, piratical kidnappings, debtors, and procreation among themselves.
If one wants to point to a single fact that stands in stark contradiction to the media/education mindless mad-Emperor simplification of Rome, one can do no better than point to the complexity of Rome’s government structure in the Late Republic.
Especially tragic about schools failing to teach meaningful lessons about Rome is that the structure of Rome’s government is clearly a precursor to the American. One sees in Rome the differentiation of the executive branch with administrative departments from legislative branches divided into Senate and Rome’s version of the House of Representatives. The similarities between Rome’s government and the American should come as a no surprise, given that the “Founders” were largely educated in the classics. But, then again, schools no longer teach the classics, consistent with the northern European bias in education relative to the Mediterranean.
One of the great historic misconceptions about Democracy is that it was “Born in Greece”. While the concept of Democracy was certainly Greek in origin, the Romans first created the structural forms of government necessary to put democratic concepts into practice, in societies more complex than small city-states.
The complexity of Rome’s social/economic structure in the Late Republic outlined above in turn manifests itself in equally complex political organization. This complexity challenges narrative writers like Parenti and at times, if the reader is like me they will find themselves flipping back and forth between pages reviewing definitions. This review cannot do justice to Parenti’s complete presentation of Rome’s society and government, but hopefully captures the essence.
Also, failure to understand Roman’s social and political structures is to failure to gasp the significance of Caesar’s assassination beyond Shakespeare and Hollywood’s renderings.
Rome’s Government in Late Republic
1) Government Magistrates elected by the assemblies; to be elected to any of the top four carried life membership in the Senate (p. 50)
Consuls -They levied and commanded armies, enforced laws, presided in the Senate and popular assemblies, etc. (p. 45)
Praetors - second in magisterial rank after consuls, they dealt with the administration of justice (p. 235 n.11)
Plebeian Aediles - two serving at any one time, magistrates who assisted the tribunes of the plebs in their duties including guarding the rights of the plebs. Also, along with Curile Aediles (of patrician origin) responsible for care of streets, water supplies, drains and sewers, traffic public buildings, games and grain supply (p.234 n.2)
Quaestors who were largely concerned with oversight of finance and treasury matters (p. 235 n.11)
Censors supervised public morals and voting lists. (p. 53)
2) Senate "The most powerful governing body was the Roman Senate” (p.53)
- several hundred wealthy men
- current or former magistrates
- determined foreign policy
- appoint provincial governors
- control purse strings of Republic
- recruitment and deployment of army units and top military appointments
- decisions on war and peace (after formal consultation with the popular assembly)
3) Tribunate of the People - closest thing to a popular democratic office (p.51)
- Ten tribunes elected each year by the assemblies as the protectors of popular rights
- could veto bills and senatorial decrees
- could submit legislation
- could prosecute errant officials
- had to be plebian lineage to qualify, however tribunes were as likely to be instruments of the Senate as champions of the people . Still they were valued by common people as the key protection of their republican liberties.
4) Tribial Assembly of the People (p.50)
- family tribal group as a unit weighted favor rural over proletarian (p. 50)
- did not win full legislative competence until the 3rd cent B.C. (p. 235 n. 10)
Reformers like the Gracchi brothers and Julius Caesar preferred the Tribal Assembly to Centurial Assembly when trying to pass reform legislation.
With enough unity and mass mobilization of city dwellers in alliance with voters from outlying districts this assembly might pass measures that were opposed by the dominant aristocratic faction in the Senate(p. 50-51)
5) Centurial Assembly - Elected consuls and praetors (p.50)
Voting in block units of military groupings rigged to favor propertied classes
6) Forum the central marketplace and open plaza of the city, candidates and commoners could informally debate issues...but full-dress debates before the entire assemblage were limited to those invited to speak by the summoning magistrate...citizens could vote only 'yea' or 'nay' on proposals submitted by one of the magistrates. (p.50)
In short, Parenti sums up the political history of the Republic:
“The Republic's political structure was not fashioned whole in accordance with some rational design. It emerged from prolonged conflict between the citizenry and the aristocracy, a jerry-built mixture of popular protections and elite entrenchments.
“Less than two decades after the kings were expelled (in 510 B.C.), the people began a struggle, lasting over 200 years, to win the right to popular elections and legislative assemblage. The commoners demonstrated and rioted, embarking on highly organized strike actions or 'secessions' when called upon to serve as soldiers.
“Democracy, a wonderful invention by the people of history to defend themselves from the possessors of the wealthy, took tenuous root in ancient Rome. (p. 49 emp. +)
“Tenuous root” – Laws were written and political structures developed to create de jure a system of “checks and balances” ensuring the rights of the populous. Nevertheless, the rich were able to affect de facto a government “of, by and for”, what some call in the U.S. today, the “1 percent” – i.e. a Plutocracy.
For example, Parenti writes:
“The closest thing to a popular democratic office was the Tibunate of the People, created after decades of popular agitation and threats of armed secession. Ten tribunes elected each year by the assemblies were to act as the protectors of popular rights.
“[However,] by the second century tribunes were as likely to be instruments of the Senate as champions of the people...Bribery and buying votes...no discernible programs...emphasizes on personal integrity and leadership...prestige of family...war record...style over substance...
“In sum, the Roman political system permitted the wealthy few to prevail on most issues” (p51 emp.+)
However, throughout the Late Republic, standing against the prerogatives of the “wealthy few” were the populares:
“A smaller faction within the nobility who were reformers siding with the common people on various issues. Julius Caesar is considered the leading popularis and the last in a line extending from 133 to 44 B.C. (p. 55).
Roman Senate – class conflict: optimates vs. populares
The Senate was the most powerful governing body during the Late Republic. In turn, an “inner circle of nobles (nobiles) who exercised a controlling influence” dominated the Senate. Further, that inner circle divided into two factions.
“ In the second century B.C., the senatorial nobles began to divide into two groups, the larger being self-designated as the optimates (“best men”), who were devoted to upholding the politico-economic prerogatives of the well-born.
“The smaller faction within the nobility, styled the populares or “demagogues” by their opponents, were reformers who sided with the common people on various issues. (p.54)
Popularis programs – what the populares proposed
The “reforms” the popularis attempted to implement were such things as:
- “redistribution of public lands on behalf of the indigent
- “construction of roads into more fertile districts in order to advance Italian agriculture
- “sale of grain to impoverished plebs at reduced prices
- “shorter enlistment terms and free clothing for soldiers
- “granting Italian allies the same voting rights as Romans
Rome’s greatest popularis – Julius Caesar
Caesar’s attempted economic reforms expanded on his predecessors:
- “preventing the Tiber from flooding
- “drain marshes using newly gained land to employ thousands in tillage
- “send unemployed to repair cities in the colonies, and jobs on public works at home
- “mandate large landholders have one-third freeman labor instead of slaves
- “prohibited hoarding of huge sums of cash
- “eased burden of large debtors by allowing lower prewar rates
- “imposes usury limits
- “eased one-forth of all outstanding debt
Caesar’s government reforms:
Not only did Caesar’s economic reforms cause optimate consternation, more importantly his method of reform brought the absolute contempt of the optimates down upon him – for he had the temerity to go directly to the people bypassing the Senate.
“Caesar applied the tactics of the [first popularis, the assassinated brothers] Gracchi, dealing no further with the Senate and turning to the popular assemblies to get the law passed.” (p. 120 emp.+)
“In fact, Caesar’s purpose seems to have been...to mobilize sufficient popular power to break the stranglehold of the senatorial aristocracy, reducing it to an advisory and administrative body...class lines were drawn in the fight between Caesar and the Senate oligarchs.” (p. 138 emp.+)
“Without too much overreaching, we might say his reign can be called a dictatorship of the proletarii, an instance of ruling autocratically against plutocracy on behalf of the citizenry’s substantive interests.” (p. 160 emp.+)
However, the wealthy and powerful have no compunction about using their wealth and power to preserve their wealth and power. The Late Roman Republic being no exception.
“The good interred with their bones...”
“In sum, every leader of the Late Republic who took up the popular cause met with a violent end, beginning with Tiberious Gracchus in 133 and continuing on to Gaius Gracchus – Fulvius Flaccus – Livius Drusus – Sulpicius Rufus – Cornelius Cinna – Marius Gratidiansus – Appluleius Saturninus – Cnaeus Sicinius – Quintus Sertorius – Servilius Glaucia, Sergius Catiline – Clodius Pulcher – and finally Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.
“Even more reprehensible, the optimates and their hired goons killed thousands of the populares’ supporters. (p 81) [For example,] Gaius and Flaccus and 250 supporters were massacred by the optimate death squads in 121 B.C. These assassins then rounded up and summarily executed an additional 3,00 democrats. (p. 68)
Conclusion Black Hats and White Hats
My only concern about Parenti’s very excellent book is that his historiographic theme comes across a tad melodramatic (emphasize concern not to be construed with criticism).
In the pre-1960s cowboy movies and television shows, the plots were almost always based on a conflict between good cowboys who wore white hats and bad cowboys wearing black-hats (Hopalong Cassidy being the obvious exception). In these melodramatic moralistic plots, there was no moral ambiguity. Parenti’s history of Rome is written in the same Manichaean narrative style. He renders the history of the Late Republic (133 B.C. – 44B.C.) as a conflict between white-hat populares against black-hat optimates. However, reality is not a melodrama, and the forces affecting society cannot simply be rendered as a conflict of morally good and morally bad people – all cowboys live East of Eden.
As noted in the introduction, one of the great virtues of this book is that the narrative places the populares/optimate conflict in a historical social context starting with the Early Republic and going into great detail about the social and political structure of the Late Republic.
However, there is an even broad social historical context in which the class conflict took place. For example, the classical scholar A.J. Toynbee wrote:
"In four generations from 264 B.C. (1st Carthaginian war) to 46 B.C. of the most devastating warfare the world had seen, Rome conquered all the coasts of the Mediterranean." (The Balkans, 1915)
Note, the Late Republic falls into this time frame. Accordingly, to fully understand the class conflict of the Late Republic, one has to ‘see’ it in the context of “the most devastating warfare the world had seen”, and the social repercussions of those centuries of warfare.
Parenti makes reference to some of the military conflicts, but he does not summarize the warring milieu and its implications for the political and economic evolution of Rome. However, this broader historiographic perspective is clearly beyond the range of Parenti’s book. Indeed, as it is, he essentially wrote two books in one: the history of the populares/optimate conflict and the “gentlemen/peoples” history of the conflict discussed in Part I of this review (see article "Review Part I" in link article box above). What more can be asked?
Nevertheless, students of Rome, most especially southern-Italian American students, must be made aware of the broader historic context of the populares/optimate conflict to fully appreciate the origins of southern-Italian culture.