Friday, October 06, 2006
Murder, Mayhem and the Mob - Rome's political lessons.
When we discuss the exercise of democracy, we tend to look back to the example of Athens, but to look at the exercise of politics by the demos in a more rumbustuous fashion, and in due tension with ideas of government by an elite on behalf of the people, we could do worse than look at the example of the Roman Republic. I was struck again by the nature of the extraordinary political system that was the Republic when I saw tonight's episode of the BBC's 'Ancient Rome'. It was following the career of rabble rouser and Tribune of the People Tiberius Gracchus, who campaigned for land reform on behalf of the plebs, but whose campaign exposed the huge divisions in Roman society and threatened the republic itself with civil war. Gracchus drew his power from the mob - and his position, Tribune of the People, had been specifically designed to placate the plebs by offering them a magistracy that would look after them. But no matter how noble the aims, the mob can easily be turned, and in the case of Gracchus, who fought hard on their behalf, they were readily convinced of his kingly ambitions. The senate - an elected body of the wealthy - themselves sought to spread rumours about their enemy, and ultimately led the charge that resulted in his murder.
The Republic was a vibrant political system, with all sorts of checks and balances, as well as a deep seated fear of both mob rule, and individual power. The most senior magistrates elected were the Consuls, of whom there were two, and who were elected for a year only. It was said that the worst charge you could lay against a politician in the Roman Republic was that he wanted to be king! There has been a resurgence of interest in ancient Rome, but if you want a superb and frankly gripping read that both educates and entertains, you could do no better than Tom Holland's 'Republic'; Robert Harris, meanwhile, has novelised the career of one of the Republic's last great figures, the orator, and sometime consul, Cicero, in 'Imperium'.