Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A problem in ancient Roman history

I have been retired from my teaching job at Hunter College (CUNY) for five years now. This concluding phase of my earthly existence has offered me the privilege of reexamining certain problems or issues that emerged in my lectures, but where time constraints prevented me from exploring them fully.

Some of these issues remain, to one degree or another, enigmatic. Such is the case with the instance I am discussing herein, which may strike some readers as arcane and scholastic, but which has, nonetheless, a contemporary resonance.

The problem stems from ancient Roman history--not the history of the Roman Empire established by Augustus Caesar in 14 BCE, but of the previous epoch. According to tradition Rome was founded in 753 BCE, meaning that this vast period lasted for seven and a half centuries. (Modern archaeology has suggested that the traditional date is not far from the truth). At first, the political system, founded by Romulus, was monarchical. Once the last king Tarquinius Superbus was expelled (about 500 BCE), the “res publica” (or public thing) came into being.

In many respects the new institutions reflected the peculiar demography (or at least the conceptual demography) of the emerging city-state. For the Romans were not one people, but two. The two peoples were the Patricians and the Plebeians. Membership in these groups was hereditary. In principle intermarriage was forbidden, and a Patrician parents had Patrician children, a Plebeian parents had Plebeian children.

To the Patricians were reserved certain religious and political posts. Most importantly. only the patricians could serve as “patres conscripti,” members of the Roman Senate, which stood out as a visible symbol of their hegemony.

This is an extraordinary binarism, whose full implications have not, as far as I can see, been fully explored by historians of ancient Rome. (See, however, Gary Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005; and Kurt A. Raaflaub, Social Struggles in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders, new ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.)

As Titus Livy and other ancient historians and chroniclers indicate, the social dichotomy had grave consequences. There were several occasions in which the Plebeians, goaded by debt and other encumbrances, became openly rebellious. In the tactic known as the Secessio Plebis they retired to the Aventine Hill until their demands, or at least some of them, were met. One solution was to provide a new pair of officers, the tribunes, to offset the original executives, the Consuls, who tended to be Patricians.

As far as we can tell there were no identifiable physical characteristics that would serve to distinguish one’s status in this dual system. One theory is that the Patricians descended from the primordial inhabitants of Rome, while the Plebeians stemmed from immigrants from nearby territories. At all events, there was nothing remotely comparable to a racial distinction. Both groups were proficient in the Latin language.

How can one explain this extraordinary duality, the binarism that fostered the cohabitation of two distinct population entities in the relatively restricted territory of the early Roman Republic?

A simple solution presents itself: the patricians were the rich, the plebeians were the poor. Still, expressed in such stark terms this class analysis does not work. To be sure, many patricians were well off. Yet others, residing in the countryside, were ordinary farmers of modest means. As regards the Plebeians, most were relatively poor, but their were rich Plebeians as well. It was the latter who probably felt most keenly the stigma of disenfranchisement.

We must seek answers elsewhere. The only useful model I have come up with stems from the discipline of anthropology, which has detected many tribal societies with a dual organization. For example, the inhabitants of a village might be divided into two distinct groups, say, the clan of the eagles and the clan of the tigers. Sometimes the territory of the village would be divided into two sections, north and south or west and east. In other cases, the individuals would dwell side by side. This social organization is sometimes termed a moiety.

In this perspective the Roman Republic would represent an archaic survival of a pattern that had otherwise disappeared in the Mediterranean world.

It is interesting that other aspects of Roman Republican life were pervaded by dualism. According to tradition the city had been founded by two twins, Romulus and Remus. There were originally two consuls and two tribunes of the people. Geographically, the city of Rome was divided into two parts by the Tiber River. And so forth.

I conclude by noting some instances of Roman influence in the American foundation. Since the Founders were trained in Latin it was natural that they would appeal to Roman precedent. So we have the Senate, which meets in the Capitol, where the architecture is distinctively Roman. Many towns founded after the Revolution have pertinent names, as Rome, NY, Syracuse, and NY, Naples, FL. (There are similar influences in the French Revolution.)

It is true that we had no direct equivalent of the two dominant groups of ancient Rome. During the Revolution, however, many colonists had remained loyal to the British crown. After 1783 many of these people had to emigrate. Perhaps the Loyalists were our equivalent of the Plebeians. If so, of course, they were less successful, as they repaired not to the Aventine, but to Canada, Great Britain, and the West Indies, most of them never to return.

Speaking of Canada, there is another comparison that may be relevant, and that is the concept of the Two Nations. As is well known, Canada has escaped, at least for the present, the fate of dividing into two separate countries. Yet bilingualism tends to create tensions that may lead to the threat of national dissolution. For a number of years, Belgium, divided between Flemings and Walloons, has teetered on the verge of breaking up. In Spain, there is continuing tension between the Catalans and the Castilian speakers, though for the present the Spanish state seems to be holding firm. In both cases, the larger patterns of merger with the European Community provide a helpful counterpart.

In the United States, too, there are similar possibilities for discord. I am referring to the growing tendency to recognize the Spanish language as on a par with English. To be sure, most children of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the US do learn English. Yet combined with economic grievances, the presumed distinction between Anglos and Hispanics may yet hold the possibility of engendering national mischief.

NOTE. Towards the end of the nineteenth century some leading Viennese artists, and the critics who supported them, sought to separate themselves from the stodgy official art establishment. They called their new trend "Sezession," a clear allusion to the withdrawal of the Roman Plebs to its redoubt on the Aventine.

Emerging on the site of the Roman Vindobona, Vienna happily preserved a number of classical reminiscences. In a more tragic sense, the Austro-Hungarian empire was a multicultural affair, in which the dominant German-speaking minority (not unlike the Latin speakers of the Roman Empire) sought with increasing difficulty to impose its primacy over the subject peoples.



Blogger Burk said...

Thanks for a fascinating post. I have been enjoying the history of rome podcast, for what that is worth.

I don't think that the rich/poor distinction is such a bad theory. After being set up at one point in time, (after the fall of monarchy, perhaps), on a nominally hereditary basis among the respective aristocrats, there would always be some dynamic elements to the economy that would mix up what had originally been a straightforward aristocratic/oligarchic rich/poor system. I don't recall any mechanism by which someone with a certain degree of wealth would be inducted into the patricians.

At any rate, the complexity of the early Roman constitutions and system are truly astounding, and worth deeper study.

On dualism, you may have missed the US dualism of democratic and republican.. which tracks deep temperamental divides in human nature.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

The point about the Democrats and Republicans is interesting. Certainly, the label "republican" goes back to ancient Rome, while "democrat(ic}" refers to ancient Greece.

James Madison warned about the dangers of faction, and political parties in the modern sense did not exist at the time of the American founding. Some hold that the emergence of our binary system of parties reflects the influence of the Revolutionary National Assembly in France, where seating patterns determined the now-common terms left and right.

In England, though, there were the Whigs and the Tories, emerging several decades earlier.

There is a general sense in which binary contrasts flourish in many (perhaps almost all) societies. However, Jacques Derrida has made the topic unfashionable.

10:08 AM  

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