Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

On civic status: from Royal to free

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 16, 2011

I’m very pleased today to see Wootton Bassett being granted Royal status. Not, I should hastily explain, because I feel entirely comfortable with the ideologies being expressed. But because it will make it a lot easier next year to help my City in the Roman world students understand the concept of a promotion in civic status. In fact, it has a lot of potential resonances for this year’s Augustus and his legacy students, as well.

Promotions of this type were common in the Roman empire, and both the process and the significance were remarkably similar to what is happening today. A good example is the Senatus Consultum de Plarasensibus et Aphrodisiensibus (decision of the senate concerning the communities of Plarasa and Aphrodisias, in Asia Minor), which granted what is usually described as ‘free status’ to them both in 39 BC. It’s a rather long document, but some of the key sections run roughly as follows:

It pleases the Senate that the inhabitants of Plarasa and Aphrodisias, as C. Caesar Imperator has decided, shall be free in all equity and honour, and that the cities of the Plarasians and Aphrodisians shall have the usage of their own law and justice… It also pleases the Senate that the people of the Plarasians and Aphrodisians should have the enjoyment of liberty and exemption in all matters, and since their city is one of excellent law and excellent right, the said city holds liberty and exemption from the Roman people, and has been made ally and friend.

Very much as in Wootton Bassett, Plarasa and Aphrodisias are basically being rewarded for having supported the prevailing powers in the state. The context here is one of recent civil war, and the grant of free status comes in return for having supported the side of Antony and Octavian (or C. Caesar Imperator as the inscription calls him) against Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Caesar, in 42 BC. Thankfully, the civil war parallel does not hold up, but Wootton Bassett too is being honoured for supporting military campaigns undertaken by the British government by turning out en masse to salute the coffins of soldiers killed abroad as they arrive back in Britain.

The inscription also reveals a similar distinction between real and ceremonial power to the one at work today in Wootton Bassett. Though Royal status has been granted formally by the Queen, the BBC reports that this is in response to a petition presented by David Cameron. Similarly, the grant to Plarasa and Aphrodisias came formally from the senate – but the phrase “as C. Caesar Imperator has decided” makes it clear who was really behind it.

Octavian (as we more usually know him) had not yet quite finished wiping out his rivals and taking complete control of the Roman state at this time, but with Antony in the east and Lepidus in Africa he was the most powerful man in Rome in 39 BC. This grant to two loyal communities was in his personal interests – a demonstration of the potential benefits of supporting him in a war, and perhaps one particularly worth making in the context of Asia Minor at this time, given that he already had reason to believe that Antony was trying to build up his own powerbase in the area.

Indeed, there is a touch of similar competitive politics going on here as well. A quick Google revealed that the Queen, in response to a request from a retired naval officer, asked Gordon Brown [warning – Daily Mail link!] to consider giving Wootton Bassett royal status in 2009. The fact that he didn’t, and David Cameron now has, of course translates into useful political capital for the current Prime Minister, in much the same way that Octavian’s grant amounted to a strike against Mark Antony.

There are differences too, of course. The practical implications of Wootton Bassett’s new status don’t seem to be very extensive. So far as I can tell, they now have a new name and a new coat of arms, and that’s about it. By contrast, after their grant of free status, Plarasa and Aphrodisias could pass their own laws (so long as they were compatible with those of the Roman state) and no longer had to pay any taxes to Rome. These are significant concessions which would have had a real impact on the communities concerned. In fact, free status was the greatest level of privilege available to the cities of the eastern Roman empire, and basically meant completely autonomous local government while still remaining under the protection of the Roman state and its armies. But that is an inherent difference between the Roman empire and modern Britain. The central government of the Roman empire was small, and most day-to-day administration was left in the hands of local communities. The political structure of modern Britain is much more centralised.

As to how the people of Plarasa and Aphrodisias celebrated their new status, history does not relate. But given the importance of the grant, I think we can take what is happening in Wootton Bassett as a minimum. It’s certainly very likely that the citizens would have gathered in the centre of each city while the leading local magistrates read out the letter declaring their new status, just as the mayor of Wootton Bassett has spoken to the local community today. That is, after all, how new laws and decrees were usually disseminated in the Roman empire – as they had to be in a world with such low literacy rates. And I’m ready to bet they had parades and music and religious ceremonies as well.

What they probably didn’t have was a visit from Octavian – unlike for David Cameron and Wootton Bassett, Asia Minor wasn’t just a quick car journey away for him, and besides he had rather pressing business in Rome at the time. But Octavian did travel through Asia during the winter of 30-29 BC, between his final victory over Antony and Cleopatra and his triumphal return to Rome. We don’t know that he visited Plarasa and Aphrodisias while he was there, but it would certainly have benefited him to pop in and reaffirm good relations with the local people. Given what a shrewd politician he was, I’m betting he did.

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