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Iris Project publication: How to win an election in the Roman Republic

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on April 24, 2015

It’s General Election season, and the Iris Project, which promotes Classics to schools and young people, are seizing the opportunity to run some topical articles on how ancient election campaigns compare and contrast with what we do today. I was asked to cover the case of Republican Rome, and my article has gone up online today. I will put the first couple of paragraphs up here as a teaser:

The UK is deep in the grip of election fever. Party leaders are touring the country in battle-buses, shaking hands, announcing policies, and chasing photo opportunities – all in the hope of winning over voters. But what did aspiring politicians need to do to get elected in ancient Rome? To answer this question we first need to understand some of the differences between the Roman political system and our own. While some aspects of campaigning persist across the ages, different systems reward different behaviours. In other words, it took different tactics to win a Roman election than it does a British one.

For one thing, there were no party leaders – or indeed political parties – in ancient Rome. Politicians stood for election as individuals, running largely on the basis of personal reputation rather than any policy platform. This is extremely clear from the Commentariolum Petitionis (‘Little Guide to Electioneering’), an ancient text giving advice to Cicero in his campaign for the consulship of 63 BC. Cicero (figure 1) is told that while a candidate he “must not pursue political measures, either in the senate-house or in public meetings” (Comm. Pet. 13). Instead, he should hold back, and allow himself to be judged on his established reputation and character. To win, then, it was more important to be seen as a good sort, generally capable of running the state, than it was to put forward particular ideas about how this should be done.

And you can read the rest here. I’m really pleased with how it has come out.

Posted in cicero, julius caesar, politics, publications, roman history, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Counting down to Augustus’ bimillennium

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 19, 2012

Two years from today will mark the bimillennium of the emperor Augustus’ death, which took place on 19th August AD 14. I have been busy so far this summer getting started on a new research project all about that event, so today seems like a good day to say a little bit about it.

We have a real fascination with ’round-number’ anniversaries in western culture. Examples from this year alone have included the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth, the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and of course the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. On one level, of course, the apparent roundness of 60, 100 or 200 years is completely arbitrary. It relies on dating and numbering systems which we have invented, and we all know rationally that the 19th August 2014 bears no closer relationship with 19th August AD 14 than does the 18th August 2014, the 20th August 2014, or indeed any other modern date. But the basic similarity between two dates which are separated by a perfect round number like 2000 has a strong psychological effect. We even use phrases like ‘on this day in history‘ to speak of anniversary dates as though they somehow occupy the same day as the original event, in spite of the many years which have actually passed between them. The coincidence in the dates creates a sort of short-cut or wormhole effect, making us feel as though we are closer to the original event on its anniversary day than at any other time. This makes anniversaries into powerful tools for connecting with the past, looking at its relationship with the present, and thinking about the dialogue between the two.

The particular way in which an anniversary is commemorated is far from neutral, though. They usually speak volumes about contemporary interests, priorities, social structures and political relations in the societies which celebrate them. And the bimillennium of Augustus’ birth on 23rd September 1938 offers a very vivid example of that. Famously, Benito Mussolini used it to boost his own political status and promote a particular vision of Italy’s national identity and future. Mussolini’s political position was comparable to Augustus’, in that both had transformed quasi-democratic constitutions into effective dictatorships with themselves at the head – and in both cases they had done it in Rome. But Augustus had managed to pull it off to widespread contemporary acclaim, while being the head of an extensive empire to boot – and Mussolini wanted in on that. He made every possible effort to signal the parallels between them, and the bimillennium, with its strong sense of connection between past and present, was a perfect opportunity for doing so. The event was celebrated on a grand scale, including an exhibition (see poster to right), the clearance of Augustus’ Mausoleum and reconstruction of the Ara Pacis, academic publications, the issuing of stamps, coins and more. All of this was designed to push the association between Mussolini and Augustus, while also encouraging contemporary Italians to develop a sense of national pride and a belief in the virtues of hard work which would neatly serve his imperialistic agenda.

Not all anniversaries are quite so blatantly politicised, of course, but they all inevitably say something about the society which commemorates them. So it is with that idea in mind that I want to use the forthcoming bimillennium of Augustus’ death to explore what he means to people today, some two thousand years after he died. Part of my plan is to hold a major conference on and around the date of the bimillennium itself, which will take as its prompt the format we usually use for thinking about someone who has just died: the obituary. The conference will look at the close of Augustus’ life and his death, consider his life as a completed whole, evaluate his impact and think about the legacy he left behind. But because we are ‘writing’ this obituary two thousand years later, we will also examine that legacy as it has played out over a period of two whole millennia, trace evolving evaluations throughout that period and think about what is at stake when we formulate our own judgements of Augustus’s life and career. Once the conference is over, I’m hoping to publish an edited collection of papers arising from it, while in parallel I will also be researching and writing a monograph of my own on the subject of the bimillennial commemorations, and what they reveal about Augustus’ position in contemporary thought and culture.

The monograph will look at both of Augustus’ big bimillennia: his birth on 23rd September 1938, and his death on 19th August 2014. No matter how sternly I try to steer myself away from the silly word-play, I can’t help but think of these as the ‘natal bimillennium’ and the ‘fatal bimillennium’ respectively, and I’ve a feeling those terms are going to stick now. Certainly, they’re quicker to say or type than ‘the bimillennium of his birth’ and ‘the bimillennium of his death’. Anyway, I’m planning to explore how both were / will be celebrated, as a means of identifying the main ideas and values associated with Augustus in each period, and exploring how he (as a symbol of those ideas and values) gets used and abused for contemporary purposes. This should be a good way of assessing the historical significance of Augustus two thousand years after his life-time, and will also offer the opportunity to trace smaller-scale changes in how people have thought about Augustus between the two anniversaries in 1938 and 2014.

One thing I have certainly already discovered is that the natal bimillennium was commemorated by far more people and in far more places than just Mussolini in Italy. I’ve uncovered exhibitions, competitions, plays, lectures, academic publications and more – so far mainly in the USA and UK, but that is partly simply because I have started by running my searches in English. I’m sure more will emerge once I move on to French, German, Spanish and so forth. Some of these events intersected with Mussolini’s, and there is certainly an interesting story to be told there about the degree to which academics in what would soon become Allied countries were and weren’t prepared to cooperate with him in the run-up to the war. It’s rather more than you might expect with the benefit of hindsight.

Meanwhile, people’s reasons for being interested in Augustus outside of Italy in 1938 seem to have hinged around a sense of his impact on the development of western civilisation. There is a great deal of talk of achievements such as the establishment of a peaceful and prosperous empire which formed the roots of modern Europe, the essentially Latin (as opposed to Hellenistic) character of that empire thanks to his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, and the patronage of literature and the arts. Although scholars in this period were willing to criticise the means by which he achieved sole power at Rome, there is also a strong sense that the ends justified the means, and even a willingness to write apologiae for his more unpalatable acts – for example by claiming that Rome was hardly a democracy before his rise to power anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if he then transformed it into a monarchy!

Yet in the middle of it all there is Ronald Syme, about to effect a profound change in contemporary views of Augustus. At the time of the natal bimillennium he was going round beginning practically every book review he wrote with sentences like “A memorable and alarming anniversary looms heavily upon us” (that one’s from The Classical Review (1937) 51: 194), and proceeding to criticise other people’s efforts to assess Augustus’ career. Responding more astutely than anyone else around him to the tide of political developments in continental Europe, he was about to raise serious questions about that balance between means and ends. Few people since have been willing to argue that Augustus only did it all for the greater good.

With Syme, our actual experiences of 20th-century dictatorships, and another half-century of western democratic nations positioning themselves against first Communist and then Middle Eastern dictatorships under our belts, I’m pretty sure the bimillennium of Augustus’ death will be marked quite differently from that of his birth. After all, we are basically talking about a guy whose biggest achievement was to overthrow the Roman Republic and install himself as an absolute monarch. Not a very palatable story in the early 21st century. But we can still engage with Augustus without needing to eulogise him. We can certainly cast all sorts of light over our contemporary political landscape by examining the combination of brute force, rhetoric and careful public image-making which he used to persuade contemporaries to accept – and even welcome – a trade-off between their security and their civil liberties. Some good documentaries could be made exploring his political techniques, their parallels in the modern world, and what the degree of similarity or difference tells us about our own system.

But I will just have to wait and see what, if anything, actually happens for the bimillennium – apart from my own conference, of course. In the meantime, I am busy getting stuck into the planning for that – contacting key speakers, arranging a suitable venue, and putting together some funding applications. I’ve got some very exciting people lined up already, who have promised some very interesting papers, and I’m starting to feel pretty pleased by how everything is falling into place. But I suppose I need to wait until the ‘behind-the-scenes’ details are fully organised before I am in a position to announce it all formally. I can certainly say that any major developments will be covered on this blog, and that I’ll be circulating an open call for conference papers at least a year before the event itself.

And if there is anyone else out there planning something of their own for Augustus’ ‘fatal bimillennium’, do get in touch. (A comment on this post will reach me, or further contact details can be found here.) I certainly want to know about anything which museums, TV production companies, publishers or Classical societies might be doing to mark the event. Half of what I want to do over the next two years is engage with those sorts of activities, get a sense of what you are doing and why, and maybe contribute myself if that’s appropriate. And if there are other academics developing research work of their own around the forthcoming bimillennium, I’m keen to hear about that too. Maybe you’d like to contribute a paper at my conference, or if you’ve been planning a conference of your own, perhaps we could join forces? I would certainly much rather collaborate on one big conference than have two competing events happening in different places on the same day. I’ve started this project off by myself so far, and I have my own clear ideas about what I want to do. But it also feels to me like the sort of thing which has a great deal of what funding bodies call collaborative potential – both within and beyond academia. I’d certainly smile if Augustus’ real bimillennial legacy in 2014 was to inspire a project that was all about cooperation and sharing.

Posted in anniversaries, augustus, classical receptions, history, politics, roman emperors, roman history, rome | 6 Comments »

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.

Posted in augustus, politics, roman cities | Leave a Comment »

Defending the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 16, 2010

Anyone working in the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences has felt cold winds blowing of late. I’ve felt them very directly myself. When the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds announced last year that all departments and services across the entire university needed to start modelling 20-25% savings on the basis of the cuts to Higher Education funding which he knew (very presciently) were coming, one of the first responses from our so-called fellow-departments in the School of Humanities was to propose the closure of Classics. But my own department is far from the only one feeling the pinch. Other similar cases of late have included:

And there are doubtless others I’ve missed. Now, of course, the total removal of the direct teaching budget for Arts and Humanities subjects is being proposed as part of the measures in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Anyone would think that the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences had no value – that they were a trifling luxury and a drain on the national resources.

Except that they’re not. This isn’t the first crisis which the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences have faced. We’ve already got very used to defending ourselves by identifying what we have to offer to the wider society and economy within which we operate, and articulating that to the appropriate audiences. Detailed reports commissioned by the British Academy in 2004 and 2010 and by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2010 (PDF document) have shown that Arts and Humanities subjects play an essential role in equipping graduates with the analytical and communications skills needed for today’s knowledge-driven economy, that they foster the necessary political and cultural conditions for economic growth, and that they contribute directly to the economy. That’s before, of course, we even bother to mention trivial matters such as cultural enrichment, or the ability to make sense of the changing attitudes, discourses and values at work in the world around us.

Increasingly, public figures have been speaking out about the value of Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects. These are just some of the examples I have gathered:

The central message of all of these articles is clear: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences not only enrich their graduates as individuals, and the cultures within which they operate collectively, but they also make a measurable contribution to the balance-sheets of the universities where they are taught, the companies where their graduates are employed and the nations in which they are pursued.

And, going one step further than individual speeches and articles, the collaborative movement to stand together and make this clear to those who fail to understand it is growing. Martha Nussbaum will be giving a public talk on the subject in London on 16th December. I’d encourage any London-based readers to go – but apparently space at the event is already fully booked out. That shows the growing extent of collective concern about the subject.

And just two days ago, a group of scholars and students in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, working together with business people who support and value their work, set up a collaborative blog for the purpose of speaking out for our subjects, as well as a related petition. This has the potential to be a great gathering-point for everyone who sees the value of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – especially for people who don’t work in those fields themselves, but want to show their appreciation for what these subject areas can contribute to our culture, society and (yes) economy.

I’ve already signed the petition myself, and will repost what I wrote here for ease of reference:

“Now more than ever, the UK needs graduates who have been highly trained in the skills of rigorous analysis, critical evaluation, digesting and making sense of large quantities of information, and communicating their findings to others clearly, accurately and persuasively. These are exactly the skills which arts, humanities and social science subjects deliver. Furthermore, the academics who teach these subjects are already highly experienced in drawing the attention of their students to these skills as they encounter them, and helping them to develop them further. I know this because I am a Classics lecturer myself, and skills development is central to our curriculum. Undermining all of this now would deal a severe blow to the future of our modern, skills-based economy – to say nothing, of course, of our cultural landscape.”

Whoever you are and whatever you do, I would strongly urge you to do the same.

Posted in higher education, politics | 2 Comments »

Res Gestae Antonii Blairi

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 17, 2010

Portrait of Augustus from the Prima Porta statueLast academic year, one of my students wrote a dissertation comparing Tony Blair The cover of Tony Blair's memoirs, 'A Journey'with the first Roman emperor, Augustus. She looked at themes such as the way they managed their public image, the things they emphasised in their political rhetoric, and the relationship between their private lives (e.g. religion, family) and public profiles. All in all, she did a good job of arguing that although they were obviously operating in very different political environments, there were certain distinctive similarities in the ways that they presented themselves as politicians and aimed to foster public support – a basic template for statesmanship, if you will.

Yesterday, Tony Blair ensured that there is yet another resonance between their careers by publishing his memoirs and dedicating their proceeds to the Royal British Legion. Specifically, a £4.6 million advance payment from his publishers will go towards the Legion’s Battle Back Challenge Centre for the rehabilitation of injured service personnel – as will any further profits if the book out-sells expectations. This is an immensely canny move, which metaphorically transforms a man whom many despise for his eagerness to launch illegal and unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into a selfless benefactor, putting the needs of the soldiers who fought for him before his own financial interests. As the official statement has it, this is to be his way of recognising and honouring “the courage and sacrifice the armed forces demonstrate”. The contrast with Peter Mandelson’s slimy scandal-mongering method of publicising his own memoirs is striking. And though Mandelson may make more money from his book, Blair’s approach is likely to reach more people, more persuasively. Even his critics will now feel that at least he is not profiting directly if they buy they book and read his side of the story – which must, of course, be what he really hopes to get out of it.

But, as with so many strokes of political genius, Augustus got there first. His donations to his veteran soldiers weren’t actually funded out of the profits of writing his memoirs. In a world without copyright law, politicians couldn’t expect to make serious money that way, and in any case generally didn’t need to. But they wrote them anyway, for much the same motivations which Tony Blair seems to be displaying – in order to ensure that their stories were recorded in the way that they wanted them to be told. In Augustus’ case, there was one early account, probably written in the 20s BC to justify his own illegal and unnecessary wars, but which is now largely lost beyond a few quotations in other authors. What survives now, though, is closer in character to Tony Blair’s book anyway, in that it is a summary of his entire reign, written from a perspective at the end of his political career – which, since he was an absolute monarch, was in his case also the end of his life.

One thing which this account certainly goes out of its way to emphasise is Augustus’ generosity throughout his lifetime – and especially towards his soldiers. The very opening sentence announces that it will record “the amounts which he expended upon the state and the Roman people”. Chapters 15 to 18 then detail his many cash handouts, including those spent on buying land to provide pensions for veteran soldiers, giving out special one-off donatives to veterans already settled in his colonies, and setting up a new treasury especially to fund army pensions. In case you missed that bit, or failed to keep an appropriate running total in your head as you read, there is also a handy summary at the end recapping the total sum spent: 600 million denarii, which for context is 2.67 million times the annual wage of an ordinary legionary soldier at the time. And all of this, he is very careful to specify, came from his own personal fortune, not from the public treasury. He wanted his soldiers to feel personal gratitude and loyalty towards him and his family – not towards some vague abstraction like the state.

So this is how to round off your political legacy on the right note, today as it was two millennia ago – publish your own account of your career, and couple it with a magnanimous demonstration of your selfless and paternalistic generosity towards the troops whom you have sent into action.

The similarities are not perfect, of course. Blair still maintains that he was ‘right’ to go into Iraq, but he also lives in a society where plenty of other people are ready to criticise him for it. Augustus, by contrast, writes with pride of his foreign conquests. Though he does take care to specify that he never engaged in an ‘unjust war’, this wasn’t in any case a criticism he generally needed to worry about, at least in relation to wars against non-Romans. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to most of his contemporaries in Rome to question Augustus’ right to wage war on their behalf against troublesome foreign peoples.

Perhaps more comparable to Tony Blair’s Iraq and Afghanistan were the civil wars which Augustus had fought in the 40s and 30s BC, first against the assassins of Julius Caesar and then against Antony and Cleopatra. That was something which Roman commentators did object to – the losses of Roman lives on both sides, for nothing more than the sake of an individual’s hold on power. It was probably largely in order to justify and excuse his role in these wars that Augustus had published his earlier (lost) memoirs. And it is also in those parts of his surviving account that he can be seen most obviously suppressing details and obscuring unpalatable truths. He even calls one set of his opponents ‘pirates’ – surely the ‘terrorists’ of the first century BC.

Blair has also been subject to criticism for his donation to the Royal British Legion in a way that Augustus would never have expected. Commentators have called it an empty gesture, an attempt to ease a guilty conscience, and even a form of tax avoidance. But Roman commentators were generally less cynical – or perhaps simply more realistic – about the motives of their politicians. The specific benefactions which a politician chose to make could be criticised, of course, as Cicero’s scathing letter to a friend about the opening shows at Pompey’s theatre reveals. But the basic fact of making large donations was a widely accepted form of political currency. It is obvious from Augustus’ text that he expects nothing but adulation for his generosity towards the troops.

Did he expect people to forget all about his misdeeds in return, as people seem to think that Tony Blair is now hoping? Probably not, and they certainly didn’t. But Augustus wouldn’t have expected criticism for the act of the donation itself. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think people today are right to question and criticise Tony Blair’s motives. I’m pretty sure that we are better off living in a society where we aren’t willing (or desperate enough?) to overlook large crimes against humanity for the sake of small material benefits. But our cynical response to this sort of action does also tend to mean that the rich in modern Britain are discouraged from making benefactions at all, thus cutting off a potential means of the redistribution of wealth, as well as a form of connection between people at different levels of the social hierarchy. I wonder if we’ve got it quite right, either.

Posted in augustus, politics, roman emperors, roman history | 4 Comments »

The quinquennium of Clegg and Cameron

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 13, 2010

The full Con-Lib coalition agreement has now emerged, Cameron and Clegg have held an extraordinary press conference, and we now know who’s in the cabinet

I thought the press conference was brilliant, and am not surprised that everyone and their fish was likening it to a civil partnership ceremony – a piece of social vocabulary, of course, which we must remember that we have the Labour party to thank for. As a Classicist, though, I also couldn’t help but see it in terms of the inauguration of a pair of consuls. Consuls were more equal in rank than our new pairing, but there was an acknowledged ‘senior’ consul, who took up the office first and got to speak first in debates – just as Cameron did yesterday.

Consuls also knew full well that they would have to serve together once they were elected – that, in fact, was the whole point of having two of them. The system was designed to ensure that no one person had a monopoly on state power, and for that reason, either consul could veto the actions of the other (‘veto’ simply being Latin for ‘I forbid’). Clegg and Cameron don’t seem to have any such formal mechanism for stopping one another’s actions, but of course in practice they do both know perfectly well that if either of them does anything which the other one seriously disapproves of, their coalition will fall apart, and both of their political careers will be over. So that’s a pretty strong motivation to work together, even if it’s not what they anticipated before the election.

Consuls served for only one year, not five – and that certainly did lead to catastrophic short-termism of the kind David Cameron assured us yesterday that he wants to avoid. In particular, it encouraged consuls to rush headlong into military campaigns, since they knew that if they didn’t score a victory during their short time in office, that honour would go to their successor instead. But the five-year period was also pretty important in Roman politics. It was known as a quinquennium, which just means ‘period of five years’. (Isn’t it a lovely word, though? Any word with two Qs in it (and Latin has a fair few) has got to be good value for money.) In Rome, censors (whose responsibilities were different from what our modern word ‘censorship’ might imply) were elected every five years in order to perform a census of the general population and revise the membership of the senate – which is part of what’s just happened to parliament, of course, though not quite so directly at Cameron and Clegg’s initiative. Meanwhile, five-year periods of special military command became increasingly common in the late Republic, though they were never an official part of the system and always required extraordinary legislation to be passed. More on those in a moment.

Not all consuls got on, of course. They were not like American presidential and vice-presidential candidates, running on a joint ticket for the same party. Roman politics didn’t actually have parties, anyway – the closest it came were factions, which were basically like modern political parties would be if they were only about tribalism, nepotism and power, and didn’t involve policies or (heaven forbid!) principles at all. Factions would, of course, try to get their boys into both offices whenever possible, but it didn’t always work, and sometimes bitter rivals shared office together. And if you think the Tories and LibDems can be described as ‘bitter rivals’, then let me tell you that the greatest gulfs which you can identify between them are as NOTHING compared to the rivalries of late Republican politics.

Perhaps the most famous example of ill-matched consuls is Caesar and Bibulus in 59 BC. Caesar already had very powerful friends behind him – particularly Pompey and Crassus – and basically saw his consulship as a chance to secure everything that these three men and their cronies were after: land for their soldiers, preferential treatment for their legislation and lucrative appointments for the following year. Bibulus hated Caesar and everything he stood for. He began by trying to veto Caesar’s actions, but quickly found that his veto was actually meaningless, because Caesar’s supporters simply attacked him (with literal physical violence) when he tried to interpose it. So he then fell back on his position as an augur – a priest who divines the will of the gods by watching the behaviour of birds. Bibulus spent the rest of the year standing on the roof of his house, proclaiming that the omens were bad, and that therefore all Caesar’s legislation was contrary to the will of the gods – and, hence, invalid. Caesar just ignored him.

Back to Clegg and Cameron, thankfully, they seem to be getting on rather better than this – so far, at least! We certainly don’t want their time in power to end the way Caesar and Bibulus’ did, anyway, because it was in 58 BC at the end of his consulship that Caesar headed off across the Alps to take up one of those five-year military commands I mentioned earlier on, and use it to conquer Gaul. I mean, I know Cameron’s a Eurosceptic, but I’d hope that is going a bit far, even for him. Meanwhile, though, I did notice a couple of points during the joint press conference, particularly towards the end, when Clegg looked up at the skies:

Could he have been checking the omens? If he was, the birds were certainly all singing very nicely, and he doesn’t seem to have felt the need to declare that the meeting should be adjourned on grounds of being contrary to the will of the gods. So they must have been good ones. I hope they stay that way – but I also hope he remembers to keep checking.

Posted in birds, julius caesar, latin, politics, roman history, roman religion | 6 Comments »


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