A Brief Note on the Tone and Structure of this Article

Words of warning: Although this is not, ultimately, a scholarly article - (the methodology and use of sources does not qualify it as such) - it may, nonetheless, strike some as too "scholarly", on account of its detail and extensive use of footnotes. Sorry! But it’s been my goal, here, to really put together something substantive, and to provide a strong body of facts along with my interpretation.

For convenience’s sake, the article has been organized into sections. Some specifically deal with the Games, while others describe the social history of Rome (fascinating in itself), which provides a context for understanding the development of the Games, as well as their deeper significance. The section on "Augustus Caesar", which begins as a discussion of social history, ends with a description of the role of the Games in the new social order which the first Roman Emperor initiated.

Regarding footnotes: Some footnotes are only included for the purpose of identifying sources, while others are explanatory, and serve the function of mini-appendices. Footnotes which contain significant explanations or major doses of additional material are provided with links from, and back to, the main text; footnotes which merely document a source, or provide related comments which can just as easily be dispensed with, are not provided with such links. Readers should feel no compulsion to use the notes, but may refer to them if more detail is desired.

Footnote 102 contains a biography of Caligula, and Footnote 104 one of Nero. These interesting studies of personality, which also have sociological and historical value, have been relegated to the footnotes section of Part One in the interest of preserving the overall structure of the article.

This article has been broken into two parts due to its size. This is Part One. Part Two can be reached by following the appropriate link in the Table of Contents.  (To give a general idea of the size of this article, it is approximately 145 single-spaced pages, in 12 pt. type - not your average Rainsnow essay!)

For those interested in a substantial and detailed, but not quite academic, account of the Roman Games, and the social history which shaped them and was shaped by them, I now present: "Entertainment, Politics, and the Soul: Lessons of the Roman Games." - JRS





The Ludi and the Munera: Public and Private Games

Political Uses of the Games in the Republic

Social Classes and Political Institutions of the Roman Republic

Class Struggle and the Empowerment of the Plebeians

Efforts, by the Patricians, to Curb the Growing Power of the Plebeians

Rome’s New Social Crisis and the Gracchi

Marius, Sulla, and the Triumph of Personality over Institutions

Julius Caesar and the End of Roman Democracy

Augustus Caesar: The First Emperor and His Solution to the War Between the Classes, Including the Role of the Games

List of Principal Sources





Types of Games, and Featured Entertainment

Venues of the Games

Chariot Races

Gladiatorial Games (and the Naumachia)

The Use of Animals in the Games

Public Executions as a Feature of the Roman Games


The Psychology of Participants and Spectators

Bread and Circuses, and the Fall of Rome

Lessons for Today? 


List of Principal Sources




Nero was Emperor, and for two weeks the mob had been rioting uncontrolled in the streets of Rome. The economy of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen was coming apart like an unraveling sweater. The cost of maintaining Rome’s gigantic armed forces, equipped with the latest catapults, ballistae, and fast war galleys, was bleeding the nation white and in addition there were the heavy subsidies that had to be paid to the satellite nations dependent on Rome for support. The impoverished government had neither the funds nor the power to stop the riots.

In this crisis, the Captain of the Shipping hurried by chariot to consult with the first tribune.

"The merchant fleet is in Egypt awaiting loading," he announced. "The ships can be loaded either with grain for the starving people or with the special sand used on the track for the chariot races. Which shall it be?"

"Are you mad!" screamed the tribune. "The situation here has got out of control. The emperor’s a lunatic, the army’s on the edge of mutiny and the people are dying of hunger. For the gods’ sake, get the sand! We have to get their minds off their troubles!"

Thus begins Daniel P. Mannix’s Those About To Die, a popular book, in days gone by, about the Roman Games. [1] While possibly overdramatized, the passage does allude to an actual moment of history [2], and goes straight to the heart of one of the prime motives behind the Roman Games, as they came to exist, in late Republican and Imperial times. [3] Long a symbol of sordid decadence, cruel and mindless diversion, and moral collapse, the Games were an inextricable component and symptom of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and have had a profound impact on the consciousness of many generations, reminding us of the terrible human capacity for savagery in the midst of civilized accomplishments. In the manner of HG Wells’ tale of Dr. Moreau and the thinly-cultured beasts which he tried to raise to the level of men, the story of the Roman Games exposes the fragility of our moral values; the ease with which civilization may create, within itself, pockets of acceptable barbarism, and degenerate towards tyranny or impotence; the ever-present threat of decay that lurks within what is alive and strong; as it simultaneously demonstrates the power of entertainment, distraction, and escapism to divert the socially repressed from achieving justice. A parallel, artificial world, magnificent and dangerous, constructed to draw the mind and soul away from the real world, where the real work of claiming one’s rightful place remained to be done: this was the ingenious achievement of the Roman Games, and its warning to the civilizations that succeeded it. Beware the fall from God! Beware the backward slide, down the mountain of your climb towards perfection! Beware the curse of your hypocrisy! Beware your blindness to your powerlessness - let no theater of another’s misfortune, no seat above the sand of someone else’s death, convince you that you are high! Let no other man’s pain rob you of your own! There are many today who see parallels between the death throes of ancient Rome, wrapped in spectacle and strategies of pacification, and the possible decline of our own civilization, drawn away from its soul by numbing entertainments: desensitized to violence, confused by the blurring borders between fantasy and reality, by the unclear boundaries between someone else’s imagination and one’s own life. Increasingly anarchistic mass spectator sports, marred (enlivened) by violence and by blatant contempt for the rules; reality TV shows, escalating towards the public humiliation and pain of others, as well as programs featuring disaster scenes, crashes and animal attacks; video games filled with blood, murder, rape, and mayhem, encouraging one to be a destroyer; song and rap lyrics glorifying murder, violence, and rape; and the perception of real war, presented through the same media as all of this fantasy violence, as just another form of fantasy (until one is actually touched by it in a personal way) - all of these trends have unsettled social analysts endowed with enough historical depth to remember the story of ancient Rome. Is our own civilization headed that way? Does the ghost of ancient Rome haunt the streets of modern-day America? - Without presuming to give a definite answer, I feel that it is useful to provide a readable and accessible account of the games of ancient Rome at this time in the history of our own civilization - to see that this old, yet disconcertingly contemporary, material remains in view, for our consideration, and, if need be, action.

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The Ludi and the Munera: Public and Private Games

The ludi, or public games of ancient Rome, were originally linked to important religious festivals, and were actually comprised of a number of very different activities, including chariot races, stage shows and theater (ludi scaenici), and animal hunts. [4] A variety of ludi were given on an annual basis, corresponding to yearly festivals, and these included the ludi Romani, the ludi Plebii (in honor of Jupiter), the ludi Apollinares (in honor of Apollo), the ludi Megalenses (in honor of the Great Mother), the ludi Florales (in honor of a fertility goddess, Flora), and the ludi Ceriales (in honor of Ceres), followed by the invention of still further ludi as time went on (including ludi honoring prominent figures of Roman history). In addition to these formal annual games (ludi sollemnes) which were presided over by the public authorities, special ludi (ludi extraordinarii) were sometimes organized as a result of extraordinary circumstances, such as the achievement of a great military victory, the dedication of a new temple, or the end of a natural disaster. These, too, were presided over by the civil authorities. Ludi funebres, or special funeral-related spectacles, were another class of entertainment, provided upon the death of important figures. Oftentimes, they were privately sponsored and organized, outside the domain of the civic administration, in which case they were known as munera ("gifts"). They could be presented anytime a wealthy family lost a member, either immediately following the loss, or at some time in the future, well after the death had actually taken place. It was through the medium of the munera that gladiatorial combats were first introduced into Rome, and the munera remained the primary (though not exclusive) outlet for this sort of spectacle until the beginning of the Imperial period. Historians and archaeologists are not in agreement about the exact origin of Rome’s gladiatorial games, considering that the Romans might have inherited this custom from either the Etruscans, the Campanians, or the Samnites [5], but in general terms, the practice seems to have been associated with the funeral rites of other Italian peoples and to have constituted some sort of sacrifice to the Gods on behalf of the dead. Initially, the victims may simply have been killed; later, the sacrifice was given the form of an exciting combat. [6] Slaves, war captives and criminals were the main source from which these sacrificial victims were drawn. In the early days of Roman history, when every Roman citizen of standing was expected to serve in the military as needed, and when Roman military might was based upon citizen armies, rather than professional armies, the gladiatorial games - in addition to the religious function which they fulfilled - were possibly useful as a kind of psychological preparation for war. As Carlin Barton writes in her excellent book The Sorrows Of The Ancient Romans: "The gladiator’s life could be seen as a model of severe soldierly discipline, of the soldier’s askesis. Even observing the games could be imagined as a form of soldierly training." One ancient observer wrote of one sponsor of the games, that he produced "nothing spineless or flabby, nothing that would soften or break the manly spirit of the audience, but a spectacle which inspired the audience to noble wounds and to despise death, since even in the bodies of slaves and criminals the love of praise and desire for victory could be seen." Gladiatorial games were credited with igniting in "many young men an enthusiasm for arms." In 105 BC, Rutilius and Manlius "put on the first publicly sponsored gladiatorial games so that they might give the plebs, accustomed to peace, a flavor of what occurred on the battlefield", while, according to some sources, "Roman soldiers destined for battle were obliged to witness gladiatorial combats… in order to prevent their being terrified of the armed enemy or of wounds and blood." As further evidence of the links between the gladiatorial system and the Roman war machine, it seems that some gladiatorial arenas were actually incorporated into the layout of Roman garrisons, most likely allowing the soldiers to observe combats of this type on a regular basis; and that the coaches of gladiators were also frequently employed by Roman officers to help train their troops. [7] The image of a cowardly and weak Roman audience beholding, in the gladiatorial games, something which they would never personally dare face themselves was less true in the beginning than it was towards the end of Rome’s existence.

In the beginning, the ludi (the public games) were less lurid and decadent in premise and results than they were religious and "patriotic", meant to promote a forum for collective bonding and a sense of community. Chariot-racing was the great passion of the people, and stage performances were also very popular, although the Romans tended to like less the sophisticated plays of the Greeks and works in that style, and more their own form of "popular theater", in which comedy, burlesque, and pantomime played a major role. As Beacham writes: "Serious drama may increasingly have found refuge in private performances given in the great houses of the nobility." [8] One extremely well-loved form of theatrical entertainment was "mime", this referring to a kind of formless entertainment without plot or script, which might incorporate acrobatics, song, dance, jokes, parodies and satires of everyday life, and exaggerated drama. (Something like a variety show?) Masks, part of the standard theatrical tradition of Greco-Roman times, were not used in these shows, and female performers were also allowed (classically, female roles had been played by males wearing masks). Moments of female nudity, and an open-to-lewd atmosphere, ensured high attendance, in spite of the reticence of some "old school Romans" who thought themselves too high-minded for this. (Especially affected were some of the serious playwrights, who felt their talents bypassed by the tastes of the masses. On one occasion, after animal fights had become popular in Rome, a serious play was interrupted by bored spectators calling out: "Bring on the bears!" In a desperate attempt to survive artistically, some of these playwrights hired groups of people to be their fans, and to applaud their performances, hoping that this artificial enthusiasm would somehow prove contagious. "High art" and claques was certainly an unusual - if predictable - combination in ancient Rome.) [9]

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Political Uses of the Games in the Republic

As time went on, the Roman games began to assume increasing social and political importance, while losing a considerable degree of religious significance. The presentation of the ludi was dependent upon certain public figures, including, most importantly, the aediles (who were elected officials in charge of the details of city administration), and then the consuls (joint executives) and the urban praetor (city executive in the absence of the consuls; and chief administrator of the courts). [10] The post of aedile was particularly important, as in the beginning, these figures were in charge of organizing and presenting five (and later four) of the ludi. The ludi, it soon became obvious, were excellent points of contact between elected officials and the Roman masses, allowing politically ambitious officials to demonstrate their organizational abilities and their generosity towards the people, as manifested by the care they put into the games. To put on good games was, in a sense, a sign of respect for the people, and a way of winning their trust and affection - a valuable political resource for the future. The role of aedile therefore became an important steppingstone for politicians aiming at higher positions, such as consul. Julius Caesar, for one, launched his illustrious political career from the post of aedile, putting on magnificent shows at the ludi Romani and ludi Megalenses in 65 BC: games which made a lasting impression on the Roman public, and won him a strong base of popular support as he began the upwards climb which would eventually turn him into the most powerful man in Rome. (He further enhanced his image by putting on private munera in honor of his father that same year, featuring impressive gladiatorial contests, followed by public banquets.) [11]

As the value of the games as springboards to political success became more and more apparent, competition between public figures to woo the people through spectacle escalated, leading to ever more lavish and innovative presentations. This trend delighted many, but also alarmed many. The importance of positions such as aedile, which provided unparalleled opportunities for advancing one’s political career by allowing one to stage the games, led to frequent cases of bribery, as candidates competed fiercely to attain these posts. The fact that bribery to gain office was a capital offense [12] was only a slight deterrent. More than this, many clear-thinking Romans came to see the games, themselves, as forms of bribery, especially the privately-sponsored munera, which could be given by public officials outside of their official capacity (as Caesar did); or by private citizens with political aspirations. Although the games were, obviously, not considered to be bribery in any strictly legal sense, their impact and use by ambitious politicians could not be discounted by citizens concerned about the future of their democracy. The growth of the games in Rome was, therefore, not uncontested: philosophers and legislators frequently sought to limit their effect, to prevent them from distorting the political system and from "corrupting the morals of the people." Moved by these concerns, the government experimented with placing spending caps on the games, as public officials frequently supplemented state funds (which were provided for the presentation of the ludi), with private funds (drawn from their own fortunes, or raised from their political associates), in order to be able to put on ever more spectacular shows. Laws were also put into effect to prevent citizens from running for office who had just recently presented munera. In both cases, the clear intent was to prevent individuals from "buying elections" by means of the games. [13] Along similar lines, there were sometimes efforts to limit the number of gladiators that wealthy sponsors could present in their munera. In 65 BC, for example, the massive gladiatorial spectacle that Caesar originally planned was downsized by other politicians. [14] Although the principal justification was based on security - for the fierce revolt of Spartacus was still on the people’s mind [15], and the presence of so many well-trained, well-armed gladiator-slaves in the city seemed rather frightening - there was certainly also the motive, brought into play by Caesar’s political opponents, of stunting one avenue by which their rival might gain in political stature. (For more on the revolt of Spartacus, see below, footnote # [16].) [16 TXT]

Interestingly enough, while the gladiatorial games generated some criticism on the basis of their "wasteful extravagance", their political impact, and the occasional appearance of a free Roman citizen - lowering himself to the level of a criminal or slave in order to obtain glory as a gladiator, at the price of demeaning his class [17] - few humanitarian objections were raised. Those who lifted their voices against the games on account of their cruelty and brutality appear to have been a rather ineffective minority. [18] Laws prohibiting Roman nobles of the senatorial and equestrian orders from participating in the games as gladiators, charioteers, and actors were most often in effect (but they were also frequently violated). Most likely, the ruling class feared to present itself on the same level as those it had conquered and enslaved, for these spectacles could show all who watched the vulnerability of those who sat on top of the social order. (Long before, Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, was encouraged by his friends to participate in the Olympic Games. They were impressed by his great speed, but he discerned the risk of exposing his mystique and competing against ‘the common man’; and, therefore, is reputed to have said "he would do so only if he might have kings to run with him." [19] Perhaps this spirit is what motivated the Roman legislation.)

Additionally, there were frequent efforts to ban certain components of "the games" in order to prevent the populace from being "corrupted", and the values believed responsible for upholding the greatness of Rome from being undermined. The theater was a common target of such legislation. In 151 BC a large stone theater nearing completion was, in fact, ordered demolished by the Senate which heeded P. Scipio Nasica’s warning that it was "useless and injurious to public morals." [20] The content of many of the performances was deemed immoral - lewd, disrespectful, and valueless; there were frequent moments of conflict and discord as factions supporting rival performers clashed, or "rabble-rousers" and protesters descended on the theater to push their political agendas [21]; or as themes or performances seemed to be critical of the ruling class. [22] At various times in Roman history, certain kinds of performances were outlawed, and performers were even banished or executed.

In spite of these dynamics of resistance, however, the Roman games only grew stronger as time went on. In democratic Republican times, the public figures who opposed or limited them lost valuable political capital, and most often ended up sabotaging their political careers, exposing themselves to defeat in the next election; while in Imperial times, the Emperors recognized the crucial social value of the games as outlets for the masses to let off their steam without threatening the system; as distractions of critical importance, and allies in their own survival.

To truly understand the games - before continuing on to the always fascinating, always shocking details of the spectacles - it is necessary to take a closer look at the social history of Rome. It is in this history - in the tense and unresolved relations between the classes - that the true meaning, and perhaps the greatest damage of the games, will be found…

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Social Classes and Political Institutions of the Roman Republic

Ultimately, Rome fell because its rich and poor could never bridge the gap between them; and in the tragedy of its demise, the Games played a major role. While the history of this fatal gap, in all its complexity and with all its nuances, is well beyond the scope of this article, a general picture of the dynamics of disparity which brought Rome down can, nonetheless, be drawn.

Rome was characterized, from the beginning, by two main classes of citizens, the patricians, or nobles, who were generally also predominant in terms of wealth; and the plebeians, or "common folk", who lacked social clout and generally were much poorer (some were poorer relative to the nobles, while others were just poor. In later times, some plebeians actually came to possess more wealth than some patricians, but continued to suffer from an inferior social status, even so. Bloodlines, not wealth, were the definitive means of distinguishing patricians from plebeians.) In early days, the patricians probably constituted less than 1/20 of the total population of Rome, and yet, they were the ones who ran Rome. [23] There were also slaves, of course, who did not count as citizens. These slaves were usually war captives or other foreigners, come into slavery by various means, and sold in Roman slave markets.

Originally beginning as a small Italian city-state ruled by kings, somewhere around 753 BC [24], Rome eventually fell under the dominion of its powerful neighbors to the north, the Etruscans, who were also ruled by kings. This period of subjugation (615 BC - 510 BC) proved so onerous to the Romans that, upon liberating themselves, they instituted a new political system, transforming themselves into a Republic (a nation governed by its citizens through their elected representatives). This withdrawal from kings, after a period of bitter abuse by kings, is reminiscent of the American Revolution and the birth of our own democracy. What is also common between the Roman and American experiences is the limited nature of the original democracy which replaced the kings who had provoked the liberating reaction. Democracy, as it first appeared in Rome, was for the wealthy and the powerful. They wanted freedom from others like themselves, not for others to be free from them.

Roman democracy, in its earliest days, revolved around the Senate, the Consuls, and the Assembly of Centuries. [25] The Senate, a body of 300 men drawn from the most powerful and influential families of Rome, was the continuation of an advisory council which had existed in the days of the kings. It represented the will of the Roman elite, and was an impressive reservoir of knowledge, experience, and talent, as well as class bias. Members of the Senate were appointed for life, as in our own Supreme Court, and were not elected by the people; instead, as vacancies appeared in the 300-man body, they were filled by new members chosen by patrician officials known as censors, who also oversaw the all-important censuses of ancient Rome, which were important for determining the property levels of citizens. (These property levels, in turn, were important for determining the military obligations and political power of the different classes.) [26] In theory, the Senate remained nothing more than an advisory council. Its senatus consulta was considered to be non-binding advice, and yet, the stature and influence of those who gave it meant that this "advice" was rarely ignored or rejected by either the Consuls or the Assembly of Centuries. Peace or war, law, foreign relations, finances, social issues - when the Senate spoke, Rome listened. (In later days, the Senate assumed direct control over the finances of Rome, much as the American Congress today controls the disbursement of public funds.)

Fearing the dangers of excessive executive power, as it had been previously manifested during the long reign of the Etruscan kings, the Roman political system featured an executive branch which was limited in power by the rapid rotation of officials and by the use of human ambition to check human ambition (a concept which had a great impact on James Madison, the architect of our own Constitution). Instead of one, there were two chief executives in the Roman Republic (similar to the Spartan system of two kings), each one watching over the other and able to keep him in line, if need be. Furthermore, these executives, or Consuls, served for one-year, non-renewable terms, which did not allow them time to construct a power base which might subvert Senatorial influence.

The Consuls were elected by the Assembly of Centuries (Comitia Centuriata), a body of citizens whose organization shadowed the structure of the military ("centuries" were units in the army). Unlike in our own times, when the wealthy are the most likely to send others into battle and the least likely to go into battle themselves, in early Roman times the wealthy and well-to-do were expected to fight on behalf of their country. No man could hold an important political office unless he had first served ten years in the military. [27] Furthermore, in war, the brunt of the fighting was expected to be carried on by the propertied citizens, who were responsible for purchasing their own armor, weapons, and, in cases, horses. [28] The poorest citizens were not, at first, called into service except during times of acute emergency. (Perhaps the underlying motive of this arrangement was economic - the military expenditures of the state were reduced by the responsibility placed upon private citizens for providing their own weaponry, and the poorest could not afford to equip themselves to the point of being effective soldiers; furthermore, any prolonged absence of the working class from their labors could negatively affect the economy of the city-state. Or perhaps the fundamental motive was political - non-service being a form of disarmament, lowering the risk of class war.) Whatever the motive for this arrangement, property, military status, and political power went hand in hand in early Republican Rome. Of the 193 centuries in the Assembly, each of which was granted one vote - (the century voted, and the majority within that century determined which way its one vote would go) - only one century was designated to represent the poor. The wealthiest citizens - or equites (those who owned a cavalry horse) - comprised 18 centuries in the Assembly, and in combination with the 80 centuries of class 1 infantry (also very well-to-do citizens), constituted a majority in the Assembly, and could control its decisions. Although plebeians who met the necessary property qualifications were integrated into the army and participated in the Assembly (in infantry classes 3, 4, and 5), the structure of the Assembly essentially negated their presence. The fact that there was no absentee voting - one had to be physically present in order for one’s vote to be counted - further neutralized the power of the poorer citizens, who might be tied down by work, often outside of the city, and unable to attend the Assembly in order to vote. [29] It was this Assembly which elected the Consuls and the principal magistrates, decided on issues of war and peace, and on measures brought to it by the Consuls of their own accord, or more often, on behalf of the Senate. It also rendered verdicts in the case of Roman citizens charged with committing capital offenses. Voting in all matters was direct, and took place with only limited public participation. The Assembly was spoken to, presented with measures for its approval, and given the right to vote YES or NO. Its carefully-crafted design pretty much guaranteed results favorable to the Roman elite. (See Footnote [30] for a more detailed portrait of the Assembly.) [30 TXT]

While monopolistically serving the interests of the elite, the system provided a formidable array of checks and balances which prevented one section of the elite from subjugating another section of the elite. For this reason, the system occasionally encountered difficulties at moments of extreme crisis, such as invasion, when decisive and united leadership was required. At such moments, the Senate could declare a state of emergency, enhancing the authority of the Consuls, and enabling them to appoint a Dictator - an authoritarian leader invested with near-absolute powers - for a period of 6 months. In the early days of Rome, the system was so well-respected that none of these temporary dictators ever sought anything more than to overcome the crisis which had provoked his appointment, and then to step down, restoring full authority to the civil institutions which had momentarily receded. [31] However, the cultural acclimatization to dictatorship which this practice developed would come back to haunt Rome in later days, when tensions between rich and poor finally rose to levels which the democratic system could no longer accommodate.

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Class Struggle and the Empowerment of the Plebeians

As has often happened in history, the power of a great idea excited those for whom it was not intended. In ancient Rome, as elsewhere through time, democracy destabilized itself by creating political, social, and economic expectations which it was not prepared to meet, whereupon it faced the choice of either stabilizing itself through expansion, inclusion and de-hypocrisization; or else extinguishing itself through authoritarian reaction. The history of Rome’s effort to mend the gap between its classes, and to create a truly workable democracy, is as instructive as it is tragic.

At first, there was some progress, although it came only at the price of struggle. The plebeians naturally resented the second-class nature of their citizenship in Rome. All but the poorest of the plebeians (the propertyless citizens known as the proletarii) were eligible for military service (the majority of eligible plebeians were subsistence farmers). And yet, they had essentially no political power, which impacted upon them heavily in the case of war (when their farms might go under, with no safeguards or compensation, due to their prolonged absence from the fields); and in the case of prosecution (when they were largely at the mercy of the patrician-controlled legal system). These two vulnerabilities merged together when it came to the issue of debt, for a plebeian who could not repay his creditors, as frequently happened when a farmer lost his property during times of war, was likely to be swallowed up by the Roman custom of nexum, or debt bondage. According to this Roman tradition, the indebted man who had no economic assets left with which to satisfy his creditors, must begin to repay his debt by placing himself at his creditor’s disposal as his bond-servant. [32] It was, in many ways, a form of slavery, and for those who experienced it or felt the imminence of the threat, it made a farce of the idea that Rome was one country, made of one people.

The Roman historian Livy eloquently describes the "revolt of the debtors" which occurred just as a foreign enemy was threatening, writing: "The chief cause of the dispute [between the classes] was the plight of the unfortunates who were ‘bound over’ to their creditors for debt. These men complained that while they were fighting in the field to preserve their country’s liberty and to extend her power, their own fellow-citizens at home had enslaved and oppressed them… fellow Romans threatened them with worse slavery than a foreign foe." [33] The issue was brought to a head by the appearance, in the Forum, of an old and battered ex-soldier who had once served with distinction, now reduced to debt bondage. Livy has him say, " ‘While I was on service during the Sabine war, my crops were ruined by enemy raids, and my cottage was burnt. Everything I had was taken, including my cattle. Then, when I was least able to do so, I was expected to pay taxes, and fell, consequently, into debt. Interest on the borrowed money increased my burden; I lost the land which my father and grandfather had owned before me, and then my other possessions; ruin spread like a disease through all I had, and even my body was not exempt from it, for I was finally seized by my creditor and reduced to slavery…’" Livy goes on to say, "The man’s story, added to the sight of the weals on his back which still remained from recent beatings, caused a tremendous uproar, which spread swiftly from the forum through every part of the city. Debtors of all conditions - some actually in chains - forced their way into the streets and begged for popular support; everywhere men flocked to join the rising, until every street was packed with noisy crowds making their way to the Forum." [34] According to Livy, as the enemy army approached, "So deeply was the country divided by its political differences, that the people, unlike their oppressors in the governing class, hailed the prospect of invasion with delight. For them, it seemed like an intervention of providence to crush the pride of the Senate; they went about urging their friends to refuse military service - to let the whole community perish rather than one section of it, as was happening in any case. Let the patricians, they argued do the fighting if they wished: if there were war, let those face its dangers who alone reaped its profits." [35] In the midst of this crisis, one of the Consuls hit upon the idea of issuing an edict forbidding any Roman from fettering or imprisoning a fellow citizen in such a way as to impede him from enlisting for military service. Immediately, there was a rush of debtors to join the army, which became a mechanism of escape from bondage. (And other plebeians felt renewed fervor to serve as well). With the debtors in front, "burst[ing] out as hungry for blood as the beasts in the circus" [36], the Roman army smashed the invaders back. However, once victory was attained, the people, who had been led to expect a more permanent release from bondage as a result of their heroic participation in the salvation of Rome, were stunned to discover that their status had not really changed at all. Most were quickly reassigned to bondage. There was no social healing, or sign of gratitude on the part of the elites.

As a result of this betrayal, the social situation in Rome began to rapidly decline. In many cases, men about to be dragged off into bondage were rescued by mobs of people, who defied the Consuls and the Senate, and threatened the lives of the creditors. Rioting was frequent, and the plebeians took to meeting in an assembly of their own, essentially forming a parallel government in a country that was beginning to go in two separate directions. These were still early days in the history of Rome, and powerful enemies remained on the Italian peninsula, such as the Volscians, Sabines, and Aequians. It did not take long for another foreign crisis to develop, for which the patricians once more required the support of the plebeians. In spite of the previous betrayal, the plebeians again came to the aid of their country after a substantial program of debt relief was promised to them by a powerful and trusted Dictator, Valerius, who defeated Rome’s enemies with their assistance, then found the Senate unwilling to adhere to the promises which he had made to the people on their behalf. Valerius resigned from his position in disgust, respected by the people for his efforts, while their fury against the Senate increased. Fearing repercussions and the continued growth of a plebeian counter-government inside Rome should the victorious army disband, the Senate attempted to invent a new foreign threat which would allow them to keep the army active, and to keep a large portion of the plebeians contained within it: on their orders, the army was then to be marched far away from Rome. [37] However, by now, the plebeians had had as much as they could take. The plebeians in the army therefore deserted en masse, and marched to a site about three miles outside of Rome, where they established a camp that might become the basis of a new city of their own. Here, they waited, welcoming the arrival of additional plebs from the city, and making it clear that any efforts by the patricians to bring them back by force would be met by force.

This impressive breakaway, known as the "Secession of the Plebs" took place around 494 BC [38], and led to some radical changes in the constitution of Republican Rome. In order to reunite the country, some genuine and important concessions had to be made, including formal recognition of the plebeian council, the Concilium plebis, in which the plebeians were allowed to enact legislation applicable to themselves (but not binding on patricians); and the granting, to the plebeians, of two powerful officials known as Tribunes, which the plebeians themselves could elect, each year, in their assembly. The Tribunes were empowered to veto government laws and decrees which they felt threatened the welfare of the people; and they also had the power to provide protection against unjust persecution to endangered plebeians. In fact, the house of a Tribune was, by law, made to be inviolable, and he was expected to leave his door open night and day, so that any citizen who felt threatened by the powerful might flee from his tormentors to find sanctuary within. In a similar vein, the Tribune sought to guarantee a fair trial for every Roman, regardless of his class, and, when appropriate, to moderate the sentences of the condemned. [39] Before returning to Rome, the rebellious plebeians swore a sacred oath that they would kill any man, no matter how high, who dared to harm one of their tribunes. [40] The peace of the State was therefore made to rest upon the genuine integration of the plebeians into the Roman political system.

In the same way that our own society has developed and evolved over years, so the Roman system underwent a lengthy process of gradual change, following in the wake of this dramatic breakthrough. In 450 BC, a clear and open presentation of Rome’s laws was made in the form of the Twelve Tables, displayed for all citizens to see. [41] No longer was the law to be hidden or chameleon-like, a merely shifting tool of elite power, it was to be concrete and widely-known, a process much more than an emotion, binding both the strong and the weak by its rules. This does not mean that the laws were fair or that the legal system could not be better navigated and utilized by the wealthy than by the poor: only that some formalized objective criteria of judgment were substituted for the will of the strong. Of course, this development, however limited it might seem to us today, was a great advance for the plebeians.

In 445 BC, the law forbidding marriage between patricians and plebeians was struck down. [42] This step enabled ambitious and successful plebeians to marry into the aristocracy, and to acquire status for their descendants which they themselves had been lacking. It greatly expanded their sense of opportunity and inclusion, although, at the same time, it presented the dangerous temptation to be co-opted: to seek escape from one’s class as an alternative to the empowerment of one’s class.

With time, further advances were made, including a rule requiring one of the two Consuls to be a plebeian (formerly, both had been patricians). [43] Meanwhile, an additional Assembly was formed, the Comitia tributa, often referred to as the Assembly of Tribes. It had much more power than the Concilium plebis, since its laws were, by 287 BC, made to be binding on all Romans, not just the plebs. Patricians as well as plebeians participated in this new Assembly, which was organized not on the basis of property, but on the basis of citizenship, only. Whereas the Assembly of Centuries had been organized into voting blocs based on "centuries", the Assembly of Tribes was organized into voting blocs based on "tribes." (The "tribe" referred to a voting district into which a Roman was born, and to which he belonged for life, even if he moved to a new location.) This structure enabled the plebeians to dominate the proceedings, and they used this new assembly to elect their Tribunes, and to enact important legislation. [44]

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Efforts, by the Patricians, to Curb the Growing Power of the Plebeians

Naturally, the powerful, who were compelled to grant the plebeians an increase in political power in order to prevent the country from disintegrating, sought to prevent that power from upsetting their own position of superiority. To accomplish this, they resorted to various strategems. First, they attempted to utilize the old institution of patronage to manipulate the poor against their own best interests, on the basis of an archaic culture of personal ties. The system of patronage, as it had existed in the past, linked the "patron", or man of power, and the "client", or man of inferior status, in a kind of uneven, symbiotic relationship. The "patron" would attempt to protect his "clients", who were vulnerable and weak before the system, by means of his own influence and power; while the "clients" would work for the "patron", defend him in the form of bodyguards, and often form impressive retinues to accompany him when he traveled about, adding to his prestige and appearance of importance. [45] In this system, one can clearly see the origins of medieval feudalism, which for a time, lay dormant within the complex social, political, and legal terrain of ancient Rome. As part of the loyalty owed to the "patron" by the "client", the poor man was expected to vote as his "patron" wished him to vote (voting in the Assemblies was not secret, so there was no chance of deceiving the man of power). In this way, the poor man could often still be directed to vote for the interests of the rich man, until an environment of relatively greater safety was finally created by the work of the Tribunes, lessening the poor man’s dependence on a "patron" and, in effect, turning him into a client of the Tribunes which he, himself, had elected.

A key patrician strategy for curbing the advances of the plebeians then became the co-optation of the Tribunes, and the most successful members of the plebeians. The total number of Tribunes to be elected by the Assembly of Tribes was increased (eventually to ten), giving the elites more of a chance to play one Tribune against another, while the plebs were frequently drawn by the luster and obvious clout of more powerful and wealthy members of their class, to vote the very men into office who had the least to gain, and the most to lose, by honestly representing them. [46]

One other mechanism for control, ingenious in its way, was masked by the religious practice of sanctioning candidates for election to the Consulship by means of consulting with the stars. If the Heavens were deemed to be not favorable to the presentation of a certain candidate by the presiding magistrate/astrologer, that candidate would not be presented to the Assembly of Centuries for possible election. [47] This mechanism reminds us, in intent, of our own electoral college, which was originally invented by the Founding Fathers to serve as a last-ditch safety switch to derail the possible election of a "dangerous demagogue" by the "hypnotized" masses. [48] [48 TXT]  Surely, the ability of elite-dominated astrology to manipulate political outcomes in ancient Rome became even more important than it had been before as the phenomenon of plebeian Consuls emerged. (Later, the politicized use of omens was extended, by conservatives, to attempt to block or invalidate progressive legislation which had been presented to the popular assembly during periods deemed "inauspicious" or "unlucky.")

As class struggle led to important gains by the plebeians in Roman society, it also led to effective strategies by Rome’s elites to limit those gains and to maintain the inequality which was the soil their power needed in order to grow. For some time, however, that inequality could be tolerated. The internal stability crucial to Rome’s external success was created and maintained, until success, itself, led to new social disasters, by creating spectacular new opportunities for class differentiation and polarization.

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Rome’s New Social Crisis and the Gracchi

The new social crisis was nourished by a variety of factors, including the devastation of the Second Punic War (218 - 201 BC), in which the brilliant Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy, and very nearly defeated Rome in a war to the death between the two superpowers of the Western Mediterranean. Rome prevailed, and no longer contained by this dangerous enemy, began a period of unrivaled expansion into North Africa, Spain, Greece, and eventually Gaul (France and Belgium), Britain, and the Middle East. But the price of victory was the beginning of the end of the plebeian small landholder: the strong-willed, hard-working soul of the Roman countryside and bastion of the Roman army. Many members of this class lost their farms during the war with Hannibal, due to the extended military service which was required of them, which did not enable them to work their land. Many others lost their farms through raiding and brigandage, as Hannibal’s army destroyed vast tracts of farmland to try to frustrate the Romans and draw them into battle, or else carried off what it needed for itself. At the same time, as Rome entered a vigorous new period of conquest and expansion following its triumph against Carthage, new nations fell under its sway. With these conquered nations came tribute, plunder, and a huge influx of slaves: captive wealth which fell largely into the hands of the already wealthy and the already powerful. [49]  [49 TXT]  In the Italian countryside, many men of this already wealthy class invested the new wealth which they had acquired through war into land, buying or renting "public land" (ager publicus) from the government, and setting up large-scale agricultural operations known as latifundia ("broad farms"), which were worked by slave labor. [50] The massive scale of production which was enabled by their means, and the low cost of the slave labor system which they could afford to put into place, allowed them to produce goods at a cheaper cost than the small independent farmer, and to therefore undersell him in the marketplace. Still plagued by issues of debt, struggling to make ends meet or else rise up out of the ashes of war, and now faced with powerful new competition which they had no chance of matching, many small farmers were driven out of business. Their lands were either bought by, or awarded to, the wealthy, and swallowed up by the rapidly expanding latifundia system. Some displaced farmers became tenants and laborers for the wealthy, reinvigorating the patron-client system of olden days, but many others did not even have this option, as slave labor was generally preferred over free labor by those who owned the land. Naturally, this transformation of the Italian countryside was accompanied by an influx of displaced farmers into Rome. But opportunity in the city, which was rapidly becoming the capital of the world, could no longer keep up with demand. This was especially so as large-scale workshops ("factories") employing slave labor began to appear, cutting deeply into the need for free labor in the city. Peasants without land became city-dwellers without jobs. A poverty-stricken, politically unpredictable urban proletariat began to emerge as an important new factor in the social milieu.

This trend did not triumph in a day, and significant and serious efforts by the representatives of the plebeians, as well as by far-sighted members of the patricians, took place at various moments to try to address the ills that were obviously in the process of tearing Rome apart. The battle to arrest the despair of one class and to curb the selfishness of another before Rome destroyed itself reached a climax in the lives of two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, who rose to prominence as Tribunes of the people. While some historians of the upper class have left a biased impression of them as base demagogues seeking to gain power by manipulating the masses against a tried and proven system, events seem to bear witness to their genuine commitment to the poor, although this does not imply that they always made wise choices in their efforts to achieve justice. Tiberius Gracchus, a grandson of the famous Scipio Africanus who had finally defeated Hannibal at Zama, was elected as a Tribune in 133 BC, and proposed, as a solution to the growing social crisis, that there should be a limit to the amount of public land which any one man might possess. This public land, which Rome had acquired over a period of many years by conquest and expansion, was owned by the government, which under the direction of the Senate, was in the habit of selling or renting it to qualified buyers. Wealthy landowners, who had their own private properties to begin with, had begun to monopolize the purchase of this land which, T. Gracchus reasoned, could be better put to use if it was parceled out to the poor, who were in desperate need of it. According to the Tribune’s proposal, all land in excess of the established limit would be expropriated from the wealthy landholders by the State, which would buy the land back at higher-than-purchase prices in order to take into consideration all improvements that had been made on the land since its purchase. The State would then divide these reacquired public lands among the landless peasantry, restoring this wounded class to its original condition of self-sufficiency. As Gracchus said in one eloquent speech before the Assembly of Tribes: "The beasts that prowl about Italy have holes and lurking places, where they may make their beds. You who fight and die for Italy enjoy only the blessings of air and light. These alone are your heritage. Homeless, unsettled, you wander to and fro with your wives and children… You fight and die to give wealth and luxury to others. You are called the masters of the world; yet there is no clod of earth that you can call your own." [51] The people’s spirit rose high, and they became daring in the presence of this man who it did not seem could be bought or intimidated into silence. In spite of the promised indemnification for the land he proposed to take, the wealthy landholders, who were staunchly defended by the Senate, deemed Gracchus’ ideas and style revolutionary, and they sought to neutralize him through various political maneuvers. Frustrated by their resistance, Gracchus responded by pushing the limits of the system, violating custom to run for the Tribunate for a second straight term, which he deemed necessary in order to prevent his efforts from being dismantled. Accusing him of wishing to overthrow the system and to become a king, a crowd of Senators and their supporters, armed with clubs, assaulted and killed him in the Forum. [52] His intimidated admirers seemed too stunned to retaliate.

In 123 BC, Tiberius’ brother Gaius was elected to the office of Tribune, and courageously began where his murdered brother had left off. Seeking to avoid the political errors which had cost his brother his life and ruined his program, he began by attempting to build a broader base of support. He was, for a time, successful, and among his numerous achievements was the successful promotion and passage of the lex frumentaria (or "grain law"), which compelled the government to distribute wheat at half the market price to all who asked for it. [53] This measure was meant to limit the economic damage caused by merchants who were overcharging for their product and squeezing excess profits out of those who could ill afford it; to help the poor survive by reducing the cost of living; and, according to Gaius’ political enemies, to strengthen his support amidst the proletariat, which he sought to mold into a tool with which he might smash the system. Eventually, Gaius’ powerful enemies succeeded in creating conditions which favored their counterattack. [54]   [54 TXT]  In 121 BC a band of Senators, fully dressed for battle and each accompanied by two armed slaves, emerged into the streets to attack Gaius and his supporters. In the conflict that followed, a second Gracchus perished; and a second chance for Rome was lost. Rome would never be one, but always be divided against itself from now on. Peace had shown itself to be inadequate as a medium for achieving needed change, meaning that violence must now take the place of democratic dialogue as the sole means of either achieving change or thwarting it: the violence of drawn swords, or the violence of swords understood within their sheaths; or, worse of all, the violence of souls degraded to the point of not caring. Noted military historian JFC Fuller writes, of the assassination of the Gracchi: "[it was] a deed which unlocked a century of revolution and civil war which ended in the destruction of the Republic… Though the two brothers did not achieve their full aim, they taught the people to look up to a leader, and, as Breasted says, ‘This tendency was the beginning of one-man power.’ But the next leader to whom the people turned was a soldier and not a magistrate." [55]

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Marius, Sulla, and the Triumph of Personality over Institutions

This soldier was Marius, the son of a day laborer, who worked his way up through the ranks of the army through sheer talent and force of personality. As often happens in history, there occurred, during his lifetime, a perfect match of man and circumstance. The Roman army was in an alarming state of decline as he arrived upon the scene, due to the erosion of the social base which had formerly sustained it. As the number of small farmers diminished with the expansion of the latifundia, it became more and more difficult to maintain the manpower needed to extend, secure and consolidate the empire, since only men with property were allowed to serve in the army. Although foreign auxiliaries had long been in use to supplement Roman fighting power, it was the Roman legion, made up of Roman soldiers, that was the heart of the Roman military machine. [56]  [56 TXT]  Perceiving the growing weakness of the empire, powerful challenges were soon mounted by the Germans and the Numidians, and in 105 BC, in fact, the Romans lost 80,000 men in a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Cimbri and the Teutons, two Germanic tribes which were smashing their way through Gaul in a gigantic armed migration, and threatening to pour into Italy from the north. Marius, aided by a powerful patron who recognized his talent, instituted significant reforms in the military, which prepared him to meet the challenge. [57] First of all, he eliminated the property qualifications which were formerly necessary to join the army, thereby expanding the number of recruits available to the Roman military machine. The government undertook to equip the new soldiers, who were no longer expected to purchase their own armor and weapons. In those days, it was not hard to find recruits from among the ranks of displaced peasants and jobless proletarii, as the poor had few other options left to make a go of it. At the same time as this social opening-up of the army made good military sense, it quite subtly provided Marius with a strong new power base, for it armed the poor, who Marius intended to use to advance his political career, lifting them out of the impotence they had felt during and after the murder of the Gracchi. [58] Marius, having armed the poor, quickly won them over to his side with the promise of the booty that they could take together in war, and with the promise of a piece of land after they retired. (He, as other Roman generals, sought to implant coloniae, or colonies, in conquered territories - towns, with adjoining farmland, to be built and settled by former legionaries, who would simultaneously enjoy life together after combat, while remaining present as reserves who could help to quell or stand off rebellions until help arrived; in this way, the coloniae were to act as permanent bases of Roman influence and power, at the same time as they helped to solve a growing social crisis: the landlessness of the uprooted Roman peasant.) [59] Whereas for the wealthy, enlistment in the army had generally been approached as a form of civic duty and as a prerequisite for political advancement, for the poor, it was to become a way of life, a lifelong profession and shelter from poverty. As Rome’s wars were now, more and more, being fought at a considerable distance from home, enlistment times increased, and the period of time during which an army remained mobilized in the field, before disbanding, likewise increased. This provided more time for the military commander and his troops to bond, and initiated a dangerous, if inevitable, process, whereby the formal institutions of the Roman Republic (which the poor were beginning to lose faith in, anyway, since these institutions seemed cold, and to be mere vehicles for serving the interests of the rich), would begin to recede in importance before the emotional power and social effectiveness of the new links that were being forged between general and soldier. Personalist dynamics began to supplant institutional ones, and the loyalty of the common man began to shift from a system that did not protect him towards the men who would: towards men who lacked the vulnerability of the murdered Gracchi; towards men such as Marius - powerful military commanders who discovered how to use the army as both a social welfare system and political threat. Besides this huge social transformation of the army, Marius also instituted some important technical changes. [60]

In spite of some advantages for the poor, however, the massive social transition which Marius’ changes in the army augured were not to lead to any sort of permanent social revolution. Instead, they would lead towards dictatorship, the consolidation of cults of personality and the eradication of democratic institutions. The poor within the military would ultimately bond with their general, not with any lofty social ideals nor with the rest of their class; and as long as their leader somehow met their needs, they could be directed to advance the cause of either rich or poor, as he saw fit. The army, then, was to become the tool of powerful and ambitious men, some favoring social reform out of genuine compassion and/or political interest, some favoring the status quo and the dominance of the old elite. Civil war was to be the inevitable result, as one general’s legions were soon to be pitted against another’s.

Marius, coming as he did at a moment of intense crisis, at first reaped the benefits due any savior, and was elected to the Consulship (after first serving as a Tribune) in 107 BC,104 BC, 103 BC, 102 BC, 101 BC, and 100 BC. The custom of serving as Consul for only one year was swept aside by the people’s need for a man they could depend on to lead them through dark and frightening times, and by the huge status Marius acquired through his impressive military victories; as well as by the unrelenting force of his personal ambition. At the same time, his populist demeanor made him many powerful enemies, so that the idea of relinquishing his authority and direct connection to the troops who supported him began to seem dangerous. (The lesson of the Gracchi, who had had no army to defend them, could not have been lost on him.) As Marius held onto his authority in violation of time-honored traditions, the concept of a limited executive, so important to the workings of the Roman Constitution, began to wane. Nonetheless, the Senate finally managed to maneuver Marius into conflict against another populist consul, which undercut his prestige among the poor and also seemed to bring about some sort of personal disillusionment, leading him into a kind of retirement.

That retirement was ended when another talented general, Sulla, a man of more aristocratic leanings, began to rise to prominence. Did Marius sense the need to return to politics, and eclipse Sulla before he could develop into a rival of equal stature? Did he fear the possibility of the conservative reaction which Sulla might unleash, if his star rose any higher? Or did he simply crave a return to glory, or believe that Rome was again in dire need of his superior generalship? Whatever his motives, Marius manipulated or pressured the leaders of Rome into agreeing to hand Sulla’s army, which was poised to fight a dangerous enemy in Greece and Asia Minor, over to him. [61] Sulla, feeling both humiliated and threatened, refused to comply, and responded by bringing his army back to Rome, taking over the city, killing an important Tribune, and forcing Marius to flee for his life. He oversaw the passage of a new law requiring any proposal that was to be brought before the people to be first approved by the Senate, and worked to restore the predominance of the elitist Assembly of Centuries vis-à-vis the more democratic Assembly of Tribes. Then he returned to the war at hand with the army he had refused to give to Marius. Marius, however, was far from through. In Sulla’s absence, he returned to Rome, reconstituting an army of his own out of his still-loyal veterans. He captured the city, hunted down and killed Sulla’s supporters, and repealed Sulla’s laws. He was still on top of the Roman world when he died of natural causes in 86 BC.

Sulla, for some time after this, was in the curious position of fighting on behalf of Rome to overcome its enemies abroad, at the same time as he was considered to be an outlaw by the Roman government, which was now in the hands of Marius’ supporters. In 83 BC, Sulla finally came back to Rome with his victorious army, defeated Marius’ protégés, and instituted his own reign of terror against the popular faction. A "proscription list" was posted throughout Rome, featuring the names of his most outstanding enemies, who the public was invited to hunt down and kill. A substantial reward was promised for the death of each one. In addition, their property was to be confiscated, and their children and grandchildren barred from ever holding public office. Sulla pressured the system to appoint him as Dictator, and forced through the passage of another important law which made Tribunes ineligible for any other political position which they might wish to attain in the future. The motive, here, was to turn the Tribunate into a "dead-end position" which would destroy the career of anyone who aspired to the Consulship or any other important office afterwards; it was hoped, through this, to deter men of high ambition from seeking to rise by means of populist politics. In 80 BC, Sulla, champion of the Senate and the Roman aristocracy, retired from the Dictatorship which he had used to try to squash the advances of the common people. He feared no man in the last year of his life, before illness finally took him in 78 BC, for by this time he had destroyed every significant enemy he had, filled Italy with settlements of his veterans, and cast the dark shadow of what he could do over the Roman political system, whose freedom now survived within the boundaries of his will. The name this cruel and effective man died with was "Sulla Felix" - "Sulla the Happy." [62] His was a happiness bled from the veins of the thwarted and the dead.

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Julius Caesar and the End of Roman Democracy

And yet, Sulla, as he himself recognized before he died, had made one crucial mistake in his drive to cleanse Rome of those who might upset the power of the aristocracy: he had allowed himself to be convinced, by certain mutual friends, to spare the life of a young and ambitious politician who had originally been placed on his dreaded proscription list: a man of little consequence then, who Sulla’s expert eye, however, could see danger in - a man by the name of Gaius Julius Caesar. [63] Nowadays, Caesar’s name has become synonymous with ambition and power, but Caesar was also a man whose cruel clarity found ways to manifest generosity: sometimes as a tool, perhaps; sometimes as a genuine expression of his complexity. In all events, Caesar chose to rise in the populist tradition, out of the shadows of Sulla’s persecution, and with his climb, the poor began to reawaken, and to hope again: once more, they had a champion.

As mentioned near the beginning of this article, Caesar put himself on the political map of Rome by staging lavish public games as aedile, in 65 BC, games which showed the people that he cared enough to take their interests seriously, and gratify them; in that same year, he restored trophies honoring the victories of Marius, which had been removed during the reign of Sulla, placing them again on prominent public display throughout the city. This strong symbolic resurrection of the subjugated popular movement, as embodied by its invisibilized hero, who Caesar now rescued from the mandate to forget - as well as Caesar’s personal and well-publicized connection to Marius (Caesar’s aunt had been Marius’ wife) - immediately established him as a political force to be reckoned with. [64] He was, by means of this act and his pedigree, cast as the resurrection and continuation of Marius in the people’s eyes. Of course, Caesar’s potent merger with the ghost of Marius was made possible by the softening of Sulla’s victory, which had already occurred as a result of the repeal of many of Sulla’s laws in 70 BC, during the Consulship of Pompey and Crassus. [65] Neither of these two was intrinsically populist by nature - Pompey was a leading general, and Crassus a spectacularly rich businessman who, in addition to his other money-making schemes, had unscrupulously profited by buying up lands confiscated from Sulla’s enemies and put up for sale at bargain rates, during the dreaded days of the proscription. [66] However, many Romans felt that Sulla’s elitist system had gone too far, attempted to reverse too much history which had already been internalized by the people of Rome, and sought to construct an untenable stability that was too one-sided to last. Besides this, both Pompey and Crassus felt unsure of the goodwill of the optimates - "the best people", as the conservative aristocrats and their allies took to calling themselves - and felt more political strength was to be gained by allying with the populares - the aristocratic faction which sought to rise by siding with "the people." Caesar was more clearly and more boldly one of these. [67] In 64 BC, he continued his drive towards power by means of, and surely somewhat on behalf of, the people, as he used his position, for that year, as chief officer of the questio de sicariis (Rome’s permanent court for murder trials), to vigorously prosecute individuals who had killed fellow Romans during the days of Sulla’s proscription. [68]

By 60 BC, Caesar’s political advance had taken him to the brink of the Consulship, and at this point, he ingeniously maneuvered to construct an alliance with Pompey and Crassus to further all three of their careers. Caesar was increasingly feared by the Senate and by the optimates for his dangerous combination of talent, ambition and popularity, and sensed that he needed powerful allies; Pompey was, at this moment, disgruntled with the Senate, which feared his extraordinary military successes and had acted to clip his wings by refusing to approve the distribution of land to his veterans, which he wished to give them as a reward for their service (and as a consecration of their personalist bond); while Crassus, who had money to burn, most likely sought the most virile political figures he could latch onto to give his wealth the highest possible level of influence. [69] The alliance of these three men, which history has come to know as the First Triumvirate, was initially secret, but soon came to be quite well-known. The betrothal of Caesar’s daughter, Julia, to Pompey in 60 BC cemented it, and its effectiveness manifested almost immediately. Caesar won the big election, and as Consul in 59 BC, worked to promote the measures desired by Pompey, among other things pushing through the land distribution promised to Pompey’s veterans. To accomplish this, he had to bypass the Senate, and in the Gracchan tradition, go directly to the popular Assembly; he also had to outmaneuver a conservative co-Consul who the Senate used to try to obstruct him. [70] Finally, Caesar used his year of Consulship to help win, for himself, a five-year term as Roman governor (proconsul) of Gaul and Illyricum [71], which would enable him to construct a long-term political and military power base in the years to come. (His term was extended for an additional five years, in 56 BC.) [72] He also promoted the victory of the radical populist, Clodius, to the position of Tribune, as a means of further enhancing his own popularity with the plebeians. (Not only did Caesar support Clodius’ candidacy; it is Caesar who made Clodius eligible for becoming a Tribune in the first place, by engineering Clodius’ reduction of social status from patrician to plebeian!) [73] [73 TXT]

This Clodius was an interesting and important figure, who Rome’s aristocratic intelligentsia came to vilify in the histories which they left to explain their times. He was almost universally portrayed, in their words, as a ruthless and ambitious gangster who sought to overturn the Roman system by means of violence and intimidation; and there is, indeed, some truth in this assessment, as long as it is balanced with the understanding that his mentality and tactics were part of an era in which democratic institutions were unraveling, and the conflict between rich and poor was rapidly heading towards a social Armageddon. As Tribune, Clodius accomplished several noteworthy things. He established the practice of the dole, or free distribution of grain to the poor in Rome, to help alleviate the poverty of the masses. [74]  [74 TXT] He pushed through legislation in the popular Assembly which outlawed the use of religious pretexts to interfere with political processes (remember how convenient "omens" were frequently wielded, by the elites, to bring a halt to important votes in the Assembly). And he re-legalized the banned collegia, or workers’ guilds, which had formerly provided workers with a mechanism for social interaction and group identity-building. [75] These guilds, which had, in the past, focused on friendship and socializing, trade talk and limited forms of mutual assistance [76], were heavily politicized by Clodius. He turned them into reliable voting blocs to support his political agenda, and into sources of recruits from which he built a large personal bodyguard, and from which he generated gangs of armed men meant to hold the aristocrats at bay, or to terrorize them into submission, depending on one’s point of view. Clodius’ support, at this time and afterwards, was based heavily on plebeian workers and tradesmen, freedmen (former slaves) [77] [77 TXT] and a rapidly growing urban proletariat, whose ranks were swelled with displaced farmers, unemployed workers, and now, with large numbers of new citizens created by the extension of citizenship to many non-Roman Italian peoples. [78] [78 TXT] Suffering from the same crisis in the countryside as the Roman farmers, these were now free to flood Rome in search of work that did not exist, and to end up on the dole. Additionally, it seems that Clodius was able to command or to buy the support of some slaves, as well. At least, his critics accused him of this. As Cicero wrote, of one demonstration which Clodius organized to disrupt a major festival, "the Senate and Roman people [were] trapped [in a theater]… exposed to a mob of mocking slaves." [79] Clodius, in fact, was a master of using the public games, which gathered together all members of society and brought leading aristocrats out into the open, to press his political agenda, at times leading the poor to invade and take over seats reserved for the privileged, at other times ejecting spectators from the theater and threatening violence. [80] But these thuggish tactics were by no means his sole invention or domain. The wealthy also had their gangs, in cases comprised of hired gladiators, and both sides - rich and poor - all but destroyed the concept of democracy in the Assembl y by showing up with "muscle", to try to intimidate voters and terrorize the opposition into compliance. Citizens who exercised their democratic rights in opposition to the will of these thugs were frequently beaten; and, in cases, their homes were burned down. [81] Clearly, democracy in Rome was fading away, victim of a trust that had been broken; of a rift that could be, but would not be healed; of a system that could not find its way back to any sort of middle ground. The poor lacked land, lacked jobs, and saw that the rich did not care; ingrained in their collective consciousness was the murder of the Gracchi, and the cruelty of Sulla; while the wealthy sensed the anger of the masses that their own attachment to their superiority had generated; they remembered how that anger had led to Marius, and they dreaded the possibility of being purged by another populist strongman, or overrun by armed mobs. The law and the forms of Roman government were eroding; hypocrisy was no longer duping anyone; high ideals were degrading into mere strategies of survival. What was right was useless unless it could be defended; and the force needed to sustain justice, as either side saw it, began to outweigh the justice which it had been conjured up to save.

In the midst of this increasingly anarchic situation, Caesar’s power was growing, a fact which terrified the Senate and the optimates. As Governor of Gaul, Caesar had established himself as a brilliant military man, a genius, in fact, who conquered numerous Gallic tribes, and beat back powerful German invasions. In 52 BC, he and his legions faced and passed an incredible test during the siege of Alesia, in which they came extraordinarily close to destruction. [82] Caesar’s concern for his soldiers, his constant presence among them, and his demonstrated bravery and solidarity with them in times of danger and hardship, coupled with his brilliant successes, his generosity in distributing captured wealth, and his proven ability to serve as a "provider" to those within the ranks, created a formidable bond between general and army. Eventually, the Senate came to realize that if it was to hold its own against this rapidly escalating populist challenge, it would need a general of its own. Fortunately for the Senate, the Triumvirate conceived by Caesar was finally coming apart. Clodius, ambitious well past the point of prudence, had begun to alienate Pompey by opposing some of his wishes and openly disrespecting him. [83] He was, in fact, becoming as much of a liability as an asset to Caesar, for he now saw himself as significant enough to forget where his support had come from. His antics must surely have cooled Pompey towards Caesar. In 54 BC, Caesar’s daughter Julia died while giving birth to Pompey’s child, and the most important personal link between these two ambitious men was removed. [84] Then, in 53 BC, Crassus, the third member of the Triumvirate, who in some ways balanced off the other two, lost his life in a poorly executed military campaign. [85] A year later, in 52 BC, Clodius was killed by members of a rival gang led by Annius Milo, an aristocrat backed by Pompey. Outraged members of the proletariat set fire to the Senate house, exacerbating the sense of imminent civil war. [86] The confrontation between Caesar, and the one man who it was believed could stand up to him, was assured once Pompey was finally wooed back to the conservative side by the Senate, which now insisted that Caesar give up his military command before returning to Rome to run for Consul in 49 BC. [87] A reasonable request for normal times, in the context of the politics of the day the directive could only be interpreted as a "set-up", meant to expose Caesar to assassination or arrest; at the very least to destroy his political career and freeze the populist agenda in its tracks. It is at this juncture that Caesar boldly crossed the Rubicon back into Italy, proclaiming, "The die is cast," thereby initiating a new and deadlier Roman Civil War.

The war (49 - 44 BC) was of huge dimensions, truly a world war by ancient standards, encompassing many lands including Spain, Italy, North Africa, and Greece. Again, Caesar faced desperate odds and teetered on the brink of defeat; but as before, at other times in his career, he held his own against the formidable Pompey, finally winning on account of his genius and tenacity, and on account of the inspiration, loyalty and experience of his troops. (The decisive battle was won at Pharsalus in 48 BC, but there were further complications, and eventual triumphs, especially in Egypt and North Africa.) In the wake of his massive victory, Caesar surprised his opponents with a remarkable capacity for forgiveness, quite the opposite of the cruelty he had displayed in his wars with the Gauls. The ruthless persecutions of Marius and Sulla against each others’ supporters was not his formula for healing Rome. And yet, there could be no doubting his power. The Senate, convening now in his shadow, appointed him Dictator for ten years in 46 BC, and in 44 BC granted him the right to be Dictator for life. With these extraordinary powers, Caesar labored to ameliorate the social problems which had led to the collapse of the Roman democratic system. He reinvigorated programs of land distribution begun by the Gracchi; he set limits on the sale of newly distributed land so that the powerful could not contrive to buy it back from its new recipients, and perpetuate their monopoly of the land; he established numerous colonies abroad to accommodate his veterans; and he promoted a new law which demanded that at least one-third of the labor force of the latifundia be free, as yet another means of securing the livelihood of Italy’s citizen-farmers, who slave labor had done so much to displace. All of these measures indicate his desire to reconstruct the ancient base of Roman power: a free, dignified, and proud peasantry, able to support itself, respect itself, and share in the rights and blessings of society. Nonetheless, he continued the free grain dole begun by Clodius, as his programs would take time to work: but now required proof of need from applicants wishing to qualify, in order to save state funds, and better provide for those who were truly needy. (In this way, he managed to cut the number of dole recipients by over 50%, without harming the truly poor.) To complement these programs, he also instituted a massive program of public-works-building, to beautify Rome, increase its services and amenities, and provide further employment opportunities for the people. [88] In addition, he tackled the persistent problem of debt, which was still a major issue, finally introducing a law which promoted partial debt forgiveness, thereby reducing the total debt owed by Roman to Roman by about 25%. [89] It was enough to greatly relieve the poor, while preserving the faith of creditors that the laws of business would still be respected.

Caesar’s work, though accomplished in the ruins of the democratic Republic, offered the promise that the social rifts which intransigence had torn into the fabric of Roman society might one day be overcome; that somehow, healing might take place, and that Rome, a nation with two heads and two hearts, might once again become a single nation, united in purpose, able to live without a dagger at its throat. However, Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC at the hands of Senatorial conspirators destroyed the intended recovery in its infancy. While some of the Senators who fell upon Caesar with their knives during the Ides of March may have acted from noble motives, dreaming of a return to the days of the democratic Republic as it used to be, before it was swept aside by men of power, most of them probably struck at Caesar in order to recover their threatened privileges and to quell the danger of populism. Civil war ensued. Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, formed a new triumvirate with Caesar’s trusted lieutenant Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a group which immediately enjoyed the support of the popular class; and together, they defeated the army of the conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius at Philippi (42 BC), after first decimating their political opponents in Rome. This Civil War, in turn, only led to a new one, as Octavian and Mark Antony had a falling out. This one had less to do with rich and poor, than ego versus ego [90], and was settled at Actium (31 BC), when Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavian, who then began his clever and subtle metamorphosis into Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of Rome.

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Augustus Caesar: The First Emperor and His Solution to the War Between the Classes, Including the Role of the Games

Probably, more than anything else, Augustus was a genius of changing the substance that hid within form, of disguising endings as continuations, of lacing the strange with the familiar, and the new with the old. The world had changed, and the Republic was forever lost, but he softened the blow by not saying it out loud; by letting that hard fact grow with time till the obvious no longer needed discretion or stealth. The basic truth was that Rome was no longer governable by means of democracy: it was possessed by the spirit of civil war, and could only be ruled by a victor. He was that victor, and he knew how to play both sides, and to capitalize on their fear of each other, and their exhaustion. For the poor, he was the all-powerful patron they had been dreaming of ever since the blood of the Gracchi had been spilled in the streets of Rome. He was Caesar’s nephew and avenger, living vestige of the last great champion of the people. For the Senate and the aristocrats, he was a man who could destroy them, but chose not to, so long as they would accept his authority, which he exercised respectfully and, at times, with a kind of deference which they both knew was a charade, but which they both pretended to believe in. He was a reasonable man, and a pragmatist, no flaming idealist, and he had no wish to disorganize the wealth and power of the strong, so long as it served his purpose and did not dare to challenge him. Thus, the rich came to see him as a kind of gatekeeper, holding off the inner barbarians - the poor - by means of his popularity.

In 43 BC, in the shadow of his power and with the rage produced by Caesar’s murder still vivid and dangerous right outside their door, those Senators who remained in Rome excused Octavian from the usual demands of the cursus honorum, or traditional path of political advancement, allowing him to skip the lesser positions which were usually required in order to progress to higher ones, and to assume important roles without yet having attained the legal age to do so. As a result, he was able to hold the office of Consul at the age of twenty, a position which he held frequently thereafter, in the manner of Marius. [91] Until 27 BC, his use of traditional political offices to wield power was supplemented by "extraconstitutional powers" granted to him by the Senate. In 27 BC, however, he cosmetically surrendered these powers, in theory normalizing the condition of the Roman government. In actuality, he had had himself appointed to the Senate as princeps senatus (its highest-ranking member), so that he could sit in on its meetings and influence them as he saw fit; and he was "permitted" to retain his position as Consul, and also appointed proconsul (governor) of Spain, Gaul, and Syria, meaning that he was in charge of a sizable military force and in control of important sources of revenue from abroad, which supplemented his own vast fortune, inherited and acquired over the years. [92] In 23 BC, Augustus gave up his Consulship in order to, instead, assume what was called the tribunicia potestas, or "tribunician power" - the power of a Tribune, which he held for the rest of his life without ever formally assuming the position of Tribune, which would have grated too much against the illusion of a still functional Constitution. (Augustus could not legally have held this position, since he was a patrician; nor was the Tribunate conceived as a life-long office.) [93] With the newly-granted innovation of the tribunicia potestas now in his hands, Augustus could bring legislation to the Assembly, and veto any legislation he desired, in theory on behalf of the people. (He also had the Tribune’s power of auxilium, granted to him previously, enabling him to protect any and all citizens from unjust arrest.) [94] In this way, Augustus moved into the de facto position of Tribune without setting off any alarms, as a man of wealth and high rank. It was a position which he used to place limits on the revolutionary potential of the poor, while using the leverage with the poor that his role as their benefactor gave him as an unspoken threat to keep the aristocrats in line. Augustus downplayed the power which he cultivated all his life, referring to himself only as Princeps ("leading citizen"), and attributing his importance in Rome to his auctoritas, or "prestige." He was no absolutist, he insisted, and his consolidation of the end of democracy mimicked the democracy that it was busy burying. Behind the smokescreen of legality and form was an iron will, a clear mind that saw that the past had killed itself and that history could not turn back, and command of the most significant military forces Rome was able to field, some stationed abroad, some now stationed in Rome itself [95]; there was also his enormous personal wealth, some inherited from Julius Caesar, some confiscated from enemies during the Civil War, some proceeding from the provinces under his control. [96] But, of course, deception was only a part of the Augustan package, not the whole: for Augustus was a man who appreciated the aesthetics of organization, peace, and prosperity, and knew that these could not be attained by appearance alone. He used money from his personal fortune, rather than state funds, to purchase grain for the dole, a strongly symbolic act; and further won the approval of the masses by staging lavish games and spectacles which served both as "engines of personal popularity and celebrations of imperial ideology." [97] He made substantial land grants to his veterans, and paid his soldiers handsomely for their years of loyal service, not only nailing down important political support by so doing, but also helping the poor who had come to the army because they had no other option. He forgave all back taxes owed to the State, and burned all records of debt thus accrued. [98] He intensified public building to counter unemployment, and in this way made Rome a more impressive and comfortable place to live in, adding, among other things, new temples and an important new theater to the urban landscape, and describing his legacy with the famous declaration: "I found Rome a city of brick and left it one of marble." [99] But not all was done for glory, piety, or entertainment. On the more functional side, two new aqueducts were constructed helping to secure the precarious water supply of the growing city. [100] While measures such as these won him the adoration of the plebeians, who worshipped the benevolence which he projected, and the power which they felt at last was theirs through him, the upper classes were overjoyed that after the dust of the Civil Wars had finally settled, he was content to leave their private property alone and let them use and enjoy their wealth and status.

A kind of social truce seemed to have been put into place by the triumph of Augustus. But in actuality, it was a truce which did not stop the bleeding of Rome. For blood may come from peace as well as from war. Augustus managed to create a balance between rich and poor, which was not based upon economic fairness (never mind equality - that is, perhaps, too utopian an ideal); but upon image, gesture, and limited forms of relief. Vast disparities in income, property, and power remained, as did the system and mentality which had first generated the divide. Augustus preferred tranquillity to apocalypse, and knew he could not remake the minds of the rich, nor squeeze more from them on behalf of the poor without unleashing huge new waves of violence; not that he had a revolutionary’s soul to begin with. And so, in lieu of an equitable and thorough redistribution of land, which might have revitalized the peasant class of Italy, and preserved the human strength of Rome, he gave in to a system designed to placate everyone, without solving anything. Shallow answers were chosen over deep ones, because deep ones were no longer possible without terrible pain; and it is always easier to send one’s pain into the future - to let others suffer for what one has left undone. In a nutshell, the solution to Rome’s social crisis which Augustus perpetuated, by default, was one in which the rich would continue to dominate, and the poor, in between social bright spots, would continue to lose their land, and struggle to find employment. No adequate plans or social measures would be put into place to prevent poverty from existing or expanding; rather, the social volatility of poverty would be neutralized by the safety net of the dole - free grain, or "bread" - to be distributed, at state expense, to the poor; and by the presentation of ever more spectacular games and entertainments, meant to distract those who might otherwise have rebelled, to channel anger into the passion of spectatorship, and to hide the wounds of injustice which cut into the lives of the poor beneath the wounds of gladiators, dying for them, as they were dying for the rich. To maintain this system, which did not know how to share its wealth within itself, wealth from outside of the system needed to be brought in, which implied conquest, followed by occupation, tribute, and taxation. But to seize and control this external wealth, which was used to buy off the revolution that the system would otherwise have created through its unremedied faults, also required huge expenses - for the maintenance of gigantic armies, positioned throughout the entire ancient world, was no simple matter. Tax increases were the logical, if deadly response: tax increases to pay for the grain, the games, the armies. But of course these taxes only broke the back of the remaining productive sectors, creating even more proletarians, who ended up in Rome, dependent upon free bread, and the pacifying mechanism of the games. And thus the economic vibrancy and human strength of the Empire began to rot away, as men who might have been virile farmers and citizen-soldiers were disowned, then made too weak to be revolutionaries by a system seemingly designed to enmesh and emasculate them; while the rich, hoarding the resources which, if equitably distributed, might have preserved the vitality of the empire, grew addicted to luxuries of material and behavior that no human being could absorb without losing his endurance or capacity for altruism. As the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote, in sad disgust, in the early Imperial era: "The people who have conquered the world now have only two interests - bread and circuses." [101]

It is probably enough to leave off here, for the general dynamic of Rome’s fall, and the place of the games within that fall, has now been set. Of course, much could be said about the other Emperors, including the remaining rulers of the Julio-Claudian line: Tiberius (14 AD - 37 AD) who succeeded Augustus, and struggled to handle and legitimize the role of Emperor without Augustus’ deftness for manipulating the forms of a broken Constitution; Caligula (37 AD - 41 AD), brilliant, cruelly playful, mad, and egotistic, who lacked Augustus’ respect for the aristocracy and so outraged it and threatened it that it finally risked killing him, tearing him from his game of being a God [102] [102 TXT]; Claudius (41 AD - 54 AD), a defective yet intelligent man, who the military dug up and promoted to the position of Emperor in order to forestall a possible return of Senatorial power [103] [103 TXT]; and Nero (54 AD - 68 AD), self-indulgent, consumed by artistic ambitions to the detriment of responsible leadership, who finally offended the aristocracy with his lack of gravitas (dignity), and outraged the army with his desecration of their valor [104] [104 TXT] - until he, too, had written his own death sentence, and was removed from the political map by those he had discounted. But although the history of Rome was far from over upon the death of Augustus - and although the complexity of its internal and external struggles subsequent to Augustus has, with good reason, filled many books - for the purposes of this essay, the general trajectory of Rome’s decline as related to the Games has been established: The rich did not sufficiently respect or accommodate the poor. An unbridgeable social gap made democracy unworkable. The dictatorship of the Emperors was the result. Although democracy was destroyed, social justice was not implemented. The Emperors did not bridge the gap between the classes; instead, they played the part of the champions of the people while they left the gap intact; they became overseers of a compromise that deterred class war, placating the poor while preserving the benefits of inequality; they bought social peace with free bread and games, paying for it with wealth torn from other lands. A huge and convoluted process, in place of a far simpler, fairer and more efficient one, was thus set into motion to try to preserve the Empire: a system of war, taxation and pillage, avoidance and placation, which was doomed by its own internal clock of moral, spiritual, and material decline to fall victim to the very things it was running from. Does it take foresight, or merely courage to read the writing on the wall? More will be said of this later. But for now, it is time to return to the details of the Games, to see what it was that the Romans chose to watch, so that they did not have to watch themselves dying…

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Barton, Carlin A. The Sorrows Of The Ancient Romans: The Gladiator And The Monster. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Beacham, Richard C. Spectacle Entertainments Of Early Imperial Rome. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1999.

Durant, Will. Caesar And Christ: A History Of Roman Civilization And Of Christianity From Their Beginnings To A.D. 325 (The Story Of Civilization, Part III). NY: Simon & Schuster, 1944.

Fuller, JFC. A Military History Of The Western World, Vol. 1: From The Earliest Times To The Battle Of Lepanto. Minerva Press, 1967.

Grant, Michael. A Social History Of Greece And Rome. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992.

Haywood, Richard Mansfield. Ancient Rome. NY: David McKay Company, Inc., 1967.

Livy. The Early History of Rome. Translated with an introduction by Aubrey De Selincourt. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1960.

Mannix, Daniel P. Those About To Die. NY: Ballantine Books, 1958.

Mumford, Lewis. The City In History. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.: 1961.

Time-Life Books, Editors. What Life Was Like When Rome Ruled The World: The Roman Empire 100 BC - AD 200. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1997.

Winer, Bart. Life In The Ancient World. NY: Randam House, 1961.

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[1] Mannix, p. 5.

[2] Beacham, p. 252.

[3] The democratic Roman Republic lasted from 509 BC to approximately 27 BC, with some major interruptions; the autocratic imperial system, distinguished by the rule of Emperors, supplanted the Republic, and lasted from approximately 27 BC to 476 AD.

[4] Beacham. p. 2 - 4.

[5] Beacham, p. 14.

[6] Winer, p. 196.

[7] Barton, p. 21 - 22. Some of the information that she employs in this section comes from the Imperial era, although the effect must have been even more pronounced in Republican times, when participation in war was more likely to be a part of the citizen’s life.

[8] Beacham, p. 4 - 11. The quote is from p. 8.

[9] Time-Life. p. 152.

[10] Beacham, p. 3 - 4; Haywood, 89 - 90.

[11] Beacham, p. 53 - 54.

[12] Beacham, p. 15 - 16.

[13] Beacham, p. 16.

[14] Beacham, p. 53 - 54.

[15] Beacham, p. 16.

[16] Spartacus, a Thracian slave, led a revolt of gladiators who escaped from their gladiatorial school at Capua in 73 BC. This highly-trained core of fighters, in turn, served as the nucleus of a large-scale revolt of slaves in Italy. Manufacturing their own weapons, and trained to fight by the gladiators, the slave army recruited by Spartacus repeatedly defeated the Roman forces sent to crush it, while back in Rome, itself, an atmosphere of sheer terror took hold as no master could any longer be sure of the slave who brought him his food, prepared his bath, or slept under his roof… As the Roman elites, victims of the uncertainty which their own injustice had created, were wont to say: "You have as many enemies as you have slaves." [Time-Life, p. 61] After his formidable army of slaves had grown to such huge dimensions that he no longer felt capable of providing for it, Spartacus finally attempted to lead his followers out of Italy so that every man he had liberated could return to his original home. But anger, and desire for plunder on the part of the least-disciplined element of his force, led to their eventual defeat, as they strayed from the objectives which Spartacus had set for them, losing valuable time and increasing their vulnerability by lowering their guard. Trying to salvage his often unruly force from its own shortsightedness, Spartacus fell in battle in 71 BC to the Roman legions of Crassus, perishing valiantly against desperate odds. As a warning to all the slaves of Italy, 6,000 of his followers were crucified and left hanging on crosses erected all along the Appian Way, from Capua to Rome. [Durant, p. 136 - 138.] [Back to Text]

[17] Beacham, p. 16, 110, 161-162.

[18] Beacham, p. 16.

[19] Fuller, JFC. The Generalship Of Alexander The Great. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1960. P. 58.

[20] Beacham, p. 29.

[21] Beacham, p. 31 - 32, 56 - 61, 145 - 146, 158 - 159, 163.

[22] Beacham, p. 164 - 165.

[23] Haywood, p. 75.

[24] The traditional founding date of the city, although it may be more legendary than historical.

[25] My discussion on the institutions of Roman government is mainly supported by Durant (p. 21 - 35); Haywood (p. 73 - 97); and Prof. Brent D. Shaw and Eric Kondratieff, "A Brief Overview of the Roman ‘Constitution’ in the Republic", posted at: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~ekondrat/Rome_Govt.html )

[26] Haywood, p. 85 - 86.

[27] Durant, p. 25.

[28] Haywood, p. 93.

[29] Durant, p. 26.

[30] …………….

Composition of the Assembly of Centuries

Equites: 18 Centuries (Members possess a cavalry horse)

Class 1 Infantry: 80 Centuries (Members form the heavy infantry: possess two javelins, short sword, dagger, bronze helmet, cuirass, greaves, and shield)

Class 2 Infantry: 20 Centuries (Members possess all of the above, minus the cuirass)

Class 3 Infantry: 20 Centuries (Members have shield, weapons, no armor)

Class 4 Infantry: 20 Centuries (Members have shield, weapons, no armor)

Class 5 Infantry: 30 Centuries (Members have no armor, armed only with slings and stones)

Army Engineers: 2 Centuries

Musicians: 2 Centuries

The Poor: 1 Century (Their minimal property limits their obligation to serve, as well as their voting rights)

This information is from Durant, p. 26 and p. 33; and Shaw (see note # 25). [Back to Text]

[31] Durant, p. 30 - 31.

[32] Grant, Michael. A Social History Of Greece And Rome. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992. P. 88 - 89.

[33] Livy. The Early History Of Rome. (Books I - V of "The History of Rome From Its Foundation.") Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1960. P. 113. The material that follows regarding this revolt and the secession of the plebs is drawn from pp. 113 - 126 (2.23 - 2.34). Livy lived from 59 BC - AD 17.

[34] Livy/Selincourt, p. 113 - 114.

[35] Livy/Selincourt, p. 115.

[36] Livy/Selincourt, p.116.

[37] Livy/Selincourt, p. 124.

[38] Livy/Selincourt, p. 125 - 126; Haywood, p. 79.

[39] Durant, p. 30.

[40] Shaw.

[41] Haywood, p. 80 - 84.

[42] Haywood, p. 85.

[43] Durant, p. 29.

[44] Haywood, 79 - 80; Shaw.

[45] Durant, p. 21 - 22; Haywood, p. 77.

[46] Durant, p. 24, 30 - 31.

[47] Durant, p. 29. Material which follows on omens and legislation is from Durant, p. 173, and Haywood, p. 303, 306 - 307.

[48] This is a function of the Electoral College not generally appreciated by the current US citizen, who sees it merely as an archaic institution capable of sometimes delivering electoral victories to candidates who have actually lost the popular vote. Originally, however, the Electoral College existed as a form of insulation between "the men of property and intelligence" who designed the American political system, and the "unpredictable and overly emotional masses" who might follow a charismatic leader and "misuse" the democratic system to vote a fool or a revolutionary into power. By means of the Electoral College, men more likely to be "of substance", could block the popular choice and put a candidate of their own choosing into office. Nowadays, the Electoral College more or less does remain only as an irritating vestigial appendage of this nightmare of our Founding Fathers. [Back to Text]

[49] Noted military historian JFC Fuller details how Rome destroyed many important cities during its conquests, using the destruction as a signal to warn others of the price of resistance, as well as enabling it to seize greater amounts of plunder than a charitable peace would have allowed, and to enslave large numbers of captives. Fuller writes: "… many of these rebellions and so-called wars were little more than slave hunts." P. 171. As time went on, the acquisition of slaves through war was supplemented by the creation of large-scale slave-breeding operations (Fuller, p. 176; Grant, p.104). [Back to Text]

[50] Durant, p. 76 - 77.

[51] Fuller, p. 172.

[52] Durant, p. 113 - 115; Fuller, p. 172.

[53] Durant, p. 115 - 117. The "grain law" is more commonly called the "corn law", due to the fact that British historians have commonly referred to grain by the name "corn."

[54] Gaius especially enraged the Senate by proposing to increase its membership, to include non-aristocrats to be elected by the people. This would dilute the power of the traditional leading families, and lessen resistance to progressive change. But by proposing to extend Roman citizenship to a large section of the non-Roman Italian populace, he created an opening for Senatorial counterattack: for the common people in Rome were not eager to accept large numbers of newly-made citizens on an equal footing, even though these other Italians were not likely to have a major impact on public policy, since political decision-making took place in the Assemblies and official chambers of Rome, and the other Italians generally lived too far away to be able to attend. The issue was cleverly used by the Senate to dampen popular support for Gaius, and to create the conditions which allowed them to murder him with impunity. (Durant, p. 116 - 117)  [Back to Text]

[55] Fuller, p. 172.

[56] The Roman legion established a superiority, in its day, which in our own day falls only to nations in possession of a decisive technological advantage. Although Roman technology was frequently superior to that of its enemies, the true edge of the Roman legion lay in its discipline, training, organization and methodology, and later in the economic resources which its conquests were able to win and apply. The legion was classically divided into three lines of fighters, each of which was trained to pass through the other when required, meaning that tired fighters could be withdrawn to the rear and fresh fighters brought up to the front. During the course of a highly physical, drawn-out battle, this simple ability to rotate troops and bring up fresh "reserves" at critical points in the conflict, often proved decisive. The legionnaires were armed with the javelin (pilum) - they actually carried two into battle - and the short sword (gladius). In a typical battle, light troops - archers and slingers - would soften up the enemy in front, and clear the flanks of the formation, with the aid of cavalry, in order to secure the advance of the heavy infantry. The main force of infantry would then close in. Once in range, the Roman soldiers would hurl their javelins into the midst of the enemy, wounding many warriors of the opposing side, and incapacitating many shields, which were pierced and weighed down by the javelins which became imbedded in them. They would then rush forward into the disarray which their volley of javelins had caused, drawing their short swords and attempting to finish things off at close quarters. Fuller (p. 117), quoting Mommsen, a prominent historian who lived much later than Rome but much before us, during the age of the musket, writes: "The Roman combination of the heavy javelin with the sword produced results similar… to those attained in modern warfare by the introduction of bayonet muskets; the volley of javelins prepared the way for the sword encounter, exactly in the same way as a volley of musketry now precedes a charge with the bayonet." While not as formidable, under ideal conditions, as the Greek phalanx - which at its best was a thunderous, massive human wall of advancing spears - the Roman legion was far more flexible, maneuverable, and adaptable to different conditions than was the phalanx; and, in fact, it prevailed decisively over the phalanx in the Battle of Pydna (168 BC), in a fight which insured the supremacy of Rome over Macedonia and Greece. Besides this, the Romans depended heavily upon the routine of building fortified camps every night, after marching in enemy territory. They would dig a trench around the position where they intended to camp, throw the earth they had dug up behind the trench as ramparts, and add additional defensive features as desired. This thoroughly ingrained habit of caution limited the chance of being surprised, and gave them the ability to avoid combat in the field when it was considered to be disadvantageous, and to fight a defensive battle instead. Finally, the Romans combined the best of Greek military technology with their own to produce a formidable array of siege weapons - they had catapults capable of hurling heavy stones or firing huge arrows or volleys of arrows, or casting pots of flaming oil or "Greek fire", a kind of ancient napalm, over enemy positions; they had fortified siege towers which could be rolled up to the walls of enemy cities (as the tower was brought into position, a kind of drawbridge could be lowered, allowing troops inside to rush out of the tower onto the walls); they had battering rams which could knock down the doors of fortresses, and, with time, smash through stone walls; they had engineers who could dig tunnels under the walls of cities, and then collapse them, to enable troops to charge through… In the Second Punic War, Rome was saved largely due to Hannibal’s lack of proper siege equipment, and the personality that goes along with it. He crushed Roman armies in the field, but was unable to follow up his impressive victories by taking the cities, towns, and fortresses which the defeated Romans, and their allies, were able to withdraw into. His victories were devastating, but never final. And finally, his luck ran out. The Roman passion for siege operations could only have been fueled by the lesson of Hannibal’s 90% triumph that turned into defeat, and they became unrivaled masters of siege warfare: of "finishing an opponent." In spite of the "high tech" nature of this aspect of Roman military might, the truth is that the fundamentals of siege warfare, and counter-siege warfare, were well-known throughout the ancient world, and once again, it was the Romans’ sense of organization and thoroughness that was the key to their spectacular achievements in this field. - As a significant footnote to this discussion, it might be added that after conquest was achieved, an impressive system of paved roads, bridges, forts, and in cases, defensive walls similar to the Great Wall of China in intent, if not in size (for example Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall in Britain), assisted in the consolidation of Roman control - military assets which, combined with the development of mutually beneficial trade ties and the co-optation of local elites, meant that Roman conquests, once achieved, were rarely rolled back. - Perhaps the key point to keep in mind, from this brief discussion of Rome’s military machine, is that it still depended, overwhelmingly, on the human element for its success. There was not the possibility of a weak, unfocused, and disorganized people holding onto empire by means of pushing buttons, or practicing remote-controlled warfare or long-distance, high-tech killing. To rule, men of flesh and blood must go into the field and face men of flesh and blood, armed with weapons not unlike their own. When all is said and done, in spite of some important disparities, it was still sword against sword, spear against spear, and arrow against arrow - not cruise missile or laser-guided bomb against a man with a rifle. When the will and strength and discipline of the Roman soldier ebbed, there was nothing else to hide behind… [Back to Text]

[57] This account of Marius is drawn from: Durant, p. 117 - 124; Haywood, p. 266- 267; Fuller, p. 172 - 174, 180 - 181.

[58] The manner in which Marius used changes which made good military sense to simultaneously construct a personal power base are somewhat reminiscent of the ill-fated efforts of Soviet General Tukhachevski to sneak a personal power base into existence under Stalin’s political radar, in the guise of a military plan which seemed designed to make Stalin’s empire more defensible. (The plan involved the creation of a highly independent defense system in Siberia, in an effort to overcome the vulnerability of Soviet Asia which the Russo-Japanese War had exposed. Tukhachevski’s aim, however, was not merely to improve the USSR’s ability to confront any future Japanese aggression which might develop, but much more than that, to consolidate a base from which he might launch a revolt against Stalin for control of the entire nation.)

[59] See Collingwood, R.G., and J.N.L. Myres. Roman Britain And The English Settlements. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936. P. 164 - 165.

[60] Fuller, p. 180 - 181. The size of the legion was increased, the basic unit of maneuver within the legion was changed, and the intervals between units which had once existed to allow freer passage of troops between front and rear were reduced. Perhaps this occurred as the expansion of personnel in the legion, later including criminals as well as the poor, made it more difficult to maintain the highest level of training which enabled this porous formation to function without being penetrated and broken down. As Fuller writes: "Such an army demanded highly educated and skillful generals, and when these were forthcoming success was assured. When they were not, discipline was apt rapidly to break down."

[61] The enemy was Mithridates, King of Pontus.

[62] His epitaph was: "No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full." (Durant, 127)

[63] Durant, 128.

[64] Haywood, p. 291 - 292.

[65] Haywood, p. 288 - 289.

[66] Haywood, p. 287. Crassus had also profited greatly by undertaking to train large numbers of slaves in various highly-skilled professions (Haywood, 287); and by operating a fire brigade in Rome, which showed up at fires with the offer of putting them out, if the owners were willing to pay his fee. Otherwise, he would buy the fire-damaged or endangered property at bargain rates, before putting out the fires. He also bought mines owned by the government, when Sulla sought to raise funds for the government by selling them to the private sector. It is said that Crassus eventually acquired such an immense fortune that it was nearly equal to the government’s total revenue for one year. (Durant, 130 - 131)

[67] Haywood, p. 288, 291.

[68] Haywood, p. 297 - 298.

[69] Haywood, p. 300 - 303.

[70] Durant, p. 171; Haywood, p. 303.

[71] A province on the eastern side of the Adriatic.

[72] Fuller, p. 178.

[73] Haywood, p. 306. The mechanism of Clodius’ transition from patrician to plebeian was legal adoption by a plebeian. For Clodius, the superficial loss of social status was greatly outweighed by the gain in political options, especially now that the power of the Tribunes had been restored from the limitations imposed by Sulla. - An additional point of character well worth noting at this time: the cool and iron-willed nature of Caesar’s ambition is well revealed by the fact that he supported Clodius as his personal link to the plebeians, in spite of the fact that Clodius was caught committing adultery with his wife! (Durant, p. 172.) [Back to Text]

[74] Haywood, p. 307; Durant, p. 173. This was an expansion of the program initiated by Caius Gracchus, which had offered the people cheap grain. That program, which had subsequently been suspended by the socially conservative and the fiscally cautious, had later been re-instituted by conservatives in an attempt to placate the masses and undercut the appeal of the populares. Now, Clodius was doing them one better. [Back to Text]

[75] Haywood, p. 307; Durant, p. 173, and p. 80 (the nature of the guilds).

[76] For example, they would collect dues to establish a collective fund, from which they could draw money to help defray the cost of members’ funerals.

[77] Freedmen, or former slaves, actually came to comprise a sizable percentage of the plebeian class as time went on. According to some estimates, by late Republican times, up to 80% of Rome’s urban population may have been descended from slaves. Manumissions - or releases of slaves from bondage, resulting in both liberty and citizenship for the former slave - were common in Rome. Slaves were often paid a small amount of money, enabling them to establish their own private savings, or peculium. This concession was given them by their masters as a motivational tool, since slaves with no hope for freedom and no chance of improving their lot, tended to work less effectively. After some years, the hard-working slave might, therefore, be able to buy his freedom. At other times, masters granted freedom to their slaves as a means of creating new citizens indebted to them - for almost always, a freedman would end up in a patron-client relationship with his former master after being freed, voting as his ex-master wished, and supporting him in various other ways. (See Grant, p. 100 - 111, 114 - 117). [Back to Text]

[78] This citizenship was granted by the Romans to the other Italians, only after a fierce war, sometimes referred to as the "Social War", sometimes as the "War of the Allies", 90 - 88 BC. [Back to Text]

[79] Beacham, p. 60.

[80] Beacham, p. 56 - 61.

[81] Durant, p. 178 - 180. The disorder was greatly compounded by the fact that Rome lacked a formal police force. In the past, the mere aura of authority, and presence of the "lictors" - officials who carried the "fasces" (an axe surrounded by a bundle of rods), which was the symbol of the power of the major officials, such as the Consuls - was enough to instill a sense of awe and compliance in the populace. The mere sight of the robes of a Senator were likewise mesmerizing and in cases paralyzing to the average Roman. But those days were now gone, and the safety of all citizens, in the midst of political anarchy, increasingly began to depend upon being connected to private gangs or having bodyguards.

[82] Durant, p. 177.

[83] Haywood, p. 308.

[84] Durant, p. 179.

[85] Haywood, p. 311; Durant, p. 178 - 179; Fuller, p. 179.

[86] Haywood, p. 311; Durant, p. 179 - 180.

[87] Haywood, p. 311 - 313.

[88] Durant, p. 192 - 193.

[89] Grant, p. 89 - 90.

[90] Each man had his own drive to power and distrust of the other; after Antony divorced Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in order to marry Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, the rift became irreconcilable. {Durant, 205 - 206)

[91] Beacham, p. 95 - 96.

[92] Haywood, p. 363.

[93] Beacham, p. 113; Haywood, p. 366 - 367.

[94] Haywood, p. 363.

[95] A special force known as the Praetorian Guard was created, which became something of a personal army, close at hand, available to the Emperor; this was supplemented by a detachment of the regular army - the "urban cohorts" - which was also stationed in the city. (Haywood, 378)

[96] Beacham, p. 109 - 110. Augustus worked hard not only to cultivate the loyalty of the troops under his command, but also to prevent the rise of any significant general who might come to challenge him. He felt it better to replace overly successful generals, or ones too well-respected by their troops, with newer officers personally beholden to him for their promotion.

[97] Beacham, p. 157.

[98] Durant, p. 213.

[99] Haywood, p. 382 - 383.

[100] Haywood, p. 378 - 379.

[101] Mannix, p. 6. (Juvenal lived from 60 - 140 AD.)

[102] On Roman religion, the divinity of Emperors, and THE LIFE OF CALIGULA: In addition to their belief in a pantheon of Gods paralleling the Greek Gods, including Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Mars (Ares), Venus (Aphrodite), Mercury (Hermes), Neptune (Poseidon), Pluto (Hades), Diana (Artemis), Ceres (Demeter), Vesta (Hestia), and Hercules (Herakles), the Romans had strong traditional beliefs in a variety of spirits (numina plural, numen singular). These spirits included the lar familiaris (the spirit which watched over a household) and the penates (the spirits which watched over the penus, or family’s food store). In addition, there was the genius (juno in the case of a woman): the spirit which was associated with an individual; his or her life force or principle. (Haywood, 109 - 111) It was customary for Romans to honor and worship the genius of their deceased ancestors, who, if not viewed as Gods, might still acquire a certain divinity in their eyes once they had passed away. On a wider scale, the genius of prominent deceased Romans might be collectively worshipped. As the Emperors rose to ascendancy in Rome, it became customary to honor/worship their genius while they were still alive. Augustus, subtle as always, allowed the cult of the Numen Augusti to take shape during his reign, in which Romans might, without fully elevating their Emperor to divine status, nonetheless worship the divine spirit within him, praying that he would be protected and guided, in order to better protect and guide them. (Beacham, 113) This practice enabled Augustus to maintain a politically valuable level of humility and to avoid offending pious people with pretensions which might have been regarded as blasphemous, while nonetheless cultivating a new mystique and sense of power beyond that of ordinary men. He did not wish to fall, like the mythological Bellerephon, by trying to rise too high; but neither did he wish his fear of hubris to inhibit him from fortifying his power by all means available. The cultivation of others’ religious devotion to him, coupled with his public reluctance to be worshipped, made for a perfect combination. He insisted on being a man; yet for many, he became a God in spite of himself. As one historian has written, the deification of Augustus during his own lifetime "was veiled in much the same way that [his] political power was veiled" and "was effective in securing loyalty to his rule." (Beacham, 148) Outside of Rome, and Italy, the worship of Augustus grew to be more explicit and patently religious, as he was frequently accepted as a fully divine being worthy of worship beside other Gods of long standing. Perhaps this was because it is easier to be a prophet "outside of one’s own country." Or perhaps it was due to the fact that the psychology of citizens in the core areas of Rome and Italy was different from the psychology of the peoples of the more recently conquered lands, the one mentality requiring a leader who was more sympathetic and of them, the other requiring a leader who was more imposing and distant: the difference between a "friend" and an "enforcer." In all events, this was the beginning of the Emperor-worship that was to characterize Roman imperial times. It did not replace traditional Roman religion, nor exclude the development of new religions, and generally remained closely linked to the concept of the State and its well-being, representing an expression of patriotism and commitment to Rome, through the Emperor, rather than a deep and genuine form of spirituality.

Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus, understood the psychology and limits of Emperor-worship, or perhaps only retracted from such megalomania on a personal level. He maintained a low profile of divinity during his lifetime. However, Caligula, who succeeded him, overstepped the sensibilities of his times in this, as in many other things, and essentially sought to become a God while he was still alive - to force his Godhood on people and flaunt it - with little insight or concern for the reaction his ambition and his style might produce. He most likely confused the public veneration of his family line and his own overwhelming taste of absolute power, with Divinity, beginning to imagine and to convince himself of his own Godhood, and finally becoming bolder and bolder with this fantasy until he could no longer keep it in the closet, nor protect himself from its political consequences. In many ways, he was the diametrical opposite of Augustus: he disdained concealment, thinking himself too powerful, or perhaps only hating hypocrisy too much to wear a sheepskin. He did not know how to slip in under the radar; instead, it seemed, he felt compelled to trip off all the alarms en route to his destination; and, in fact, he even seemed amused by the commotion he created, without foreseeing its fatal effects.

Caligula (Gaius) was born the son of Tiberius’ nephew and adopted son, the great military commander Germanicus, and spent his early years with his father among soldiers, earning the nickname "Caligula", or "Little Boot." During Germanicus’ great triumphal return to Rome, in 17 AD, Caligula, not yet five years old, rode with his father in his chariot through streets filled with adoring crowds. (Beacham, 166) Two years later, the child’s glorious father was dead. The Roman populace widely believed that Tiberius had poisoned Germanicus out of envy and fear, and also blamed Tiberius for limiting the scale and pomp of Germanicus’ funeral, which at the very least seemed to be a lack of respect, and at the worst, to confirm their suspicions of Germanicus’ murder. (Beacham, 162 - 163) Highly competent as a military commander and administrator, Tiberius seems to have finally tired of government and the dirty side of politics, which he felt drawn to participate in, as well as to have despised the tastes and expectations of the masses, who felt his aloofness and responded with dislike; and so, after some years, he retired to the island of Capri, exercising his authority through surrogates from afar. Here, on this lovely little island, he either gave himself to the pleasures of nature and solitude, or to a host of vices and depravities, depending upon who one listens to. Isolated, paranoid, and embittered by the thought that those he depended on only wanted to take advantage of him or overthrow him, he resorted, more than once, to terror and intimidation in order to protect himself. Two of Caligula’s brothers were executed by Tiberius, while his proud mother was exiled, and protested the indignity by starving herself to death. Caligula, for some time, was kept by Tiberius on Capri, probably in the dual capacity as his ward and hostage, though, of course, the confinement would have been discreet, both of them pretending that their relationship was something other than what it was. Certainly, Caligula must have been traumatized by the time it was all over: forced to live with an all-powerful man who had killed the rest of his family; surviving only by disguising his feelings, holding himself in like a horse kept in place by a tight grip on the reins, pretending that it all made sense and that Tiberius was the higher good. As Beacham writes, "Caligula displayed an ‘incredible gift for dissimulation’, resisting every attempt to lure him into voicing any murmur of dangerous dissent." Yet he also manifested disturbing traces of cruelty, "eagerly witnessing torture and executions." (p. 166) No wonder that this complicated, strange man, by the time of Tiberius’ death (which he appears to have had a hand in), was ready to come out of the closet; to both mimic and avenge the cruelty and the terror he had grown up in; to break free of the powerlessness and the concealment that had been forced upon him as a youth, by means of excessive displays of power and aggressive forms of openness which, though freeing him from the inner phantoms of past helplessness, would only undermine him in the long run.

And yet, in the first days of his rule, the twenty-four-year-old Emperor seems to have enjoyed an immense popularity, and to have established a reputation for generosity and benevolence that could have carried him far. But soon after this initial honeymoon - this high moment of hope and promise - things began to destabilize. Caligula’s passion, anger, and eccentricity were too much to stay in bounds, and he could not overcome the wounds of his past, which compelled him to lash out, in ways that only isolated him. His war on ghosts was destined to turn the living against him. Whether he was simply a madman, or his mind had been damaged by a serious illness which he experienced in 37 AD, or he had been brain-damaged by a failed poisoning attempt - or whether, as some modern doctors speculate, he was a victim of "interictal temporal lobe epilepsy", a disease which could have affected his personality in various ways (Beacham, 168) - Caligula was on the downward path, even as he thought he was rising above all laws and limits.

Retaining the love of luxury and pleasure which he had first manifested on Capri, perhaps to distract himself from the terror and humiliation of living with the killer of his family, or possibly to hide his threat to Tiberius behind the appearance that disempowering addictions were able to mute his ambition, Caligula ordered the construction of several fabulous pleasure barges, featuring marble columns, fruit trees, dining rooms, jewels and ornaments, and even heated baths. These so-called "floating villas" were filled with invitees chosen by the Emperor, and were used to hold great feasts and orgies, sometimes mixed with religious festivities, as they cruised through the beautiful waters of the Mediterranean. (Beacham, 173) Like many gangsters today, it seems Caligula prided himself on his extravagant capacity to be generous to those he wished to impress, win, or diminish. As usually happens in such cases, he developed a large retinue of sycophants who caressed his ego wherever he went; and yet he was smart enough to see through flattery, proud enough to hate being manipulated, and brave enough (in spite of his decision to survive the destruction of his family by not defending them) to despise cowardice. Sycophants, therefore, often found themselves the victim of his changing moods, as their adulation become their death sentence. In one famous case, when a man told Caligula, who had just recovered from an illness, that he had prayed for the Gods to take his own life rather than the Emperor’s, Caligula, rather than being grateful, ordered him to be killed, saying that the bargain that the man had made with the Gods must be kept. Caligula’s sharp yet unpredictable mind and dark sense of humor, combined with his arrogance, cruelty, and power, made him dangerous as both a friend and enemy. Seemingly delighted by the fear he created in others, he would spend hours in front of the mirror practicing grimaces and expressions designed to frighten those he came in contact with, and he constantly reminded people of his ability to destroy them, once even telling his own grandmother, "Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody." (Durant, 265 - 266) (In a similar vein, he once told two Consuls who asked him what amused him so, when he suddenly and unexpectedly burst into wild laughter during a dinner party: "What do you suppose, except that at a single nod of mine both of you could have your throats cut on the spot?") (Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Caius Caligula, available at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suetonius-caligula.html) For Caligula, life was a permanent act of revenge against his former vulnerability, an inversion of the precariousness of his youth. Now he was the one on top, and he needed to know that others knew it. In some ways, Caligula was like a bee whose hive has been knocked down, which comes out ready to sting anyone who happens to be around, neither knowing nor imagining that it, itself, will die in the act of stinging. His anger, whether manifested as cruelty, contempt, black humor, or self-absorption at the expense of others’ feelings and needs, lacked moderation and strategy. It was the drug he depended on, no matter how it affected others or himself. Caligula did not seem to be a happy man, he reportedly wandered about the halls of his palace at night, unable to sleep, afraid of facing terrible nightmares, sometimes crying out for relief and begging the sun to come quickly, and rise before he went mad. (Durant, 265) He could not find any other way out of his mental prison, than to set fire to it with his rage, sometimes brutal and direct, sometimes darkly artful.

But back to Caligula’s misuse of wealth, which ultimately created deeper wounds in Rome than his moods, for it eventually turned his tendency to abuse into an economic imperative that must be exercised regularly, not merely when he was feeling empty or haunted by the past…

Far worse than his construction and use of multiple pleasure barges, in terms of extravagance and political repercussions, was Caligula’s decision to build a gigantic pontoon bridge across the Bay of Baiae in 39 AD. The bridge was built of planks covered with earth, which were laid across a fleet of ships anchored in the bay. No doubt a replica meant to surpass the famous bridge of ships which the Persian King Xerxes had built across the Hellespont for his famous invasion of Greece, centuries before, this bridge was two to three miles in length, an engineering feat of great skill, and even greater cost. Apparently, the bridge was built for the sole reason that a soothsayer had once told Tiberius: "Caligula has no more chance of ruling than of racing across the bay of Baiae on horseback." (Beacham, 174) Now Caligula was determined to mobilize the resources of the Empire, just to rub in the defeat of the prophecy that had regarded him so lightly. Dressed in a breastplate that allegedly once belonged to Alexander the Great, and a jewel-studded gown of purple, with a garland of oak leaves crowning his head, he raced on horseback across the bridge at full speed, followed by cavalry and infantry units. Next day, he gave himself a kind of triumph, or ceremonial parade of victory, followed by a gigantic party and distribution of money to those who were in attendance. Fires were lit all around in the night to illuminate the area, in an effect that must have been nearly as compelling as that achieved by Albert Speer in the famous Nuremberg Rallies, where he constructed a "cathedral of lights" by marrying spotlights to the night. (Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer, 96 - 97) As the ancient writer Dio states: "… Indeed, it was [Caligula’s] desire to make the night day, as he had made the sea land." (Beacham, 175) The young Emperor, it is implied, was not one to force himself to conform to reality; he was, instead, determined to make reality conform to him. The real downside of this rampant display of megalomania is that Caligula, in plain sight of all his people, squandered the wealth of the Empire for his ego, draining the Treasury of much-needed funds, and, in fact, precipitating a famine throughout Italy, due to the requisitioning of ships needed for the construction of his bridge. (The ships used to build the bridge would otherwise have been used to bring grain to Italy, from abroad.)

Caligula’s fiscal irresponsibility soon brought him into conflict with both the upper and lower classes of Rome. He had emptied the Treasury of the Empire as though it were his personal possession, and now had to find new sources of revenue, not only to fund his life of excess, but to prevent the collapse of Rome. Members of the upper classes were soon being targeted by accusations of treason, convicted in sham trials, and executed, allowing Caligula to confiscate their property and their fortunes. Caligula also pressured the wealthy to present him with gifts, and to include him in their wills; and is said to have hastened the death of many of those who named him as their heir, so that he would not have to wait to benefit from their coerced generosity. (Suetonius) While these measures assaulted the economic standing and personal security of the wealthy, he offended their dignity repeatedly, frequently inviting prominent Romans to come and dine with him, with the order to bring their wives along. If he liked the women, he would go away with them for a while, then return, giving them back to their husbands, along with comments about how much he had enjoyed, or not enjoyed them. He also is said to have planned to appoint his favorite horse, Incitatus, as a Consul, insulting the elites of Rome by suggesting that his horse could do as good a job as they could. Whether Incitatus’ possible appointment to the position of Consul was a serious proposal, or merely a joke that the upper classes chose to take seriously, is hard to say. Additionally, Caligula opened up a brothel in his palace, forcing married women of social standing to serve customers who he recruited from throughout the city. This was both a means of generating revenue, as well as a means of degrading those who thought themselves better than he. (Suetonius) He must have, on some levels, so despised himself that he needed to drag all of Rome through the dirt in order not to feel surpassed. Finally, Caligula seems to have taken great pleasure in being accompanied by Senators, who he forced to run beside him, sometimes for miles, as he rode along in his chariot. (Suetonius)

As for the lower classes, Caligula, began by courting them by staging impressive spectacles meant to win their affection, sometimes even organizing games on the spur of the moment, when citizens regretted the fact that there was no entertainment scheduled for that week. He also sometimes used the degradation of the upper classes to amuse the poor, occasionally forcing the elites to fight as gladiators, or giving away seats traditionally reserved for the wealthy to the common people. (Beacham, 179 - 181) It seemed as though Caligula’s strategy was to terrorize and milk the rich, while using the adoration of the poor as a balance against the hatred of the elites. However, the economic crisis that his fiscal irresponsibility was creating eventually forced Caligula to begin to try to gouge more money out of the general populace as well, and he did this by both raising taxes, and instituting a whole new regimen of sales taxes affecting rich and poor alike. More than this, he posted the new tax laws, which were written in tiny letters, in a place so high that the people had great difficulty reading them, and thus became susceptible to various penalties and fines which were imposed for failing to comply with them. (Beacham, 182 - 183) Outraged by both the taxes and the ruse, a large crowd of citizens poured into the Circus Maximus, during the Games, in order to protest. Rather than hearing them out, and allowing them to vent, Caligula ordered his guards to attack, and many were executed on the spot. This marked the beginning of the end of Caligula’s relationship with the masses. For they had come to expect the Games to be a place of bonding between themselves and the Emperor, a kind of sanctuary and place of empowerment, and he had broken the rules, exposing them to the same sense of violation as the upper classes were experiencing. It was then that they first saw that Caligula’s contempt was not merely a political weapon used against the rich, nor a form of solidarity with the poor - not an expression of their own rage coming from a high place - but rather, a character trait that had no loyalty nor real political affiliation.

A more determined Emperor might have overcome the economic crisis, as Rome had done in the past, by going to war and gouging treasures from foreign lands, rather than from Rome itself. But Caligula’s military adventures in 39 and 40 AD were fruitless, and characteristically bizarre. Assuming personal command of an expeditionary force in Gaul, he prepared to make war against the Germans. Nothing much seems to have happened; there may have been some minor skirmishes which Roman historians insist were staged events, claiming that Caligula had dressed up civilians or members of his own army as Germans, and then "drove them away", in an elaborate sham that would allow him to win glory without fighting. (Some analysts believe that this story was a misrepresentation, perpetrated by subsequent historians determined to vilify Caligula’s every move, of maneuvers and war games which he conducted in Germany: maneuvers which impressed some of his enemies enough to come to him in supplication.) Whatever the case, this war was essentially a non-war; and it was followed, almost immediately, by another non-war. This time, Caligula prepared a huge invasion of Britain, a country briefly explored and wounded by Julius Caesar, who then left its conquest for the future. Caligula built a lighthouse at Boulogne, gathered together a fleet for the channel crossing, mobilized a large army and brought it to the edge of the sea, and then, unexpectedly, canceled the whole thing. (Whether he was alarmed by reports of the sizable British army waiting for him on the other side, as some British historians like to think, or by defects in his planning and preparation; or whether he was concerned about treachery behind him should he become entangled in a distant land, no one can be sure.) Whatever his motives for abandoning the operation, he finished it in typical style, ordering his troops to collect shells from the sea as trophies of war, before going home without fighting. (Collingwood, Roman Britain and the English Settlements, 75; Suetonius) Or was this all something on a higher level, incredibly foolish yet irresistible to his sense of humor and his power - a parody and mockery of war and glory, a joke played on an Empire founded on conquest?

In all events, aside from the confiscation of some property in Gaul, Caligula’s "wars" did little to embellish Rome or to replenish its ailing coffers. Taxes and the plundering of the rich remained his main economic plan, increasing resentment on all fronts. Sensing the growing ire of the masses, he chose not to modify his policies nor to moderate his extravagance; his pride would not let him pull out of his downwards plunge before he crashed. Instead, he exacerbated the growing rift, digging his own grave by matching anger with anger, rather than seeking to calm anger with signs of empathy. He began to more openly despise the masses, hurling baskets of food and tickets which could be redeemed for prizes into crowds of spectators at the Games, not to gratify them as in the past, but to provoke fights for his own amusement (Beacham, 184), much as concentration camp guards in the 1940s would use food thrown amidst starving prisoners to provoke "entertaining" scuffles and convince themselves that those whose dignity they had already robbed and broken lacked the dignity which would have entitled them to be treated as human. Caligula on at least one occasion removed the awning (vela) used to shelter spectators at the Games from the scorching sun, issued an order that no spectator might leave, and then staged hours of the most pitiful spectacles he could muster, pitting incompetent gladiators against weak, mangy and dispirited beasts, or cripples against cripples. (Suetonius) This was, once again, a serious violation of the Emperor’s relationship with the people, whose tastes and craving for "good entertainment" he was expected to take seriously. Mythical though the bond between Emperor and people might be, the myth was cherished, and it was political suicide to expose it. Caligula further wrecked his connection to the people by seizing up some spectators at random, and throwing them to the beasts (he had their tongues cut out so that they would not spoil his amusement with fierce and insightful last words). (Beacham, 181) When sufficiently angered by the hostility of the masses, he would shut the doors of the city’s granaries to make the people suffer hunger. (Suetonius) The collapse of Caligula’s popularity with the people is, perhaps, nowhere better expressed than in the following words of anger and contempt which he directed towards them - words provoked by the withdrawal of their love, which he himself had precipitated: "Would that you had but a single neck!" (Beacham, 182) The sense of abandonment was mutual; as was the hatred that grew out of it.

Clearly, Caligula was setting himself up for destruction. Probably, it should be emphasized, here, that his cruelty, though criminal in its intensity, was not the primary factor in his decline. Rome was terribly cruel, even in the midst of its propriety, and while standing on the pedestal of its perception of morality. It is not fair to judge Caligula by the expectations of our own day. Contrasted to his own times, and judged according to the values of Rome’s "upright" citizens, he was very cruel, but not incomprehensible, for Rome and its virtue stood tall with one foot on the throat of the world. Enemies were slaughtered, whole cities were sold into slavery, prisoners were crucified and fed to beasts, gladiators fought and bled for the pleasure of others. Where Caligula went wrong, in the eyes of Romans, was not in his cruelty, but in who his cruelty was directed against, and in his unpredictability: in the fact that there was no sure formula to guarantee one’s survival, no act of submission that might not backfire or be ignored. Destruction such as that he unleashed was meant for other lands, not for Rome. Politically, the wealthy had been held in check, during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, by the sense that the masses were against them, and that the Emperors could drown them beneath a sea of the poor, should they ever give the command. But now, as Caligula alienated the masses, the wealthy began to sense a growing weakness in his power, and a new opportunity to fight back. What now remained was to find a way to break through his control of the army…

In the midst of all this chaos, Caligula’s flirtation with Godhood was, perhaps, the final straw: the ultimate symbol of his tyranny and drive to dominate. For as he dreamed himself a God, the rest of Mankind became nothing more than a mound of ants for him to step on. While Augustus had discreetly encouraged the religious aspects of sycophancy during his reign, and allowed the adoration of his Genius to flourish, he had never expected fellow Romans to believe he was a God, nor offended their sense of justice by insisting on his Divinity, while leaving them behind as mere men. Caligula, though not forcing Romans to worship him as a God, nonetheless gave abundant indications that he, himself, thought he was a God, or else respected the Gods so little that he felt empowered to make sport of them by placing himself on their level during frequent episodes of tasteless theatrics. In truth, he may have drifted in and out of believing himself a God, and merely enjoying the pleasures of impious satire. For one thing, Caligula took to dressing himself up frequently in the guise of famous Gods and Goddesses. Sometimes he would go about fully bearded, grasping a crafted "thunderbolt" like Jupiter, or a trident, like Poseidon. At other times, he would be clean shaven, and dressed as a maiden or a huntress, in imitation of Venus or Diana. He also went about in the guise of Dionysus, dressed in a fawn’s skin and carrying a wreath of ivy and a staff of fertility; or as Hercules, cloaked in the skin of a lion and armed with a club. Frequently, a chorus of trained singers would accompany him, as he went about enraptured in one of his God moods, singing hymns of praise to glorify him. (Beacham, 169) Few who witnessed him at such times had the courage of the Gaul who told him, to his face, as he began to utter oracles in the guise of Jupiter, that he was merely a buffoon. (Durant, 268; Beacham, 177) Surprisingly, Caligula spared this critic, perhaps because the man was of no social importance; or perhaps because the Emperor was, by then, so unaccustomed to anything other than fearful silence or flattery, that he was actually grateful for a genuine response. However, Caligula’s imitation of the Gods was only one facet of his misuse of the Divine. He would also spend hours in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, sitting beside the great statue of this God and conversing with Him as one God to another, sometimes criticizing, threatening, and arguing with the great father figure of the Heavens. (Beacham, 176 - 177) It is said that Caligula had a device invented that was able to imitate the flash of lightning and the roar of thunder, and that during particularly fierce thunderstorms, he would work this machine to prove to Jupiter, and to others, that his power was no less than the God’s. (Durant, 268) Besides this, Caligula began a shocking campaign to have famous statues of Zeus transported back from Greece to Rome, where their heads were to be knocked off and replaced with heads representing him. One of the ancient wonders of the world, Pheidias’ enormous statue of Zeus at Olympia, was slated for this transformation, and spared only on account of engineering difficulties in getting it back to Rome. (Beacham, 176; Durant, 268) Whether viewed as acts of megalomania or blasphemy, the ability of Romans to tolerate Caligula went down another notch because of them. Added to all these episodes is the time that Caligula decided that a statue of himself, as a God, should be placed in the midst of the great Temple of Jerusalem. Only by the narrowest of margins were his counselors able to dissuade him from going ahead with this plan, which might well have precipitated an uprising by the Jews in Palestine. Caligula’s exploration of his Godhood was beginning to have serious political effects. (Beacham,, 170 - 171) Finally, Caligula outraged many in Rome by building a temple to his Genius in Rome and forming an official body of priests to attend to it: wealthy members of Roman society who were pressured into paying huge amounts of money for the "privilege" of serving in his new cult. (Beacham, 178 - 179) It seems, with this project, that Caligula was at last perceived as having exceeded all endurable bounds. Beacham provides an excellent analysis:

The ambiguous nature of the emperor’s divine status introduced a high degree of tension into Caligula’s relationship with his people and (perhaps even more significantly) into his conception of the limits of his authority and his exercise of power. Caligula may - whether encouraged by some illness or not - genuinely have believed himself divine. Or he may simply have enjoyed extending his playfulness (for which there is abundant evidence) into behavior that he felt his position empowered him to explore and exploit. If so, then his case is a particularly telling example of how disguise can often be dangerous and sometimes result in disaster - especially among a people as sensitive to and dependent on visual expression and meaning as the Romans. Under the emperors (as later in fascist or communist dictatorships), potent political messages were signified through imagery and spectacle, which the public were adept at reading. Caligula broadcast highly volatile signals that in the end alienated a significant portion of the masses and outraged the elite. (Beacham, 179)

Caligula’s ruthless war on the wealthy and deliberate humiliation of the powerful; his contempt for the poor; his economic exploitation of all; and his symbolic amputation of Rome by means of steadily advancing public signs of his own Godhood, finally proved too much to bear. The tranquillity which Augustus had brought, Caligula had laced with poison; violence, which had proved its fruitlessness during the age of Civil Wars, had once again lost its terror, since peace was now nothing more than violence without resistance. The environment, prepared by persecution and sacrilege, was at last ready to react. Conspirators of rank established contact with disgruntled soldiers who were connected to the elites, or else sympathetic due to personal mistreatment which they, themselves, had experienced at the hands of Caligula, whose arrogance was utterly devoid of strategic discipline. While attending a theatrical presentation, the Emperor who believed he was the only law, was caught by surprise, cornered in a deserted corridor, struck down, and hacked to death by repeated sword blows. The anger which his pretensions to Godhood had provoked was evident in the words which were used to describe his death, first by the conspirators, and later by historians: "On that day Caligula finally learned he was not a God." (Durant, 268; Beacham, 185) For some time, afterwards, people continued to fear him, however. Knowing only too well his dark sense of humor, they thought that Caligula might have staged his own death in order to precipitate celebrations among his enemies, drawing them out into the open so that he might then come back to annihilate them. The psychological damage of his rule persisted as a kind of traumatic afterglow. The Emperor who had been haunted by ghosts, had become one… [Back to Text]

[103] Claudius, who probably had the option of either being elevated to Emperor, or else eliminated by rivals determined to wipe out all potential threats from the Julio-Claudian line after the assassination of Caligula, turned himself into the choice of the Praetorian Guard - which favored the continuation of their patrons, the Emperors, rather than the resurrection of Senatorial power - by means of a hefty bribe. (This was after the military found him hiding behind a tapestry, and dragged him to their camp as a potential leader, or victim whose elimination might clear the way for someone else.) Not exactly vying for power, it seems obscurity was not an option for Claudius. His choices were either to be on top, or dead. And so, in many ways, this awkward misfit who had survived the reign of Caligula by emphasizing his impediments (amusing to a cruel person) and his harmlessness, was forced to become the most powerful man in the world. (Haywood, 430; Beacham, 186 - 187) [Back to Text]

[104] Nero, another of Rome’s "mad emperors", offended the army by celebrating his artistic accomplishments in Greece with a full-scale Triumph - the kind of spectacle-parade which had previously been reserved for military heroes returning from great victories. (Beacham, 248 - 250) Following is additional material on THE LIFE OF NERO:

Nero, the last Emperor of the Julio-Claudian line, came to power through the efforts of his ambitious mother, Aggripina, who pushed him to the forefront of potential successors, and is widely believed to have had a hand in poisoning Claudius in order to clear the way for her son. (Beacham, 195 - 196) After Nero, who was not quite seventeen years of age, came to power, his mother used her influence to try to rule Rome through him, until he tired of her meddling and was encouraged by advisers to eliminate her so that he could come out from underneath her shadow. As many ruthless and dangerous people through history, she was not easy to get rid of - she survived various poisoning attempts by constantly taking preventive antidotes, and also survived the collapse of a special trap-boat which was designed for the exclusive purpose of falling apart at sea, with her on board. It did collapse as planned, but somehow, this hard-core woman managed to swim away and stay afloat until she came, at last, upon a fishing boat, which brought her back to shore. Finally, Nero, who was determined to eliminate her at all costs, had to send an assassin to finish her off with a sword. (Beacham, 204 - 205) Having killed the woman who brought him to power, Nero spent much of the rest of his life attempting to escape the responsibilities of power and to convince himself that he had talent and value of his own, not just power. He abhorred the idea of being his mother’s creation, and so set out to create himself anew, to become something greater than the Emperor, which was not his accomplishment. Desperately, he wished to be the owner of something not handed to him, something that came from within. But sadly, it was only his incredible power that enabled him to dream the dream that he was anything more than what his mother had given him on a platter.

Early in his reign, Nero seems to have fought to construct an identity of his own by means of engaging in acts of "juvenile delinquency", developing the habit of disguising himself and wandering through the city streets, beating and robbing passers-bye, sexually assaulting victims who caught his eye, and participating in gang fights, supported in all of these endeavors, as needed, by a band of loyal followers. (Beacham, 201) It was a strange, secret life, like something from Jekyll and Hyde, especially since the early years of his rule were considered, by many, to be exemplary. (Durant, 275) It seems that Nero was in search of an outlet for his anger, and of a way of "proving himself", through violence and the "romance of crime", after years of feeling emasculated and controlled by his domineering mother.

Later, the troubled Emperor found a more compelling medium of liberation in art, studying assiduously to become a great actor, singer, dancer and musician (especially of the cithara). For some time, he hesitated to take to the stage, due to a long-standing tradition, in Rome, that men of dignity and standing did not perform in the theater, leaving those arts, instead, for men of lesser rank, and for slaves. For an Emperor to act or sing in front of the multitudes seemed, to Romans of the old guard, to be scandalous and shameful, an unwise crossing of the barrier which separated those who ruled from those who were ruled; a violation of the distance between classes. In some ways, it could even be considered dangerous, for appearance can be powerful, like a moat, making the social order seem impregnable. Why lower a bridge over the defensive chasm of perception, why let the masses get a sense of the humanness, and therefore vulnerability, of the sternly mysterious ones who stood above them? These Romans of the old guard resented the frivolity and ego of Nero, which they felt might degrade their social and political position of superiority; and Nero, in some ways, dreaded their reaction. He, therefore, carefully prepared the ground for his own artistic emergence, by promoting the virtues of Greek culture, in an effort to establish greater legitimacy for the theatrical arts long associated with the conquered - arts which he chose to excel in. (Beacham, 211) Furthermore, he wished to indoctrinate the people with the idea that in Greece, athletes, actors, poets, singers and musicians in sacred festivals such as the Olympic and Pythian Games, were usually respected, freeborn citizens. (Beacham, 214 - 215) Why couldn’t it be this way in Rome? Encouraging Romans of rank to appear, in public, as actors, singers, and musicians was his next step; for their performances would break the ice for him, accustoming Rome to the idea of nobles as entertainers, as it allowed him to monitor the reactions of the people, to know if it was safe for him to proceed with his own career. For greater effect, he urged these nobles to perform without the traditional masks worn by actors, so that there could be no doubt concerning their identity and status. (Beacham, 211 - 212) In 60 AD, Nero organized his own, Greek-style Games, known as the Neronia, to further penetrate Rome with the culture he intended to use as his medium for achieving true greatness. These games, which featured athletic and artistic contests, seem to have been quite successful, and Nero, who did not, himself, perform, was awarded honorary prizes in several categories. (Beacham, 214 - 218) Finally, having tested the waters enough to proceed, but still afraid to appear in Rome itself, Nero decided to debut as a performer in Naples, where the Greek influence was much stronger, and the gaze of the Roman old guard less oppressive. There, in 64 AD, he sang in public for the first time, and also gave a memorable poetry recital. The theater partially collapsed after the performance, either from an earthquake or the weight of the multitudes that had crowded in to see the novelty of a singing Emperor. (Beacham, 219 -220) But Nero was now unstoppable. He had done the unthinkable, and the world, though shaken, still stood. He returned to Rome, and performed in his capital, in the very heart of the most powerful Empire on earth - surely, a singer’s dream While the guardians of custom grimaced, Nero played the role of the artistic genius: a role that some say he played fairly, his natural abilities enhanced by determined practice and a genuine love of his art; while others portray him as a deluded fool, whose "talent" was nothing more than the terror which impelled his audiences to cheer for him, in self-defense. It is said that Nero packed his performances with large bands of supporters who were injected into the theater in order to cover his mediocrity with their enthusiasm. (Beacham, 213 - 214) He is also said to have posted guards and spies at the exits, to take note of anyone who dared to leave in the middle of his performances - a measure which so frightened spectators that some pregnant women are said to have given birth in the theater, rather than risk leaving while Nero was on the stage; while other audience members are reported to have feigned their own deaths, so that they might be carried out of the theater, beyond the reach of the Emperor’s horrendous singing. (Beacham, 248; Durant, 283) It is hard to know how talented or awful Nero was, in actuality, due to the polemic nature of the sources that have survived to recount his life. It is likely that he was competent, and that the adverse reactions to him resulted from his annoying belief that he was so much more than competent; and from the fact that a man who was supposed to be in charge of a complex Empire, responsible for the lives and well-being of vast numbers of people, seemed to be so distracted and oblivious to anything that did not involve his fantasies of "stardom." On the other hand, while the elites despised Nero for his frivolity and lack of gravitas, it seems that the masses enjoyed the performing Emperor. (Beacham, 239; Durant, 278 - 279) They saw his performances as a moving form of humility and, in some way, a way of joining them, as though he were a runaway from his own class, who would rather be one of them. From their point of view, the fact that he would sing for them was flattering, not degrading. They appreciated the way he walked over the hot coals of elitist criticism, to establish his own connection with them; and believed that his passion to entertain them was a sign of his love for them. For the poor, Nero didn’t have to be a genius, or even good, his performances were more about a man of power coming down from the mountain of pride on which the rest of his kind lived, to share a moment of harmless, meaningful fun with the people he ruled.

Although Nero was, on the one hand, nothing more than a needy boy-man, desperate to reach self-respect through art (for his power would always belong to his mother), and desperate to experience joy, even if it meant dropping burdens that others depended on him to carry, he was not, ultimately, a sympathetic character. He was fluent in debauchery, crossing the line from open-mindedness to exploitation (Beacham, 221 - 221, 242; Durant, 281 - 282); and no stranger to cruelty, which he learned from some of the best teachers Rome had to offer, including his own once-dear mother. Besides killing her and his greatest rival, Britannicus (Claudius’ son), he instituted a Caligulan-style reign of terror against presumed enemies whose confiscated properties were utilized to enrich his treasury. (Beacham, 199 - 200, 204 - 205; Durant, 279) And then, there was the famous persecution of the Christians, immortalized by our Western Christian heritage, and its infatuation with, and meticulous remembrance of, its many martyrs…

This terrible period of brutality resulted directly from the great fire of 64 AD, which burned down vast portions of Rome, causing tremendous damage, dislocation, and loss of life. Did Nero order the fire to be set, as some assert? Many believe he did, in order to clear the way for his vision of a new, reorganized, and beautified city, which the preexisting city stood in the way of. He may have felt, in this case, that Destruction was the necessary precursor of Creation; that Rome must be cropped back if it were to grow anew, and overcome the limits of the past: the organic and the accidental which had lost their utility and charm. If so, the human cost must have weighed little on his conscience, when measured against the glory of the future he foresaw. On the other hand, it is very possible that the fire began as an accident, and that Nero had nothing whatsoever to do with it. However, there is some evidence that he was mesmerized by the epic dimensions of the conflagration, which reminded him of the story of the sack of Troy; and that, feeling some sort of communion with one of the great episodes of ancient history, he took a lyre in his hands and began to sing verses of awe and grieving. (Durant, 280 - 281; Beacham, 222 - 223) If so, Nero’s theatricality, and private emotional use of the flames that were consuming their homes, must surely have seemed callous to those who were suffering more than he; and it is not hard to see how the rumor that he was behind the fire arose and quickly spread.

To counter the rumor, and to divert the fury of the people away from him, Nero needed a scapegoat, and he found that scapegoat in the members of a growing sect of religious outsiders known as the Christians, who did not seem interested in fitting in, or in adopting the protective behaviors and outward gestures of group-belonging which might have made them less visible and vulnerable. As the Jews were later to be in Christian Europe, the early Christians of Rome presented a perfect target for persecution. They were isolated, misunderstood, and stubborn in their determination not to bow the head of their spiritual beliefs for the sake of being tolerated. A well-educated and knowledgeable historian of the day referred to Christianity as a "dangerous superstition", which had worked its way from the Middle East into the city of Rome, "the common sink into which everything infamous and abominable flows like a torrent from all quarters of the world." (Durant, 281, quoting Tacitus) This is the view of Christianity which prevailed in those days, and it allowed Nero to save his own skin by sacrificing those who could most easily be sacrificed to the fury of the mob. In this way, large numbers of innocent victims were dragged to the Games, and thrown to wild beasts, for the amusement of the masses. Others were crucified, and still others tied to crosses, covered with pitch, and set afire - used as human torches to illuminate the spectacles at night. (Beacham, 222- 224; Durant, 280 -281) The deception and the savagery bought Nero some measure of relief, as he ceased to be the primary embodiment of the disaster which had befallen Rome; but one of his subsequent building projects, undertaken in the wake of the great fire, renewed the ire of the masses, who in general benefited from the improvements which Nero made as he rebuilt the city. (Durant, 281) This controversial project was a giant palace - the Domus Aurea, or "Golden House" - a huge estate featuring a magnificently decorated palace, which included a revolving dining room and guest rooms capable of showering occupants with flowers, as well as innumerable frescos and sculptures; a colossal statue of Nero, towering by the entrance; fountains, gardens, forests, a zoo, and an artificial lake designed to mimic the seashore. (Beacham, 224 - 229) The project has been called "expansionist" (Beahcam, 228), in that it covered an area that, before the fire, had been home to thousands of plebeians, who could not have overlooked the fact that one man was now taking possession of what had once belonged to many. (Durant, 282) As Beacham writes: "In thus rapaciously extending his private space, Nero went far beyond the practice of earlier emperors who had defined their principate primarily through the provision of prestigious public buildings" (229) As Nero’s enormous personal project devoured the revenues of the Empire, he conceived of a fantastic means of resuscitating the ailing Treasury. He sent an army of workmen to North Africa to search for the legendary treasure of Queen Dido, the ancient and perhaps mythical ruler of Carthage, who was reputed to have hidden a vast fortune of gold in a cave outside of the city, before killing herself for love. Although Heinrich Schliemann would, centuries later, achieve brilliant archaeological successes by using The Iliad and The Odyssey as guidebooks, to lead him to cities more sober historians had dismissed as mere myths, Nero’s decision to stake Rome’s financial future on the veracity of an unproven legend could hardly be considered responsible economic policy. But for Nero, as for the deluded gambler, failure was impossible. As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote: "On the strength of this vain hope, Nero’s extravagance grew and existing wealth was squandered as if new means were assured for financing [his projects]." (Beacham, 229) The elites of Rome were amazed and horrified by their Emperor’s runaway imagination, and by his lack of prudence; but the masses, whose daily pain had driven them into a world of fantasy, as well, actually seemed to ignore the irresponsibility of their ruler, and to share in his great enthusiasm and belief in an impending miracle which would bypass the laws of common sense. The great treasure hunt filled many an empty and hopeless day, with thoughts of sudden change. And so it was that the poor dreamt beside Nero, rather than condemning him as he gambled away their future.

In 66 AD, with the condition of the Empire far from sound, Nero left Rome to participate in a series of artistic performances and athletic contests in Greece, determined to shine in the land that he considered to be the heart of civilization. He wished to triumph upon the most knowledgeable and prestigious stage of all, and to win the approval of the highest connoisseurs of art and culture, who would verify and consecrate his worth beyond all doubt. In order to accommodate Nero, the Greeks compressed the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games and the Isthmian Games into one year, and he participated in them all, either as a singer, musician, actor, or athlete. In one race, he was flung from his chariot and nearly killed. Unable to complete the course after this substantial accident, he retired from the contest. Yet, even so, he was judged the winner, and given the victor’s crown for having achieved a great moral victory. And so it went, in contest after contest, performance after performance. Nero won 1,808 prizes during his year in Greece, and came back to Rome exultant, and rich in self-esteem, for he believed his victories to be genuine: proof of his own talent, which freed him from eternal indebtedness to his mother’s. As for the Greeks, they appear to have regarded Nero’s entry into their world as a promising political development, for his adoration of their culture, and deference towards their sensibilities, was a marked improvement over the typical Roman sense of superiority, and might have important ramifications for the future. In fact, Nero was so moved by the reception he received in Greece, that he abolished the tribute which the Greeks had previously been compelled to pay to Rome, cementing the bond with his audience, and winning the permanent affection of that country. Who couldn’t put up with his singing, under these circumstances? Art gave way to politics and to gratitude. Greece gave to Nero, and Nero gave back to Greece.(Durant, 282 - 283; Beacham, 245 - 249)

Back in Rome, however, it soon became apparent that Nero was losing control of the Empire. He had been gone too long, frivolous too long, and powerful forces were beginning to rise up against his neglect. Nero had already lost important ins with the army, which did not respect his flamboyance and lack of seriousness. Theirs was, after all, a serious profession, and for them, a praise-hungry actor was the very antithesis of the soldier: the one sought glory without risk, thrashing about safely in the realm of fantasy; the other marched down roads of dust, and bled to feed and clothe those who were unworthy of his sacrifice. Nero’s offensiveness to the army was compounded by his execution of Corbulo, a well-liked but overly-successful general who Nero felt must be eliminated. (Beacham, 250) "How dare this child of fantasy, kill one of our own, a true man of valor!" the warriors must have thought. Even before this, Nero had already alienated the military in many subtle ways, as, for example, when he would not directly address Roman troops gathered to hear him, except through a message which he put into writing, and gave to a spokesman to read in his stead. The reason for this slight: Nero needed to conserve his voice for his singing. (Time-Life, 134) In 68 AD, Nero’s long absence from the real world finally caught up with him. The Empire was rocked by various military revolts in the provinces. Meanwhile, a critical shortage of grain, partly induced by warfare in North Africa which disrupted imports, hit Rome hard, and the usually-supportive masses showed signs of turning against the Emperor. (Beacham, 252) At this critical juncture, Nero desperately needed the support of the Praetorian Guard, the troops assigned to guard Rome, who traditionally enforced the will of the Emperor in the city. However, the Guard had cooled on him, by now, and just stood back, as the Senate bribed it into inaction and directed the final assault - not against Emperors, but against this one. Nero, lacking decisiveness, floundered, then decided to flee. Pursued by his enemies, he was at last cornered, and lacking the resolve to kill himself in the traditional manner of the defeated Roman warrior, persuaded a companion to finish him off. As his life was taken, with the sound of the horses of those who had come to kill him all about, he is said to have exclaimed, "What an artist dies in me!" (Beacham, 249 - 252; Durant, 283 - 284) An Empire for years held hostage by the fantasy of a man trying to be as great as a dream he never should have dreamt, was freed, at last, to fight viciously within itself, and pass through three Emperors in a single year, until some measure of stability returned with the triumph of Vespasian in December of 69 AD. Nero, abandoned by the masses in his moment of need, was afterwards remembered with nostalgic fondness by many for the entertainment he had provided, and for the appearance of humility which his overwhelming craving for adoration had created. [Back To Text]

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