~ an essay-review of the book The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome (2003) by Michael Parenti.
Written History is Classist
As much as it is an interpretive summary look at the history of the rise and fall of its namesake, ‘The Assassination of Julius Caesar’ is also a book about how history itself is written. Parenti takes a critical scope to the progression of ancient history not just in how it transpires on the ground, but in how it is taken to the page sourcing from the halls of power and on to the public’s consumption.
A common phrase comes to us as “history is written by the victors”, implying all manner of embellishment of the effects and intentions behind the bloody conflict and tragedy inherent in the events that shape history. Naturally summoned is a maximization of villainy in the defeated opposition and minimization of it by the regime presiding over the future, writing such accounts. Parenti’s thesis concerning the historians writing of the ancient Roman Republic extends this logic to the precedence of an innate classism within the art.
“The writing of history has long been a privileged calling undertaken within the church, royal court, landed estate, affluent town house, government agency, university, and corporate-funded foundation. The social and ideological context in which historians labor greatly influences the kind of history produced.”
~ The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome, Chapter 1 ~ Gentlemen’s History: Empire, Class, and Patriarchy
History’s writers typically source from the upper classes, due to the necessity for education and position. As a result, the stylings of historical progression will always have the threat of being interpreted, manipulated, and justified by a monolith of actors from the same echelon of society. From the predispositions afforded one’s place in their modern hierarchy of class, certain historical figures are hence more likely to be lauded and written about vociferously, such as the prolific conservative/elitist statesman & philosopher Cicero (critically spoken of and analyzed within this book). Whereas within the same analysis, the mass of nameless commoners — and their concurrent existential struggles, desires for liberty, and material interests — more easily overlooked or seen as lesser.
Parenti’s recounting concerning the history of Rome is two-fold: 1) primary sources are scarce, and those that do exist are from the mouths of the landed elite; and 2) most every seminal historian of ancient Roman history, starting with Cicero, on to Edward Gibbon’s ‘A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ and continuing into the more modern pantheon of historians, writes of the aristocracy’s ‘deserving’ privileges and dictates, the aimless squalor of commoners in need of being led, and the virtue and wisdom in both the killing of populist reformers and the imperial designs of late Roman expansion.
One of the major transmissions Parenti submits to his audience amounts to the following: When considering why history is written — and why it is so important to us as a society to know it — it becomes therefore imperative to simultaneously explore the material motivations of its writers and the systemic interests to which they are beholden. The less grounded the history is in a multiplicity of original sources, the more ambiguous the designs and doings of the rulers of the time, the more room there is for historians captured by their inherent biases to paint a picture of history — this empowering tapestry of past human experience that comes to formulate modern expectations — they themselves can more readily relate to, one that is prettier for them and their caliber of kin.
Parenti’s ‘people’s history’ here in this book is meant to ameliorate such biases in the relation of history.
In word and action, wealthy Romans made no secret of their fear and hatred of the common people and of anyone else who infringed upon their class prerogatives. History is full of examples of politico-economic elites who equate any challenge to their privileged social order as a challenge to all social order, an invitation to chaos and perdition.
~ Introduction ~ Tyrannicide or Treason?
Gentlemen historians have seldom thought well of the common people of history, when they bothered to think about them at all. Cicero was part of an already established tradition when he repeatedly described the plebs urbana as the “city dirt and filth” (sordes urbis et faecem), the “scum from out of the city” (ex urbis faeces), the “unruly and inferior,” “a starving, contemptible rabble.” (He acknowledges that they are starving, but sees it as their own fault.) And whenever the people mobilized against class injustice, they became in Cicero’s mind that most odious of all creatures, the “mob.”
Juvenal writes scornfully of “the mob of Remus” and its preoccupation with “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses), a phrase that has echoed down through the ages, adding to the image of Rome’s proletariat as a shiftless, volatile mass addicted to endless rounds of free victuals and free entertainment. Scullard announces that “the city mob was far too irresponsible to exercise political power: rather it wanted ‘panem et circenses.’” And Mumford sees only parasitism in “the dual handout of bread and circuses.”
~ Chapter 11 ~ Bread and Circuses
Cycles of Un-democracy and Immiseration in the Late Roman Republic
Parenti’s focal thesis on the reason why Julius Caesar was killed by members of the Roman Senate in 44 BC differs from the conventional wisdom that history has subjugated the event to. It is also built out of decades of preceding events and most importantly, *material conditions* that culminated in Caesar’s meteoric rise in public popularity and precipitous fall at the hands of his peers.
In reading this book, the most startling and enlightening aspect of the story being recounted is just how familiar it appears to the structuring of our world today (namely in the United States). Ancient Rome began as a Kingdom (753 BC–509 BC), then developed into a Republic (509 BC–27 BC), and only fell to autocratic Empire (27 BC–476 AD) when internal unrest, inequality and decadence, and eventually outright civil wars pressed the rulership into a bloody and absolute consolidation of power into Caesar’s heir Octavian as Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.
“Here is a story of latifundia and death squads, masters and slaves, patriarchs and subordinated women, self-enriching capitalists and plundered provinces, profiteering slumlords and urban rioters. Here is a struggle between the plutocratic few and the indigent many, the privileged versus the proletariat, featuring corrupt politicians, money-driven elections, and the political assassination of popular leaders. I leave it to the reader to decide whether any of this might resonate with the temper of our own times.”
~ Introduction ~ Tyrannicide or Treason?
The modern day United States’ system of governance can be viewed as a mixture of Republic and Empire. We as a populace democratically elect representatives to two of the three branches of government, who then, like in a Republic (and as opposed to a direct democracy) purport to make legislation on our behalf, and theoretically ~ in our best interests. Those people in the offices of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency, as the de facto leaders in government, they then 1) appoint bureaucrats to the many institutions actually in charge of running the state, 2) design policy and law, and 3) … generally become beholden to outside ‘special interests’ — often in the form of money flows to and from private enterprise. Certain levels of un-democracy — that is, lesser representation of the public at large — creep in in consideration of the electoral college (denies the popular vote for the Presidency), the structure of the Senate (2 from every state regardless of population size), and most especially the profoundly outsized influence that the monies of corporate interests and wealthy private individuals can have on the governmental apparatus and its decision-making outcomes. Attributes of Empire enter the picture when you consider America’s long and active past of imperialism in the form of ardent foreign policy commitments towards pursuing its own economic interests in sovereign lands in the form of military interventionism, CIA-backed regime changes, etc.
The Republic’s political structure was not fashioned whole in accordance with some rational design. It emerged from prolonged conflict between the citizenry and the aristocracy, a jerry-built mixture of popular protections and elite entrenchments. Less than two decades after the kings were expelled, the people began a struggle, lasting over 200 years, to win the right to popular elections and legislative assemblage. The commoners demonstrated and rioted, embarking on highly organized strike actions or “secessions” when called upon to serve as soldiers. Democracy, a wonderful invention by the people of history to defend themselves from the power of the wealthy, took tenuous root in ancient Rome.
~ Chapter 3 ~ A Republic for the Few
In 1919, noted conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter presented a surprisingly critical picture of Roman imperialism, in words that might sound familiar to present-day critics of U.S. “globalism”:
“…That policy which pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war, the policy of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome interventionism. There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest — why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome’s duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs.“
~ Chapter 1 ~ Gentlemen’s History: Empire, Class, and Patriarchy
Parenti portrays the evolution of the Roman state, as a pseudo-democratic Republic and then as it took on more characteristics of Empire through corruption and conquest, as a long-form play of simplistically one-tracked and relatively unerring power + wealth consolidation. A small, well-positioned, land-owning, and resolutely well-coordinated swath of the total population — name them as the ruling class, the oligarchy, the “elites”, the 1% — used the levers of power within the Senate, as consulars themselves or as their prime benefactors, ruthlessly for their own material interests. While “a few thousand multimillionaires” lived in obscene opulence, the underclass commoners toiled on the land or in the mines unto subsistence wages, or lived in slavery, and were often drowning in debt, burying their children from disease or war, and altogether continuously immiserated at the hands of exploitative landowners.
Though our own material conditions have since generally improved since that ancient world, in reading this book one may find the words striking in their envisioning of a template of class struggle that has most certainly carried into 21st century America. With the governing superstructures nearly misnamed as democratic, the unchecked consolidations of wealth inequality, the styles of insubstantial, obfuscating political discourse and the conservative & liberal personas that lined their ramparts — there is a reason why so many compare the modern United States to this ancient Roman state.
Looming over the toiling multitude of Rome in “almost incredible opulence” were “a few thousand multimillionaires.” One magistrate estimated that the number of solidly rich families was not more than 2,000. This elite stratum, the “officer class,” included the equites or equestrians, a class of knights, so designated because their property qualified them to serve in the cavalry — although by the Late Republic many of them probably had never been on a horse. The equestrians were state contractors, bankers, moneylenders, traders, tax collectors, and landowners. They occupied a social rank just below aristocrats and well above commoners, serving as a reservoir for recruits into the aristocratic class, as families of old lineage died out from time to time. Being large property holders who generally had little sympathy for the poor, the knights shared many of the same interests as the nobility, although occasional conflicts did arise between the two elite groups.
At the very apex of the social pyramid was the nobilitas, an aristocratic oligarchy representing families whose lineage could claim one or more members who had served as consul (the highest office of the Republic). Equestrians and nobles differed more in political lineage than family fortune. Both groups were members of the officer class; both held wealth in land, slaves, trade, and finance. Both lived in seemly mansions, enjoying gourmet meals served on plates of gold and silver, lavish gardens, game preserves, aviaries, stables of the finest horses, fish ponds, private libraries, private baths, and water closets. Their estates were situated on tracts the size of veritable townships, large enough to house swollen retinues of slaves and personal servants. Cicero was an equestrian who owned seven or eight estates and several smaller farms, along with his urban tenements and other business ventures.
~ Chapter 2 ~ Slaves, Proletarians, and Masters
In sum, the Roman political system permitted the wealthy few to prevail on most issues. One historian finds nothing wrong with this: “There was, indeed, some justice in a system whereby those who bore the chief burden of fighting and financing the city’s wars, should also possess the chief voice in directing the city’s course.” In fact, the very rich did not bear the chief burden of fighting. That dangerous task fell mostly on the shoulders of yeomen and townsmen, and later even the proletariat. The rich did bear much of the financial burdens of war, often using their own funds to raise armies. But they usually were more than recompensed by pocketing the lion’s share of the booty. Rather than contributing to the commonweal, the wealthy fed off it. They avoided paying rents for the public lands they or their forebears had expropriated. Cicero’s aristocratic wife, for instance, paid no taxes or fees for public forest lands whose timber she marketed for personal profit. Senators paid no taxes and little of the other costs of governance. The money they lent to the state was paid back to them with interest from funds the state raised by taxing less privileged populations at home and abroad. This system of deficit spending — of borrowing from the rich and paying them back by taxing poor commoners — amounted to an upward redistribution of income much like the kind practiced by indebted governments today, including our own.
As with Polybius and Cicero, so with Aristotle, and so with the framers of the United States Constitution in 1787 (who were heavily influenced by their reading of the classics and their own propertied-class concerns) — all have been mindful of the leveling threats of democratic forces and the need for a constitutional “mix” that allows only limited participation by the demos, with a dominant role allotted to an elite executive power. That same concern predominated among those who contrived the constitution of today’s capitalist Russia. Such has been the real nature of the mixed constitution. Diluting democratic power with a preponderantly undemocratic mix does not create an admirable “balance” and “stability.” In actual practice, the diversity of form more often has been a subterfuge, allowing an appearance of popular participation in order to lend legitimacy to oligarchic dominance. Unfortunately, many classical historians are less discomforted by senatorial plutocracy than by proletarian egalitarianism. Unfortunately, many classical historians are less discomforted by senatorial plutocracy than by proletarian egalitarianism. Their fear is that the people and their demagogic leaders are given to committing “democratic excesses,” a concern that goes back at least to Plato.
~ Chapter 3 ~ A Republic for the Few
Of the many interconnecting similarities one begins to see in that ancient world and our modern one, the meteoric rising of wealth inequality is by far the most salient. Not just in its existence within the society, but in its causes — the accumulated inequality was borne via undemocratic, easily bought and controlled political institutions allowing for its near perpetuity. Where the ancient Romans differed mightily from our late-capitalist neoliberal status quo today is in the effects of this inequity. Civil unrest was common; popular uprisings organized by the proletarian class in the forms of protests, riots, and general strikes, all transpired over the Late Republic period in Rome. From the standpoint of the underclass, the need for some kind of radical change or reform became clearly demanded as aristocratic decadence reached terminal levels. Even as the landed elite did everything in their power, rhetorically, legislatively, economically to quell such disorder, as long as they presided over a democracy the public outcry could not be entirely ignored or silenced, if not conceded to in some small way.
As a result, figures of power and influence naturally arose in the midst of these cycles of mass immiseration to meet them at their moment. A pair of men classified then as Populares, acted from their positions of democratic power to conciliate this rather justified unrest, and play to the people’s material interests in the form of land, tax and debt reformations. This duo of Roman consuls, preceding Julius Caesar by decades — beginning with Tiberius Gracchus and following with his younger brother, Gaius Gracchus — proposed modes of modest wealth redistribution. Backed by overwhelming popular support for such reformist notions, each was nevertheless relentlessly attacked and criticized by the landowning ruling class, and by the majority of their brethren in the Senate.
And in the end, before such notions could ever be realized, both of them were assassinated.
The Assassinations and The Rise of Empire
The Gracchi brothers, acting within a decade of one another, were the less prepared and ill-fated precursors to Caesar himself. In their limited proposals to merely begin to cull rampant inequality within the Late Roman Republic being met roundly with personal vilification and ultimately rogue violence unto them, their stories also augured the doom of the Republic and the birth of the Empire.
Acting as Populares in the Senate (lawmakers favorable to the underclass), and opposed viciously by the Optimates (lawmakers on the side of the ruling class), both of the Gracchi brothers sought primarily to return ownership of portions of the land (ager publicus, “public land”) to the plebeian population of Rome that had owned it in previous generations. Through an interpretation of a 240-year old Sextian-Licinian law that simply ‘limited the amount of land that could be owned by a single individual’, their political programmes were aimed at definitive yet still discrete property and wealth redistribution. Despite obvious support from the Roman commoners and the foundation of legal basis to their reforms, both of the Gracchi brothers were murdered by death squads sanctioned by the Optimate-dominated Senate, thereby ending their aspirations. In the case of Gaius, he was working with the knowledge of just how dangerous such a course might be, given he had previously bore witness to his brother Tiberius’ assassination years before under similar political circumstances. Because of this, Gaius was a much more calculating and careful political operator who executed different means and methods to his programme … who nevertheless was mortally feared by the landowners who stood to lose, and ended up suffering the same exact fate.
Tiberius Gracchus’s lex agraria would have given thousands of uprooted families a chance to work the land, thereby easing the congestion within Rome. It would have reversed the depopulation of the Italian countryside, and replenished the yeomen stock. Facing a popular upsurge against their illegal land holdings, the oligarchs could not easily attack Tiberius’s law. So they attacked Tiberius himself. They took every opportunity to denounce him as a demagogue and tyrant who was intent upon crowning himself king. They deprived him of a sufficient expense allowance to administer the land-reform program. The chief promoter of these affronts was Publius Nasica, one of the largest owners of public lands, who bitterly resented being obliged to surrender any of the ager publicus, and who, as Plutarch writes, “abandoned himself completely to his hatred of Tiberius.” Having stolen the ager publicus for themselves, the big owners now were convinced it rightfully belonged to them. Tiberius feared he would be assassinated for his reformist efforts. His apprehension proved well grounded. When the Tribal Assembly gathered to vote on Tiberius’s reelection, Nasica, with other senators and a large gang of hired thugs, descended upon the meeting and slaughtered him and some 300 of his supporters, none of whom had taken up arms.
These critics do not tell us what reform program Tiberius could possibly have legislated that would not have incurred the ire of the wealthy landholders. Even if he had followed the traditional course, leaving the lex agraria to the tender mercies of the Senate, and had employed the utmost finesse and moderation, the large holders still would have buried the measure. As it was, Tiberius’s law was more than generous in offering an undeserved compensation to the rich, undeserved because they themselves had never paid restitution for the land they had swiped years before, nor for the injuries they had inflicted on the smallholders of that day. The truth is, Tiberius’s sin was more substantive than stylistic. It was not that he failed to hew closely to established practice. The Senate itself often departed from its own constitutional procedures when expediency dictated — as when they launched their armed assault to massacre Tiberius and hundreds of his supporters. It was that he attempted to reverse the upward redistribution of wealth. He had the audacity to advocate reforms that gave something to the poor and infringed upon the rapacity of the rich.
~ Chapter 4 ~ “Demagogues” and Death Squads
Land reform, in addition to their other methods of reform — including debt cancellation and rent control — were supremely popular because these were the primary material interests of the common people of Rome in that day. They rose up as principal political and economic issues in the Late Roman Republic because they were the focal points of the immiseration within the populace and often the bedrock foundations contributing to near-total aristocratic control and long-standing opulence. Parenti highlights that once a reader of such history understands these facts of material motivation from the under- and overclasses, respectively, just as the assassination of the Gracchi brothers and the blocking of this reformist legislation from the oligarchy protecting its interests makes sense, so too does the eventual championing of a strong, more competent and ruthless leader who supported and better enacted such moderated populist reforms decades later make all kinds of sense as well.
Enter the neo-Populare politician set to shake Rome to its very foundations: Julius Caesar.
Parenti presents the rise of Caesar to popularity and power within the Late Roman Republic as a kind of natural progression from the populist programmes of the Gracchi bros, just this time with knowledge of both of their failures in hand alongside the enhancing ‘glory’ of military leadership and an ascendent charisma under his belt. Caesar’s politics also included a moderation to those land reformist positions themselves into a more palatable structure, while he also featured a more solidified base of Senatorial support around him. Caesar’s brand of populism among the Roman plebeians attained more success because he was strong — because he was more willing to ‘play politics’ in the cutthroat Roman senate, and therefore in a recursive sense, gain more opportunity for success in all his ventures as a consul. With both common popularity and proficient political & military opposition to ruling class interests came staying power, which afforded him the opportunity to execute his populare reformist agenda.
In the face of heavy optimate opposition, Caesar won the supreme office of consul, serving in 59. Early in his consulship he submitted another land reform bill, accepted by Pompey and Crassus, not unlike the one proposed in 63. Cicero was invited to serve on the land reform commission but refused. After the bill was filibustered to death in the Senate by Cato, Caesar applied the tactics of the Gracchi, dealing no further with the Senate and turning to the popular assemblies to get the law passed. It was not long before Cicero was complaining that the land distribution program was “taking away our rents in Campania.”
Whatever his popularity, Caesar still lacked the power and prestige of a military hero. Unlike Alexander, Hannibal, and Napoleon, he began his career as a politician rather than as a military leader. Originally intending, in the manner of Pericles and Gaius Gracchus, to attain his reforms without the use of force, he attended to the political arena for eighteen years. Then, at the age of forty, he became convinced that having an army at his back was a surer way when facing off against the death-dealing oligarchy.
~ Chapter 6 ~ The Face of Caesar
The primary distinction between Caesar and his predecessor populares was his willingness to fight to keep and expand his power, and the unyielding ingenuity he wielded to such ends. Borne from his own innate character alongside his understanding of those previous defeats, Caesar opposed the known-to-be murderous oligarchic optimates with his own powerful political alliance forged in the First Triumvirate, to simultaneously protect himself and to execute their legislative designs. He also utilized the Roman military as much as populist rhetoric or policy proposal to rally allies to his side and achieve his political aims. Unwavering support from the people and a series military victories secured for him a theretofore unseen level of power within the Roman Republic. By the time he made his ultimate, point-of-no-return choice to ‘cross the Rubicon’ — unabashedly defying the Senate and beginning civil war — Caesar was a fully individuated leader, convicted in his course. He was both committed to his own victory at nearly any cost and compelled to totalitarian power by the stakes of his conflict with the optimates, who via ultimatum commanded him to abdicate his military leadership — implicitly, to walk back to his own death. All the complexity and ambiguous intention of he and the rest of the Senate aside, his choice here to incite a final war for what would become a grasp for absolute power in Rome both 1) presaged the fall of the Republic and birth of Empire and 2) after he secured his victory, allowed for the promised passage of his popular reforms to the mass of the Roman people.
The implied question of this span of ancient Roman history is thus conferred: without Caesar’s ascendent personage and his ruthless, if at times pathological, will to power and position, does any kind of wealth reform ever happen within the Late Roman Republic? Without civil war, without defiance of the norms and the constitution of the Republic and that taste of totality from Caesar and his allies, does the barbaric rampancy of runaway inequality and the rulership of the many by the few within that Roman society ever resolve itself toward more egalitarianism and away from such terminal destitution?
Fuller’s summation is doubtless the shared opinion among the many historians who reside in Cicero’s camp: Caesar “was a supreme opportunist … Possessed of a magnetic personality and boundless egotism he lacked both fear and scruple … a man who would allow nothing to stand in his way.” In fact, Caesar’s purpose seems to have been not to destroy republican liberty but to mobilize sufficient popular power to break the stranglehold of the senatorial aristocracy, reducing it to an advisory and administrative body. He himself claimed his intent to be the people’s champion rather than their master. To be sure, facile democratic professions have dripped from the lips of many an artful autocrat. Still, his words ought to be given some consideration, for they were often backed by actions.
In 49, after crossing the Rubicon, he proclaimed: “I merely want to protect myself against the slanders of my enemies, to restore to their rightful position the tribunes of the people who have been expelled because of their involvement in my cause and to reclaim for myself and for the Roman people independence from the domination of a small clique.” Arriving in Rome some weeks later, he summoned together those senators who had not departed with Pompey, and said: “I was insulted and outraged by the interference with the rights of the tribunes. … My aim is to outdo others in justice and equity, as I have previously striven to outdo them in achievement.”
It was not Caesar’s personal ambition that incurred the ire of the optimates. In their world, ambition was of common currency and perfectly acceptable. They loathed his egalitarian sympathies, his long-standing concern for the interests of the people. To be sure, the conflict between nobiles and proletarii was not so neatly placed. There were some senators, not part of the optimate inner circle, who supported Caesar, and there were plebs, freedmen, and foreigners who, because of clientele enlistments and payoffs, ran with their aristocratic patrons. Still, if not perfectly then roughly, class lines were drawn in the fight between Caesar and the Senate oligarchs. To this day, defenders of class privilege resort to ad hominem attacks, maligning any leader who pursues policies on behalf of the common people as a self-promoting demagogue, a panderer intent upon usurping power. To be sure, no popular leader can afford to be indifferent to considerations of popular power. Mass support is needed as a countervailing leverage to challenge entrenched ruling-class interests. In other words, the pursuit of power and the pursuit of egalitarian reform are not mutually exclusive but mutually imperative.
~ Chapter 7 ~ “You All Did Love Him Once”
Caesar’s reign as “ruler for life”, though relatively short, installed more substantive political and economic egalitarianism in the form of land and debt reform, but also acted to expand the democratic scope of the Republic’s political institutions. He restored the ancient right of the people’s tribunate to initiate legislation, eased and expanded voter registration, and divested the senatorial oligarchy of its “unaccountable executive powers including its control over the treasury.” While certainly no revolutionary fully allied with the seizure of power and property for the proletarii, ‘Imperator’ Caesar’s pronouncements from his seat of potentially totalitarian control actually posited the notions of more meritocracy in lieu of the nobility’s absolute stranglehold upon governance within that Late (soon-to-be-dead) Republic.
Fully alive to the divisions that wracked Roman society, Caesar offered a forecast that would prove prophetic: “It is more important for Rome than for myself that I should survive. I have long been sated with power and glory; but should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace. A new civil war will break out under far worse conditions than the last.” 44 How did Caesar hope to avoid another civil war? With reforms well short of revolution; he would rein in the plundering excesses and worst abuses of the rich while giving something more to the toiling multitude, including a greater role in governance. The governing posts that demanded special confidence were filled by Caesar, as far as other considerations permitted, with “his slaves, freedmen, or followers of humble birth.” 45 He promoted plebeians to the patriciate and increased the size of the Senate from 600 to 900, filling its ranks with equestrians and eminent provincials from Spain and Gaul. He even made senators of centurions, soldiers, scribes, and a small number of libertini, the latter being sons of liberated slaves who had risen to distinction on their own merit. He seemed to be following Sallust’s surprisingly egalitarian advice: “Let no one be thought more qualified, on account of his wealth, to pronounce judgments on the lives and characters of his fellow-citizens; nor let anyone be chosen praetor or consul from regard to fortune but to merit.”
~ Chapter 8 ~ The Popularis
In the final chapters, Parenti makes his final assertion, and unfolds the ultimate purpose in his writing of this ‘people’s history’: contrary to popular modern belief, Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC primarily not because of his authoritarian presence and its threat to the principles of liberty itself, but because of its grave threat to the entrenched, supremely powerful aristocratic oligarchs and their previously nigh unlimited capacity to hoard land, wealth and intergenerational un-democratic control over the Republic.
Those who think that politics and history are “are just all about power” might wish to reflect on the Late Republic. The wealthy class did not pursue power as an end in itself. Power was and still is an instrumental value; it enables the rich to secure and advance their opportunities to profit off human labor, exercise decisive control over disadvantaged groups, monopolize public resources and private markets, expand overseas holdings, and plunder government treasuries. Power enables them to preserve their precious privileges, their fabulous way of life, and the one thing that makes such a life possible, their immense wealth.
It is a mistreatment of history to reduce this struggle to a factional or personal feud or even a purely constitutional issue devoid of social content. The oligarchs were less Caesar’s personal rivals and ungrateful beneficiaries than his bitter politico-economic enemies. His power greatly alarmed them because he used it to work against, rather than for, their interests. Like other populares, he attempted to deal with unemployment, poverty, unfair taxes, excessive luxury consumption, land redistribution, rent gouging, usury, debt relief, and overall aristocratic avarice. Like every aristocratic reformer from Cleisthenes centuries before him in ancient Greece to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in twentieth-century United States, Caesar was branded a traitor to his class by members of that class. He had committed the unforgivable sin of trying to redistribute, albeit in modest portions, some of the wealth that the very rich tirelessly siphon from state coffers and from the labor of the many. It was unforgivable that he should tamper with the system of upward expropriation that they embraced as their birthright. Caesar seems not to have comprehended that in the conflict between haves and have-nots, the haves are really the have-it-alls. The Roman aristocrats lambasted the palest reforms as the worst kind of thievery, the beginning of a calamitous revolutionary leveling, necessitating extreme countermeasures. And they presented their violent retaliation not as an ugly class expediency but as an honorable act on behalf of republican liberty.
~ Chapter 10 ~ Liberty of Power
Tacit proof of this distinction as the root of the assassination of Caesar comes in the whole history of the Roman Empire, beginning as it rose out of the chaos following his death and the reign of his adoptive son in Octavian as the first Emperor. As the Empire era shows, the Senate/Consulars/collective political elite and wealthy will suffer a dictator just as long as they ultimately serve their interests and the interests of their class. Through the eyes of history, the constitution, virtue, and liberty itself all pale in comparison to the consummation of such material class prerogatives.
All of Rome’s emperors wielded substantially more power than Julius Caesar. Yet the senators and the rich in general went along with them, as Tacitus notes of their ready submission to Augustus, “advancing in wealth and place in proportion to their servility, and drawing profit out of the new order of affairs.” While Caesar had opened the Senate to talents men of humble origin, Augustus kept the Senate as a preserve for the rich, even creating new patrician members. As the elder Pliny reports, “Senators began to be selected and judges appointed on the score of wealth, and wealth became the sole adornment of magistrate and military commander…”
It is not hard to divine why the nobility opposed the more conciliatory Caesar but accepted the more autocratic Augustus and his successors, showing no nostalgia for their beloved Republic. Unlike Caesar, Augustus promoted no economic agenda on behalf of the masses. He dissolved all worker guilds except long-standing ones that were conducting “legitimate business,” doubtless sharing Suetonius’s opinion that many collegia were “in reality organizations for committing every sort of crime.” 29 Augustus manifested no interest in debt reduction or land allotments (except for his army veterans), and was indifferent to the well-being of the rural population in general. 30 The two taxes he initiated, a sales tax and death duties, were regressive, leaving aristocratic wealth untouched, all of which the nobility could not fail to appreciate.
Early in the realm of Augustus, opposition to one-man rule died out in the Senate, and over the next 400 years no serious attempt was ever made by the senators to restore the Republic.
In sum, when their class interests were at stake, the senators had no trouble choosing political dictatorship over the most anemic traces of popular rule and egalitarian economic reform.
~ Chapter 10 ~ Liberty of Power
Parenti paints a dire picture of early imperial Rome as Augustus takes to power. Inequality continues its inexorable ascent, now compounded as the previous reforms are abolished and wealth rules power and position more than ever before. A broadened slavocracy, and continuous conscription into forever-wars, extends the long-standing annihilation of the human rights and liberty among the lowest classes. In general, a forceful dissolution of democratic discourse takes final hold and potential proletarii organization fades away forever.
Parenti notes that such progressions as we see from the Late Republic to the birth of Empire are contingent, as all history remains, and as modern readers of such accounts along a clear timeline able to look before and after, we are notably privileged in our analysis. However, it seems more than plausible that while Caesar’s ultimate intentions are ambiguous (in the end, did he sincerely want to help the people? Or did he just wish to live like a King?) — the aims of the Roman ruling class, before, during and after his rise and reign stayed quite simple. And they remain so today.
In my humble opinion, the modern day American Republic/Empire and its own governmental & corporate ‘rulers’ could learn much from the excesses and the decadence and the arrogant pathologies of the Late Roman Republic. All history is no doubt contingent on a multiplicity of known and unknown factors, and though it may not always repeat itself or perfectly rhyme, there are certain comparable conditions, and they will constitute a reckoning at some point or another.
The prime condition to be reckoned with? The continuous consolidation of wealth, power, and control in the hands of the few, while the many toil in cycles of oppression and immiseration. Beyond the lines of specific political and economic systems, technological advancement, and the knowledge of history itself — the reckoning of the Romans is our reckoning today. We can see how it played out for them. How will it play out for us?
More than either history’s great individual figures or its powerful class of elites, I believe it is the people that we can most obviously relate to. The “underclass”, the working class, the 99% of our world. It does not take a psychic link to the past, or even original sources from a real ‘people’s history’ of the time, to understand what it is that any given Man wants. Life, liberty and the pursuit. Improving material conditions. A better way forward for him and his kin. From the dispossessed many at any given time throughout history — including ancient Rome — we have the clearest, most unequivocal desires manifesting to us from something like a collective unconscious. And that is because those desires are our desires too.
In the final passages of his book, Parenti powerfully reflects on this oft unexpressed yet understood reality:
The common people of ancient Rome had scant opportunity to leave a written record of their views and struggles. Among the surviving primary sources, there exists little information on how the plebs urbana organized their collegia, and how they felt about wages, prices, taxes, wars, land policy, or employment problems. Although we can draw certain inferences, history leaves us with only fragmentary impressions of their tribulations. Still, as I have tried to show, what we know of the common people tells us that they displayed a social consciousness and sense of justice that was usually superior to anything possessed by their would-be superiors. In the highly skewed accounts of what is called history, Cicero, Brutus, Cato, and other oligarchs come down to us as the defenders of republican liberty; while Caesar — who tried to move against their power and privilege and do something for the poor — comes down to us as a tyrant and usurper.
And the people of Rome themselves, the anonymous masses upon whose shoulders the populares stood, come down to us hardly at all, or most usually as a disreputable mob. They who struggled against all odds with all the fear and courage of ordinary humans, whose names we shall never know, whose blood and tears we shall never see, whose cries of pain and hope we shall never hear, to them we are linked by a past that is never dead nor ever really past. And so, when the best pages of history are finally written, it will be not by princes, presidents, prime ministers, or pundits, nor even by professors, but by the people themselves. For all their faults and shortcomings, the people are all we have. Indeed, we are they.
~ Chapter 11 ~ Bread and Circuses
Parenti, M. (2003). The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome. New York, NY: New Press.