Modern Things Romans Would Love #4: Bipartisan Politics

Boy, will this one need some time.

It should be noted that little of Roman politics, besides the politicians and the laws themselves, was ever formalised. It was not like their chariot race, where the party-lines, the red team, white team, blue team and green team, were easily codified and identified. Yet it always seemed to be the case that every so often Rome would find itself subject to a division of society, a split down one line. Bipartisanship, in other words.

To begin with, the original Kings of Rome were tyrannical warlords who used their power to unite groups of villages. Unfortunately the thing about power is if someone has it, you can be damn well sure someone else wants it. In this case it came to be that a group of ‘noble’ families from that collection of villages (that, by this point, had become a powerful city-state in Italy) were not happy being told what to do by warlords. They all came together and agreed they would be better off making the decisions. Thus was the rule of law by the people over warlords established and the ‘Res Publica’ – literally translating to the ‘public thing’ or ‘public affair’ – the Republic of Rome was born.

The Curia Julia in Rome – The house in which the Senate met was called the ‘Curia‘ and where the Curia Julia now stands has likely been the meeting place of the Roman Senate since Rome was a Kingdom, though rebuilt many times. This building has a history that could fill a book. (Credit: Sailko)

Now, as well-intentioned as the toppling of warlords might seem, what they essentially wanted to do was take all the power for their own families. Now instead of having one warlord versus the people, you had various families of wannabe rulers all trying to become consul (chief magistrate, effectively ruler of Rome), aediles (public servants in charge of building shit) or even, if they were old and respected enough, princeps senatus (the first in the Senate) a highly venerable position. The Roman governmental offices, and the ladder to climb them, would make a whole article of its own. Whatever, it was basically a massive, but usually orderly, fight for power between a few leading families.

Until it wasn’t and they all tried to kill each other because they essentially divided themselves into two factions…Such is the tale of Rome from its inception!

If you take mythology at face value the first Romans to express an interest in bipartisan politics are Mr. Rome (thanks Mary Beard) himself, Romulus, and his brother Remus. Romulus and Remus had differing ideas about which hill to build Rome on, so they started work on different hills. Remus, though, then jumped over Romulus’ fence for a natter or to borrow a cup of sugar or something, either way Romulus thought this was not okay and so he killed him.

Then you have the aforementioned toppling of the Roman kings by an, essentially, populist faction.

The problem with populists who get power is they don’t learn their lessons. They become one big, collective warlord, like forming the MegaZord in Power Rangers – only instead of a kick-arse robot it’s just a massive snobby twat – and so this led to the ‘Conflict of the Orders’ between the plebeians (basically normal dudes) and the patricians (the posh twats with the power). This ended with the granting of political power to the plebs in order to shut them up and because the posh twats realised the plebs did all the work that made them rich and if they just…didn’t…then they’d have fuck all, too.

So you’d think it’d end there, right? Everyone would learn their lessons about equality and there need be no more division, right? WRONG! You see the problem with granting power to people is then people will use that power. Sometimes they will try and use that power to take a little bit of your wealth and redistribute it to create a better functioning, more equitable society. Can you tell I’m a socialist? Anyway, if you, say, are the Roman equivalent of a multi-billionaire and you stand to not make as many billions by having this happen – you might have a problem with it.

And so it was. What happened is Rome started eating Italy, then Europe, then Africa and in so doing everyone got really big appetites. It was really easy to ignore how much Romans hated each other when they were busy killing other Italian ethnic groups, Phoenicians in Africa, various Greeks, Macedonians, Sicilians, Spaniards etc. By the time her influence spread all the way down to Africa Rome had a realisation. “Hang on!” she thought, “Didn’t we all hate each other?”

Just a nice image of the Roman Forum as it looks today. It’s hard to find contemporaneous images of a lot of this stuff. The ‘Conflict of the Orders’ is historically contested anyway and since the Gracchi weren’t so popular with the rich and famous there weren’t really statues made of them. So just look at this forum and consider how much of this history, how much of what happened in this article, happened here. This small spot of land in Central Rome. (Credit: Kimberlym21)

For one thing Rome started fueling her empire with people, slaves to be exact. This disenfranchised the land working peasant class and allowed for the creation of huge estates, latifundia, to be bought up by the wealthy. Needless to say slave uprisings began, including one which effectively held Sicily for several years. It also created a political storm in Rome, as many found they no longer had a living. Especially the retired soldiery who definitely felt they deserved a little summin-summin having fought to bring all this wealth to Rome.

This leads us to the Gracchi and the so-called Social Wars. The Gracchi were two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. As much as they may be established socialist heroes, they were the offspring of the Sempronii family (a leading plebeian family) and the Cornelii (a leading patrician family). They were also related to the Scipiones (of Scipio Africanus, the man who bested Hannibal, fame) so they were not grubby peasants fighting the good fight, they were big names in the forum.

Tiberius was the first to enter politics as a tribune of the plebs – effectively the representative of the plebeians with the power to propose and veto laws as laid down at the end of the Conflict of the Orders, as explained earlier.

Tiberius’ main deal was that there should be a limit to the amount of land, particularly public land – ager publicus – an individual could own. Instead such public land should be divided, you know, among the fucking public. The thing about Roman aristocrats is they don’t like that, because they’re posh dicks. If it’s private it’s theirs, if it’s public, it’s also theirs. There was one hell of a legal drama regarding all of this the upshot of which was that Tiberius Gracchus and many of his followers were brutally murdered.  This was a reasonable response that would definitely not have any repercussions.

Until a few years later when Tiberius’ brother, Gaius, decided to appeal to the plebs on a similar populist basis. However, Gaius was a little less tactful than his brother, he set about using his legal powers to curb the powers of the Senate and put more power for decision making in the hands of the people. How did this come undone? Easy. One of his proposals was the enfranchisement of all Italian allies with Roman citizenship rights. Much as with today this gave the posh twats all the ammunition they needed. Rather than the peasantry seeing it for what it was, the creation of more allies to fight for the rights of all of them, the aristocracy convinced the masses, a lot of people with barely any bread and no power, that if other Italians became Romans they would have barely any bread and no power. It worked. Gaius Gracchus was murdered by senatorial representatives on the Capitoline Hill. Surely this would be the end of it, then?

NOPE. I told you this was a biggie.

By this point Roman society was divided into what we call the optimates – ‘the best men’ – and the populares – ‘the populists’. You see what this entry is about now, right? Two parties, effectively both running for the good of the wealth and prosperity of the state and the wealthy individuals in it, with two different ideas of how to go about doing it. It’s bipartisan politics!

It didn’t even end there. Next up came a man, a general, who sided with the populares, Marius. He ran his legions well and they were loyal. He had also learned from the Gracchan incidents, from the senatorial use of violence to achieve political ends, the ruthless murders of the Gracchi to silence the dissent, that being a bit of a ruthless dick achieves results. He used his armies to tell senators to shut the fuck up. Funnily enough, it worked! It is very hard to deny fairness to a man with a sword when you are unarmed.

So it ends there, right?


Along comes Sulla, the literal anti-Marius. He uses the same tactics, military might and brutality, to undo Marius’ reforms and put everything back the way it was. The good, old-fashioned way.

Trying to put everything back the way it was, at this point, was like trying to put a thirty-year-old back inside their mother’s womb. It either can’t happen or it’s going to get very messy. At this point the optimates and populares were informal parties and bipartisanship in politics was firmly established as the norm.

Later on a man would come along, with ideas related to those of the Gracchi, to Marius, and he would dominate politics in Rome. He would pacify Gaul, explore Germany and Britain, where no Roman had trodden before, and so fearful would the Senate be of his influence that they would seek to have him on trial for crimes should he return to Rome. Taking a leaf out of their books, following in the footsteps of Marius and Sulla, he returned to Rome, but with his army. That man was Gaius Julius Caesar, Caesar as we best know him. It would take a few more decades, more civil wars, but eventually some measure of peace and stability would return under Augustus and the Principate – the Empire of Rome begun under the Julio-Claudian emperors. What this meant, though, was Rome was once again a de-facto kingdom ruled by warlords. Bipartisan politics being little more than a distraction to give patricians and plebs something to keep their minds occupied from the fact that they were subjects of a de-facto king.

I will refrain, entirely, from making any inference or references to contemporary political situations. Make your damn own.

Need a rest after all that? Find out why Romans would have loved AirBnB here.

Or move on to number 3 on our list – Why Romans would have loved fast food.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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