Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Grass Crown: What Sulla Really Wants

Driven from Rome by a deranged Marius, Sulla resorts to a truly drastic action -- he marches his army against Rome, drives Marius and his followers out, and seizes power by force.  To describe this as shocking is a considerable understatement.  Nothing of the kind had ever happened before in centuries of Roman history.  It seems safe to say that it was probably as shocking to Sulla's contemporaries as such an event would be in the US today.  Plutarch shows a distinct ambivalence toward Sulla's actions; McCullough does as well.  One can readily understand why.  The whole episode does credit to no one.  Sulla is, after all, the lawfully elected consul and proper commander of the army in the field.  Marius is aligning himself with a gangster and thug and seems to be motivated solely by ego and a desire for power.  Plutarch also says that at this point Marius began his reign of terror (albeit on a smaller scale than it would later reach), executing Sulla's followers, i.e., the followers of the lawful consul and commander-in-chief.  (McCullough omits this detail).  So his overall behavior is appalling.

But so is the behavior of Sulla, who then marches an army against his own city, an unheard-of thing. Nor does he shine once he arrives.  Plutarch reports that he threatened to burn houses down. McCullough actually downplays this, treating it as a bluff and says that he warned his soldiers not to commit any outrage against the Roman population, even executing one for looting.  And he reasons with the people, pointing out that Sulpicius' measure expelling most of the Senate for debt is hardly compatible with any sort of debt relief and that Marius, though a great man (he takes care to express only praise for Marius) is in failing health and simply not up to the responsibilities of a command.

He then enacts major political changes that certainly appear to be historical, but that Plutarch does not so much as mention.  Remember the post on Roman political institutions?  Sulla made major changes that are revealing, both as to his social vision, and as to why enacting major changes to institutions is difficult -- because they have entrenched power and the capacity to defend themselves.  McCullough reports (probably accurately) that Sulla phased in his changes strategically, starting with the least objectionable to disguise the full impact of what he was doing.  First he suspended the usual requirement of an interval between when a measure was proposed and when it was enacted. Excusable, for a military commander in a hurry to go off and win his war.  Next he repealed all Sulpicius' measures, again perhaps understandable in that they were enacted by violence.  And he enlarged the Senate to make it functional again, a perfectly reasonable measure.  But then his then he begins to move in a more alarming direction.  First, he modifies the Centuriate Assembly (remember, the one divided into classes) to give nearly half of all power to the first class (the richest class).  Next, he limits the tribal assemblies' legislative power to voting up or down on measures passed by the Senate.  No longer can consuls or tribunes propose legislature to the assemblies without the Senate's permission, nor can they modify any proposal.  Finally, he ends the tribal assemblies' authority to legislate at all and vests it solely in the Centuriate Assembly.  In other words, he gets the tribal assemblies to vote away their own legislative power and vest it solely in an assembly controlled by Rome's richest class.  It seems a safe assumption that they would not have done such a thing except in the presence of an army fingering its swords, with no threat openly made, but one clearly implied.

Consider, then what Sulla's new governmental institutions look like.  The Senate, in addition to its old powers, has the sole power to initiate (though not to pass) legislation.  Legislation will be voted up or down in the Centuriate Assembly, where only the richest class has any real power.  This oligarchic assembly will also elect consuls, praetors, and censors, the only executive officials with real policy-making power.  The Assembly of the Whole will be limited to electing tertiary executive officials whose powers are mostly administrative.  The Plebeian Assembly will be limited to electing tribunes.  Tribunes can no longer initiate legislation, but will still have the veto power.  In short, what Sulla is making looks a lot like the narrow and tight oligarchy at the beginning of the Republic.  And this is revealing as to his ultimate vision.  It would suggest that what Sulla really wanted in the long run was not a dictatorship, but a narrow and tight oligarchy of a kind that had not existed in centuries. And Plutarch does not so much as mention any of these measures, although they must certainly have contributed to Sulla's unpopularity.

Finally, Sulla proclaimed a sentence of outlawry on a number of his opponents, including Marius and Sulpicius.  They must flee or be killed.  Sulla lets most of them escape, especially Marius who is too popular to kill, but he puts Sulpicius' head on a spike.  Then he returns to the wars.

Naturally, all these measures make Sulla deeply unpopular.  After the next election, all ten tribunes are opponents.  Of the two consuls, Gnaeus Octavius is a supporter and Lucius Cornelius Cinna an opponent.  Naturally, rivalry between these two consuls escalates and threatens to tear Rome asunder. Here Plutarch is hopelessly biased against Cinna and McCullough hopelessly biased against Octavius, so it is hard to tell exactly what happened.  It appears that Cinna sought to reverse Sulla's measures and Octavius to maintain them.  Both appear to have resorted to force.  It seems most likely the Cinna resorted to force first, since, like the tribal assemblies before, the first class in the Centuriate Assembly would presumably not give up their lock on power voluntarily.  McCullough has him attempt bribery instead -- offer to cancel debts if the Centuriate Assembly will reverse Sulla's measures.  But given that they benefited from these measures, no matter how illegitimate and unconstitutional their enactment, it seems unlikely that Cinna could have hoped to get his way except by force.

Plutarch, on the other hand, describes Octavius as "a most excellent man [who] wished to rule in the justest way" and Cinna as "making war on the established constitution," a charge that would carry more force if Sulla had not just "established" the constitution at sword's point.  Plutarch neglects to mention that Octavius sent armed followers against Cinna, who killed large numbers of citizens, or that he unconstitutionally deposed Cinna and the tribunes of Cinna's faction and sent them into exile. Once again, the whole episode resounds to no one's credit.

In exile, Marius and Cinna raise their own armies and lead them against Rome.  All-out civil war ensues.  Both sides offer citizenship to any non-citizen Italians who will support them.  The Italians respond with a will.  Marius trades on his popularity, but by now he has completely lost his mind and is surrounded by equally deranged ex-slaves who engage in wanton slaughter.  Cinna, commanding a separate army from Marius, refuses to accept the warning from one of Marius' oldest friends (who is also a cousin) and from his own son that Marius is unstable and should not be trusted.  (Does that seem likely?  You would think that if a man's closest friends and his own son tell a distant acquaintance not to trust him, the distant acquaintance would take the warning seriously).  Marius and his bodyguard seize Rome and launch a campaign of wanton slaughter until Marius has a stroke and dies.  McCullough takes care to acquit Cinna of any complicity in the slaughter and portray him as a decent guy.  Plutarch's description suggests that there may be some truth to the belief that Marius was deranged, at least during his final illness.  But he does not dismiss the mad slaughter as simply the work of one deranged man; he full implicates Cinna and Marius' son in it as well.  McCullough believes that the reign of terror ended when Marius died and his bodyguard was killed off.  Plutarch says that it continued.

Clearly in the final chapters, things go from bad to worse quite quickly, as appears to be the case in real life.  Just before his fatal stroke, Marius names the young Caesar flamens dialis, or high priest of Jupiter, nominally a great honor, practically, the end of any political or military career for him.

Unlike First Man in Rome, which ends with a sense of completion and seeming peace, The Grass Crown ends with things very much in the air.  The Mithriditic War is still raging, and Sulla will not calmly accept what his enemies have done.  We are left hanging.

The Grass Crown: Marius Succumbs to the Dark Side

I have compared First Man in Rome to The Phantom Menace for a reason.  Both are the first installment in a saga about how the Republic fell and the Empire took its place.  Both tell how the Republic faced a seeming danger, defeated it, and reached a seeming happy ending, only to discover that this as a mere prelude -- a phantom menace while the real danger continued to lurk.  And both offer a hero you are invited to root for even though you know (at least if you know anything about Roman history) that he will ultimately succumb to the Dark Side.  In the sequel, he does.

At the end of the Italian War Sulla, now a war hero to equal Marius, is elected consul.  But his inauguration is ruined when Marius shows up and gets more cheers than Sulla.  The author does not explore why in too much detail.  Presumably Marius is so popular because he is a war hero.  But Sulla is now a war hero to equal him, and a more recent one, too. Possibly Marius is more popular because he is remote enough to be an elder statesman and not someone the Romans have to deal with in the here and now.  But the author seems to imply that Marius upstages Sulla because he is the more charismatic.  An important qualification is in order here. Charisma is not the same as beauty.  Sulla is by far the more handsome.  He also has a whole lot more sex appeal.  But he is also more cool and standoff-ish.  And (the author seems to imply) Marius simply has the common touch in a way that Sulla never had.  Although Marius means no harm, Sulla bitterly resents being upstaged by him.  And yet the author cannot conceal that, although their falling out did credit to neither of them, Marius was the more to blame in starting it .

Sulla begins his consulship quite reasonably.  War has
devastated Italy.  The economy is in ruins.  Debts are unpayable. Between the expense of the war and Drusus' currency debasement, there has been major inflation and interest rates have skyrocketed. There is widespread outcry to cancel debts.  An earlier politician tried to outlaw interest and was torn asunder by outraged bankers (or at least a mob hired by outraged bankers).  Sulla makes a reasonable compromise.  He recognizes that to cancel debts or abolish interest will wreck Rome's credit system, and that to insist in payment in full will cause universal bankruptcy.  So he allows only simple interest and only at the original rate, a significant concession given the inflation that has taken place.  Although in most lawsuits the parties are required to post bond equal to the amount in dispute, he authorizes the judge to waive bond in suits for debt.  No one is very happy with the compromise, but all recognize it as necessary.  He says that he opposes extending citizenship to the Italians, but will respect the law and allow all citizenship extended to stand.  It is hard to find anything to criticize there.

Then Mithridates of Pontus, taking advantage of Rome's weakened condition, seizes large amounts of the eastern empire and massacres every Roman and Italian in the territory he has captured.  Rome has a war on its hands that it is in no condition either to fight or to finances.  Sulla desperately scrambles to get resources together and grapples with the very real problem of how to finance the war.  Marius, showing increasing signs of derangement since his stroke, demands to be given command and is overruled due to his age and ill health.  He also dismisses practical concerns about how to finance operations.

And then there is Sulpicius.  He is introduced as a conservative tribune, so conservative that he vetoes the sensible suggest to recall everyone banished for proposing such citizenship.  He had zealously fought in the civil war and been implicated in its worst atrocities.  When Pompey the Cross-Eyed Butcher celebrated his triumph but did not have a foreign king to parade through the streets, Sulpicius rounded up Italian children orphaned by Pompey's wars, marched them through the streets in the parade, and then threw them out of the city and left them to their fate.  But Mithridates' massacres change his viewpoint.  If foreigners make no distinction between Roman and Italian, he concludes that his whole perspective was wrong.  Suddenly he assumes the role of a demagogue, railing against Rome's ruling class.

Is this justified?  On the one hand, Rome's ruling class had resisted admitting the Italians to citizenship, leading to a ruinous civil war that left Italy in ruins and culminated in the Italians becoming citizens anyhow.  Then a hostile foreign leader took advantage of Rome being weakened by civil war to seize many Roman possessions and massacre all Romans and Italians in his power.  So on one hand yes, Rome's rulers have clearly let the people down, and the people have legitimate reason to be angry with them.  On the other hand, in refusing Italian citizenship and setting off this ghastly chain of events, Rome's leaders were doing exactly what public opinion wanted them to, so really the people of Rome had no one to blame but themselves.

Sulpicius undertakes several measures.  One is to recall everyone exiled for supporting Italian citizenship, which is certainly reasonable.  One distributes Italians and freedman among all the Roman tribes.  This is popular among the Italians, who are seeing their power made proportionate to their numbers.  It is popular with Rome's urban residents because many of Italians and freedmen are urban dwellers who will increase the city's strength.  But it is unpopular among the rural tribes who see their voting strength diluted.  It is controversial but defensible.  But he also proposes to expel from the Senate anyone with debts over quite a modest sum.  The practical upshot is that the Senate will not be able to muster a quorum.  Remember the important functions of the Senate -- authorizing expenditures, appointing provincial governors, foreign and imperial affairs.  To destroy such an important part of the government without finding anything to replace it is not just radical, it is completely crazy.

A shrewd observer of the scene contrasts Sulpicius with Saturninus, the chief demagogue in the last crisis.  Saturninus rose to power in a time of food shortages.  His primary constituency were the poorest Romans because they were most effected.  His goal was his own power.  Sulpicius, by contrast, can to power at a time of excess debt.  Since the poor have little debt (and most of it in the informal sector), his primary constituency is the middle class.  His goal is not to advance his own power, but to overturn the power of Rome's current rulers.

Unable to seize power on his own, Sulpicius seeks Marius' support.  Marius, who didn't hesitate to crush Saturninus in the last book, agrees on one condition -- that he be given command of the army in the East.  Sulpicius agrees and ads this to his measures. When the measures meet with resistance, Sulpicius sends armed me in to the forum and violence breaks out.  Sulla's co-consul and the co-consul's son are killed.  Sulla goes to Marius' house to try to reason with him and finds Marius in no mood to talk.  There is no doubt left -- Marius has become deranged and cares for nothing but his own command, regardless of who he harms in the process.  Sulla leaves, but prepares to exercise Second Amendment solutions.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Grass Crown: The Growing Antagonism

The main subject of The Grass Crown is Marius and Sulla's growing antagonism and its (at least temporary) destruction of the Roman Republic.  When the story opens, Marius' career seems to be in decline, while Sulla's has not taken off yet.  Marius is popular as a war hero, but but his  popularity, at least with the Senate, grows in proportion to his apparent decline.  They love him at a safe distance only.  Both men on separate occasions confront Mithridates of Pontus, an eastern despot seeking to expand his power and behaving like an eastern despot, i.e., regularly and arbitrarily killing anyone from his closest and most loyal advisers to his family members and making the general point that Rome, for all its faults, is a high trust society by comparison.  Both men are able to intimidate Mithridates and keep him from growing so big as to be a threat to Rome.  Plutarch, by the way, accuses Marius of deliberately seeking to stir up war with Mithridates to revive his lagging career.  McCullough does not appear to take that accusation seriously.

Sulla also reminds us that he is the villain by poisoning Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, a conservative politician who was Marius' arch-enemy and went into exile rather than take an oath to uphold Marius' distribution of land to his soldiers.*  There is no historical evidence of this whatever, although there were rumors that Numidicus was poisoned by Quintus Varius.  However, Sulla's poisoning of Numidicus serves more purposes than just to remind us that he is evil.  For one thing, it allows the author to contrast the devotion of Numidicus' son,Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius to the treachery of Mithridates and his family and remind us the advantages of Rome.  It also points up the changes in Sulla.  Both Metelli are seen mostly from the viewpoint of Marius and Sulla.  Numidicus, as Marius' chief rival, is shown in most unflattering terms.  Marius extends this hostility to Pius as well, and initially Sulla does as well.  But the innocent and unsuspecting Pius believes that Sulla was reconciled to his father and befriends him as the last witness to his father's life.  Sulla is at first amused, but later comes to think of Pius as a "dear friend" and is even genuinely and unironically indignant at some wrongs done to  his father (quite forgetting that he personally poisoned the man!). Pius is portrayed as a decent fellow, even though he remains devoted to Sulla after sensing what sort of man he is.

McCullough portrays Marius and Sulla as friends and allies, both supporting Drusus' efforts to extend citizenship to the Italians and desperately seeking to head off the civil war they know will follow if the Italians are denied. Plutarch, for what it is worth, makes no mention of either man championing the Italians and says that they had a growing rivalry over who would get credit for defeating Jugurtha of Numidia, that was prevented from boiling over only by the outbreak of the Social War, i.e., the revolt of the Italian allies (Socii) after Drusus was killed.

Plutarch portrays Marius as rather indifferent commander in the Social War, presumably due to increasing age and declining health and says that he worked hard to get back into shape afterward. McCullough portrays Marius as not being in any way malicious toward Sulla, but appallingly insensitive.  While Sulla does us utmost to impress Marius with his ability as a general, Marius is dismissive and assures Sulla that while, yes, he is a good general, Marius is an inspired general. When Sulla asks what if anything happens to Marius, Marius says that will depend on whether Rome can get by with a good general.  Sulla quite understandably wants to punch him in the gut.  Shortly afterward, Marius suffers a stroke and is carried home, paralyzed on one side.  Sulla proves himself an inspired general and wins the grass crown (hence the title), Rome's highest military honor given only to a commander who saves a legion or raises the siege from a city.  Not even Marius had ever won the grass crown.  And while he acknowledges that he was wrong and that Sulla was in inspired general after all, he does not acknowledge that Sulla is a better general than he was, so Sulla remains resentful.  The author also strongly hints that Marius' stroke has caused disturbing personality changes.  It is at this point that she shows him hiring a hitman.  McCullough also gives an appalling and presumably accurate portrait of the atrocities committed on both sides during the war and the hardship it caused.

In the end, Rome extended citizenship to all Italian allies not in revolt.  In the novel, at least, this utterly disgusts Sulla, who sees that it is merely the prelude to extending citizenship to all Italians. And, indeed, each member of Rome's ruling class who is not a Roman of the Romans sees the opportunity for clients if the people of his region are admitted and pushes for their admission.  (Drusus did his cause serious harm by claiming all newly enfranchised Italians as clients.  If he had pointed out all the prospects for clients, he would have gotten a sizeable constituency to support him). Sulla, as war hero, is elected consul.  The rivalry between him and Marius will soon break out into the open.

*McCullough really should have included a section on poisons in her glossary.  She is a neuroscientist who took care to describe the symptoms of each poison in enough detail to make clear that she had a specific one in mind.  Sulla poisons Numidicus with "a nasty brew decocted from peach seeds," i.e. cyanide.  The symptoms of cyanide poisoning are very similar to acute respiratory failure -- dizziness, choking, and gasping for air.  The main difference is that in acute respiratory failure, the blood cannot become oxygenated, so the victim turns blue.  In cyanide poisoning, the cells cannot get oxygen out of the blood, so the victim turns red.  One of the attending doctors shows the strange mixture of incompetence and competence of the time and proceeds to bleed Numidicus and is surprised that the blood comes out of his vein bright red.  This leads him to suspect poison, though not to name a particular suspect.  That is a bit problematic.  The trouble with cyanide (from the perspective of the poisoner) is that it is so fast-acting that once poison is suspected, there is usually not much room for doubt whodunnit.  Who could have poisoned Numidicus?  Probably the guy he was drinking with all afternoon before he got sick.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Grass Crown: Roman Governing Institutions

During First Man in Rome and well into The Grass Crown, it was possible to ignore the fine points of Roman governing institutions.  McCullough might write about voting in the Centuriate Assembly or the Tribal Assemblies, but the exact nature of these assemblies was less important  than the outcome of the vote.  Votes in the Senate also carried a lot of drama and were presumed to have the force of law.  There was a section in the glossary explaining all these institutions, but it was easy to skip over because the precise nature of these institutions was not the focus of the story.  The institution that received the most focus was the Roman army and the changes Marius made to it.  The institutions of the Roman (civil) government do become important later on in The Grass Crown because the changes Sulla makes to them are critical to the story and highly revealing as to what his ultimate vision was.

My high school level familiarity with the Roman Republic had two basic narratives.  One narrative is one of progress.  The Republic began as a narrow and tight Patrician oligarchy.  The common people were allowed power in only one way -- through the Tribune of the Plebs, who could veto any action that infringed too far on the people's rights.  This office turned out to be a great deal more powerful than the oligarchy anticipated and gradually pried the system open, striking down patrician privileges and raising plebeians to near or total equality.   The other is a story of regression.  While Rome began as a land of independent freeholding family farmers, land became increasingly concentrated into vast slave plantations -- the latifundia.  Rome's farmers were squeezed out and ended up as an unemployed urban rabble.  So far as I can tell, both narratives are true.  What I am not clear on is whether they took place consecutively or simultaneously.  In other words, was the division between rich and poor growing even as the division between  patrician and plebeian was diminishing, or was the difference based on birth broken down and the difference based on wealth arise only later?  Or, put differently, was there a Golden Age of the Republic when dominance of the patricians has been undermined, but dominance of the rich had not yet taken its place?  I do not know, and McCullough does not address the issue.

One thing is clear.  By the time McCullough addresses, most of the advantages of being a patrician were gone.  Most of the old patrician families had seen their wealth diminish, and the richest Romans were mostly plebeians.  If a Plebeian achieved consular rank, his descendants would be considered nobility, just not quite as high nobility as a Patrician.  Patrician woman were allowed less independence than plebeian women, so patrician men had some advantages in domination over their women.  A handful of offices were restricted to patricians.  Most important was Princeps Senatus (First Man of the Senate).  While censors held their office for five years and other magistrates for one, there was no limit on how long the Princeps Senatus could hold his office, which made him a very powerful official.  But it also limited any individual patrician's chance of ever reaching that office.  The Senate was divided into groups of ten, with each one led by a patrician, so one senator in ten had to be a patrician.  And a handful of other offices were restricted to patricians, but most were priesthoods with no real power.  Weighed against this were powers restricted to plebeians that we shall address shortly.

Roman governmental institutions changed over time, but McCullough addresses the institutions as they existed before Sulla's revolt.

The Senate.  Senators held their office for life.  Anyone elected as magistrate above a certain rank was automatically admitted to the Senate.  Other senators were chosen by the censors, who could also remove a senator for misconduct.  The Senate was a powerful body.  It alone authorized expenditures, appointed provincial governors, and and was in charge of administering the provinces.  It also took the lead in foreign affairs and could declare emergencies in which the other branches of government were suspended.  It was not, however, a legislature in the modern sense.  While it is often shown voting on legislation, in the end, its vote was only advisory.  Only the popular assemblies could pass binding legislation.  This not only means that legislation the Senate voted for would not become law unless passed by the Senate, it also means that a popular assembly could pass legislation that the Senate had advised against or without consulting the Senate at all, although to do so was considered the mark of a demagogue.  It is a mark of Drusus' resolve to work within the system that he vows never to bring a measure to the Plebeian Assembly without first consulting the Senate.  After getting Senate approval for his Gracchi-like program, it is an easy matter to have it approved by the Assembly.  But when the Senate rejects Italian citizenship, he resolves to take it to the Assembly anyhow. This is what leads to his assassination.*

The popular assemblies.  There were three of these, the Centuriate Assembly, the Assembly of the Whole, and the Plebeian Assembly.  The latter two were called the Tribal Assemblies.  Legislation only had to pass one of these assemblies to become binding law.  All three assemblies practiced the direct democracy of the people legislating by themselves rather than through representatives. However, none operated on the basis of one-man-one-vote in the manner of the Athenian Assembly, a New England town meeting, or a modern initiative or referendum.  Rather, the people assembled were broken into sub-groups. Each sub-group voted, and the decision was made by how the majority of sub-groups voted.  Since all assemblies were too large and cumbersome to be able to draft legislation, the appropriate official would call the assembly into session and introduce proposed legislation for its consideration.  It is not clear to me whether the assembly could debate or amend the legislation or simply vote it up or down.  McCullough implies, however, that it could debate and amend.  There were also differences between the assemblies.

The Centuriate Assembly.  This assembly was divided into five classes, based on property holding. A vote of the majority of classes prevailed.  The very poorest Romans, who had no property, were not allowed to vote in the Centuriate Assembly.  (I am not clear whether they were allowed to vote in the tribal assemblies).  The Centuriate Assembly elected Rome's most important executive officials, the consuls, praetors, and censors.  Consuls were Rome's chief executives, two at once, elected to one-year terms.  Consuls were supreme military commanders and also the top civil official.  If one consul was in the field, the other administered Rome.  Praetors were secondary executive officials, serving as judges and handling much of the day-to-day government.  When both consuls were in the field, the urban praetor became chief civil executive.  The censors, uniquely among elective officials, served five-year terms.  They conducted the census, chose or deposed Senators, and oversaw public morals. They lacked the power to impose criminal penalties, but could impose political penalties (i.e., removal from office, being barred from office, or disenfranchisement).  The Centuriate Assembly could try major cases or pass legislation, but as a practical matter it was too cumbersome to do so.**

The Assembly of the Whole.  This assembly was divided into "tribes."  "Tribes" were not ethnic or familial groupings (as that term is used today), but (at least originally) geographic groupings.  There were thirty-five tribes.  A vote by 18 of the 35 tribes prevailed.  The Assembly of the Whole passed legislation and elected a variety of lesser executive officials who did much of the day-to-day management of government, but whose jobs were mostly administrative with little or no policy-making authority.  The consuls presided over the Assembly of the Whole, called it into session, and proposed legislation to it.

A few comments are in order about the tribal nature of the Assembly.  McCullough emphasizes that because urban Rome had only four tribes, it could always be outvoted by the 31 rural tribes, unfairly giving excessive weight to rural interests.  It should be noted that the Athenian Assembly, operating on the basis of one-man-one-vote had the opposite problem.  Because traveling to Athens to attend the Assembly was a burden on rural residents (rich or poor), the Assembly was unfairly weighted towards urban interests.  Although McCullough does not emphasize this, presumably in the "tribes" farther from Rome, only the richer and more eminent citizens could afford to make the journey.  This would not necessarily be unwelcome to ordinary residents. Presumably Romans defined their interests vertically (by geography) as well as horizontally (by class) and in many areas locally important issues would unite all citizens, rich and poor.  Ordinary citizens would presumably be happy to see their wealthier neighbors go to Rome to uphold their interests, guaranteed weight above the number of people attending by the tribal system.  This could serve as a sort of primitive  form of representation,  But it was a system of representation suffused with rotten boroughs, i.e., districts with weight far in excess of their population.  On the other hand, when a Roman moved from one area to another, his tribe did not change.  Presumably this allowed many urban residents to vote with their rural tribes.  Given the added advantage that attending the Assembly was easier for urban than rural dwellers, this would have destroyed any sort of coherence for tribes as political units, but also lessened the unfair domination of rural interests.  Counterbalancing this, all freedmen were made members of one of the four urban tribes.

Plebeian Assembly.  The Plebeian Assembly was divided into the same tribes as the Assembly of the Whole, so all comments on tribes apply equally to the Plebeian Assembly.  It differed from the Assembly of the Whole in that Patricians were not allowed to attend, or even to be present when it was in session.  The Plebeian Assembly had the same powers of legislation as the other Assemblies. It elected ten Tribunes of the Plebs.  Any one Tribune could call the Plebeian Assembly into session, preside over it, or propose legislation to it, with or without consulting the Senate, although failure to consult with the Senate was considered the mark of a demagogue.  Tribunes had no executive powers.  What they famously did have was the veto, not only over legislation, but over any aspect of government.  And there were ten of them, each with the same veto!  Thus any advantages in being a patrician had to be weighed against the disadvantages -- ineligibility to participate in the Plebeian Assembly which had the power to pass binding legislation, and ineligibility to be elected Tribune. A patrician was cut off from two important sources of political power.

This lesson in Roman civics will become important when Sulla comes to power and makes major changes in these institutions.
*Caesar will later do the same thing.
**Wikipedia has a much more complex description, emphasizing the Centuriate Assembly's military and oligarchic features.


PS:  The fact that I made the last two posts about Marcus Livius Drusus seeking to extend citizenship to the Italians on the same night that President Obama gave a speech about limiting deportation of illegal immigrants is purely a coincidence.  Really it is.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Grass Crown: My Problem with Drusus' Arguments

Obviously, McCullough is bound in large part by the actual, historical Marcus Livius Drusus and what he did.  Nonetheless, I assume she exercises a considerable degree of creativity as well, and I find the arguments she gives him for extending citizenship to Italians to be unconvincing.

Admittedly, Drusus arguing for Italian citizenship and McCullough portraying his arguments have a serious problem.  Persuading people to extend their rights and privileges to people below them is hard.  It has the effect, after all, of diluting their power.  Why would people want their power diluted? So what argument is convincing?  It is very hard to tell, but the argument McCullough has Drusus rely on would definitely not be it.

Consider.  At one point in the story, Drusus' Italian friend warns him of a plot to assassinate the consuls.  Drusus, whose championship of the Italians emphatically does not extend to condoning terrorism,  duly reports the plot to the more sympathetic consul.  The consul's immediate impulse is to avoid the planned ambush.  Drusus urges him, instead, to walk into it, but with a secret armed guard so the plot can be defeated and the plotters executed.  But why does he want to see the plot attempted and thwarted rather than quietly avoided?  To warn the Italians that the Romans mean business and that violence will get them nowhere?  No, to warn the Romans that the Italians mean business and will resort to violence if not given citizenship.  If I were a Roman, this would not make me want to extend citizenship to the Italians.  It would make me want to take a hard line against them.  Drusus constantly warns that to deny the Italians citizenship will lead to war.  He turns out to be right.  But again, this is a terrible argument to make.

Some points of comparison are in order.  Although Drusus implemented something very much like the program of the Gracchi, McCullough portrays him as a conservative reformer along the lines of Bismark or Disraeli -- the kind who reform the system to preserve it because they know that there is nothing conservative about letting the system tear itself apart.  The difference is not so much in the program as in how one sells it.


At the end of First Man in Rome, and several years before the events of The Grass Crown, there was a serious grain shortage.  Rome's poorest citizens were facing the real prospect of starvation, and less-poor citizens were facing a serious squeeze.  The demagogue Saturninus took advantage of the situation and made a lot of promises about cheap grain that he could not keep because there simply was no grain to be found.  Soon, Rome was facing the prospect of revolt.  The revolt was put down and the day was saved by the last-minute arrival of new grain shipments, but not until Rome's ruling class got a good scare.  For Drusus to argue a few years later that this showed that Rome really needed a better system of famine relief would be eminently reasonable.  To argue that the government should always guarantee a price of grain only slightly above wholesale in good times, that it should have a regular fund dedicated to this purpose, that the system should be up and running and everyone should know about it and be convinced that it would work before the next grain shortage can be a perfectly sensible, even conservative argument.*  Drusus could point out that if such a system is in place by the next grain shortage, it will keep a demagogue like Saturninus from taking advantage of the situation and allow Rome to get through it with scarcely a ripple.  Rome's conservative politicians might very well be convinced.  It would be another thing altogether to make this argument in the midst of a food shortage, with Saturninus and his crowd rioting in the Forum. Aside from the problems of setting up such a system in the midst of a crisis, to do so would look very much like caving in to blackmail, and that prospect would make most people want to resist.

Or consider the matter of Marius' veterans.  They were drawn form Rome's poorest citizens, who many doubted would be up to the job.  But the time of The Grass Crown, he had proven their effectiveness as soldiers and been retired with grants of land a nice, safe distance from Italy.  It would be eminently reasonable, even conservative for Drusus to point out that, while Rome would no doubt have to rely on such men in the future, not to make provisions for their retirement would be to unleash on Rome a bunch of men with minimal civilian employment history, no property, no future and no hope, but lots of military experience and training, and if that doesn't scare the hell out of you, think it over some more.**  It would be rather different, though, if such soldiers were about to demobilize, or already had demobilized and were stirring up trouble.  Once again, it would look like submitting to blackmail, and nobody wants to submit to blackmail.

The same applies to Drusus' arguments that if we don't extend citizenship to the Italians, they will wage war on us.  That is, quite simply, a threat, and no one likes being threatened.  Besides, do we actually want to extend citizenship to people preparing to go to war with us?  That sounds like a terrible idea to me.  It makes Drusus sound like a coward urging surrender and submission in the face of threats.  That is terrible politics!

*That leaves open the question of how to actually have grain available if there is none to be had.  Presumably the government would buy it up in good times and store it for sale in bad times, but Drusus never actually says so.  He talks more about the funding mechanism and how to get the actual grain itself.  
**Once again, in McCullough's book, Drusus appears to endorse regularly using poor men as soldiers and retiring them with grants of land a nice, safe distance away.  But he does not introduce actual legislation to that effect.  Whether the real Drusus weighed in on the issue I do not know.

The Grass Crown: Drusus, the Non-Protagonist Hero

wondered what to call Marcus Livius Drusus, who is the most heroic and admirable character in The Grass Crown, but not the  main character.  When the main character is not heroic or admirable, he is called the protagonist or the anti-hero or, if you want to be long-winded, the non-hero protagonist.  So the best designation I can come up with for Drusus is the non-protagonist hero.

His role in First Man in Rome was ambiguous.  We first see him as a young lawyer championing an Italian who does not have Roman citizenship, and it makes us admire him.  We do not admire him when he quite brutally forces his sister to marry the despised Quintus Servilius Caepio.  (He marries Caepio's sister).  But when he goes off to war and the army is wiped out because of his snobbish father-in-law's insubordinate conduct (he refuses to obey his military superior because he considers him a social inferior), Drusus begins the question the old order.  That he is wounded and his father-in-law and brother-in-law run away while an Italian comes to his assistance opens up a breach with his in-laws and a friendship for the Italian.  And when he realizes that the Italian allies didn't even know that what appeared to be incompetent generaling was actually rank insubordination, he becomes a supporter of Marius and a full-on champion of the Italians.

In The Grass Crown, Drusus emerges as the clear hero of Book II and Book IV and the non-protagonist hero of the novel as a whole.  He makes up for forcing his sister to marry Caepio by leaping to her defense when her husband starts to beat her and drives his brother-in-law from his house.  After his sister and her second husband die, he brings up her five children, along with his adopted son.  The four middle children are not that important, but Servilia, the oldest, will become Caesar's long-term mistress and Cato, the youngest, will become Caesar's arch-enemy.  And this is one that can't be blamed on an over-imaginative novelist; it actually happened in real history.

Drusus' father was a prominent conservative politician and the arch-foe of Gaius Gracchus.  His tactic was to undermine Gracchus by outbidding him with measures that were not meant to pass, but only to obstruct.  Thus when Gracchus proposed offering land to the poor on generous terms, the senior Drusus offered more generous terms.  Incidentally, the second novel also seems to indicate that I may have been mistaken in my assessment of the Gracchi.  The impression I had of Rome's popular party in general, from the Gracchi to Marius down through Caesar was that they could be described as pure left-wing populists.  They championed Rome's lower classes, sought to weaken the Senate and strengthen power centers outside the Senate, and to widen citizenship.  They punched up but did not kick down, and damaged their own popularity as a result.  (Kicking down is popular).  But this appears to be an oversimplification.  The Gracchi really were, to some degree, principled against kicking down.  They could easily have distributed land to Rome's poor simply by taking it from the Italians.  Their unwillingness to do so appears to have been the main reason they championed Italian citizenship.  Yet at the same time, the Gracchi were not immune to the temptations of kicking down. Gaius Gracchus funded his reforms by squeezing the provinces and was as hated there as he was loved in Rome.

But Drusus was the ultimate proof that things just aren't so simple.  Unlike his father, he seriously proposed a program that sounded very much like the Gracchi -- distribution of individual-sized parcels of land,* cheap subsidized grain, expansion of the Senate, citizenship for all Italians.  He differed from the Gracchi in that he sought to enhance the Senate's instead of weaken it and was scrupulously careful to respect Senators and not offend them.  But he was the son of a prominent conservative politician and gained the support of many other conservative politicians, with the result that the popular party turned against him, even though he was enacting much of what they supported! McCullough accurately identifies his main opponents as Lucius Marcius Phillipus and Quintus Varius, and she paints both men in the most unfavorable light, but she neglects to mention that they were both leaders of the popular party.**  Maybe right wing populism was more of a factor in Roman politics than I realized.

Drusus is portrayed in a most sympathetic and heroic light.  Aside from protecting his sister from her abusive husband and being devoted to his wife and devastated when she dies, his championship of the Italians gets (almost) everything right.  When his Italian friend proposes to illegally sign Italians up as citizens, Drusus indignantly refuses and thinks that he talks him out of it.  When he finds out that the Italians are, nonetheless, illegally signing up, he splits the difference -- denounces the action, but quietly urges anyone illegally signed up to flee and escape the roving commission coming to punish them.  When Marius comments that what is needed is a tribune willing to put his life on the line for the Italians, Drusus fearlessly says that he will be that tribune.  As tribune fighting for the rights of the Italians, he always scrupulously follows the rules, respects the Senate, prevents violent outbreaks at his meetings, and so forth.  He also plays a dangerous double game.  When he visits his Italian friends, he knows they are plotting rebellion if he fails.  As a patriotic Roman, he must denounce any such plans he knows of as treason, while as a loyal friend he does not want to betray them.  So he visits the Italians knowing that they are plotting treason, but lets them conceal any details from him so that he does not actually have anything to reveal.  He successfully passes most of the program the Gracchi fought so hard and died for.  Then Phillipus scours the Italian peninsula and finds every time a misfortune occurs on the day Drusus introduced his legislation and convinces the Senate that this is a very bad omen.  Drusus argues that this is really a warning about what will happen if he fails, but Philippus prevails and gets all of Drusus' legislation repealed.  And although as Tribune, Drusus could veto this action, but with true statesmanship, he declines to do so.  (This is historically accurate).

Drusus is not altogether without his flaws, most notably a desire for power and overconfidence.  (He is also a bit manipulative, but then, he is a politician).  When all the Italians swear to be his clients if admitted to citizenship, he lusts for the power this would give him.  He does not desire power for its own sake, but only for what he can accomplish with it.  Nonetheless, as he passes more and more legislation, he becomes intoxicated with it and has growing trouble recognizing the limits to what he can do.  At the same time, he gets so caught up in his work that he forgets about the oath and, when confronted with it, he keels over, thinking that all is lost.  His mother tells him that so long as he is fighting for justice, whether his motive are pure matters only to his personal vanity, and injustices are usually defeated by people who stand to gain politically as a result.  Drusus seizes upon this and argues that all the Italians agreeing to be his clients is a good thing -- it ensures that they will be led by a true Roman of the Romans.  He wins more and more people over to his viewpoint and is poised just on the verge of passing this crowning achievement, when he is assassinated by political opponents, in the sight of his sister's children.   His last words (which McCullough gives in English and Latin, suggesting that they may be authentic) are "Who will succor Rome in my place?"

The Wikipedia describes the assassination of Drusus as "one of the main turning points in the entire series."  Thinking it over, I am inclined to agree.  If Drusus had lived, he would have been successful in extending citizenship to the Italians.  If he had extended citizenship to the Italians, the ghastly civil war that followed could have been avoided.  If Rome had not been weakened by civil war, the eastern despot Mithridates of Pontus would never have dared massacre every Roman and Italian in his domain, so there would have been no urgency in going to war with him.  And if the Mithriditic War had been avoided, Marius and Sulla might have avoided their falling-out and civil war that toppled the Roman Republic.

 *He did, however, differ in offering individual-sized parcels of land first to Rome's upper classes and only later to the poor, which meant that many poor men would not benefit at all.  Sigh!
**Drusus' brother-in-law, Quintus Servilius Caepio was also one of his main opponents.  Given his father's extraordinary snobbery about  pedigree, it seems unlikely that Caepio was of the popular party.