Roman history from below?

Issue: 103

Neil Faulkner

A review of Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome (The New Press, 2003), £14.95

Roman history is academically retarded and politically reactionary. Michael Parenti’s attempt to write ‘history from below’ or ‘people’s history’ therefore comes as a welcome blast of fresh air. His analysis of classical antiquity is incomplete, however, and leaves open the argument whether or not Roman imperialism was historically progressive. Niall Ferguson’s recent reinterpretation of British imperialism has shown where such arguments can lead.1 Parenti has made a useful contribution, but there is much more to be done to construct an anti-imperialist history of antiquity.

Let us start with the positive. This book can be strongly recommended as an introduction to Roman history at its most turbulent. How about this, for example, as a condemnation of the Roman ruling class and its apologists past and present?

Many latter-day historians are immersed in this age-old ruling ideological perspective. So they explain away Caesar’s assassination in terms that are rather favourable to the assassins. They emphasise how Cicero and other ‘constitutionalists’ boasted of a republic founded on law and selfless virtue. But they take little notice of how these same ‘constitutionalists’ swindled public lands from small farmers (in violation of the law), plundered the provinces like pirates, taxed colonised peoples into penury, imposed back-breaking rents on rural and urban tenants, lacerated debtors with usurious interest rates, expanded the use of slave labour at the expense of free labour, manipulated auspices to stymie popular decisions, resisted even the most modest reforms, bought elections, undermined courts and officeholders with endless bribery, and repeatedly suspended the constitution in order to engage in criminal acts of mass murder against democratic commoners and their leaders. Such were the steadfast republicans upon whom most classical historians gaze so admiringly.2

It is a joy to read such an impassioned and wholly justified condemnation of one of the most corrupt and rapacious ruling classes in history-especially when you know that sanctimonious hypocrites like Cicero have been held up to generations of students as models of rectitude.3

Parenti’s subject is the struggle between conservative optimates (‘the best men’) and reformist populares (‘the populists’) in the Late Republic (133 to 30 BC). Much in his account of Roman society is accurate: the grotesque and growing inequalities; the poverty of the slums; the oppression of women, slaves and minorities; the arrogance of the ruling class and the sneering snobbery that pervaded Roman society.4 Parenti is good, too, on the contrast between optimates and populists, rejecting the traditional view that the two sides employed similar methods or, worse, that while the optimates were virtuous moderates, the populists were dangerous, self-interested extremists.5 This is the view of our primary sources (especially Cicero), and it has been followed closely by traditional ancient historians. Even Tom Holland, whose unconventional (and superbly written) Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic has been highly acclaimed, fails to break out of this dominant paradigm. Beside Parenti’s, Holland’s analysis is superficial, treating the conflicts of the Late Republic as a personalised faction fight in which the labels optimates and populares had no real significance.6 Parenti understands that the class forces mobilised on the opposing sides were different; that the moderation of the populists contrasted with the viciousness of the optimates; that the Roman masses hated the optimate leaders and idolised men like Caesar who espoused the popular cause; and that Caesar’s assassination was not a matter of freedom-loving tyrannicide but a murderous act of class war against a reformer with a democratic mass base.7

But for all that, Parenti’s analysis is limited. The conflicts of the Late Republic-conflicts which repeatedly exploded in civil war and ultimately brought down the old political system-were not a direct clash between rich and poor. The populist leaders were themselves top senatorial aristocrats-the minority reform wing of a deeply divided ruling class. Their supporters included many of the empire’s super-rich, notably members of the equestrian order-a class of landowners, businessmen and government contractors who formed the second division of the Roman aristocracy. For many at the top, the struggle between optimates and populists was a struggle to break the established aristocracy’s monopoly of high office. The Senate was a self-serving assembly of some 500 or so millionaires. It was divided into unstable factions led by members of Rome’s top families. These factions competed for high office in the state and the opportunities for enrichment this afforded. New pigs were not welcome at the trough-that was the basic problem.

Senators and equestrians were the grandees of Roman politics. Below them was a class of lesser aristocrats or gentry who formed the local governing elites in provincial towns. The composition of town councils was regulated by the census, which ranked people by property ownership, so that Roman towns were safely in the hands of landed oligarchs (decuriones, members of the curial order, the town-council class). Many decurions resented the ceiling on advancement they encountered in a conservative political order. Some lacked Roman citizenship (and therefore political rights in Rome) altogether. Others found their route from local into national politics blocked. Many were economically disadvantaged by lack of representation at the centre. These tensions erupted in the Social War of 91-87 BC-so called because it pitted Rome against her own non-citizen Italian ‘allies’ (socii in Latin).

The central achievement of what has been called ‘the Roman Revolution’ (the overthrow of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire by populists or Caesarians) was the creation of an expanded and more open imperial aristocracy-one open to the advancement of ‘new men’ (novi homines).8 Though the common citizens of Rome-the urban mob, the small farmers and, above all, the rank and file of the army-gave the Roman Revolution a popular mass base, its leadership was firmly aristocratic, its principal beneficiaries were senators, equestrians and decurions, and popular reforms were limited to modest ameliorative measures which left the social order intact. Parenti’s gloss on this is wholly unconvincing:

Why did a coterie of Roman senators assassinate their fellow aristocrat and celebrated ruler, Julius Caesar? An enquiry into this incident reveals something important about the nature of political rule, class power, and a people’s struggle for democracy and social justice-issues that are still very much with us. The assassination also marked a turning point in the history of Rome. It set in motion a civil war, and put an end to whatever democracy there had been, ushering in an absolutist rule that would prevail over Western Europe for centuries to come.9

In fact, Caesar’s brief rule in 45 to 44 BC was also ‘absolutist’-it was, in effect, that of a military dictator governing against the opposition of much of the ruling class but with strong popular backing. Caesarism was a form of what Marxists call ‘Bonapartism’.10 It arises when a clash of class forces produces chronic instability but no clear outcome-when there is no revolutionary class able to seize power for itself and remodel society in its own image. In such circumstances, revolutionary leadership can be ‘deflected’-it may devolve on ‘strongmen’ who lift themselves above the warring factions, building support by promising popular reform and a restoration of order, and maintaining power by balancing between evenly matched class forces.11 Caesar, the imperialist warlord and popular reformer, provided ‘deflected’ leadership to the Roman Revolution, and, once in power, ‘Bonapartist’ leadership to the fractured Roman state. His immediate successor, Octavian-Augustus (30 BC to AD 14), who became the first emperor, led a conservative reaction which largely restored the unity of a Roman ruling class that was now purged, enlarged and more open to recruitment from below. It was this that distinguished Caesar from Augustus, not that one was a democrat and the other an absolutist.12

The root of the crisis was the growth of empire, the flooding of wealth into Rome and Italy, and a consequent huge expansion of the wider aristocracy. It was this that destabilised a political system dominated by a narrow and exclusive elite, and created the opportunity and incentive for some members of the ruling class to mobilise popular forces. It must be stressed that, in this struggle, the Roman masses took sides, but they never developed their own independent class organisations. Nor could they have done. To understand why not, we must place the conflict within the Roman citizen-body in a wider context.

I have argued that Parenti oversimplifies the conflict between optimates and populists-to the point where it becomes a conflict between wicked reactionaries and virtuous ‘men of the people’. But there is a more serious problem: Parenti’s discussion of the conflict in a vacuum, without reference to the rest of society, as if it were the principal class contradiction in the Late Republic. This is a serious sin of omission. The Romans-that is, the people who, as citizens of the city of Rome, were entitled to participate in the political process, whether rich or poor, optimate or populist-constituted at this time a small minority only of those who lived under Roman rule.

All Romans were privileged relative to non-Romans. Citizens did not pay tributum, for example, the principal property tax levied in the empire. They enjoyed the protection afforded by Roman courts. They received preferential treatment from Roman administrators. They were the main beneficiaries of land allotments, public works, grain doles and free entertainments. Such were the privileges of citizenship that, as we noted above, the issue of the franchise could plunge Italy into civil war.

Citizenship, moreover, was closely linked to urban life. Most citizens resided in Rome itself or another Roman town, and it was here that the political, social and cultural life that defined ‘civilisation’ was lived. But ancient cities were centres of consumption, not production. They were parasitic on the countryside, leeching away agricultural surpluses and investing them in monumental architecture, luxury lifestyles, and the ‘bread and circuses’ which sustained the urban poor. The decurions who formed town councils were landowners-not an independent mercantile elite as in many medieval cities-and the urban masses were linked to them by ties of economic dependence and political affiliation. The archaeology of Pompeii is especially instructive.13 There was no zoning into rich and poor neighbourhoods. Many of the working population lived in the grand houses, either as part of the household itself, or renting workshops and first floor apartments along the street front. There were, of course, no factories-all production was at the workshop level-but nor, it seems, was there an independent petty bourgeoisie of workshop masters organised in guilds. Instead, workshops belonged to the owners of grand houses, and guilds were subordinate to their aristocratic patrons. Urban economic activity was embedded in the power structure.

The plebs media (‘the middling sort’) was not, then, an independent political player. There was no equivalent in the Roman Revolution of the English Levellers of 1649 or the Paris Sections of 1793.14 The Late Republican crowd never detached itself from its aristocratic leaders. Because cities were parasitic and citizens privileged, the plebs media could intervene in urban politics in support of a reformist senator, but it could not break its ties of dependence, forge links with the rural masses, and challenge the power of the senatorial aristocracy as a whole. Indeed, the corruption and fickleness of the Roman mob-a conventional stereotype which Parenti challenges15-does contain an element of truth. The mob was bribed by largesse (a share in the spoils of empire) and was loyal to the patrons who dispensed it. One example will suffice: the grain dole-distributed free to those on the citizen roll-was brought to Rome in fleets of ships from Sicily, North Africa and (later) Egypt. It was a tithe levied on provincial peasants for the benefit of the Roman mob. Dependent for their privileges on imperialism and the aristocracy, the position of the common citizens of Rome was akin to that of white workers in apartheid South Africa or Jewish settlers in Zionist Israel.

Let us now put the citizens of Rome into a wider context. What was the dynamic of Roman society? It was a system of competitive military imperialism. The Roman ruling class accumulated war-making capacity in order to fight wars of conquest abroad and civil wars at home. The aristocracy (and the state it collectively controlled) was enriched by booty and tribute, and the allegiance of the client groups on whom the aristocracy relied for support, essentially the rest of the Roman citizen-body, and especially those enrolled as soldiers, could be secured with distributions of land and largesse. Parenti is clear about what lay behind this. Rome headed ‘an empire built upon sacked towns, shattered armies, slaughtered villagers, raped women, enslaved prisoners, plundered lands, burned crops, and mercilessly over-taxed populations’.16 He is also withering about historians who profess to believe that Rome acquired her empire, like the British, ‘in a fit of absence of mind’: ‘An imperialism without imperialists, a design of conquest devoid of human agency or forethought, such a notion applies neither to Rome nor to any other empire in history’.17

The problem here is that the populists were at least as imperialist as the optimates. Perhaps more so, since foreign conquest offered ambitious politicians a mechanism of advancement, raising a figure like Caesar to the point where he threatened the political supremacy of the Senate. Caesar’s eight-year campaign of conquest in Gaul (58 to 51 BC) merits only a few lines in Parenti. Yet it was here that he accumulated the political capital-soldiers, allies, treasure and military glory-that made him the most powerful man in Rome. Parenti may be right that Caesar was a sincere popularis.18 Ruling class politicians are not necessarily opportunists. Reform to heal the rifts in Roman society was sound policy. The very survival of the empire probably depended on it. But Caesar’s populism was restricted to the privileged minority of the Roman citizen-body. And he bribed his way to favour and funded his reforms out of imperial plunder. It has been estimated that a million people were slaughtered, a million more enslaved, and several hundred settlements torched in the Gallic War.19 This brings us to the heart of Parenti’s sin of omission-we are not told that Caesar’s political power and the resources to fund his reforms were the direct result of imperialist war.

This opens the door to ‘progressive’ imperialism. Consider this passage:

Like other military commanders of his day including many of the optimates, he [Caesar] was a despoiler of distant lands. It has been argued that his conquest of Gaul was a blessing in disguise. Deeply divided among themselves, the Gauls could not have withstood the impending onslaught of the Germanic tribes. In their subjugation to Rome they found peace and stability. Indeed, Gallic units did join Caesar’s legions to fight against Ariovistus and other German invaders. But the ‘blessing’ of Roman conquest offered no deliverance for the tens of thousands who were killed, bereaved, uprooted, enslaved, and otherwise made destitute during years of sanguinary contest.20

It has indeed been argued that Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was ‘a blessing in disguise’-by precisely those conservative ancient historians that Parenti elsewhere condemns as apologists for the senatorial aristocracy. Yet he leaves their argument unanswered. No one, after all, denies the carnage. Niall Ferguson admits many of the atrocities of the British Empire. But imperialism may still be ‘a blessing in disguise’-war with a desirable outcome-unless we know that its purpose is to exploit the conquered for the benefit of the conquerors.

This is not, in other words, a matter of applying moral judgements to historical events, of saying that, all things considered, we do or do not think the price of Roman ‘civilisation’ worth paying. We deal here with a failure of analysis on Parenti’s part. The link between Caesarism and imperialism-the dependence of ancient Roman populism on the spoils of war-has not been made clear. We are left ignorant of the fact that the principal class contradiction in the Late Republic was not that between Roman senators and Roman plebs, but that between Roman military imperialism and the mass of rural producers (peasants, serfs, slaves, day-labourers, whatever) in subject territory. The state, the senatorial aristocracy and the Roman citizen-body were organised as an urban civilisation and, though sometimes bitterly divided over the distribution of burdens and rewards, formed a dominant privileged block. Against them stood dispossessed native elites, the provincial peasantry, and the slaves working on Italian estates. At no stage did Roman populists espouse the cause of these subject groups. Never did the plebs media demonstrate in solidarity with oppressed peoples. There is no record of an abolitionist movement in Rome’s slums.

The greatest struggles in antiquity were of oppressed people against imperialism, of slaves against masters, peasants against aristocrats, and country against town. There was, for example, Vercingetorix (who merits only seven lines in Parenti). The revolt he led against Caesar in 52 BC united almost the whole of Gaul, mobilising hundreds of thousands in a struggle fought with primal ferocity, amounting to what we would nowadays call a ‘national liberation struggle’.21 Or there was Spartacus (13 lines), who led the last and biggest of three great slave revolts against the Late Republic (139 to 132, 104 to 100 and 73 to 71 BC). For two years his improvised revolutionary army marched the length of Italy plundering aristocratic estates and defeating Roman armies. Or again, the renegade popularis Sertorius (seven lines), who led the Spanish tribes in a ten-year guerrilla war against Roman forces in 81 to 72 BC.

So one should read Parenti’s excellent account of the struggle between optimates and populists in the Late Republic. But one should know that this was a struggle between aristocratic factions over the future of empire, in which the popular forces engaged did not act on their own account, and were anyway corrupted by the privilege and largesse available to them as the beneficiaries of an imperial system. And one should know also that this squabble over the spoils of empire was periodically subsumed by far greater struggles which threatened the existence of empire itself-struggles which found optimates and populists, senators and plebs, fighting side by side in Rome’s imperial legions.

Which is why Marx described Spartacus-not Caesar-as ‘the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history’.22


1: Ferguson’s TV series and book Empire (Channel 4 Books, 2003) were explicit about the essential beneficence of the British Empire and its value as a model for today’s US Empire.

2: M Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome (The New Press, 2003), pp193-194.

3: Parenti quotes Engels describing Cicero as ‘the most contemptible scoundrel in history’ (as above, p86). This is a bit strong-there is some stiff competition-but Cicero was certainly a lying, reactionary creep.

4: As above, especially pp27-43.

5: As above, especially pp59-83.

6: T Holland, Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic (Little Brown, 2003).

7: As above, especially pp59-83.

8: The term ‘Roman Revolution’ to describe the fall of the Republic was advanced by Ronald Syme in a seminal study, The Roman Revolution (Clarendon Press, 1939). While some of the analysis is debatable, the central contention-that ‘the period witnessed a violent transference of power and of property, and the Principate of Augustus should be regarded as the consolidation of the revolutionary process’-should be defended against recent revisionism.

9: As above, p2.

10: The concept was originally discussed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), in which Marx analysed the failure of the 1848 revolution in France and its culmination in the dictatorship of Louis Bonaparte (later styled Napoleon III).

11: Tony Cliff developed the concept ‘deflected permanent revolution’ in an article, ‘Permanent Revolution’, in International Socialism (first series) 12 (Spring 1963). This was an attempt to explain the middle class leadership (by army officers, professionals and intellectuals) of various Third World revolutions which succeeded in mobilising popular forces against both imperialism and the local ruling class. ‘Deflected’ revolutionary leadership-ie leadership not rooted in a revolutionary class-seems to be a widely applicable concept. I use it here as a description of Caesar’s role.

12: Parenti does not put it quite as starkly as this, but many passages give the impression we should view Caesar as a sincere ‘man of the people’ with strong democratic sympathies. I sometimes feel Parenti sees Caesar as akin to modern-day figures like Salvador Allende, the left-reformist prime minister of Chile in 1970-1973.

13: The Pompeii literature is vast, and many recent studies explore these issues. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton, 1994) is especially well argued.

14: The point must be stressed. Unlike mid-17th century London and late 18th century Paris, Late Republican Rome lacked an independent petty bourgeois revolutionary movement.

15: As above, p5 (and elsewhere).

16: As above, p16.

17: As above, pp19-20.

18: As above, pp113-129.

19: Admittedly, this is a very crude estimate, but it is based on Caesar’s own detailed account of the war, available as The Conquest of Gaul (Penguin, 1982).

20: As above, p133.

21: The principal source is Book 7 of Caesar’s account (as above). It is clear from this that the fighting in 52 BC was on a different scale from that in earlier campaigns. Caesar’s onslaught seems to have forced a process of political, military and ideological centralisation among the Gauls. There is no good modern account of the conflict, but, as it happens, the anti-imperialist character of Vercingetorix’s revolt is highlighted in a BBC2 Timewatch documentary due to be broadcast in autumn 2004.

22: Letter to Engels dated 27 February 1861, published as Letter 50 in K Marx and F Engels, Correspondence, 1846-1895: A Selection with Commentary and Notes (Martin Lawrence Ltd, 1934), p126.