SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

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SPQR takes its title from another famous Roman catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of Rome’.


There are also all kinds of anecdotes about the importance and intensity of canvassing, and how the vote of the people could be won or lost. Polybius tells a curious story about the Syrian king Antiochus IV (Epiphanes, ‘famous’ or even ‘manifest god’), the son of Antiochus the Great, who had been ‘crushed’ by Scipio Asiaticus. As a young man he had lived more than a decade as a hostage in Rome before being swapped for a younger relative, the one whom Polybius later advised on his escape plans. On his return to the East, he took with him a variety of Roman habits that he had picked up during his stay. These mostly came down to displaying a popular touch: talking with anyone he met, giving presents to ordinary people and making the rounds of craftsmen’s shops. But most striking of all, he would dress up in a toga and go around the marketplace as if he were a candidate for election, shaking people by the hand and asking for their vote. This baffled the people in his showy capital city of Antioch, who were not used to this kind of thing from a monarch and nicknamed him Epimanes (‘bonkers’ or, to preserve the pun, ‘fatuous’). But it is clear that one lesson that Antiochus had drawn from Rome was that the common people and their votes were important.

রোমান ডেমোক্রেসি যারে খায়, প্লেটসুদ্ধা খায়।


Equally revealing is an anecdote about another member of the Scipio family in the second century BCE, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica. He was out canvassing one day in a bid to be elected to the office of aedile and was busy shaking the hands of voters (standard procedure, then as now) when he came across one whose hands were hardened by work in the fields. ‘My goodness,’ the young aristocrat joked, ‘do you walk on them?’ He was overheard, and the common people concluded that he had been taunting their poverty and their labour. The upshot, needless to say, was that he lost the election.


The first was in 133 BCE, when Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a tribune of the people with radical plans to distribute land to the Roman poor, decided to seek a second year in office. To put a stop to this, an unofficial posse of senators and their hangers-on interrupted the elections, bludgeoned Gracchus and hundreds of his supporters to death and threw their bodies into the Tiber. Conveniently forgetting the violence that had accompanied the Conflict of the Orders, many Romans held this to be ‘the first political dispute since the fall of the monarchy to be settled by bloodshed and the death of citizens’. There was soon another. Just over a decade later, Tiberius Gracchus’ brother Gaius met the same fate. He had introduced an even more radical programme of reform, including a subsidised grain allowance for Roman citizens, and was successfully elected tribune for a second time. But in 121 BCE, when he was trying to prevent his legislation from being dismantled, he became the victim of another, more official, posse of senators. On this occasion the bodies of thousands of his supporters clogged the river. And it happened again in 100 BCE, when other reformers were battered to death in the senate house itself, the assailants using tiles from the building’s roof as their weapons.


Corruption, money grabbing and sex tourism were matters of public criticism, accusations regularly levelled at political rivals and convenient weapons in character assassination. They were not, so far as we know, matters for public celebration or even smug boasting.


As a senator under Commodus, he was an eyewitness to some of the emperor’s extravagant gladiatorial spectacles, but he also tells of one of the strangest exercises in imperial menace, dreamt up by Domitian in 89 CE. The story was that the emperor invited a group of senators and knights to a dinner party, where to their horror they found on arrival that the whole decor was black, from the couches to the crockery and the serving boys. Each guest’s name was inscribed on a slab like a tombstone, and all evening the emperor’s conversation never strayed from the topic of death. They were all convinced that they would not live to see the next day. But they were wrong. When they had returned home and the expected knock on the door came, instead of a killer they found one of the emperor’s staff laden with gifts from the party, including their own name slab and their own personal serving boy.


Julius Civilis in Germany rouses his followers by comparing Roman rule to slavery rather than alliance and lists the unfair exactions imposed by the imperial power. Most memorably of all, in Tacitus’ biography of his father-in-law, one of Rome’s enemies, as part of a set-piece speech delivered before he enters battle with Agricola, challenges Roman rule and what it adds up to. The Romans, he insists, are the robbers of the world, insatiable for domination and profit. And in a much-quoted phrase that still hits home, he sums up the Roman imperial project: ‘they create desolation and call it peace’, ‘solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant