BMCR 2001.12.12

Plebs and Politics in Late Republican Rome

, Plebs and politics in the late Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (vi, 164 pages). ISBN 0511041144 $54.95.

This book offers a fresh review of the evidence regarding the voting power of the populus Romanus in legislative and elective assemblies. Mouritsen (hereafter M.) challenges the once widely accepted view that senatorial factions manipulated the way in which lower classes cast their votes through long-established ties of patronage. The Roman government was dominated by a few, very rich, and well-connected families, but the senate did not rely on the ill-defined system of clientela to exert and maintain its authority. Even more decisively M. challenges recent arguments that republican Rome was democratic in nature and that the voting assemblies represented real “popular” power. Instead M. shows that while the populus Romanus in theory held voting power that could have made it a formidable force in government, in practice this force was seldom realized, that is until the late republic. In developing his thesis M. frequently refers to recent and past scholarship, and this book will most benefit those with a background in republican politics. Its overall value, however, cannot be minimized: this is an important book and makes a vital contribution to the on-going debate about the nature of politics in late republican Rome, the changes that had occurred in assembly attendance, and the influence of the common people in the voting process.

The first chapter, entitled “Introduction: ideology and practice in Roman politics,” introduces the main points of focus. Clientela as a force in Roman politics is no longer taken for granted. It is unlikely that Rome’s poorest citizens were bound to individual families of the ruling elite or could rely on patronage for survival, which means that common people had to support themselves and their families. Most poor plebeians had to work and work hard, even after subsidies and the dole had been introduced. M. warns, however, that while this “rehabilitation” of the plebs presents them in a more respectable light, it does not follow that they were politically active. The sovereignty of the populus Romanus was a popular phrase, but who constituted the “people” and did their voting power make Rome a democracy? The answer to the last question is clearly no, and M. attempts to explain why the poor majority did not exercise its power over government by first identifying who the “people” were.

As part of his challenge to the “democratic” interpretation, advocated in particular by F. Millar, M. makes a critical distinction between “the people” as a political concept and “the people” as “the sum of individuals making up the citizen-body” (16). In theory the Roman people did indeed have the final say through their voting power, but in practice the masses that constituted the Roman people were not encouraged to participate and for the most part could not be bothered to do so. To view the populus Romanus, which was dutifully courted in the speeches of politicians, as a monolithic group begs a crucial question, and it is M.’s next purpose “to explore the gap between the ideal and the reality of Roman politics, between the populus Romanus and the crowds which filled the Forum and the Saepta” (17).

Chapter two, “The scale of late republican politics,” evaluates the physical settings (mainly the Comitium, Forum Romanum, and Saepta) in which the various assemblies met to try to determine how many voters these areas could hold. M. reviews the evidence on the Comitium and concludes that it could have accommodated 3600-3800 people. Legislative assemblies were moved from the Comitium to the Forum Romanum in 145 BC (at the instigation of C. Licinius Crassus) and contiones in 122 BC (at the instigation of C. Gracchus). M. points out that neither move was made in an effort to accommodate ever-growing crowds of voters. On the contrary, the moves were political gestures made by independent-minded politicians and designed to show defiance against the senate. The Forum Romanum could have accommodated up to 10,000, but this does not mean 10,000 people showed up to vote, and overall turnout probably remained low.

Although some estimates suggest that the Saepta in late republican Rome could have accommodated as many as 70,000 voters, M. looks at the literary evidence on actual attendance and concludes that even elective assemblies rarely reached numbers in excess of 10,000, with seldom more than a few hundred from each tribe present. Interestingly, no one kept track of how many voters showed up: “In elections it was important to come out first, but actual numbers are never referred to” (33). The elite did very little to encourage large voter turn out, and much to discourage it. Voting power of the lower classes was clearly held in check in the comitia centuriata, where propertied classes had fewer numbers but more centuries; less manageable were the comitia tributa and concilium plebis, though attempts were made to check the voting power of these groups by confining new citizens to a few tribes and by imposing intervals between market days and elections to prevent citizens outside the city from voting. Few citizens who had to work for a living would have been able to give up a full day to participate in the voting process. “There was in other words a marked contrast between the ‘democratic’ potential of these institutions and their limited format, which in reality excluded the masses they formally represented” (37).

In chapter three, “The contio,” M. begins by distinguishing between official contiones that were prerequisite to legislative assemblies, and the focus of his attention, the unofficial ad hoc public meeting. M. takes up the question as to the type of citizen who would attend these unofficial meetings. There is no support in literary sources for the existence of a plebs contionalis, as proposed by scholars who see voting assemblies as proof of democratic “popular” power. The original attendees of contiones were citizens of the propertied class, the boni, who were economically self-sufficient and had time to attend both public meetings and voting assemblies. The lower classes were not prevented from attending contiones, but the need to work, the frequent change of venue of public meetings, and the lack of interest in political issues would have been enough to deter their participation. The purpose of ad hoc contiones was to provide politicians an opportunity to present themselves and their ideas to the populus Romanus, who until the second half of the second century were men whose interests were similar to those of the ruling nobility. Afterwards, however, and especially in the first century, some of the elite began to reach out to the numerically superior lower classes and to rely on pre-organized groups of supporters. By the time of the late republic most politicians who delivered ad hoc speeches would have filled the crowds with followers ready to shout down any opposition and give the impression of wide popularity. Pre-comital contiones, since they were attended by citizens about to vote, were more difficult to control, and it was at these meetings that fighting often broke out among supporters of rival politicians.

In Chapter 4, “Legislative assemblies,” M. once again casts doubt on the idea that legislative assemblies testify to the democratic nature of Roman government, since corporate voting, confinement of urban plebs to four tribes, and the physical limitations imposed on the voting process would have prevented most citizens from attending. M. especially challenges the notion that the political elite ever controlled voting through a network of patron-client relationships. A breakdown between the ties of patrons and clients in the late republic has been proposed to explain the rise in power of populares, but M. argues that such an explanation is unnecessary. Until the late republic the potential voting power of the lower classes had simply not been exploited: “it was the patterns of attendance—and perhaps also the level of attendance—which changed, not the ties and allegiances of the populace” (68). M. uses literary evidence to show that when senators challenged proposals backed by populares, they did not rally their clients to vote against them. Rather, the senate resorted to other means of circumventing popular bills, such as a tribune’s veto power, obnuntiatio, and occasionally violence. By disregarding the notion that senators ever controlled voting through personal patronage, it is easy to account not only for the senate’s inability to control voting in the late republic, but also for those instances when popular legislation passed long before the time of the Gracchi. M. is aware that clientela as a social practice permeated all levels of Roman life both public and private, but it was not how the senate maintained political dominance. Until the second half of the second century BC, there was little need to try to control voting assemblies since the majority of voters identified with the interests of the senate. This changed with the advent of politicians seeking popular support, who tapped into the voting power of the lower classes hitherto virtually ignored. Although the urban plebs were confined to four tribes, rural tribe membership, due in part to immigration, would have created an urban population of great voting power. Popular politicians garnered the votes of these lower class citizens not through newly established ties of clientela, but rather through well-placed bribes of neighborhood ( vici) leaders and leaders of localized groups, such as ( collegia).

In the next chapter, “Elections,” M. explores the means by which the urban masses were motivated to vote in the late republic when they had little reason to do so. Elected officials could not pass legislation but merely propose measures for assembly voting; there were few economic and social policies to back; and there were few issues relevant to poor citizens that would make one candidate more appealing than another. On the other hand, much militated against voter turnout among the lower classes. For the highest offices, the comitia centuriata was designed to favor the upper classes, and only in the rarest of cases would a vote reach the poorer centuries. The lower classes could not predicate when or if they would get a chance to vote; they were not compensated for taking the time to vote; and some would have had to travel long distances and waste an entire day’s labor in order to vote. Since clientela was not a motivating factor, why did poor people in the late republic bother to vote? The answer to this question is the way in which electoral bribery had come to function. In addition to games and displays of popular support via one’s entourage, rich candidates resorted to outright bribery, counting on middlemen ( sequestri) to hold money promised to a tribe, and divisiores who distributed the money once a desired outcome was achieved. Literary sources shows that legislation against ambitus was not aimed at ensuring democratically sound procedures but rather at curbing a candidate’s ability to curry favor outside of his tribe, which gave unfair advantage to men of extraordinary means and limited the chances of success for nobles of more modest means.

In the final chapter, ” Plebs and politics,” M. takes a look at the “connection between politics and society in general” (128). In addition to nicely summarizing the main points made in previous chapters, M. demonstrates that the changes that occurred in the voting assemblies during the late republic actually reflect the widening gap between elite and masses. The process had begun in the second half of the second century as wealth poured in from all over the empire but failed to reach the bulk of Rome’s population, who now faced food shortages on average of every four years and whose need to work for a living placed them in the same suspect category as slaves. A functioning democracy would hardly have waited until 58 BC to obtain free grain for its hungry masses.

What makes this book especially appealing is that M. touches upon many issues currently under debate by historians while keeping in sight his purpose of determining the extent to which the common people exercised its prerogative to vote. Such issues include the physical spaces in which assemblies met (18-31), the number of candidates a voter was allowed to vote for in each election (102-5), the doubtful significance of the role of clientela in Roman politics (a recurring and well argued theme), and the surprisingly small effect the enfranchisement of Italy had on campaigning and voting (118-23). There is a brief but well written appendix on the Lex Licinia de sodalitatibus, a thorough and up to date bibliography, and an index that includes not only references to Roman names, places and concepts, but to the many modern authors whose ideas are discussed as well.