Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Antonine Wall - Guest Post

Completed in the year 128 C.E., Hadrian’s Wall was one of the most famous civil engineering projects undertaken by the Roman Empire. The wall ran a distance of 73 miles (117.5 kilometers), crossing the English countryside from the waters of Solway Forth to the mouth of the River Tyne. It took the effort of three Roman legions working over the course of six years to complete, and required a garrison of more than 10,000 men to guard its length. Built by the Emperor Hadrian, many people believe this wall represents the limit of Roman expansion as well as the northernmost reach of the Empire.

The truth of the matter is that the mortar was hardly dry on Hadrian’s wall when plans began for another wall across the southern portion of what is now Scotland. Construction of this new wall began four years after Hadrian’s death. Though shorter than its famous cousin, the new wall would take twice as long to build and run along a stretch of countryside a 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall.

When Hadrian died in 128 C.E., a new emperor ascended to the title of Caesar. His name was Imperator Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pontifex Maximus, or as he is better known, Antonius Pius. Though one of the four great emperors of the empire’s golden age, he was remembered as being quietly competent, ruling from Rome, focused on the promotion of the arts and sciences, and introducing significant reforms to the Roman legal system rather than leading armies of invasion as his predecessors had done. His timing was fortunate because he was able to avoid the armed conflict that would come later.

During the first year of his reign, Antoninus appointed Quintus Lollius Urbicus to be the governor of Britannia. This was not the sort of political appointee one would expect if the Emperor was looking to maintain a quiet northern border. Lollius Urbicus had been one of the men who had put down the Jewish revolt led by Simon bar Kokhba in 132-136 C.E. The revolt had been suppressed with a violence and ferocity that was shocking even by Roman standards.

Lollius got to work immediately and between 138 and 140 C.E. strengthened the fortifications behind Hadrian’s Wall for use as launching points for an invasion. Once his army was trained, he launched a two year long campaign to conquer the Votadani, Selgovae, Damnonii, and the Novantae tribes living in the Scottish lowlands. On the heels of his victory he began the construction of a new wall.
This one stretched across a distance only a little more than half the length of Hadrian’s Wall, requiring fewer troops to garrison its defenses and freeing men to keep order among the conquered tribes to the south. This wall would be of a simpler construction, using a berm made of sod overlooking a deep cut ditch. Fortresses would be spaced every two miles for the garrisoning of troops, and a military road would run alongside the berm. To help improve the defensive capabilities of this smaller, less durable wall, a number of forts and outposts were built to the north of the wall, to act as an early warning system for the garrisons stationed at the Antonine Wall.

Started in 142 C.E, the new wall would not be finished until 154 C.E. The Caledonian tribe, immediately to the north, proved to be a constant thorn in the side of those constructing the wall, and their recalcitrance would not be ended by its completion. The garrisons in the forts to its north, as well as those manning the wall, would be under constant pressure from this adversarial tribe.

After the death of Antoninus in 161 C.E. his successors (Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus) ordered the abandonment of the Antonine Wall. The Roman legions fell back to Hadrian’s Wall, leaving the previously conquered tribes to act as a buffer against the Caledonians. Though additional forays in 197 would lead to a brief reoccupation of the wall, Hadrian’s Wall would remain as the northern border of the Roman Empire until sometime around the turn of the 5th century.

James Hinton is a life time learner and U.S. Army veteran. He has a fascination with history for both the lessons it can teach and the high drama its stories can produce. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Social Conflict in the Roman Republic

At the end of the Third Punic War, in 146 B.C, the Roman Republic was ascendant. The Carthaginians had been defeated once and for all, the city of Carthage razed, and salt was poured over its ground to symbolize utter destruction. Rome was now master of the Mediterranean Sea and called it Mare Nostrum or “Our sea”. What could possibly stop her? Certainly no army.

But ahead, in the not too distant future, stood the destruction of the Republic and no one knew it. A mere thirteen years would pass before the slide would begin. It’s an interesting story of class warfare, the quest for economic equity, and an aging political system.

The timeline of those thirteen years has the following entries:

146 B.C. Third Punic War ends
140-134 B.C War with the Numantines
140 B.C. Agrarian reform introduced by Laelius and withdrawn
139 B.C. Law passed to use written ballots in voting for the first time
139 B.C. Shortage of corn in Rome. Efforts to build up supplies were blocked
137 B.C. Mancinus defeated by the Numantines and is forced to surrender
136 B.C. Mancinus put on trial, found guilty, and banished
136 B.C. Slave rebellion in Sicily
134 B.C. Scipio Aemilianus takes an army to Spain and defeats the Numantines
133 B.C. The tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus

The socio-political forces at work in 240 B.C. included the following: a shortage of recruits for the army based on too few property owners, a swelling poverty class based on lost agricultural jobs, an empty treasury due to money spent funding wars, and a bitter struggle between factions in the Senate. In the latter case it was the Claudian family against the Scipios. Although the Republic did not have political parties, the Senate had factions which crossed the spectrum from conservative to liberal. The factional fighting was driven by the quest for power and the status that came with it. These power games so occupied their time the wealthy had little interest in the plight of the plebs.

During the Republican period, Rome operated as a timocracy, meaning a political system where only land holders could vote and serve in the army. After a landholder was killed in battle and there was no one left to work his farm, his family often fell into debt, lost the property, and were forced to work as farm labor or travel to Rome and look for a job. The only solution to the problem of recruits for the army was to create new landowners.

The Senate was also at odds with the Consilium Plebis or people’s assembly. The Consilium was created to pacify the plebs by giving them their own legislative body. In the Republican system, the Senate could introduce legislation, but could not vote on it. The Consilium could pass legislation but not introduce it. It had the right to pass laws binding on all of Rome, a power the Senate regretted having granted. The Senate used every means possible to control the Consilium including pressure or bribes of the ten Tribunes who were its leaders.

The Roman class system was divided with patricians at the top, then knights, plebs, and slaves at the bottom. Often slaves, as free labor, took jobs away from the plebs increasing their poverty. The knights were a rising middle class (new money) of merchants and bureaucrats.

So the period we are describing begins with the Numantine War, which lasted six years and bankrupted the Republican treasury. Things got so bad that when Scipio Aemilianus was named commander in 134 B.C. and told to end the war once and for all, he had to use his own assets to pay the troops. The Numantines were a hardy tribe from the north of Spain that proved tougher than the Romans could have imagined and the Senate sent Scipio because he had defeated the Carthaginians to end the Punic Wars. They figured he had the magic touch and they were right.

The other story from the Numantine War was the debacle of Mancinus who was made commander in 137 B.C. Mancinus managed to get his army surrounded and was forced to surrender. The future tribune Tiberius Gracchus negotiated a treaty to save the army but it was rejected by the Senate as too embarrassing. Mancinus and Tiberius Gracchus were both put on trial for treason. Mancinus was exiled. Gracchus was acquitted.

Back at home there was the slave revolt in Sicily that had to be put down and the corn shortage in 139 B.C.

The Republic stood at a crossroads: lower class discontent stirring a stew of rising independence and political will on the part of the plebs, who were not willing to suffer any longer at the hands of the Senate. Here Tiberius Gracchus emerges as the seminal figure: elected in 133 B.C as tribune of the people. Immediately after his election Tiberius introduced a land reform bill under the sponsorship of some Senators. This would take public land (ager publicus) and give it to those who would start farming, and become eligible for military service. In response, the Senate induced one of the other tribunes to veto the bill. Tiberius reacted by having that tribune removed from office. The bill passed but the Senate refused to provide funding for it. That made the new law stillborn until Tiberius’ fortunes changed. A king from Asia Minor died and left his kingdom to Rome. Tiberius took that money and used it to fund the land reform law. This move enraged the Senate because it had exclusive control over foreign policy and saw his actions as a power grab. At the end of his year in office, Tiberius decided to run for a second term, thinking it would provide him immunity from prosecution by an angry Senate. On Election Day he was assassinated by a group of Senators and their patrons.

The Senate conducted an inquiry into the case and found no one liable. To show that they supported the Plebs, they allowed the agrarian law to move forward and supported it. The Senate claimed that Tiberius was intent on overthrowing the government based on his questionable actions, and the Republic should be relieved that he was gone.

How did this series of events affect the Republic? Significantly. No elected official had been assassinated in Rome for some four hundred years. The public blamed the Senate and its prestige plummeted. Respect for the Senate was gone forever. The Plebian class remained unhappy because of the inequality forced on them. Soon after, pseudo political parties formed. On one side was the Optimates (best men) supported by the Senate and on the other side were the Populares (people’s men) who were the champions of the plebs.

The people would now use their numbers to oppose the will of the Senate in passing legislation and voting for commanders to lead the army. One of those commanders, Marius, who was a pleb himself, created a professional army loyal to him, and became the first in a series of man who would control the republic by force and complete the downfall of the Republic. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Destruction of Pompeii

Most of us know the story of the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D, when Mount Vesuvius produced the most dangerous of its many eruptions. The result of this particular explosion was the burying of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the point of the two cities being lost for centuries. Some 16,000 died in the catastrophe. The volcano has erupted forty two times since 79 A.D, the last one occurring during World War II on March 18-23, 1944. On that occasion, 70-80 American aircraft were destroyed at a nearby Air Force base.

On the day of the eruption August 24th, 79 A.D, all was normal in the morning. There had been a series of small earthquakes in the days preceding the event, but they were ignored as normal behavior for the volcano. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the volcano violently exploded throwing a column of ash into the air. It is estimated that this column reached 98,000 feet and ejected ash at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second! The release of ash was followed some twelve hours later by a surge of fast moving lava down the west, south, and east sides of the mountain. These flows may have reached speeds of 450 miles per hour at an average temperature of 1000 degrees, so all living creatures that remained would have been overtaken and killed before they could escape.

Remarkably, by luck, we have accounts of the incident from reliable historical sources. Both Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger were twenty-two miles away across the Bay of Naples when the eruption began. Once he realized what was happening based on a message requesting a rescue, the Elder organized a rescue party and set out for the town of Stabiae, where he and his group stayed overnight. In the morning they were forced to try an escape, but Pliny died during the attempt possibly due to a heart attack. Pliny the Younger declined to join the rescue party, but observed the eruption and wrote about it in a letter to Tacitus.

Thank you for asking me to send you a description of my uncle's death so that you can leave an accurate account of it for posterity; I know that immortal fame awaits him if his death is recorded by you.  It is true that he perished in a catastrophe which destroyed the loveliest regions of the earth, a fate shared by whole cities and their people, and one so memorable that is likely to make his name live forever: and he himself wrote a number of books of lasting value: but you write for all time and can still do much to perpetuate his memory.  The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or to write what is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is the man who can do both.  Such a man was my uncle, as his own books and yours will prove.  So you set me a task I would choose for myself, and I am more than willing to start on it.

My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance.  He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books.  He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon.  It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can be best expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed.  Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.  My uncle's scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had himself given me some writing to do.

As he was leaving the house, he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascius whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat.  She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero.  He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.  He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone.  He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them.  Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain.  For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this he refused, telling him that Fortune stood by the courageous and they must make for Pomponianus at Stabiae. He was cut off there by the breadth of the bay (for the shore gradually curves round a basin filled by the sea) so that he was not as yet in danger, though it was clear that this would come nearer as it spread. 

Pomponianus had therefore already put his belongings on board ship, intending to escape if the contrary wind fell.  This wind was of course full in my uncle's favor, and he was able to bring his ship in. He embraced his terrified friend, cheered and encouraged him, and thinking he could calm his fears by showing his own composure, gave orders that he was to be carried to the bathroom.  After his bath he lay down and dined; he was quite cheerful, or at any rate he pretended he was, which was no less courageous.

Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.  My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.  Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door.  By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice-stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out.  He was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household who had sat up all night.  They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro, as if they were torn from their foundations.  Outside on the other hand, there was the danger of falling pumice-stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter.  In my uncle's case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears.  As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.

Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp.  My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous.  A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink.  Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up.  He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed.  When daylight returned on the 26th—two days after the last day he had seen—his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.

Meanwhile my mother and I were at Misenum, but this is not of any historic interest, and you only wanted to hear about my uncle’s death.  I will say no more, except to add that I have described in detail every incident which I either witnessed myself or heard about immediately after the event, when reports were most likely to be accurate.  It is for you to select what best suits your purpose, for there is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read.”

By the evening of the second day the eruption had ended and only a haze remained over the mountain and surrounding territory. The following drawing shows the extent of the debris field caused by the eruption.

I have a friend who visited Pompeii a month ago. He sent me some photos which I have included here as a slideshow.

The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. was only one of the catastrophes that occurred during the ill-fated two year reign of the Emperor Titus. A year after the Vesuvius eruption there was a large fire in Rome and then the plague visited the region and killed thousands. After the conclusion of the first games at the newly completed Coliseum in Rome, Titus travelled to the Sabine territories to visit a military camp, fell ill with fever and died at age forty-two.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Roman Class System and Social Structure

At its beginning, Rome was a group of egalitarian tribes living in proximity to each other on the hills surrounding a swamp that would become the Forum. Over time, the population grew steadily as new groups became affiliated, but the three original tribes, Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres, stood out as leaders and assumed a position of power over the other groups. They called themselves patricians and gave the name plebian to the other tribes made up of “common” people.

During the first hundred years of Rome, a status structure evolved into a class structure and then a political system. Those patricians with money or influence rose to the top -- one of them became king, while the others acted as advisors through their membership in the Senate. The latter numbered three hundred, one third from each of the three original tribes. The city was divided into voting districts called curia and citizens from these districts were allowed to participate in an assembly, which could pass legislation and elect magistrates. This structure was controlled by the monarchy for about two centuries until 509 B.C, when the king was overthrown and Rome became a Republic. The powers of the king were now divided among three men: two consuls and the Pontifex Maximus. The consuls served as chief magistrates of the Republic and served in office for one year. Each had veto rights over the other to prevent a dangerous accumulation of power. The Pontifex was the religious leader, tasked with predicting the future and making sure the gods were appeased at all times.

Beneath the political system, an informal system of patrons and clients operated as a shadow class. Patrons protected the interests of their clients, while the clients did favors for their patrons. Favors varied: run a business, organize a group for a specific purpose, or assault a person who had offended the patron were typical examples. Clients were compensated with money or helped with their careers and those plebs who were highly motivated could become wealthy with the help of their patron. Patrons benefitted from the relationship by expanding their authority through the recruitment of new clients who would be loyal to them. This system worked because it benefited both sides and helped appease the interests of those who sought upward mobility. As time went on, a middle class was built by the work of plebeians who became successful at business - merchants, manufacturers, shippers, money lenders, etc.

From the very beginning of the Republic, there was a conflict of classes - patrician against plebeian. As early as the 490s B.C, the plebs called a general strike to demand additional rights. The granting of these rights was stretched out over two hundred years by a reluctant Senate, although the slow pace helped keep the Republic stable over that period.

Early protests led to the creation of the tribunate in 494 B.C. (Lex Sacrata) -- the first magistracy representing the common people. Ten tribunes were elected for the term of one year with the right to physically and legally protect the plebs from harm caused by the upper class. The next important concession dealt with the publishing of laws, which had been previously kept secret by the upper class. In 449 B.C, the Twelve Tablets were displayed in the Forum as the first published list of rights that applied to all the Roman people.

Over the next hundred and sixty years, the class struggle was focused on the people’s right to office and their right to make laws. The magistracies in the Republic included tribunes, aediles (managers of public property), questors (treasurers), praetors (judges), censors, and consuls (senior magistrates), and, one by one, these were opened up to the common people. In 367 B.C, one consul was designated for a candidate from the lower class, with censor in 339 B.C and the praetor in 337 following. The watershed event on the legislative side was the passage of Lex Hortensia in 287 B.C. which granted the Concilium Plebis (people’s assembly) the right to pass laws binding on both patricians and plebeians. At last the plebs had reached something close to political parity with the upper class.

The great sociologist Max Weber used three social categories to describe man’s place in society -- status, class, and the power which flows for from them. Furthermore he described three types of class division: propertied, commercial, and social. A propertied class, as you can imagine, is defined solely by ownership of property. A commercial class is defined by one’s success in business as driven by markets. A social class is one with one with mobility that allows the individual free movement upward.

At the foundation of Rome, the patricians had status based on their control of government, they sat at the top of the propertied class, and they were able to exert power based on their monopoly of government administration and secretive control of the legal system. They did not pursue success in a commercial class (except by proxy) because of their hatred of business. The knights (Equites, or middle class) were originally given status by the monarchy as cavalry in the Roman Army because they had the financial assets to purchase equipment, including horses. Later they rose to the top of the commercial class because they were successful in business and as government bureaucrats. Commercial success allowed them to acquire land and achieve property status. The growing influence of the knights, coupled with the erosion of patrician control over government office and the making of laws, eventually took away patrician power and distributed it among the other classes.

Oddly, it was the patricians (Sulla and Caesar) who paved the way for the destruction of the Republic. Using their patrician titles as a basis for moral authority, they put power above tradition by introducing the new element of military authority. Control of the army would trump status and class to drive the Republic toward an empire.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Archaeological Dig Oppportunities

I received this e-mail recently and thought you might be interested.

Dear Mike,

I’m the director of ArchaeoSpain, which organizes international groups to join ongoing archaeological excavations in Spain and Italy. I was reading your Ancient History blog and I thought I’d write to you to let you know about our projects.
This summer our 18+ groups will be digging the necropolis of the Iron Age city of Pintia (which later became Roman) in Valladolid, the Byzantine church and surroundings of Son Peretó in Mallorca, and the amphora graveyard of Monte Testaccio in Rome.
And our high school groups will be excavating the Roman forum of Pollentia in Mallorca and the medieval Castle of Zorita in Guadalajara.
More information, photos, and videos can be found at
If you think our programs could be of interest to you and your work, please let us know.


Mike Elkin

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Florence, 1100-1532, What a Republic!

Florence, in this blog? I thought this was supposed to be ancient history! Yes, but sometimes we can find value when we compare political systems from different times in history. The Republic of Florence an interesting case to compare to Republican Rome, because it gives us another example of how men try to build stable governments. Florence was a city republic like Rome but it was never able to expand in the same way because of the circumstances of its time. Still, its leaders faced the same challenges the Romans did – socio-economic class differences, economic interests, and cultural influences. In my last post I mentioned that those designing Republics, including America’s founding fathers, went to great lengths to insure their infant political systems would not revert to monarchies through the consolidation of power. Florence stands as an extreme case of this paranoia.

As one of the great merchant cities of the middle ages (Pisa or Antwerp would be other examples), Florence escaped participation in the feudal system because it had a strong capitalist engine and could operate as an independent political system. Feudalism could only take root where bureaucracy failed and it did not fail there. The Florentine political system certainly had its ups and downs, but it was business that moved Florence forward and politics were regulated by business.

By the year 900 A.D, the great cities of Europe had been weakened to a point where it was necessary to start from scratch. Commerce and artisanship had to be rekindled by recruiting citizens with the right skills from the outside, mostly from the agrarian economies of the surrounding territory. Florence always found aristocratic control unacceptable, so any tendency in that direction was continually resisted. Its leaders were a new class of man; middle class merchants we call burghers, who were independent, entrepreneurial, and confident. Between the years of 900 and 1250, these burghers turned Florence into an autonomous institution by resisting and expelling those who would attempt to impose on them some kind of hierarchical model of government. They were aided in this effort by the emperors and popes who wasted time and money fighting among themselves for control of Italy rather than attacking the city.

In the early days, Florence was probably managed by community groups and block organizations, who worked together to provide basic services. This was an incubator republic which evolved into rudimentary courts and militias as it became more formalized. No wealthy family was recognized as a leader and a pact between families (association) was put into place to show mutual dedication to the success of the city.

By the twelfth century, an executive committee of ten was in operation as the magistrate apparatus for governing. The committee derived its power from control of the local militias and utilized a temporary executive to manage the bureaucracy. One vestigial authority retained power over this structure; the Parlamentum, which was a general assembly of all citizens brought together in times of crisis to save the city. The Parlamentum was a destabilizing institution because it was unmanaged and its output was unpredictable. For example, it had been known to throw out the city’s constitution on occasion. Fortunately, the stability of Florence was more determined by power arrangements between the social classes than formal governmental systems.

In 1207, the city fathers (Grandi) decided to introduce a new magistrate from the outside called a podesta, the theory being that an outsider would not be subject to the bias of an insider. The role of the podesta was to arbitrate disputes between powerful families, but this hardly ever worked because he had little power and the families could treat with each other and solve their problems outside of his efforts. This useless office of podesta plodded along for centuries to no purpose.

During the early 1200s, Florence came to be dominated by two families with tongue-twister names: the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. These families were essentially political parties -- the Guelfs loyal to the Pope while the Ghibellines were loyal to the emperor. By the mid-century, a feud between them developed and assassination in the name of foreign policy became commonplace. At one point, each of the families set up their own republic within the city. Between 1250 and 1260 the Guelfs ruled and the Ghibellines were in exile. The situation was reversed between 1260 and 1267. Was this a republic? Hard to understand how it could have been called one.

In the midst of the strife and assassination, two important things occurred. Large numbers of the middle class were brought into the political system (like the knights of the Roman Republic), which had the effect of damping out conflict, and there developed, through Guelf influence, a sentimental opposition to monarchy.

The introduction of the middle class into government created a comic act of complexity in organization. Beneath the first level of magistrates previously described, a second level was built of middle class citizens. Now the government apparatus was well insulated against a power grab but it was also unworkable because no man could steer the city on his own. As William Everdell points out in his brilliant book End of Kings:

“In a kind of mitotic ecstasy, Florence between 1250 and 1450 multiplied offices beyond the capacity of historians to count them. There were so many, they ran out of names for them and came to call them by number of members and purpose -- seven of flood or ten of war. It was a glorious carnival of magistrates elected, chosen by lot, or appointed by a committee. So that no one would miss a chance to govern, terms of office were shortened to as little as two months, the shortest in republican history.”

In 1343, the most mature of the many Florentine constitutions was created. It defined hundreds of public offices and its rules were amazing to complicate. For example, an elected committee could appoint another committee to draw up list of candidates for committees and selections from the list were made by a third committee. The system was designed to keep everyone involved in the government so the aristocratic families could not consolidate their power, but it did so in a manner that defied logic. No doubt this mad matrix of offices prevented an accumulation of power -- bossism was prevented by through election by lot. Coups may have been possible until the army was disbanded in 1351 in favor of mercenaries. Meanwhile, Florence weathered wars with the cities of Tuscany, a credit collapse, and the plague without a scratch.

The Republican system was seriously threatened for the first time in 1390, when the opportunist Visconti decided he would like to control all Italy north of Rome. Starting with Milan, Visconti began to work his way south rolling up town after town. Once Pisa and Siena fell, only Florence was left to conquer. The Florentines never considered surrender and were prepared to fight Visconti to the death when a miracle occurred. Visconti died of the plague, his empire fell apart, and Florence was saved.

And now we unveil the true culprits behind the fall of the Florentine Republic -- the Medici. The first of their clan, Cosimo, while trying to protect his business interests, was able to constitute and control a committee charged with filling a hat with names of candidates for important offices. Cosimo used this authority to create a base of power and control. Before his death, Cosimo and his son Piero had become leaders of most powerful political party in Florence. When Piero died in 1469, key power blocks asked his son Lorenzo to lead the republic. Using public support to his benefit, Lorenzo gradually gained control of the most important magistracies and chipped away at the republic. When he died in 1492, power was consolidated in a way that republicans could no longer resist.

Finally, in 1530, the pope allied with the Habsburg emperor, defeated Florence in battle, and the republic was no more.

What have we learned from this story? We learned that republics are built to oppose monarchies, that they depend on unique circumstances for their creation, and that they require middle class participation to hold the aristocracy in check. These elements existed in Florence as they did in Rome. Both republics lasted nearly five hundred years, both were able to adapt their political systems to maintain stability, and both collapsed when an opportunist appeared who had no reservations about tearing down what had been successful for centuries.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Roman Transition to a Republic

As you may know from previous posts, the Roman Republic was born out of the overthrow of an Etruscan monarchy. When the break occurred in 509 B.C. the components of the Republican government were largely in place, so the transition to the first stable Republic in history was relatively smooth. Still, Rome was fragile for three or four decades while she built her confidence to a level that would see her conquer the western world.

What is a Republic, you ask? The word comes from the Latin res publica or thing of the people. In other words, a government without a monarchy that allows citizens with voting rights to have a say in government affairs through participation in assemblies. Voter eligibility rules required that a man had to be a property owner and citizen in good standing in order to cast a ballot. The assemblies were conducted in the Roman forum and only those attending could vote, so travel distance had an important impact on participation. Tribes located at a great distance would have to see the benefits to them of making the long journey before they would commit to it. In one famous case, remote tribes refused to attend a critical assembly meeting because they were in the middle of the harvest.

The history of the Roman monarchy is a combination of folklore and invention. It’s first king, Romulus, is apocryphal. The next four remain foggy in history, although the third of those, Tullus Hostilus, is credited for building the first Senate House. The next three include two Etruscans and one Latin, named, Servius Tullius, who was the most notable of the entire group.

The Roman government during the time of the monarchy consisted of the king, who was the principal administrator of the government and the guardian of the religious apparatus, the Senate, made up of one hundred men, from each of the three original Roman tribes, and the tribal assembly, called the comitia curiata. The latter was mostly a figurehead body, approving legislation passed by the Senate, but Servius Tullius created a second and more powerful assembly, called the comitia centuriata, which was modelled after the Roman army. Power was divided by wealth; cavalry at the top and common foot soldier at the bottom. The distribution of votes in the body was rigged in favor of the wealthy, who had a majority of the votes and could carry or block any initiative.

The last king, the Etruscan Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, received the nickname Superbus (arrogant) because of his autocratic behavior. He was ultimately expelled along with his family when the Roman people decided they had had enough of him and kings in general. The orchestrator of the coup was Lucius Junius Brutus, nephew of the king and a republican idealist. In the first act after the expulsion of Superbus, Brutus made the Roman people swear allegiance to the new political system:

Omnium primum avidum novae libertatis populum, ne postmodum flecti precibus aut donis regiis posset, iure iurando adegit neminem Romae passuros regnare.

To quote Livy, “By swearing an oath that they would suffer no man to rule Rome, it forced the people, desirous of a new liberty, not to be thereafter swayed by the entreaties or bribes of kings.

Brutus was named the first consul of the new Republic along with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, but almost immediately there was trouble. The former king tried to regain the throne by using his ambassadors to put together a conspiracy against the Republic, and the rebels included two of Brutus’ sons. Forced to abide by his principles and save the young Republic, Brutus had his sons executed along with other conspirators. Superbus then tried to wage war on the Rome, but he was repulsed for good at the Battle of Silvia Arsia. Brutus led the cavalry on the side of the Republic but did not survive the battle.

With the threat of the former king extinguished, the Republic was free to move forward in its new form. The administrative function of the king was given to a pair newly created magistrates (consuls) and religious authority was granted to a magistrate called the Pontifex Maximus. The consuls were given veto right over each other to avoid an accumulation of power and as a further brake on the latter, their term of office was limited to one year. A common element of republics throughout history has been the design of governmental structures that make it difficult to accumulate power, because republics are built by those who abhor a monarchy.

In the first decades after the removal of the king, Rome would face twin threats to her sovereignty: wars with her neighbors and an internal class struggle. In the former case, she was attacked by almost everyone: first Etruscans, Samnites, Latins, from nearby who were conquered and assimilated; and then the Volci and Aequi, tribes from the western edge of the Apennine Mountains, who fought Rome for nearly a century. We think of Rome in later times as imperialistic, but her posture here was totally defensive, and she was just trying to survive. Those early military victories sharpened her skill in battle and honed her cultural will for the future.

Class struggle would carry on for centuries and nearly everyone is familiar with the terms patrician and plebian, which survive to the present day as labels for rich and poor. The Rome of the monarchy had built a patronage system of mutual benefits -- patricians were able to use plebs to act as their agents and those plebs received protection and compensation in return. But that system was not enough to keep class differences under control once the Republic came into being. In 494 B.C, the plebs initiated a strike to demand a grain distribution to help those suffering from a famine. The Senate resisted at first, but was eventually forced to give in. Ultimately, the plebs spent a couple of centuries trying to achieve equality in office and equality in power. The Senate fought them all along the way but reforms were gradually put in place without a major disruption or civil war. Laws were written down in 451 B.C. and displayed in the Forum, offices that were originally restricted to patricians were made open to plebs, and a new magistrate was created, the Tribune, designed to protect the people from abuses of the upper class. The political relationship between classes remained stable until the period after the Punic Wars when the economic status of the lower class plunged to a point where it acted as a catalyst for social unrest and eventually civil war.