Saturday, February 19, 2011

19th February 2011

The Egyptian people want power in the face of government intransigence. So what happens next? Ancient Rome went through this phase, and very destructive it was too.
For five hundred years, Romans from aristocrats to plebs had broadly agreed that the final say on all major political matters should be the Senate’s (senex, ‘old man’), an oligarchy consisting of current and retired executive officials (consuls, praetors etc.). But after the defeat of Hannibal in 202 BC and the expansion of Roman power into North Africa, Spain, Greece and Asia Minor (western Turkey), the gap between rich and poor widened radically, and the soldiers who had done the fighting did not feel they had been satisfactorily rewarded for their efforts.
In 133 BC, the disillusioned aristocrat Tiberius Gracchus saw this as a chance to win power. For hundred of years, those appointed as ‘tribunes of the plebs’ had acted as the voice of the people in the Senate. Tiberius stood for and won that position. He then laid before the Senate proposals to divide up land in Italy more fairly between rich and poor. The Senate, owning most of that land, naturally turned it down. Previously, that would have ended the matter. But Tiberius took the proposal straight to the plebs’ assembly, whose decisions were technically binding on all the Roman people. Naturally, they passed it.
The floodgates opened. For the next hundred years, Roman politics – the world of Pompey and Caesar - was dominated by men seeking power by these radically different routes, traditional (senatorial) and popular. It led to rioting and bloodshed (Tiberius and his brother Gaius were both killed in this way). When soldiers joined in, enticed by the rewards on offer to support one side or the other, vicious civil war ensued. The final result was the end of the Republic in 31 BC and the emergence of Octavian/Augustus (Caesar’s adopted heir) as the first Roman emperor: a monarchy, or dictatorship as some saw it. Entrenched oligarchs, popular revolt, the army - throw Islam into that volatile mix, and one does rather tremble for Egypt’s ‘democratic’ future.

Monday, February 7, 2011

5th February 2011

Romans would have regarded Hosni Mubarak as effectively the emperor of Egypt. But they would not have thought he had played a very intelligent hand.
The Roman emperor held supreme authority. As head of state (princeps), he ruled the Treasury, controlled all the top political appointments, passed all laws, was final arbiter in all legal cases and selected provincial governors. As pontifex maximus, he led all the major state rituals in honour of the gods. As commander-in-chief (imperator), he ruled over the armed forces, chose all generals and determined military policy, often leading the army himself. To help him he had a circle of hand-picked, trusted advisers and a remarkably small civil service.
But life was far too busy to spend his days indulging in orgies. Petitions, for example, poured in from all over the empire—requests for citizenship, repayment of tax, legitimisation of children, a portion of an inheritance, and so on. It looks as if they were personally dealt with, too. And that was just the private business.
Further, there were the people of Rome to keep happy. Romans knew all about that. In the republican period, the billionaire Crassus once paid the grain supply for every Roman in the city for three months; Julius Caesar put on games featuring 320 pairs of gladiators, equipped with ornate silvered armour. So important were such spectacles for generating popular support that the emperor Domitian ruled they could be staged only by members of the imperial family. After his triumphs in AD 108 in Dacia (N. Romania), Trajan staged 117 days of entertainment at which ten thousand gladiators fought and eleven thousand animals were killed. This was not just about keeping the people sweet, either. The emperor himself was on display on such occasions, and if the crowd had reasons to vent its feelings against him, they did. Emperors paid attention.
Most Roman emperors understood that they would survive and prosper only by persuading most of the people most of the time that they ruled in their interests, not in those of the imperial household and its chums. It does not seem too much to ask of today’s equivalents.