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.

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