Thursday, March 3, 2011

26th February 2011

The point about crowds, as Gaddafi is now learning, is that there are more of them than there are of him. Romans knew this only too well and, like Gaddafi, went out of their way to prevent large gatherings. Time, therefore, for Libyans to take radical Roman action.

In 494 BC, the Roman poor were in conflict with aristocratic landholders because so many of them had been placed in bondage through inability to pay their debts. The Senate refused to move on the matter and, in the face of riots and disturbances, threatened to bring in the army to quell incipient mutiny spreading among the ordinary people (the plebs). So in order to protect their interests, they moved as a body to the Sacred Mount, overlooking the Tiber a few miles upstream from Rome, where they constructed a fortified camp and refused to move: a potential ‘state within a state’.

The result in Rome was panic among the whole remaining citizen body. If they were attacked by enemy forces now, and the plebs refused to fight, they would be in serious danger. So Menenius Agrippa was sent to appeal to the plebs to reunify the state. He used the analogy of a body which, fed up with the lazy belly that did nothing but enjoy all the goodies it received, went on strike: the hand would carry no food to the mouth, the mouth would not accept it nor the teeth chew it. The result was that the whole body started to waste away. The plebs saw the point and agreed to return, as long as concessions were made.

The final result was the formation of the plebs’ own corporate organisation—a legal assembly with its own officials, the tribunes of the plebs. These tribunes were designated as inviolable, and could therefore bring force to bear on anyone who threatened a pleb in any way. In time, these plebeian tribunes were given seats in the Senate, where they could veto any business. Plebeian ‘aediles’ were also created, probably to oversee the grain supply and in time to run the markets, protect Rome’s fabric and put on games—good, popular moves.

Pleb power worked then. Intelligently organised, it will work again.

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