Saturday, 28 January 2017

Milo and Clodius

Recent political doings made me think this might be relevant.

In the fractious latter days of republican Rome, the democratic aspect of the city’s politics was on the wane. The prolonged period of republic had enabled dynasties to establish deep-rooted power bases, and army reforms meant that soldiers often felt more loyal to generals than the state.

A few decades earlier Marius and Sulla, erstwhile colleagues in the Jugurthine War, had tussled over supremacy in Rome. This ended up being a warm-up act for the Caesar/Pompey clash that was destined to determine the destruction of the Republic.

Soldiers were not generally allowed in the City of Rome, for the rather obvious reason that having thousands of armed men might just upset the balance of power, and move the governance of Rome from the Senate to whomever commanded the legions.

At the same time, gladiator games (which were used by politicians and aspiring politicians to improve or cement their popularity) were increasingly common and occurring on an ever larger scale. It didn’t take long for the men plotting supremacy to realise that having hundreds of professional killers as bodyguards or hired thugs could be useful for both protection and aggression.

Milo was a supporter of Caesar, and Clodius of Pompey. The two men were political enemies and frequently travelled with gangs of armed men, including gladiators. They encountered one another, Clodius attacking Milo (according to some accounts, others say they met by chance and a fight started by their followers). Clodius, however, was the man who ended up dead.

Cicero defended Milo, but despite that, Milo was found guilty and sentenced to exile. The trial was notable for the mob drowning out Milo’s lawyers and intimidating Cicero. The mob also meant Pompey’s cohorts turned up to ‘ensure order’, but as Clodius was his ally this also helped the jury to give a result that would have pleased Pompey.

Democratic or mixed constitutions rarely slip into tyranny or political violence overnight. The arms race of protection and aggression in latter day republican Rome added to the powder keg of politics in the city at the time, caused by the erosion of institutions and the rising power of particular individuals.

When political violence becomes widely endorsed, accepted or commonplace, power shifts away from the people, or even the political class, and towards those willing and able to commit acts of violence to acquire and maintain power.

Rome never solved this problem when the Republic became the Empire. At times, transition was orderly (notably during the Golden Age, until Marcus Aurelius buggered it up). But the fundamental problem of the lawful nature of who the emperor was remained unresolved. It, ultimately, always came down to the same answer, an answer that resulted in increasingly common civil war, and the Empire devouring its own strength in petty power struggles.

Might was right.


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