The Roman Senate in Session
Lest you think that what is befalling the United States at present is of recent vintage, I urge you to consider the two great parties of the Roman Republic around 130 BC. There were two main political parties, the optimates (“the best ones”) and the populares (“favoring the people”). The former—consisting of members of the senatorial class and large landowners—were united in opposition to the tribunes Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his younger brother Caius Sempronius Gracchus. According to Wikipedia:
For about 80 years, Roman politics was marked by the confrontation of these two factions. The Optimates favoured the ancestral Roman laws and customs, as well as the supremacy of the Senate over the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs. They also rejected the massive extension of Roman citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies advocated by the Populares.
How familiar it all seems today! The Republicans, whose entire political platform could be expressed in the phrase “I got mine,” are fearful and apprehensive that the unwashed Democrats and their immigrant allies want a share of their wealth. Like the Optimates, the Republicans are “the best ones,” so whatever they do to hold on to power is quite all right with them.
Yesterday, I ran into an elderly woman at the Farmers Market on Fairfax who was a virulent Trump supporter. She thought that the black and other unwashed Barbarian hordes were after her money. I didn’t bother to try reasoning with her, because she was beyond reason. So I merely insulted her, as did the Afro-American gentleman who was in line with me.
I always thought that the nice thing about having money is being able to spend it in interesting ways. Not necessarily so! At some point, this woman inherited some money, problem from her late husband and decided to build an impregnable fortress around the proceeds against me and my kind.
The Roman Senate with Cicero Accusing Catiline (Seated by Himself at Right)
Over the last couple of days, I have been reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. We think of the Roman Republic in very decorous terms, with all those dignified men in togas. We don’t see many representations of Roman plebeians, who were not permitted to wear the toga—let alone the thousands of slaves living in the city.
It was actually a far from decorous time, with over a hundred years of violent conflict between the optimates (wealthy upper classes) and the populares (common people). This century included the Brothers Gracchi, who were murdered; the brutal dictator Sulla; the victorious general Marius; and ended with the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. In many ways, it was reminiscent of our own times—a time when we are envisioning the end of our own Republic from the repeated assaults of the Dictator Trump.
Among the optimates, there were the senate, the consuls, the priesthood, all the Republican offices (Quaestor, Praetor, Aedile, etc.), as well as the class of equites, or knights. For most of its existence, these are the people who ruled the Republic. The populares, or plebeians, were everyone else (always excepting the slaves, who had no one to speak for them). The optimates did everything in their power to aggrandize their power at the expense of the populares. In fact, one of the reasons Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Senate in 44 BC was his policy of sharing power with the populares. The men who stabbed him were all Senators.
I am tempted to equate the optimates with Republicans, and the populares with Democrats. In fact, the situation was complicated by the inhabitants of the various provinces of the Republic—and these provinces began right outside the Rome city limits.