– By James Martin “The wild beasts of Italy have their caves to retire to, but the brave men who spill their blood in her cause have nothing left but air and light. Without houses, without settled habitations, they wander from place to place wit …
– By James Martin
“The wild beasts of Italy have their caves to retire to, but the brave men who spill their blood in her cause have nothing left but air and light. Without houses, without settled habitations, they wander from place to place with their wives and children” – Tiberius Gracchus, 133BC
I must admit, the historian in me got really excited when USi agreed to publish this post. For someone who studied History and Astrophysics it’s a rare indulgence to publish something that incorporates a passion for collectivism and classics. In this article I want to take you on a journey back through time (there’s the astrophysics done already!) and address a main issue, is the ‘eternal struggle’ really worth it?. I’m sure my classics inspiration, Mary Beard, should she be reading this (after the obligatory tweet I’m sure), will be thinking, “What the ‘futete’ am I on about?”
If you have got past the ramble and the casual Roman swearing, even if you have read even up to this point, I’m guessing that you too are wondering where I am going with this? It’s essential that I give some kind of background to my argument and how without understanding what has gone by, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes, the old clichés are the best aren’t they?
My reason for writing this in the first place is because I was recently at a briefing and was presented with various anecdotes from a learned comrade about the ‘legendary’ Spartacus – The slave-come-freedom fighter of the Roman era who battled against adversity to achieve, well, ultimate defeat. Oh the context was brilliant, the content academic, but like all things academic, Spartacus doesn’t make me ejaculate with socialistic joy. Yes, he is the tragic hero that Marx venerated, the Gladiator that gave Rome a bloody nose in the so called ‘Third Servile war’. A bloody nose that was wiped clean, Naseptin applied, and after a little lie down, little changed in the immediacy after his defeat.
Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly the story that we see on TV of this valiant hero? I admit though, we do see some comparisons in Star Wars, the valiant Luke Skywalker liberating the slaves of Jabba’s palace to fight the good fight and ultimately defeat the oppressive empire. If only Spartacus had done this. If only one of my heroes, which he is, had done this. You see the problem with history is, it’s written by people who survived. Those tainted by the influences of the ‘then’, what was acceptable afterwards, people who in their own way do not necessarily see the importance of the ‘eternal struggle’. Often because that struggle is something that the people (we now call them workers or working class – lets refresh that this includes the unemployed, the poor, those that need to work to survive) endure, whilst those who write our history books often know little of.
I digress. So, here I am, sat listening to the veneration of Spartacus and it dawns on me that any person that is anti-slavery is a hero (to me at least) and yet there is someone else, a Mary Seacole to our Florence Nightingale, that deserves our attention too, someone that we have allowed history to forget.
Here we go, big Latin name for you, its Tiberius Gracchus. You read the name, if not bored by history (which regrettably too many are it seems), you might be thinking, another bloody ‘Tiberius’ to remember. After all, there has been an emperor, countless classical figures and it’s even the sodding middle name of James Kirk from Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. In my view at least, the Tiberius I refer to, was the original Tony Benn. A person that, despite his elevation, wanted to fight for the working class of Rome, otherwise referred to as plebs, then as now it seems.
Before we continue, I want to establish certain posts and I also understand that I have generalised (Mary, if you are reading, I’m sure you will understand!) certain aspects of positions. I need here to explain what the ‘Tribune of the Plebs’ was. Essentially, It was nothing more than the Roman device of controlling workers, or stopping unrest, the Tribune convened the Plebeian council (established previously by a kind of Roman ‘Magna Carta’) In which the common citizen could have a say in the Roman Senate. That is, a say through the Tribune, who was of course of noble birth. Some things haven’t changed. We see this as a resurgence in modern times, increasingly our politicians often from a privileged background, the Eton of today was the colour purple back then. Senators (a stripe on a toga, a clavus), triumphant generals or the emperor wore purple; nobody else could – on pain of death. You knew your place, creatively by colour. The senate was, at the time I refer to, split between the Optimates (The Conservative faction) and the Populares (The populists and left). Don’t think of this as party politics, more that the Populares relied to a degree upon the power of the people’s assemblies and that theOptimates didn’t. Again, some things don’t change do they!
You have probably guessed by now that my Roman Mary Seacole, albeit not a nurse, was apart of the populares faction. In 133BC Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune of the People (Plebs), the workers politician – the MP for Rome, Aventine North. At this time, in theory at least (provoco ad populum), no law could be passed in the Roman Republic without the consent of the Tribune of the Plebs, often by use of a veto. With a role of such gravity, this meant that the Tribune not only stood for the ‘plebs’ but ensured their sacrosanct representation in the Senate. As you can imagine, this role was often used for personal gain in the name ‘of the people’, sometimes unfairly used a kind of ‘were all in this together, and therefore we are doing what we want to’ mantra of ancient times.
Before I continue though, let’s make no mistake in thinking that Gracchus was any Dennis Skinner. He was definitely a part of the senatorial and wealthy elite, albeit a lowly one. He served in the Third Punic war and with this understood the plight of Roman workers, who were soldiers, who in some respects like today, were mainly from backgrounds seeking a living income. After the Punic Wars concluded, many soldiers returned to Rome only to endure poverty and hardship, despite promises of a basic form of welfare by sharing the spoils of war. At the time, a law from 367BC stated that no Roman citizen could own more than around 125 hectares of land. In reality though, wealthy Romans, through creative accountancy and fictitious tenants, avoided this rule. It seems accountancy may actually be one of the oldest professions alongside prostitution. To make matters worse, whilst soldiers were away slaughtering and conquering (for however long a war was on), the families they left behind were often left bankrupt having to sell their land to the only people that could afford the land – the wealthy classes who bought up land at rock bottom prices. A little like the land grab we experienced by financial companies in the 2007 – present depression. To add insult to injury, only landowners could enlist in to the army (a main source of employment), given most soldiers were returning to Rome with no livelihood, their source of income had been cut off. The conservatives were reducing the state. Sound familiar?
Gracchus returned and on his appointment as Tribune, created a kind of ancient ‘Rowntree Commission’, to establish why it was land ownership laws (going back to 367BC) weren’t being enforced and the impact it had on the poor, establishing penalties for those breaking the law. He argued that newly conquered land be redistributed to the poor and his ‘Lex Sempronia Agraria’ was nothing other than the beginnings of a form of Socialism – Property being a form of robbery. Of course, just as it would be now, this was vehemently opposed by the ruling conservatives who immediately began to organise against Gracchus. Gracchus, in his defence of the plebs began to use his veto and ground the Roman political machine to a halt. Although, Gracchus’s commission, was ultimately awarded paltry funding to investigate breaches in the law and to establish some form of a ‘new deal’. It won’t come to anybody’s surprise that Gracchus was soon killed by conspiracy, along with many of his supporters, but not all of them. You see then like now, there were many more ‘plebs’ than there were Senators. Despite his death, his ideas ultimately prevailed and the senate began to enact his law after his passing.
I could go on, that the Optimates realised that the ‘99%’ were a force to be reckoned with…Julius Caesar later turns up…blah blah blah and a list of dates and emperors would continue. What started with a seat around a table that rightly in some regards venerated Spartacus, it made me realise that my hero ended in the exact same way. Dead. But his ideas didn’t die with him, they ultimately offered the idea that the people had a ‘public land’ an ‘ager publicus’, something that up until Enclosure or the Highland Clearances we took as a basic right. It’s in the idea that I want to close. You may, or if buried deep in a pit lower than where she should have ended up, know that Margaret Thatcher has recently passed. We see her (insipid) idea of neo-liberalism continue, in fact we see her veneration as some great statesperson, no doubt at a future date to end up on a bank note. Her ideas prevail with her Optimates supporters.
Yet it is with our ideas of collectivism, socialism and democracy that we can forge an alternative to this and its austere shadow. When we are on a march, demonstration or picket and may be stood near our more salubrious comrades wondering if ‘it’s going to amount to anything’ or whether ‘anything will change’, the answer is yes. Ideas, unlike armies, cannot be destroyed by a blade or subdued by any form of austerity, we enlighten those in need of hope with some vision of an alternative, of hope itself. Napoleon said, ‘A leader is a dealer of hope’.
So, the next time you hear the names Spartacus, Wat Tyler, John Lilburne, Annie Besant or even my hero Gracchus, I would ask that you think about the other people that stood with them. It’s not the martyrs that we should think of first, but our ancestors, those that survived to tell the tale of those martyrs. In reality, the fact you are reading this means that you were descended from those that survived to tell the tale and that tale is our history. People can write in the history books whatever they like; I just hope it doesn’t take 2,100 years for somebody to tell our tale.
“History ought never to be confused with nostalgia. It’s written not to revere the dead, but to inspire the living. It’s our cultural bloodstream – the secret of who we are – and it tells us to let go of the past, even as we honour it; to lament what ought to be lamented, to celebrate what should be celebrated.” – Simon Schama
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