How Did Forum Violence Of The Period

58-50Bc Fit Into The Political System? Essay, Research Paper

In modern works on late Republican Rome, the 50’s BC are characterised as an age of street gangs, massacres and rampant political violence. Scholars see the battles between Clodius, Milo and Sestius in 57, the electoral and legislative tumults of 55 and the unceasing gang warfare of 53; they read the lurid accounts of Cicero, depicting the sewers clogged with corpses, people feigning death under piles of bodies, and the streets having to be swabbed clean of blood (Pro Sest. 76-77).1 This attitude is somewhat justified: as I will endeavour to demonstrate, the period 58-50 was marked by the use of violence for political ends. However, this general description must be qualified in several ways. The personages of P. Clodius Pulcher and T. Annius Milo dominated the scene; their all consuming feud produced most of the more excessively violent activities. Also, as has been shown in several recent works,2 the political violence of the era was a part of the normal methods of public politics. Lastly, it can be argued that although violence may have been more common during the Ciceronian era, it was more restrained than earlier: one need only think of the massacres of the Gracchi and their followers, the lynchings of Saturninus and Asellio, or the mutual rampages of Cinna and Octavius in 87, to see the extremities of violence in pre-Sullan days.

Roman public life was transacted largely in the Forum and its immediate surrounds. The only major political activity not conducted here was the centuriate assembly, which by the late Republic meant the curule elections. Everything else was in the Forum Romanum, and as such, the topography of Forum is of great importance in understanding the use made of it.3 The most important structure was the speaker’s platform, or rostra,4 facing out from the Comitium into the body of the Forum. It is also important to remember that trials took place generally in the lower Forum, and that meetings of the Senate (and access to and from it) took place in this atmosphere; we know that the Senate could easily hear popular expressions from outside.5 One major consequence of this concentration in the Forum was the ideology of publicity that pervaded political life: all measures had to be carried out with the involvement of the People6 and under their scrutiny. Throughout the late Republic the merits of each candidate or legislative proposal were expressed to the People through the medium of contiones, while trials were held surrounded by a corona of spectators. Even meetings of the Senate, the one political activity conducted indoors, were made known to the People through the practice of open-door sessions, through the reports at contiones of interested magistrates, and in our period by the records of senatorial proceedings established by Caesar as consul. This political system required personal presence in order to participate; the legal importance of physical action is shown to extremes by the absurd interplay between Metellus Nepos, Thermus and Cato in 62 (Plut. Cato min. 28.1)

Political violence was a common phenomenon during our period, centred around attempts to control the political activities in the Forum. The main activities of this sort were contiones (public meetings), comitia (voting assemblies) and trials. Most violence arose out of attempts to influence the outcome of these events. We can gain some insight into the actual techniques of violence if we look at the laws made to contain it, specifically the lex Plautia de vi. This measure targeted, amongst others, attempts to intimidate the Senate, or to seize or burn public buildings, or to disrupt courts, or to stockpile or carry offensive weapons in public.7 The comprehensive nature of the crimes shows that when this law was passed (probably the late 70’s or early 60’s) political violence had already reached a paramilitary level, with tactically significant targets. It also suggests, however, that intimidation was a much more common purpose than actual violence. Indeed, even Cicero, who unceasingly attacked his opponents92 brutality, admits that in contiones it is “seldom that acts of violence are resorted to” (Cic. Pro Sest. 77)

The most important and common arena for political violence was in the contio. Contiones were held in the Forum, with magistrates speaking from the Rostra. They had the general function of the being an arena where magistrates or other politicians could communicate with the people directly. As such, contiones could be used in many ways. A magistrate could report on senatorial proceedings, or could summon a prominent individual to speak on a given issue (the word is productus), or could propose bills. More commonly however, were speeches for or against proposed measures in the twenty-four day period (trinum nundinum) required by law between the proposing of a bill and the voting on it, or more general speeches on the state of politics. In such circumstances violence could take many forms. There is the example of Clodius speaking to the People on behalf of Pompey and a scuffle outside the Curia (Dio 39.27.3-29.3), or of the speeches arousing the People after Clodius92 death (Asc. 31-33; 42-43). These were instances of the speaker inciting the crowd to attack a specific target. There were other instances of contiones being disrupted from outside by an armed attack, as with an attack on Clodius and his supporters in 57 (Plut. Cic.33.3). In such circumstances, the contio could serve as just another outlet for the personal gang warfare of 57, but it also served a deeper purpose: as the only way in which the people could be communicated with,8 the contio was vital in political manoeuvring and reputation.

Constitutionally, laws could only be passed by the People, and in the late Republic that meant the tribal assemblies (comitia tributa and concilium plebis).9 These took place in the Forum, having moved into the general open space from the Comitium in the mid-second century. The technical procedures are very important in light of the attempts made to frustrate them, and so they should be looked at briefly.10 Any contio was transformed into a comitia when the presiding magistrate instructed the citizens to divide into their tribes. When the auspices had been confirmed, the tribes lined up to vote one by one. The actual process of voting was carried out over a wooden platform (pons) which was attached to the front of the Rostra. The citizen walked up one side, took a wooden ballot, inscribed his voted (V for yes and A for no), deposited it in the basket (cista) and walked down the other side. The tribal vote was counted and announced after each tribe had voted, and when a majority had been reached, the result was announced and the assembly dissolved. The comitia were prime targets for obstruction, much of which, in our period, was violent. Legally, an assembly could be dissolved by a tribunician veto at any point before voting commenced, or a religious impediment (obnuntatio) could be lodge by a magistrate or augur.11 However, if these could be frustrated, there was recourse to violence, such as was used in an attempt to prevent Cicero’s recall (Cic. Pro Sest. 75-78) or, in an example which highlights the uses made of the technicalities of voting, the incident during the Bona Dea scandal where Clodius92 gangs occupied the pontes and distributed only “No” votes (Cic. Ad Att. 1.14.5). Another example was with the violence over the lex Trebonia of 55 (Dio 39.32.3-36.2). Alternatively, violence could be used to intimidate voters and opponents into securing favourable passage for a bill, such as that by Manilius in 66 (Asc. 45 and 65).12

The third major occasion for violence was during trials, which were held in the lower Forum. In Republican Rome, trials took place in public, with a corona of spectators who were as often addressed as the jury; their reactions normally had as big an effect on the outcome as any other factor. This should be seen in the traditions of popular justice which had existed through most of Roman history and which was exhibited in our period through the exile of Cicero. Some violence at trials arose from this tradition: when someone guilty in the eyes of the plebs was acquitted, or when a popular champion was prosecuted (e.g. Cornelius in 66; see Asc. 59-60). However, most violence was directed by politicians. For any defendant, the stakes were very high: their political survival depended on them not being convicted, and there are many cases of the friends of defendants breaking up a court with armed bands (e.g. trials of Manilius: Asc. 60; of Autronius: Cic. Pro Sulla 15, 71; of Clodius in 61: Cic. Ad Att. 1.16.4-5; of Vatinius: Cic. Pro Vat. 33-34; Pro Sest. 135). This also could be turned the other way: at the trial of Milo in 52, the consul Pompey ringed the court with soldiers to intimidate the defence (Cic. Pro Mil. 1-3; Asc. 38, 42; Dio 40.54.2; Plut. Cic. 35.2-4).

Of course not all Forum violence took place at contiones, comitia or trials. Particularly prominent as violent incidents were Clodius’ protests against Cicero’s recall, and the counter-violence organised by Milo and Sestius. Much of the violence in this case took place in the Forum and surrounding streets without involving meetings. These included attacks on the houses of Caecilius Rufus (Cic. Mil. 38), Cicero (Cic. Ad Att. 4.3.2; Pro Cael. 78), and Milo (Cic. Ad Att. 4.3.3) and various food riots (Cic. Ad Att. 4.1.6-7; Asc. 48). Another common scenario was battles between the escorts of rival politicians or candidates, such as Clodius attacking Cicero in 57 (Cic. Ad Att. 4.3.3) and between Milo and Hypsaeus in 53 (Asc. 48). The most famous of such incidents was Milo’s murder of Clodius on 20 January 52, outside Bovillae. These particular incidents show the great enmity between Clodius and Milo and how this could erupt into extreme violence between them or between supporters and attendants of theirs. Clashes between rival candidates had a long history, but never reached the heights of violence that they did in 53.

Roman politicians went everywhere in public surrounded by this escort (comitatus). This served mainly a display role, to show to the rest of the world the magnificence and wealth of the personage. However, by the 50’s BC it was becoming necessary as a bodyguard as well: in the aforementioned clash between Clodius and Cicero on the Via Sacra in 57, Cicero was saved by the bravery of his retinue. Yet who comprised this escort? For most politicians the answer would be mainly clients and armed slaves, much the same groups as had always comprised the comitatus of politicians.13 These politicians had little interest in prosecuting violence and were probably not targets for opposition. However, some politicians, particularly candidates for high office, those involved in a violent inimicitia, or those interested in prosecuting violence, would beef up their forces considerably. The obvious group useful here would be gladiators, and indeed they seem to be prominent in various fracas during the 50’s.14 Gladiators could be bought or hired, but were more readily bought; they seem ideally suited to have been used as armed troops. A more interesting pool of recruits is that known as “assassins” (sicarii), who probably made their living by violent crime;15 organised into gangs (operae) under leaders (duces operarum), they were very useful in violent strife. Apart from those candidates or targets such as Appius Claudius or Scaurus, or enterprising magistrates such as Sestius or Gabinius, the most consistent employer of such groups would almost certainly have been Milo: we hear of no great plebeian support for him.

Many magistrates could, by speaking from the Rostra and proposing popular measures or in other ways taking advantage of popular sentiment, incite the crowds at contiones. There are some instances of this, largely in relation to corn shortages, although the crowd also responded to deaths of prominent people (or their relatives) or events in the theatre. In these instances, the deliberate organisation of violence was less important: magistrates could point out scapegoats for the perceived wrong and incite a more independent crowd to action. Particular cases in point are the various food riots of 57 and 56, the death of Julia in 54, and the riots after the death of Clodius. Vanderbroeck identifies this group, the group which took part in public politics, as the plebs contionalis.16 This group was comprised mainly of the artisans and shopkeepers, the tabernarii of Republican Rome. Most important in the streets around the Forum (where the most prestigious trades were located), these groups were the backbone of the collegia. How they were viewed by the elite is difficult to see: they are routinely castigated by Cicero as slaves (meaning freedmen), but are described in the Commentariolum Petitionis as “energetic city folk”.

It was precisely this group, the tabernarii, that provided the main basis of Clodius92 support. Even before his adoption and tribunate, P. Clodius had been active amongst the People, and was involved in the machinery of running the assemblies.17 This concern with the political work of the plebs carried over into his tribunate of 58, where by means of a series of popular measures, he built up a large political following among the plebs contionalis. This might have been expected to disappear when he left office, as other political followings did. However, to some extent (although not totally), Clodius was able to retain this political support while no longer a magistrate, becoming in sociological terms an “informal” leader.18 He was able to do this through the close contacts he had made with the plebeian organisations, particularly the collegia, and more generally through promotion of their interests. The support given to Clodius by these organisations of the plebs (particularly their leadership, who are characterised in the Commentariolum Petitionis as very electorally important) gave him large resources for use in political life: Cicero attests that when Clodius wanted a good turn-out at the comitia he ordered the shops (tabernae) to be shut (Dom. 89-90). However, when these artisans and shopkeepers came up against Milo’s gladiators and hoodlums in 57, they were generally beaten, and had to be supplemented. When he met his death, Clodius was surrounded by thirty armed slaves (Asc. 31), and had probably kept a permanent bodyguard of such sort around him from 57, given the enmity between him and Milo. Clodius was unique in Roman political life through his enduring contact with the collegia, which gave him a strong control over the Forum. The extent of the support of the plebs contionalis for Clodius (who had continually championed their interests) is shown by their reaction to his death, with widespread rioting and the cremation of his body in the Curia.

The extreme violence which had its most dramatic expression in the arson of the Curia in 52 is held to be characteristic of Roman politics in the 50’s.19 But the violence of our period was in general more restrained than that of (for example) Cinna and Octavius or the opponents of Gaius Gracchus. According to Vanderbroeck’s statistical analysis, in 58-50 there were only eight violent incidents at which people were probably killed.20 Most of these were confined to the all-consuming feud between Clodius and Milo from 57 onwards; four of these incidents directly concerned that feud.21 Most violence was restricted to symbolic acts (such as the breaking of fasces) or to wounding (especially by stoning), and the principal source, Cicero, admits privately that he exaggerated violence in his speeches (Ad Att. 1.14.3). The supreme importance of Clodius and Milo in our picture of the 50’s as a violent age is made clear by one fact: Vanderbroeck records only two acts of popular violence in the two and a half years between the exile of Milo and the crossing of the Rubicon.22

The characteristic gang warfare of the 50’s, the actions which saw the suspension of public business for months on end in 57, the electoral farces of 53, and the creation of Pompey’s sole consulship in 52 – all of this virtually ended with Milo’s conviction de vi. Although it caused extensive disruption in the body politic, and was viewed with uneasiness by many senators,23 this violence was a natural extension of Roman political culture; it “did not present a challenge to the state’s authority.”24 The agents of violence combined an interest in the political uses of the People with a more real appreciation of their sovereignty that grew out of the struggles of pre-Sullan days. Violence in the 50’s BC betrayed an emphasis on organisation and was directed by politicians for political ends. The feud between Clodius and Milo sent it further along this road, but the more extreme violence died with them in 52 BC.


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