In 379 C.E., during the late period of the Roman Empire, long after the forms of the Roman Republic had been drained of content, Ausonius, of Bordeaux wrote a letter of thanks to the emperor Gratian, who himself was not from the City of Rome but was from Pannonia. (At this point in imperial history the actual political connection to Rome was quite tenuous, which makes Ausonius' detailed knowledge of Roman history even more interesting.) The letter was occasioned by Ausonius' appointment to the position of consul, the most important elected position in the long dead Roman Republic. Ausonius is listing all of the tribulations he has been spared by emperor Gratian's appointment of Ausonius as Consul.
"For my part, as consul by your gift, Imperator Augustus, I have not had to endure the Saepta [the wooden ramps also known as the "sheepfold" where voters lined up to vote - JM] or the Campus [the place where voting took place - JM], or the voting, or the points [recording the votes], or the ballot boxes. I have not had to press people's hands, nor, confused by the rush of persons greeting me, have I failed to reply with their right names to my friends or given them the wrong ones. I have not gone round the tribus, or flattered the centuriae or had to tremble when the classes were called [to vote]. I have not made any deposit with a trustee or agreed anything with a diribitor. The populus Romanus, the Martius Campus, theequestor ordo, the Rostra, the "sheepfold" [the Saepta], the Senate, the Curia - for me, Gratian alone, was all these things." (Quoted in Fergus Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic.))
But why should this matter? Why should the memory of the Republican campaign season weigh so heavily for Ausonius? Why is Ausonius so relieved that he does not have to bear the burden of the toga candida, (the specially whitened toga worn by those who sought office in Republican Rome)? Was it simply that Ausonius was grateful that his appointment as consul did not come at the expense of running for office? Is it possible that Ausonius was simply relieved that his promotion to the honored office of Consul, was not a hardship on his pocketbook and a diversion of his time? This I suppose is reason enough to be grateful to emperor Gratian. Yet this letter also functions as flattery and praise, which brings further puzzling questions. Why would Ausonius believe that Gratian would read such a letter as flattery of himself and praise for the office of emperor? Why was the basic fact that the Roman multitude no longer selected the person to fill the office of consul considered worthy of praise at this late date? Why was the fact that such offices were within the gift of the Emperor considered an attribute of imperial worthy of flattery in and of itself? Why was it even worth mentioning the Republican politics of the multitude at such a distance of time and place from Republican Rome?
The Republic had been dead for more than 400 years. It was no longer necessary to campaign for elective office; yet the memory of Republican forms of the city-state was both dream and nightmare for the officials and people of the Empire. And this was not only true for elite and multitude inside the Roman walls but for all those who were Roman citizens in the empire. The newly appointed consul Ausonius and the emperor Gratian were of course Roman citizens, but neither considered the city of Rome their home. In this little excerpt Ausonius demonstrates an easy knowledge of what campaigning for consul was like under the Republic. The memory of these electoral campaigns were not only dead forms they were important to the historical justification of imperial rule. The emperor himself was identified with the sovereignty of the Roman people and at the same time the sovereignty of the Roman people was a living fear that made the rule of the emperor a lesser evil. Gratian alone was for Ausonius all that the sovereignty of the Roman populus had been for Cicero. This is not an unmixed blessing when one realizes that the Roman populous not only elected Cicero consul but also exiled him from Rome after "the mob" burnt down his house and erected a temple in its place. Yes, Gratian the Emperor, was not only meant to take the place of the Roman Populous but was also meant to take power from the Roman multitude.
It was the very memory of those Republican forms and the Emperor's symbolic assumption of the role of the Roman populous, his identification as the "father" of all Roman citizens, that kept alive the Ideal, both the memory of the Republic and the authority of the emperor.
Rome before the Caesars had been a city-state, with the Republican forms that worked best when the ruling elite as a whole had cross-social connections to the multitude as a whole. . Yet by the time of the Late Republic the city of Rome carried a population of a million people, and Roman citizenship had been extended to include people from the whole Italian peninsula. Further, Rome had extended its dominion over the whole the Mediterranean basin and more. This meant that the political forms that were developed to emphasize the face-to-face politics of a medium size city state were the very forms that of a political the size of a modern nation-state, with a dominion over a large empire. The city-state politics of social struggle between mass and elite and factional struggle within the elite could determine the course of a substantial empire.
The ruling classes of the whole empire considered the multitude of the City of Rome no more than a monstrous mob, a bunch of wild animals that needed to be placated and controlled. . The mass politics of a large metropolis was something new in human history and had never been encountered before. It was feared and not understood in much depth, except by a few politicians among them perhaps Publius Clodius and Julius Caesar. The mass mob of Rome was feared and yet it could seemingly determine the fate of the whole empire. The dominions of Rome looked at the triumph of a single Imperator, an individual man with a monopoly of imperium and a wealth of auctoritas , as a relief from the constant instability of civil war. The Roman oligarchs looked at the dominance of a single Imperator as a protection from the mass politics that had swept Rome and had upset their privileges since the time of the Gracchi. And at least, at first, the multitude of the Roman city looked at Julius Caesar and later Marcus Antonius as protectors of their rights and a representative of their interests.
One of my conclusions from my study of the Roman Republic and of its historical memory during the imperial period is the following: The lingering memory of Roman Republican electoral politics, the identification of the Roman multitude with the Emperor, acted as justification for imperial sovereignty and warning against the loss of such sovereignty.
My very limited point is to account for a certain kind of historical memory, i.e. the way the political tribulations of the Roman Republic, and especially the politics of the urban mass, seemed so important to the Emperor and literate elite groups. It does seem strange indeed that political leaders who had little living connection to the city of Rome as such, and no connection to mass Republican politics at all, should constantly use it as a counter-example to their own means of leadership.
Of course the historical memory of politics under the Roman Republic was not the only justification for imperial rule. In my view, probably only Augustus himself reconstructed Republican ideology as the main prop to justify the complete dominance of the first man, the system of the principate. Ironically he also turned enemies of Julius Caesar, such as Cato, into plaster saints -- to use an anachronism...
Yes, the rise of Christianity changed much of the justification for political dominance and sovereignty... but I would argue that the significant change occurred much earlier and that Christianity itself was an opportunistic and contingent graft onto ideas of the prince's rule by divine dispensation. It is a pagan notion, after all, that the leader is in some way divine. Lily Ross Taylor in her philological monograph traces the idea of the divinity of the Roman Emperor quite well and I generally think that her work still holds up. I think that it was the rulers themselves who grafted the notions of gratia Deo, onto Christianity. Earlier, when Christianity was not much more than a very weird cult, the main conflict between the Emperor and the followers of Christ was that they refused to swear loyalty to the emperor because they thought such swearing of loyalty was a concession to his divinity.... The notion of gratia Deo was a very interesting way to turn all of this inside out.
23 Jan. 2006
New York City
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