Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Beware the Optimates!

After nearly four centuries of Republican government, Rome began its century-long descent toward tyranny1 beginning about 133 BC with the murder of the Gracchus brothers.2 Perhaps the chief facilitator of that descent was the conservative/traditionalist group of elites in the Roman Senate—a group that came to be dubbed the optimates (“the best”).3 They claimed to be defending and preserving the “old values,” yet their tactics were chiefly to preserve their own interests and the status quo of wealth and power. Is there any equivalency in our day to these optimates and their tactics? Any déjà vu?

The optimates:
▪ supported the aristocracy of wealth and power
▪ blocked the wishes of others groups
▪ labeled their opponents “demagogues”
▪ resorted to violence on an increasing scale
▪ used the backing of the aristocracy and the senate to achieve personal goals (via rampant corruption)
▪ opposed the extension of Roman citizenship,
▪ sought (or claimed to) the preservation of the mos maiorum, the ways of their forefathers.
▪ called themselves “liberators”
▪ published lists of those they considered enemies of the state and legislated “open season” on them4
Their opponents, the populares, had their own hypocrisies and in the end, the struggle between the optimates and the populares was “more about power than the public good” because, despite seductive words, no one was seeking the true interests of the Republic or of the people. The ploy, by both factions, was to gain support and votes while holding onto (or gaining new) wealth and power.5

“What happened to the Roman Republic?” is summarized by a Great Courses scholar6 and set forth, in part, as follows:
▪ Power, influence, and unimaginable wealth [often from vast plunder] could be won in the empire and deployed in Rome with no checks by the traditional system.
▪ People became inured to violence and quite willing to use it against fellow citizens.
▪ Disruptions in the countryside led to countless numbers of landless, rootless people who felt no sense of commitment to any old-fashioned values.7
Why can we not see how little has changed in 2000 years?—how we have our own collectivized aristocracy (corporatocracy) intent on preserving their own interests with the support and rhetoric of our optimates; how corrupted our politics has become by wealth and power; how insular and prone to violence our optimates are in their speech and imagery; how suckered we are by words?

Will we ever learn?

1. Tyranny can sometimes be benevolent, and Rome experienced several benevolent emperors, but many of the gains of the Republic were lost in the descent from the “rule of law” to “rule by emperor.”
2. See “The Foundations of Western Civilization,” Lecture 20, Rome—From Republic to Empire, taught by Professor Thomas F.X. Noble, The Great Courses: The Teaching Company © 2002. See pp. 83-86 of the accompanying Course Guidebook.
4. During Sulla’s reign “Any man whose name appeared on the list was ipso facto stripped of his citizenship and excluded from all protection under law; reward money was given to any informer who gave information leading to the death of a proscribed man and any person who killed a proscribed man was entitled to keep part of his estate (the remainder went to the state). No person could inherit money or property from the proscribed men, nor could any woman married to a proscribed man remarry after his death. Many victims of proscription were decapitated and their heads were displayed on spears in the Forum.” See “Proscription of 82 BC” and “Proscription of 43 BC” at
6. See footnote 2 above.
7. Like “Do unto others …”, honesty, integrity, generosity, compassion, etc.
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