Skip to Content

Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

In this election there is one stupendous problem towering over all parties’ ambitions — debt. They all pretend it can be solved painlessly, but know they cannot tell the truth about it. Romans would have known where to start.

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

In this election there is one stupendous problem towering over all parties’ ambitions — debt. They all pretend it can be solved painlessly, but know they cannot tell the truth about it. Romans would have known where to start.

In this election there is one stupendous problem towering over all parties’ ambitions — debt. They all pretend it can be solved painlessly, but know they cannot tell the truth about it. Romans would have known where to start.


Romans made a point of emphasising that Senate and People stood together. Not for nothing was the famous SPQR logo Senatus Populus Que Romanus highlighted on coins, documents, monuments and the standards of Roman legions. It reflected the popular ideology that the interests of the one were co-terminous with those of the other. It is significant that neither Labour nor Tories seem to think in these terms: with both, the rhetoric is ‘We will tell you what you can and cannot do.’

The result was that in the assemblies in Rome where the big issues were debated in front of the People (though not voted on; that was a separate procedure), the speakers had no ideological clubs with which to belabour one another. This was the People’s forum, and however grand or wealthy a politician was, he had no option but to proclaim himself to be on the People’s side. As Cicero points out, the assembly is a stage on which you must prove that you are the ‘statesman who is reliable, truthful and honest’. So however much of a toff a senator might actually be, however much in favour of senatorial control, the only question he faced was: how could he persuade the People that he and not his opponent was their true, eternal friend?

Amid all the other rhetorical devices, two stand out. One is that you alone are the man who understands the nexus of reciprocal obligations that binds People and Senate together; that, in return for the trust they have reposed in you, the People can be confident you will serve them without fear or favour.

The other is invidia — the capacity to raise in your audience a concentrated fury at the evils that your opponent has visited, and will continue to visit, on People and Senate if his proposals are accepted. Here there were no holds barred. When Gaius Memmius in 111 bc determined to expose dodgy senatorial deals with the African king Jugurtha, he laid into senators with volcanic ferocity, branding them blood-stained criminals, plunderers, extortionists and tyrants, wrecking their own authority and reducing the People to slavery. Sounds good to me.


Show comments
Close