Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Roman Republic

Trying to sort through the chaotic maze of institutions that formed the Roman Republic up to its end with the civil war following Caesar's assassination, is not a task I  am finding easy.  Not only are there strange offices and institutions like the Centurial Assembly, the Tribal Assembly, the powerful Senate, tribunes, consules, procounsuls, censors, praetors, quaesters, aediles, patricians, equites and plebs, but all of these categories evolved and changed though the centuries in an ever-changing panorama of power politics. 

I am going through this self-imposed agony in order to unravel an historical question that I find keeps recurring every generation: that is, with regard to Julius Caesar, was he a good guy who cared for and sided with the common people against the autocracy of the Senators and aristocrats, or was he a bad guy who trampled the democratic traditions of the Republic in his quest for absolute power?  To answer such a question, of course one has to examine the nature of this supposed Republic and see how it functioned, both in theory and in real life.  Then one has to look at the period just previous to Caesar's career, for instance at the disturbances that occurred around the governance of the Gracchus brothers, and then the lives of Gaius Marius, Caesar's uncle, and seven-times consul,  who opposed the conservative faction, and finally Lucius Sulla, from whose name we get the word sullied, who reestablished in a bloodthirsty manner the authority of the aristocrats.  Not that Marius set a very good example himself in the way he treated suspected enemies. 

But as one can see, just to get a grip on the basic reality on the ground on which Caesar strode, one has to digest a lot of material and then try to make sense of it all, and decide which sources are more reliable than others, and which are useful as long as one takes into consideration that person's bias.   Anyway, this is the point at which I find myself, deeply immersed in the minutiae of a vast assembly of historical facts and fictions, not able to see any patterns or themes yet, much less make any evaluation of the main question.   But it is a worthwhile exercise, I believe, as this particular period in Western history has had many ramifications in later times, and so, to understand it gives one the ability to understand certain trends or ideologies that have shaped our own lives. 

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