- Series: Sather Classical Lectures (Book 22)
- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: University of California Press (August 1, 1961)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0520012577
- ISBN-13: 978-0520012578
- Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,398,693 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Party Politics in the Age of Cæsar (Sather Classical Lectures)
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From the Back Cover
The advice given to Cicero by his astute, campaign-conscious brother to prepare him for the consular elections of 64 B.C., has a curiously modern ring: "Avoid taking a definite stand on great public issues either in the Senate or before the people. Bend your energies towards making friends of key-men in all classes of voters". On this text Professor Taylor's book is a shrewd commentary, designed to clarify the true meaning in Roman political life of such terms as "party" and "faction", so like our own to the eye but actually so different. Political parties with programs in our sense were unknown at Rome, the nearest approach being aggregations of "friends" for personal advancement in politics or finance. The mechanics of Roman politics are explained in detail - the relations of nobles and their clients, the manipulation of the state religion (always regarded in the best Roman theory as a political agency), and the practical issue of delivering the vote as and when wanted.
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The late Lily Ross Taylor in splendid easy to read prose has beautifully articulated all the facets of political life at the time of Julius Caesar. The relations of nobles to clients, the manipulation of the state religion for political purpose (for religion and lawmaking were inseparable), how Romans voted + how to get the vote in your favour and the way the various institutions/magistracies worked (or rather - were supposed to work). Finally the concept that Roman politics was not so much about "party" systems (for none existed) but forming/aligning oneself with "a loose aggregation of like minded associates or friends" to get your way.
All the great names of the era and their roles and interactions are covered in painstaking detail. So many gems are uncovered. An example being the chapter "Cato and the Populares":Caesars battle with Cato. Seeking to bring Caesar to justice for in 58 BC for perceived disregard for state protocols/and irregularities with Treasury monies during his time as Consul, Caesar manipulates the Tribunate to honor Cato with a posting to Cyprus to govern a newly aquired province following the nonsensical dismissal of a King whose only "crime" was failing to pay his bribes to the right people quick enough (the Triumvirs). Cato accepts due to his unbreakable commitment to do as the state wants (though he is livid at the ruse) and Caesar staves off another threat. The book is just full of such accounts among protagonists and makes for page turning fare if you are a true Romanofile.
By the time you have combed your way through this fascinating work, you will be in awe as to how anyone ever got anything worthwhile done or legislated. Anarchy, bi-partisan politics, violence, abuse of office, petty jealousy, murder, bribing, backstabbing, frontstabbing, use of marriage and divorce to improve career prospects - its all covered. By the end of the book you are left in no doubt as to why two civil wars followed and Emperor rule was established and the old Republic deserved the thumbs down. The worst modern democracy on a bad day was tame compared to this.
Taylor stresses that we cannot think of modern political parties when studying the fall of the Republic. The parties were not between the patricians and the plebeians as in the early Republic, she says. Nor was it a struggle between conservative and liberal forces in the polity, although the contest often took on that form for personal reasons. The author argues that the struggles that brought about the parties were over competition between the nobles for political advancement. The resulting "parties" were in actuality alliances based on friendship and family obligations. Taylor emphasizes how personal the entire system was. She compares gaining office in the late Republic to winning an American major political party nomination at a convention (note: Taylor was writing in the 1940s when Democrats and Republicans still picked their presidential candidates in back room wheeling-and-dealing). The world of nineteenth and twentieth century American political "bosses" and "machines" would thus be very familiar to Cicero and his colleagues. As the hunt for securing the spoils of empire intensified, Taylor writes, these alliances of friendship began to harden and take on a semi-permanent nature.
Taylor blames nineteenth century historian Theodor Mommsen with promoting the myth that the struggle between optimates and populares was one pitting a senatorial party against a popular democratic party. She argues that the optimates/populares conflict was an internal struggle in the noble class aimed at their own personal gain and was not at all about any notions of democracy. She maintains that the populares were, on the whole, frustrated lower level nobles who were cut out of the major spoils of empire by the older, more prestigious families. It was at the people's expense that the populares manipulated the masses to circumvent the powerful grip of a faction of high noble families in command of the powerful Senate. In theory, their differences were based on policy, but in reality, Taylor argues, is was only a difference in political means at achieving identical ends.
The Roman nobility has often been compared to the British ruling class in the way they dominated government. Taylor, however, suggests that by comparison the British were much more open to new blood outside the traditional families than the Romans. Indeed, in the last 150 years of the Republic only 10 "new men" (i.e. men without Senatorial lineage in their family) rose to the consulship, and only one man did it in the last half century (93-48 BC) -- and that was Cicero. She writes that the closed political system of Republican Rome is more analogous to the ossified patriarchate of the Republic of Venice than any modern system.
Perhaps the most fascinating and illuminating section of this book, at least for me, is Taylor's detailed accounting of the step ladder political game that Roman aristocrats competed in. The path to power and success was clear and to a certain extent regimented: early education consisted of history and especially public speaking; then military service began at age 17, often as a military tribune; around 20 years-old he would begin to appear in the Forum to make small speeches for his family; at 30 he would be elected quaestor, which assured membership in the Senate; after the one year term as quaestor, there was a mandatory 9 year break before he could run for praetor, during which time he would likely serve as a legate of a governor in command of some province to gain further military experience and might also run for the optional office aedlie as a way to curry favor with the masses by throwing lavish public festivals and games at personal expense; by age 39 or 40, if all had been going smoothly, he would secure one of the 8 praetorships; after that it was back to the field in a headlong rush for military glory and riches all so that he could achieve the dream of all young nobles, to be elected consul in "his year" (i.e. age 43, the minimum age for holding that office). The stakes were high and the competition intense, especially as there were only two consulships elected every year, one each reserved for noble families from the patricians and plebeians. This political cycle consumed nearly all the energy of the leading families, as they were either in the race themselves or looking to secure advancement for a son or son-in-law. It was literally what life revolved around for the several dozen families that ruled the Republic.
Both sides in the ensuing civil war claimed to be fighting to preserve the old Republic. Caesar was striving to save it from the tyranny of the oligarchy; Cato from the tyranny of the demagogic despot. Despite the high flown rhetoric, Taylor says, both sides were drawn by personal loyalty and interest, not ideology. All would agree that austerity, justice and honor were the guiding principles of the Republic, but no one represented that ideal better than Cato who, both in life and in death, exemplified what all nobles held to be truly Roman.
After the civil war and Caesar's murder, Augustus ascended to absolute power, instituting a Nazi-like regime, according to Taylor, but carefully cloaked in the spirit and words of his uncle's archenemy, Cato. The great Republican's legacy flourished while Caesar's wilted. He came to represent liberty and virtue, the highest ideals of the Republic. There was never a party of Cato, the author says, but rather a cult of Cato, and it had no opposition.
Taylor explains how Roman society was set up, how the various classes and groups of Roman society manifested themselves in politics, how the election cycle/balance of power sorted things out, and how politicians kept busy Monday-Friday, 8-5.
Taylor offers the same level of detail on Roman Republican politics that you would get on American politics following major news outlets in an election season. He explains how Roman electoral districts were arranged and how that set up affected nominating processes and political strategies. He also walks through a typical campaign for an elected office.
Taylor discusses how social and economic trends affected politics, too. For example, Rome's 34 electoral districts (similar to America's US House districts) were originally full of small-land-owning citizens in the vicinity of Rome. But, over the centuries, the farm land around Rome consolidated into large plantations, so the land-owning citizens registered in the 34 districts shrank in number and were mostly the rich nobility. Towards the end of the Roman Republic, the urban district with a gazillion people carried as much weight as the rural district with one giant plantation.
If you're looking for that level of detail, I recommend this book. If you're looking for even more detail, like analysis of a particular issue in a particular election, I do not recommend this book.