In the current political climate, an interest in how oligarchies function seems like a reasonable academic pursuit. Chapters 5 and 6 of Syme’s The Roman Revolution unpacked the Caesarean Party and Caesar’s Senate respectively.
Chapter 6 starts with an insightful (and oddly contemporary) piece of political theory:
“When a party seizes control of the Commonwealth it cannot take from the the bitter and barren vanquished consolation of defaming the members of the new government. The most intemperate allegations thrown about by malignant contemporaries are repeated by credulous posterity and consecrated among the uncontested memorials of history.”
Syme then goes on to describe in his typical laconic and incisive style the “ghastly and disgusting rabble” who made up Caesar’s new Senators. This included “centurions and soldiers, scribes and sons of freedmen.” These men were known for their loyalty rather than any claim to membership among the ruling elite of Rome. Caesar also elevated “men from the provinces.” It is important to appreciate Syme’s irony here, and it’s helpful to remember that Syme himself hailed from Eltham, New Zealand. Despite the Syme’s playful critique of the new Senator’s character, “their proportion must have been tiny in an assembly that now numbered about nine hundred members.” And warns agains the “incautious acceptance of partisan opinions about the origin and social status of Caesar’s nominees.” We probably shouldn’t take too seriously that “Cicero shuddered to think that he would have to sit in the Senate in the sight and presence of the rehabilitated Gabinius.” And Syme pokes him “he could now see beside him a great company of bankers and financiers, the cream and pride of the equestrian order, old friends, loyal associates or grateful clients.”
Many of the Senators who appear to have unconventional origins may have entered the Senate after the Sullan proscriptions especially the descendants of Roman knights.
Caesar did recruit from the elite of Italy and perhaps was responsible for the final closing of the wounds exacerbated by the Social War. Caesar’s association with the memory of the Marian faction and his triumphs over the Gauls won him respect among the Italian cities which he rewarded with seats in the expanded Senate.
The better known receive biographies in Syme’s vivid style:
“Most famous of all was P. Ventidius, the army contractor. All posterity knows Ventidius as a muleteer. His career was laborious, but his origin may have been reputable. History has record of a family of Ventidii, municipal magistrates at Auximum, enemies of the Pompeii. When the young Pompeius raised his private army, he had to expel the Ventidii from that city”
Despite these new members of the Senate, Syme reminds us that Caesar continued to advance the interest of the traditional Roman nobiles by naming them consuls and arranging for magistracies. As a result, they did not oppose Caesar even after the Ides of March and some, like M. Antonius and M. Lepidus become the heirs to Caesar’s party and the restored republic.
Uncharacteristically, Syme concludes the chapter with a question: “When the tyrant fell and the constitution was restored, would Antonius be strong enough to hold party and government together?”
This is also a question that has a haunting relevance today.
The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.