Shakespeare Fans discussion

Rome for dummies

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Martin (last edited Jul 24, 2012 10:26AM) (new)

Martin | 18 comments I thought I'd create a few notes (series of posts) on Rome for Shakespeare readers, with Coriolanus much in mind. If you know it already, or find it dull, say and I'll stop. Anyway, it can't be a worse subject than Gertrude's menopause!


Republican Rome had a very elaborate constitution which, in a few respects, is not unlike that of the US today, with its Senate, system of shared power, and indirect voting. But assuming too much similarity can lead to error: the Roman Senate, for example, was not an elected body.

In one major respect it was more like the British than the US constitution, it had no written form. But in another major respect it was again very different from the British constitution: ultimately the Romans could not discover the origins of their institutions -- Senate, Consuls, Tribunes ... -- in their own history. They were "lost in the mists of time". The early history of Rome (Livy) tries to fill this gap. The tribunes for example are shown as a creation of the early Republic, won by the people, shortly after the expulsion of the Kings,

MENENIUS: What is granted them?

MARCIUS:Five tribunes to defend their vulgar wisdoms,
Of their own choice.

But modern scholars think they are much older, and part of the structure of the original tribal groups (more later).

Plebs and Pats

As everyone knows, ancient Rome was divided into patricians and plebeians. We tend to think of patrician meaning aristocrat and plebeian meaning commoner. It was not quite like that for the Romans. Again the origins are lost in the mists of time, but the distinction seems to have been one of caste, like India, but whereas India has a system of many castes, in Rome there were two. They lived in different ways, with different customs, marriage laws, religious ceremonies and so on. There were certain religious functions that could only be done by patricians, and so they have sometimes been called a priestly class, but they were not of course priests in the modern Christian sense. Since religion in Rome was inseparable from state business, this gave the patricians a special status, but they were in any case the dominant caste, at least in the early days.

In the later Republic the distinction survived but was less important. For example, Cato (of the time of Caesar) was of an ancient powerful family, and a diehard traditionalist. He was plebeian. The populist Julius Caesar, from an old family but one that had fallen into obscurity, was patrician.

Shakespeare reflects this where the words patrician/plebeian are used throughout Coriolanus, but not at all in Julius Caesar.

Caius Marcius Coriolanus was a patrician. This is the first thing Plutarch tells us about him.

- - - -

Well, that's enough for today.

couple of refs:

H H Scullard, A History of the Roman World 753 to 146 BC very useful
Lily Ross Taylor Party Politics in the Age of Caesar a great work of scholarship

message 2: by Bryn (last edited Jun 01, 2012 03:47PM) (new)

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 170 comments Monty Python fans can then consult Terry Jones' Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History, which answers the question, 'What have the Romans ever done for us?'

message 3: by Candy (new)

Candy | 2638 comments Mod
I like this, should we put ideas that form context here for coriolanus in general?

message 4: by Candy (new)

Candy | 2638 comments Mod
I can't get a link...but there is an interesting PDF on Internet...


Cheng moral economy food shortages

message 5: by Martin (last edited Jun 02, 2012 01:59AM) (new)

Martin | 18 comments I found it, "Moral Economy and the Politics of Food Riots in Coriolanus" by Elyssa Y. Cheng. Pleasing article, confirming our own reactions to the opening of Coriolanus.

message 6: by Martin (last edited Jun 02, 2012 02:51AM) (new)

Martin | 18 comments Roman topography

With its seven hills, rich in legend, and 2,500 years of events and buildings covering them, Roman topography is a vast sub-continent in the world of Roman history. But it is of little importance in reading S, who focuses on one place, and one place name, the Capitol. In Coriolanus, it is the place where the citizens feel they need to be during the food protest,

"The other side o' the city is risen: why stay we prating here? to the Capitol!"

For Coriolanus himself, the place where the big decisions are made,

". . . presume to know
What's done i' the Capitol, who's like to rise,
Who thrives and who declines."

And the place to which the senators head,

"Your company to the Capitol; where, I know,
Our greatest friends attend us."

It is S's meeting place for the Senate, and has that function throughout Julius Caesar. Indeed Caesar is finally assassinated there, as we are reminded again in Hamlet,

"Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar, I was killed i' the Capitol, Brutus killed me."

Most people, if you ask where Julius Caesar was killed, will say the Capitol (after the don't knows), following the testimony of S.

But the Capitol was never the centre of the goverment, the Senate house was in the valley where the forum is, and Caesar was assassinated in the Theatre of Pompey (as Plutarch, S's source, makes abundantly clear), which was sometimes used for senatorial meetings.

So why did S switch things to the Capitol? Perhaps he liked the sound of the word. Perhaps its funtion, as high point, final defense in case of attack, and execution place (the Tarpeian rocks...) made a connection for him with the Tower of London. Perhaps he was aware of its grandeur at the time he was living. Here it is today,

apart from the back of Victor Emanuel monument on the far left, more or less as in S's time. Might it be taken as a symbol of religious (left) and civic (right) authority, led to by the two stairways?

This snippet, from Cymbeline, seems to suggest a knowledge of the stairways,

"Slaver with lips as common as the stairs
That mount the Capitol"

ref: Plutarch's The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives for his life of Caesar

message 7: by Candy (new)

Candy | 2638 comments Mod
That is really an incredibly crazy photo and angle of the stairs...(It makes me think of a T.S. Eliot poem too "the detail of the pattern is stairs" and I thought he might mean a ziggerat...but these stairs are so crazy!)

message 8: by Martin (last edited Jun 13, 2012 01:22AM) (new)

Martin | 18 comments Magistrates

Republican Rome was governed by elected officials called magistrates. There were many kinds of magistrate, consuls, praetors, quaestors, trubunes, aediles, pontifexes, censors ... But they were not magistrates in the modern British sense, although Menenius, talking to the tribunes in Coriolanus seems to imagine they were,

"you wear out a good wholesome forenoon in hearing a cause between an orange wife and a fosset-seller; and then rejourn the controversy of three pence to a second day of audience."

Hearing cases in court was not part of a tribune's function.

Their duties varied. Consuls were heads of state, praetors were assistant consuls, quaestors looked after finances, tribunes protected the rights of the people, aediles assisted tribunes, censors weren't engaged in censorship, but with the census, essential for working out who could vote and how,
and so on.

Magistrates held their office for a year. An ambitious politician would go through a series of magistracies, but it was rare to hold the same magistracy twice. In the later republic, you couldn't become a consul unless you had formerly been a praetor, and you couldn't become praetor unless you had formerly been a quaestor, and there had to be a two year gap at least between these offices. This rule was sometimes broken, but not in the case of Caius Julius Caesar, who did it strictly by the book:

cursus honorum of C Julius Caesar,

72 BC tribune
69 quaestor
65 aedile
62 praetor
59 consul
44 dictator and assassinated

When in office, magistrates had extraodinary powers. Their persons could not be seized, no matter what they did. An act of a magistrate might be illegal, but no action could be taken against him until he was out of office. They also had the power of


A consul could veto executive decisions of the other consul, a tribune could veto almost anything. The reason the state apparatus did not grind to a halt is that the veto was never applied routinely, as it is today in the UN security council for example. In fact it was almost never applied at all, since using it had such serious consequences.

To give a famous instance, in 133 BC a certain tribune called M Octavius called "veto!" (in Latin "veto" means "I oppose") to prevent a Bill on agrarian reform being read to the people. This led to rioting, judicial murder, and the 100 year chain of events that undid the Roman republic.

F B Marsh A History of the Roman World 146 to 30 BC
Matthias Gelzer Caesar: Politician and Statesman

message 9: by Martin (last edited Jun 13, 2012 10:37AM) (new)

Martin | 18 comments (I'm really worried about making errors ....)


The magistrates mentioned in Coriolanus are the consuls and tribunes. The consuls (there were always two of them) were effectively heads of state, had Imperium (military authority), and stood at the top of the basic power structure. The tribunes seemed to have emerged from the traditional division of the Roman people into tribes, and came to be accepted as part of the power structure, while retaining some autonomy. They might be compared with leaders of religious orders under the papacy, or trade union bosses in modern capitalist society. Strictly speaking, "magistrate" is not quite the right term for them. Their function was the protection of the interests of the Roman people.

The senate was the collection of magistrates and ex-magistrates, a body of about 300 men. Its function was advisory. Executive power was held by the magistrates, the magistrates were elected by the people, laws were made by the people. Nevertheless, the Senate was very powerful. A magistrate was very unlikely to defy the senate, since it would wreck his career. Its members were rich, and the people were beholden to them under a system of patronage. In voting for a consul the choice was restricted: because a consul must have been formerly quaestor and praetor, new consuls were always senators, so came from a group of 300 wealthy individuals. The consuls were just cycled round from a small set of families, with occasionally a new man (novus homo) breaking into the system.

When Menenius says,

"The senate, Coriolanus, are well pleased
To make thee consul."

It would be pedantic to insist that only the people can do that. Apart from the reality of Senatorial power, these events take place in an almost legendary time of early Roman history, where we cannot expect the institutions of state to function as they did in the late republic.

message 10: by Martin (last edited Jul 03, 2012 04:54AM) (new)

Martin | 18 comments Voting

Laws were proposed to the people by the magistrates, passed or rejected by a vote of the people. The people therefore determined legislation. They also had a certain amount of exective power. This is because executive decisions could be wrapped up into laws and turned into legislation. So for example in 67BC Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) was given extraordinary military powers by the so-called Gabinian law.

The details of the voting system were complex, and new things were still being discovered about it in the 20th century (and pehaps still are). Voting was indirect, like the voting for a US president today. The voters were divided into groups, each group giving a "yes" or "no" or making choice of a candidate. The final vote was then made by tallying up the group votes. (In the US the group vote is represented by one, or a small number, of members of the Electoral College.) In the US the States form the groups. In the Roman republic there were two ways of doing it:

voting by tribes: the tribes, as mentioned above, were of ancient origin. They originally corresponded to tribal and geographical divisions, but as time went on and the number of citizens grew, the connection between where you lived and which tribe you were allotted to became looser. There was a lot of shuffling between tribes to try and even out the vote. The real problem was that the tribes came to differ considerably in size and composition. The urban poor, for example, might be predominantly in one group of tribes, Italian allies newly made citizens in another. A bill might be passed into law although a majority had voted against it. Similarly problems arise in the US where a president can be elected with fewer votes than the runner-up.

voting by centuries: here the people divided into groups based on property qualifications. This had its origin in the military ranks in the early Roman army. So the super-rich got the same voting power as the mass of urban poor. In modern terms: it is as if the 99% formed two groups and the 1% formed three, and so the 1%, if united, could outvote the 99%. By the late republican period voting by centuries was used for electing consuls, praetors, and not much else. In the earlier republican period it had been commoner, and it obviously mattered very much, if you wanted to get a fair vote reflecting the will of the people, to take the poll by tribes rather than centuries.

Now the interesting thing is that Shakespeare obviously understood this distinction, as you can see in this exchange in Coriolanus,

SICINIUS: Have you a catalogue
Of all the voices that we have procured
Set down by the poll?
AEdile: I have; 'tis ready.
SICINIUS: Have you collected them by tribes?
AEdile: I have.

The point being that Coriolanus' banishment could not have been achieved if the poll had been done by centuries.

back to top