What the Occupy movement can learn from Ancient Rome.
By **Lex Paulson**
Photograph via Wikimedia Commons by B.Barloccini.
Dear Occupy Wall Street,
So you’re shut out of a broken political system. Surrounded by greed. Buried in debt.
We know how it feels. Twenty-five centuries ago, we were the 99%.
Like you, we couldn’t wait for the politicians. Like you, we occupied. And like you will, through aggressive, creative, non-violent political pressure, we won.
As you face down the pepper-sprayers and prepare your winter of discontent, take comfort in an old but familiar story of civil disobedience. Posterity would come to know it as “The Secession of the Plebs,” and it changed ancient Rome forever.
To set the scene: in 494BC, our city—later to become a million-plus metropolis governing a quarter of humankind—was a scrappy young republic of 30,000.
Still bit players on an Italian peninsula controlled by Etruscans, Sabines, and Samnites, we Romans were just now beginning to turn heads. Distinguished by a dogged, near-psychotic drive for public glory, we farmed half the year and battled our better-known neighbors for territory during the rest.
The patricians were at a loss; they had a city, but no citizens. They had one option left: negotiate.
Put simply, we were outworking and outfighting everyone in sight and growing fast.
However, we had two big problems. With an army financed by its own officers and infantry, most of us had to borrow heavily to cover our military and family duties. Roman creditors were unregulated, could charge massive interest, and were empowered to punish their debtors with forced labor or even death.
Politically, we had thrown out our last king, Tarquin the Proud, in 509BC, and replaced our 200-year-old monarchy with a republic (from res publica, “the public thing”): from now on Rome would have elected magistrates, a universal right to fair trials, and lawmaking bodies that split power into many hands.
Or this was the theory. In practice, our politics was still dominated by a few dozen families calling themselves “patricians.” This was Rome’s 1%, the clans claiming descent from our founder Romulus’s first Senate (from senex, an old man—fittingly, you Americans get both “Senate” and “senile” from this same Latin root). The rest of us, the “plebeians,” were formally equal but informally getting the shaft.
As a result, just as our legions were taking down tribe after tribe in central Italy, hungry and desperate people started filling the streets of Rome. The patricians—who controlled the major offices, presided over all legal disputes, and sat atop the military chain of command—decided, after a lengthy debate, to let the problem take care of itself.
Something had to give. Roman historian Titus Livius tells it this way:
“An elderly man was seen in the Forum with all the badges of his miseries on him. His clothes were all over squalid, and a long beard and hair had put a desperate wildness upon his face
“A former centurion, he showed the scars on his breast, testimonies of honourable battles he had fought.
“The multitude having gathered around him in a kind of people’s assembly, he told them, that while serving in the Sabine war, he had been unable to work his farm and support his family; that he had returned to find the enemy had pillaged and burned his property; that he had been unable to pay his taxes and had taken on debt; that usurers had taken the lands of his father and grandfather, and rather than letting him work off his debts, had forced him into debtor’s prison.
“He then showed his back, disfigured with the marks of stripes still recent. At the hearing and seeing of this a great uproar begins. The tumult is now no longer confined to the forum, but spreads through the entire city.” (Ab Urbe Condita, II.23.2-9)
The old centurion had lit a fateful spark. Thinking fast, the Senate tried to buy off the people with an offer of debt forgiveness to anyone who enlisted in the army. Despite a momentary rush to arms, the ensuing battles were quickly won. And “with such powerful influence and with such art had the money-lenders made their arrangements” (II.27.1), the new veterans were just as quickly delivered back into their creditors’ hands.
The ruling class was now out of credibility. House by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, the common people started to organize. “The republic,” Livy says, “was now divided and split into a thousand senate-houses and assemblies” (II.27.13). We didn’t have a clear leadership structure or a coherent program; what we did share was the leverage of our own military service, and a belief—despite the accusations of the politicians and generals—that saying no could be a patriotic act.
So when the consuls came next to the Forum to summon Romans of military age into service, this time for a new war against the Aequi, the young people refused to answer. This was our message, delivered (as Livy puts it) “as if in a general assembly”:
“That the people would no longer be imposed on. That not one soldier would be drafted till the public faith was made good. That liberty should be restored to each before arms were given, that we might fight for our country and fellow citizens, and not for arbitrary lords.” (II.28.6-7)
Then we left.
The Mons Sacer, three miles outside the city walls, was an iconic place in the Roman imagination—the spirit of Jupiter, our most powerful god, was said to live there. Without asking permission, a thousand of us walked to the hilltop and made our camp.
“Remaining quiet,” Livy continues, “taking nothing but what was necessary for sustenance, they kept themselves on the Sacred Mount for several days, neither taking nor giving offence. Great was the panic in the city, and through mutual fear all was suspense.” (II.32.4-5)
The patricians were at a loss; they had a city, but no citizens. What was worse, there was no pretext for a police crackdown—we hadn’t defected to an enemy, nor had we broken the peace.
They had one option left: negotiate.
So the Senate sent an emissary to the people’s encampment, a plain-spoken old war-horse named Menenius Agrippa. Attempting a tone of conciliation, he recounted an old Egyptian fable about a general strike, this one by a pair of hands and pair of legs against their belly, which they accused of letting them do all the work. They thought they’d teach the belly a lesson by starving it out, only to find that they soon lost all their energy too, after which they made up and everyone was happy. We got the joke, and we liked Menenius, but we weren’t going home without a bigger prize.
The openness of your movement, perhaps its greatest virtue, makes it harder to find a focused and compelling voice. Pepper spray stings like hell.
This was our moment of consequence. We were dead-set against a short-term deal. The Roman system had proven itself shockingly unfair, and we weren’t leaving until we’d found a way to make our government work for us, the citizens who had fought and died in its name.
The prize we negotiated that day was nothing short of a bombshell: a whole new institution of government, the tribunum plebis, directly accountable to us, with powers to veto any law against the people’s interests. For good measure, we insisted that while they held office, the tribunes would be personally sacrosanct—making it a crime against the gods themselves to violate their person or interfere with their work. And we chose two leaders of our movement, Caius Licinius and Lucius Albinus, to be the first-ever tribunes of the Roman people.
In the generations that followed, whenever the plebeians of Rome were pushed past our limits, we seceded. In 449BC, we overturned the “decemvirate,” ten aristocrats who had codified Roman law but refused to yield power; in 445, we won full marriage equality (intermarriage between patricians and plebeians had been illegal); and, in 287, the right to pass laws in our assembly that the aristocrats had to honor.
For nearly 400 years, in fact, these moments of civil disobedience helped our republic hold together in dark times and resolve the most divisive issues without violence. And for a city that cut a swath of pitiless conquest through the known world, four centuries of bloodless politics was no small feat.
The critics of Occupy Wall Street say your goals are conflicting, unrealistic, and unclear. Believe us, this is not an original line of attack.
There are many injustices, though, that continue to jostle for your attention. The openness of your movement, perhaps its greatest virtue, makes it harder to find a focused and compelling voice. Pepper spray stings like hell.
Nevertheless, viewers of Adbusters this summer read that from “one simple demand, a presidential commission to separate money from politics,” they would “start setting the agenda for a new America.” A few weeks later, the epicenter of a new movement emerged in Zuccotti Park. Campaign finance, no gerrymandering, ending the filibuster—these are exactly the kind of clear, system-wide fixes that, formidable as they appear, can remake the entire political game. Trust us.
Our basic message, Occupiers, is this: your cause is noble, your methods sound.
Push for the political reform that can rebalance the whole system. And, even if it takes generations, don’t let up.
We’re behind you.
Discover the classics for yourself:
Titus Livius (Livy), Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Founding of the City”), Book II.23-33.
David Daube, Civil Disobedience in Antiquity (1968).
Tim Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c.1000-264 BC) (1995) (see especially chapter 10, “Patricians and Plebeians”).
Lex Paulson is a former Obama campaign organizer and legislative counsel on Capitol Hill. He’s currently pursuing a PhD in classical political philosophy at the Sorbonne.