Elliot Handout

Ahala, master of the horse, presents the dead Melius to Cincinnatus the Dictator, fresco from the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, by Domenico Beccafumi. Public Domain.
Main Conference Schedule, Abstracts, Bios

Populist populares in Livy

Tim Elliott

The hermeneutics of Gadamer and Jauss as an interpretative model

‘One can understand a text only when one has understood the question to which it is an answer’ (Jauss 1982:29)

‘Antiquity & modernity, present and past, are always implicated in each other, always in dialogue – to understand one, you need to think in terms of the other.’  (Martindale 2006:5)

The Gadamerian hermeneutic approach to text

  • Epistemology grounded in the interaction between reader and text
  • Prejudice (vorurteil) does not hinder interpretation, but rather is necessary
  • Each age produces an understanding unique to itself
  • Those readings comprise the tradition whose meaning increases with each subsequent dialogue


Characteristics of right-wing populism – Cas Mudde et al. (2012)

  • Presents society as a dichotomy between “pure people” and “corrupt elite”
  • Populist is enacting the “will” of that “pure people”
  • The “pure people” is the supreme authority
  • Anti-pluralistic; “othering” of dissenters, lower status, ethnically distinct
  • ‘Strongman’ politics – populist takes on the elite single-handed
  • Authoritarian aspirations

Characteristics of the individual populist

  • An elite, rejected by status quo elites
  • Substantial wealth
  • Using non-elite rhetoric; often dissimulate to manipulate

Livy’s ‘populist’ populares

Spurius Maelius

  1.  Tum Sp. Maelius ex equestri ordine, ut illis temporibus praedives, rem utilem pessimo exemplo peiore consilio est adgressus.

Then Spurius Maelius, of the equestrian order, a man for those times very rich, undertook to do a useful thing in a way that set a very bad example and had a motive still worse.


  1. plebemque hoc munere delenitam, quacumque incederet, conspectus elatusque supra modum hominis privati, secum trahere, haud dubium consulatum favore ac spe despondentem

The plebeians were captivated by this munificence; wherever he went, conspicuous and important beyond the measure of a private citizen, they followed in his train; and the devotion and hope he inspired in them gave him no uncertain assurance of the consulship.


  1. tunc Maelius recipere se in catervam suorum, et primum circumspectans tergiversari, postremo cum apparitor iussu magistri equitum duceret, ereptus a circumstantibus fugiensque fidem plebis Romanae implorare, et opprimi se consensu patrum dicere, quod plebi benigne fecisset

Then Maelius drew back into the crowd of his retainers, and at first, glancing this way and that, but finally, when the attendant, being so commanded by the master of the horse, would have led him away, he was torn from his grasp by the bystanders and fled, calling on the Roman plebs to protect him, declaring that he was overthrown by a plot of the patricians because he had acted kindly by the commons


Manlius Capitolinus

  1. Centurionem, nobilem militaribus factis, iudicatum pecuniae cum duci vidisset, medio foro cum caterva sua accurrit et manum iniecit; vociferatusque de superbia patrum ac crudelitate feneratorum et miseriis plebis, virtutibus eius viri fortunaque, “tum vero ego” inquit “nequiquam hac dextra Capitolium arcemque servaverim, si civem commilitonemque meum tamquam Gallis victoribus captum in servitutem ac vincula duci videam.” 

A centurion renowned for military prowess had been condemned for debt. As he was being led away, Manlius caught sight of him, and hastening to his side through the midst of the Forum with his band of retainers, he laid hold of him, and exclaiming at the arrogance of the patricians, the heartlessness of the money-lenders, the sufferings of the plebs, and the merits and misfortunes of this man, “Then in very truth,” he cried, “was it all in vain that with this right hand I saved the Capitol and the Citadel, if I am to see my fellow citizen and fellow soldier carried off a captive—as though the Gauls had conquered us—to servitude and chains!”


  1. Quodcumque sibi cum patria penatibus publicis ac privatis iuris fuerit, id cum uno homine esse.

Whatever ties ever bound [the centurion] to his native land and the gods of his state and family, bound him to one man alone.


  1. Id vero ita accendit animos ut per omne fas ac nefas secuturi vindicem libertatis viderentur

At this [the people’s] ardour was so kindled that it was clear that in every measure, right or wrong, they would follow the champion of their liberty.


  1. Ad hoc domi contionantis in modum sermones pleni criminum in patres; inter quos, omisso discrimine vera an vana iaceret, thesauros Gallici auri occultari a patribus nec iam possidendis publicis agris contentos esse nisi pecuniam quoque publicam avertant; ea res si palam fiat, exsolvi plebem aere alieno posse

Besides this he delivered in his house harangues that were full of accusation against the patricians; amongst other things, he declared, with reckless indifference to truth or falsehood, that the patricians were concealing treasures of Gallic gold, and were no longer content with possessing the state lands, unless they could also divert to their own use the money of the state—money which, if it were employed for the common weal, would suffice to clear the plebs of debt.

Select bibliography

Hermeneutic tradition and historiography

Gadamer, H. (1960) Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Weinsheimer J. and Marshall, D., New York

Hardwick, L. (2003) Reception Studies, Oxford

Hardwick L. and Stray, C. (2008) A Companion to Classical Receptions, Oxford

Martindale, C. (1993) Redeeming the text: Latin poetry and the hermeneutics of reception, Cambridge

Martindale, C. (2013) ‘Reception — a new humanism? Receptivity, pedagogy, the transhistorical’ Classical Receptions Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 169–83

Risser, J. (1997) Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other, New York

Warnke, G. (1987) Gadamer, Cambridge


Canovan, M. (1981) Populism, (first ed.) New York

Heinische, R. (2017) ‘Analysing and explaining populism: bringing frame, actor and context back in’, in Political Populism, A Handbook, Heinische, Holtz-Bacha, Mazzoleni (eds.) Baden-Baden: 105-22

Mudde, C. and Kaltwasser, C. R. (2012a) ‘Populism: corrective and threat to democracy’ in Populism in Europe and the Americas, Mudde, C. and Kaltwasser, C. R. (eds.) Cambridge: 205-21

Mudde, C. and Kaltwasser, C. R. (2012b) ‘Populism and (liberal) democracy: a framework for analysis’ in Populism in Europe and the Americas, Mudde, C. and Kaltwasser, C. R. (eds.) Cambridge: 1-26

Mudde, C. (2007) Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Antwerp

Skendevoric, D. (2017) ‘Populism: a history of the concept’, in Political Populism, A Handbook (2017) eds. Heinische, Holtz-Bacha, Mazzoleni; Baden-Baden: 41-58

York, E. (2018) ‘Post-Truth and Populism: A Populist Framework for Defending the Truth in a Post-factual Era’, French Journal for Media Research, Ethics, Media and Public Life, September 2018

Livy’s proto-populares

Kaplow, L. ‘Creating Popularis History: Sp. Cassius, Sp. Maelius, and M. Manlius in the Political Discourse of the Late Republic’, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, v. 55 no. 2, pp. 101- 109

Robb, M. A. (2010) Beyond Populares and Optimates, Political Language in Republican Rome, Stuttgart

Seager, R. (1977) ‘’Populares’ in Livy and the Livian Tradition’ CQ, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 377-390

L’exécution de Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, miniature tirée d’un manuscrit du Livre des cas des nobles hommes… de Boccace. BnF Français 130, folio 141 recto. Public Domain.