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Detail from Gustavo Boulanger’s Theatrical Rehearsal in the House of an Ancient Rome Poet (1855). Public Domain.
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Res publica and res familiaris:

a property ‘metaphor’?

Olivia Thompson
DPhil candidate, University of Oxford

1. Cicero’s definition of res publica (De Re Publica 1.39)

‘est igitur’ inquit Africanus ‘res publica res populi, populus autem non omnis hominum coetus quoquo modo congregatus, sed coetus multitudinis iuris consensu et utilitatis communione sociatus’

‘A commonwealth,’ said Africanus, ‘is therefore the estate of a people, but a people is not an assembly of people gathered in any way, but an assembly of people allied together by a consensus of law and a partnership of utility.’

2. Malcolm Schofield, ‘Cicero’s definition of res publica’, p. 75.

‘Our account of [the proposition that res publica is the res of a populus] has up to now omitted the most interesting and important feature of Cicero’s handling of res populi. What he has in mind by res populi is “the affairs and interests of the people”. But 3.43ff. is written as though the expression actually meant “the property of the people”.’

[In an argument about mob rule whose first phrases only are preserved, Cicero seems to have reasoned by analogy that sometimes it will be imperative to deprive the people of control over its res, just as the law gives control (‘potestas’) over a madman’s property to his relatives (3.45 Ziegler).]

‘The idea is presumably not that res publica is literally speaking property, but rather that the affairs and interests of the people may be conceived metaphorically as property. When a tyrant or a faction tramples on the proper interests of the people, or conducts its affairs as though they were private affairs, then it is as if there is a theft of public property.

Why did Cicero construe res populi in terms of the property metaphor?’

3. Cicero, De Re Publica, 3.43, 45 Z.

ergo illam rem populi, id est rem publicam, quis diceret tum dum crudelitate unius oppressi essent universi, neque esset unum vinculum iuris nec consensus ac societas coetus, quod est populus? atque hoc idem Syracusis. urbs illa praeclara, quam ait Timaeus Graecarum maxumam, omnium autem esse pulcherrimam, arx visenda, portus usque in sinus oppidi et ad urbis crepidines infusi, viae latae, porticus, templa, muri nihilo magis efficiebant, Dionysio tenente ut esset illa res publica; nihil enim populi, et unius erat populus ipse. ergo ubi tyrannus est, ibi non vitiosam, ut heri dicebam, sed, ut nunc ratio cogit, dicendum est plane nullam esse rem publicam

Therefore who would call that ‘an estate of the people’, that is a commonwealth, when everyone was oppressed by the cruelty of one man, and there was no bond of law, consensus, or joining in society, which represent a people? This was the case for the Syracusans. That distinguished city, which Timaeus said was the greatest of Greek cities, indeed the most beautiful of all, the admirable citadel, the harbours stretching to the heart of the town and to the foundations of the city, the wide streets, porticoes, shrines, walls, could do nothing to make that a commonwealth, while Dionysius held it; for nothing belonged to the people, and the people itself belonged to one man. Therefore where there is a tyrant, there we must say not that there is a corrupt commonwealth, as we said yesterday, but, as now reason compels us, that there is none at all.

(Scipio) ‘venio nunc ad tertium genus illud, in quo esse videbuntur fortasse angustiae. cum per populum agi dicuntur et esse in populi potestate omnia, cum de quocumque volt supplicium sumit multitudo, cum agunt, rapiunt, tenent, dissipant quae volunt, potesne tum Laeli negare rem esse illam publicam? dum populi sint omnia, quoniam quidem populi esse rem volumus rem publicam.’ tum Laelius: ‘ac nullam quidem citius negaverim esse rem publicam, quam istam quae tota plane sit in multitudinis potestate. nam si nobis non placebat Syracusis fuisse rem publicam, neque Agrigenti neque Athenis dum essent tyranni, neque hic dum decemviri, non video qui magis in multitudinis dominatu rei publicae nomen appareat, quia primum mihi populus non est, ut tu optime definisti Scipio, nisi qui consensu iuris continetur, sed est tam tyrannus iste conventus, quam si esset unus, hoc etiam taetrior quia nihil ista, quae populi speciem et nomen imitatur, immanius belua est. nec vero convenit, dum furiosorum bona legibus in adgnatorum potestate sint

(Scipio) ‘I come now to that third kind, in which perhaps there will seem to be difficulties. When all things are said to happen through the people and are in the power of the people, when the multitude enacts punishment for whatever it wants, when they do, take, control, waste what they want, can you then, Laelius, deny that that is a commonwealth? When everything belongs to the people, since indeed we want a commonwealth to be the property of the people.’

Laelius said: ‘There is no commonwealth to which I would more swiftly deny the name, than that which is entirely in the power of the multitude. For if we didn’t accept that the Syracusans had a commonwealth, nor Agrigentum or Athens when there were tyrants, nor here under the decemvirs, I don’t see how the name of commonwealth is more valid under the domination of a multitude, because first of all I don’t count as a ‘people’ – as you perfectly defined it, Scipio – any group that is not contained by a consensus of law, rather that gathering is just as much a tyrant as if it were one man, even more awful because nothing has greater enormity than that beast which apes the appearance and name of a people. Nor is it suitable, when the goods of the insane are legally in the power of their relatives

4. Res publica and res familiaris/privata/suae juxtaposed with reference to property

Cicero, De Lege Agraria 1.2

Videte nunc proximo capite ut impurus helluo turbet rem publicam, ut a maioribus nostris possessiones relictas disperdat ac dissipet, ut sit non minus in populi Romani patrimonio nepos quam in suo.

See now in the second chapter how that befouled squanderer is upsetting the commonwealth, how he is spoiling and ruining the possessions left to us by our ancestors, no less of a spendthrift with the Roman people’s inheritance than his own.

Caesar, Gallic War 1.18.3-4

reperit esse vera: ipsum esse Dumnorigem, summa audacia, magna apud plebem propter liberalitatem gratia, cupidum rerum novarum. compluris annos portoria reliquaque omnia Haeduorum vectigalia parvo pretio redempta habere, propterea quod illo licente contra liceri audeat nemo. his rebus et suam rem familiarem auxisse et facultates ad largiendum magnas comparasse…

He found that it was indeed the case that it was Dumnorix, a man of supreme boldness, with great popularity among the plebs owing to his generosity, who was desirous of revolution. For several years he had bought out and had in his control the port duties and all remaining tax revenues of the Aedui, for the reason that when he made a bid no one dared bid against him. By these actions he had both increased his own family estate and amassed great capacity for bestowing gifts.

Cicero, ad Fam. 2.16 (to Caelius)

Nec me ista terrent quae mihi a te ad timorem fidissime atque amantissime proponuntur. Nulla est enim acerbitas quae non omnibus hac orbis terrarum perturbatione impendere videatur. Quam quidem ego a re publica meis privatis et domesticis incommodis libentissime, vel istis ipsis quae tu me mones ut caveam, redemissem. Filio meo … si erit ulla res publica, satis amplum patrimonium relinquam in memoria nominis mei; sin autem nulla erit, nihil accidet ei separatim a reliquis civibus.

As for your attempts to frighten me, made out of the greatest good faith and love, they do not scare me. For there is no form of bitterness which does not seem to hang over all of us during this disturbance of the world. Such disturbance I would have gladly bought from the res publica at the cost of my own private and domestic property, even the very things you advise me to look after. If there is to be any res publica, I shall have left to my son … a sufficient patrimony in the form of the memory of my name; but if there be none, it will not befall him separately from the rest of the citizens

Sallust, Bellum Catilinae 5.6-7

[Catilinam] post dominationem L. Sullae lubido maxuma invaserat rei publicae capiundae … agitabatur magis magisque in dies animus ferox inopia rei familiaris

After the domination of Sulla, Catiline was seized by the extreme desire to capture the commonwealth … he was being agitated more and more by the day by his savage animus and the poverty of his family estate.

Pseudo-Sallust, Speech to Caesar 2.5.3-5, 7

Firmanda igitur sunt concordiae bona, et discordiae mala expellenda. Id ita eveniet, si sumtuum et rapinarum licentiam demseris; non ad vetera instituta revocans, quae, iam pridem corruptis moribus, ludibrio sunt; sed si suam cuique rem familiarem finem sumtuum statueris: quoniam is incessit mos, ut homines adolescentuli, sua atque aliena consumere … quare tollendus foenerator in posterum, uti suas quisque res curemus. Ea vera, atque simplex via est, magistratum populo, non creditori, gerere; et magnitudinem animi in addendo, non demendo reipublicae, ostendere.

So the benefits of concord must be strengthened, the evils of discord driven out. That will happen, if you take away the licence of extravagance and pillaging; not by evoking old institutions, which are a joke, since our customs have long since been corrupted; but if you set each person’s own family estate as the limit to his expenditure: for the custom has set in that young men use up their own and other people’s property … So we must get rid of the moneylender in the future, so that everyone takes care of his own property. That is the true and simple way, to undertake a magistracy for the people, not one’s creditor; and to show greatness of spirit in adding to the commonwealth, not taking away from it.

Tacitus, Annals 2.38

si quantum pauperum est venire huc et liberis suis petere pecunias coeperint, singuli numquam exsatiabuntur, res publica deficiet. nec sane ideo a maioribus concessum est egredi aliquando relationem et quod in commune conducat loco sententiae proferre, ut privata negotia et res familiaris nostras hic augeamus, cum invidia senatus et principum, sive indulserint largitionem sive abnuerint.

(Tiberius) ‘If everyone poor began turning up here with their children to ask for money, individuals would never be satisfied, and the commonwealth would be deficient. And if our ancestors granted that occasionally we might go beyond the terms of a proposal and, on our turn to speak, make a statement relevant to the public good, it surely wasn’t intended to be to the effect that we should increase our private affairs and our own family estates, bringing ill feeling on the senate and the leading citizens, whether they indulged the generosity or denied it.’


On Horace’s Epistles

 pecvnia: res familiaris.

‘Money’: family estate.

On Horace’s Odes 2.15.13:

“priuatus illis census erat breuis, commune magnum”

id est: familiarem rem angustam habebant, rem publicam magnam.

“Their private census was short, their common census great”

That means: they had a modest family estate, a large commonwealth.

5. Fergus Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic, p. 21.

‘The central contradiction of the late-Republican system had already come into effect [by 303], namely, the fact that the institutions of the enormously expanded Roman res publica remained exactly those of the original nuclear city-state.’

6. Rhetoric of ownership (cf. Holkeskamp’s ‘rhetoric of inclusion’)

Cicero, Pro Flacco 3

non estis de Lydorum aut Mysorum aut Phrygum … sed de vestra re publica iudicaturi

‘You will not be judging on the Lydians’, or Mysians’, or Phyrgians’, but on your commonwealth

Cicero, Pro Flacco 99

non iudicatis in hac causa de exteris nationibus, non de sociis; de vobis atque de vestra re publica iudicatis

‘In this case you’re not judging on foreign nations, not on allies; you are passing judgement on yourselves and your commonwealth

Cicero, De Imperio Pompeii 4

bellum grave et periculosum vestris vectigalibus ac sociis a duobus potentissimis regibus infertur

‘A grave and dangerous war is being brought by two most powerful kings to your tax revenues and allies

Cicero, In Verrem II.2.5

Itaque ille M. Cato Sapiens cellam penariam rei publicae nostrae, nutricem plebis Romanae Siciliam nominabat. Nos vero experti sumus Italico maximo difficillimoque bello Siciliam nobis non pro penaria cella, sed pro aerario illo maiorum vetere ac referto fuisse ; nam sine ullo sumptu nostro, coriis, tunicis, frumentoque suppeditando, maximos exercitus nostros vestivit, aluit, armavit.

Therefore that Marcus Cato the wise called Sicily the storehouse of provisions of our res publica, the nurse of the Roman plebs. But in this greatest and most difficult Italian war we have found Sicily to be not a storehouse of provisions for us, but that long-standing treasury stocked by our ancestors; for without any expense of ours, it has clothed, nourished, and armed our greatest armies with hides, tunics, and corn.

Cicero, In Verrem II.2.7

Et quoniam quasi quaedam praedia populi Romani sunt vectigalia nostra atque provinciae, quem ad modum vos propinquis vestris praediis maxime delectamini, sic populo Romano iucunda suburbanitas est huiusce provinciae.

And since our tax-revenues and provinces are, as it were, the farming estates of the Roman people, just as you derive most enjoyment from the farming estates nearest to you, thus the proximity to the city of this province is pleasing to the Roman people.

Cicero, De Lege Agraria 2.80

Quod si posset ager iste ad vos pervenire, nonne eum tamen in patrimonio vestro remanere malletis? Vnumne fundum pulcherrimum populi Romani, caput vestrae pecuniae, pacis ornamentum, subsidium belli, fundamentum vectigalium, horreum legionum, solacium annonae disperire patiemini? An obliti estis Italico bello amissis ceteris vectigalibus quantos agri Campani fructibus exercitus alueritis?

But if some territory should come to you, wouldn’t you prefer it to remain in your inheritance? Will you allow the one most beautiful farm of the Roman people, the crown of your income, the jewel of peace, the source of support in war, the foundation of the tax revenues, the granary of the legions, the saviour of the corn supply, to be ruined? Or have you forgotten what great armies you fed in the Italian war with the fruits of the Campanian territory, when we had lost the other tax revenues?

7. Altars and hearths

Cicero, Ad Atticum 7.11.3

redeamus ad nostrum. per fortunas! quale tibi consilium Pompei videtur? hoc quaero quod urbem reliquerit. ego enim ἀπορῶ. tum nihil absurdius. urbem tu relinquas? ergo idem, si Galli venirent? “non est” inquit “in parietibus res publica.” at in aris et focis.

Let’s return to our friend. Goodness gracious! What do you think Pompey is playing at? I mean in leaving the city. I’m completely stumped. Nothing could be more absurd. Leave the city? So you’d do the same if the Gauls came? ‘The res publica,’ he says, ‘is not in the city walls.’ No, it’s in the altars and hearths.

Sallust, Bellum Catilinae 52.3

de poena eorum, qui patriae, parentibus, aris atque focis suis bellum paravere

(Cato speaking) ‘[to debate] on the punishment of those who prepared war against their fatherland, their parents, their altars and hearths.’

Livy 5.30.1 (on the proposal to move Rome to Veii)

Senatum vero incitare adversus legem haud desistebat: ne aliter descenderent in forum, cum dies ferendae legis venisset, quam ut qui meminissent sibi pro aris focisque et deum templis ac solo in quo nati essent dimicandum fore.

But the senate did not cease from rousing people against the law, exhorting that everyone should go down to the forum on the day the law was to be carried exactly as if they were mindful that they were about to fight for their altars and hearths and their shrines and the soil on which they were born.

Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus 9.4-5

ὡς τὰ μὲν θηρία τὰ τὴν Ἰταλίαν νεμόμενα καὶ φωλεὸν ἔχει καὶ κοιταῖόν ἐστιν αὐτῶν ἑκάστῳ [5] καὶ καταδύσεις, τοῖς δὲ ὑπὲρ τῆς Ἰταλίας μαχομένοις καὶ ἀποθνῄσκουσιν ἀέρος καὶ φωτός, ἄλλου δὲ οὐδενὸς μέτεστιν, ἀλλ᾽ ἄοικοι καὶ ἀνίδρυτοι μετὰ τέκνων πλανῶνται καὶ γυναικῶν, οἱ δὲ αὐτοκράτορες ψεύδονται τοὺς στρατιώτας ἐν ταῖς μάχαις παρακαλοῦντες ὑπὲρ τάφων καὶ [p. 166] ἱερῶν ἀμύνεσθαι τοὺς πολεμίους: οὐδενὶ γάρ ἐστιν οὐ βωμὸς πατρῷος, οὐκ ἠρίον προγονικὸν τῶν τοσούτων ‘ Ῥωμαίων, ἀλλ᾽ ὑπὲρ ἀλλοτρίας τρυφῆς καὶ πλούτου πολεμοῦσι καὶ ἀποθνῄσκουσι, κύριοι τῆς οἰκουμένης εἶναι λεγόμενοι, μίαν δὲ βῶλον ἰδίαν οὐκ ἔχοντες.

[He would say] that the wild beasts that roam Italy each have a den or a lair to hide in, but those who have died for Italy have a share in air and light, but nothing else, but are homeless nomads who wander with their wives and children, and the generals lie when they exhort the soldiers in battle to fight the enemy for their tombs and shrines: none of them has an altar of his fathers, none of these so many Romans has an ancestral burial mound, but they fight and die for the nourishment and enrichment of others, these so-called ‘masters of the world’, who don’t even have a single clod of earth of their own.


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Detail from Gustavo Boulanger’s Theatrical Rehearsal in the House of an Ancient Rome Poet (1855). Public Domain.