A Little Ciceronian Fear-Mongering


One of Cicero’s lines of argument in his speeches on the tribune Rullus’ agrarian proposal is that “giving away” the Campanian land threatens the food security of Rome.  He makes a direct connection between the defeat of the law and the sustainability of the annona.  We should understand by the annona the structure set up by the lex terentia et cassia, which made available to some number of Roman citizens 5 modii of grain each month (about 33 kg) at a reduced price, about 2 denarii per 5 modii.   The rhetorical tactic sets the hope of self sufficiency against the prospect of impending hunger.  A clever, if dastardly, approach to the problem.

He only mentions it once in his speech to the senate:

I pass over those things which there is no one who cannot complain of with the greatest weight and the greatest truth; that we have not been able to preserve the most important part of the public patrimony of the state, that which has been to us the source of our supply of corn (subsidium annonae), our granary in time of war, our revenue placed under custody of the seals and bolts of the republic; that we, in short, have abandoned that district to Publius Rullus, which itself by its own resources had resisted both the absolute power of Sulla, and the corrupting liberality of the Gracchi.

He brings up the idea three times in his speech before the people.  The first time is a direct echo of the passage in the Senatorial speech, using much the same vocabulary:

Will you allow the most beautiful estate belonging to the Roman people—the main source of your riches, your chief ornament in time of peace, your chief source of supply in time of war, the foundation of your revenues, the granary from which your legions are fed, your consolation in time of scarcity (solacium annonae)—to be ruined? 

The following passages drive home the precarious nature of other grain sources and how they cannot be relied upon:

Asia for many years during the Mithridatic war produced you no revenue. There was no revenue from the Spains in the time of Sertorius. Manius Aquilius even lent corn to the Sicilian cities at the time of the Servile war. But from this tributary land no bad news was ever heard. Other of our revenues are at times weighed down by the distresses of war; but the sinews of war are even supplied to us by this tributary land.

And then the kicker comes at the end of the speech.  [Some translators have left out the critical passage in their rendering, so here’s the Latin first, followed by my own modification of the public domain translation]:

ego ex concordia quam mihi constitui cum conlega, invitissimis eis hominibus qui nos in consulatuinimicos esse et fore aiebant, providi omnibus, prospexi annonae, revocavi fidem, tribunis plebis denuntiavi <ne> quid turbulenti me consule conflarent. 

I, by the concord which I have established between myself and my colleague, have provided against those men whom I knew to be hostile to my consulship both in their dispositions and actions. I have provided for everything; I’ve taken care of the grain distributions; and I have re-established good faith. I have also given notice to the tribunes of the people, to try no disorderly conduct while I am consul.

There seems to be a none-too-veiled threat here.  “If you want to eat, trust me.”

I think this passages are important contextualization of two later developments in the year.  First, the choice of Brocchus for Ceres on the obverse of his coin and a ‘law and order’ reverse type, symbolism rather removed from that of the tribunes.

[One might here reflect on the success of Sulla to divorce the plebeian aedileship from its associations with the radical politics of the tribunes.]

Cicero setting the tone at the beginning of the year as one of anxiety over the grain supply, possibly needless anxiety, may also contextualize Cato’s radical proposal and success passing such a proposal at the very end of the year:

Lentulus and his associates were executed, and Caesar, in view of the charges and accusations made against him to the senate, took refuge with the people and was stirring up and attaching to himself the numerous diseased and corrupted elements in the commonwealth. Cato was therefore alarmed and persuaded the senate to conciliate the poor and landless multitude by including them in the distribution of grain, the annual expenditure for which was twelve hundred and fifty talents. By this act of humanity and kindness the threatening danger was most successfully dissipated. 

If there is a moral in this, perhaps it is that Cicero’s fear mongering might be considered to have backfired on him as it set the landscape for more radical action instead of a preservation of the satis quo.

165 out of 410 days: Constitutional Details in Dio

When nothing else would cause them to heed him and they were unconcerned by the fact that the trial had been held in a manner contrary to custom, he ran up to the Janiculum before they took any vote at all, and pulled down the military flag, so that it was no longer lawful for them to reach a decision.

28 1 Now this matter of the flag is as follows. In ancient times there were many enemies dwelling near the city, and the Romans, fearing that while they were holding a centuriate assembly by centuries foes might occupy the Janiculum and attack the city, decided that not all should vote at once, but that some men under arms should by turns always guard that position. 2 So they guarded it as long as the assembly lasted, but when this was about to be adjourned, the flag was pulled down and the guards departed; for no further business could be transacted when the post was not guarded. 3 This practice was observed only in the case of the centuriate assemblies, for these were held outside the wall and all who bore arms were obliged to attend them. Even to this day it is done as a matter of form.

So on that occasion, when the signal was pulled down, the assembly was adjourned and Rabirius was saved. Labienus, indeed, had the right to bring suit again, but he did not do so. (Dio 37.27.3-28.4)

In the spirit of using the blog to dump little bits of information I might want later, here is a passage on the procedure of the centuriate assembly.  It provides a nice parallel to narratives of Bibulus “watching the skies” to annul Caesar’s legislation during their join consulship (59BC).  It illustrates ritualized militarism.  AND, it has a nice allusion to later practice.  Dio is writing in the high empire as a senator under the Severan emperors and he reports: “Even to this day it is done as a matter of form”.  It also makes me think about the function of the filibuster in the US legislative process.  Although, the context of the passage is actually a political trial in 63BC, not a legislative process.  The Senate can be used for certain trials under the US constitution as well.

As an aside, I enjoy how Dio transitions from a discussion of Rullus’ popular legislation to a reflection on what it means to prosecute the 36 year old crime of killing Saturninus thus explicitly connecting the two sets of tribunician legislation.