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                                              THE PEOPLE AS "RABBLE" AND "MOB"

                                                                     By Michael Parenti

Mainstream historians have seldom thought well of the common people of history, when they bothered to think about them at all. Take, for example, the impoverished commoners of ancient Rome. In the first century B.C., Cicero was part of an already established tradition when he described the plebs urbana as the "city dirt and filth," "a starving, contemptible rabble." And whenever the people mobilized against class injustice, they became in his mind that most odious of all creatures, the "mob."61 Cicero regarded the people as worthless groundlings, akin to criminals and degenerates, "many of them simply out for revolution." He denounced those of pedestrian occupation, "the artisans and shopkeepers and all that kind of scum" who align themselves with dangerous demagogues, "the wretched half-starved commoners who attend mass meetings and suck the blood of the treasury."62 To him, their restiveness was an outgrowth of their own personal malevolence rather than a response to unforgiving material circumstances. Privately Cicero referred to "my army of the rich" and noted that "the safety of the state is to the advantage of all good men, but most clearly benefits men of for­tune"—which was as he thought it should be.6'

Long before Cicero, Polybius was asserting that "the masses are always fickle, filled with lawless desires, unreasoning anger and violent passions."64 Later on Asconius referred to the sup­porters of the popular reformer Clodius Pulcher (Caesar's ally) as "a great crowd of slaves and rabble," an "ignorant mob."65 In a similar mode Appian wrote of "the poor and hotheaded," and criticized Julius Caesar for "introducing laws to win the favor of the mob," or as Plutarch commented, Caesar aligned himself with "the numerous diseased and corrupted elements in the polity."66

Down to the present day, classical historians continue to describe the Roman proletariat as "the mob," "the idle city rab­ble," the "emotional masses" who were "no more than the tool of power," "the stupid . . . selfish, good-for-nothing mob," "the par­asitic mob of the metropolis," "the worthless elements."67

H.H. Scullard sniffs at the "increasingly irresponsible . . . idle urban mob," as if their idleness were purely of their own choosing. Meanwhile the aristocratic idlers—so well supported by the labor of slaves and plebs—earn not a harsh word from him or most other writers.68 Theodore Mommsen refers to "the lazy and hun­gry rabble"; for him the people's assemblies were agitated by "special passions, in which intelligence was totally lost." "That terrible urban proletariat" was "utterly demoralized ... sometimes stupid and sometimes knavish."69 Christian Meier, agreeing with the Roman nobles who referred to the urban mass as "the bilge of the city," denounces "Rome's laborers, traders and artisans" for trying to assume a level of political participation "that was far beyond their capacity."70 Even radical journalist-cum-classical historian I.F. Stone characterized the Roman plebs as "a rabble," comparing them unfavorably to Athens' "citizenry."71 And the lib­eral Lewis Mumford referred to Rome's "parasitic mob."7Z

Historians have been ever alert to the corrupting influence that state assistance might have upon the Roman poor. Sallust, who wrote during Caesar's day, spoke of "the populace who are now demoralized by largesse and the public distribution of grain." Forced into idleness, they become "infected with vicious princi­ples" and need to "be prevented from disturbing the government."73 Appian was convinced that the grain ration attracted "the idly destitute and hotheaded elements of the Italian population to the capital," who contrast unfavorably with "those who possessed property and good sense."74 Juvenal wrote scorn­fully of the mob's preoccupation with "pattern et circenses" (bread and circuses), a phrase that has echoed down through the ages, adding to the image of Rome's proletariat as a shiftless, volatile mass addicted to endless rounds of free victuals and free enter­tainment.75

Centuries later, Scullard denounced "the city mob" as "far too irresponsible to exercise political power: rather it wanted 'panem et circenses.'" Mumford saw only parasitism in "the dual handout of bread and circuses."76 And John Dickinson denounced Julius Caesar for appealing to "the cupidity and self-interest of those who desired to be supported at the expense of the state."77 Dick­inson saw the plebs as acting from their "baser motives" when they demanded subsidized bread prices, land reform, public jobs, and rent easement. He voices no reproach of the nobility for their expropriation of the public lands, their usury, rent gouging, and plundering of the provinces. In a similar spirit Scullard was cer­tain that a free grain dole "hastened the demoralization of the people." In contrast, he describes the dictator Sulla's abolition of grain distribution as a "reform," and invites no critical comment for the severe hardship it must have inflicted upon the poor.78

Contrary to the image propagated by past and present historians, dole recipients did not live like parasites off the "bread" they received—actually a meager grain ration used for making bread and gruel. Man (and woman) cannot live by bread alone, not even at the simple physiological level. The plebs needed money for rent, clothing, cooking oil, and other necessities. Most of them had to find work, low-paying and irregular as it might be. As a necessary supplement, the bread dole often was the difference between sur­vival and starvation, but it never served as a total support allowing people to idle away their days.

In any case, we might wonder why so many scholars have judged the Roman commoners as venal and degraded because they demanded affordable bread to feed themselves and their children. Alan Cameron is one of the few writers, along with the great G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, who takes issue with the historical image of the freeloading plebs: "That notorious idle mob of layabouts spong­ing off the state is little more than a figment of middle-class prejudice, ancient and modern alike." As with bread, so with cir­cuses. "It was not the people's fault that public entertainments, being in origin religious festivals, were provided free," Cameron adds.79

At any one time, Lewis Mumford reckoned, almost half the free adult population of Rome could be accommodated in its cir­cuses, arenas, and theaters. Mumford seems to think that attendance at the amphitheater became the proletariat's principle occupation. With a touch of psychobabble, he tells us that the commoners sought to escape their "own self-loathing" and "desire for death" by pursuing "a violent desire to impose a humiliating death on others" in the Roman arena.80

It may well be that the games and races helped the poor to for­get their grievances for awhile, acting as a popular distraction, not unlike mass sporting events today. The emperors seemed well aware of the diversionary social control function that the specta­cles served, which probably explains why they continued to produce them regardless of cost.81

The poor were not the only ones to attend the awful bloodlet­ting of the amphitheater. Probably a higher proportion of wealthy nobles and equestrians frequented the games, ensconced in reserved front-row stalls that afforded them the best view. A contemporary report from Juvenal tell us that "all the best seats are reserved for the classes who have the most money."82 Like­wise in the Colosseum the front rows were reserved for magistrates, foreign dignitaries, and senators. The rows directly behind them were set aside for the upper social classes, with additional seats for priests, military officers, and other special groups. Women were consigned to the worst seats in the house at the very top. And behind them was standing room for the common "rabble."83

Emperor Augustus himself admitted to enjoying the games.84 And Tacitus tells us that Emperor Tiberius's son eagerly presided over the gladiatorial contests, displaying an "inordinate delight... in the slaughter, though it be of men who mattered lit­tle."85 The rich and well-born occasionally participated in the arena games. Patrician children displayed their horsemanship. Young peers vied with one another in chariot races. Some knights and the son of an erstwhile praetor voluntarily engaged in dis­plays of combat in a grand spectacle produced by Julius Caesar.86

Portrayed as nothing more than a blood-lusting rabble, the plebs actually were sometimes critical of what they witnessed at arena spectacles. For example, the ceremonies to dedicate Pompey's theater included a battle between a score of elephants and men armed with javelins. The event did not go as intended. The slaughter of the elephants proved more than the crowd could countenance. One giant creature, brought to its knees by the missiles, crawled about, ripping shields from its attackers and tossing them into the air. Another, pierced deeply through the eye with a javelin, fell dead with a horrifying crash. The elephants shrieked bitterly as their tor­mentors closed in. Some of them refused to fight, treading about frantically with trunks raised toward heaven, as if lamenting to the gods. In desperation, the beleaguered beasts tried to break through the iron palisade that corralled them. When they lost all hope of escape, they turned to the arena crowd as if to beg for their assis­tance with heartbreaking gestures of entreaty and a pitiful wailing. The spectators were moved to tears and brought to their feet curs­ing Pompey, overcome with feeling for these great mammals.87

In another instance, in 46 B.C., to celebrate his Gallic tri­umph and his third consulship, Caesar produced a series of violent spectacles. In the grand finale, two armies respectively composed of war captives and condemned criminals—each side consisting of hundreds of foot soldiers, cavalry, and a score of ele­phants—waged a battle to the death. But the Roman commoners were more distressed than enthralled by the bloody performance. As Dio Cassius records, they criticized Caesar for the great num­ber who were slain, charging that "he had not himself become satiated with slaughter and was exhibiting to the populace sym­bols of their own miseries." In addition, an outcry was raised because Caesar had collected most of the funds unjustly and had squandered them on such a wanton display.88

Who actually composed the Roman proletariat, this "heartless mob" who wept for tormented elephants and deplored the arena's dissipation of blood and treasure? Who might be this "idle rabble" who organized into political clubs and workers' guilds, and engaged in Forum meetings, demonstrations, and street insurgencies?

The "mobs" of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and France are described by the upper-class critics of those times as composed of beggars, convicts, and other low-life detritus. But records reveal that rebel crowds in both countries consisted of farm laborers, and various kinds of craftsmen, along with shop­keepers, wine merchants, cooks, porters, domestic servants, miners, and laborers; almost all of fixed abode, some temporarily unemployed, only a handful of whom were vagrants or had crim­inal records.89

The rebels of the Paris Commune of 1871, sentenced to death or imprisonment, consisted of carpenters, tin workers, watchmak­ers, bookbinders, teachers, house painters, locksmiths, tailors, tanners, stonecutters, bricklayers, cobblers, dressmakers, and numerous other occupations. Still others listed themselves as med­ical student, accountant, cashier, man of letters, and head of primary school. About half the craftsmen and skilled workers of Paris fell in the summary mass executions of 1871.90

The longstanding stereotype of popular mobs as fickle, brutish, rootless, and senselessly destructive was elaborately promoted by Gustave Le Bon in his La Foule, translated into English in 1869 as The Crowd, a book that has been kept in print and assigned to generations of students for over 135 years, long declared a classic. "Although Le Bon wrote in the relatively tranquil late nineteenth century," remarks Leonard Richards, "he managed to sound like an aristocrat dashing off a passionate indictment of the French Revolution several hours before it became his turn to meet the guillotine."91 Also challenging Le Bon is George Rude who maintains that the "mobish actions" of the eighteenth century were not wanton mindless affairs but forms of social protest against unaffordable rents, food prices, and crushing taxes. The riots often were coordinated actions, targeting particular officials, mer­chants, granaries, landlords, and other culpable persons and places, depending on the issue. They agitated not only for bread but for decent wages, the security of their homes, and the right to dissent and organize unions. Rude concludes that rioters did not consist of the lawless riffraff "imagined by those historians who have taken their cue from the prejudiced accounts of contempo­rary observers."91

(Parenthetically it might be added that, of course, not all crowd actions have been directed toward democratic goals. One need only draw examples from our own history of lynchings, race riots, anti-immigrant riots, jingoist attacks on peace protest­ers, and the like. Keep in mind that in the early nineteenth century, anti-abolition mobs often were mobilized and prodded by community leaders, prominent slaveholders, and other afflu­ent individuals.93)

Returning to ancient Rome, we find Cicero gazing down from his senatorial heights, characterizing the activist elements among the plebs as "exiles, slaves, madmen," runaways, criminals, and "assassins from the jail." In fact, they were mostly masons, car­penters, shopkeepers, scribes, glaziers, butchers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, bakers, dyers, rope makers, weavers, fullers, tan­ners, metal workers, scrap dealers, teamsters, dockers, porters, and various day jobbers—the toiling proletariat of Rome.94

In the slim record that comes down to us, there is evidence indi­cating that these commoners were quite capable of exercising critical judgment at crucial times. For instance, in July 45 B.C., as Cicero himself relates, the people showed their displeasure at Caesar's monarchical pretensions, refraining from applauding his statue when it was being carried with those of the gods in a pro­cession.95

Many of Rome's commoners were ex-slaves or the sons of slaves. Most were almost as poor as slaves. They sometimes worked alongside slaves, and were inclined to feel a common interest with the servile population on many basic issues. In parts of Sicily, free farmhands joined in common cause with slaves to rebel against big planters.96 An incident from Tacitus speaks volumes. In A.D. 61, the city prefect was murdered in his bed chamber by one or more of his slaves. By ancient custom, when a master was murdered by a slave all servi in the house­hold had to be put to death. In this instance it meant the extermination of some four hundred souls, including women and children. The possibility of such a mass execution caused a public outcry, compelling the Senate to hold a formal debate on the issue. One of the senior members of the Senate spoke at length in support of the executions, maintaining that the slave­holder's interest demanded that there be no departure from ancient practice no matter how harsh the outcome. "If all four hundred slaves are not executed, who among us will be safe?" he argued. There were a few uneasy outcries, but no senator took the floor to denounce the measure, which passed without further debate.97

This mass execution however did evoke furious protests from the plebs, who assembled outside the Senate House armed with rocks and torches. Emperor Nero had to bring out the troops to line the route over which the condemned passed. The sense of moral outrage expressed by the protesters signaled a sympathetic bond between impoverished slaves and impoverished plebs. Tac­itus refers to the protesters as "the mob" but offers no critical description of the mob mentality that prevailed within the Senate House among those who sanctioned this mass murder.

Rather than being a mindless rabble, the poor joined battle on a number of issues that affected them, showing a keen sense of their own interests. Not without reason did Cato the younger, a fierce conservative, fear restiveness among the very poorest, for they "were always the first to kindle the flame among the people."98 Yavetz cites over fifty mass political actions known to have occurred during the Republican era." The Roman commoners provided support to the various reform-minded leaders (popu-lares), including Julius Caesar who was able to win their backing less because they were mesmerized by his demagogic style and more because they strongly favored his luxury taxes on the rich, and his programs for land reform and resettlement of deracinated families. Caesar canceled rents for a year, abolished about 25 per­cent of all debts, and initiated public works projects that eased the underemployment. He also required that free labor replace one-third of the slave workforce on the plantations. These and other initiatives won him much popular regard.

What evidence we have of proletarian activism is virtually ignored by almost all modern-day classical historians. Almost a century before Caesar there was Tiberius Gracchus who as a peo­ple's tribune championed agrarian reform. Plutarch writes, "It was above all the people themselves who did most to stoke Tiberius's energy and ambitions by inscribing slogans and appeals on porticoes, monuments, and the walls of houses, calling upon him to recover the public land for the poor." Tiberius and some three hundred of his supporters were massacred in 133 B.C. by a gang of assassins led by conservative senators, most notably Nasica. The common people felt bitterly about the killings and spoke openly of revenge. When they encountered Nasica, reports Plutarch, "they did not try to hide their hatred of him, but grew savage and cried out upon him wherever he chanced to be, calling him an accursed man and a tyrant." Fearing for Nasica's safety, the Senate voted to send him to Asia though it had no need of him there. Nasica wandered about ignominiously in foreign lands for a brief period, then took his own life.100

About ten years after Tiberius's death, his younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, a people's tribune, left his home on the fashion­able Palatine Hill to live among the poor near the Forum. After he put forth his reform legislation, "a great multitude began to gather in Rome from all parts of Italy to support him." Gaius won "the wholehearted devotion of the people, and they were prepared to do almost anything in the world to show their good­will."101 But he too, along with some Z50 of his supporters were killed by the senatorial oligarchs' death squads in 121 B.C.

After the Gracchi were assassinated, public acknowledgment of their existence was officially proscribed. The oligarchs were intent upon expurgating the collective historical memory. Yet the populace continued to commemorate the brothers. Plutarch offers a moving vignette: "The people were cowed and humiliated by the collapse of the democratic cause, but they soon showed how deeply they missed and longed for the Gracchi. Statues of the brothers were set up in a prominent part of the city, the places where they had fallen were declared to be holy ground, and the first-fruits of the season were offered up there throughout the year. Many people even sacrificed to the Gracchi every day, and worshipped their statues as though they were visiting the shrines of gods."102

In 6z B.C. another popular leader, Catiline, was hunted down and killed along with others in a northern province by an army under orders from Rome's leading consul of that day, none other than Cicero. A few years later, the plebs adorned Catiline's tomb "as formerly that of the Gracchi, with flowers and garlands," writes Mommsen.103 As far as can be said, the people never offered memorial tributes to Cicero, Cato, Sulla, Catulus, Brutus, Cassius, or any other prominent senatorial oligarch.

In 70 B.C. and again in 67, 66, and 64, radical tribunes packed the assemblies and launched demonstrations and electoral cam­paigns by mobilizing the collegia, those guilds of freedmen, slaves, and free poor. Such mass actions were enough to cause the Senate to pass a decree dissolving all but a few of the more innocuous collegia, depriving the popular movement of its key organizations.

In all, the proletariat played a crucial but much ignored role in the struggle for democratic policies. They showed themselves to be neither a mindless mob nor a shiftless rabble but a politically aware force capable of registering preferences in accordance with their interests, able to distinguish friend from foe. That their efforts have been deemed worthy of little more than passing con­demnation is but a further reflection of the elite biases shared by ancient and modern historians alike.

We hear that we must avoid imposing present values upon past experience, and we must immerse ourselves in the historic context under study. But few present-day historians immerse themselves in the grim and embattled social experience of the Roman com­moners. If anything, they see the poor—especially the rebellious poor—through the prism of their own elitist bias, the same bias shared by ancient historians. In the one-sided record that is called history, it has been standard practice to damn popular agitation as the work of riffraff and demagogues.

The common people of ancient Rome had scant opportunity to leave a written record of their views and struggles. Still, what we know of them suggests that they displayed a social consciousness and sense of justice that was usually superior to anything pos­sessed by their would-be superiors. The anonymous masses, upon whose shoulders stood such great reform leaders as the Gracchi, come down to us most usually as a disreputable mob.

They who struggled against formidable odds with the fear and courage of ordinary humans, whose names we shall never know, whose blood and tears we shall never see, whose cries of pain and hope we shall never hear, to them we are linked by a past that is never dead nor ever really past. And so, when the best pages of history are finally written, it will be not by princes, presidents, prime ministers, or pundits, nor even by professors, but by the people themselves. For all their faults and shortcomings, the peo­ple are all we have. Indeed, we ourselves are the people.

From Contrary Notions (2007)


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