They took our jobs, or stadium seats

2016/11/16

In reading Mary Beard’s SPQR, a Roman history book, at this moment in time, I saw something poignant.

Gaius Fannius was consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic, in 122 BC. While he office, he was in conflict with Gaius Gracchus, one of the Gracchi brothers who were famous for their populist calls for reform. This was a point in time when Rome had begun giving citizenship to some people outside Rome. This was a very unusual thing in the ancient world: citizenship had always meant that you were from and lived in some city.

The lines between Romans and Italians had begun to blur; apparently people from outside Italy used the two terms interchangeably. There was considerable debate inside Rome, however, about who should get Roman citizenship. Gracchus was proposing that all Latins, the tribe (something like an ethnic group) to which the Roman belonged, should be given Roman citizenship. Fannius opposed this idea, and there is a small quote that is attributed to a speech he made at a contio.

In Rome, major laws were passed by assemblies of the people. A magistrate would call the contio, which preceded voting, and the magistrate and anyone he invited could speak about the proposed legislation. (Weirdly, it appears that most laws proposed to the people were passed, which makes it very unlike our US Congress.)

At a contio, Fannius is supposed to have said: “If you give Latins the citizenship, do you think that, like now, you will have room at the contio or attend the games and feast days?” (My translation is from Community and Communication, p. 48.)

I thought I would write a brilliant little post about how relevant these words are to our time, but that has already been done.

And Mary Beard has already done a lovely job of showing that the resonance of these words has less to do with Rome and more to do with how we relate to Rome and how we view it in light of our current political situations.