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Political militants in Rome during the late republic

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Death of Clodius
Death of Clodius

The declining period of the Roman Republic was full of violent political conflicts ending in bloodshed. Groups of people who in modern times would undoubtedly deserve the name of political militias had a large share in this.

Their existence can be explained on the basis of several factors. Firstly, no one other than the noblemen who formed the Roman political class was in such a privileged position to be able to keep people under arms, therefore it was common for them to have armed processions. It was a manifestation of a fairly broad right to self-defence which was expressed in the sentence Vim vi repellere omnia iura permittunt – to resist force by force all laws allow, which was standardized in lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis from 81 BCE explicitly admitting the possibility of a homicide which occurred in self-defence.

It should also be remembered that in Rome at that time there was no universal prohibition of murder, because it would have to contain too many exceptions, such as the owner’s right to kill a slave, the father’s right to kill his children – ius vitae ac nescis –or the possibility of impunity the extermination of outlaws, such as convicts who do not respect the penalty of exile. It is worth noting that also the killings committed as part of the senatus consultum ultimum action – senate resolutions introducing a kind of state of emergency due to internal threats – remained in the majesty of the law and, consequently, were unpunished.

Another important issue is that it is difficult to assess whether the Romans had permanent access and freedom to dispose of weapons at that time. It seems that it would be even strange if, especially in times of social unrest and intensifying political struggles, the gun ban was not used. Perhaps such a right belonged to a narrower or broader section of society, but it certainly could not be owned by everyone. After all, if there were special public arsenals in the city, the activation of which was possible only through senatus consultum ultimum, it is quite likely that an ordinary Roman citizen did not have access to weapons on a daily basis. It is also worth bearing in mind that on the basis of the institution of the interdict de vi armata (granted by the praetor of an out-of-trial measure to protect property ownership; it was available to owners who were taken away by force with a weapon), it is known that as a weapon, apart from e.g. swords also classified sticks and stones. This clearly shows that, in force decisions, the ancient Romans were often able to use objects that would be difficult to restrict access to.

Slaves were recruited to Roman militias, apart from citizens – supporters. As subordinate units, they were accustomed to obedience, and could, therefore, become a good seed for penal unit members. It should also be mentioned that slaves had a general and strictly enforced obligation to protect their owners. There are known cases of executions of slaves who did not defend the owner killed by the robbers in their home because they were simply working in the fields at that time. Escaped slaves were also promising recruits, joining forces of politicians promising mass liberations and extensions of citizenship. A great example of this was a detachment of Bardyai, runaway slaves who formed the bodyguard Gaius Marius during the prevailing popularity in the First Civil War, famous for numerous murders and looting of Roman citizens.

Interestingly, there are numerous cases where gladiators were used in political clashes. They were as slaves or so-called auctorati (i.e. free persons who voluntarily hired their services as gladiators; they were subject to restrictions of freedom due to the need to submit to the orders of the teacher and the gladiator barracks, to which they undertook a separate oath) accustomed to discipline, in addition, they were of course highly skilled with weapons. Gladiators formed the troops of the tribune of the people of Publius Sulpicius, allied with Gaius Marius, they formed the retinue of Titus Annius Milo in the famous clash with Publius Clodius Pulcher on Via Appia, and brought by Decimus Brutus they protected the conspirators guilty of the death of Julius Caesar.

Another source of recruits for political militias were sicarii (“cutters” from Latin sica –short, curved dagger, traditional weapons of the Thracians and Daks) – members of Roman organized crime working professionally the performance of contract killings. It was from them that troublemakers such as Publius Clodius Pulcher or Lucius Sergius Catilinaformed their troops, but it seems that their acquisition by the powerful and influential Romans was the rule. The existence of the sicarii bands was already a fully formed and common phenomenon in the Roman metropolis until the times of the dictatorship of Cornelius Sulla, which intensified after the orders of repression of him. Lex de proscriptione not only allowed the killing of proscription with impunity, but also rewarded the killers. sicarii included not only criminals but also people of higher status, who, even if they did not kill themselves, ordered the murders and then got rich by buying the victims’ property for a song.

Political militants allowed to influence Roman political life in many ways, enough to mention, for example, the intimidation of voters who wanted to vote for another candidate or the physical elimination of opponents. They could have had a more indirect effect, a great example of which was the trial of Titus Annius Milo against him for the killing of Publius Clodius Pulcher by his people. The defender of the defendant Cicero would certainly be able to deliver a speech in line with his later literary work Pro Milone, which was based on the facts presented in process, but otherwise had little to do with the actual course of events. The raging Pompey militia created such a nervous atmosphere that the great speaker gave a weak performance, which ended in failure in the trial and exile of Milo.

Author: Michał Szabłowski (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Krzysztof Amielańczyk, Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis. Ustawa Korneliusza Sulli przeciwko nożownikom i trucicielom 81 r. p.n.e.. Wydawnictwo UMCS, Lublin 2011
  • Paweł Jasienica, Długie szczęśliwe życie Marka Tuliusza ze zbioru Tylko o historii, Wydawnictwo Prószyński i S-ka
  • Marek Kuryłowicz, Adam Wiliński, Rzymskie prawo prywatne. Zarys wykładu, 6 wydanie zmienione i uzupełnione, Wydawnictwo Wolters Kluwer
  • Stanisław Stabryła, Terroryści znad Tybru. Akty przemocy publicznej i zamachy w starożytnym Rzymie, Wydawnictwo Aspra, Warszawa 2018
  • Witold Wołodkiewicz, Maria Zabłocka, Prawo rzymskie. Instytucje wydanie 6 rozszerzone, Wydawnictwo C.H. Beck, Warszawa 2014

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