"Then the poor, who had been ejected from their land, no longer showed themselves eager for military service, and neglected the bringing up of children, so that soon all Italy was conscious of a dearth of freemen, and was filled with gangs of foreign slaves, by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates, from which they had driven away the free citizens”.
Alphen, Netherlands. 12 August. Britain stands on the precipice of perhaps its greatest constitutional crisis since the 1688 Glorious Revolution, which is quite an ‘achievement’ for Britain’s appalling political class given Britain does actually have a written constitution. Its new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is not the idle dolt some suggest he is. As an Oxford historian, anyone who survived an Oxford Classics course has my grudging respect. Still, Prime Minister ‘Boris’, as he seems now to be universally known, may well pause and consider one story from the classics he so loves, that of Tiberius. Like Tiberius, Boris is a patrician siding with the populace against his own class on an issue of utmost gravity for Brexit is not just about Britain’s membership of the EU, it is ultimately about who runs Britain.
In 133 BC, Rome was in tumult as it stood on the verge of bankruptcy due to expensive wars, with its people threatened with starvation. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, son of Gracchus, and grandson of Scipio Africanus, conqueror of Carthage, and an aristocratic tribune of the people, proposed a land bill that attacked Patrician corruption and promised the re-distribution of resources away from the aristocracy in favour of the plebians, particularly those in rural areas. Critically, Tiberius chose to ignore Patrician privilege and convention by seeking the support of the ‘people’ and against his peers in the Senate, which in the Roman Republic had long held the right to approve all proposed legislation before it went before the plebs.
The simple, but dangerous question Tiberius posed was who should the Roman Empire benefit – Patricians or people? To be fair, Tiberius’s bill was not asking for much, simply that the great landowners make the state-owned public land they held on trust available to the plebs. Tiberius believed such a move would not only improve food production but by enfranchising more plebs re-establish the link between farm ownership and military service which had long been the essential ‘contract’ for service in Rome’s legion.
The Patricians would have none of it and Rome descended into anarchy over Tiberius’s ‘New Deal’. In spite of their undoubted power, as exercised through the Senate, it was nominally the Roman people who were ultimately sovereign – Senatus Populusque Romanus! And, only the people, or rather their tribunes, could vote on laws in the Assembly. Rome faced the prospect of a New Deal land deal or a no deal, which would have automatically removed large swathes of land long held by the aristocracy.
On the day of the critical vote Tiberius had not reckoned for his erstwhile friend, and fellow tribune, Marcus Octavius. When the presiding magistrate called for voting to begin, Octavius, shouted ‘veto’, effectively halting the vote. Desperate to be seen as one of the aristocracy, and himself a landowner, Octavius’s loyalty had been bought by aristocrats in the Senate. What ensued thereafter was political stalemate as Tiberius repeatedly tried to introduce his bill and Octavius repeatedly vetoed it. Worse, Octavius simply refused to budge, even though Tiberius offered to compensate him for any land lost under the bill. When that failed Tiberius simply blocked all state business from being enacted until Octavius lifted his veto and the land bill was passed.
Matters came to a head at a meeting of the Plebeian Assembly when Tiberius moved to strip Octavius of his office, something which had never before been done in the history of the Republic. Such was the tension that civil strife beckoned, which forced Tiberius to suspend the vote and make one final plea to Octavius to lift his veto. He refused, and only escaped alive from a vengeful mob because of the protection afforded him by Tiberius’s own bodyguard. Octavius was deposed and Tiberius’s New Deal land bill entered into Roman law.
From the outset, the Patricians stymied the law by using the Senate to refuse the necessary funding to enact it. They also mounted a smear campaign against Tiberius, suggesting his only interest was power, not the people. That he was a would-be Dictator, determined to overthrow the Republic and declare himself king. Thereafter, Tiberius tried to remove the Senate’s traditional control over foreign and economic affairs, and directly usurped its authority when he seized a major bequest to Rome to fund the Lex Sempronia Agraria. Tiberius knew he would face a criminal case once his tenure as a tribune expired, so he sought to stand again, which was also unconstitutional, and simply fuelled the rumour that he was power-crazed.
For Tiberius to be re-elected he would need to rely on the rural voters who supported him. He would also have to return to Rome, which he had fled for fear of Patrician assassins. Unfortunately for Tiberius it was harvest time and most of his rural base had returned to tend their crops. Faced with no other option but to return to Rome he approached the Forum and began to climb the Capitol. As he did so Nasica rose in the Senate to denounce Tiberius as a Dictator and declared an emergency, and left with his followers and slaves to ‘save’ the Republic. Upon finding Tiberius they clubbed him to death. His brother, Gaius, requested the return of Tiberius’s body so he could be buried as befitted his rank. The aristocratic Senate refused and the bloody corpse of Tiberius was, instead, tossed into the Tiber.
The tragedy of Tiberius revealed the extent of decay within the Roman Republic. The tragedy of Brexit has revealed the decay within Britain. For me, one of the many heart-breaking causes of such decay in my once great country is the nature of the divide that separates its people. Too many of those who believe, as I do, that it is not in the British interest to walk away from institutions vital to Britain’s national interest, also no longer believe in Britain as a power. Too many of those who believe Britain should leave the EU do so because of an entirely misplaced notion of patriotism, allied a complete misunderstanding of the workings of twenty-first century geopolitics works. For me, Britain can both be a major power and remain inside the EU, to leverage greater strategic influence, for the well-being of its people, and to stop the Patricians in Brussels who do seek barely-accountable power in the name of ‘Europe’.
There is, of course, a big ‘if’ to my thinking, which Boris Johnson’s rambunctious premiership has outed, the supine nature of London’s elite establishment. Too many of those who no longer believe in Britain as a power also hold positions of power and responsibility in London.
Senatus Populusque Britannicus?