I recently came across a passage from a speech appearing in Sallust’s Historiae (III.48). The oration is put in the mouth of the popular tribune Caius Licinius Macer, who was battling the influence of the Roman patricians. It purportedly was delivered in 73 B.C.; Macer’s intention was to rouse the common people to action against the venality and greed of the elites who controlled Rome and who refused to listen to the will of the people. A continuous theme in the era of the late republic was the constant attempt by the elites to prevent economic reforms that might benefit the state as a whole, rather than just them. We this same motif, of course, played out again in our own day.
The closing words of the speech have an inescapable contemporary resonance that readers would do well to reflect on. Recent events, and the realities of the current distribution of political and economic power in the United States, bring certain issues into focus that have reappeared many times in history. These are his words, as I have rendered them from the original:
Therefore all have now acquiesced in the domination of a few who, using the label of “military necessity”, have taken control of the treasury, the armed forces, the kings, and the provinces. These people have erected a castle with your spoils; meanwhile you, just like cattle, surrender yourselves–a coherent group–to individual masters for their exploitation and amusement. In such a way you have lost everything passed down to you by your ancestors, except the only thing left is that you can select by your votes what may once have been your protectors, but who are now your absolute masters…
“So what, then, do you think should be done?”, some of you will ask. First of all you (I mean those who have sharp tongues but craven hearts) must stop indulging this habit of thinking that liberty doesn’t exist outside of houses of legislation…
Previously, my fellow citizens, each citizen was safeguarded by the community as a whole, rather than the community looking for protection from one single man. No mortal man was able to give or to snatch away such things from you on a whim. So enough words have been said. For the issue is not closed out due to ignorance. I am not sure, but it seems a kind of torpor has taken hold of you, so that you are roused neither by glory nor by shame. You have given up everything for your current unworthiness. You believe you have enough liberty because your backs are spared from the lash, and because you are allowed to go here and there at the whim of your elite masters.
And even these things the country people do not receive; they are killed in the power disputes of the elites and given as gifts to the magistrates in the provinces. Their battles are fought, and their conquests are made, for the benefit of a select few: as far as the plebians are concerned, no matter what the outcome is, they are seen as defeated.
And more of this will happen on a daily basis as long as they take more care in preserving their domination than you do in seeking your freedom.