Hostes publici and #enemiesofthepeople

It’s been another day of sweeping comparisons between the past and the present: this time, the slew of hysterical headlines responding to the UK high court’s ruling that a parliamentary vote will be required to trigger Article 50 have been seen to echo similar diatribes from 1930s Germany (and, interestingly, contemporary Poland). As I make clear every time I write about this, there are plenty of differences as well as similarities, although as 2016 goes by the feeling that we are living in a chapter of a history textbook is becoming more and more real. But the idea of ‘enemies of the people’ is not confined to Nazism: it goes back via the Russian and French revolutions all the way to ancient Rome. In that context it is often associated with the emperor Nero, who was declared a hostis publicus, or public enemy, after being deposed in AD 68 and died an ignominious death as he fled the city. But this was not the first or the most significant time someone was designated in this way.

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The idea that a person’s actions were such that he (all political examples involve men) was considered inimical to the state and his rights were no longer guaranteed within it is most often traced back to the death of the reforming tribune Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. Tiberius, who was far from being an anti-establishment figure, had nevertheless pursued a programme of reforms centred on land redistribution to the poor. Friction between him and other senators worsened amid paranoia, accusations of his personal ambition and their obstruction of what was in the interests of the Roman people, and violence; Tiberius was ultimately killed in fighting that began when the chief priest Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica proclaimed he was taking action to ‘keep the republic safe’.

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Tiberius Gracchus was therefore brought down as a de facto enemy of the state, even though there is no real suggestion that he aimed to lead a popular insurrection against the governing classes. A precedent had been set, though, and as the second century BC gave way to the first and a series of episodes of civil strife followed, it became common for those who had the upper hand at any one time  (whether they were, in modern terms, on the left or the right) to label their opponents as ‘public enemies’. This implied that they themselves were true Romans, upholding the state’s traditional values, while their adversaries were not Roman at all and so did not deserve the legal protection available to citizens. The notion was often associated with the so-called senatus consultum ultimum – the ‘last-resort decree’ passed by the senate authorising its preferred representatives to do whatever needed to be done to neutralise a perceived threat. It was a way of claiming the moral high ground – but also of pretending that a conflict was not a civil war but a justifiable, even honourable fight between Romans and foreign enemies (when, decades later, the new emperor Augustus stressed in art and literature the foreign, exotic, eastern qualities of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, whom he had defeated, he was using the same tactic). It was in these terms that Cicero portrayed in his speeches the aristocratic rebel Catiline (whose alleged plans for a coup in 63 may or may not have been as dastardly as Cicero suggests) and, in the 40s, Antony himself. Worse still, at several points during the civil wars of the first century, victorious factions engaged in ‘proscription’ of their enemies, literally listing people who were considered to have lost the right to be citizens, own property and (often) continue to live. In 43 Cicero himself fell victim to this at Antony’s instigation; after his death, his head and hands (as the source of his rhetoric) were displayed in the Forum.

As I said, clearly none of this is happening in the UK in 2016. But late republican history is a further reminder that not only can inequality and political tension in a state inflame far more serious conflicts, but the idea of ‘enemies of the people’ is powerful, malleable, and has a tendency to rebound on those who make use of it. Champions of the people should beware.

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