On republics and republicanism

Various musings on republics & republicanism

‘Republicanism’ is a word which holds a special terror in the collective British psyche – and hardly surprising really, given the two greatest republican movements of modern times – the American and French Revolutions – posed and continued to pose enormous threats to the British national interest and established order.  So great was the terror inspired by republicanism, that it immediately conjured (and for some continues to conjure) images of rivers of blood flowing through streets of terrified fleeing citizens, the established class structure of aristocracy and monarchy torn to shreds and ruthless, jilted academic types (with bad breath, worse clothes and steel rimmed spectacles) revelling in their new found power over their erstwhile political masters.

The first blow was struck by our American cousins on 4 July 1776 with their unilateral declaration of Independence from King George III’s British government, and the foundation of a new republic in which all men are created and remain equal, with the inherent right to life, liberty and, of course, the pursuit of happiness – oh, and guns.  Lots of guns.  Britain was shaken to its core: the established civil order with the Sovereign at its head had been openly defied.  And yet at home the popular feeling was not a turning away from the King and his government, but rather a profound shock that a colony of the mother country would act so… tastelessly.  However it was in France that republican fervour led to a revolutionary coup of truly seismic proportions.

Great Britain was plunged into a state of terror in the wake of the French revolution.  The utter destruction of the established social order in that country put our nation on the very highest level of alert, creating a culture of real fear among subjects.  Then, as now, Scotland was among the most radicalised parts of Britain, and Pitt’s government (under the significant influence of the then Lord Advocate Henry Dundas, later first Viscount Melville) gave no quarter.  The Egyptian needle standing on Calton Hill is a testament to the memory of Thomas Muir of Huntershill, tried for sedition in Edinburgh in September 1793 before Lord Braxfield and a jury (in a manner most repugnant to fairness and justice) and sentenced to 10 years transportation to the Australian penal colonies – all for the distribution on the streets of Paisley of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet ‘On the Rights of Man’, published in England two years earlier.  The troublesome colonies in America were swept out of mind in the face of a greater crisis, and republicanism at home, and its inevitable arrival by armed and violent revolution, had to be scotched at inception, even if that required the suspension of civil liberties.  The calm, regal, demure image of Brittania, with lion and shield, would prevail, by any means necessary, over the appalling character of barebreasted Liberty, with her flag hoisted in the act of rousing (if not arousing) a bloodthirsty rabble of troublesome insurgents.

Then, of course, there was England’s own and rather bizarre experience of republicanism under the protectorate of Cromwell – a man who, whatever one’s perspective, made John Knox seem a benign and tolerant liberal.  Cromwell’s was the kind of state in which sex while standing would have been outlawed, lest god mistakenly think it dancing.  This cheerless and austere period gave way to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the colourful reign of Charles II, but the experience left a bitter taste, and no doubt only aided the perception of republicanism as harsh and bitter, preferred by the kind of people who enjoy cold baths and wearing loose fitting underpants.

Given the circumstances in which the American and French republics were conceived, as well as the era of Cromwell, it seems hardly surprising that British attitudes to the notion of republican society might be rather sceptical (although I accept, of course, that there are many in this country today who would support radical reform of our constitutional monarchy).  But do these relatively modern experiences belie a deeper unease about the very nature of republicanism itself? It is this deeper unease which I seek to consider, the question of why republicanism came to have such a tarnished reputation in the British Imperial psyche.  That it did, I would suggest, is beyond peradventure – but what are the origins for this horror?  It seems to me that it cannot be a horror of revolution alone, which in truth is merely the unpleasant tool often used to nail republicanism into place.

It seems to me that in order to look republicanism in the face and acknowledge our deep distrust, we must undertake a lengthier journey, back to the time of its birth and death: because republicanism was not only born among the ancients, but also died in that world, before the days when Peter was a simple fisherman in Gallilee.

The Republic (‘politeia’ in Classical Greek), the res publica or ‘public thing’ the ‘city state’, was born, I would suggest, from Athens’ astounding defeat of the Persians at Marathon in 490BC.  The fallen few among the Athenian troops were buried and commemorated on the field itself, rather than at individual and private ceremonies which previously marked the passing of her people.  Athenians developed a sense of their public selves, that their lives were not wholly private and self serving, but instead bound up one with another in the noble pursuit of a way of life worth dying for, and dying gloriously at that.  This was their vision of society, realised on the battlefield against multitudinous hordes of slaves and mercenaries compelled by the lash of a Persian tyrant.  To die for Athens was to defend liberty, and freedom from tyranny.

It was sixty years later, after the first and disastrous conflict of the 26 year war with Sparta, that Pericles, in the course of a lengthy mass funeral oration to mark the fallen brave, memorably encapsulated Athens in the following words:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbours’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

Courageous words, in the autumn of the golden Athenian age: and the defeat at the hands of Sparta which followed marked the decline of that great city.  However the spirit of Athens lived on, inspiring the early citizens of Rome after the overthrow of its royal line of kings.  Less perfect, less equal, more militaristic and perhaps more violent than its Greek cousin, Rome nevertheless defined itself as a republic; and accordingly no man was above the power of the State.  Time and again through its history great, powerful and ambitious citizens would put themselves at the front of vast armies in the service of Rome; and having returned successful, would then discharge themselves from their military command and return to the status of private Roman citizen – often to face legal challenges or even prosecution for the discharge of those very military offices!  To lead an army into the City, triumphant or otherwise, was simply an act of treason (unless following the specific grant of a ‘Triumph’ by a majority of the Senate to the victorious general).  The will of the individual man, however great, must accordingly bend to the will of the State.

The heroes and acts of heroism fostered by the republic are legion; and the role call is impressive.  Lucius Junius Brutus, Marcus Brutus’ august ancestor, who overthrew Rome’s last king, Tarquin the proud, and was the founder of the republic and first consul in 509BC; the legendary Lucretia, raped by Tarquin’s son, an event which shocked Rome, engendered hatred of the king and directly led to his expulsion from the city; Horatius Cocles, who heroically saved Rome at the Sublician Bridge by holding it against the besieging army of the vengeful Tarquin; Gaius Mucius Scaevola, after he fearlessly plunged his right hand into the fire to demonstrate his utter disregard for physical pain or torture, having been caught red handed (no pun intended) in the act of trying to assassinate the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna; Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, the famous victor over Rome’s neighbouring Volscians in the early struggles for ascendancy in the region; and Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, who finally defeated Hannibal, the greatest of Rome’s enemies, at the battle of Zama in North Africa, marking Rome’s transformation into a truly imperial power; the Gracchi brothers Gaius and Tiberius, both assassinated for their attempts to reform the land laws in favour of the plebeians; Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, whose power struggle in the early first century BC plunged Rome into its first civil war and nearly brought the Republic to an end; and then of course the warrior Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, (Pompey the Great), the stubborn and tenacious senator Marcus Porcius Cato, the millionaire statesman and general Marcus Licinius Crassus who ruthlessly quelled Spartacus’ slave revolt and Marcius Tullius Cicero, lawyer, philosopher statesman, and father of the nation for his handling of the treacherous uprising of Lucius Sergius Catalina.

At the end of this list of great Romans, it occurs to me that it may be appropriate to explain some of the broader points about the Roman naming system.  For those of you unfamiliar with the subject, I will endeavour briefly to explain.  By the time of the Republican era, the name of a male Roman citizen consisted of three parts: the praenomen (or ‘given’ name); the nomen gentile (being the name of the gens, tribe or clan to which he belonged) and the cognomen, being a particular family line within the clan (akin to that commonest of questions in polite British society, “are you one of the Dorset Marjoribanks or Sussex Marjoribanks?”).  Rather differently from modern times, however, the cognomen was usually a nickname of some kind or other, acquired by an ancestor.  One thing is certainly true: the Romans loved nicknames.  And so if we take the poet Publius Ovidius Naso, for example, he was ‘little Publius’ to his mater and pater.  ‘Ovidius’ indicated he was sprung from the Ovidian clan (which may be a reference to ‘ovis’, a sheep, which would be consistent with the high pastoral valleys of modern Abruzzo from which his people came) and ‘Naso’, ‘those of the big nose’.  To close friends he would be referred to as Publius, but to others he would have been referred to as Ovidius Naso, or simply Ovidius once his fame was secured.  Other Romans, for example Cicero or Cato, were widely known by their cognomen or nickname alone.  My personal favourite is Marcus Valerius Corvus, who earned his nickname fighting a giant Gaullish warrior outside the walls of Rome in the third century BC.  Immediately before the fight, a great, jet black crow settled on his helmet and proceeded to set about the hapless Gaul to his inevitable distraction, while our intrepid Marcus dealt the final blow.  The nickname ‘Crow’ in this instance, perhaps, rather highlights another famous Roman quality: at times, a disappointing lack of imagination.

But I digress.  Returning once again to the main theme and in particular armed service to the Republic, it must be noted that power, and particularly the kind to be found at the front of a well disciplined army, can be irresistible, no matter what greater principles there may be in the world.  Gaius Julius Caesar, at the head of an army returning from his conquest of Gaul, saw this all too clearly.  Thus it was in 49BC that, by crossing the river Rubicon, Caesar (of course meaning “baldy”) committed himself to the unthinkable, and marched in the manner of a foreign tyrant on his home – a city which for centuries had survived by the principle that no one man is greater than the republic.

Caesar was a clever and ambitious man, and undoubtedly had grown tired of all the talk without action that the Republic’s senators seemed to indulge in.  Throughout his civic life Caesar had always allied his cause with the people and he had masterfully painted the Roman Senate as a collection of self interested patricians; however the passage of time has perhaps inured us to the enormity of Caesar’s crime.  To every free citizen waiting powerless in Rome, each tramp of Caesar’s infantry sounded a deathknell for the Republic.  Six years later, Caesar (by this time Dictator of Rome) was dramatically assassinated by men who saw his actions as a threat to the very survival of the Republic they loved: and yet their actions would lead inexorably to the downfall of that beloved republic, ushering in the Narnian winter, the Stalinist authoritarianism, which typified the worst aspects of Imperial rule.

And so the last Republic came to die and pass from the ancient world.  It had a noble birth, a glorious life, but struggled in the end to preserve its existence against the vaulting ambition of one of its own.  It is perhaps true to say that the Roman Senate had ceased to be an effective means of governing the growing territory of Rome: however every dictator would no doubt rely upon the political expediency of one man rule – in the end, I suppose, one either agrees or disagrees with Pericles’ vision of an ideal society.

It seems truly ironic to me that whereas the popular cry of the people behind Caesar brought down the Roman Republic, the same popular cry justified the creation of every republic thereafter.  Why is it, however, that republicanism came to be so reviled?  The short answer, of course, is that the victors write the history books.  Here, however, is my own theory on the matter.

The assassination of Julius Caesar came to be an event of the greatest significance.  Far from being the betrayor of the republic, Caesar was now in point of fact a prince, betrayed by smaller, petty rivals.  The people had been robbed of their glorious leader and only another such leader would suffice.  The Roman people, however, could not countenance the idea of a king, and so it became expedient to create a new title for the position of absolute hereditary ruler: namely emperor.  In time, after Octavian’s crushing victory over Mark Anthony in the waters off Actium in 31BC, ‘emperor’ became synonymous with ‘Caesar’ as the title for Rome’s absolute rulers, eventually even giving us ‘Kaiser’ in Germany and ‘Tsar’ in Russia, in echo of that ancient title.

The greatness of Rome thus became the power of the Imperial State and the army.  The citizens were left to concern themselves with their petty lives, revolving around ‘bread and circuses’, as Juvenal sardonically reminds us.  A republic is no way to run an empire: best leave that to the ruthless whim of one man, backed by an army of civil servants as well as soldiers.

And so it seems to me that the assassination of Caesar was the first and most significant factor in marking out the Republic as a spent form of civic society.  But the cult of Caesar combined and intertwined itself with something else, equally potent and hostile to republicanism: namely Christianity.

Christ was born in poverty, but his death on a cross marked him out as a king, the king of the Jews, the son of the one true God.  When Christianity later combined with the Roman imperial cult, a heady brew of kingship, royal lineage, divine right and untrammelled authority was the inevitable result.  In this world order, it was the Imperial Caesars whose lineage was claimed, and Julius Caesar himself came to have an almost Christ like status which survived the ancient world and remained the received wisdom through the middle ages and beyond.

If such a suggestion, that Caesar was Christlike, seems far-fetched, then consider his treatment by Dante in the Divine Comedy.  Caesar himself, being unbaptised, must logically be placed outwith Paradise and indeed Purgatory, and so Dante has him in Limbo, the very outmost circle of Inferno suffering ‘the spiritual torment of forever seeking God in vain.’  Dante then, of course, takes us in ever decreasing circles of monstrous vice to the very centre of hell, where Lucifer lurks, imprisoned in the frozen waters of Cocytus.

Here, at the very epicentre of the world’s misdeeds, Dante places three tortured souls and describes them thus:

“That soul up there which has the greatest pain, The Master said, is Judas Iscariot; with head inside, he plies his legs without.  Of the two others, who head downward are, the one who hangs from the black jowl is Brutus; See how he writhes himself, and speaks no word.  And the other, who so stalwart seems, is Cassius.  But night is reascending, and ‘tis time That we depart, for we have seen the whole.”

It is deeply revealing of the place given to Caesar in the mediaeval world, I would suggest, that his betrayers rank alongside Judas as the greatest wrongdoers in history.

Interestingly, and digressing again but just for a moment, it probably also marks the last time the Republicans ever had a two to one majority in any assembly at any time and in any place.

(Judas, as we now know, joined the Democrats two days after Ted Kennedy).

This perception of Caesar is of course advanced upon by Shakespeare, leading, I would suggest, to the most enduring reason why the Roman Republic has remained so out of favour in Britain (despite generations of the classically educated) – I refer of course to his play, Julius Caesar, in which the republicans are cast in the most villainous of lights, and afforded the deeply sarcastic epithet of ‘honourable men’ in comparison to ‘noble caesar’.

It was therefore a society based upon Christian kingship which rose to pre-eminence from the ashes of the ancient world and grafted itself onto the Roman substrata, leading to Edward Gibbon’s moment of insight, which he recorded thus:

“It was at Rome, on the 15th October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Juppiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

And so finally, where does this brief consideration of Republics and republicanism leave us?  What conclusions can we draw and what lessons are there to learn?

It is of course trite to say that the republics of Rome and Greece bear no comparison to the modern notion of republic, or indeed any other form of modern civil society: however we still recognise those nations which are more rigorously republican in their form.  France and America have already been mentioned: to these could be added, for example, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and many, many more.  However other systems such as our own constitutional monarchy, have not remained untouched by republican values and institutions.  Most recently we have the proposed reforms of the House of Lords and the creation of a new Supreme Court for the United Kingdom, both of which might appear more or less ‘republican’, in a broad sense.  Perhaps, rather like ‘facism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘society’, the words ‘republic’ and ‘republicanism’ have simply come to mean less and less, to the point where anyone and anywhere can stake a claim to their employment.

The truth, perhaps, is that republicanism is an ideal like any other, and one which has inspired some of the finest values in human society; and we need not have the rubber stamp of ‘republic’ in order to reflect those values in who we are today, in this country, at this time.  We are all (or can be) republicans in our hearts and in our minds.

Therefore, dear reader, I propose that we all take some inspiration from those great and noble republicans like Pericles, like Cicero, like Cato, like Pompeii the Great for whom discussion and argument showed strength not weakness, for whom war was a reality but not a necessity, for whom peace was not indolence but industry and prosperity, for whom life was a journey of service to one’s country and doing justice to one’s self and one’s fellow man.

To show there truly are no hard feelings, I give the last words to Shakespeare from the mouth of Marcus Brutus:

“If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.  Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?… Who is here so base that would be a bondman?  If any, speak for him have I offended.  Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman?  If any, speak; for him have I offended.  Who is here so vile that will not love his country?  If any, speak; for him have I offended.  I pause for a reply.”

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