Ancient Rome can tell us a lot about politicians and the same sex marriage 'debate'

MARCUS Tullius Cicero was on the run from his enemies in 43BC when he was caught while trying to get on a boat to Macedonia and his throat was cut.

There are reports his last words were: “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.”

The Roman lawyer and politician was known for his wit and way with words and a series of speeches against Mark Antony in the year before Cicero’s death, as the two battled it out for control of Rome.

On an ancient political murder gruesomeness scale of 1 to 10, Cicero’s death would probably rate a 3 or 4. Although his head and hands were cut off and nailed up in a Roman forum for all to see, his killing was apparently over with quickly, and the gruesomeness occurred after he was dead and not while he was alive to feel it.

Glass half full, and all that.

Of course Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia – who reportedly took Cicero’s head, pulled out his tongue and jabbed it repeatedly with a hairpin as a final up-yours to Cicero’s corpse – probably took things too far. But she loved her husband, or was stark, raving mad. Each era has its crazy North Korean dictators, after all.

Of course Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia – who reportedly took Cicero’s head, pulled out his tongue and jabbed it repeatedly with a hairpin as a final up-yours to Cicero’s corpse – probably took things too far. But she loved her husband, or was stark, raving mad. Each era has its crazy North Korean dictators, after all.

Cicero is known as a chronicler – hundreds of years after the event – of what can loosely be described as a class struggle during the Roman republic known as the conflict of the orders. Classical scholars have written stunning books challenging and dissecting virtually every point of what we think we know about that period starting in 494BC, but it’s settled that there were groups known as the patricians – the aristocrats – and the plebeians – the commoners.

There were “no snobs like patrician snobs”, wrote historian Tom Holland in his wonderful 2003 book, Rubicon, about the last decades of the Roman republic.

“They had the right to wear fancy shoes. They claimed to hobnob with gods. Some even claimed to be descended from gods,” he wrote.

Patricians governed the republic at first. But the plebeians didn’t take things lying down. They went out on strike. For more than a century the two groups scrapped, with the patricians giving ground and the plebeians gaining power and influence until 367BC when theoretical political equality was achieved.

It’s from this period we have the word “plebiscite”, which were the Acts of the Plebeian legislative assembly.

It’s not difficult to think that the ancient Roman republic sounds terribly democratic, with commoners demanding rights from the elites and eventually becoming their political equals. And certainly elected officials – whether patricians or plebeians – had to woo voters.

Here’s Cicero on being a Roman politician: “Those of us who are storm-tossed on the waves of popular opinion must devote ourselves to the will of the people, massage it, nurture it, try to keep it happy when it seems to turn against us . . . If political rewards are indeed our goal, then we should never tire of courting the voters.”

But Roman “democracy” had its limits. By 367BC there were patricians and plebeians with theoretical political equality, but it also produced wealthy plebeians who had “lost all incentive to side with the poor”, Holland said.

They focused on concentrating power and “buying up” property instead, similar to a lot of elected representatives today.

Inequality was “the price that citizens of the Roman republic willingly paid for their sense of community”, Holland concluded.

Cicero is lauded today as one of the most influential men in history. The discovery of his writings is credited with initiating the 14th Century Renaissance and the rise of humanism. But Cicero’s contemporary critics ridiculed his inconsistency and tendency to shift position as the political climate changed.

“Would that he had been able to endure prosperity with greater self-control, and adversity with more fortitude,” wrote Roman historian Gaius Asinius Pollio.

And so, somewhat inevitably given talk of plebiscites, inconsistency and shifting position as the political climate changes, we come to Malcolm Turnbull and the $122 million same sex marriage postal plebiscite – the orphan love child or demon spawn of a political system that’s now so far up its own orifice on the issue that majority public sentiment counts for nothing.

The same sex marriage “debate” has become politicians fighting for the sake of fighting and a wasteful and worthless postal plebiscite dressed up as a win for democracy and the people’s right to have a say.

It’s the plebiscite you have when you can’t even muster enough votes in Parliament to have a traditional plebiscite, and where even a traditional plebiscite is a red herring because a big chunk of both major parties’ political representatives are hung up on the issue.

In ancient Rome there was a word to describe an aristocrat politician who relied on being seen as a man with the common touch, who represented the poor and unfortunate – a “populare”. Such a politician - “no matter how overweening his personal ambition, could not afford to appear haughty”, Holland said.

But such a politician was “always regarded with suspicion by the more conservative elements in the nobility”. A “populare” was invariably suspected of going too far to help the poor or supporting radical, un-Roman reforms.

And in Rome it was the “populares” – caught between commoners and conservatives – who almost inevitably went mad or lost their heads.

This story Plebiscite popularity first appeared on Newcastle Herald.