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Nature of the Mob

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Livy and Thucydides portray the Roman and Athenian people as a fickle animal governed by its fears and desires. A way they show this is by presenting situations in which an individual with power withholds information from masses because they predict the reaction the people will have. “Perikles, since he saw that they were angry over the situation and not using their best judgment, and since he was confident that he was right about not going out, did not call then into an assembly or military meeting, lest they make mistakes by coming together in a passionate rather than reasonable state”(Thucydides 2.22). Perikles censors the people here by not allowing them to be brought into an assembly because they were being unreasonable and thinking with only their emotions. Later in Sicily Nikias makes a decision fatal to the Athenian army based upon his appraisal of the people “Therefore, he at least, knowing the Athenian character, had no wish to die unjustly, on a shameful charge, at the hands of the Athenians, rather than taking his chances as an individual and meeting his end if he must, at the hands of the enemy.” (Thucydides 7.48) Nikias becomes a victim of the people, he was sent off to fight a war he argued against, then knowing how the people will view his failure he refuses to face their unjust arbitration, and delays their retreat which ultimately leads to their defeat. In both cases an individual withholds the privileges of the people, one in order to protect the people and the other in order to protect himself.

A particular way that Livy does this is by showing how easily the public is ready to jump behind anyone who has power or to prosecute those they fear. “I somehow feel that they went too far in protecting their freedom, even in the most trivial matters. For example, the name of one of the consuls was hateful to the citizens, thought he had given no other offense… At first such talk had a gradual effect on men’s minds; then it spread through the whole state” (Livy 2.2). Here Livy is describing the exile of Tarquinius Collatinus, he first shows how irrational their fear is, then he shows how it spreads from nothing to Collatinus’ exile. Livy again shows the fault of the mob when Valerius is trying to build his house at the highest point in Velia; “Then the surviving consul became unpopular; so fickle are the minds of the mob. “Will you never be able to view a man’s excellence without it being marred by suspicion? How could I possibly have feared that I the fiercest enemy of kings, would myself come under the charge of aiming at kingship?.. how could I have believed that I would be an object of fear to my fellow citizens? Does my reputation with you depend on such a trivial factor?” (Livy 2.7) In both of these instances Livy shows how the plebs inaccurate appraisal of the situation leads to an unjust prosecution of men who helped secure the freedom of the roman people.

Another way they show this is by displaying the price placed upon the support of the people. “They feared not only the enemy but also their own citizens, lest the Roman plebs be stricken with fear and admit the kings into the city, accepting peace even if it entailed slavery. The senate consequently granted many favors to the plebs throughout this period…This liberality on the part of the senators so maintained the harmony of the state in the harsh times of siege and famine that were to come, that the name of “king” was abhorrent to the high and low alike. Nor was there any individual in later years whose demagogic skills make him as popular as the senate was at that time because of its good governance.” (Livy 2.9) This shows the plebs on the verge of accepting a king again out of fear; they’re then bought by the senators through a shower of favors. “They did not actually cease their anger against him altogether until they had punished him with a fine. And then, not much later, as a multitude is apt to behave, they elected him general and entrusted all their affairs to him” (Thucydides 2.65). This part of Thucydides history clearly shows the fickle nature of people; first willing to saddle Perikles with all of their blame, then they extract a meaningless fine from him, only to hand him all the power once again. With Perikles’ death Thucydides denounced democracy, he claims Athens became greatest in the hands of Perikles, and that “what was in name a democracy became in actuality rule by the first man. Those who came later, in contrast, since they were more on an equal level with one another and each striving to become first, even resorted to handing over affairs to the people’s pleasure. As a result, many mistakes were made” (Thucydides 2.65). Simply stated, in the hands of one man Athens was great but in the hands of many equals the politics of Athens became based upon the people’s pleasures.

Livy and Thucydides use the voice of their characters and their own narrator interventions to comment on the politics of the mob. Livy uses the voice of Quinctius Capitolinus to denounce the state of politics and the way in which the people are moved. “Human nature is such that the man who addresses the people in his own selfish interests is more popular than the one whose mind sees nothing except what is advantageous to the state: unless, perhaps, you think that these flatterers of the people--- I mean men who cultivate the plebs and won’t allow you to be either at peace or at war---have your interests in mind when they goad and incite you. By becoming aroused, you promote either their political careers or their enrichment. Moreover, because they see that they are nonentities as long as the state is harmonious, they are willing to be the leaders of a bad cause, rather than no cause at all--- standard-bearers of seditious mobs.” (Livy 3.68) Livy shows the state of the plebs and how they are constantly being incited by the tribunes to cause civil unrest for the political advancement of the instigating tribune. In this way the plebs are shown as a tool of the tribunes whose political platform is anything that will goad the mob. Thucydides makes a similar assertion about the of politics in Greece “For the leading men in the cities, through their emphasis on an attractive slogan for each side- political equality for the masses, the moderation of aristocracy- treated as their prize the public interest to which they paid lip service and, competing by every means to get the better of one another, boldly committed atrocities and proceeded to still worse acts of revenge, stopping as limits set by neither justice nor the city’s interests but by the gratification of their parties at every stage, and whether by condemnations through unjust voting or by acquiring superiority in brute force, both sides were ready to satisfy to the utmost their immediate hopes of victory” (Thucydides 3.82). These quotes show that the politicians will do anything to gain power with absolutely no regard for the people which they seek to derive their power from. This shows that the people have become a tool for politicians, not the other way around as it should be. In Livy this results in the plebs occasional inaction in war until they are appeased, or the internal dissension occasionally provoking enemies to attack Rome. A key example of selfish politicking in Thucydides is when Alcibiades convinces the Athenians to launch the Sicilian expedition, his motives; to counter Nikias politically, personal glory and money to repay his debts. This selfish manipulation of the Athenian people Thucydides properly identifies as a leading cause in Athen’s downfall: “and to a great extent it was this which destroyed the Athenian city” (Thucydides 6.16)

Even though it is made clear how Thucydides and Livy feel about the fickle human nature of the people, the reader must realize that while this is unquestionably a flaw of the Romans and the Athenians, sometimes it is a strength. Possibly the best example is when the Roman people overthrow Tarquinius Superbus following the rape of Lucretia, “But when the Romans saw the leading men of the state marching at the head of the forces, they realized that, whatever it was, that this was no random business. The dreadful event created no less and emotional uproar in Rome than it had in Collatia. People rushed from every part of the city into the forum” (Livy 1.59). The roman people see the leading men of the state ahead an armed force and once their motives and aims are conveyed the people rush to rid themselves of the tyrant. The people seize their freedom in a way consistent with Livy’s appraisal of the mob. Perikles identifies the strength of the people in his funeral oration “it is among us as individuals, in my opinion, that a single man would represent and individual self sufficient for the most varied forms of conduct, and with the most attractive qualities” (Thucydides 2.41). Perikles addresses the key component to Athens democracy, the virtuous individual. Perikles’ democracy required individuals who see less of their own interests than those of the state, but Thucydides tells and shows us his followers gained power through the appeasement of the people, not through their own virtue as individuals.

In closing both Livy and Thucydides understand the power of the people. Each shows cases where the people’s actions benefit the state but more prominently the people are shown acting in accordance with their own vices. Through their commentary on politics the fickle nature of the people is made clear. They show the way power is courted through the abuse of the peoples “human nature,” constantly showing the mobs tendency to make visceral decisions based on persuasive speeches and personal greed. The way that Livy and Thucydides choose to show the Roman and Athenian people provokes doubt in the Athenian democracy and the Roman republic. While in Thucydides we identified this doubt in democracy as a central theme I look forward to learning more about what this doubt in the republic means contrasted with Livy’s unending praise of freedom.

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