Social Justice in the Ancient World

By K. D. Irani; Morris Silver | Go to book overview

As an historian, rather than a philosopher, my primary concern has always been whether what a state said about itself was true or not--and, if not true, how great a discrepancy there was between what was claimed and what was done. I have no reservation about condemning past societies for what we consider their failings but such criticism is not historical if the actions of the society in question are consistent with their stated principles. Freedom and equality are cornerstones of modern Western legal systems, but we must not assume that they were primary concerns of other societies unless they tell us so. In the case of Rome, the aristocrats--really oligarchs--who are our sources of information about Rome, depicted a society with "enormous differences in wealth and social power, and the upper class which determined its legal rules enshrined in them a code of values relevant to itself which cannot automatically be assumed to have been equally relevant to the lives and habits of the mass of people" ( Crook 1967: 10). Cognizant of this fact, we readily admit that later conditions influenced the way in which Rome's distant past was presented and that those who presented it got a great deal wrong even if in the process they preserved some reliable information. My point is this, the misery of the poor must have been impressed on the minds of Roman authors with extraordinary clarity to cause so many to see it as a constant condition. The speech that Tiberius Gracchus gave to the people, with which I close, must have been one of the most impressive.

The beasts that roam over Italy have everyone of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchers and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own." ( Plutarch, Tib. Gracchus 9.4-5) 18


NOTES
1.
Crook ( 1967: 8) is the origin of the idea of a "still" photograph. Limitations placed on space preclude both publication of the complete lecture and full citations of ancient and modern bibliography. For dated events, see Broughton ( 1951), for the ancient testimony.
2.
All dates are B.C.E.
3.
Momigliano ( 1986: 189) sees our failure to comprehend the effect of continuous warfare as one of two difficulties, the other being misunderstanding the fifth-century plebeian movement by focusing on the compromise of 366.
4.
Dion. Hal. 4.8-10, has the most complete, but needless to say, the most suspect account. Cicero, Repub. 2.21 (37-38) and Livy 1.41-48 supply other details incorporated into this summary. Galba ( 1991: 172-89) is an excellent survey of the regal tradition. All translations, unless noted, are from the Loeb editions.

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