Sunday, January 22, 2012

Corn Is Always Interesting

One good thing about SOPA and PIPA being put on the defensive: it means I can play Wikipedia Roulette without fear. And in doing so, we are brought the following story of a man who thought he was above the law, and tried to become the law. Strangely topical in a post-Citizens United world.

We go back to the Roman Empire to find a man named Spurius Maelius. (The link is an epic wall of text, and it's pretty dense, so be aware of that. Skip to 4.12 in the text for where we pick up.)

In 439 BCE, Rome was undergoing a famine. Why there was a famine, the text isn't sure; it was either the weather, people getting too wrapped up in city life to tend to crops, or both. But there was a famine. Corn was the chief crop, so the Senate put one Lucius Minucius in charge of the corn market to see what he could do. What he did was, he made everyone who had any corn declare how much they had. They got to keep one month's supply, but they were made to sell the rest to the government.

This, clearly, was intended to cut down on hoarding. What it actually did, though, was tell everyone exactly how bad things were, and it was worse than people thought. Several citizens flung themselves into the Tiber and drowned.

So that didn't work.

Enter a very rich, very opportunistic, and very ambitious Spurius Maelius. Through his connections, he not only managed to buy up corn during this period, he more or less cornered the market. Except he made sure there wasn't much of a market, as he then distributed the corn for free. Why did he do this? Originally, he was going for a consulship. The idea was that by handing out so much corn to so many people in what has to be the weirdest variation on the Robin Hood principle ever, he could get popular enough to win election to consul. But then he kept handing it out, and he kept getting more popular, and his head got bigger... and Maelius eventually got it into his head that he ought to be not merely a consul, but emperor.

So people started meeting in his house, and an arsenal began to pile up. Soon, consul elections were rapidly approaching, and though any plans to go for the throne weren't ready yet, they were getting close as well; everyone that needed to be bribed had been bribed. Before Maelius could make his move, though, someone noticed all the goings-on at Maelius' house and all the weapons going in but not coming out. Minicius called Maelius out on the carpet, as well as the consuls for not catching it and handling it themselves and allowing things to get to the point they did. One of the consuls, Quinctius Capitolinus, blamed bureaucracy for the delay and called for a dictator that could cut through all the red tape and do something.

'Dictator' here being used in its original context, and without the modern connotations, though they were aware of them.

His nomination was Cincinnatus. Yes, that one. He had already cemented his legacy by resigning the post in 458 BCE the second he was no longer needed, and hoped not to have to do this again. After all, he was 80 years old at the time, and if that sounds old now, remember how much longer we live these days compared to ancient Rome. The Senate more or less begged him to take over, though, and eventually, Cincinnatus agreed to do it.

Cincinnatus' first decree: name a Master of the Horse (read: right-hand man, the first thing any dictator was required to do), Caius Servilius Ahala.

Second decree: post some guards. This is the point where Maelius started to get wise to the fact that they're on to him.

Third decree: send Servilius to go fetch Maelius and haul him in for trial. When Servilius read Maelius the summons, Maelius, with a crowd gathered, feigned outrage, then stalled for time, then kind of just looked around and began to back away.

Retreat was not a good idea in ancient Rome.

One of Servilius' officers grabbed Maelius, but couldn't hang onto him, as the crowd, who was as you will recall on Maelius' side, grabbed him back. Maelius ran off, crying for help and that it was all a big conspiracy and save me I don't wanna die. He didn't get far. Servilius ran Maelius down himself and stabbed him to death, after which he reported back to Cincinnatus, who then had to go explain to the jittery populace that even if Maelius was innocent of trying to start a coup, he was guilty of failing to respond to a dictatorial summons and of resisting arrest, and besides, he would have been declared guilty and executed anyway had the trial gone forward as planned.

He made it up to them, though. After ordering Maelius' house torn down to prevent it from becoming a symbol, Cincinnatus confiscated Maelius' remaining corn- that which had caused the whole incident- and sold it off at rock-bottom prices. Corn being all the people really wanted in the first place, that settled them down enough to where any threat of a coup died with Maelius.

Then he stepped down. Again. The first time he was dictator, it was for 16 days. This second time, he was in charge for roughly a week.

Something Maelius, had he taken over, clearly had no intention of doing.

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