For the people are all in all.
– Herodotus, 430 BC
The recent wave of protests in Nigeria stimulates our minds on the need to reflect on power, protest and democracy in the ancient world. Ancient Greece and Rome saw its fair share of protests. Their experiences indicate causes of popular protests and lessons from history for our political lives today. As I write, the nation has instituted curfews to curb the spiraling out of the protests and movements. Nigerian youths, dissatisfied with the bloody killings of innocent people, demanded the termination of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the police force. The #EndSARS Movement was an awakening period in the Nigerian political life.
Protests have always been part of political development. Resistance has been an important part of getting heard. Taking the people seriously is a principal part of national development. From ancient times we have been shown that the people want the best for themselves. The interests of the people are downplayed at the peril of the ruling class. Consequently, oppression sparks off resistance.
In the History, Herodotus presents three conspirators who debate on the best form of government. Otanes makes a strong claim for democracy over monarchy. Megabyzus makes a claim for aristocracy. Then Darius argues for monarchy. While the monarchy gained the vote on that day, Otanes’ belief in the sovereignty of the people emerges in foresight as a pole for the direction of society and public life. Democracy has been currently in place in Nigeria for two decades. The people have seen their disenfranchisement firsthand by those in power. The youths’ protests we see in the country reflect Nigeria’s flailing democracy. Young people here represent a hope that is dying. There are no jobs, no opportunities. With the powerful having access to vast amounts of wealth, the poor struggle for survival. History shows us that this kind of situation sparks unrest and unsettling change. I’ll draw examples from the contexts of Ancient Greece and Rome in the following sections to showcase how this has played out in history.
The conventional definition of democracy in recent times has been delimited to Lincoln’s definition. No one talks about Cleisthenes. On one night in Ancient Greece, the young aristocrat watched citizens take on to the streets protesting their cause. Democracy was born as a result of the protests, and Cleisthenes is deemed the founder of democracy. Protest is part of expressing needs. A dissection of the concept of power reveals it as having the ability to change one’s circumstance, rise above one’s situation and actualize self-potential in achieving excellence. Protest within democracies is thus the request for power that has been wrested. This derives from a consideration that democracy is the power of the people, by the people and for the people. Democracy therefore mainly constitutes power and the people. The question then is: why do people in modern democracies not have power? Ellen Wood postulates that this is because of the shift from the practice of direct democracy to a representative democracy. The citizens are no longer actors but electors. We elect someone to carry out our prime political duties on our behalf. The choice has become a travesty of self. Our power is no longer in our grasp. It goes back to what Otanes in the History was saying. The people are no longer all in all.
The people are no longer the state as was the practice during classical times. As Wood documented the ancient Greek democracy: there was no state of Athens or Attica, only the Athenians. Kurt Raaflaub notes that democratic equality was a principal part of Greek politics. All citizens were active and involved participants in the act of ruling. The affairs of the city was everyone’s business. Citizenship was a role everyone took seriously. Democracy was not always there for the Greeks. The aristocracy preceded this government of the people. Democracy was born from the people’s disbelief in aristocracy. Hence, they fought against the system and after they won, they instituted the democratic system. Nigerian democracy can be described as a return to aristocracy. The leaders have transformed into a small, privileged ruling class. Godfatherism constitutes the new hereditary lines. Corruption within this aristocracy translates to misplaced priorities and mismanagement of funds by leaders and ineffective spending by the civil service.
Protests serve as the needed recall for leaders that the people have power. When people take to the streets or leave the city to demand for their rights, they indicate that the heart of the polity is the people. Silence, acquiescence or murmured dissent does not mean absence of power. Powerlessness is a misnomer, a poor representation of the people’s choice not to respond. Regained wrested power is one of the missions of protest. People therefore undertake protests usually to express grievances. The desire to attain resources and opportunities denied to them is a major reason why people engage in protests. We shall now proceed to examine the context of protests within the democracy of Ancient Rome
With ancient Rome, the Forum was the place of statecraft. There, the citizenry congregated to deliberate on the destiny and direction of their nation. The senators regarded for their nobility were present. So too were the tribunes who represented the populace and their demands. But it was not a solitary square off between opposing inclinations. The arena was populated by the citizenry themselves just like at a wrestling or boxing bout today. The senators and the tribunes engaged each other in debates. After listening to the debates from opposing parties, the people divided into tribes and voted for what they wanted. The vote of the people determined the welfare and warfare engagements of the state. Rulership was participatory and important to the citizenry. In Rome, the people were indispensable to national rule. The Forum, a magnificent space, was definitely the locus for national rule. And the one in control of the Forum also controlled the republic.
Protests arise sometimes when the populace can no longer bear the violation of their rights by the people in power. They witness for themselves the disjunction between their lives and those of the elected officials who could afford what they want. Rome experienced a kind of strike known as secessio plebis. At their exclusion from the political process, the people abandoned the nobles and the city, and withdrew to a nearby hill region, forcing the nobles to attend to their demands, since the nobles needed the people for the functioning of the city and Roman society. Five strikes meant that they were considered a serious strategy for demanding rights and needs. The creation of the tribunes of the people by the nobles was as a result of these strikes. In the public arena of the Forum, the tribunes represented the people and acted on their behalf.
Clement explains that the mob were those citizens who had no property. With society growing more complex, many citizens were nomads without private property, while some were businessmen, traders, artisans, and farmers. The mob were known as proletarii. But as they became soldiers at the service of Rome and its expansion, their rights to vote in the tribal assembly increased. Those who wanted to rule needed the support of this mob.
A major development regarding the power of the people was also as a result of a similar disenfranchisement. The expansion of Rome meant that smallholding citizen farmers were recruited to fight wars. The lands they left behind were bought over by wealthy landowners. They used the spoils of military victories to acquire the land of the Italian free peasants. In this way, the aristocrats gained access to lots of land as a result of an agrarian crisis in the 130s BC. To produce food for the city, they employed millions of slaves brought through conquest to cultivate these lands. Through the yield from production, the landowners increased their wealth. This action of the aristocrats really affected the masses as it forced the peasants whose lands had been acquired out on the streets or into the army. Large numbers of Roman citizens lived without jobs and in poverty in the urban areas. They depended on grain handouts provided by the state. There was a law enacted to limit the extent of land ownership aimed at better distribution of the resources. The nobles often circumvented this law. The result of the circumvention was a crisis in the nation.
Military service also had a requirement on ownership of property. As such, the lack of property restricted military service to just a few. Plutarch writes, “The poor, who were thus deprived of their farms, were no longer either ready, as they had formerly been, to serve in war or careful in the education of their children; insomuch that in a short time there were comparatively few freemen remaining in all Italy, which swarmed with workhouses full of foreign-born slaves. These the rich men employed in cultivating their ground of which they dispossessed the citizens.” The army suffered a critical shortage as a consequence.
This economic and social situation resulted in the political reforms of the Gracchi brothers. As the legend goes, the crisis initiated the rise of Roman general Tiberius Gracchus as man/hero of the people. Plutarch also tells how Gaius Laelius (the Wise One), his brother, sought to redress the injustice but abandoned it because of the opposition of the nobles. It was Tiberius Gracchus who, upon his election as tribune, championed the cause of reforming the abuse of the people against the nobles. His reforms were aimed at stemming the issues of agrarian land inequality, shortage of land owning citizens who could serve in the military, and the displacement of Roman peasant farmers by slaves. Plutarch intimates that it would prove ultimately fatal for him and his family.
As tribune of the Plebs in 133BC, he demanded that lands be given to the soldiers, “the brave men who spill their blood in the cause of Rome”, from the spoils of the senators whom he called “the wild beasts of Italy.” The lands possessed in excess of the law were to be restored to the masses in the lower class of the society. This troubled the nobles. They tried to seduce the people against Tiberius claiming he was re-dividing the land and was intent on overthrowing the government. Plutarch states that Tiberius was not an easy antagonist because he maintained a just cause and he was so eloquent, able to make a less credible action appear plausible. The nobles importuned his fellow tribune and intimate friend Marcus Octavius to oppose him. Octavius refused but agreed to hinder the passing of the laws. The consensus of all the tribunes was necessary for the passing of a law.
Plutarch records that there was a series of decent debates between both men on the matter. He begged Octavius to agree to the land reform laws. The debates prolonged. Gracchus knew that the contention would lead to a civil war and proposed the deposition of either himself or Octavius. He asked Octavius to propose his deposition as tribune. Octavius refused. So he proposed the deposition of Octavius. This he believed was the way to get the law passed. Even when it remained just one tribe to depose Octavius, Tiberius begged Octavius to support him and not suffer the shame of deposition. But though softened, he held still. Octavius was removed as tribune with eighteen to seventeen tribal votes.
Gracchus also organized laws to acquire the treasury of the Kingdom of Pergamum in order to fund the agrarian project. King Attalus Philometor of Pergamum, upon his death, made the Romans his heirs. Tiberius made a law that all the money he left be given to the poor to fund their stocking and cultivation of land. He also proposed that the people say what should be done with the cities King Attalus left behind. Both actions (Octavius’ deposition and the acquisition of Attalus’ inheritance) were significant. He offended the nobility and even the populace in Octavius’ deposition, since the position of tribune was deemed sacred and inviolable. With his popularity and his growing power, Tiberius was a threat. His reforms was stemmed with his assassination.
Gaius, the younger brother of Tiberius by nine years, did not immediately succeed his brother’s mission. He lived on his own quietly. But not suited by temperament to remain in solitude, he engaged in public life and made public speeches. His eloquence is well praised by Plutarch. He was devoted to its study and his speeches paled those of his contemporaries. Gaius’ reputation put him in the eye of the nobility who feared and were jealous of him. Gaius was vehement of character. He posed a greater threat compared to his gentler elder brother. Gaius became a tribune like his brother. Gaius made laws concerning the division of public lands among the poor. He also legalized the clothing of common soldiers without reduction of their pay at the cost of the public. In addition to continuing the land reforms his brother championed, he wanted cheaper prices for grain for the masses, as well as the extension of rights of citizenship to subjects outside Rome, “to all Italians in general”. But the lower classes treasured their unique citizenship. So the move divided the lower classes and the Senate capitalized on this to undermine many of his reforms. He also instituted a law that regulated the courts of justice, reducing as a result the power of the senators. Only the senators were judges before this law. They were feared by the Roman knights and people.
But Gaius made 300 ordinary citizens of equestrian rank (knights) judges in addition, making 600 judges in total. Plutarch says that Gaius was the first man to turn to the people in his harangues and he did so henceforth. Speakers used to turn to the senate house’s comitium when they spoke. Plutarch designates Gaius’ small action a big revolution in state affairs: “the conversion, in a manner, of the whole government from an aristocracy to a democracy, his action intimating that public speakers should address themselves to the people, not the senate.” Gaius was a very diligent leader. Even his enemies were amazed at his capacity for actualizing and completing his undertakings. The record praised his supervision and organization. He built and supervised roads and granaries himself. “He was even a greater master of the popular leader’s art in his common talk and his actions, than he was in his public addresses.”
Gaius’ administration was met with opposition. And the tactic employed by his opponents was striking. The senators decided to give the people everything they requested even if it went against good policy. This was the way they intended to alienate the people from Gaius. They wanted to outdo Gaius in pleasing and cajoling the people. Livius Drusus, a fellow tribune, was enjoined with this task. Like his brother before him, Gaius was assassinated. His goals had triggered antagonism. The reforms of Tiberius as well as Gaius were backed by the people. The potential of his populist backing was threatening.
The chief lesson for today that the ancient world teaches us is that power lies with the people. There is simply no running away from this fact. True citizens cannot abdicate their political power. Voting is very important for national progress. Therefore, concern for the people is indispensable. People want a leader who is pro populo. The Gracchi brothers clamoured for popular land reform. The actions of the wealthy landowners severely affected the masses. Nigerians experience a similar situation today where the poor are pushed to extreme conditions while the rich flaunt their wealth without remorse. The Gracchi reforms may have been cut by their death. But change comes at a price of resistance, which may be in paying the ultimate price like the Gracchi brothers. The nobles were up in arms against the Gracchi brothers. Their reforms and policies offended the ruling class. Though the cost for fighters of the people’s cause is often huge, the momentum it generates unravels the power inherent in the people. Populism may be an expression, but it is the great impact of the people that is significant.
Plutarch writes of the temperament of the two brothers. Tiberius was gentler in countenance, gesture and motion while Gaius was more earnest and vehement. In spite of their differences, Tiberius being gentler than Gaius, their power to move men through their harangues was remarkable. More so, “their valour in war against their country’s enemies, their justice in the government of its subjects, their care and industry in office, and their self-command in all that regarded the pleasures, were equally remarkable in both.” One must note however, that there is the danger of organizing protests with propaganda alone, as this mitigates the desired impacts. There is a need for clearer philosophical/political thought as the soul for any social movement. The mob will sway blindly when moved by powerful speeches. It is the philosophical principles that guide and transcend the movement. To this end lies the importance of culture, history, reading and education in civic values. Readiness in this direction cannot be underestimated. The role of philosophers is passed over in our mass media space. Philosophers are left in the ivory towers of citadels of learning to teach the fundamentals of thinking and reflection, and to debate questions of knowledge and morality. They are rarely invited by mass media personnel to bring their incisiveness upon crucial issues. Philosophers have the role of explaining the nature of politics and its various dimensions.
Protests at times involve advocacy for justice and equitable distribution of resources. The #EndSARS strike in Nigeria is a product of inequalities. Actions of indiscretion by police personnel could be attributed to poor orientation, abuse of power, and lack of value of the lives of the citizens. In the larger context, it is a product of a culture of oppression and greed. We learn that a society will witness unrest whose military or civil forces have poor living conditions and unpredictable futures for their families. The tight clenching of whatever is left of power leads to abuses like killings and oppression of a nation’s citizenry. One of the agenda points of the #EndSARS Movement to the government is the importance of addressing the needed reforms of the life conditions of members of the Nigerian Police Force and their families. The law of Gaius regarding clothing welfare for soldiers resonates in this proposition. These men and women like the soldiers of ancient Rome serve the nation but have nothing to call home or a future for their families. The clamour of Nigerians for a better life is important. Power needs to be placed at the service of the people. The security and welfare of Nigerians needs to be re-emphasized as paramount. The government’s response should be immediate and thorough. It should also be extensive, involving the various key interest groups and stakeholders.
Herodotus, The History, Book III, 81-85.
Clement, Matt. A People’s History of Riots, Protests and the Law: The Sound of the Crowd. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016. Chapter 2.
Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. (Tiberius Gracchus; Caius Gracchus)
Raaflaub, Kurt, Josiah Ober & Robert W. Wallace. Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
“Nigeria: The Origins of Her Disgrace.” (April 5, 2017)