Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Battle of the Colline Gate

Thomas Hobbes dedicated his book De Cive (On the Citizen) to the Earl of Devonshire and began it with the following passage:
The Roman People had a saying (Most Honoured Lord) which came from the mouth of Marcus Cato, the Censor, and expressed the prejudice against Kings which they had conceived from the memory of the Tarquins and the principles of their commonwealth; the saying was that Kings should be classed as predatory animals. But what sort of animal was the Roman People? By the agency of citizens who took the names Africanus, Asiaticus, Macedonicus, Achaicus and so on from the nations they had robbed, that people plundered nearly all the world. So the words of Pontius Telesinus are no less wise than Cato's. As he reviewed the ranks of his army in the battle against Sulla at the Colline Gate, he cried that Rome itself must be demolished and destroyed, remarking that there would never be an end to Wolves preying upon the liberty of Italy, unless the forest in which they took refuge was cut down.

What does Hobbes mean, what idea or ideology is he really advancing with that quote? As every schoolboy knows (an expression that is a fallacy of argument, by the way), the Romans of pre-empire days did not trust Kings, were adamantly opposed to giving one man the power to rule. Sulla, by way of civil war, became Dictator of Rome in 82 BCE, the first Dictator in nearly a century. This quote refers to the penultimate battle between Sulla and Marius the Younger. Pontius Telesinus--a Samnite by birth--sided with Marius.

In the annals of history, this moment is one now largely ignored, in favor of other seemingly more significant moments. And it is a great tragedy of out times that such is the case. The Battle of the Colline Gate capped a war for liberty, a failed war, and moved Rome permanently forward towards Empire. Sulla--as Consul--had begun to limit the powers of the Tribunes, and thus of the common citizens, while strengthening the aristocracy. Yet, he was also a reformer of the courts. His foes-- like Pontius Telesinus--feared such consolidation and were very much inclined to view Rome as a confederation of peoples. But we must be crystal clear about one thing: "king" and "dictator" are not synonymous in the mind of Hobbes, at all.

The ideological issues at stake here are deep; Sulla's position is not wrong, as a matter of course, nor is Pontius'. We might be tempted to see the argument in the context of out times as a Federal/State issue, and that is not wholly unfair, but it goes beyond that. At stake here is the fundamental source of authority, of government power: does the power of all become one, or can the power be divvied up among peoples? And it should be noted that--despite the chain of events he set in motion--Sulla ultimately gave up his dictatorial powers freely.

The next lines from De Cive:
There are two maxims which are surely both true: Man is a God to Man, and Man is a Wolf to Man. The former is true of the relations of citizens with each other, the latter of relations between commonwealths. In justice and charity, the virtues of peace, citizens show some likeness to God. But between commonwealths, the wickedness of bad men compels the good too to have recourse, for their own protection, to the virtues of war, which are violence and fraud, i.e. to the predatory nature of beasts.
For Hobbes, there was no difference between citizen and king, with regards to their behavior. Given the opportunity, both would prey on others. And that opportunity best presents itself when there is an "other" to take advantage of, another state/commonwealth.

Thus, Cato had good reason to distrust Kings,  but just as good reason to distrust the non-King, the one appointed or elected to lead/rule. Pontius Telesinus was right, as well. The only way to ensure that no one took advantage of power was to destroy the vehicle of that power, in this case Rome, in general the government.

Within the framework of the state, there is ample room for bad behavior; it's a given, an inescapable reality. There is no solution to remedy this, no way to "fix" things permanently. And oftentimes, we need the wolf.

Cheers, all.


  1. "And oftentimes, we need the wolf"...., hmmm. That is what the wolf would certainly want the sheep to believe.

  2. No doubt. But how else to fend of the other wolves? There's the inherent problem.