Commentary, History, Opinion

Hello and Welcome

Hello and welcome to the Tribune of the People.

In ancient Rome, the Plebians (non-aristocratic landowners) elected a Tribune of the Plebs to protect their interests against the aristocracy. The Plebs won this right only after armed conflict with the aristocracy in the midst of a war against a foreign power. The Tribunes wielded significant powers as part of the complex (and rather convoluted) Roman Constitution. (It must be noted, however, that the Tribunes were not elected by the whole people of Rome, but rather only by the Plebs. This meant that the capite censi, the landless laborers and those with too little land to be counted in the census were not represented by elected officials.) Tribunes were allowed to introduce legislation to the Plebian Council; to enforce the writ of habeas corpus; and could, because their person was sacrosanct (and yet they were not magistrates) physically prevent the passage of legislation or other actions by interposing his person. For anyone, Senator or not, to restrain or otherwise physically interfere with a tribune was a capital offense. These offices were thus considered an important part of the Roman Republic.

Eventually, as often happens, the Roman Republic gave way to the Empire and the Tribunes transferred their authority (as did the Senate in many ways) to the Emperor, or “First Citizen,” as Augustus preferred. But the very existence of such an office — created under the pressures of war and revolt, to be sure — created the political notion that part of the responsibility of those elected to high office was the protection of the rights and the interests of the people — some, part, or all. This idea lay dormant after the collapse of the Empire under the twin barbarian invasions of the Goths and the Catholic Church that ended Roman culture and imposed the feudal system.

Feudalism rested on the notion that “God” interfered in human politics by anointing a single Church to anoint (or at least approve of) many rulers around Europe. It also rested on the idea that one class of people — the warrior class which evolved into the aristocracy of blood — had the God-given right to govern all the others. This presupposed that another class was chosen by God as the governed. Indeed, as demonstrated in the image from an illuminated manuscript, feudal society recognized only three distinct groups of people: the Clergy, the Aristocracy, and the Peasantry; those who taught, those who ruled, and those who tilled the soil; the heart, the brain, and the muscle, in other words.

But in reality, there were only two groups of people: the peasantry and everyone else. The aristocracy dominated the clergy, and in a broad sense their interests were largely the same. They protected one another quite skillfully. As Charlemagne stomped across Europe like a good Goth, he forced the conversion to Christianity of those he conquered at the point of a sword. Once established, the clergy declared from the pulpit every Sunday that God had chosen Charlemagne to rule. This alliance survived the next thousand years. Of course, the aristocracy believed that no man should exploit any peasants but his own under the doctrine of nobless oblige. This doctrine held that the God-given right to rule came with the burden of protecting one’s human property. Look again at the image above and note how the center figure, an aristocrat, holds a shield which partly covers the figure of the peasant. This is symbolic of that obligation. This did not mean, however, that the peasants had any political rights to protect. Rather, nobless oblige mainly concerned the physical safety and well-being of the peasants who worked one’s feudal holding. (The notion that aristocrats maintained and made use of the right of primer noctis is considered mythological.)

To be continued ….

©Shawn M. Lynch, 2011. No part of this essay may be reproduced without written permission of the author.

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