Tacitus refers to an incident in the days of Nero which tells us a great deal about democratic and demagogic politics. In his Annals of Imperial Rome (Book XIV) he writes of what followed when, in AD 61, the Prefect of the City, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of his household slaves. By the ancient law of Rome there was collective responsibility and if a slave murdered his master, all the slaves of the household must be put to death. Pedanius though had a vast household of slaves; men, women and children. As Tacitus relates:
The city prefect, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of his own slaves; either because he had been refused emancipation after Pedanius had agreed to the price, or because he had contracted a passion for a catamite, and declined to tolerate the rivalry of his owner.
Be that as it may, when the whole of the domestics who had been resident under the same roof ought, in accordance with the old custom, to have been led to execution, the rapid assembly of the populace, bent on protecting so many innocent lives, brought matters to the point of sedition, and the Senate House was besieged. Even within its walls there was a party which protested against excessive harshness, though most members held that no change was advisable.
Gaius Cassius then spoke against the instinct of the crowd, giving a speech which as related by Tacitus was long on the wisdom of tradition and his respect for ancient precedent. He defended the old law and the need to ensure certainty in the law, notwithstanding the inevitable individual injustice in pursuit of common advantage. Cassius used reductio ad absurdum to counter excuses suggested and then stoked fear of foreign practices, concluding:
“Is it your pleasure to muster arguments upon a point which has been considered by wiser minds than ours? But even if we had now for the first time to frame a decision, do you believe that a slave took the resolution of killing his master without an ominous phrase escaping him, without one word uttered in rashness? Assume, however, that he kept his counsel, that he procured his weapon in an unsuspecting household. Could he pass the watch, carry in his light, and perpetrate his murder without the knowledge of a soul? A crime has many antecedent symptoms. So long as our slaves disclose them, we may live solitary amid their numbers, secure amid their anxieties, and finally — if die we must — certain of our vengeance amid the guilty crowd.
“To our ancestors the temper of their slaves was always suspect, even when they were born on the same estate or under the same roof, and drew in affection for their owners with their earliest breath. But now that our households comprise nations — with customs the reverse of our own, with foreign cults or with none, you will never coerce such a medley of humanity except by terror. — ‘But some innocent lives will be lost!’ — Even so; for when every tenth man of the routed army drops beneath the club, the lot falls on the brave as well. All great examples carry with them something of injustice — injustice compensated, as against individual suffering, by the advantage of the community. ”
Cassius prevailed and Caesar held the crowd back with soldiers while the slaves were led to execution. Then comes the interesting part:
Cingonius Varro had moved that even the freedmen, who had been present under the same roof, should be deported from Italy.
The measure was vetoed by the emperor, lest gratuitous cruelty should aggravate a primitive custom which mercy had failed to temper.
This little vignette contains the familiar stages of a public outrage: an event and judgment; an outcry of pity from the public for the victims; calling for an exception to the execution of a harsh law; then follows a defence of the law (by Cassius), counter-arguments just as persuasive; and opinion swings back again; then as opinion has snapped back to Cassius, up stands Varro, who has concluded that harshness is the idea of the moment, and he tales it to an extreme. Varro’s demand to punish not only all the slaves but also all the free men of the household contradicts the argument of Cassius to uphold the law: he thinks he feels the mood and rides on it to extremism.
The extreme reaction of Varro won the Senate, but the Emperor issued his ‘I forbid’ (‘veto’). Even Nero, of all people, considered Cingonius Varro too cruel.
Little is written about Cingonius Varro. Later Tacitus describes him as “corrupt and venal” (and by Roman standards, that is something) and Nero favoured him enough that in AD 68 he was designated Consul for the following year but instead he was executed after Nero was murdered, for conspiring with an adventurer to seize power. Varro is only known therefore for a fatal political adventure and for his call to extremism.
Cassius made an unworthy speech but could argue that his relentlessness was upholding the law. Varro has no such excuse.
I heard a story from someone who was just learning to fly, which requires delicate balance:
I was up in a towed gyroglider, which I had never experienced before. I put the stick to left and the beast rolled accordingly, then to go back to level flight I put the stick to the right, but I shot past level and out the other side. I panicked and shoved the stick harder to the left again, and the roll increased, and then to the right even more as I tried to get level. Then the instructor calmly told me to let go, and the craft levelled on its own. I had caused “pilot induced oscillation”, which is in all the manuals but I had never experienced it so heavily.
So it is with political argument: to counter an argument veering dangerously, you may just achieve the opposite danger, and raising your argument will induce a violent oscillation, when it is moderation which is needed.
Frequently in political argument, a voice of compassion, or feigned compassion, speaks, Gaius Cassius retorts but it is Varro who wins the day. It is a sickness not of our own time but of all time.
There must be laws, and sometimes they are harsh: sometimes through being badly written and sometimes just because they must be unforgiving in order to be comprehensible and effective. Roman laws were cruel, based on a pagan philosophy (and one which praised their gods of rule and war above others); our laws are based, or were, on Christian values of love and service, although there will be harsh cases. There is less scope for Gaius Cassius to celebrate the death of hundreds, but plenty of scope for Cingonius Varro to subvert an argument to make a judgment more cruel.
Whenever I read of demagogues in the forum or in Parliament taking arguments to extremes, it is not their voice I hear but that of Cingonius Varro.