chapter  1
20 Pages

The Crowd in the Ancient World

Philosophers and historians in the ancient world took a great deal of interest in the crowd, and although this interest lasts from the beginning to the end, from Plato to Procopius, only Plato ever worked out anything approaching a theory of the crowd. Plato’s serious theoretical interest reflects the seriousness of the crowd’s claim to be able to rule a society successfully, because it is only at a fairly elevated level of theorizing that he can in fact find really damaging things to say about the rule of demos, and even at that level some of his criticisms of democracy, for example, his claim that the democratic man is unhappier than the timocrat or the oligarch, are difficult to sustain. The Roman historians, Livy and Tacitus, wrote when whatever pretensions the populus ever had to consideration as a force in the State were a thing of the past. They can afford to shed a generous tear for the brave days of old without any risk. Livy’s account of early Roman history is interesting because it became one of the great Renaissance and modern sources of republican inspiration because it provided a finished account of the only republican government about which enough was known to make it worth talking about. That was certainly Machiavelli’s view, so that even if Livy’s own reflections about the republic never reached the level of high theory, his account of its early history did get into high theory, if only at second hand. And there is a good case for saying that the most celebrated theory of liberty in the modern world, that of Montesquieu, has its origins in Machiavelli’s critical reading of Livy’s treatment of the Roman crowd in the first Decade. Tacitus and Procopius see the crowd off the stage of Roman history. Procopius sees it making a world of its own. In Tacitus, the crowd is so sated with theatrical shows that it ends up by being unable to distinguish between a show and a desperate battle where the blood that is flowing is real blood. In Procopius, the circus crowd lives in a world of its own making, a fantasy world in which all the rules of ordinary living are turned upside-down, a nightmare utopia at which the ordinary sane spectator can only gawp.