As it is well known, the Athenians invented back in the fifth century BC. the democracy or political system in which the citizens, the people, the “demos”, chose their rulers. This grandiose fact, whose most advanced development only exists in a few present Western countries, does not allow us to ignore the great limitation of that original democracy: only the citizens, a minority among the inhabitants of Athens, had these rights; Nor women, nor slaves, nor foreigners could vote.

Neither should we ignore the ease with which the people were “manipulated”, impressed, to make damaging agreements even against democracy itself, when there emerge the “demagogues” who even impose “tyrants”.

Let us remember something as well known as the etymology of democracy, demagogy, tyranny:

Democracy: from the Greek nouns δῆμος, (demos = village, people) and κράτος (krátos = power): government of the people.

Demagogy: from Greek δῆμος –dēmos-, village, people and ἄγω –ago-, to run, to direct. According to the RAE (Real Academia Española, Royal Spanish Academy) Dictionary:

Political practice consisting in winning with praise the popular favor and also Degeneration of the democracy, in which politicians, by means of concessions and compliments to the elementary feelings of the citizens, try to obtain or to maintain the power.

Tyranny: from the Greek τύραννος (tyrannos) meaning  "master"; it appears to be a non-Indo-European, but  Lydian term; it has also been related to the Etruscan term "turan", which means “dama, lady”  applied to Venus. According to the RAE:

"person who obtains against the law the government of a State, especially if he governs it without justice and in accordance with his will"; And also: "a person who abuses his power, superiority or strength in any concept or matter, and also simply who imposes that power and superiority to an extraordinary degree."


Well, I'm going to tell an episode that occurred in Italy where Hannibal moved himself during the Second Punic War, defeating and annihilating the Latin armies and occupying one after another numerous cities, generating a sense of panic and total fear among all the Romans.

Specifically it occurs in Capua, capital of Campania about thirty kilometers from Naples, southern Italy, one of the most prosperous and wealthy and even more luxurious cities than the famous Sybaris and Crotona, according to the testimony of Polybius The Histories, VII, 1, y III, 91,6; Cicero, De Lege Agraria, II,95 ; or Strabo V,4,3. Capua  was communicated with Rome by the famous Via Apia from 312 BC.

We have tried sometimes about Sybaris or Crotona in this same blog.

In this episode we will observe the ease with which the malleable "mass" of citizens is handled by a skillful individual and what can happen when the people as a whole and each of its members are confronted with their own responsibility.

The citizens of Capua "hated" their senators who acted haughtily without consideration or even kept in touch with them, but when they had occasion to break up with them, they were unable to agree and propose substitutes for those whom they wished to make disappear . I reproduce a beginning text perhaps too long, but necessary to situate the facts in context.

Titus Livius, (Livy) , from his History of Rome from, Ab Urbe Condita Libri , book 23, chapters 1-4.

After the battle of Cannae and the capture and plunder of the camps, Hannibal had moved at once out of Apulia into Samnium, being invited into the land of the Hirpini by Statius Trebius, who promised that he would turn over Compsa to him. Trebius was a Compsan of high rank among his people, but opposed by the party of the Mopsii, a family made powerful by the favour of the Romans.  After the news of the battle of Cannae, and when the coming of Hannibal had been made known by utterances of Trebius, since the Mopsii had left the city, it was handed over to the Carthaginians without resistance and a garrison admitted. There Hannibal left all his booty and the baggage, divided his army, and ordered Mago either to take over such cities of that region as were deserting the Romans or to compel them to desert in case they refused. He himself made his way through the Campanian region to the Lower Se, intending to attack Neapolis, that he might have a seaport. On entering the territory of the Neapolitans, he stationed some of the Numidians in ambush, wherever he conveniently could (and most of the roads are deep-cut and the turnings concealed). Other Numidians he ordered to ride up to the gates, making a display of the booty they were driving along before them from the farms. Against these men, because they seemed to be few in number and disorganized, a troop of cavalry made a sally, but being drawn into the ambush by the enemy's purposely retreating, it was overpowered.  And not a: man would have escaped if the proximity of the sea and the sight of vessels, chiefly of fishermen, not far from the shore had not given those who could swim a way of escape.  However a number of young nobles were captured or slain in that battle, among them, Hegeas, a cavalry commander, who fell as he rashly pursued the retreating. From besieging the city the Carthaginian was deterred by the sight of walls such as by no means invited an attacker.

Hannibal then directed his march to Capua, which was pampered by its long-continued prosperity and the favour of fortune, but, along with the general corruption, especially from the licence of the common people, who enjoyed an unlimited freedom. As for the senate, Pacuvius Calavius, a noble who was at the same time of the people's party, but had gained his influence by base arts, had made it subservient both to himself and to the common people. He, being in their highest office, as is happened, in the year of the defeat at Lake Trasumennus, thought that the commons, long hostile to the senate, would use the opportunity of a revolution and dare to commit a great crime, namely, if Hannibal should come into the region with his victorious army, they would slay the senators and hand over Capua to the Carthaginians.  A bad man, but not utterly abandoned, he preferred to dominate a state still intact rather than one that had been wrecked, yet believed that none was intact if deprived of its deliberative body. He accordingly entered upon a scheme to save the senate and at the same time to make it submissive to himself and to the commons. Summoning the senate he began by saying that, unless it should prove necessary, a plan to revolt from the Romans would by no means have his approval, since he had  children by a daughter of Appius Claudius and had given a daughter in marriage to Marcus Livius at Rome. But, he went on to say, something much more serious and more to be dreaded was impending; for the common people were not aiming to rid the state of the senate by a revolt, but by the massacre of the senate wished to hand over the republic, left helpless, to Hannibal and the Carthaginians. From that danger he could free them if they should leave it to him, and, forgetting civil conflicts, trust him. When, overcome by fear, they unanimously left matters to him, “I will shut you up,” he said, “in the Senate House and, just as if I were myself a sharer in the crime intended, by approving plans which it would be vain for me to oppose, I will find a way to save you. For this accept a pledge, as you yourselves desire.” Having given the pledge he went out, ordered the Senate House to be closed and left a guard before the entrance, that no one might be able to enter the Senate House or leave it without his order.
Then calling the people to an assembly he said: “You have often desired, Campanians, to have the power to exact punishment from a base and odious senate. That power you have, not by riotously storming, with great danger to yourselves, the houses of individuals who defend them with garrisons of clients and slaves, but you have the power secure and unrestricted. As they are shut up there, every man of them, in the Senate House, seize them, left alone, unarmed! And do nothing in haste or at haphazard. I will give you the right to decide their fate in each separate case, so that each shall pay the penalty he has deserved.  But above all things you should vent your wrath with due regard to the conviction that your safety and advantage are worth more than wrath. For it is these senators that you hate, I think; it is not your wish to have no senate at all. In fact you must either have a king —save the mark! —or else a senate, the only deliberative body in a free state. And so you have two things to do at the same time —to do away with the old senate, and to choose a new one. I will order the senators to be called one by one and will consult you as to their fate. Whatever is your opinion in each case shall be done, but before punishment is inflicted on the guilty one you will choose in his place a brave and active man as a new senator.”He then sat down, and after the names had been placed in the urn, he ordered the first name drawn by lot to be called and the man himself to be led out of the Senate House. On hearing the name every man shouted his loudest, that he was a bad man and base and deserved punishment.  Upon that Pacuvius said: “I see what your verdict is in this man's case; therefore in place of a bad man and base nominate a good and just senator.” At first there was silence from their inability to suggest a better man. Then when someone, overcoming his timidity, named a man, at once there was a much louder outcry, some saying they did not know him, others taunting him, now with shameful conduct, now with low rank and sordid poverty and the disreputable nature of his trade or business. All the more was this done in the case of the second and third senator called. So it was clear that people were dissatisfied with the man himself, but had no one to put in his place. For nothing was gained by once more naming the same men, who had been named only to be reviled. And the rest were much lower in rank and less known than those who first came to mind. Accordingly men slipped away, saying that the most familiar evil is the most endurable, and bidding Pacuvius release the senate from confinement.

In this way Pacuvius, having made the senate much more subservient to himself than to the common people by saving their lives, ruled without arms, as all now gave way to him. Thereafter the senators, forgetting their rank and freedom, flattered the common people, greeted them, invited them graciously, entertained them at well appointed feasts;  invariably undertook cases, appeared as counsel, or as jurors gave a verdict, only for that side which was the more popular and better suited to win favour with the populace.  Moreover, nothing was done in the senate otherwise than if a meeting of the common people was being held there. The state had always been inclined to luxury, not only from defects in character, but also from the abundant opportunity for indulgences and the beguilement of all the charms of sea and land. But at that time, thanks to the servility of the leading men and the licence of the common people, they were so unrestrained that no limit was set to passion or to expense.  To their contempt for laws, the magistrates, the senate, there was now added, after the defeat at Cannae, their disparagement of the Roman power also, for which there used to be some respect. All that held them back from at once revolting was that the long-established right of intermarriage had united many distinguished and powerful families with the Romans, and that, although a considerable number were serving on the Roman side, the strongest bond was the three hundred horsemen, noblest of the Campanians, who had been chosen to garrison Sicilian cities by the Romans and sent thither.
(Translated by Frank Gardener Moore)

Hannibal post Cannensem pugnam castraque capta ac direpta confestim ex Apulia in Samnium moverat, accitus in Hirpinos a Statio Trebio pollicente se Compsam traditurum. compsanus erat Trebius nobilis inter suos; sed premebat eum Mopsiorum factio, familiae per gratiam Romanorum potentis.  post famam Cannensis pugnae volgatumque Trebi sermonibus adventum Hannibalis cum Mopsiani urbe excessissent, sine certamine tradita urbs Poeno praesidiumque acceptum est. ibi praeda omni atque impedimentis relictis, exercitu partito Magonem regionis eius urbes aut deficientis ab Romanis accipere aut detractantis cogere ad defectionem iubet, ipse per agrum Campanum mare inferum petit, oppugnaturus Neapolim, ut urbem maritimam haberet. ubi fines Neapolitanorum intravit, Numidas partim in insidiis—et pleraeque cavae sunt viae sinusque occulti—quacumque apte poterat disposuit, alios prae se actam praedam ex agris ostentantis obequitare portis iussit.  in quos, quia nec multi et incompositi videbantur, cum turma equitum erupisset, ab cedentibus consulto tracta in insidias circumventa est;  nec evasisset quisquam, ni mare propinquum et haud procul litore naves, piscatoriae pleraeque, conspectae peritis nandi dedissent effugium.  aliquot tamen eo proelio nobiles iuvenes capti caesique, inter quos et Hegeas, praefectus equitum, intemperantius cedentes secutus cecidit.  ab urbe oppugnanda Poenum absterruere conspecta moenia haudquaquam prompta oppugnanti.
inde Capuam flectit iter luxuriantem longa felicitate atque indulgentia fortunae, maxime tamen inter corrupta omnia licentia plebis sine modo libertatem exercentis.  senatum et sibi et plebi obnoxium Pacuvius Calavius fecerat, nobilis idem ac popularis homo, ceterum malis artibus nanctus opes. is cum eo forte anno quo res male gesta ad Trasumennum est in summo magistratu esset, iam diu infestam senatui plebem ratus per occasionem novandi res magnum ausuram facinus ut, si in ea loca Hannibal cum victore exercitu venisset, trucidato senatu traderet  Capuam Poenis, inprobus homo sed non ad extremum perditus, cum mallet incolumi quam eversa re publica dominari, nullam autem incolumem esse orbatam publico consilio crederet, rationem iniit qua et senatum servaret et obnoxium sibi ac plebi faceret. vocato senatu cum sibi defectionis ab Romanis consilium placiturum nullo modo, nisi necessarium fuisset,  praefatus esset, quippe qui liberos ex Appii Claudii filia haberet filiamque Romam nuptum M. Livio dedisset; ceterum maiorem multo rem magisque timendam instare; non enim per defectionem ad tollendum ex civitate senatum plebem spectare, sed per caedem senatus vacuam rem publicam tradere Hannibali ac Poenis velle; eo se periculo posse liberare eos, si permittant sibi et certaminum in re publica obliti credant,—cum omnes victi metu permitterent,  “claudam” inquit “in curia vos et, tamquam et ipse cogitati facinoris particeps, adprobando consilia quibus nequiquam adversarer, viam saluti vestrae inveniam. in hoc , fidem, quam voltis ipsi, accipite.” fide data egressus claudi curiam iubet, praesidiumque in vestibulo relinquit, ne quis adire curiam iniussu suo neve inde egredi possit.
tum vocato ad contionem populo “quod saepe” inquit “optastis, Campani, ut supplicii sumendi vobis ex improbo ac detestabili senatu potestas esset, eam non per tumultum expugnantes domos singulorum, quas praesidiis clientium servorumque tuentur, cum summo vestro periculo; sed tutam habetis ac liberam; clausos omnis in curia accipite, solos, inermis. nec quicquam raptim aut forte temere egeritis; de singulorum capite vobis ius sententiae dicendae faciam, ut quas quisque meritus est poenas pendat; sed ante omnia ita vos irae indulgere oportet, ut potiorem ira salutem atque utilitatem vestram habeatis. etenim hos, ut opinor, odistis senatores, non senatum omnino habere non voltis; quippe aut rex, quod abominandum, aut, quod unum liberae civitatis consilium est, senatus habendus est. itaque duae res simul agendae vobis sunt, ut et veterem senatum tollatis et novum cooptetis.  citari singulos senatores iubebo de quorum capite vos consulam; quod de quoque censueritis fiet; sed prius in eius locum virum fortem ac strenuum novum senatorem cooptabitis quam de noxio supplicium sumatur.”  inde consedit et nominibus in urnam coniectis citari quod primum sorte nomen excidit ipsumque e curia produci iussit ubi auditum est nomen, malum et inprobum pro se quisque clamare et supplicio dignum.  tum Pacuvius “video quae de hoc sententia sit; date igitur pro malo atque inprobo bonum senatorem et iustum.” primo silentium erat inopia potioris subiciundi; deinde cum aliquis omissa verecundia quempiam nominasset, multo maior extemplo clamor oriebatur, cum alii negarent nosse, alii nunc probra nunc humilitatem sordidamque inopiam et pudendae artis aut quaestus genus obicerent. hoc multo magis in secundo ac tertio citato senatore est factum, ut ipsius paenitere homines appareret, quem autem in eius substituerent locum deesse, quia nec eosdem nominari attinebat, nihil aliud quam ad audienda probra nominatos, et multo humiliores obscurioresque ceteri erant eis qui primi memoriae occurrerant. ita dilabi homines, notissimum quodque malum maxime tolerabile dicentes esse iubentesque senatum ex custodia dimitti.

hoc modo Pacuvius cum obnoxium vitae beneficio senatum multo sibi magis quam plebi fecisset, sine armis iam omnibus concedentibus dominabatur.  hinc senatores omissa dignitatis libertatisque memoria plebem 'adulari; salutare, benigne invitare, apparatis accipere epulis,  eas causas suscipere, ei semper parti adesse, secundum eam litem iudices dare quae magis popularis aptiorque in volgus favori conciliando esset;  iam vero nihil in senatu agi aliter quam si plebis ibi esset concilium. prona semper civitas in luxuriam non ingeniorum modo vitio sed afluenti copia voluptatium et inlecebris omnis amoenitatis maritimae terrestrisque,  tum vero  ita obsequio principum et licentia plebei lascivire ut nec libidini nec sumptibus modus esset. ad contemptum legum, magistratuum, senatus accessit tum, post Cannensem cladem, ut, cuius aliqua verecundia erat, Romanum quoque spernerent imperium.  id modo erat in mora ne extemplo deficerent, quod conubium vetustum multas familias claras ac potentis Romanis miscuerat,  et cum militarent aliquot apud Romanos, maximum vinculum erant trecenti equites, nobilissimus quisque Campanorum, in praesidia Sicularum urbium delecti ab Romanis ac missi.

In short, Capua fell into the hands of Hannibal, who set the camp there during the winter, but the luxury and comfort of life in this luxurious city so weakened his army and relaxed its discipline that as soon the cold passed, he removed it immediately to restore the spirit of sacrifice that must accompany every good soldier.

Cicero reminds it in the text whose reference I quoted earlier, De Lege Agraria, II, 95:

The Campanians were always proud from the excellence of their soil, and the magnitude of their crops, and the healthiness, and position, and beauty of their city. From that abundance, and from this affluence in all things, in the first place, originated those qualities; arrogance, which demanded of our ancestors that one of the consuls should be chosen from Capua: and in the second place, that luxury which conquered Hannibal himself by pleasure, who up to that time had proved invincible in arms. (Translated by C. D. Yonge)

Cicero Leg. Agr. II. 95 Campani semper superbi bonitate agrorum et fructuum magnitudine, urbis salubritate, descriptione, pulchritudine. Ex hac copia atque omnium rerum adfluentia primum illa nata est adrogantia qua a maioribus nostris alterum Capua consulem postularunt, deinde ea luxuries quae ipsum Hannibalem armis etiam tum invictum voluptate vicit.

But this is another matter.

In any case, the anecdote of the citizens who mistreated their senators may perhaps move to some reflection current populist leaders willing to consult the people whenever they assume it coincident with their objectives. In our current societies democracy is representative, that is, the citizens elect their representatives in them they delegate their right to participate in political life in some aspects. Only on rare occasions of special importance it is resorted to referendum or consultation of all citizens entitled to participate.

Note: "referendum" is a verbal form called "gerundive" that means "obligation of …" from the verb re-fero, re-ferre, composed of re- (back, again) and fero, to carry. Consequently it means "to be consulted".

In the political context, therefore, it refers to the procedure by which a question or matter "must be taken or returned … to the people", that is to say, “it must to be consulted” with all the citizens who hold the sovereignty for ratification .

The RAE (Real Academia Española, Royal Spanish Academy) Dictionary , with its plausible concision, defines it as:

"Procedure by which popular laws or decisions are submitted to the popular vote with a decision-making or consultative character".

Plebiscite is a synonymous word with an absolutely Latin flavor. It is formed of plebis, genitive of plebs, which means plebs, people (remember the initial division of Roman citizens between "patricians", with all the rights and "plebeian"  who  would have to achieve them with a long struggle for equality, and "scitum", from the verb scio, scire, to know, and its inchoative compound  "sciscere", which initially means to inform, to try to know, and secondarily to deliberate, to vote, to decree, to solve.

Thus Cicero says  in Philippics I, 10,26

"Consules iure populum rogaverunt, populusque iure scivit",

that  translated says:

"the consuls according to law consulted the people and the people resolved according to law."

The Dictionary of the RAE (Real Academia Española; Royal Spanish Academy) defines it with all clarity and precision as follows:

From Latin  Plebiscītum .
1. Resolution taken by an entire town by majority vote
2. Enquiry that the public powers submit to the direct popular vote to approve or reject a certain proposal on a political or legal issue.
3. . In ancient Rome, a law which the plebs established at the suggestion of their tribune, separately from the upper classes of the republic, and which at first forced only the plebeians, but later all the people.

I avoid the pettifogger, never better denominated, discussion of the technical difference between plebiscite and referendum, which has produced not a few articles.

The citizens of Capua were consulted

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