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Posca and Politics

First things first, this is a post about the end of the Republic and Julius Caesar, and we know that some readers are *sick* of that particular topic.

If you don’t fancy reading it, we certainly recommend you view this video about Posca, the drink of the Roman army. It’s super-interesting!

In HBO’s much-loved (and much-missed) series Rome, Posca is a fictional aide-du-camp and amanuensis to Julius Caesar. A former slave, he provides an interesting foil to Caesar, suggesting the working dynamic that may have existed between elite Romans and their administrative staff.

In a key exchange in the first season, Posca is charged with guiding the former-centurion, and now prospective-magistrate, Lucius Vorenus through the policies he will implement when he is elected.

The scene perfectly presents the tension between principle and practicality facing politicians in the late Republic.

On the one hand, Vorenus is in the right, as he believes in what he sees as the purest form of the Republic: absolutely open and honest elections, based on a central belief in the guiding hand of Jupiter over the Republic.

However, Posca – representing Caesar – understands that in Rome, a “fair” election is nigh-on impossible. The influence of the patrician class is such that without financial backing and bribery, no man can achieve an elected position.

The idea is put persuasively (sorry for all the alliteration in this – I promise it’s not intentional), by suggesting first that any act by Caesar is sanctioned by Jupiter, therefore even Caesar’s crimes are spiritually-approved; he also appeals to Vorenus’s conscience, claiming that a corrupt election is a small price to pay for returning order and prosperity to Rome.

This perspective can be supported. In the Republic, the Centuriate assembly allowed the wealthiest Romans to achieve success at election by giving them disproportionate representation. In the Tribal assembly, thousands of citizens were crammed into the four Tribes in the city, giving greater influence to the less-populous rural Tribes and, importantly, the wealthy men who owned land in these areas. While there was an appearance – and indeed mechanism – of democracy, it functioned to reinforce the rule of the wealthiest.

And this is one of the difficulties when assessing Julius Caesar’s motives. If Rome was to quickly return to a true Republic with fair elections, it would first be necessary to effect change by corrupt means. In pursuing these policies, he would of course appear to be a man aspiring to a monarchical rule. The situation was ironic and tragic in equal parts.

This exchange is a meeting of pietas and pragmatism, and is an effective and succinct exposition of the moral choices facing Roman – and perhaps some modern - politicians. Do the ends justify the means? Does it depend on what those ends are?

Whatever you might think the answer is, Posca is one of the best creations in the series. He links the different classes of characters in the cast (stop alliterating!) and distils some often complex political ideas into a form easily understood by a non-expert audience.

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