Maximus Goodius Dividesus, and the Roman mob


From time to time the emperor, Caesar, deluded himself that he commanded absolute power in Rome. So too did the Senate, that patently unrepresentative body who presumed to rule Rome also before the emperors, and hoped to once again afterwards. But it was never so. Real power resided in the mob, the crowd, the informal gathering of the citizens of Rome. Their most potent expression is, and always was, the chanting crowds at the Colosseum, determining who will live, and who will die, on voices. But the Roman mob, or crowd, was always much more than this one expression that has been so widely represented in popular culture. To cite the cynic Juvenal, all the crowd, the people, want are “bread and circuses.” That is, food to sustain them, and something to entertain them, and make their often short, and difficult lives, worthwhile. It sounded innocuous and easy enough, but for the emperor who couldn’t deliver it public anger, if not a riot, and then an uprising, often followed by a particularly nasty death, usually awaited.

The movie Gladiator made this broadly historically authentic point beautifully in the scene below – wherein the crowd, the mob, impose their will on the young emperor, by insisting Russell Crowe not be impaled on the sword of a Praetorian Guardsman.

imageThe Adam Goodes booing controversy may, at first mention, seem a long way from the frenzied mobs of Rome, and their cries for “bread and circuses.” But the human dynamics are the same, and have not changed over the course of the centuries. In this comparable modern drama, the AFL and the media class play Caesar, pompously lecturing the Colosseum crowd on correct modes of behaviour, and on whom they shall, or shall not, jeer, come the contest. The Roman mob, ably portrayed in the modern context by the human content of any packed front bar in any pub within a reasonable walking distance from the stadium, are having none of this. Like crowds down through the ages they will not be lectured to, and they will not be told by vacuous do-gooders who to boo and who not to boo. In fact, the ancient blowhard trying that one on will find out very quickly that even a well meant lecture along the lines of – “now do the right thing won’t you chaps and stop jeering the delicate Celtic type designated to survive today’s javelin throwing contest” – will not go down too well with a crowd fueled by bread, or beer. In fact it will have the opposite effect, and it will be a pretty sure bet the delicate Celtic type will find himself impaled on a very long javelin cast by an ill-mannered gladiatorial type being egged on to do it by the frenzied crowd.

The psychology is the same, if less lethal, in the modern Australian context. The more the AFL, the politically correct media types, and the social and political class, lecture the bogans in the front bar, the more the said bogans will be returning a two fingered salute, and the louder the jeering will get. It’s not about race, class, or anything else remotely concerned with the contents of a typical gender or cultural studies syllabus. It’s about simple crowd psychology, and it’s probably a matter of anthropology, if not biology. Jerks and wankers get booed. The more they behave like jerks and wankers, and the more the elites come to their defence, the more the crowd jeers, and the louder, and longer. It’s as simple as that.

In contrast to the elites of society, who have multiple platforms and means, the masses have very few ways of making themselves heard. This is one. We would do well to listen.