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Collegiati: The Gangsters of Ancient Rome?

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira, Universidade de São Paulo.

The popular classes seldom played a role in modern depictions of Ancient Rome in movies and TV series. In this sense, HBO's Rome series, produced between 2004 and 2007, marked an important change. While the universe of the great personalities of the end of the Republic is still represented according to a well-known tradition in cinema, the world of the popular classes, of Vorenus and Pullo, the main characters, is treated in an innovative way. Take the case of women, already studied by Maureen Ragalie. While the elite ladies, such as Atia of the Julii and Servilia of the Junii, reproduce the well-known stereotype of sexual voracity and manipulation, the commoners Niobe or the slave Irene are treated much more realistically than the Christian ideals present in older films such as Quo Vadis?, Ben-Hur or The Last Days of Pompeii. This does not mean that the popular universe is always portrayed in a positive way. In season two, war veteran Vorenus is tasked by consul Mark Antony to run the Aventine collegium, thus taking control of one of Rome's organized crime centres. In the series, the collegia are portrayed as dens of thieves and prostitutes and the collegiati are depicted as armed criminals commanded by "captains" who control the neighbourhoods of Rome. They extort the inhabitants in exchange for protection and organize services such as the distribution of fish and wheat, while confronting other gangs in endless settlements. We are, therefore, in a world not unlike the Italian mafias or, if you prefer, the traffickers and militiamen on the shanty towns of Rio de Janeiro.

Pullo takes the front of the collegium of the Aventine and prepares to face a rival collegium (scene from the second season of the HBO's series Rome).

The historical collegia, however, were just associations of residents of a specific neighbourhood, who shared the same profession or worshiped the same divinity. They brought together both poor free workers and slaves and freedmen. Like the Vici, Pagi and Montes (neighbourhood associations), they offered to an unstable population in a gigantic city by ancient standards a sense of identity and belonging. The collegia, like the vici, were commanded by leaders, the magistri (equivalent to the “captains” of the Rome series), who were elected by the members of the association. The main function of these associations was to offer mutual help (for example, by burying deceased members), to promote sociability at banquets and parties and to bring their members together for the common worship of a protective deity (which is also represented in the series by the cult of goddess Concordia). In the last years of the Republic, the heads of the vici, but not those of the collegia, assumed the responsibility of organizing food distributions in collaboration with the central government. But there is no indication in our sources that any kind of association had been involved in territorial disputes or had carried out criminal extortion practices of the inhabitants of neighbourhoods similar to those of the modern mafia. Why, then, are the collegia in the series identified as criminal organizations?

Arthur Pomeroy has already observed that the images of organized violence, illicit practices and gang actions associated with the collegiain the Rome series are primarily due to the model of Hollywood gangster films. It is easy to recognize in the series the influence of films such as Howard Hawks’ Scarface, Martin Scorcese’s New York Gangs or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. However, the starting point for this view of the collegia as bands of armed criminals was based on the ancient sources themselves. An indication of this is given in the extra information in the series: “Criminal gangs were armed for the first time by Clodius. He did it in the hope that they could fight for him.” Publius Clodius Pulcher was one of the most prominent popular leaders of the late Republic and the mortal enemy of Cicero, the famous orator. As a tribune of the plebs, Clodius not only obtained Cicero's exile in 58 BC, but destroyed with his band the former consul's house in the Palatine, building a temple to Liberty in that place. He won the support of the street by affecting respect for the slaves of his band, promising to fight for the right to vote for the freedmen, but, above all, obtaining the approval of a law in 58 BC that guaranteed the free distribution of wheat to the people of Rome. He was killed in 52 BC by slaves and associates of Milan, one of Cicero's friends, when the two met, by chance, on the Appian Way. We have none of Clodius’s writings, but only the hostile point of view of Cicero's works on him.

Clodius was not the first leader to realize the political potential of the network of associations spread throughout the city of Rome, but he was the one who best knew how to use the collegia as a base to recruit a true paramilitary force. With this gang recruited neighbourhood by neighbourhood, Clodius was able to face his political opponents and occupy the forum on the days when important laws would be voted to guarantee their approval. For Cicero, the most shocking in Clodiu's political strategy was not the violence itself. His friends, Titus Annius Milo and Publius Sestius, were true militiamen, heads of armed bands formed to hunt Clodius’ supporters in the streets. But as they were from the oligarch party, they were treated by the speaker as “noble men” and “benefactors of the Republic” (Pro Sestio, 9, 21)! What shocked Cicero the most was the kind of people that Clodius mobilized and the power they assumed:

“Do you think that the Roman people consists of these men who can be hired for any purpose? who are easily instigated to offer violence to magistrates? to besiege the senate? to wish every day for bloodshed, conflagration and plunder? people, indeed, whom you could not possibly collect together unless you shut up all the taverns; a people to whom you gave the Lentidii, and Lollii, and Plaguleii, and Sergii, for leaders. Oh for the splendour and dignity of the Roman people, for kings, for foreign nations, for the most distant lands to fear; a multitude collected of slaves, of hirelings, of, criminals, and beggars!” (De Domo, 29, 89).

In the end, it is this alarmist and elitist view of Cicero that informs the representation of the collegia in the Rome series. But we must remember that, both in the past and today, the indiscriminate criminalization of workers' organizations says much more about the fears and strategies of those who promote this discourse than about what workers actually do. Cicero would not be the only politician to have militiamen of his or her preference.

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