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Representing the People in a Republic: Perspectives on the First Plebeian Secession

The following paper was presented at the recent Telos in Europe conference on “The Idea of Europe,” held in L’Aquila, Italy, on September 5–8, 2014. For anyone interested in participating in the upcoming 2015 Telos Conference in New York, abstracts will be accepted through October 20. Complete details and the full call for papers are posted at the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

I opened this conference by referring to the medical metaphor within which we have framed the question of democracy in order to point toward two paths for understanding this metaphor and to plead for the practice of both medicine and politics, not as mechanical sciences but as healing arts. In the following paper I would like to provide an example of the kind of artistic practice I have in mind by looking at two case histories of revolutionary movements from below, one success and one failure. What I would like to show in both cases is that the path to success lies in understanding the problem of democracy, first, as a problem of metaphor and thus of representation in the aesthetic sense and, second, as a problem that involves intervention in a developing metaphorical dynamic.

I would like to set up this representational approach to the problem in opposition to the conceptual approach that begins with the idea of the public sphere as a conceptual space rather than as a representational dynamic. Democratic theory has used the idea of the public sphere as a kind of cure-all for all kinds of societies that is intended to move politics from violence and representation toward rational deliberation. But in fact the public sphere is not a unified phenomenon but a symptom of an underlying representational structure and a dynamic of violence. We can see this structure of violence very clearly even in Hannah Arendt’s conception of the public sphere, which she attempts to define as a space of freedom as opposed to the necessity and violence that dominate the private sphere. In setting up this contrast, Arendt seeks to define politics as speech in order to set it off from violence. In insisting that both necessity and violence are prepolitical, Arendt accepts the necessity of violence as a consequence of the material conditions within which humans live, but wishes to isolate this material and violent aspect of human life as something that is inimical to political action.

Yet, her insistence on the separation of private from public realms obscures the dialectical relationship between private and public in which the definition of the public and its freedom is predicated on a suppression of a certain set of perspectives and concerns into a private realm, as if this separation of public and private were not itself a political decision. The political nature of the boundary between private and public becomes clear in Arendt’s analysis when she attempts to distinguish between persuasion through speech as public and violence as private.

In Greek self-understanding, to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were prepolitical ways to deal with people characteristic of life outside the polis, of home and family life, where the household head ruled with uncontested, despotic powers, or of life in the barbarian empires of Asia, where despotism was frequently likened to the organization of the household.[1]

When Arendt sets up rhetoric and speech as a space of freedom against violence and command as the place of something prepolitical and despotic, she thereby accepts the ideological self-understanding of the Greeks, who, because of their slave-based economy, needed to justify their domination over the slaves. The reservation of speech for the public sphere of the polis was based on a denial of speech to slaves. This denial was the original political event. If the collective decision-making of the polis required rational deliberation, this deliberation was purely instrumental to the goal of maintaining citizen domination over the slaves.[2]

This domination itself obviously was not based on persuasion by argument, but on both violence and a representational dynamic. Jacques Rancière describes this representational aspect of political order by recounting the story from Herodotus of the conflict between the Scythians and their slaves. These slaves were customarily blinded at birth, but when the Scythians went to war against the Medes, the Scythian men ended up being away for 28 years. During this time, their wives took the slaves as their husbands and a generation of slaves was born without being blinded. These slaves opposed the Scythian men in battle when these finally returned home. After the Scythians had no success in trying to defeat the slaves in battle, one of them made the following suggestion: “lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horsewhip, and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.”[3] This stratagem worked, and, as Rancière, notes, “struck by the spectacle, the slaves took to their heels without a fight.”[4] The blinding of the slaves deprived them of the ability to oppose the Scythians as equals in battle and thus confined them to the private realm, whose boundary is maintained through this violence. At the same time, it is not only violence that creates the boundary. As the incident of the whips demonstrates, there is a representational dynamic as well in which the slaves remain in their subordinated role so long as they accept the authority of their masters. This acceptance is tied to an affirmation of the way the masters have defined and limited the public sphere.

Even as a legendary account, the story of the Scythian slaves illustrates the way in which a public sphere based on the consignment of slaves to a private sphere of necessity implies both a structure of violence and a corresponding representational mechanism. It would therefore be inaccurate to describe the public sphere as a space of freedom from violence and representation. Rather, the public sphere is the outgrowth of a metaphor that establishes a particular structure of violence along with the representational legitimation for this structure. Seen in this way, the main task of a theory of the public sphere would not be to establish ways of eliminating violence and representation but to compare the ways in which different public spheres result from specific representations of the structure of society and the channeling of violence.

Here, the Roman republic provides an instructive contrast to the situation of the Scythian slaves. The key turning point in Rome’s republican history was the First Plebeian Secession of 494 BCE, in which the plebeians seceded from the city of Rome to the Aventine Hill (or the Sacred Mount). They set up camp and remained there until the patricians were successful in convincing them to return with the promise of establishing the tribunes who would in the future represent plebeian interests in the Roman public sphere. Rancière argues, following an interpretation by Pierre-Simon Ballanche, that the main issue in the secession was access to the public sphere. “Ballanche performs a restaging of the conflict in which the entire issue at stake involves finding out whether there exists a common stage where plebeians and patricians can debate anything.”[5] If Arendt describes slaves as those whose activity is reduced to labor that only reproduces life itself, Rancière describes this view of slaves and labor as the perspective of the patricians, who look on the plebeians as those who “do not speak” and “live a purely individual life that passes on nothing to posterity except for life itself.”[6] Rancière then interprets the secession of the plebeians to the Aventine Hill not as a military step but an act of speech. “They do not set up a fortified camp in the manner of the Scythian slaves. They do what would have been unthinkable for the latter: they establish another order, another partition of the perceptible, by constituting themselves not as warriors equal to other warriors but as speaking beings sharing the same properties as those who deny them these.”[7] Rancière attempts to describe the actions of the plebeians as a series of speech acts in contrast to the fortified camp of the Scythian slaves, but in fact the decision of the plebeian soldiers to leave the city and gather on the Aventine had military consequences. In leaving the city and setting up a camp, they established themselves as a military force opposed to the patricians. To describe this move purely as a speech act would overlook both the importance of the military consequences and the representational aspect in acts of war, particularly those that establish an enemy relationship. But the contrast Rancière makes with the Scythian slaves is indeed instructive, as it underlines how the plebeians can only constitute themselves as warriors rather than as criminals when they have set up their own representational order, with their own “names, oracles, and apotheoses.”[8] The plebeians’ ability to accomplish this representational aspect of becoming warriors was certainly enabled by their prior status as minimally recognized interlocutors (in contrast with the Scythian slaves) before the beginning of their dispute with the patricians.

The key point here is that both violence and representation function together to create the enemy status. Without the sufficient military capability to both help defend Rome against outside enemies and also potentially defeat the patricians in battle, the plebeian secession could have been ignored or dissolved with military force by the patricians. Without their representational structures of names and narratives, the plebeians would not have been able to constitute themselves as a collective body with which the patricians could negotiate. It was only at the point where the plebeians established themselves as both a military force and a representational order that the patricians decided to send Menenius Agrippa as a negotiator. The result of the negotiations then cemented the public status of the plebeians by instituting the tribunes as representatives of the plebeians as a permanent part of the structure of the Roman political order (Livy, 2.33). This result was only possible to the extent that the plebeians could link a threat of violence with representational order. This merging of violence and representation, then, seems to be the prerequisite for political action and for what Rancière and Arendt call the entrance into the public sphere but which in fact involves a transformation of political order. Because Arendt sees the public sphere purely as a place of freedom in contrast to the private sphere as the province of necessity and violence, she is unable to appreciate this dynamic whereby violence and representation combine in order not just to set the boundary between the public and the private but to provide a specific shape to the political order. The relationship between private and public is not a static one but a dynamic one, and the setting of the boundary between the two is the consequence of an underlying political decision that establishes a particular set of metaphors for understanding the political order.

If a public sphere might enable rational discussion about the best means of achieving economic and political goals, such debate can only go on within a context of agreement about these goals and cannot establish these goals or the specific structure of the public sphere that a particular set of goals would imply. This structure involves not just the specification of a context for conflict and debate, but also the basis of the unity of ends that would guarantee the civility of this debate. In Livy’s account of the plebeian secession, it is the establishment of this unity that becomes the main subject of discussion: “No glimpse of hope could they [the patricians] see left, except in concord between the citizens, which must be re-established within the state on any terms, whether fair or unfair” (Livy, 2.32). As the patricians recognize, this concord is a cultural issue as much as a political one, and their solution is “therefore, to send as ambassador to the plebeians, Menenius Agrippa, a man of eloquence, and acceptable to the commons, because he had been originally one of their body. He, being admitted into the camp, is said to have related to them the following fable, delivered in antiquated language, and an uncouth style.” It was crucial that the patricians, recognizing a cultural divide between themselves and the plebeians, were able to send as a mediator Menenius Agrippa, who was in fact a transplant, a patrician with plebeian origins, and who could express himself within both the language of the patricians and that of the plebeians. Livy expresses the double aspect of his speech by referring to both the antiquated language and the uncouth style, a curious combination but in fact perhaps the most appropriate one for this situation. Moreover, Menenius does attempt to establish the unity of the patricians and the plebeians with arguments, but with a fable, in fact a medical metaphor:

“At a time when the members of the human body did not, as at present, all unite in one plan, but each member had its own scheme, and its own language; the other parts were provoked at seeing that the fruits of all their care, of all their toil and service, were applied to the use of the belly; and that the belly meanwhile remained at its ease, and did nothing but enjoy the pleasure provided for it: on this they conspired together, that the hand should not bring food to the mouth, nor the mouth receive it if offered, nor the teeth chew it. While they wished, by these angry measures, to subdue the belly through hunger, the members themselves, and the whole body, were, together with it, reduced to the last stage of decay: from thence it appeared that the office of the belly itself was not confined to a slothful indolence; that it not only received nourishment, but supplied it to the others, conveying to every part of the body, that blood, on which depend our life and vigour, by distributing it equally through the veins, after having brought it to perfection by digestion of the food.” Applying this to the present case, and showing what similitude there was between the dissension of the members, and the resentment of the commons against the patricians, he made a considerable impression on the people’s minds. (Livy 2.32)

If the plebeians are able to establish their own status as interlocutors, as Rancière, following Ballanche, emphasizes, this is only because they already exist within a tradition in which their language is at least in part recognized as legitimate. Menenius Agrippa’s plebeian origins and consequent ability to speak according to their manner is already an indication of the prior partial legitimacy of plebeian speech, and the ability of the plebeians to bear arms already attests to their political agency within Rome. The point of the parable of the belly and the members is not so much to grant agency to the members as well as the belly, but to legitimate a division of labor between patricians and plebeians that at the same affirms the overall unity of purposes within which they exist. If the plebeian political act consisted in questioning this unity, the resulting compromise was founded upon a representation of this unity in the fable as well as a re-organization of the political order to include the tribunes as representatives of the plebeians within the unity of the state.

The centrality of the fable as a representation for bringing about a new stability in Rome indicates that Arendt’s distinction between the private sphere of labor and the public sphere of speech is not a universal one. Nor does an entrance into the public sphere merely involve an argumentative declaration. Rather than taking the distinction between animal laborans and zoon politikon as an objective and universal one, as if they were in fact two different species of human, it would be more appropriate to consider this distinction as the result of a political struggle. From this perspective, one of the key political decisions that defines an order is the one that determines the organization of labor, violence, and speech, and their relationship to one another. The public sphere is not a neutral space of equality and debate but rather a component of a particular ordering of political authority that establishes separations and distinctions. The key consideration is not the extent to which all are granted admittance to the public sphere, but the particular representational figures according to which this sphere is structured. Since these figures determine the terms and extent of access to a particular public sphere, the failure to recognize the centrality of this figural landscape leads to an inability to recognize the implicit rules whereby every public sphere controls and channels discussion and conflict. As the examples of the Scythian slaves and of the plebeian secession demonstrate, these representational figures and their dynamic development form the overarching context within which something like a public sphere could coalesce, not as the basis of political life but merely as an outward symptom.


1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 26–27.

2. M. I. Finley indicates a connection between democracy and slavery in ancient Greece. M. I. Finley, Economy and Society in Ancient Greece (London: Chatto and Windus, 1981).

3. Herodotus, The Histories, book IV, trans. George Rawlinson, ed. Hugh Bowden (London: Everyman, 1992), p. 260. Cited in Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minneapolis Press, 1999), p. 12.

4. Rancière, Disagreement, p. 12.

5. Ibid., p. 23.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., p. 34.

8. Ibid.

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