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Slumlands — filthy secret of the modern mega-city

Across the world, slums are home to a billion people. The rich elite want the shanty towns cleared,

There is a long curve of water and, as far as the eye can see, there are shacks, garbage, washing, tin, bits of wood, scraps of cloth, rats and children. The water is grey, but at the edges there's a flotsam of multicoloured plastic rubbish. This is the Estero de San Miguel, the front line in an undeclared war between the rich and poor of Manila. Figures emerge from creaky doors to move along bits of walkway. In the deep distance is the dome of a mosque; beyond that are skyscrapers.

Mena Cinco, a community leader here, volunteers to take me in - but only about 50 yards. After that, she cannot guarantee my safety. At the bottom of a ladder, the central mystery of the Estero de San Miguel is revealed: a long tunnel, four feet wide, dark except for the occasional bare bulb. It's just like an old coal mine, with rickety joists, shafts of light and pools of what I'm hoping is water on the floor. All along the tunnel are doors into the homes of as many as 6,000 people.

We knock on the first one that's ajar. Oliver Baldera comes blinking to it, pulling on his shirt. On the floor behind him are his four kids, eating ice cream. His wife joins him.

The room is eight feet by eight and forms their entire dwelling space. It contains everything they own: a television, four bowls of ice cream, a light bulb, a mattress and the clothes they are wearing. "We've been here more than ten years," he says. "There's no choice. I'm a carpenter in the construction industry. We came from Mindanao."

Why did he move? "Because of poverty. It's easier to get a job here and I can earn 400 pesos a day. I can send the kids to school and they eat three times a day - but it's not enough. I need more space."

“But they're happy," Mena chips in.

Further along, there's a shaft of light and some kids are splashing about in a blow-up pool. Mena makes them sing. One of them comes up to me. "What's it like living here?" I ask. Mena mutters something to him in Filipino. "Happy," he says, and smiles.

This is a place where you cannot stride along without hitting your head or bruising your elbow, so people creep and shuffle. Here, you cannot go to the toilet without standing in a queue. Here, sex between a man and a woman has tohappen within breathing distance of their kids and earshot of 20 other families. This is the classic 21st-century slum. A billion people live in them, one in seven of the world's population. By 2050, according to the United Nations, there could be three billion. The slum is the filthy secret of the modern mega-city, the hidden achievement of 20 years ofuntrammelled market forces, greed, neglect and graft.

Yet Mena, at my elbow, is feeding me an incessant mantra: "We are happy; there is social cohesion here; we are organised; it is clean." The reason is this - the Estero de San Miguel has been condemned. The president of the Philippines, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, has decided to clear Manila's slums and send half a million people back to the countryside. That suits the business elite and the political clans that run the country fine. "Many of our people are no longer interested in agriculture, so we need to give them incentives to go back," says Cecilia Alba, head of the national Housing and Urban Development Co-ordinating Council. "If we had to rehouse the slum-dwellers inside Manila in medium-rise housing, it would cost a third of the national budget."

At the top of the list for relocation are the residents of the Estero de San Miguel. They will not go without a fight. "We will barricade and we will revolt if we have to," Mena says. "We will resist slum clearance and we will fight to defend our community. We are happy here."

This is not an idle threat. On 28 April, residents of the Laperal slum a few miles away engaged demolition teams with Molotov cocktails and guns in a riot that injured six policemen and numerous slum-dwellers. An arson attack had wiped out most of the area's dwellings ten days earlier.

Technically, global policy is on the side of the rioters. In 2003, an influential UN report, entitled The Challenge of Slums, signalled a shift away from the old slum-clearance policies and recognised that informal settlements make positive contributions to economic development. They house new migrants; because they are dense, they use land efficiently; they are culturally diverse; and they offer numerous opportunities for ragged-trousered entrepreneurs.

“Ten years ago, we used to dream that cities would become slum-free," says Muhammad Khadim of UN-Habitat. "The approach has changed. People see the positives. The approach now is not to clear them but to improve them gradually [and] regularise land tenure."

Cameron Sinclair, who runs the non-profit design firm Architecture for Humanity, goes further. "A slum is a resilient urban animal. You cannot pry it away," he tells me. "It's like a good parasite. There are some parasites that attack the body and you have to get rid of them but, within the city, the informal settlement is a parasite that acts in harmony with the city, keeps it in check."

Sinclair, whose organisation has upgraded slums in Brazil, Kenya and South Africa, believes that modern city design should not only tolerate slums but learn from them - and even emulate them. "To be honest, what we lack in a place like London is that the lower classes can't live in central London and have to commute for two and a half hours to do the jobs that keep people going."

What has driven the new thinking is ugly economic facts. After the 1970s, there was a sharp slowdown in the provision of social housing. The free-market revolution in the cities has led to the retreat of state provision, the rise of the informal economy and the rapid impoverishment of the rural poor. As a result, we are having to ask ourselves a question that would have made the 19th-century fathers of city planning shudder: do we have to learn to live with slums for ever?

It's a question to which the Filipino political elite have defiantly answered no.

“Should I buy them ice cream?" Regina "Gina" Lopez asks me, tilting her white Stetson as she leads me through what is left of a slum called the Estero de Paco. Teenage boys wearing hip-hop clothes and baseball hats are crowding, shirtless, around Gina. It's one of their birthdays, so should she buy them ice cream? Gina's trouser suit is the colour of ice cream. She is lithe, slinky and 61 years old. Among the 30 people with her are two cops, a media team of six, guys from the local community, her bodyguards, factotums and a man in dark glasses who is carrying her handbag.

Gina is a TV star, philanthropist, boss of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission and, most importantly, a member of the Lopez family. Lopez Inc owns much of downtown Manila - the energy company, a TV empire, a phone company - and has interests in all kinds of infrastructure, including water. Who better than Gina, in a country untroubled by worries about conflict of interest, to lead the forcible removal of slum-dwellers from the waterways?

The Estero de Paco used to have slums right down to the water's edge, just like the San Miguel. Now, instead of shacks, there is a neat border of agapanthus and rubber plants. State-of-the-art oxidation units are turning the brown sludge into something chemically close to H2O. Into the space that has been cleared, work gangs are laying a wide-bore sewage pipe.

As Gina approaches, a group of women from the slum falls into line and salutes. The women are middle-aged and poor; their T-shirts bear the words "River Warriors". They stand to attention and Gina, Prada-clad, goes into a drill routine: "River Warriors, atten . . . shun!" Then there are slogans about honour and playing for the team and some more of the drill, before they all fall about laughing. "I ordered them to dive into the water," she giggles.

The idea behind the River Warriors is serious. The clearance of the Estero de Paco was "non-negotiable". The Warriors' job is to make sure that those who have been cleared do not come back. "They will poo here! They will throw garbage," Gina says. "They would come back, if we didn't guard the place. So we work with the ones who are compliant. To make a change like this, you have to work with a chosen few, the vanguard."

The clearance programme works like a giant scalpel. Four metres of land is all that is needed to create the easement for the waste pipe, so a second, deeper layer of slums remains - you can see where something has sheared through walls, windows, dirt, alleyways. This is social engineering on a vast scale. It's what the government has decreed for half a million people. Like the slum-clearers of 19th-century London and New York, Gina has a missionary enthusiasm. "You can't live well if you're faced with the constant smell of faeces, right? You can't live a decent life on top of a sewer. Even if those people want to stay there, [they can't because] it has a wider impact on the city, the environment: we can't clean the water and bring the river back to life if they're there; the crime and sickness have a big impact on the environment."

With Gina out of earshot, two of the River Warrior women quietly tell me that they are secret returnees. They were moved on to a place called Calauan, four hours away by road, but have come back. I demand to see Calauan. "No problem," says Gina, flipping open her mobile phone. "Get me aviation."

The chopper skims low across Manila Bay. It's fringed with slums and, out in the bay, there are homes on stilts. "Even the sea is squatted," Monchet Olives, Gina's chief of staff, tells me. Soon, the skyscraper outline of downtown Manila disappears. We're above rice paddies; in the distance, there are mountains. Calauan comes into view - neat rows of single-storey housing, their tin roofs glinting. The whole complex houses about 6,000 families and there is room for many more.

On the streets, density is not a problem. The public space is deserted. There's a playground; there's a school with the name Oscar Lopez painted on the roof. The problem is - as Monchet concedes - there is no electricity, no running water and no prospect of ever getting any. And no jobs. "When it comes to electricity, we're between a rock and a hard place," he says. "Many of the new residents have never been used to paying bills, and the electricity company, to make the investment, needs an income stream that they just can't provide."

I notice that we're being shadowed by two soldiers, in camouflage and with assault rifles, on motorbikes. "That's because of the New People's Army. Guerrilla activity is what made them abandon this place for ten years."

Deep in the jungle? "No, just up there on the hill." Monchet waves his finger in the general direction of the landscape, which suddenly looks a lot like the treeline in the opening credits of Apocalypse Now.

Ruben Petrache was one of those who moved here from the Estero de Paco. He is in his fifties and has been seriously ill. His home is a spacious terraced hut. It has a tin roof, tinfoil in­sulation to keep the heat down, a pretty garden and a "mezzanine" arrangement that creates two bedrooms, such as you would see in a loft. Ruben's English is not so good, so Monchet translates: "What he's saying is that although the community is disrupted, he thinks it's better here. For him, at least. Once you get here, after a while, you realise that you'd become accustomed to conditions that were insanitary. You learn to move on, live in a new way."

For electricity, he points to the solar panel; for water, to the barrel collecting rainwater on his porch. Are there any downsides?

“It would be better if there was a factory here, because we need more jobs," Monchet summarises. Later, with a translator, I work out what Ruben, hand-picked by the camp's authorities, was trying to say: "What the people need is a job. We need a company nearby so that we don't have to go to Manila. Also, we need electricity. Many residents here know how to fix electric fans, radios, but the problem is, even if they have the skills, they cannot [use] it because there is no electricity here - so they are forced to go to Manila to find work and earn money to buy food.

“We are hard workers. If we don't do anything, we might die of hunger here. That's why many go back to Manila: to look for work and earn money."
In the covered market, the stalls are stocked with meat, rice and vegetables but there are more stallholders than shoppers. Gloria Cruz, a 38-year-old mother, is holding forth on a kara­oke machine to three toddlers, two other mums, the ArmaLite-toting soldiers and me. After a couple of verses, she hits the pause button. "My husband goes to Manila to work," she says. "He comes back at weekends. It's the same for everybody. There's nothing here."

Felino Palafox is an architect who specialises in the construction of vast, space-age projects in the Middle East and Asia - mosques, Buddhist temples, futuristic towers on the Persian Gulf - always for people with money to burn.

Now, however, he wants to save the Estero de San Miguel: to rebuild it, in situ, with new materials. The plan is to clear it bit by bit and put inmodular housing. Each plot will be ten square metres; the ground floor will be reserved for retail and tricycle parking, the floors above extending out above the walkway, just as slum-dwellers build their homes - "stealing the air from the planning authorities", Palafox calls it. "The slum-dwellers," he adds, "are experts at live-work space design. They spontaneously do mixed-use! We just have to learn from them."

From the roof of the tower block in Makati, the central business district, where his practice has its headquarters, he gives me a primer in what has gone wrong. He indicates the neighbouring tower blocks - "monuments to graft" - and the gated compounds downtown where the rich live. To the government, which says his design is too expensive, he says: "OK, the total cost of rehousing slum-dwellers in situ is 30 per cent of GDP [but] I calculate we lose about 30 per cent of the country's wealth through corruption. If we didn't have corruption, we wouldn't need to tolerate slums." He sees the Estero de San Miguel as a test case: if he can make it work there, it's scalable to each of the city's riverside slums. So the stakes are huge.

Father Norberto Carcellar, who has worked for much of his life with Manila's poor, thinks that the elite are engaged in a huge self-deception about the question of slum clearance: "We have to recognise the value of slum-dwellers to the city. These are the ones who drive your car, clean your house and run your store. If these people were cleared from the city, the city would die. Slum-dwellers add social, political and economic value to the city."

That sentiment would have seemed alien to our grandparents' generation: I can still hear mine, brought up in Edwardian poverty in a coal and cotton town in northern England, spitting out the word "slum" with disgust. For them, slums meant a dog-eat-dog, dirty world where solidarity could not flourish and people lived like animals and treated their kids worse. Thirty years of globalisation have produced something which defies that stereotype. With Mena at my side, I'm about to witness it.

As it is Saturday night, there is a full complement of beefy guys with sticks, rice flails and flashlights - the volunteer police force of the Estero de San Miguel. Mena and I turn off into an alleyway opposite a McDonald's. You would hardly know it's there. The passage narrows, jinks around, and suddenly it feels as if I am in a novel by Charles Dickens.

On a bridge that is less than a metre wide, a man is squatting beside a barbecue. Because of the smoke, I don't see that it is a bridge until
I'm on it, or that below us is the canal, which is about two metres wide here. The dwellings are built so close together that the mothers peering out of the upstairs bedrooms, made of wooden boxes, could shake their neighbours' hands. If you'd decided to remake Oliver Twist as an expressionist film and this was the proposed set design, you would probably sack the designer, saying: "It's too much, too grotesque."

We head down into the tunnel, stooping now, because it is less than five feet high. After passing a poker game and a stray chicken, I come to a store that is run by Agnes Cabagauan. It sells the same things as every slum store in the world: sachets of Silvikrin hair product, Cif, Head & Shoulders shampoo, the Filipino version of Marlboro cigarettes, lighters, tampons and chewing gum. "My parents helped me set up [the store] to pay for my education," Agnes tells me.

What are you studying?

“Business admin. I have a degree. I also have a day job in a large corporation - coding in a sales department."

And you live here? "Yes. I was born here." She is 22 years old.

Then we run into Mena's son; he's an engineering student. As we cross another bridge, the unmistakable whizz and pop of something digital come blasting across the stagnant water. It's an internet café. There are nine computers crammed into a plywood hut. A dog yaps and runs around; the light is harsh. Some kids are on Facebook. Others are playing online poker. One young woman is doing her CV, another is engrossed in a game called Audition. She, too, is at college, she tells me, multitasking between her BlackBerry and the game.

Business admin? Yup.

In the space of a hundred yards, I have encountered three graduates, a DIY police force and the social media revolution. As I become used to the smoke, the wail and chatter of children, the chickens and the confined space, I learn what a billion people have had to learn: it's not so bad. "Other places have prostitution. We don't," Mena says. "We get drunks and a bit of drug-taking but it's under control. We look out for each other. We can see everything that happens - it's one big family. The main job for the volunteer police force is to look out for arsonists. Settlements under threat of clearance have a habit of getting burned down." As she discourses on the fine details of social policy in the five-foot-high niche that is her living room and kitchen, I ask the question I should have posed when we first met. How did she become so politically literate?

“I majored in political science at the University of Manila."

What slum-dwellers have produced (and I've seen it not just here but in Cairo, Nairobi, Lima and La Paz) is something the slum clearance tsars of yesteryear would not recognise - the orderly, solidaristic slum, or what the UN calls the "slum of hope".

The debate, at the global level, is no longer about how fast to tear these places down but whether we can meet the rapidly developing aspirations of highly educated people in tin shacks. To those who dream that, as capitalism develops, it will eradicate slums, Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity says dream on. "You can't fight something that has a stronger model than you [do]. It's never going to happen again. The fact of it is that if you tried to do it in some of these informal settlements, they could take out the city . . . march on the central business district, and it's game over."

Paul Mason reports from Manila on Tuesday 16 August in "Slums 101" (Radio 4, 8pm) and on "Newsnight" (BBC2, 10.30pm).

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule

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Death of a dictator

How Caesar’s murder set the template for political assassination.

The assassination of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44BC (“the ides of March” by the Roman system of dating) is the most famous political murder in history. Caesar had recently been made “dictator for life”, and he was killed in the name of “liberty” by a group of men he counted as friends and colleagues. In the aftermath, the assassins issued coins with a design specially chosen to celebrate the deed and press home the message: it featured the memorable date (“EID MAR”), a pair of daggers and the image of the small hat, “the cap of liberty”, regularly presented to Roman slaves when they were granted their freedom. This was liberation on a grander scale, freeing the Roman people from tyranny.

Several of the characters whose biographies feature in Plutarch’s Lives – Caesar, Brutus, Cicero, Antony, Pompey – had a role in the story of the murder. Julius Caesar was the victim, his dying moments vividly described by Plutarch. In this account, there were no famous last words, “Et tu Brute?” or whatever; after a futile attempt to fight back, Caesar pulled his toga over his head and took the 23 dagger blows that killed him. Brutus was the leading figure behind the assassination, a frankly messy business, as Plutarch makes clear (with several of the assassins “caught in friendly fire”, accidentally wounded by blows from their own side), and he was soon more or less forced to leave the city.

Cicero, the Roman politician, philosopher, poet, wit and orator, was not party to the plot but was very likely an eyewitness of the murder, and was straight away consulted by the assassins about what on Earth to do next (one of their main problems was that they had not thought ahead). Antony was Caesar’s right-hand man, gave the address at his funeral, and tried to take on the role of Caesar’s defender and successor – though he soon found an even more powerful rival for that position.

Pompey was already dead by 44BC. He had been killed four years earlier in a civil war, leading those Romans who had then been prepared to resort to pitched battles to resist the growing power of Caesar. But his shadow hung over the assassination. Caesar was murdered in an expensive new meeting hall whose building Pompey had funded, and he fell in front of a statue of Pompey, splattering it with his blood. It was as if Pompey was finally getting his revenge.

 

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The death of Caesar has provided the template for assassination ever since and has been the focus of debate on the rights and wrongs of political violence. In 1865, John Wilkes Booth used the word “ides” as the code word for the planned date of the assassination of President Lincoln. Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, largely drawing on an early translation of Plutarch’s biography, used the events of 44BC to reflect on the nature of political power, ideology and moral conscience. Others have seen the assassination as a useful reminder of the futility of such attempts at direct action. For what did it achieve? If the assassins had really wanted to quash the rise of one-man rule in Rome, if they had wanted to kill the tyranny as well as the tyrant, they were strikingly unsuccessful. More than a decade of civil war followed (a major theme in Plutarch’s biographies of Brutus and Antony), but the end result was that Caesar’s great-nephew – “Augustus”, as he was later known, and the man who rivalled Antony as Caesar’s heir – became the first Roman emperor. He established autocratic rule on a permanent basis. So much for the return of “liberty”.

In the long history of Rome – founded, as the Romans calculated it, around 750BC – the murder of Caesar, for all its later notoriety, was just one of many political crises, which became particularly intense and violent in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. This was a period of expansion, political change, even revolution. There were vast Roman conquests overseas and, as a consequence, an enormous influx of wealth into the city. Gleaming marble from Greece, rather than local brick and stone, began to be used for temples and other public buildings in the city; slaves started to make up the majority of the workforce; and so many people flocked to Rome that its population topped a million, the only Western city of that size until London in the early 19th century.

But this age also saw repeated outbreaks of civil war at home, political disintegration, mass pogroms of citizens and the final fracture of what had once been a more or less democratic system of government. As a leading politician, Caesar was almost typical in coming to a violent end. None of the men I have mentioned died in their beds, nor fighting some “barbarian enemy”. They were killed in conflict with other Romans, by Roman hands, or on Roman orders. Pompey, for example, after losing in battle to Caesar, was decapitated by an Egyptian eunuch, ably assisted by a couple of Roman veteran soldiers; Cicero was put to death in 43BC in one of the pogroms, on Antony’s instructions, his head and hands later pinned up in the centre of Rome as macabre trophies for the crowds to leer and jeer at. A little over a decade later, Antony ended up killing himself after he lost in battle to Caesar’s great-nephew and successor.

The Romans described and fiercely debated the stresses and breakdown of their political system, trailing all kinds of explanations and possible solutions. For this period was also one of intellectual revolution in Rome, when the rich tradition of Roman literature began. Starting in the early 2nd century BC, Roman writers for the first time tried to tell the history of their city, to reflect on its problems and on how they thought it should be governed; and they used writing, too, for political attacks, insults in verse, self-advertisement in public, and personal letters in which they shared their aspirations, fears and suspicions.

When Plutarch in the early 2nd century AD was writing these biographies, he could base his narrative on plenty of contemporary material from the age of Caesar. Some of this we can still read, including Caesar’s one-sided account of his campaigns against the tribes of Gaul and later against Pompey (one of the very few eyewitness descriptions of ancient warfare to have come down to us) and volumes of Cicero’s political speeches, philosophical treatises and hundreds of his private letters, made public after his death by his loyal heirs. This writing helps us to understand what lay beneath all that chaos.

The rapid growth of the Roman empire was a crucial and destabilising factor. For us, why Rome grew in a few centuries from a small, moderately successful town in central Italy to one with control over more of Europe and the Mediterranean world than any state before or since is one of history’s big puzzles. Most modern observers put it down to some unfathomable combination of greed, a highly militaristic ideology, a dose of good luck and a happy knack of converting those they conquered into Roman citizens, and so into new soldiers for the Roman cause. The Romans were less puzzled on this score, pointing to the support of the gods, their piety and a succession of defensive rather than aggressive wars, in which they intervened to protect allies under threat. They were more troubled by the consequences of overseas growth for society and politics back home.

Despite their popular modern image, the Romans were not simply thoughtless and jingoistic imperialists. Some worried that the wealth and luxury that came with conquest overseas undermined what they saw as old-fashioned Roman austerity, a few about the cruelty of conquest (there was even
one, perhaps not entirely serious, proposal to put Caesar on trial for genocide during his conquest of Gaul). Others faced the question of how to adapt the traditional structures of Roman government to cope with new imperial demands. For how could you control and defend a vast empire, stretching from Spain to Syria, with a power structure and a system of military command developed to run nothing more than a small town?

That was one of the big issues behind the revolutionary changes of this period, and one of the factors that promoted the rise of dynasts such as Caesar. The political traditions of Rome, going at least as far back as the end of the 6th century BC, had been based on the principle that power was only ever held on a temporary basis and was always shared. The citizens as a whole elected the city’s officials, who combined both military and civilian duties, held office for just one year at a time, ideally not to be repeated, and never had fully independent decision-making power.

That there had always been not one but two consuls (the most senior of these annual officials) is a clear sign of that long-established commitment to power-sharing. But it was a principle ill suited to governing a far-flung empire and to fighting wars that might take place several months’ distance from Italy; you could hardly travel there and back in the regular year of office.

The Romans improvised various solutions to that problem: sending men out to the provinces, for example, after their year of office in Rome. But increasingly the Roman people voted more and more power into the hands of ambitious individual politicians on an almost permanent basis, even though those votes were often ­controversial and sometimes violently resisted.

 

 

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Caesar was not the first to challenge the traditional model of power-sharing. Despite leading the traditionalists against Caesar in 49BC, Pompey had, only 15 years or so earlier, been granted unlimited power for years on end across the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, first to deal with the pirates and human traffickers operating on the sea, then to deal with one of Rome’s remaining enemies in the East, King Mithridates of Pontus (in modern Turkey). Cicero was one of those who successfully spoke up, in a speech whose text we can still read, to quell the opposition to this grant, which was regarded as a dangerous step in the direction of one-man rule.

Even Brutus, despite his fine slogans on the subject of “liberty”, seems not to have been entirely immune from similar dreams of personal power. The coin celebrating Caesar’s assassination may have displayed the daggers and cap of liberty on one side. But on the other was an image of the head of Brutus. In Roman eyes, heads of living people on coins smacked of autocratic ambitions: Caesar was the first to risk such a display at Rome, Brutus the second.

So one side of the age of Caesar, richly documented in Plutarch’s Lives, was a series of “big men”, bankrolled by the vast profits that followed imperial conquests, competing for personal power. And that competition often came down to open fighting – whether in the streets of Rome, where there was no police force or any form of peacekeepers to maintain order, or across the empire more widely (the final battle in the Roman Civil War between Caesar and Pompey was fought in northern Greece, and Pompey was brutally finished off on the coast of Egypt). As the coin of Brutus hints, Caesar’s murder came too late to put the clock back to old-fashioned power-sharing. If Augustus had not established permanent one-man rule, Antony or some other rival would surely have done so.

Another important side of the period was the increasingly intense debates about what we would call “civil liberties”. How was it possible to protect the rights of the individual Roman citizen in this violent turmoil? How were the rights of citizenship to be balanced against the safety of the state? This came to a head almost 20 years before Caesar’s assassination, in 63BC. As Plutarch and others described it, Cicero was consul and believed that he had uncovered a terrorist plot, masterminded by a bankrupt and desperate aristocrat named Catiline, to eliminate some of the leading politicians, Cicero included, and to burn down much of the city. Once he had frightened Catiline out of Rome, Cicero rounded up those he believed were his accomplices and had them all executed without trial, even though they were Roman citizens and, as such, had a right to due legal process. “Vixere” (“They have lived” – that is, “They are dead”), he said in a particularly chilling euphemism, as he left the jail after super­vising their execution.

Not everyone at the time approved. Caesar was among those who stood up and objected. He was what we can still recognise as a classic populist, combining – as many have since – aspirations for dictatorship with a knack for popular rhetoric and an ability to appeal to the interests of the people (though, unlike some more recent examples of his kind, he also had a strong sense of popular justice). But in general Cicero was hailed as a hero who had saved the state from destruction.

The approval did not, however, last for long. Despite claiming the protection of an ancient equivalent of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Cicero was banished into exile, on the charge of executing citizens without trial. He was recalled within a few months but, during his absence, his house had been demolished and a shrine to the goddess Liberty had pointedly been erected on the site.

The rights and wrongs of this case were debated ever after. How far, the Romans wondered, were elected officials allowed, or obliged, to transcend the law to save the state? We now debate very similar issues; how far the interests of homeland security make it legitimate to suspend the rights and protection that citizenship ought to ­offer, or how far we can stomach the idea of detention without trial, or summary deportation, if it prevents the “bad dudes” from doing us harm. That is why this is one of the Roman causes célèbres that speak to us most directly.

 

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The age of Caesar, then, was one of political murder, street violence, constant warfare both inside and outside Rome and fundamental disagreements about how the state should be run, how democracy and liberty might be preserved, while the demands of empire and security were met. It is impossible not to wonder what it was actually like to live through – and not just for the elite, rich and male political leaders who were the leading characters and celebrity victims in the conflicts and the focus of all ancient writers. What of the ordinary men and women who were not in the limelight? Did life for them go on much as before, while the big men and their armies fought it out? Or did the violence and bloodshed touch almost everyone?

It is hard to know and wrong to generalise. Just occasionally, Plutarch does take his eyes off those at the top of the pile and throw a fleeting glance at ordinary people carrying on with their lives more or less as usual in the chaos around them. We meet in passing Cicero’s wives and his daughter, Tullia who, like so many women in the Roman world, died from complications of childbirth, along with her infant son. We have a glimpse of an enterprising trader from northern Italy, a man called Peticius, who in 48BC just happened to be travelling in his ship along the coast of Greece when he spotted Pompey, on the run after his defeat by Caesar – and gave him a lift south.

Most engagingly of all, thanks to information he had picked up from his grandfather, Plutarch gives us a tiny but vivid insight into the practices “below stairs” in the kitchens of the palace in Alexandria that – to the horror of many Romans – Antony eventually came to share with Queen Cleopatra. Apparently, the cooks were so concerned about preparing the wild boar to perfection, whenever the company upstairs decided to eat, that they had eight boars roasting, each put on to cook at a different time, so that one would be sure to be just right when dinner was summoned (do the cooks at Mar-a-Lago or, for that matter, Balmoral have the same problem?). It is a nice image of ordinary people living in their own world and dealing in their own way with (and maybe laughing at) the capricious demands of the world leaders they served.

But not all were so lucky. One memorable story told by Plutarch, repeated and made even more famous by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, tells the fate of an unfortunate poet called Cinna. This man was not quite as ordinary as Peticius or the cooks in Alexandria; he was a friend of Caesar but he was not in the political mainstream. A couple of days after the assassination, he went to the Forum to see his friend laid out for his funeral and fell in with a crowd of Caesar’s mourning and angry supporters. These men mistook the poet for a different Cinna, who had been one of the assassins, and so tore the poor man limb from limb.

The message of the story is clear. Assassinations have innocent victims, too. Simple cases of mistaken identity (and there must have been many of those at Rome, in the absence of any form of official ID) can leave a blameless bystander dead. Shakespeare’s plaintive line “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet” is a haunting reminder of the many who must have been caught in the crossfire when the leaders of the Roman world clashed.

“The Age of Caesar: Five Roman Lives” by Plutarch, translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Romm, is newly published by W W Norton

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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