Sunday, 30 November 2014

Plebgate: Taking On The Patricians - and a New Insult

So the judge in last week’s Plebgate trial concluded in his judgment that Andrew Mitchell MP did, on the balance of probabilities, use the word ‘pleb’ when he had his Do You Know Who I Am moment with the Downing Street policeman.

In its modern setting, the P-word (no, not policeman) is clearly equated by its users with yob, oik, chav, lout and similar short and punchy terms for the user’s perceived inferiors. Let’s not stray into the scope for adjectival embellishment, which proved to be David Mellor’s undoing when he chose the wrong taxi driver to pick on, and let’s instead take a step back to ancient Rome.
For who stood above the plebeians in the Roman pecking order? The patricians did. Going back to the very origins of Rome, the pleb class included any tribe without advisers to the ultimate leader of the city state, whereas the patrician class had such advisers. Shades of the political class of modern times, it would appear, Or to be really cynical, the governing class in contrast with the governed class.
But all was not lost for the average plebeian. Despite the burden they faced of not being permitted to know the laws by which they were governed – now it’s beginning to sound like the EU, and the manner in which our political class do their best to brush this painful truth under the carpet – they were able to pursue upward mobility. The great military leader Gaius Marius was a pleb, as indeed was the celebrated advocate Cicero. They could be landowners. They had at their disposal the ultimate weapon of the ‘secessio plebis’, a staged withdrawal from the city in the manner of a general strike, and in time the ‘tribunus plebis’ (tribune of the plebs) role developed, whereby their appointed leader could veto acts of the Roman state and could on rare occasions impose a blanket veto over all government functions. Hmm. In modern times, the rallying call ‘Farage for Tribunus Plebis’ might sound rather clunky, but then again…
One further thought. There was a Roman class even lower than the plebeians, the non-landowners described as ‘capite censi’ (tr: chosen by the head – that’s where ‘headcount’ comes from – and both Cs are hard). Gaius Marius brought them into prominence by allowing them to enlist into the army. So is there scope to introduce a new insult from classical times into the English language? “Get out of my way, you horrible little capite census” – note use of singular – might attract blank looks at first but it could be away for the Mitchells and Mellors of this world to portray themselves as even more superior to those on the receiving end of their talking down. Maybe in due course we could just abbreviate it to ‘capcen’. You saw it here first.
Anyone looking for further modern day tales about conflict between patricians and plebeians could always try either of my books Hatred Ridicule & Contempt (especially as that also involves a libel trial) and Infernal Coalition – prologues above, purchase links on the side.

No comments:

Post a Comment