The Classics Corner
By Mike Mignanelli
In early August, the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who was killed in a confrontation with a police officer, created quite a stir in Ferguson, Mo. This gave yet another chance for the media to “raise awareness” about civil injustices.
The tears of Brown’s parents, televised throughout America, turned quickly into a “call for justice” by an angry mob. The Ferguson mob, which has been on the news as recently as this past Sunday, has resorted to hostile confrontations with police, destruction of private property and even theft. As a society, we are quick to jump to sympathy and rightly so for the death of this young man is truly tragic. The question is: Does this justify a mob to disrupt civility and intentionally wreak havoc on other citizens of Ferguson? The behavior of this mob is not something new to the history of Western civilization; in fact, the mobs of ancient Rome were notorious for their savage behavior. Examining the role that the mobs played in ancient Rome might give us a better understanding as to why violent mass gatherings should not be ignored.
Let us start with the Roman mob, which plagued both the Republican and Imperial periods of Rome. Looking directly at the mobs of the Imperial Period, it is clear that they were motivated by selfish reasons. The Emperor Commodus, who ruled during the 2nd century A.D., chose not to govern Rome and instead selected men to run the empire for him. Papyrius Dionysus, a prefect of the grain supply, orchestrated a grain shortage in order to use the Roman mob to his advantage. This shortage was blamed on Marcus Aurelius Cleander, the man running Rome for Commodus and a rival of Papyrius Dionysus. With the power of an angry mob, Papyrius led a charge and forced the execution of Cleander. Papyrius knew that he could manipulate the Roman mob and use it to kill Cleander by holding grain over their heads. Early in the Imperial period, the creation of the Colosseum was a tool used to distract mobs. When the Romans became bored, it was likely that they would create civil unrest. Thus, the strategy of providing Romans with their circenses et panem, literally circuses and bread, was a successful tool in avoiding this civil unrest.
The mob in Ferguson is just as selfish as the mobs in ancient times. The Ferguson mob shouts for “justice,” but do they even know what it is they are shouting for? In our own justice system we have a mechanism through which people who have committed criminal acts are punished. If what this mob wants is justice, why not just wait for this officer to be tried and judged by a jury of his peers? It’s clear that when this mob yells for “justice,” it is referring to vigilante justice. Mobs very rarely, if ever, have a purpose in their assembly. Media outlets, like those covering the Occupy Wall Street movement two years ago, create a false image that these mobs are just out there “fighting the good fight,” when in fact they are screeching a variety of disorganized chants and are a nuisance to the daily lives of other citizens. No one is claiming that these individuals do not have a right to assemble, but assembly does not include breaking in and stealing from local businesses.
Fortunately, U.S. mobs in recent years have not been manipulated to commit acts of murder against government officials. If savage mass-gatherings like these are permitted to continue, how much longer until someone figures out how to persuade a mob to act out violently towards men, rather than private property? Roman Emperors had a variety of ways in handling the savagery of the Roman mobs. One of my favorites, by far, would be the Emperor Elagabalus, who is notorious for catapulting venomous snakes into Roman mobs. By no means am I suggesting that this is the best strategy to handle today’s mobs; after all, we do have tear gas.
Mike Mignanelli is a junior majoring in classics.