Julius Caesar’s bronze statue on the via dei Fori Imperiali, Rome. Click for credits and to enlarge

At the Core of Roman & Greek Society

As we said in our previous installment this exchange of favours is important to establish a network based on reciprocal dependence.

Now in the last 3 decades scholars have focused their attention on ancient gift societies and on client-patron relations in ancient Rome and Greece. Based on the mutual exchange of benefits such relations were at the core of the social fabric in Greece and Rome, although we will here speak of Rome only.

Brazil and Livy

As I said to Paul I got excited that some scholars of ancient Rome seek to better interpret passages by Livy, Plautus or Cicero via the analysis of the social networks of Latin America or of Mediterranean villages.

[An inspiring study by Molly Ann Rosser Dauster, Sine Legem Fide: Clientage In Ancient Rome, Texas Tech University 2001, provides a brilliant overview of scholarly debate on the matter]

Brazil is interesting because the native cultures were not much developed hence some archaic Portuguese traits were preserved.

Surveys of clientage in 19th century Brazil are thought to shed light on Livy’s use of clientes. Also amigos (friends) in Brazilian, and amici in Latin, seem to be used in exactly the same way, different from our modern way but still present in Malta and southern Italy.

[see R. Graham, Patronage and Politics in 19th Century Brazil, Stanford, Ca., 1990]

The Roman Senate House (Curia) as it was rebuit by Julius Caesar. A ‘Rome reborn’ 3d image. (IATH) University of Virginia. The real-life Curia stands within the Forum

Clientes Preferred to be Called Amici

Almost everyone was a client in ancient Rome. A person could be client and patron at the same time. Entire provinces and nations could be clients.

But clients didn’t like to be called clientes. They preferred to be called amici (friends) since cliens implied subordination.

Now the term amicus is ambiguous. It could mean a disinterested relation (see Cicero’s ideal friendship in Laelius de amicitia) but also a relation of ‘mutual serviceability’ where benefits of any kind, called beneficia, were exchanged. Seneca analyses beneficia with all its implications in his De Beneficiis.

Through amicitiae (friendships) anything could be attained in the Roman society: land, safety, magistracies, jobs, money etc. Personalised relationships ruled and merit counted little.

[For example the nobility clique hated and ousted talented non-nobles. A super general but newcomer like Gaius Marius had chance to be elected consul on very special occasions only, for example when inept noble generals had made Rome vulnerable to the Cimbri and Teutons]

The real-life Curia Julia, the Senate House of Rome, standing within the ruins of the Forum Romanum. Click for credits and to enlarge

No Contacts, no Future

The common person with no contacts in Rome (or in Athens) basically starved. On another social level, if the politician didn’t build a solid network by ‘treating’ his voters with banquets favours gifts money etc., ie if he didn’t ‘corrupt them’ (practised but frowned upon today; part of an ‘ethical’ system in ancient times instead: grasping such cultural differences is crucial) he had no political future.

It’d be interesting to well analyse how Julius Caesar reached power.

Most of Cicero’s letters relate to favour exchanges. They also reveal how Caesar’s attitude towards Cicero was mafioso in the sense that he tried to entice him into a mutual exchange of favours in order to manipulate him.

The Mos Maiorum ‘Was’ The Clientage

The client-patron networks had their origin in the ‘customs of the ancestors’ (mos majorum.) According to Theodore Mommsen (summarized; see original text):

Originally we had a number of strictly closed unities – the household under the control of a master and the clan originated out of the breaking-up of such households. To these unities there further belonged the dependents or “listeners” (-clientes-, from -cluere-), not guests or slaves but those individuals who lived in one of such unity in a condition of protected, dependant freedom: refugees, freedmen, poor people. These were the clients.

To most scholars the clients made up the ‘plebeians’, while the original clans or gentes (the Aemilii, Valerii, Claudii, Fabii, Cornelii, Manlii etc. ) corresponded to the ‘patricians’ (both patronus and patricius come from pater, father.)

The relation between the two orders was a client-patron relationship and it was originally sacred.

The Case of the Fabii’s Private Army

Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator fought against Hannibal and was a member of the gens Flavia

The gentes were important especially during the Republic. The Fabii for example were so powerful as to conduct a personal, family war with Veii (velut familiare bellum, notes Livy in II, 48-49.) Trapped though by the Etruscans they were all cut down to a man in 479 BCE.

How many were the Fabii?

According to Livy “sex et trecenti milites [306 soldiers,] omnes patricii [all patricians,] omnes unius gentis [all from the same gens]…sequebantur turba propria alia cognatorum sodaliumque [followed by a crowd made up partly of their own relatives and friends]…. alia publica sollicitudine excitata, favore et admiratione stupens [… partly of those who shared the public anxiety, and could not find words to express their affection and admiration].”

Not very clear but I guess ‘friends’ (sodales is close to amici) were clientes and the rest sympathisers ie clientes too possibly. An army, it has been calculated, of 4000-5000 people wholly, with the clients clearly outnumbering the patricians.

Were Caesar and Pompey Godfathers?

Clans will undergo big changes in the course of time and it seems very likely to me that late-Republic big patrons such as Caesar and Pompey, apart from the great number of clients, were also capable of controlling a certain amount of organized thugs by indirectly controlling numerous collegia (criminal and non criminal organizations) in Rome. Caesar, through Clodius perhaps, controlled many collegia probably. Incidentally, Clodius was killed on the via Appia by Milo‘s mob.


Which doesn’t mean Caesar or Pompey were like the modern godfathers, but only that there are similarities in the respective cultural backgrounds.


Related posts:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)
The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)
A Cultural Battle

See also:

Is The Human Mind Like a Museum?
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Traces of Paganism in Italians

53 thoughts on “The Mafia and the Italian Mind. Was Julius Caesar a Godfather? (3)

  1. I was going to post my question in the last post, but you are a prolific writer, and my brain grinds too slowly so now we are here. I still have the same question.

    Do you think Sulla, his actions, his proscriptions, the reaction to his deeds was a good example of this origin of mafia thinking or relationships? Here we have a man who took power, killed large number of people who he believed threatened, by their existence at least, the system he was protecting, although his protection transformed the system too and set the stage for the warring factions of Caesar and Pompey.


    1. Sulla set an example that Caesar followed (extended dictatorship etc.) but I don’t think this to be related to ‘mafia thinking’. Neither his cruelty nor the killings.

      What I said of Pompey and Caesar is not to be taken as exclusive to them. I am sure Roman collegia were utilized by many before them, or bodyguards are not unique to Caesar (lictors for ex were present from the start of the Republic).

      It is the special network that any prominent figure from the beginnings of Rome onwards tended to create that is not far from a modern mafioso mentality in my view. So if this analogy makes sense it all started much earlier than Sulla.


    1. I know Paul, but there are networks and there are networks. And I don’t think Canada is so dependent upon organized crime as Italy is at the moment. If Mexico is called the narco-state, Calabria is called the narco-region.


    1. @Sledpress

      I understand. But such mentality is more widespread here. And as far as Mafia in the narrow sense, at least three Italian regions are controlled by organized crime, not to mention the suspicions around our government. See my reply to Richard.


      1. We had serious concerns back in the day when it turned out that President Kennedy had been boffing the mistress of an organized-crime boss. Few could really look away from the simple fact that his family had made their fortune as bootleggers.


          1. Boston-Irish gangs who profited mainly from alcohol sales; they would have had to have agreements with the Mafia in order to operate, as I imagine all those organized-crime groups carved up turf.

            “Boff” is very British (another trace of my checkered past).


          2. I thought “boff” was short for “boffin”, though I can’t speak for the verb. Now “buff” – that’s a different matter.


          3. Joe Kennedy was probably involved in bootlegging during prohibition, but that certainly was not how he made his fortune. That pile came from real estate and clever – quite legal – manipulation of the stock market, plus brilliant timing: He sold his stock in 1929, at just the right moment; he bought big into liquor distribution just before prohibition was repealed.

            As a driven, money-obsessed, and totally amoral creature, it is not surprising that he rubbed shoulders and did some businesses with mob people, but the extent of his “links” has never been proven to be more than tangential.


          4. Lichanos, I’m sure there was both crooked and legal money-multiplying involved; it’s just always seemed from the accounts I’ve read that the seed money for the Kennedy family’s eventual fortune included some pretty shady earnings.

            Understand that I’m not one of the Kennedy-bashing crowd. I grew up during the Kennedy years and I remember the sense of possibility; the good things that administration did remain to this day. But my gawd, the Bush dynasty notwithstanding, imagine if a President today sought to get his brother vetted as Attorney General — talk about patronage and family ties. And Judith Campbell Exner seems to have been a mild headcase who couldn’t decide whether her simultaneous connection with Kennedy and a mob boss had been more than coincidental, but when things like this begin to pile up, you wonder. At least there was a becoming level of discretion at the time. Possibly the need to seem virtuous is the beginning of virtue, who knows?


        1. I like the way you always underline your ‘past’ Sledpress. Who hasn’t a past, especially since we’ve been young and silly, unless you mean that a woman is different and that she has to clean up her backyard more than a man.


          1. Do not diminish yourself. We like you, and admire you. And if I told you how stupid I have been, you wouldn’t believe it.


          2. Diminish myself? I think I actually earned a couple of Purple Hearts, but still, some of these adventures are like Balaclava, courage shown in an ill considered engagement. 🙂


  2. Paul is right. Patronage is deeply embedded in human nature, providing both security and livelihood.

    It is an illusion to suppose that merit prevails. We all feel more comfortable and progress within a culture of trust, and there are always those we suppose are responsible for that security (although the reality may be otherwise).

    This quid pro quo of benefit and loyalty, with all its internal stresses, is easily recognisable as of extremely primitive origins. It is a vain hope that it will be removed by a process of changing mentalities. You cannot change something that is so deeply embedded in human nature, any more than you can change,for example,human courtship. Classical cultures merely show us a partial emergence from the darkness.

    What can be modified is how those instincts manifest themselves. The mafia problem thus remains exclusively one of justice, law and law enforcement in the first instance. That is how advanced civilisations operate to keep the baser side of human nature in check


  3. @Richard

    Richard, your comment is an excellent post complete in itself.

    I too believe we are dealing here with primitive instincts common to the species. But pls let me disagree a bit here since I believe that every culture builds upon such common instincts (all of them) differently, or all cultures would be the same.

    So, if all societies past and present virtually have client-patron relations, there are networks and there are networks, and mentality and history count (and differ.)

    For example political patronage exists everywhere but I am sure that the average person in the US or in the UK considers it more …. revolting than it is the case in traditional areas of the Mediterranean. So mentalities can differ possibly. I speak in my text of a different ‘ethical’ system as for classical antiquity which somewhat survives (with both positive and negative effects.)

    So I too of course believe in law enforcing and in justice, but I also believe (or hope?) that something can be done at a mentality level. Why the Neapolitans – from one of the most intelligent and beautiful cities in the world – shouldn’t learn that their behaviour is collectively suicidal?


  4. I too believe we are dealing here with primitive instincts common to the species.

    I am not so sure that we are dealing with ‘primitive instincts’ here. What is so primitive about the need to belong, to feel protected, to enjoy giving and receiving, and to see that the impact raw power is in some way cushioned by fellow feeling? This is part of the human social condition, beset by fear, insecurity, and lack of control. It stands in contrast to rationalized bureaucracy, a relative newcomer in the filed of statecraft.

    We call it primitive because it gets in the way of the activities of the state we would like to have now. Efficient, meritocratic in some way, shape, or form, impartial, etc. The mafia may have ancient cultural roots, but so does almost everything if you start tracing it. Power is always present, power relations are always important – today we forget that and like to pretend that power has been subjected to rationality.

    It has not. Just listen to Wall Street having hissy fits over paltry attempts to regulate its greed, and you have a good, modern, American illustration.


    1. Primitive is not a pejorative. That needing-to-belong thing is as primitive as it gets; I am sure everyone knows the stories about infants who are not held or talked to dying (almost always) even when they are fed and bathed. That social need is the direct ancestor of the one that leads us to show up on MoR’s site, and others, to take part in the conversation, and however sophisticated the discussion becomes the need is still primitive.

      I am sure no one imagines that power *has* been subjected to rationality. The struggle is to retain human connection (of which the typical corrupt instance of patronage is a crummy example anyway) without subverting basic fairness.


    2. @Lichanos

      That social need [to belong, to feel protected or hugged] is the direct ancestor of the one that leads us to show up on MoR’s site.

      I can well believe it! It is well known that I love to cuddle my readers 🙂

      I think we all agree. Primitive is Latin from primus, ie ‘first’, thus indicating ‘primeval’, ‘primordial’.

      Lichanos is right to say that some behaviours are primitive vis-à-vis ‘rationalized bureaucracy’, that should promote more impartial behaviours. When it really works I believe it can in some way also shape the people into some sort of fairness.

      So “retaining human connection without subverting basic fairness” that’s crucial, Sledpress, although while some people can, some other can’t. It’s their region or place etc. that just can’t modernize themselves. One has to work quite a lot to subvert non apt behaviours, together with offering the young alternatives to working in gangs etc. etc. etc. Such fight also regards individual freedom because people in a heavy patronage systems are not free.


  5. Could we, please, distinguish between bootlegging, drug dealing, protection rackets, pork barelling and just plain honestly helpîng a friend to find a job or start a business or find decent lodgings within legal means?


    1. Paul, you introduced this conflation! It doesn’t really confuse, though. Law itself, as you observe, separates. It defines corruption.

      The questions, then, really are:

      to what extent do cultural differences foster widespread lawlessness?

      and: is it the people who create the leadership or the leadership that creates the people?

      At an advanced stage of corruption, fear and the exploitation of fear are the principal features and so in the end the solution lies in individual courage on the one hand and respect for the law on the other. I’m glad I have never faced such a test – my ancestors did so for me.


      1. to what extent do cultural differences foster widespread lawlessness?

        So if cultural differences are a factor, changing the culture (mentalities, behaviours etc.) by promoting awareness, education, campaigns etc. should in my view be part of the modernization process. A ‘battle of ideas’ is not useless in my view, possibly because I studied Gramsci in my twenties. Improving the economy is important, no doubt, but many parts of Italy badly need what he called ‘una rivoluzione intellettuale e morale’ (which implied a new ‘character’ for the Italians btw.)

        Which brings to your ‘individual courage and respect of the law’. We love our italianità and cannot renounce to it but surely the British have to teach a lot in this respect.


        1. There is nothing a Briton can teach an Italian that the Italian does not already know and practice. Look at the courage of those murdered Italian judges.

          That is something a modern Briton has hardly to contemplate. Those judges are an example and a lesson to Britain. Would a Briton be as selfless and brave? I like to think he possesses those universal human virtues so splendidly demonstrated in Italy.


          1. Britannia, you are too modest as usual. I insist that you come here and teach us. We will open all our pubs for you. We came to you at the time of Caesar and Claudius. It is now time to reciprocate.



  6. @sled

    I was very young when JFK was shot – no, I don’t recall where I was when I heard – so I’m not into idolatry or bashing them. They certainly acted like a rather old fashioned clan, didn’t they? Yes indeed, getting RFK as AG, despite his lack of qualifications! Arrogant, brash, and ruthlessly ambitious. I’m not a fan, but at least JFK wasn’t an idiot. He did pull back from the brink in Cuba, I’ll grant him that. But then I have to grant Reagan the credit for ignoring the advice of his right-wing advisors and deciding to do deals with Gorby. Individuals still count…


  7. I’m always late to these shindigs but here goes.

    It’s funny you covered this, MOR. I’m reading a book on Cicero and it discusses the ‘clientele’ in Ancient Rome. It really sounds like a matter of fact reality so we really shouldn’t be surprised when we see it in contemporary times. Which leads me to Richard’s comments. I’m afraid he’s largely right.

    Merit has little to do with anything. It’s only applied to those “outside the network.” They’re the ones who have to prove themselves constantly. Whereas a “friend of a friend” has an advantage.

    Canadian politics is closer to Italy than you think, MOR. Our political system is but a patronage feast. Canada, like sports leagues, is an old boys network.

    Speaking of which, sports tell a good story. My friend is involved with basketball in Canada. We’ve had discussions about Canada’s seeming incompetence at presenting a competitive team on the international stage despite available talent. Somewhere along the line someone is NOT doing their job.

    Sometimes it happens that an organization will return some favors. A coach will hire his brother-in-law as head of scouting for example. And this is where he offered an opinion about nepotism between Canada and the USA in basketball (since his teams get to play friendlies with bigtime NCAA programs). In the U.S., the coach will bring his friend on board but because of the cut throat nature of their competitiveness, if he fails he gets cut. In Canada, the same fellow somehow manages to get promoted.

    I veered off course a little but I think it ties in with the overall subject here.

    If not, va cacah.


    1. I don’t see the problem of being late (probably because I am late most of the time.)

      In your stimulating comment you have spoken of ‘competition’. This possibly is an antidote to the boys’ network.

      Feeling all the pointlessness of speaking of the world to the world, I nonetheless believe that when firms or sports teams have to compete in order to survive it should be in their interest to promote merit.

      I cannot compare the Italian and the Canadian situation. Here the boys’ networks have reached the disgust, or the vomiting, level – you name it. And I am proud that, my wife and I being outside any network, our daughters are doing very well without any network’s help.

      I veered off course a little but I think it ties in with the overall subject here.
      If not, va cacah.

      Ah ah ah ah, this literally sent me on the parquet roaring with laughter. I showed it to one of my daughter’s male friends, and he roared too.

      Sei simpatico e originale.


      1. Nothing to be proud of Commy.

        Not a good nickname to use to Anglophones. Too many Cold War associations…

        On the subject of nature and networks in human society, you might enjoy, or find idiotic, this entirely self-serving farrago of pseudo-science: In Praise of Nepotism : A Natural History. It’s by Adam Bellow. I don’t think he has quite lived-down his connection to his famous father.


        1. Oh, I didn’t know about Commy ….

          I read at Amazon that Adam Bellow tries to show how nepotism is a basic instinct rooted in the biology of the species, as if he tried to justify the big help he surely received from his father Saul’s fame and name.


          1. Yes, Commie is a pejorative.

            But as I stated above, and I think MOR understands this, there was no claim to pride. Why would I?

            It’s just a fact that Calabria controls the international drug trade.

            Personally, I wish it would all be wiped out.


        1. You are not a twisted pagliaccio! And you know you’ve been one of my best commentators ever. You really have got what it takes to make a conversation alive!


    1. Thanks for the tip Richard.

      Explaining from Henry VIII to the British ambivalence towards the Continent with the abandoned-to-the-barbarians Britons’ child complex developed at the time of the Roman emperor Honorius is not only terribly funny.

      Boris Johnson is a good scholar in classical humanities and his “Dream of Rome” – which I started to read some time ago – is not only entertaining but very thought provoking.

      Terrific man and politician, and also very good natured. I wish we had a Mayor like him. We don’t.


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