Text: The senate that governed Rome was dominated by wealthy landowners / Two people’s tribunes, the Gracchus brothers, wanted to achieve a redistribution of property by means of a public vote / Their arguments were hard to refute / ROMAN LAW IS SACROSANCT / So they had to be killed --

Text: ROMAN CRUELTY / Oskar Negt talks about the Gracchus brothers and the phrase “Socialism or Barbarism”


Alexander Kluge: Rosa Luxemburg often called herself Gracchus, a reference to the Gracchus brothers wo served as people’s tribunes in Rome. What kind of situation are we talking about here? Who are the Gracchus brothers?

Oskar Negt: The situation is the following: Around 130 BC, the social problems had increased, mostly at the expense of plebeians who lost their property and did not receive other land in return. The tribunes had the opportunity to regulate this development by passing farm bills, with the goal to reinstate a kind of power balance. Tiberius Gracchus proposed such a farm bill and introduced it to the senate. Legally, that was a possibility. But the resistance to these farm bills was so strong that instead of abolishing the tribunal intercession, as they called it, they killed Gracchus.

Text: Oskar Negt

Kluge: His brother replaces him.

Negt: His brother replaces him.

Kluge: Causes more trouble for the senate.  

Negt: And continues to bring up his brother’s proposed laws. And it becomes clear that the institution of the people’s tribune slowly becomes dangerous. Many of the tribunes who succeed Gaius Gracchus, after he has been slain as well, take enormous risks. And later, with Sulla and others, this instrument of power balance is repeatedly abused by the patricians themselves.


Text: “THE RIGHTEOUS ONE HAS TO BE KILLED” Ovid, Metamorphoses

Kluge: That means, they themselves nominate tribunes …

Negt: They nominate tribunes themselves …

Kluge: … who practically work for them.

Negt: And their own client base is working for them.

Kluge: And the people are kept complacent with circus games and performances and entertainment.

Negt: Increasingly so. The closer we get to the reign of Pompey and Caesar, the more influential, the bigger the circus maximus gets.  


Negt: Over five centuries, Rome functions as a surprisingly stable public legal system with the senate at its center. It maintains its republican constitution despite the enormous imperial expansion of the empire. It’s an artful construct that has often been praised for its legal structure – that means, you don’t simply go and change things. Sulla for example doubled the number of senate seats. Suddenly there were 600 or 700 members, which was …

Kluge: … an opportunity for manipulation …

Negt: Yes, an opportunity for manipulation, and of course a decrease in influence for the senate.


Kluge: But he didn’t get rid of it.

Negt: He didn’t get rid of it. And even Caesar at the height of his power wasn’t able to dissolve the senate.

Kluge: And the substance of these institutions later becomes part of the jurisdiction, even under the emperors who rule like dictators. 

Negt: It becomes part of the jurisdiction, and consuls are still elected. But Caligula devalues the position of consul by making his best horse a consul.

Kluge: But his advisors, his legal advisors don’t cheat when it comes to the administration of justice. It’s a sacred practice that survives.

Negt: It’s a public legal system. And of course in the 19th century, they are interested in Roman private law. People often talk about the reception of Roman Law in the 19th century.

Text: “You cannot be in contradiction with your own behavior” Ulpian

Kluge: Our own civil code is Roman Law.

Negt: It’s a very elaborate legal system. And up to this day it serves as a model for different contexts. The senate, the US senate as an institution of balance is based on the Roman republican era. It was a historical development, this respect and deference towards the law. Even in the case of improper conduct such as a senator claiming to have seen lightning strike, the legal process had to be interrupted. A rule that was often abused …

Kluge: Because it would have been an offense against the will of the gods.

Negt: Yes, it means that God, Jupiter disagrees. And the senator would send his servant to the senate, and they would interrupt the process. And later they came up with a rule so that the senator would have to appear before the senate in person to make a statement and to explain what kind of lightning he had seen. Because people abused this option a lot. They just sent off one of their servants when the respective senator was not pleased with the course of the legislation process.

Kluge: The height of extreme respectability, the creation of a jurisdiction happens here for the first time in the world.

Negt: Compared to the Greek Polis, which does not have a properly formalized law. Their law is determined by archives, traditions, customs, moral norms.

Kluge: And ultimately a ruler can change the law. But in Rome that’s not possible. Those in power cannot change the law.

Negt: After Tarquinius Superbus, after the expulsion of the kings the Romans vowed to never let a single ruler govern Rome again.

Kluge: That’s what they call republic: res publica. The knowledge that the law cannot be twisted. Reversely, it also becomes the scene of crime. That means, a critic is murdered if his critique is socially relevant.

Negt: Not everyone was murdered. There were a number of proposed laws …

Text: Sophisticated Executions

Text: After the animal fights in the morning / the second act of the spectacle / begins in the afternoon / Convicted criminals / were publicly executed / They put on stage scenes from mythology / where the protagonists die / The Prometheus myth seemed fitting for this purpose: / A convicted man / was nailed to the cross, / but in place of the eagle, which according to the myth / devours the continuously regenerating liver / of the tortured man / they set a bear on him / “He was dripping with blood / the torn limbs still alive / and his body / did not resemble a body no more /” Seneca, epistulea morales, note 7

Kluge: And the French Revolution appropriated all those metaphors and perpetuated them.

Negt: Up to the coats, the toga, the French Revolution dresses up in the costumes of the Roman republic. Napoleon, the first consul …

Kluge: … he poses as a consul.

Negt: … as a consul, yes.

Text: Oskar Negt

Text: Animal fights in the morning / “The battles of beasts / who, often raving mad from injuries, / hunger, and stimulants, / like straw puppets, / attacked each other fiercely. / A popular pair / were bear and bull / who, tied to each other, took out their aggressions / on each other / until one of them died /” A whisper went through / the rows of spectators, / when a pregnant animal, / already fatally injured, / gave birth / in the arena / Martial, spectaculorum liber 12-14

Kluge: And the next layer are the socialist revolutionaries in the Kiental circle such as Rosa Luxemburg. They adopt names of ancient historical figures, like the Gracchus brothers or Spartacus. That means, they appropriate these metaphors as well.

Negt: They appropriate those metaphors, and of course … since every new social movement needs its own history, this history of social movements in the modern world is traced back to the social revolutions of the past, the social protests in Ancient Rome … like Spartacus or Gracchus.

Text: Oskar Negt

Kluge: Where one can see the circumstances particularly clearly, like on the moon, so to speak, or on a map.


Kluge: Rome has an enormous global influence – it takes over the world, shapes it, but not only in a negative sense. It’s not just a colonial expansion, and then everything falls apart. Rather, we are still affected by influences and learning processes that originated in Rome.

Negt: Well, assimilation happens on a very high level, partly because of the transfer and expansion of the Roman legal system to the Northern tribes in Gallia. Caesar talks about that in great detail, how he acknowledges and respects the claims and the introduction of contracts between sovereign tribes. Not always but quite often. That means, a legal culture develops. Generally, I think the most significant influence is the language and the legal culture. The language as well.

Kluge: During the colonization of Africa, why …?

Text: ROMAN CRUELTY / Oskar Negt talks about the Gracchus brothers and the phrase “Socialism or Barbarism”