Plutarch's Lives: Poplicola

Poplicola was a Roman aristocrat who played an instrumental - though not exclusive - role in Rome's transition from a kingdom to the Republic. Poplicola also represents a transition moment in Plutarch's narrative, where the mythic tales of quasi-historic figures like Romulus and Theseus give way to that of a straight narrative of historic events involving purely human drama of war, politcs, greed, and ambition. 

Poplicola was a member of Rome's early nobility, and a descendent of Valerius, a man known as one of the original peacemakers between the Romans and the Sabines. Poplicola was originally known by the name Publius Valerius ("Poplicola" was an honorific bestowed after he attained a leading role in Roman affairs). Before he began his political career, Poplicola was a wealthy lawyer with a reputation for eloquence, honesty, and generosity. Poplicola came to prominence as part of the opposition to the tyrannical rule of Tarquinius Superbus. He joined with Lucius Brutus and others to overthrow the tyrant and send him into exile. However, when the time came to elect a pair of consuls to replace the king, the Romans chose Brutus, but passed over Poplicola for a lesser man, Collatinus.

The Romans quickly came to regret their choice.  Tarquin continued to foment trouble from exile, allying himself with some nobles, including the sons of Brutus, to plot a return to power. The plotters were overheard by a slave named Vindicius, who was initially torn as to whom he should report news of the plot. Although Poplicola was out of power at that time, Vindicius chose him as the safest person to whom to trust the news. Poplicola immediately sprang into action and went to see the two consuls. Brutus quickly recognized the need to protect the nascent republic, but Collatinus was equivocal. The plotters were brought before the consuls and a crowd of angry Romans (who had no desire to see the return of the rule of kings). Brutus first disposed of his sons, refusing their pleas for mercy and surprising the Romans by ordering the people to judge them, thus indicating that Rome would be a city of laws not men (they were immediately and gorily put to death). The Romans were so impressed by this and other acts that Brutus was widely credited with having a greater share in the creation of Roman government than Romulus himself. The rest of the plotters were summarily dispatched, but Tarquin escaped to fight another day. 

Collatinus fled the City after all of this and the Romans gratefully elected Poplicola to serve as consul alongside Brutus. Vindicius was freed and made a citizen of Rome for his service. Eventually, the romans came to call a perfect manumission, "vindicta," the root of our vindication. The Romans seized Tarquin's castles and wealth, which had been seen as stolen from them. Tarquin persisted in plotting his return, allying with the Tuscans who raised an army to attack Rome. Brutus and Poplicola led the Roman army against the invaders. After a pitched battle, the Romans were victorious, but at great cost; Brutus was killed. Poplicola returned in triumph and spoke a moving funeral oration for Brutus, thus beginning the Roman tradition of funeral orations upon the deaths of prominent men. 

Poplicola then began setting up the legal and political institutions of the republic. In this he was influenced by Solon's example, especially with regard to setting up a system of electing leaders by popular vote. Poplicola first doubled the size of the Senate, and also appointed the replacements for the dozens of Senators killed in the war with the Tuscans. He set up an appeals system for litigants. He created an office of the treasury (the quaestors), so that no man could attempt to control or loot the city's wealth. He eased some of the criminal punishments laid down by Tarquin, but retained the death penalty for treason. Poplicola also engaged in several calculated acts of humility - including tearing down his magnificent villa - to show that the Roman people that its leaders should not engage in shows of ostentation. It was at this time he obtained the name "Poplicola," meaning "people lover." 

While Poplicola was reforming and redirecting Rome's government, forces outside the city were gathering to do it harm. Tarquin allied himself with the king of the Clusiums, Porsenna. Porsenna invaded and fought his way to the gates of Rome where Poplicola led the counter-attack, but was grievously wounded. Rome was almost taken, but was saved by a single warrior who held Porsenna's forces back at a bridge, thus allowing the Romans to regroup. Porsenna then laid seige (in the meantime, the Tuscans invaded from the south, but were fended off). 

Plutarch relates that the Romans tried to lift the siege by sneaking 300 warriors into Porsenna's camp to assassinate him. The assassin was caught, but impressed Posenna with his bravery by thrusting his hand into a sacred fire without flinching. Porsenna was supposedly so impressed with this that he freed the man and became much more sympathetic to the Roman cause, but Plutarch indicates that this is little more than a legend. Poplicola then prevailed upon Porsenna to act as an arbitrator between Rome and Tarquin. Tarquin haughtily refused to be judged by anyone, even Porsenna (his ally!), and Porsenna imposed a peaceful settlement between the Romans and Tuscans, while finally chasing Tarquin from the scene. For this the Romans erected a statue of Porsenna outside the Senate. 

Trouble next came from the Sabines. Initially, the Romans routed the Sabines in two battles, led by Poplicola's brother. The Sabines then allied with the Latins, but a Sabine named Appius began speaking out against war and finally led a rebellion against the Sabine leadership. Poplicola, in the classic manner of statesmen throughout history, secretly allied himself with the Sabines' fifth columnist. On Poplicola's invitation, Appius finally led 5000 Sabine warriors and their families to Rome, where they were made citizens. This effectively neutralized the Sabine threat, but the invasion went forward anyway. The Sabine army was easily destroyed, and Poplicola returned to Rome, once again, in triumph. Poplicola died soon thereafter, and was buried and mourned with the highest honors. 

Best Retirement Invesments Auto Search