Property or Power — What Belongs to the Populus in a Res Publica?

First, I’m sorry for the long post; I don’t expect anyone to read all the way through, but it was good for me to write down all my ideas. As I mentioned in my last post, I recently narrowed down my study to a final paper topic. The topic falls under the definitional issues in De Re Publica that I have been learning about. I specifically want to look at the meaning of a specific phrase that Cicero repeatedly uses without clearly defining — “populi,” when used as a genitive of possession. The most obvious example of this term is one I’ve talked about many times here, Cicero’s definition of the res publica as the res populiPopuli, meaning “of the people,” is possessive, but what is it that the people actually possess? To understand this, we can turn to Cicero’s other use of populi as a possessive. In Book III, Cicero says that, when the decemviri (a tyrannical legislative commission) ruled in Rome, “populi nulla res erat” or “no property was of the people.” The decemviri are an example of a degenerate form of government, and Cicero does not consider these degenerate forms to be rei publicae, which in this case seems natural because, if nothing is of the people, and the res publica is the property of the people, there is no res publica. However, we cannot simply conclude that there is nothing of the people in any degenerate state or one not classified as a res publica. Later in Book III (and in his original discussion in Book I), Cicero describes an ochlocracy as one where “populi [sunt] omnia” or “all things are of the people.” His objection to an ochlocratic government’s designation as a res publica comes from the latter half of his original definition, where he explains that the populus must be bound by an agreement of law, which is not true under mob-rule. Additionally, Cicero clearly does believe that there are rei populi in a monarchy because he classifies this form as a res publica. 

So, Cicero certainly does not say populi in the sense that we say a “government of the people;” he does not refer to popular ownership of political power. Instead, he seems to refer to property, both literally and metaphorically as the things and affairs that are of common interest. He says that Syracuse had expansive infrastructure, but it was not a res publica because “nihil enim populi et unius erat populus ipse” or “indeed nothing was of the people, and the people were of one man.” Even aside from the brilliant chiastic combined with parallel structure, I love this line because it gives insight into some of the ideas I’m looking at — Cicero uses “unius” here as a possessive genitive. So, the populus can have ownership over property but also be owned by another with total power over them. This may be telling for what Cicero actually means by the possessive populi, though it could alternatively be a different usage by which he does specifically refer to ownership of political power. I still have more questions: in a monarchy or aristocracy, what type of ownership does the populus have over property? How is this different from some degenerate governments in which nothing is of the populi? I’m still trying to grapple with these questions, but I have definitely made progress in analyzing this problem and hope to have a full thesis soon so I can write the abstract of my paper before break.