Government of the People: Populi as a Genitive of Possession

As I enter the final days of my independent study and complete my paper, I thought it would be good to write my last regular blog post that summarizes the paper’s argument. I am writing it on Cicero’s use of the word populi as a genitive of possession in De Re Publica. To understand this problem, I first have to describe the passage I have talked about on practically every blog post recently, which is when Cicero says that “res publica res populi” or “the state is the property of the people.” One issue arises from the meaning of the word res itself, which many scholars have identified as property. I somewhat agree with this translation, as I believe Cicero uses res (which more generally means “thing” or “affair”) as the public infrastructure of a society, such as temples or walls, but also metaphorical property, such as the public wealth or shared interests of the people. The placement of populi as a genitive of possession over this property establishes some relationship between them, and the nature of this relationship is what my paper really examines. To break this down, we must first understand the significance of the phrase res populi as a necessary qualification for a government to be a res publica. Cicero distinguishes between good forms of government and degenerate ones, such as tyranny, which do not count as res publica. For a state to be a res publica, there must exist res populi, or in other words, the property must be of the people. So, we can assume that under any good form of government, there is res populi, and the opposite must be true under degenerate governments. A problem quickly emerges. Monarchy and aristocracy are two of the good forms of government, but under those, the property is clearly not controlled by the populus. Cicero clearly understands this and says that, in one monarchy, “the property of the people (res populi) was ruled (regeretur) by one man.” So, this populi phrase that determines res publica status clearly does not imply the ability to rule over property, even though scholars have characterized it as in-line with the Roman legal conception of property ownership, which does include such control. Instead, I propose that the phrase has two distinct meanings. One of these actually does imply control of property, even to a severely negative extent. These instances come when Cicero refers to ochlocracy (mob-rule, or the degenerate form of democracy) as a state where “omnia sunt populi” or “all things are of the people.” By this phrase, I think he clearly means that the people have complete control. He also uses the genitive of possession to denote control when describing a tyrant over the people. However, we know that this is not what he means by res populi. Additionally, his saying that “omnia sunt populi” does not imply satisfaction of the res populi condition because an ochlocracy is not a res publica. The only alternative is that there are two conditions for res publica status, one being res populi and the other being a populus joined by common law and interest, which Cicero does describe in his definition. However, I do not think Cicero considers these two separate conditions, and he seems to say that common law and interest already implies res populi (and after all, the public interest is part of the res that belongs to the populus). Thus, there must be some other meaning of populi to which Cicero refers in his definition. I argue that he refers to the property being designed in the interest of the people. The property belongs to the people because they may use it and it serves them. However, the populus does not have to have any potestatem or power over it for this condition to be satisfied. In the paper, I do not come to a full conclusion on what exactly this means and looks like, but I do show the problems with current conceptions of legal possession and demonstrate the necessity of the dual meaning, while explaining why one seems to be along the lines of common interest. When I finish the paper on Wednesday, I will create a new page on my blog to post it.