The Mobs of Ancient Rome Posted by on Feb 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

Auctoritas can be translated as “authority” in English. If a person had auctoritas, it meant that the person had a certain level of influence or political clout to bring about a desired outcome. The word auctoritas must not be confused with the Latin word Potestas, which simply means “power.” The word potestas has a slightly negative connotation than auctoritas, because potestas implies an uncontrolled power that may be irrational, while auctoritas refers to a kind of power that is prudent. Cicero explained the difference between auctoritas and potestas as “Cum potestas in populo auctoritas in senatu sit”, which means that “While power resides in the people, authority rests with the Senate.” In other words, auctoritas is a type of power with legitimacy, while potestas is a kind of unbridled power that is strengthened by sheer number.

There are several instances of this tension between potestas and auctoritas in Ancient Roman history. At the height of Rome’s population, the patrician class was outnumbered by slaves and those of the lower classes. Although the patrician class had the disposal of the army at their command, the army was outnumbered by the vast number of the lower classes. A case in point is the story of Marcus Aurelius Cleander, who was also known as Cleander. When a famine hit Rome in 190 A.D., Cleander was politically blamed for the famine, and the angry mob demanded his head in retribution. Cleander was in command of the Praetorian Guard and ordered the Guard to protect his life. Although the Praetorian Guard was a group of distinguished soldiers, they were no match for the unruly mob. Despite the fact that the Guard was armed, they were overtaken by the crowd. Soon after, Cleander was dead.

The Latin term ochlocratia refers to the “rule of the general populace” or simply mob rule. In order to prevent a situation where a mob could take over the government, the patrician class took great efforts to appease the people of Rome. One such way was through the ludi circenses or the circus games. These games featured gladiatorial fights and exotic animal exhibitions. The other way to keep the crowds from spiraling out of control was through the Annona. The annona was grain offered at a reduced rate. This grain kept the general population fed and in turn obedient. This is where the term panem et circenses or “bread and circuses” comes from. It refers to the use of the ludi circenses and annona to provide the general population with immediate satisfaction so as to sway the public from expressing any violent discontent.

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  1. Sefora:

    I have a question, is this Latin?
    “La verità non sta in un solo sogno, ma in molti sogni” – Da “Le mille e una notte”
    and what does it mean?

    • Valerio:

      @Sefora Truth does not reside in one dream alone, but in many. Italian

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