The Generous Rise And Authoritarian Crash Of Spurius Maelius

According to ancient scholars such as Quintus Ennius (c. 239-169 BCE), Lucius Cincius Alimentus (flourished c. 200 BCE) and Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), their homeland of Rome experienced a severe famine in 440 BCE. The scale of the crisis prompted both government and private citizens to launch relief efforts to ease the suffering of the Roman people. On the government side, famine countermeasures were orchestrated by Lucius Minucius, the official in charge of Rome’s grain supply. Of the private citizen endeavors to alleviate Rome’s hunger, none ran a better operation at that time than Spurius Maelius, a wealthy plebeian with powerful friends in Etruria. Livy commented on Spurius Maelius’ greatly successful grain supply system:

“At his own expense he bought grain in Etruria through the agency of friends and dependants in that country—a proceeding which in itself, I believe, had adversely affected government efforts to bring prices down—and then started to distribute it free amongst the poor. Such generosity won their hearts, and crowds of them followed him wherever he went, giving him an air of dignity and importance far beyond what was due to a man who held no official position” (History of Rome, 4. 13).

As Spurius Maelius continued to offer food to the starving people of Rome at a cheap or free price, his popularity skyrocketed. All the while, the complications that the private citizen’s grain campaign placed on the government’s official famine relief efforts quickly caused friction to build between Rome’s grain official, Lucius Minucius, and the charitable organization of Spurius Maelius. Seeing the growing popularity and influence of his private sector counterpart, Minucius became more and more suspicious and paranoid about Maelius’ intentions.

By 439 BCE, the grain official convinced himself that Maelius intended to join the fray of politics, where he could possibly use his newfound public support to overthrow the government. Minucius brought his concerns to the Roman Senate, who similarly agreed with their grain official that Maelius could soon become a problem for the government. According to legend, the concerned senators then sought advice and direction from the old former dictator, Cincinnatus, who had held ultimate power for a time in 458 BCE, when Rome was endangered by the Aequi. Cincinnatus, too, apparently agreed that Spurius Maelius was a threat, and the Roman Senate decided that something had to be done. According to legend (one likely not true), the Senate supposedly named Cincinnatus dictator once more so that he could do everything in his power to end the threat posed by Maelius.

Whatever the case, be it dictator or senate, the Roman government reportedly decided to arrest Spurius Maelius and put him through interrogation. The charitable grain lender understandably was confused and frightened by the government’s actions. In his confusion (which was shared by the public), Maelius seems to have resisted arrest and, in the struggle that ensued, he was killed by one of the men sent to make the apprehension. As a startled crowd was present to witness the botched arrest of Maelius, the government felt that it had to give a speech about the incident. As the story goes, Cincinnatus emerged to deliver the statement, in which he accused the dead man of having ambitions of kingship. Livy described the scene:

“Uncertain of the significance of what had happened, the crowd was in a state of excitement, when Cincinnatus called for silence and addressed them. ‘Maelius,’ he declared ‘has been justly killed, even if he was not guilty of aiming at the throne; he was summoned by the Master of the Horse to present himself before the dictator and refused: that in itself was a capital offence” (History of Rome, 4. 13).

After the death of Spurius Maelius, the government seized the deceased man’s lands and assets. His personal wealth was taken, and his possessions were sold, with the proceeds going to the public funds. When the dead man’s home was finally cleared out of items and furniture, it was demolished and the land there was left undeveloped. The empty lot eventually became a landmark known as the Aequimaelium.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Hadrian visiting a pottery shop, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), dated 1884, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


Leave a Reply