Publius Part I: The Culture of Classicism & Classical Dissent
by Kimiko Adler, CMC '23 | Senior Student Manager
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay signed eighty-five of the Federalist papers with the pseudonym Publius. By choosing this name, the Federalists associated themselves with Publius Valerius Poplicola, one of the founders of the Roman Republic.
Determining which Publius these founding fathers were referencing is relatively straightforward. Publius was a fairly common Roman praenomen, or first name, with Publius Valerius Poplicola and Publius Clodius Pulcher as the most well-known. Since Plutarch, a favorite classical author of Alexander Hamilton’s1, wrote a biography of Poplicola, the Federalists were most likely referring to him rather than Clodius, whom Plutarch never mentioned. As Plutarch and Livy described him, Publius embodied Republican virtue because he empathized with the people and preserved their newfound liberties.
To provide some context, Publius became influential in the formation of the Roman Republic as it was arising from the old Kingdom of Rome. The Romans, especially the Senate,2 were unhappy with Rome’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus, because he ruled by fear and violence.3 Led by nobles like Publius Publicola and Lucius Brutus, the Romans deposed Tarquinius Superbus and sent him into exile. In the aftermath of Tarquinius Superbus’s exile, the Roman Republic was born. The first consuls, who shared authority of Rome, were elected. Unfortunately for Publius, he was not one of the consuls.
In his reaction to the disappointing results of the election, Publius did what he perceived as best for the new Republic: he quit politics entirely. He feared that if he continued to be involved in Roman government, he would aspire to be king and ruin the new republic.4 But when one of the consuls was exiled, Publius took his place. He and Lucius Brutus, along with the Senate, shared the responsibility of ruling Rome.
Once Publius assumed his role as consul, he demonstrated his commitment to the people with public displays. When entering the assembly of the people, Publius would bow his fasces “to show, in the strongest way, the republican foundation of the government.”5 The fasces was the ultimate visual symbol of magisterial authority for the Romans. Composed of sticks and an axe blade, it was a legitimate weapon and used for beheadings in early Rome.6 Thus, when Publius dipped his fasces, he showed “deference to the source of magisterial authority, the populus in assembly.”7 Plutarch also recounted how the people called him by the name Publicola, meaning “the People’s Friend.”8 Publius not only expressed his support to the Roman people and their assembly outwardly, but also through his legislation.
When elected consul, Publius used his time in office to establish a political framework focused on the Roman people. According to Plutarch, Publius legislated “one [policy] granting offenders the liberty of appealing to the people from the judgement of the consuls” and “relief of poor citizens, which, t[ook] off their taxes…”9 This legislation was particularly important because Tarquinius had taxed the Roman people relentlessly during his reign. Through these laws, Publius made the Roman populus his focus, boosting his popularity among them. After
the succeeding consuls” and was honored by the Roman people as a figure “full of all that is good and honorable”10 upon his death.
Publius was a sign of a new age for the Roman people. As one of the first elected consuls of Rome, Publius helped boot the last Roman king, made long strides in legislation, and represented a voice for the people. Thus, it is reasonable for the Federalists to sign under his name. Publius, in the Federalists’ eyes, was the epitome of what it was to rule in a governmental system without a king and embracing a Republic with governmental structure.