You probably know that Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym "Publius." Publius was a common Roman name, and I always assumed that the Federalist authors used it generically, to invoke the aura of the Roman republic, not to refer to a specific person.
But today I heard that the Federalist authors did mean to summon up the image of a particular Roman. A quick check of the Wikipedia entry for the Federalist Papers corroborates that at least one academic has asserted that Hamilton decided to use the name "in honor of" a specific Roman: Publius Valerius Publicola.
Hamilton chose "Publius" as the pseudonym under which the series would be written. While many other pieces representing both sides of the constitutional debate were written under Roman names, Albert Furtwangler contends that "'Publius' was a cut above 'Caesar' or 'Brutus' or even 'Cato.' Publius Valerius was not a late defender of the republic but one of its founders. His more famous name, Publicola, meant 'friend of the people.'" It was not the first time Hamilton had used this pseudonym: in 1778, he had applied it to three letters attacking Samuel Chase.
Publicola, a legendary figure from the dawn of the Roman republic, helped drive out the last of the kings and later sponsored a law that permitted the murder of anyone who tried to become king. Here's Plutarch:
But although in these particulars [Publicola] showed himself a popular and moderate lawgiver, in the case of an immoderate offence he made the penalty severe. For he enacted a law by which any one who sought to make himself tyrant might be slain without trial, and the slayer should be free from blood-guiltiness if he produced proofs of the crime. For although it is impossible for one who attempts so great a task to escape all notice, it is not impossible for him to do so long enough to make himself too powerful to be brought to trial, which trial his very crime precludes. He therefore gave any one who was able to do so the privilege of anticipating the culprit's trial.
But, if the story is true, I can't help wondering whether Hamilton settled on the name because he enjoyed the delicious irony that the most famous tale about Publicola revealed the inherently irrational nature of an insufficiently controlled populace.
As the story goes, having established his devotion to republicanism beyond any possible doubt, Publicola built a house on a height above Rome called the "Velia". The Roman public promptly drew the bizarre conclusion that Publicola was going to use the house as base from which to establish himself as king. Here's Livy:
And here's Plutarch:
After the battle had gone in this way [a battle in which Publicola had led a Roman army which defeated an Etruscan attempt to reinstate the last king], so great a panic seized Tarquin and the Etruscans that the two armies of Veii and Tarquinii, on the approach of night, despairing of success, left the field and departed for their homes. . . .
At all events the Romans left the field as victors; the Etruscans regarded themselves as vanquished, for when daylight appeared not a single enemy was in sight. P. Valerius [Publicola], the consul, collected the spoils and returned in triumph to Rome. He celebrated his colleague's obsequies with all the pomp possible in those days, but far greater honour was done to the dead by the universal mourning, which was rendered specially noteworthy by the fact that the matrons were a whole year in mourning for him, because he had been such a determined avenger of violated chastity.
After this the surviving consul, who had been in such favour with the multitude, found himself - such is its fickleness - not only unpopular but an object of suspicion, and that of a very grave character. It was rumoured that he was aiming at monarchy, for he had held no election to fill [Lucius Junius] Brutus' place [Brutus had been killed in the battle], and he was building a house on the top of the Velia, an impregnable fortress was being constructed on that high and strong position.
The consul felt hurt at finding these rumours so widely believed, and summoned the people to an assembly. As he entered the "fasces" were lowered, to the great delight of the multitude, who understood that it was to them that they were lowered as an open avowal that the dignity and might of the people were greater than those of the consul. Then, after securing silence, he began to eulogise the good fortune of his colleague [Brutus] who had met his death, as a liberator of his country, possessing the highest honour it could bestow, fighting for the commonwealth, whilst his glory was as yet undimmed by jealousy and distrust. Whereas he himself had outlived his glory and fallen on days of suspicion and opprobrium; from being a liberator of his country he had sunk to the level of the Aquilii and Vitellii.
"Will you," he cried, "never deem any man's merit so assured that it cannot be tainted by suspicion? Am I, the most determined foe to kings, to dread the suspicion of desiring to be one myself? Even if I were dwelling in the Citadel on the Capitol, am I to believe it possible that I should be feared by my fellow-citizens? Does my reputation amongst you hang on so slight a thread? Does your confidence rest upon such a weak foundation that it is of greater moment where I am than who I am? The house of Publius Valerius shall be no check upon your freedom, your Velia shall be safe. I will not only move my house to level ground, but I will move it to the bottom of the hill that you may dwell above the citizen whom you suspect. Let those dwell on the Velia who are regarded as truer friends of liberty than Publius Valerius."
All the materials were forthwith carried below the Velia and his house was built at the very bottom of the hill where now stands the temple of Vica Pota.
But that which the rather displeased and offended the people in Valerius was this. Brutus, whom they regarded as the father of their liberties, would not consent to rule alone, but once and again chose a colleague to rule with him. "But this Valerius," they said, "in concentrating all power upon himself, is not a successor to the consulate of Brutus, to which he has no right, but to the tyranny of Tarquin. Yet why should he extol Brutus in words, while in deeds he imitates Tarquin, descending to the forum alone, escorted by all the rods and axes together, from a house no less stately than the royal house which he demolished?"
For, as a matter of fact, Valerius was living in a very splendid house on the so‑called Velia. It hung high over the forum, commanded a view of all that passed there, and was surrounded by steeps and hard to get at, so that when he came down from it the spectacle was a lofty one, and the pomp of his procession worthy of a king.
Accordingly, Valerius showed what a good thing it is for men in power and high station to have ears which are open to frankness and truth instead of flattery. For when he heard from his friends, who spared him no detail, that he was thought by the multitude to be transgressing, he was not obstinate nor exasperated, but quickly got together a large force of workmen, and while it was still night tore the house down, and razed it all to the ground.
In the morning, therefore, the Romans saw what had happened, and came flocking together. They were moved to love and admiration by the man's magnanimity, but were distressed for the house, and mourned for its stately beauty, as if it had been human, now that envy had unjustly compassed its destruction. They were also distressed for their ruler, who, like a homeless man, was now sharing the homes of others. For Valerius was received into the houses of his friends until the people gave him a site and built him a house, of more modest dimensions than the one he had lived in before, where now stands the temple of Vica Pota, so‑called.
Wishing now to make not only himself but also the government, instead of formidable, submissive and agreeable to the multitude, he removed the axes from the lictors' rods, and when he came into the assembly, inclined and lowered the rods themselves to the people, emphasizing the majesty of the democracy. This custom the consuls observe to this day. And before the multitude were aware of it, he had succeeded, not by humbling himself, as they thought, but by checking and removing their envious feelings through such moderation on his part, in adding to his real influence over them just as much as he had seemed to take away from his authority, and the people submitted to him with pleasure and bore his yoke willingly.
They therefore called him Publicola, a name which signifies people-cherisher. This name prevailed over the older names which he had borne, and it is the name which I shall use for him in the remainder of this Life.