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Democracy in Rome.

The Romans are famous as imperialists, not as pioneers in the history of democracy. This is neither surprising nor altogether unfair on them; all the same, they earn their place in this democracy series on the grounds that the system they operated in the middle and late Republican period (from about 300 BC until the establishment of the Empire in about 30 BC) contained a strong element of popular participation, even if balanced by a still stronger aristocratic tradition.

The Roman version of democracy suffered from the same limitations in the eyes of a modern critic as did the earlier Athenian version. The voters were all adult male citizens, so that women, slaves and those who did not have the citizenship of Rome, were totally excluded from political life. It also suffered from a series of further limitations of its own, through which the right to vote of the poorer citizens was limited in its effect by sets of ingenious arrangements in the way the voting assemblies worked. There is good reason to think that the effective voting was done by quite a limited class of people, of means ranging from the most extensive to the relatively modest, and that the very poorest had little or no influence on events; if so, in this respect at least, there was a radical difference from the democracy of Athens, certainly from the form of democracy reached in the later fifth and fourth centuries BC.

It is not the differences, but the very strong similarities, or even possibly continuities, between the Greek and Roman political systems that should attract comment first of all. A feature of the ancient city-state was that the right to own land within the city's territory belonged to the citizens; owning land was thus a privilege of the citizen and even the peasants, however small their property, took part in political decision-making and in the common task of fighting for the city. The balance of power varied from city to city, but in even the least democratic city, the peasant-voters had at least some say in important decisions. The variable between oligarchic and democratic cities was the balance between the power of the few rich and the many poor. When the Greek historian Polybius lived in Rome in the mid-second century BC, he found structures very similar to those he was accustomed to at home and could apply his Greek theories to Roman political life, even if not always with convincing results. He described what he saw not, admittedly, as a democracy, but as a mixture of oligarchy, democracy and monarchy. Modern critics have often dismissed this element of democracy in Rome as merely a product of Polybius' own theorising.

It is perhaps even more illuminating to compare the Roman Republic, not with Greek precedents, but with the political regime that followed its fall: nobody can deny the sharp difference between the degree of democracy of the Romans who conquered the Empire in the middle and late Republic (300 - 30 BC) and those who lived under the authoritarian regime that we also - confusingly enough - call the 'Roman Empire' from Augustus onwards. It is a distinction that has always been quite familiar to the historians of this period but it is not easy to detect in their work that they attach much importance to it.

There has been a strong tradition, challenged quite recently, which laid emphasis, not on the democratic, but rather on the oligarchic aspects of the Roman political system. Work in the last two decades has been seeking to restore a more balanced view, partly against the established tradition, partly against a marked tendency of historians specialising in the Roman Republic to claim that they have known all along exactly how the Republican system operated and that it is only outsiders who have not understood them very clearly.

The actual rules under which Roman political life operated in these years are clear enough and always have been: they are not really the source of the recent controversy. The power lay, in theory, with elected officials (magistrates) such as the tribunes, the praetors, the consuls, the pro-consuls etc. These men acted for Rome, but they did so on the advice of the Senate which provided a body of magistrates and ex-magistrates dominated by the most senior ex-magistrates. So, for instance, in accounts of diplomatic activity by ancient writers, the story told will often be that a mission came to Rome from an Eastern city; the delegates addressed the Senate; the Senate decided what should be done and instructed the consuls to take any necessary action. That would be a very typical proceeding and it seems to be dealt with entirely amongst the members of the political elite, serving either as magistrates or as senators. They do not seem to need to consult or worry about any other body or class of Romans. So far as it goes, this is a true and important part of the picture; perhaps, even those who came on the delegations at the time would themselves have seen it as the whole picture.

What is more, the Romans who held these high offices and dominated debates in the Senate came from a very limited number of families, whose names were famous and recurred from generation to generation in the records - the Fabii, the Cornelii, the MeteIli. This is also true and an important part of the story. These same men then turn up, like Renaissance polymaths, in all kinds of other important roles in Roman society. They were the priests of Rome. They wrote the books and expounded the law and acted as jurisprudents. They commanded the armies and took the place of a military high-command. It would be hard to exaggerate the role of this group, drawn from families of wealth and high birth, who monopolised the story of Rome and seemed to make it on their own. If there was in fact such a thing as 'Roman democracy', it is essential not to let the non-democratic elements drop out of the picture; those who have tried to achieve a balanced view, have sometimes been accused of doing just that.

There is, however, another side to this story; the aristocrats did not have it all their own way. First, there were actions that the Senate by itself could not take. The most important was that it could not pass a law; it could recommend action to the magistrates, but not if that action needed a change of law and not if it involved a really major decision like declaring war. Secondly, the people could always find amongst the magistrates individuals who would use their powers as a means to promote popular political action. The tribunes in particular had the right to go to the popular assembly to propose any bill they cared to and, if it was passed, it became part of the law of Rome without any intervention by the Senate at all. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly of all, the magistrates themselves had to be elected by the Roman people and there was no other route into office than this.

There is at least one essential distinction between this form of aristocracy and that familiar from later European history. You might be born as the son of a consul, with ancestors of great distinction; but whether you became a great man in the Rome of your day depended on your own efforts and your own merits, as judged by your fellow citizens. If they would not vote for you to hold office in a series of elections through your twenties and thirties, then you could get nowhere. You could not obtain experience, you would not achieve influential commands and would never have an army with which to fight battles. Even Julius Caesar succeeded only after holding the normal succession of offices through election and indeed it was the effort to get himself elected that caused him to become one of the greatest and most famous debtors of Roman history. He had to conquer Gaul to make enough money to repay the debts that had got him to the top in politics and given him the army, the command and the Chance he needed. If he had failed to be elected consul in 60 BC, the debts would have swamped his ambitions.

The clearest demonstration we have that this element of popular control in the system really did mean something in Roman experience of the late Republican period, comes from the work of Cicero and particularly from his speeches and his letters of the 50s and 40s BC. Without Cicero, it would be possible to take the proceedings in the assemblies as matters of form, not of substance. Later, under the emperors, that is exactly what they were destined to become; the voting for officials continued as before, but only in form, because the assemblies were presented with a fixed list of as many candidates as there were places. In the case of laws, in fact, even this formality was abandoned and the Senate acquired the right actually to make law; later on, so did the emperor himself. Under the Republic however, still in Cicero's day, this was not yet the case. What was going to happen in particular votes could not be predicted in advance and although there were many ways in which the elite sought to influence the outcome, this was obviously not an exact science. The elite's very best efforts failed to keep out some undesirable characters.

A pamphlet preserved amongst Cicero's correspondence, though it certainly is not composed by him, offers advice to candidates on how to win elections. All kinds of modes of canvassing support are contemplated through the making of presents, the holding of entertainments, the application of pressure to return debts and obligations and so on; much of this was very organised and by modern standards, verging on the corrupt; but it leaves no doubt that there was a great deal to be bought or manipulated and that without a great campaign of putting your case across, there was no hope of election. The Romans did not, so far as we know, go in for kissing babies, but they certainly would have done had they thought there were votes in it.

The principles on which the Republican regime operated are therefore not problematic in themselves or difficult to detect; an understanding of them has long been assumed by many historians. But they have not produced any explicit theorisation of their operation. The first step towards establishing a theory is to accept that the dominant aristocratic group could, most of the time, fix the way decisions were taken, laws passed and foreign affairs conducted, just as they liked; they were able to do this because, whenever decisions were taken by voting, they were able to use persuasion or bribery or pressure on their supporters and clients in such a way as to get the outcome that they wanted. In particular, both the important assemblies had very complicated ways of taking the vote which placed a great deal of control in the hands of the richest sections of the population, i.e. those most likely to rally to the oligarchs when there was any kind of fight.

To look at the most important of the assemblies, the centuriate assembly, this operated on a system of group voting in which the richer you were, the fewer voters were placed in the group in which you voted and therefore the more valuable became your vote. If you were very rich, you would be voting in a tiny group with a few other rich people; if you were poor, then you would be voting in a huge group with most of the rest of the urban population. Such a loaded system could be absolutely relied on to back the aristocratic line in the case of an issue where the security of property or the dominance of the propertied classes were at issue.

The second step towards finding a theory implies defining the circumstances in which this aristocratic control reached its limits: whenever there was division between the sections or factions of the ruling class, then the political arithmetic became very much harder to predict, so that whenever the elections, to take one example, were closely fought between two candidates, it could perfectly well happen that the better off voters split evenly between the sides. The more evenly they split, the more important the votes of less rich and well placed citizens became. It may very well be the case that this voting never got down to the level of the really poor in any significant way and that is certainly one of the limitations that the system set. But, all the same, it is clear that there are many occasions when divided loyalties meant divided voting.

There was, in addition, another important assembly which worked on different principles; this was the so-called plebeian assembly which claimed descent from the earliest days of the Republic, when the plebeians, the mass of the ordinary people of Rome, as opposed to the patricians, the ancient aristocratic families, resisted oppression (as legend has it) by appointing their own leaders, called tribunes, and having their own meetings. The descendants of these early meetings still had the ability to pass laws in the late Republic on any matters that they liked: by this time the leaders, the tribunes of the plebs, were men of exactly the same wealthy origin as all the other magistrates. That did not stop them from proposing radical legislation when it suited them to do so. The organisation of Roman politics never worked through what we would call political parties; but all the same, the Romans called populares a succession of leaders, starting from the brothers Gracchi in the 130s and 120s BC, who embraced the popular cause and used the ancient plebeian assembly to carry through their proposals. This quite unarguably enabled popular opinion to be carried through into effect, though admittedly on the initiative of aristocratic leadership.

We know enough about these aristocratic leaders and their style of living to reconstruct the way in which their political activities were carried on. They operated, not in large groups or parties, but on the basis of personal contacts and relationships; the normal centre of political meetings and political activity were the houses of aristocrats in the centre of Rome which provided a semi-public location for the discussions and dealings through which the decisions of political life were taken. It was quite possible that in this behind-the-scenes politicking, aristocratic women played a substantial role. They were, as mentioned above, not allowed to take any public political action at all, and they were used in political dealing, as pawns in the tactics of the men of the family. Marriage and divorce took their place beside deals and hostilities in the history of alliances and enmities. But in the debate behind the scenes, we can sometimes recognise the power of female opinions and of the contacts that the wives and mothers of prominent politicians provided for those who wished to influence decision-making.

Despite this fixing behind-thescenes and the blurring of private and public roles which goes with it, the evidence provides us with very clear indications that this was, in its own way, an open system in which debate and voting played their part besides manipulation and bribery. In this regard there was a real change as a result of the collapse of the Republican system. However, there is one ingredient in this story that is almost entirely missing and that sets limits to the extent of our belief or faith in the democratic elements of the Roman system. The missing ingredient may be, in part, the result of our lack of information about the views of anybody below elite level. We can only infer what the ordinary Romans thought from what the elite Romans say about them. All the same, there is very little evidence that the Republican system was liked or appreciated or valued by the ordinary people of Rome; and when it comes to the last chapters of the story of the Republic and the early developments under the new imperial system, there is evidence that the people of Rome, given the opportunity of action, were far more favourable to the new and revolutionary leadership offered by Caesar and Augustus, than they were to the traditions of the Republic. The famous scenes after Caesar's assassination are the clearest evidence of this; the crowds in Rome reacted to the news by spontaneously deifying the dead dictator. The murderers of Caesar had of course expected otherwise, so it would be possible to argue that they, at least, thought the Roman masses were attached to the system in which they had some role. But, if they did, they seem to have been quite wrong, as they found out when the crowds started rioting and supporting the wrong side.

How are we to understand this dramatic mismatch? The best explanation on offer at the moment, to a question to which there is no simple answer, is that the Romans who rioted for Caesar and the Romans who voted in the assemblies, were in fact different groups of society. That is, that the group of voters who influenced Republican decision-making, were in fact, relatively well-off and substantial people who could afford to turn up and vote on most of the days when it was necessary. This takes us back to the point that was made earlier, that the system is always fixed in favour of the well-off. If Aristotle had had the opportunity of classifying the Roman Republic for us, he would not have dreamt of calling it a democracy in the Athenian sense. Polybius, who does attempt to classify in group terms, calls it (as mentioned above) a mixed constitution with elements of democracy, oligarchy and monarchy; but it is a fair guess that, if Aristotle had classified it himself, he would have thought it tended very much towards an oligarchic model, with mechanisms for retaining power very strongly amongst the wealthy and well-educated classes. The men who rioted on the streets of Rome to lament Caesar's death would scarcely have read their Aristotle first; but they were obviously deeply unimpressed by the claim that they were over-throwing a democratic system. That may demonstrate, not their real preferences, but the severe limitations of the voting systems and their consequent disillusionment.

At any rate with hindsight, however, we can see that the Roman voters, in general as a group, lost a great deal in terms of direct power and influence when the Republican system ended. Within a few years the whole tradition of throwing decisions open to any kind of widespread consultation in the public arena had disappeared and history could be written in the way that Tacitus most famously was to write it, in terms of debate in the Senate House and meetings in the corridors of palaces, between unelected and unaccountable royal personages and royal freedmen. It comes as no surprise that this loss of direct democratic power was followed by the progressive loss of all the rights and statuses that had come to the Romans as a result of their Republican tradition.


A Short Guide to Electioneering (trs. D .W. Taylor and J. Murrell) LACTOR 3, 1967. PA. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (London, 1971); Mary Beard and Michael Crawford, Rome in the Late Republic (London 1985); T.P. Wiseman (ed.), Roman Political Life: 90 BC-AD 69 (Exeter, 1985); A. Astin in Cambridge Ancient History VIII (2nd edition, Cambridge 1989); Keith Hopkins, Death and Renewal (Cambridge, 1983); F.G.B. Millar, 'Politics, Persuasion and the People before the Social War', Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986); J. Patterson, 'The City of Rome: from Republic to Empire',Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992); J.A. North, 'Democratic Politics in Republican Rome', Past & Present 126 (1990).

John North is Professor of Roman History at University College, London, and is currently writing a history of late Republican Rome for the series, Routledge History of the Ancient World.
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Title Annotation:2,500 Years of Democracy
Author:North, John
Publication:History Today
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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