Politics | Classical Wisdom Weekly

Skip to Content

Category Archives: Politics

[post_grid id="10030"]

What Makes a Republic? The Evolution of a Political System.

by July 30, 2021

By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In the contemporary world, republics are the most common form of government, yet few of us take the time to consider what a republic actually is. If we want to more deeply understand the nature of republics, we need to look back to the ancient examples of Rome, Athens, Sparta, Carthage and others. These were the forerunners of modern democratic republics, but they were also very different to what we consider to be a republic today.
No Kings or Queens
In the ancient world, the term ‘Republic’ was commonly used to describe any non-monarchical form of government. The sovereignty of the state did not reside in any monarch, but rather was invested in the citizen body. They alone had the right to make laws and rule the state. For example, in Athens, only the citizen body could make laws in the Assembly. There were, however, some Royal-Republics. These were states with a royal head of state, rather like a constitutional monarchy today. The best-known example of this is Sparta, which was technically ruled by two kings, but was in reality ruled by a group of citizens. However, most republics were violently opposed to kingship in all its forms (this was especially true of Rome).
Were Republics democratic?
Nearly all of the republics in the Classical Age had some form of popular assembly. However, many were not truly democratic even though they had popular voting, elections and even parties. Rather they were oligarchies ruled by small groups of wealthy men (such as in Carthage), or even by aristocratic individuals (as in Thebes). There were a few exceptions to this rule, such as Athens during the time of Pericles (485-429 BC) where the citizens decided on everything irrespective of class or background. The vast majority of republics were oligarchic until recent times, and many would argue that they are still dominated by the rich and unelected.
Bust of Pericles
Bust of Pericles
Republics and the law
Republican government was characterised by the rule of law, where every citizen was ostensibly equal before the law. In a republic, these laws can only be made by the people, and they must, theoretically at least, promote and protect their interests. Indeed, many Classical Republics had written sets of laws and even constitutions (Aristotle discussed many of these Greek city-states’ constitutions in his Politics).
Yet in most republics, the majority were not equal. In Athens, only male citizens were equal before the law. Women, slaves, immigrants, the poor and others could not be citizens and therefore had fewer rights, meaning republics were great so long as you were an affluent male.
Bust of Aristotle
Bust of Aristotle
Republics and city-states
It was once accepted that only city-states could be republics. This was because it was believed that only those who lived in urban centres had the wealth and virtue to make a republic work. However, larger republics, based on a confederation of tribes or localities were common in Ancient India. By the Middle Ages, the Swiss formed a confederation that was republican, which was an outlier in Europe for centuries. After the American and French Revolutions many large territories became republics and today most nation-states have republican governments, while city-states virtually disappeared.
Storming of the Bastille
Storming of the Bastille
Freedom and Republics
Republics are theoretically characterized by the concept of freedom. That is, citizens and even non-citizens are entitled to do what they want as long as it conforms to the law. Classical Republics and later the Republican governments of Europe all enshrined the concept of liberty. This was in contrast to earlier monarchies and Empires that ruled much of the world. However, freedom in ancient republics was very limited. Many basic liberties were denied to the poor, women, and other groups of non-citizens. Even citizens had a had their freedom circumscribed in certain ways. For example, in Athens, the citizens had to serve in the army, navy, serve in political offices and pay contributions known as liturgies. They had to serve their city and often to put its interests before their own.
Republics are much more varied than is often assumed, especially in the ancient world, and they have evolved greatly over the centuries. Once Republics were only city-states but today they are mainly nation-states. Yet, they have some basic characteristics that they share. They are ostensibly ruled by and for the people, and they have rules and laws where equality before the law is central. Yet despite these high ideals, they often fail to measure up in substance to these principles.
Nippel, Wilfried (1994) ‘Ancient and Modern Republicanism’ in The Invention of the Modern Republic ed. Biancamaria Fontana. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Sparta and… Scotland? Laconic wit through the centuries

by July 13, 2021

By Andrew Rattray
When you think of Sparta, what’s the first thing that jumps to mind? I’m willing to wager that you’re picturing immoveable, impenetrable warriors, the infamous black broth, or perhaps the often-brutal agoge. These things are certainly what first come to mind for me. After all, modern day depictions of Spartan culture portray a hard people who pride martial prowess above all else. Just look to the impossibly chiselled abs in the heavily stylised cinematic retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, ‘300’.
This isn’t just a modern view either. Even at the height of their power the Spartans were seen more as miserable brutes than philosophical thinkers. However, while this reputation isn’t totally unearned, I’m not so sure it’s perfectly accurate. I think the Spartans were less grim realists, and more sarcastic humourists. I should know, I’m Scottish. Let me explain.
We in Scotland have for a long time suffered under a similar reputation of being grumpy, miserable, hard-heads, much like the Spartans. I think this is, in part, due to each nation sharing a neighbour typified by a more refined and well-to-do reputation. Scotland has England, Sparta had Athens. The contrast, and the cultural exports of our neighbours, has painted both Scotland and Sparta with a mischaracterisation that doesn’t necessarily represent our true nature.
The two most powerful city states of Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, were often at odds with one another
If you’ll indulge me, I will recount two quotes on the Spartans and the Scots that demonstrate this similarity even further.  Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, describes the hidden cunning of the Spartans: “…they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle…This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”
Now consider this extract from Chapter One of André Mourois’ biography; The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming: Discoverer of Penicillin. “The English laughed, too, at the absence of humour with which (so they said) these northern immigrants were afflicted. It took hours of hard work, they maintained, to drive a joke into a Scotsman’s head…This picture was very inaccurate. The Scots have their own sense of humour, which is utterly unlike that of the English, who love long stories full of mockery and sentiment. The Scots, on the other hand, delight in a humour which is laconic, dry, vigorous and expressed with a perfectly straight face.”
These two extracts, from two authors over two thousand years distant, perfectly encapsulate the hidden wit of these two cultures which were (and are) so often painted as boorish and ignorant. I consider the Spartans great humourists because I recognise in Spartan discourse this same sense of humour that pervades Scottish culture.
You see, the Spartans were known for what we now call ‘Laconic wit’, a manner of conveying ideas characterised by short, sharp, pithy aphorisms that deliver truth in a satisfyingly minimalistic way. Those of you familiar with the regions of ancient Greece will be one step ahead of me. Laconic wit is named for Laconia, the home of the Spartans. They didn’t just adopt the idea, they pioneered it.
The lambda on the Spartan shields stood for Lacedaemon, from which we also get the word ‘laconic’
However, where most consider the terseness of the Spartans an extension of their hard, hand-to-mouth style existence, I believe it displays a silly, care free sense of humour. After all, Shakespeare teaches us that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’.
One of the most famous examples of this Laconic wit is found in the Spartan response to Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great). Philip, after invading Southern Greece and forcing the submission of some of the other prominent City States, wrote to the Spartans asking whether he should come to them as friend or foe. The Spartans reply? “Neither”. This incensed Philip who then wrote, “If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out.”. Again, the Spartans reply with one word. “If”. In the end, Philip never did conquer the Spartans.
Spartan history is dotted with examples of this sort of sharp, direct, retort but I feel these come across more as ironic, self-aware jibes than true, grim, arrogance. When I think of the Spartan exchange with Philip the first thing that comes to mind is the Scots phrase “Did ye, aye?” an extremely sarcastic way of saying you don’t believe someone, but easy for non-Scots to miss. In the same way, I think the humour of the Spartans has been missed here.
In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus recounts another quintessential example of Laconic wit at play. Herodotus describes how a group of Samians, unseated from their homes, petitioned the Spartans for their aid. The Samians, in audience of the Spartans, spoke at length of their troubles to ensure that the greatness of their need was well understood. To this the Spartans replied that the speech had been so long that they had forgotten the beginning and thus could make no sense of the end! The next day the Samians returned to the audience of the Spartans once more with nothing but an empty sack. Holding it out before them the Samians said simply; “The sack wants flour.”. The Spartan response? “You didn’t have to say ‘the sack’”. I find it impossible to picture that final line without imagining its speaker with a well-deserved smirk. This isn’t hard headedness, it’s tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s almost silly.
Let’s compare with a Scottish example. Robert Burns, the most famous of all Scottish poets, and figure of the ‘Scottish enlightenment’ of the 18th century, was once at the Greenock quay when a wealthy merchant fell into the harbour. The merchant couldn’t swim and floundered in the water as a crowd gathered. Before long, a sailor dove in, risking his own life, to pull the merchant out and save him from drowning. By way of thanks, the merchant reached into his pocket and produced a single shilling (a meagre sum) much to the dismay of the crowd who found such a small reward to be contemptible. Burns stepped forward to calm the tensions and with a broad smile shouted over the clamour “Please, the gentleman is of course the best judge of the value of his own life!”.
The poet Robert Burns
This is what I mean when I say I recognise this same humour in these Spartan stories. Burns’ response couches truth in humour in a way that cuts to the core of the issue. The sarcastic humour of the Scots might be a little more direct, a little more obvious, but to an accustomed ear, one can find the same elements with the Spartans.
So far, history has been kinder to the wit and humour of the Scots than of the Spartans, but in our modern age, full of resurgence of interest in the ancient world, now is the perfect time to deepen our appreciation of Spartan culture for more than just their warrior mentality and stoic resolve. When an Argonian visitor remarked to the Spartan King Eudamidas I that foreign travel risked corrupting Spartan citizens, Eudamidas replied simply; But you, when you come to Sparta, do not become worse, but better.
Perhaps we all can become better if we were to open our mind to new perspectives a little more often.   

Ancient Bactria: Battleground For Civilization

by April 14, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The ancient region of Bactria was in what is now Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in Central Asia. Today, this is a remote, relatively little-known area. In the ancient past, Bactria was a culturally and economically dynamic region of great interest to ancient empires. In fact, Bactria’s contribution to history and civilization from 500 BC. to approximately 500 A.D is immense.

Bactria’s Early History

In the Bronze Age, Bactria was mainly populated by Iranian-speaking people who established urban settlements. The region first enters recorded history under the Persian Achaemenian Empire. During the sixth century BC, Cyrus II subjugated the region, making it a satrapy. Bactria became a province of the Persian Empire for two centuries during which time the area prospered.

Bactrian soldier from the tomb of Xerxes I, circa 470 BC

Its geography to a large extent dictated its social structure, with nomadic peoples living in the plains and tribes inhabiting the mountains. In the fertile valleys, wealthy, sophisticated urban societies developed.  Many scholars believe that Bactria played an important role in the development of Zoroastrianism.

Alexander the Great and Bactria

It appears that Bactria enjoyed a period of peace until the arrival of Alexander the Great. Leading the opposition to the Macedonian was Bessus, who made his last stand in Bactria before his execution. Alexander the Great campaigned in Bactria to secure his position in this rich region, even marrying Roxanne, the daughter of a Bactrian ruler.

Administrative document from Bactria dated to the seventh year of Alexander’s reign, 324 BC, source: Khalili Collection of Aramaic Documents

Alexander built numerous cities in the region and many Greeks and Macedonians came to settle there. Interestingly, there was already a large Greek-speaking minority in Bactria. Indeed, there were more Greeks in Bactria than in regions closer to mainland Greece.

The Rise of Bactrian Greeks

The Seleucid Empire ruled the region for over 70 years after the death of Alexander. The cities founded by the Macedonian conqueror flourished, and so did trade. In about 250 BC, Bactrian satrap Diodotus proclaimed independence and became king. Antiochus III the Great defeated Diodotus’ successor but recognized Bactrian Greek independence.

However, the rise of Parthia cut off the Bactrian Greeks from the rest of the Greek world. Meanwhile, Bactria grew rich and powerful, with a large army and heavy cavalry. It was poised to expand.

Bactrian King Euthydemus I and his son Demetrius crossed into what is now Pakistan, managing to conquer a large part of modern Pakistan and North-West India around 180 BC. These conquests placed a great strain on the Bactrian-Greek kingdom, leading to several revolts.

After a period of civil war that left the Bactrian Greeks divided among themselves, an usurper seized the throne of the kingdom and proclaimed himself King Eucratides I.

Gold 20-stater showing Eucratides. This is the largest-known gold coin from antiquity and was originally found in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Bactrians who had conquered parts of India established a powerful new region, known as the Indo-Greek kingdom, and advanced its territory far into the Ganges Plain in Northern India.

The Decline and Fall of Bactria

After the death of Eucratides I, the kingdom of Bactria fell into near-anarchy, leaving it vulnerable to nomadic invasions. In the second century BC, Indo-European nomads known as the Saka conquered Bactria and ended Greek rule. This invasion saw the burning of several Hellenic cities. The Saka were driven out by the Yuezhi, who had been driven from their homeland by the Xiongnu Confederation. The Yuezhi were deeply influenced by the Greeks and even adopted their alphabet.

In the first century AD, a prince of the Yuezhi, Kujula Kadphises, established the great Kushan Empire. Greek was one of the official languages of this realm. The Indo-Greeks were eventually conquered by the Saka. Small Indo-Greek communities survived until possibly 10 A.D and they adopted Buddhism. The Kushan Empire later conquered much of North-West India. They were later conquered by the Sassanian Persian monarchs who ruled the area until the arrival of the Muslims in the 7th century AD.

The Contribution of Bactria

Bactria was a cross-roads for many cultures. It quickly became a significant hub of trade and great cities such as Balkh were famed for their wealth. Chinese envoys who visited Bactria in the first century BC were amazed by its wealth and sophistication. They noted that the people disliked war, preferring trade and luxurious lifestyles. The merchants of Bactria contributed to the later development of the Great Silk Road.

The Greeks in Bactria, and later in India, played a particularly important role in the development of the region and indeed global culture. They introduced Greek sculpture, architecture, art and thought to the region. They have deeply influenced Classical Indian art and architecture. Bactria was also crucial in the history of Buddhism, especially during the Kushan period.

The Gandhara Buddha, a statue influenced by Greek models

The Kushan Empire was very culturally diverse and eventually adopted Graeco-Buddhism, developed by Bactrian Greeks that ruled kingdoms in India.  The Kushans were great benefactors of Buddhism and they helped to spread the religion into Central Asia and ultimately China. They also helped spread the influence of Graeco-Buddhist art, which still influences Buddhist art to this day.


Bactria is a historical region that has largely been forgotten, yet it played a crucial role in several Empires and the early development of the Silk Road. It was a centre of Greek power and culture despite being very distant from the Mediterranean World. The Bactrian-Greek kingdom developed a thriving culture and economy. Their culture spread into India, where they influenced the region’s art and religion, specifically in the development of Graeco-Buddhism.


Rawlinson, H.G., 2002. Bactria, the history of a forgotten empire. Asian Educational Services.

The Influence of Ancient Politics on Modern Political Systems

by December 2, 2020

Written by Michael C. Anderson, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Most people believe ancient political systems have had a minimal effect on politics of the modern and postmodern world. The common belief is that the ancient world was largely barbarian with human rights virtually non-existent, so history from that time must be discounted.

Is this a correct assumption, or is there something can we learn about politics from antiquity?

The earliest Western civilizations were theocratic, but that model became obsolete with the advent of warfare. Winning in battle required military leadership and the power generated by a military leader’s success led to the evolution of kingship as the center of civil power in the state.

The next step in the evolution of government was the monarchy, which bolted hereditary authority onto the kingship model. Monarchies were the most common form of government before the Enlightenment. They survived because the authoritarian state could manage the society efficiently and, at the same time, protect its status.

In the midst of the monarchies permeating the ancient world, stood two models that would foreshadow modern politics: the Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic. These governments were true innovations in the application of liberty and human rights.

Athens, Greece

The mountains of Greece were an opportune setting for democracy. They divided the Greek landscape into small spaces which acted as incubators for the development of rights-based political systems. After the Mycenean civilization ended, the Greek peninsula descended into a dark age period, where political and social advancement came to a halt. Then slowly, small communities, governed by the people, began to develop. These communities blocked attempts by the wealthy to gain power, keeping control in public hands.

The Polis evolved to became the standard form of government across Greece after 700 BC. Each Polis developed its own characteristics, but all featured the institutions of democracy. In time, Athens became the most famous of the Poleis, because of its size and influence over the Greek peninsula. Athens developed its final democratic form after periods of tyrants and a flirtation with republicanism under Solon. Its high point occurred during the so called “Golden Age,” in the fifth century BC, when Pericles was its leader.

The Golden Age was also the beginning of the end for Athens, because she would soon be defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The structure of the Polis had weakened and the advent of the sophists ushered in a new focus on the individual, replacing the cultural unity that had existed previously. It was only 60 years after the Peloponnesian war that Philip of Macedonia (father of Alexander) subdued the Greek peninsula and the Polis passed out of existence.

The Roman Forum

The story of Rome was vastly different. Rome began as a hilltop community founded near a ford in the Tiber River, in a part of Italy known as Latium. The early tribes of Rome were farmers, married to the land.

Rome was far from the sea, and its people had no history of sea trade, so land was its most valuable asset. Early Rome was influenced by the nearby Etruscan civilization. Its customs and government structure were readily adopted by the Romans. Two of the early kings of Rome were Etruscans.

Rome could not tolerate a monarchy. It threw off the last of the kings in 509 BC and became a republic. The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, or “thing of the people.” This thing of the Roman people was the rights they obtained through the people’s assembly. The republic featured an executive branch consisting of elected magistrates, led by a pair of consuls. The legislative branch consisted of the Senate and the people’s assembly. The assembly could pass laws but not propose them. The Senate could propose laws but not vote on them.

Representation of the Roman senate from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome, house of the Italian Senate

In the early days of the republic, Rome was dominated by the wealthy patrician class. Descendants of the three original Roman tribes, the patricians, controlled money and power in the republic. The Plebians had no rights in the beginning, but through organized efforts, they won for themselves an expansion of their rights.

They fought for executive branch representation, so the college of tribunes was created. They demanded written laws, so the twelve tables were posted in the Forum. They demanded access to all elected offices and this was also granted by the Senate over time. What made the Roman republic work was the willingness of the Senate to extend rights to all citizens. That reality prevented instability and allowed Rome to prosper.

But the republic did not survive. After 400 years, it began to crumble because of mistakes by the Senate, inefficient government, and territorial expansion, which required a large army. Until the end of the second century BC, Rome had a citizen army; farmers put down their implements and went to war.

In 107 BC, Gaius Marius, the leading general in the republic, created a professional army. This caused the soldiers to shift their loyalty from the Senate to their commander. Now any general, with a lust for power, could bend the army to his will and overthrow the government. That fear became a reality when Julius Caesar made himself permanent dictator, leading to the collapse of the republic.

Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, by J.N. Sylvestre, 1890, Musée Paul Valéry

The founding fathers of the United States knew the stories of Athens and Rome. Most could speak Latin and Greek, and they had read the history of antiquity in the original language. When it came time to create the American Constitution, they thought long and hard about the design of their new government. The United States would be the first “new” nation in the last thousand years of Western civilization, but what form should its government take?

The founders looked to the models of Greece and Rome as templates. In a short time, the Greek model was rejected. The polis was small enough so that citizens could attend meetings of the assembly and vote. This was not possible in a territory as large as the thirteen colonies. The new government had to be built on representation; elected officials representing citizens.

The founders had the experience of the colonial governments to draw upon and they understood the British Constitution. They decided that adapting the Roman republic to America would be the most logical approach.

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull, 1819

During the Constitutional Convention, the design of each branch of government was debated at length. There was early agreement on the Legislature which would contain an upper class of “elders” and a people’s assembly. There was a long negotiation about how the legislature should be constituted and how the representatives should be elected. A balance was reached by having two senators per state and an assembly determined by population distribution. Senators would be elected by the states and representatives directly by the people.

The executive branch was also subject of a lengthy debate. How would the chief magistrate (president) be elected and for how long? In the end, the delegates chose a presidential term of four years with the president elected by the states.

The founders looked at the new government as a republic of state republics. The states would share power with the Federal government with no overlap of jurisdictions. The founders believed that too much democracy was dangerous: that the public could be influenced to vote for a tyrant. Better to have the senior legislative chamber and the president elected by the states.

They also battled over the power of the Federal government. Some wanted it to be small, only functioning in areas inappropriate for states, like treaties with foreign governments. Others wanted it to have more power, thinking that professional politicians from the elite class would be the best managers of the country.

The Founding Fathers

America’s founders learned much from the ancient governments of Greece and Rome. They could read about the impact of citizens as direct participants in government. They had the luxury of analyzing systems that failed so they could avoid those same problems.

The debate about the structure of the American government has continued from the time of the Constitution until the present day. During the passage of time, the Federal government has grown exponentially, as the demand for its programs have increased, the courts have accommodated the shifting of the role of the Federal government to one as caretaker for society, and the American social culture has changed enormously. There is no playbook for how to adapt a political system to these types of changes, but we have history to guide for the direction we have to take now.

The Enlightenment helped us see that individual rights were important. That concept allowed democracies to take over the world as the default political system. The ancients taught us about the value of tradition as applied to changing societies. Tradition has to be used as a guide for moving forward, because too much change creates instability. The French Revolution warned us what can happen when all traditions are discarded.

Why is the study of ancient political systems important? The answer lies in the fact that all human societies are experiments in a public morality built by a consensus of the individual moralities of their citizens.

Man did not evolve to live among strangers; he evolved to live among small kinship groups. There are no human socio-psychological mechanisms to cope with living in societies, so each iteration becomes a unique model. The brilliance of the ancients is that their ideas can accommodate the postmodern society. The ancients understood human nature well enough to create models that are timeless and function at any time and place.

A Short History of Voting in the Ancient World

by November 4, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Like so much else in the modern world, voting was invented by the Classical World. The complex system of elections that we see today in America and other nations was first developed in Greece and Rome. However, voting in the Graeco-Roman World was often very different from today.

Tribal origins of voting

Many early tribal societies were democratic in that they elected their kings or leaders. Many even elected a council of elders. There is a long history of elections and democracy in so-called primitive societies. Many early Greek societies had a tradition of voting. This is most apparent in the first recorded use of voting, which took place in Sparta. This involved the election of the ephors.

Solon, who first gave Athenians the vote

Ancient Greece and voting

Under the Spartan Constitution, which was written by the mythological Lygurgas, enshrined a system of voting. There is also some evidence that leagues of city-states would often vote as part of their decision-making process.

In Athens, Solon introduced a new constitution in 574 BC that allowed members of the upper classes to vote. It was only with the reforms of Cleisthenes, that the suffrage was extended more widely. By the 5th century BC, most male Athenians could vote. Indeed, they could also vote on issues such as going to war and the election of generals.

Moreover, Athenians could even vote in criminal trials and one infamous trial, they condemned Socrates to death. Voting was also central to the ostracizing of people who were deemed a threat to the state. For instance, the Athenians voted to exile Themistocles, hero of the Battle of Salmis. The electors would write the name of the person they wanted to exile on a shared of pottery known as an ostracon.

Voting ostraca from 5th century BC Athens

All voting was in public and there was no secret ballot. It should be remembered that immigrants, women, and the many slaves could not vote. Athenian democracy has been categorized as a form of radical democracy.

In Athens many offices were decided by lottery because over time the voting process was corrupted. Many other Greek states emulated the democracy of Greece and soon voting was very common. It even continued when the city-states came under the domination of the Macedonian dynasties.

The Greek city-states continued to elect magistrates even once their democratic constitutions had been limited. The right to vote was one of the distinctions of the elite and was an important privilege. All through the Roman period, municipal voting took place in the Greek world and only really ended with the rise of the Byzantine Empire.

A coin showing a Roman casting a ballot, 63 BCE

Voting in the Roman Word

Rome was originally a monarchy and after expelling its last king, the Romans developed a unique form of democracy. The Senate was an assembly of legislators and policymakers who were elected indirectly.

However, over time the Romans developed a series of legislatures and assemblies in which citizens could vote directly. Roman citizens voted for nearly all their officials including the consuls. The Senatorial elite was able to manipulate this to ensure that their interests were safeguarded.

Roman voting often took place within tribes. The lower class, or plebians, could vote in certain assemblies and this gave them some say in the affairs of the state. However, most people could not vote due to rules on property. Rome developed a very complex voting system, and it was both a direct and an indirect form of democracy. They also were the first to introduce the secret ballot, now considered essential to free and fair elections.

Roman elections were also often brutal and bloody. From about 200 BC, Roman elections were marred by political violence. Gang leaders linked to politicians would intimidate voters and they often turned Rome into a battleground. There were very few safeguards and there was a great deal of vote-buying.

Augustus Caesar

It was only with the rise of Augustus that Roman elections became less bloody. Elections continued, and so too did voting in Rome. The Senate would hold regular votes but much of it was only symbolic and only rubber-stamping the edicts of the Emperors.

However, at a municipal level, many members of the elite fought bitter elections for municipal positions, which still had real powers. Romanization meant that voting became more common throughout the Empire and many municipalities had a great deal of autonomy. Even so, only the elite could vote.

The legacy of Rome and Greece voting

After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Classical World went into decline. Voting became very rare. The Byzantine Senate that was the successor of the Roman Senate continued to vote until the 9th century AD.

However, the tradition of voting continued to Medieval Europe, especially in urban centers. This was in part influenced by Greek and Roman examples. During the Renaissance, the Graeco-Roman World was widely studied, and its systems of voting inspired many to establish more democratic forms of government. 

This was enormously influential in the development of modern democracies. For example, the Roman and Greek voting systems were studied by the American and French Revolutionaries when they were drafting their democratic constitutions.

Communism, Class Struggle, and the Roman Republic

by September 9, 2020

Written by Titus, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Karl Marx said that humanity has been in a constant class struggle. According to him, the rich and poor have been in a perpetual war throughout history. His philosophy gave birth to modern communism which went on to add another dimension in the social and international divide between people and governments since the twentieth century. Marx gave what seemed to be valuable solutions to ending this struggle and achieve societal equality.

Roughly after a century, we have come to realize it was not as potent as it seemed to be. It was also not as groundbreaking or original. Ancient Roman society had successfully acknowledged and integrated the class struggle into their ruling apparatus thousands of years ago.

Roman society was much more successful than the modern communist and capitalist regimes as it incorporated both of these philosophies that often clashed with each other politically. It was a healthier inclusion of the working class into the government. It also made it infinitely more complex.


Bust of Karl Marx

As Rome continued to steamroll much of the known ancient world, its ruling class became increasingly richer. With more conquests, they got their hands on more assets and slaves. Slowly, it began to threaten the societal balance of Rome in a way never seen before in antiquity. The rich would buy off the land from the peasant and employ their slaves to work on it.

As a result, the peasants not only gradually lost their land; they also lost the prospects of jobs to the slaves. It strained the economic condition of the Roman State as it would be forced to feed the unemployed mass of people. Also, it posed a serious threat to military recruitment for the Republic as the individuals serving in its legions were supposed to own property.

The first attempt to correct this dynamic was made by the Gracchi brothers who were ultimately assassinated by the conservative faction of the Senate, called the Optimates. The Gracchi brothers tried to redistribute the land and the rich, unsurprisingly, were not happy to hear the possibility of relinquishing their wealth.

It is worth noting that Roman society did have checks-and-balances, as the Plebeians or the low-income citizens had their say in State affairs through the Tribune of Plebs office. It was an important power check on the wealthy class of Rome or the Roman Senate. As time progressed, the social divide became wider and ultimately resulted in the downfall of the Republic itself and the creation of the Roman Empire.


Tiberius Gracchus, and Gaius Gracchus

The social divide resulted in the emergence of military commanders as the key political players. As the soldiers were recruited from the low-income class of the Republic, they started to heavily rely on their generals for securing land for them after their retirement. This meant that their loyalty would be to their generals instead of the Senate. This made them willing to fight for their generals even against the other Roman armies.

The first civil war of the Roman Republic between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla saw how one general was able to march on Rome with his army. However, the victor Sulla was still from the Optimates faction and believed in the supremacy of the Senate. Things went back to the status quo after Sulla. However, the second civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus resulted in the irreversible chain of events that ensured the downfall of the Roman Republic.

After the fall of the Republic, the office of the Tribune of Plebs continued to exert a great power even under the shadow of the all-powerful Roman emperors; most often, it would be the emperors themselves who held the position of tribune. It ensured the goodwill of common people and helped them get their concerns heard by the highest level of leadership.

Gaius Gracchus

Gaius Gracchus addressing the Plebeians.

The events that led to the fall of the Republic shed an interesting light into how Roman society worked and how complex it was as compared to modern times. The low-income class didn’t rise against their wealthy counterparts in a revolution; instead, they aligned themselves to individual generals who helped them secure what they needed.

This led to the clash of Optimates and Populares throughout the late Republic period, which in turn led to the end of Senatorial dominance in Roman politics and the emergence of powerful emperors. These emperors would work for the middle-class to increase their popularity much more than they would for the senate, even though the latter continued to function as a political organ of the State.