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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.