Quora Question: Is the Roman Republic Similar to the Modern American Republic

No. It is a very dicey proposition to compare any modern republic to the pre-industrial society of Rome.

The founding fathers of the U.S. had some admiration for Roman political forms and took some of the ideas of the Greek historian Polybius in account in establishing the political institutions of the new republic. Polybius pointed out that there were three types of government that existed in ancient Greece, monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. He believed that all three, in their pure form were unstable and would deteriorate to their negative forms, tyranny, oligarchy and mob rule, respectively. He admired the Roman Republic as a mixed constitution which had a monarchical component, the Consuls, an aristocratic component, the Senate, and a democratic component, the assemblies of the plebes. He believed that each of these components put a check on the other and the system was responsible for the stability and success of the Roman Republic. During Polybius’ lifetime, in the 2nd century B.C.E., the Roman Republic had gone through a phenomenal expansion. To quote from the preface of Polybius’ history of Rome:

“For who is so worthless of indolent as not to wish to know by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty years have succeeded in subjugating nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government, a thing unique in history? Or who again is there so passionately devoted to other spectacles or studies as to regard anything as of greater moment than the acquisition of this knowledge?”

Our founding fathers set up our government to be a plutocratic oligarchy. They proposed a mixed constitution, as polybius advocated, with the Presidency as the monarchical component, the Senate as the aristocratic component (in our earlier years the Senators were appointed by state governors, not elected by state voters at large) and the House of Representatives as the democratic component.

With time, our electoral system became far more democratic than Rome’s ever was. In ancient Rome slaves, women and non-citizens could not vote. In the U.S. there were originally property requirements to vote, but these were gradually dropped. After the Civil War, the 14th amendment (theoretically) granted black men the right to vote. After the First World War, the 19th amendment granted the right to vote to women. In recent years, however, our electoral system has become less democratic and has trended back toward plutocratic oligarchy. The Electoral College weighs votes in some states more than in others and has twice in recent years given us a President who failed to win the popular vote. Gerrymandering, voter suppression and vote tampering are the norm in some states, all of these undermine democracy.

Worst of all is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision which allows unlimited corporate funds to influence elections. Politicians who rely upon corporate donations for their campaign funding do the bidding of their donors rather than the bidding of their constituents. In this aspect the American political system does resemble that of ancient Rome in that there was widespread corruption and bribery in that system as well. the Roman Republic was, for all intents and purposes, a plutocratic oligarchy with the senatorial class as the oligarchs. In the case of the U.S. the billionaires are the oligarchs, the Senate as well as most of the Representatives do their bidding.

Given our present catastrophe of having elected a totally unqualified and incompetent person to the presidency, I have been fond of pointing out that at least Rome had a far more effective way of choosing their leaders than we do. In order to become Consul, an ambitious citizen first had to have served for ten years in the Roman Military. After that, he embarked upon the Cursus Honorus, a series of elective offices-Quaestor, Aedile and Praetor before he could run for the highest office, Consul. When not in office he served in the Senate. No one reached the highest office in Rome without extensive experience in both military and civil affairs. Compare this to our present President who had never held elective office of any kind, has no experience in the military and would not be qualified to be mayor of a mid sized U.S. city.

There is, moreover, a strong contrast between the military institutions of Rome and that of the U.S. Originally, in the Roman Republic, only property owners could serve in the military. During the second century B.C. there was a large scale displacement of small farmers from the land, leading to a sharp reduction in the pool of men eligible to serve. Given the acute threat of invasion by the Germanic tribes, Teutones and Cimbri, the Consul Gaius Marius changed the system to allow any Roman citizen to join the military regardless of whether he owned property. But what this did was give generals private armies, whose soldiers were loyal to their general rather than to Rome itself. This resulted in a long series of civil wars which went on through much of the first century B.C. and ultimately ended the with collapse of the Republic and the establishment of the Principate (a monarchy.)

Fortunately for the U.S. our military system is set up to be under the control of civilian government and, since 1865 there have been no civil wars and, thus far, no serious threat of a military takeover of the U.S. Government.

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