How Was the Roman Republic Different from American Democracy?

The Roman Republic was not a democracy. It was an plutocratic oligarchy. And the U.S. Republic is also not a true democracy, it is also a plutocratic oligarchy.

The Greek historian Polybius, lived in the second century B.C. and spent seventeen years as a hostage in Rome and was closely allied with a prominent Roman aristocratic family, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and his sons Fabius Maximus and Scipio Aemilianus. (Both sons were adopted into prominent Roman Families after Paullus divorced his first wife, but continued to be raised by their father.)

According to Polybius there were three forms of governments found in ancient Greece: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. He said that the problem with each of these forms was that they were unstable. Monarchy eventually degenerated into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into mob rule.

Polybius observed that the Roman Republic, the res publica or public thing, as they termed it, was actually a blend of the three forms of government mentioned above. There was a monarchic component, the Consuls, two of whom were elected every year, an aristocratic component, the Senate, and a democratic component, the Assemblies of the Plebs. Each of these components served to put a check on the others. The plebs also had Tribunes of the Plebs who were elected for a year and who could veto any laws passed by the Senate. The system was, however, far from democratic. The voting apparatus was set up so that the upper classes had far more weight in deciding who got elected to public office. The Roman Government largely served the interests of the aristocracy and the wealthier plebeians.

Polybius attributed the remarkable stability of the Roman state, and it’s success in bringing much of the civilized world under its domination to this mixed constitution. In the introduction to his book on the History of Rome, he wrote:

“For who is so worthless or indolent as not to wish to know by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting 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?”

Indeed, the Republic lasted for nearly five hundred years before it became, effectively, a monarchy, and it was phenomenally successful in bring other nations under its fold.

What went wrong? I think that the biggest problem was that in the first century BC the central government lost control of the military. After the Marian reforms, which allowed non-propertied Romans to join Rome’s military, you had a situation in which the soldiers owed their loyalty to their general rather than to Rome. This resulted in a series of civil wars (belli civili)-Marius versus Sulla, Caesar versus Pompey, the Second Triumvirate versus Ceasar’s assassins, and finally Octavius versus Anthony which ended with the battle of Actium, leading to the establishment of the Principate (essentially a monarchy.)

So how does this compare to the modern U.S.? The founding fathers read Polybius and incorporated some of his ideas into the Novus Ordo Seclorum. Like the Roman Republic, it would be a mixed constitution with each component putting a check on the others. The monarchic component would be the Presidency, elected for four years, the aristocratic component would be the Senate, members selected (not elected, originally) for six years terms, and the democratic component was the House of Representatives, members elected for two year terms. Voting for the House of Representative was limited to property owning white males. This was intended by the founding fathers to be a plutocratic oligarchy, not a democracy.

With time, the U.S. political system did become more democratic. Property requirements were gradually dropped, and the right to vote was extended to blacks (theoretically) by the 14th amendment, and to women by the 19th amendment. The age at which one could vote was lowered to eighteen after the Vietnam War.

However, the present system in the U.S. is far from a functioning democracy. The Senate, although now elected rather than appointed, is a highly undemocratic institution. Wyoming has some 650 thousand residents and has two Senators. California with forty million residents also has two Senators. Which state has far more influence in government in proportion to the number of people represented?

The Electoral College weighs votes in some states more than votes in others. This has twice in recent years allowed a presidential candidate with fewer popular votes to become President rather than the candidate with more popular votes.

Representation is also distorted by the widespread of Gerrymandering, which has become a science. This allows the party in power in a state to have representation out of proportion to their numbers.

There are also no guarantees as to the integrity of the voting process itself. We have voting machines that can easily be hacked, and in many cases no paper trails. This provides great potential for vote tampering.

There are efforts in a number of states to discourage certain groups from voting-these include restrictive voter ID laws and limiting the number of polling places in minority areas. A true democracy would encourage all citizens to vote.

As in the ancient Roman Republic, money corrupts. Roman law courts, for example, were infamous in allowing the jurors to be bought off. Here in the U.S. we have the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision which allows unlimited corporate money to influence elections. This results in a system of legalized bribery. The politician who relies upon donations from billionaires for campaign funds will do the bidding of the donors rather than the bidding of the constituents.

In summary, both the ancient Roman Republic and the modern U.S. Republic are mixed constitutions and, essentially, plutocratic oligarchies.

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