How Democratic Was the Roman Republic?

How Democratic Was the Roman Republic?

Ward, Allen M.

New England Classical Journal 31.2 (2004)

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Western democratic triumphalism that followed in its wake, few in the West respect a government that does not conform to Western democratic ideals. That is no problem for historians of ancient Greece, since it is considered the birthplace of those ideals and, therefore, no stigma is attached to their field of study despite the eventual rise of monarchic Hellenistic empires. For most of the past century, however, historians of ancient Rome have had no period of democratic, or even semi-democratic, freedom to earn contemporary respect and approval for their field of history. The dominant view, which owes much to the great nineteenth-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, has been that the Roman Republic was an oligarchy. The last significant appearance of a belief in the democratic nature of the Roman Republic was in the decade following the defeat of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires by the alliance of the Western democracies in World War I, another period of Western democratic triumphalism. Now, perhaps not coincidentally, a new group of scholars is trying to make the case for a more democratic Roman Republic. A close analysis of the evidence will show that this effort is misguided.

Ultimately, of course, all who wish to define the Roman Republican constitution draw on the famous analysis of Polybius, the philo-Roman Greek historian who tried to explain to his fellow Greeks how and with what sort of constitution the Romans had come to dominate the Mediterranean World from 220 to 167 B.C. In his view, one of Republican Rome’s great strengths was that its constitution embodied the Greek philosophical ideal of a balanced mixture of the three good types of constitution: kingship, aristocracy, and democracy. This balance prevented any one element from dominating the other two and thereby produced the internal stability that had acted as a brake on the natural cycle of constitutional change from monarchy to kingship to tyranny to aristocracy, to oligarchy, to democracy, to mob rule (ochlocracy), and back to monarchy. For Polybius, the democratic element in the constitution comprised the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs, the instruments of popular sovereignty, while the elected magistrates constituted the element of kingship and the Senate was the home of the aristocracy. Only, however, by exaggerating the role of popular sovereignty in the Republican constitution and ignoring all of the constitutional and extra-constitutional restraints on the democratic exercise thereof could the Roman Republic be represented as democratic in modern eyes. Indeed, when Polybius himself used one word to describe it in the time of Scipio the Elder, he called it aristocratic, so that he seems to have viewed the balanced Republican constitution as aristocratically colored at that time, although a good case can be made that in the 130s and 120s he saw the democratic element becoming stronger, with negative implications for the future.

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