Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cicero Christens the Republic

In Search of the Republic--8

The previous post explored the historian Polybius and his interpretation of the ancient Roman government as a mixed regime that contained elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

This post considers how that type of regime became known as a republic.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BC-43BC) served Rome as a lawyer, a scholar, and statesman. As he watched the triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompeius increase their power and influence through bribery, intimidation, and demagoguery, Cicero began writing his most well-known work, De re publica. Translators have rendered this title in the variations of On the Government, On the Commonwealth, and On the Republic. This latter rendering is of particular interest. Although the expression originally referred to the state or constitution of Rome's government in general, re publica eventually became attached the the specific type of government he described.


Cicero wrote De re publica as a dialogue in which the main character, Scipio, the triumphant general in the Punic Wars, instructs his listeners about the history and meaning of the Roman republic.

According to Cicero, “Our Roman constitution . . . did not spring from the genius of an individual, but of many; and it was established, not in the lifetime of a man, but in the course of ages and centuries.” It borrowed from many nations but improved upon these borrowings.


He says that like Sparta, Rome had a government that mixed monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, In his account, Romulus founded Rome as its first monarch. He later “formed a royal council or senate of the chief noblemen, who were entitled by the affection of the people Patres, or Patricians.” This group became the hereditary body representing the aristocracy of Rome's founding families. Although advisory in nature, the Senate dominated the government. Romulus also formed a comitia (assembly) representing the tribes. This became the poplar assembly or democratic branch. Although the Senate and comitia changed over time, they formed the essence of the Roman republic—a mixed regime in which the affluent and the poor participated.

The kingship, too, changed over time. Cicero credited Rome with recognizing “the importance of appointing a king, not for his family, but for his virtue and experience.” Eventually, the kingship was abolished in favor of an elected executive called the Consul.



Consequently, a republic came to designate a different type of government than those three fundamental types into which Aristotle originally classified all regimes. Essentially a version of Aristotle's polity, a republic meant a constitution in which separate assemblies representing the affluent and the poor enabled both classes to participate in sovereignty and one in which there was no hereditary monarch.

Cicero's celebration of the Roman republic proved short lived. Caesar eventually overthrew the republic. He kept the form of the constitution even while he ruled as a dictator. After his assassination, a complex power struggle ensued. During the course of that power struggle, Cicero was declared an enemy of the state and executed in 43BC.


Cicero experienced something of a resurrection when Renaissance thinkers began exploring an alternative to the Christian monarchies that dominated Europe at that time. They called it a republic.

2 comments:

CW said...

This is fascinating history, V.L. I’m only up to 7 sorry to say (I’m a dreadfully slow reader), but perhaps I’ll get caught up today.

The writings of Aristotle certainly demonstrate the consistency of human nature over time and geography, as well as the persistence of the human struggle to avoid domination by others. I think one lesson for people today is that the Constitution does not resolve the struggle. Freedom is always under attack, albeit in ways that are sometimes difficult to see.

I wish more people were familiar with this history because Aristotle’s instinctive concern regarding the development of competing factions and the danger this presents to the well-being of societies sheds bright daylight on the motivations and strategies of today’s Left. It seems there is nothing they love more than fueling divisions between economic classes and races, under the guise of “fairness.”

V.L.Ewell said...

Aristotle offers many startling observations in both Ethics and The Politics. Someone I read once called him "the common sense philosopher." And these two books are not difficult to read. They come across as almost conversational in tone but meandering. This might be because most researchers into Aristotle have concluded that his works as we have them today were never organzied as systematic treatises but actually are lecture notes preserved by his son Nichomachus.