Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rome: The Original Republic

In Search of the Republic--7

Leaving the presidential race aside, Right Detour resumes a very brief history of the idea of a republic.

Several previous posts argue that Aristotle invented the type of government known as a republic. In his work The Politics, Aristotle classified government into three general types: rule by the one, rule by the few, and rule by the many. When these types of governments operate for the common good of the society, they are known as monarchy, aristocracy, and polity. When these governments operate only for the good of the rulers, they are known as tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. Oligarch means rule by the rich; democracy mean rule by the poor.

While Aristotle believed that an aristocracy functioned as the best ideal government, he thought that polity was the best obtainable government. Aristotle described a specific kind of polity, one in which the affluent and the poor shared power. He suggested the the majority should exercise power through a popular assembly in which no property qualifications were required for participation. The popular assembly would elect the members of the government administration, who would no doubt be the more affluent, more well-educated people. In this way, both poor and rich shared power. Hopefully, this arrangement would prevent class based factions from forming and tearing the society apart. When both social orders participated in the constitution, this would reduce the desire of each group to seek to rule for its own interest instead of the common good. Aristotle hoped that this would prevent the more typical experience shared by most Greek city-states that dotted the Mediterranean basin that included factions, civil war, and the overthrow of democracies and their replacement with oligarchies or tyrannies.

Aristotle derived his model polity from observations regarding the Athenian, Carthaginian, and Spartan constitutions. After Aristotle's death, however, another regime arose that became the model for almost all future republics: the republic of Rome.

The most widely read analysis of the Roman constitution was produced by a Greek historian named Polybius. Born around 200 BC on southern Greece, Polybius was the son of a politician and cavalry officer. After the Roman conquest of Macedonia, the Romans deported Polybius and over a thousand other Greeks to Rome. Like many Greek captives, he served a a tutor for an elite Roman family. He became an acquaintance of the Roman general Scipio, who he accompanied during the final Roman conquest of Carthage. Polybius later wrote his Histories, which account the rise of Rome to dominion over the Mediterranean.

Although historians doubt the accuracy of many of his observations, the Histories of Polybius proved extremely influential on later political philosophers who explored the republic as alternative to the monarchies that came to dominate Europe.

He described the Roman government as a mixed or balanced government:

The three kinds of government, monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, were all found united in the commonwealth of Rome. And so even was the balance between them all, and so regular the administration that resulted from their union, that it was no easy thing to determine with assurance, whether the entire state was to be estimated an aristocracy, a democracy, or a monarchy. For if they turned their view upon the power of the consuls, the government appeared to be purely monarchical and regal. If, again, the authority of the senate was considered, it then seemed to wear the form of aristocracy. And, lastly, if regard was to be had to the share which the people possessed in the administration of affairs, it could then scarcely fail to be denominated a popular state.

For when any one of the three classes becomes puffed up, and manifests an inclination to be contentious and unduly encroaching, the mutual interdependency of all the three, and the possibility of the pretensions of any one being being brought up short and thwarted by the others, must plainly check this tendency: and so the proper equilibrium is maintained by the impulsiveness of the one part being checked by its fear of the other.

The three parts of the government to which he referred were the Consuls or executive leadership ( monarchy), the Senate, (aristocracy), and the people's assembly (democracy).

This concept of a mixed government, embodying both the rich and the poor in the constitution endured for centuries and influence political thinkers down to the era of our own Founding Fathers.

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