How Democratic Was The Roman Republic? The Theory and Practice of an Archetypal Democracy
In Federalist No. 34 Alexander Hamilton, arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution, claimed that the Roman Republic had “attained to the utmost height of human greatness.”1 The Roman Republic, at least an idealized version, was explicitly the model that the founding fathers looked to when developing their own democratic constitution. By and large, this model has succeeded in establishing a stable democracy. American success and the subsequent global proliferation of democratic regimes in the twentieth century have made the triumph of democracy, with its roots in Ancient Rome, a persuasive narrative. However, this raises an important question: how democratic was the Roman Republic?
Evaluating the Roman Republic’s constitution and how it was applied in theory and practice it becomes clear that the Roman Republic, while constitutionally quite democratic, was in practice a fundamentally undemocratic society, dominated by a select caste of wealthy aristocrats. This can be seen both through the structure of ‘democratic’ institutions and the power to make war and peace in the Roman Republic.
To properly understand how democratic the Roman Republic was, it is necessary to first understand how ancient scholars understood democracy as a political system. One can find a cohesive answer in the writings of the 2nd century Greek historian, and Roman captive, Polybius. According to Polybius, democracy is “where reverence to the gods, succor of parents, respect to elders, and obedience to laws are traditional and habitual…in such communities, if the will of the majority prevail, we may speak of the…government as a democracy.” 2 Polybius also details how democracy emerges from other political systems. Out of the state of nature, kings emerge as rulers. Over time kingship becomes hereditary and tyrannical and is overthrown by aristocratic plot; “but it is not long before the [minds of the people] roused…their fall therefore was very like the disaster which befell the tyrants.”3 Consequently, “[the people] are driven to take refuge in…a democracy…they regard their current constitution as a blessing and hold equality and freedom the utmost value.”4 Through his description Polybius provides a criteria through which to assess the Roman Republic as a democracy.
Though America's founders looked to the Romans in developing our democracy, the Roman Republic, while constitutionally quite democratic, was in practice a fundamentally undemocratic society, dominated by a select caste of wealthy aristocrats.
Cicero (Roman senator, 106-43 BCE) denounces Catiline within the Roman senate. Fresco by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919 CE).
The most celebrated discussion of the Republic’s political system comes from Polybius himself. In his view, Rome’s strength and stability came from its mixed constitution of ‘kingship,’ ‘aristocracy,’ and democracy.’ According to Polybius, the Roman constitution “had three elements, each of them possessing sovereign powers…regulated…with scrupulous regard to equality and equilibrium that none could say for certain…whether the constitution…were an aristocracy or democracy or despotism.”5 This conception of the Roman political system is immediately telling in a few respects. Most importantly, it demonstrates that ancient writers did not understand the Roman Republic as a democracy in the sense one would likely attribute to the modern United States. Instead, Rome was governed according to a mixed constitution where democracy was important, but also only one part of the system that could only work if it remained checked by kingship and aristocracy, in the Senate and consuls respectively. In fact, Polybius believed that this mixed system prevented a cycle of revolutionary upheaval and resulted in “a union sufficiently firm for all emergencies and a constitution than which it is impossible to find better.”6
That said Polybius certainly identified democratic elements at the center of the Roman political system that are worthy of analysis. For Polybius, popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs constituted the democratic element of the Roman Republic’s constitution. The way, and extent to which, these elements of government interacted reveals the clear and pervasive limits of the Republic as a democracy. Surprisingly, considering his earlier focus on constitutional equilibrium, Polybius appears to claim that the democratic element was the most important part of the Roman constitution:
According to Polybius, the people’s greatest powers were to “bestow offices…passing or repealing laws; and, most important of all…deliberating on the question of peace or war.”8 Furthermore, when discussing the limits of the consuls, Senate and people, the balance of power seems to be decidedly in favor of the people. The consuls are limited as an elected office and are reliant on the people to ratify treaties.9 Equally, any decree passed by the Senate can be vetoed by the plebian tribunes “[who] are always bound to carry out the decree of the people and above all things to have regard to their wishes.”10 In comparison, the people are only limited by senator’s control of contracts and position as trial judges and the possibility of serving under consuls during military service.11 Consequently, the Roman Republic, at least constitutionally, appears to be quite democratic. However, while Polybius’s rhetoric is certainly powerful it is far less convincing when the Republic’s ‘democratic institutions’ are considered in practice.
The most important democratic bodies in Republican Rome were the citizen assemblies. Prominent among these were the comitia centuriata (Centuriate Assembly) and the comitia tributa (Tribal Assembly). The Centuriate Assembly was organized similarly to the army; there were 193 voting blocs, called centuries, with membership dependent on wealth. Each century had one vote and decisions were made according to the will of the majority of the centuries. For the most part, it voted on issues of war and peace and elected the Republics most important magistrates - consuls, praetors, and censors.12 The Tribal Assembly voting blocs were organized territorially into 35 tribes (31 rural and 4 urban). It voted on proposals made by consuls or praetors.13
At first glance, these bodies, while imperfect, appear to be both quite democratic and powerful. While true in theory, in reality they were deliberately structured to disadvantage the vast majority of the Roman populace in favor of the old, conservative, and rich. This was most obvious in the Centuriate Assembly where 88 of the 193 centuries were held by the wealthiest ten percent with the vast majority of the populace holding the other 105; “as the vote went down the scale…the number of centuries diminished…in any case, voting always ceased as soon as a sufficient number of centuries had voted to settle the outcome…frequently, therefore, the lower centuries…would never be called upon.”14
By comparison the Tribal Assembly did not favor the wealthy to such an obvious extent. Seemingly, “no form of social stratification applied and each citizens vote counted equally…. however, this is a very misleading, if not downright disingenuous statement…. [as] tribally organized voting was biased in favor of rural men of property in the more numerous rural tribes.”15 Only wealthy rural property owners were able to afford travel to Rome. Consequently the wealthy were disproportionally powerful in both the Centuriate and Tribal assemblies. Furthermore, “ordinary citizens had little freedom of speech or initiative…they could not put forward any proposal…nor…seek to amend a proposal…all they could do was to vote for or against.”16
Thus, in a fashion that would be unthinkable in a modern liberal democracy, the vast majority of the population was, for all intents and purposes, entirely disenfranchised from the law making process.
Thus, in a fashion that would be unthinkable in a modern liberal democracy, the vast majority of the population was, for all intents and purposes, entirely disenfranchised from the law making process. That said, while American citizens can influence the legislative process the Roman reality remains a potential, and increasingly likely, problem. This reality was equally true of the plebian tribunes, supposedly the defenders of the plebs, “who…tended to work with important senators who could promote their advancement to higher offices…[consequently] a tribune might side with a senator who was…at odds with [the] majority…even radical tribunes often became stalwarts of the establishment…and started moving into the higher…ranks.”17
Evidently, the assemblies and plebian tribunes, supposedly the central democratic forces in the Roman Republic, were heavily stratified, favored elites and utterly failed to promote the equality and freedom Polybius claimed was central to democracy. Even the Republic’s most democratic institutions appear to, in practice, be tools of the aristocracy to maintain power. The disproportionate influence the rich were given effectively gave them control of all three aspects of the Roman constitution.
The Senate was already the natural home of the wealthy aristocracy; disproportionate influence in the assemblies gave the rich an equally disproportionate influence in the election of the consuls who were responsible for the administration and enforcement of the law, proposing maters to the Senate and even summoning the assemblies to meet. This bias, deeply ingrained, allowed plutocrats to dominate all elements and institutions of the Roman Republic at the expense of the populace.
Put simply, the vast majority of the Roman population had limited ability to exercise the powers afforded to them by the constitution. They had little to no influence on legislation and could only select leaders from a very small aristocratic caste. Consequently, Rome’s democratic institutions can only be seen as fundamentally undemocratic if not solely aristocratic. This blatantly undemocratic structure of the Republic’s ‘institutions, in practice, had clear ramifications in many aspects of Roman governance.
An area where this is most clear is the decision to go to war. According to Polybius, constitutionally, “it is the people who deliberate on the question of peace or war.”18 While true in theory, this did not translate in practice. For example, in Livy’s discussion of the origins of the Second Macedonian War against King Philip V, it is the Senate and consuls, not the assemblies, which are central. While the centuriate assembly initially rejected war with Macedon, it was quickly overcome when the consul proclaimed “let Macedonia rather than Italy be the seat of war, let it be the enemy’s cities and fields that are devastated with fire and sword…go to the poll and confirm the decision of the Senate.”19
In Livy’s narrative, the assemblies appear to be a constitutional formality that must be endured by the Senate and consuls rather than the integral part commencing war that its constitutional status would suggest. Agency and power are clearly vested in the Senate and consuls while the assemblies are, for the most part, passive observers. Polybius proves this point with the greatest clarity in his discussion of war against the Dalmatians as the assembly was completely excluded from the process. According to Polybius, the Senate started a war with Dalmatia to reinvigorate the Roman spirit:
If Polybius’s account is taken at face value the fundamental undemocratic character of the Roman Republic becomes undeniable. Even in matters of war and peace, constitutionally one of the people’s greatest democratic powers, the vast majority of the populace was subject to the whims of aristocratic magistrates and the Senate.
The undemocratic character of the Roman Republic endured throughout its history. With the competition of the late Republic, many of the institutions became increasingly less democratic. In fact, “the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs…lost whatever democratic character they may have had in the very early Republic. They had…become undemocratic weapons in the…struggles among members of the wealthy ruling elite.”21 For men like Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar the people were simply tools, or alternatively obstacles, in their quest for office and power. When democratic activists like Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempted to institute reform they were met with violent aristocratic resistance. The Gracchi tried to remedy the fact that “certain powerful men became extremely rich…while the Italian people dwindled in numbers and strength…being oppressed.”22
Consequently, “[Tiberius] Gracchus…. vainly circling round the temple was slain at the door…. [his body was] thrown by night into the Tiber.”23 In whole the Roman case has many parallels to the United States. Hamilton, like many of the founding fathers, claimed unbridled democracy was a disease and poison.24 They constructed a similar mixed constitution with a legislature, executive, and judiciary. While certainly more democratic than the Roman Republic, in recent years the United States has also seen its political system deteriorate as special interest groups and the wealthy increasingly influence politics often to the detriment of the populace.
The Roman Republic was never intended to be a democracy. Instead, as acknowledged by Polybius, it was an experiment that sought to fuse democracy, aristocracy and monarchy into the perfect socio-political system. On a superficial level it appears to be quite a success in this endeavor when one considers the half millennium that, according to the Roman constitution, democratic and aristocratic institutions were able to jointly govern the largest and most powerful state in the Mediterranean world. However, when put in practice, its attempts to incorporate a powerful democratic element can only be seen as a clear failure. Once put into practice, the Roman Republic’s institutions were simply too reliant on the aristocracy for structure, cohesion, and order for democracy to persevere.