In which Romans debate matters of state with great dignity.
Welcome to The Worst Form Of Government: a history of democracy from Cleisthenes to the Clintons. Chapter Three.
by Matthew White
Political philosophers of the eighteenth century Enlightenment would find the Roman Republic (509-27 BCE) to be a more useful example of popular sovereignty than Athens. Rather than getting the whole city to decide every little question that came up, the Romans had a layer of experienced officials to filter popular desires. Like the Athenians, the Romans had an authoritarian past that they never wanted to go through again. Also like the Athenians, it was aggressive and unwanted sexual advances by a ruler’s relative that provoked their democratic revolt. Sure, impersonal socio-economic forces shaping communal power relationships is a fine explanation for academics, but a truly popular foundation myth for a democracy really needs a spoiled brat in the ruling family acting as a sexual predator with no one to stop him preying on innocent people.
The seventh (soon to be last) king of Rome was Tarquin the Proud. In 509 BCE, during a small war and an interminably long siege of an enemy town, several bored Roman officers, including King Tarquin’s son Sextus, had too much time and wine on their hands, so they started comparing their wives and bragging. After claiming each of their wives to be the most virtuous, they placed a bet and set out to answer the question once and for all. They galloped all day to surprise their wives and (hopefully) catch them being virtuous in their absence. Most wives failed the test when they were found partying late into the night, but Lucretia, wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, was home weaving with her maids. She invited her surprise guests inside and offered them the hospitality of her husband’s house. Collatinus won the bet.
Enamored by the lovely Lucretia, embittered by the failings of his own wife and humiliated at losing the bet, the King’s son Prince Sextus began stalking Lucretia. Using the excuse of being her husband’s army buddy from out of town, he finagled an invitation to crash in their guest room when her husband was away. That night he snuck into Lucretia’s room, slipped into her bed beside her as she slept and declared his love. Then he shoved his sword against her and threatened to kill her if she resisted. He would also dump the fresh corpse of a random male slave in bed beside her -- two dead lovers he had caught and killed to protect his friend’s honor. Not wanting to leave Sextus as the only person left alive to tell the story, Lucretia submitted. The day after this rape, Lucretia urgently summoned her family from far and wide, told her story and finished by plunging a dagger into her heart to prove she was serious. Collatinus howled in grief, but Lucius Junius Brutus, a friend of Lucretia’s father, pulled the bloody knife from her body and swore revenge. He carried Lucretia’s body
to be laid out in the Forum. Passersby who stopped to investigate offered their own stories of cruelty at the hands of the Tarquin family and promised to help get rid of these monsters. Soon the crowd had worked itself into a frenzy and declared an end to the Tarquin tyranny.
King Tarquin was still away at the war, so Brutus gathered a troop of armed men to deliver the news to Tarquin and arrest him. Tarquin, however, had already heard and rushed back to Rome to put a stop to this foolishness. They must have taken different roads because they never saw each other. Brutus arrived at the camp to a hero’s welcome and took control of the leaderless army in the name of the republic. Tarquin arrived at Rome to find the gates slammed shut to keep him out. He slunk off with his family and began a lifetime of scheming to get back what he had lost.
Brutus and Collatinus were acclaimed joint leaders of the city in 509 BCE, the first two consuls of the Roman Republic. The word republic literally means that government is a "public matter” (in Latin: res publica) in contrast to monarchies, where government is a private matter left to the king. To this end, the Republic brought all its citizens into the decision-making and tried to keep power spread out as widely as possible in many different hands so that no one would be above the law. The details were under constant revision, and compared to Greek democracy, it was all insanely complicated.
Each year the Roman people elected a new slate of magistrates to run things; none from the previous year could be reelected. At the highest level of government stood two co-equal chief executives (consuls) who could either cooperate with each other, split their duties, alternate day in and day out, or spitefully veto everything the other one did, depending on how helpful they were feeling at the moment. Of lesser rank were a handful of praetors with various administrative duties; below them, aediles, quaestors and tribunes held junior offices. Some of these were assigned military duties, some bureaucratic, some judicial, but every Roman leader was expected to climb each step in the hierarchy and pick up a wide experience with all the mundane details of running the republic – keeping accounts, maintaining public works, judging lawsuits and commanding troops.
After holding an elected office of quaestor or higher, a former magistrate automatically became a lifetime member of the Senate where the sovereignty of the republic resided. The Senate made law, and for the most part, whatever they said was final. Every five years, a pair of censors would go through the list of senators and remove anyone they both agreed was too immoral or depraved, even for the Senate. Elected once every five years for a one-year term, the main duty of the two censors (Latin for assessors) was to update the list of citizens by conducting the census (Latin for assessment).
As a check on the Senate, three distinct popular assemblies gathered periodically to screen any new laws that might concern them. The most democratic was the Tribal Assembly which every man belonged to. Rather than trying to count a show of hands across the whole assembly, citizens voted by tribes, thirty-one roughly equal subdivisions that were originally geographic but also hereditary, so membership in a voting bloc depended on where your ancestors were from. Individuals voted to decide which way their tribe as a whole would vote; then a majority of tribes carried the day. The militia (which included all the able-bodied young and youngish men in town) voted by military unit in the Centuriate Assembly, which tended to lean slightly toward the glory-seeking aristocrats who ran the army. As a counterweight, the commoners had their own voice in the Plebeian Council, which was almost the same as the Tribal Assembly, except that the nobility was excluded from the Plebeian Council. (Tribes cut across class lines.) Most ordinary citizens got to vote in all three, and this was their best chance to override the Senate.
Recognizing that there were emergencies that could only be handled by one man acting decisively, the Romans allowed the Senate to elect a dictator for six months. This one man would have absolute authority to do whatever he wanted. Nothing was beyond his power. He would never have to explain or justify his actions. He could not be stopped, and he would never be sued or punished for it. The only restraint was that it was temporary. After six months, he went back to being a private citizen – no exceptions. Only then could the senate vote to undo any of his actions.
As complicated as that all sounds, the Roman system had a lot in common with the Athenian system. They both had two legislative power centers. First, an assembly of all citizens and/or warriors, and second, a collection of former magistrates, called archons or senators. To make it easier to keep track of voters, both states sorted their citizens into manageable tribal units that were originally geographic, later hereditary, but ultimately arbitrary. Neither society elected representatives to legislate. Neither of them had a single head of state such as a president, but instead they spread executive duties among multiple elected officials, most of whom held office for only a year so they wouldn’t get too comfortable. Leaders of the army were elected as well; in fact command of the army was usually considered the most important job of the top magistrates.
Originally, the Romans divided into two classes, the aristocratic patricians and the common plebeians. The Senate leaned in favor of patrician families which had the time, money and connections to work their way up the political ladder, so to guard against abuse by the rich, the Plebeian Council elected plebeian tribunes to keep watch and veto any threats to the lower classes. As time went on, there came to be less of practical difference between patricians and plebeians, and it became more of a caste distinction based on ancestry. Some patrician families sank into poverty and obscurity, passing many plebeian families who were on their way up to high office or great fortunes. The wealthier plebeians were classified as the Equestrian Order, called this because they were originally expected to buy horses and serve in the cavalry; however, after the militia gave way to a professional army, the Equestrians were simply the Roman middle class, despised by everyone above and below them (probably unfairly) as greedy, corrupt, and boorish upstarts. ①
Throughout the history of the republic, there was constant friction between the populist assemblies and the oligarchic Senate. This eventually formalized into two broad factions. The populares cultivated the support of the democratic assemblies, while the optimates rooted their authority in the aristocratic Senate.
The top Roman magistrates had imperium or command of the army. In the Roman ideal, whenever danger threatened, citizen-soldiers set aside their plows and rallied to defend the homeland. After the war ended, they went home and stashed their weapons in the cupboard. Unfortunately, there came a day when the war never ended. With a larger and larger perimeter constantly rubbing against enemies in all directions, soldiering became a full-time job. In the end, the Roman army got too independent. Roman society split into soldiers and civilians, and when those two classes finally came into armed conflict, you can guess who won.
The Roman Republic ran more or less as intended without interruption for almost three centuries, during which they conquered the Italian peninsula and started securing control over the whole Mediterranean basin. The inherent strength and resilience of the system was proven during two tough wars against the North African city of Carthage (264-241 and 218-201 BCE), when the Roman militia continually bounced back from repeated defeats at the hands of Carthaginian mercenaries to secure ultimate victory.
The beginning of the end of the Republic is generally set at 133 BCE when Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune. The aristocratic grandson of Scipio Africanus, the general who had defeated Hannibal in the second war against Carthage, Tiberius Gracchus began as a junior officer in the Roman army of Gaius Hostilius Mancinus in Spain. Eventually a native tribe, the Numantines, defeated and trapped the Roman army, which would have been destroyed except that Tiberius Gracchus had acquired such a reputation for his generosity, honor and humility that the Numantines let the Romans go when Gracchus asked nicely. However, the terms of the surrender – everyone got to go home as long as the Romans admitted defeat – were unacceptable to the Roman Senate, so they voted it down. This infuriated Tiberius since his reputation got tarnished for violating the surrender terms.
Climbing the ladder of power, Tiberius Gracchus was then elected plebeian tribune in 133 BCE. There was a lot of land scattered around Italy of disputed ownership or simply abandoned, which the Senate usually leased out to the most well-connected politically. More and more farmland in Italy was now being taken over by large plantations (latifundia) worked by slaves, driving the smaller farmers into bankruptcy and off the land into urban destitution. They abandoned the land, which then reverted to the Senate, which leased it back to their wealthy friends, continuing the cycle. Using his rather undefined powers as a tribune, Tiberius Gracchus set an absolute maximum on the amount of public land any single rich person could hold; then he distributed the excess to retired veterans as pensions. This annoyed many of the most powerful men in Rome, but made Gracchus immensely popular among the plebeians and the army.
The main check on a tribune’s power was that another tribune could veto any action of his; however, when Gracchus’ co-tribune tried to assert a veto over the land reassignment, Gracchus arranged a recall election in the Plebeian Council and had him removed – totally legal, but unsporting. The Senate began to suspect that there was no constitutional way to reign in a rogue tribune like Gracchus. One day while Gracchus was addressing his followers, a rumor reached the ears of the Senate that Gracchus was going to declare himself king, so they all grabbed clubs and marched over to teach him a lesson. The two mobs clashed, and Tiberius Gracchus was beaten to death
in the melee.
It set a bad precedent. From this point forward, policy disputes in Rome were increasingly likely to be settled by mobs in the streets. Paramilitaries became a staple of Roman political life, and every faction in Roman politics soon had its own squad of bodyguards to protect their leaders and voters, while intimidating their opponents. Gaius Gracchus, Tiberius’ younger brother, admitted that his contentious new legislation was like throwing daggers into the forum.ⓐ
Gaius Gracchus became tribune in 123 BCE, but mindful of his brother’s fate, went slower with the changes. It didn’t help. As Gaius Gracchus racked up a string of reforms in populist causes, he earned the hatred of the nobility. On the day the Senate prepared to repeal some of his laws, the factions coalesced on the capitol to yell at each other. Then Quintus Antyllius, a servant of chief opponent of Gracchus, the consul Lucius Opimius, picked the wrong time to shove his way through the crowd carrying the bloody entrails from the morning’s sacrificial animal, defiantly calling the followers of Gracchus a string of ugly names as he ordered them to clear a path. Angry and insulted, they beat him to death, but a sudden rainstorm dispersed the crowd before anything more could happen.
Antyllius’ body was laid out in public to get everyone good and angry. Over the next couple of days, the Senate tried to convince Gaius Gracchus to stop by and answer charges of murdering Antyllius, but he held back. Finally he approached halfway and sent a negotiator forward, but the Senators had come to work that day armed for trouble. They seized the negotiator and unleashed a volley of arrows into the mob surrounding Gracchus, who suddenly bolted down an alley with the whole Senate on his heels. As he dashed across a bridge over the Tiber River, two of his friends fought off the pursuers until they were killed. Finally trapped on the other side with his enemies closing in, Gracchus committed suicide. Gracchus’ head was set triumphantly on a spear, passed around for amusement and then sold to Opimius who had promised its weight in gold. After a while, Opimius noticed the head was unusually heavy. Upon examination, he found that someone had scooped out the brains and poured molten lead into the cavity to drive up the price.
The slow unraveling of Roman democracy actually took almost 100 years, and it was an irregular, staggering path, with steps forward and steps backward. Democracy occasionally expanded along the way.
The neighboring Italian peoples had been the first to be conquered by the Romans. They had long ago accepted defeat and even contributed auxiliary units to fight alongside the Romans, providing about half the manpower available to the Roman Army. Now after years of good behavior the allies wanted to share in the decision-making and rewards. They wanted the right to vote in Roman elections and the right to full judicial process rather than being subject to the whims of whichever Roman magistrate they got hauled in front of.
At first the allies tried the peaceful route and enlisted Marcus Livius Drusus, a populist Roman tribune, to lobby in the Senate for allied citizenship as part of his program of wide-reaching agrarian reforms. Drusus however made too many enemies in the Roman upper classes by trying to put a lid on their greedy land grabs. While swarmed by a crowd of petitioners in his atrium, he was stabbed by unknown enemies. He bled out and died before anyone knew what had happened. This sort of thing was happening more and more in Roman politics.
After losing their strongest patron, the Italian tribes pulled out of the alliance with Rome and set up their own rival federation just down the road from Rome in 90 BCE. The Roman army set out to crush the rebellion, but the ensuing War of the Allies proved harder and bloodier than any of them had imagined. After a couple of years, the Romans gave up and granted full Roman citizenship to the Italian allies if they came back. The catch was they had to personally cast their votes in Rome, just like native Romans, no matter how inconvenient; however, Roman politicians learned it was worth the extra effort to cart their distant supporters into the city for voting day, rewarding them with food, wine, entertainment and rowdy holiday fun.
① Some modern historians don’t like to call the Roman system “democratic” because the upper classes had a disproportionate influence in government, but, be realistic; try to find a democracy anywhere in history where that isn’t the case. ⓐ Paul L. MacKendrick, Herbert M. Howe, Classics in Translation, Volume II: Latin Literature
(Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1952) p.159