Welcome to Your Historical Compass

"The purpose of this blog is to generate discussions about historical issues. Students, enthusiasts, and friends are all welcome to join by reading and participating with comments. I hope to generate interest in history and offer help to the perplexed." Caleb Johnson

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Republicanism and Democray Pt. 2

Last week, we looked at the pros and cons of Athenian Democracy. Today, we’re going to look at Roman Republicanism. By the end of this post, we should have a better idea of the differences between the two forms of government.

While Athens and the rest of the Greek city-states were developing their cultures and forms of government, another civilization was developing in Latium at the center of Italy. The city of Rome grew on the banks of the Tiber around farming communities and traders. At the center of society was the family. In contrast with Greek emphasis on commitment to the state, Romans were devoted to their families and an honest agrarian lifestyle. This Roman outlook created a very conservative and pious society. It was only natural for a conservative form of government to rise in this atmosphere.

The ruling body of Rome was a council of elders called the Senate. Its members were comprised of the richest and oldest of the city’s citizens and they determined the city’s policies. Senators were not elected; rather, office came from being born into a patrician family. As a sort of executive branch, two senators were elected as consuls for a year. During their term in office, the consuls would lead the legions of Rome into battle. Eventually, a popular Assembly was created to voice the concerns of the people. The Assembly would elect Tribunes who would represent the people to the Senate. Every free, land-owning citizen could vote in the Assembly and it became the popular body of government. Thus, the government of Rome was indirect rule of the people. Some things would be changed by popular vote, but for the most part, the power rested in the unelected Senate. The Senate and Assembly worked together in relative harmony until the Gracchi brothers introduced reforms and land redistribution for veterans. 

Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus were two Senators who took up the cause of veterans of the Punic and Macedonian Wars. Many veterans were taxed out of their homesteads during the wars and had to try to find work in the city. This population influx caused rapid unemployment and rioting. Eventually, the Gracchi brothers introduced legislative reform that was passed due to the backing of the popular, now riotous, Tribunes. Conservative elements in the Senate had the Gracchi brothers killed and repealed the reforms, but the popular voice was too strong. The common people demanded change.

During the years following the death of the Gracchis, several dictators rose to power and began to use their control of the legions to take over the entire system of government. First was Marius, then Sulla, the First Triumvirate, and ultimately Gaius Julius Caesar. After Caesar, the republican form of government was supplanted and overseen by an emperor. Consequently, the weakness of the Roman republican system was that there was no check on executive power since it controlled the military and the purse. This led to the merging of the executive and legislative branches, creating the office of imperator, or emperor.

We can see, then, that democracy and republicanism have similarities, but also have many differences. In a pure democracy, like Athens, the people vote on every issue and decide everything in a popular assembly. In a republic, like Rome, it’s a mix of popular government, like the Assembly, and an unelected body of elders, the Senate. Although both forms of government failed due to the inherent flaws in each system, Athenian democracy ruined that state much faster. As we saw last week, Athens quickly fell to outside powers and had to live the rest of its existence out of the spotlight. Rome, on the other hand, kept parts of its republic even into the imperial age, and we all know how long and glorious that was.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Republicanism and Democracy Pt. 1

Today we often hear representative governments called both democracies and republics. We seem to use those words interchangeably, though we have a vague notion that we shouldn’t. Is there a difference between the two? I think the best way to answer that question is to look at the two states that first practiced the two ideas.

The first state to implement democracy was the ancient Greek city of Athens. In 514 BC, the people of Athens threw out their tyrant, then a legitimate title for ruler, and began “the people’s power” or democracy. The Athenians drew up a system of laws based on the code of Solon, and instituted the concept of a popular vote and majority rule. Here all free male landowners would vote at an assembly and decide the policy of the state. While the theory of this system sounds compelling, its practice proved ruinous.

After obtaining power, the popular assembly became vulnerable to corruption, bribes, and partisan factions. Indeed, once the people realized that they could elect people in the assembly that would give them a share of the public treasury, then the state became bankrupt. During the Peloponnesian War, Athens exiled its most gifted general, Alcibiades, because he had enemies in the assembly. After this, the assembly executed one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Socrates. Evidently, the direct rule of the people and the lack of checks and balances meant that Athens became just as tyrannical as the Tyrants they had overthrown. Minorities of opinion were overrun by the majority and were persecuted. This state of turmoil meant that Athens eventually fell to Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

Although Athens was able to introduce self rule and democracy, the direct rule of the people degenerated the government into a tyranny that destroyed the freedom of the people. Next week, we'll take a look at the first of the republics. While Athens was wresting itself from the tyrants, a city on the Tiber was growing weary of its own monarch.