S P Q R

This is a distinctly “political” post. But herein I make no citations of contemporary politics; I write about the politics of two millennia past. The subject is a favorite theme of mine, because I find it illuminating: The Roman Republic. This is far too brief to be comprehensive, but I have aimed to keep it short enough to be readable.

* * *

The Roman Republic may well be the most important, influential, and enduring republic that human history has ever produced. Its span lasted from the overthrow of the Roman Kings in about 509 BC until the rise of Augustus Caesar as the first Emperor of the Roman Empire in 27 BC, in those five centuries, Rome grew from a small, agrarian city in a backwater of the Mediterranean world into an empire which subsequently became unrivaled in human history. (Some empires governed greater land areas, and some lasted longer by some measures, but for size and duration, no other empire truly comes close.) And during those five centuries, Rome excited the interest and envy of the classical world from Spain to Egypt. The Greek political historian Polybius, writing the the mid-second-century BC, attributed Rome’s unparalleled success to its ingenious blending of Democracy, (Rome’s Popular Assemblies) Aristocracy, (Rome’s Senate) and Monarchy, (Rome’s binary executive, its two Consuls.)

Rome’s masterful blending of these varied elements of ancient forms of government became known as “The Concerns Of The People,” in Latin, “RES PVBLICA,” which evolved into our modern term “republic.” Rome was never a pure democracy (there have been precious few of these in the world, because pure democracy does not scale well to larger polities) but there was the democratic element of the Popular Assemblies, where registered citizens cast their votes to elect governmental officials. These assemblies also originated a variety of domestic legislation including bills of finance. Rome’s abiding dread of Kingship led to the development of a *dual* executive consisting of two consuls selected from the top two vote-getters in an annual election. Each Consul could override the acts of the other, which made for a cumbersome, yet typically a surprisingly effective executive. But the third “branch” of Rome’s creative government was the most powerful: the Senate.

The Senate was not directly elected. Those who has served in the senior elected positions served in the Senate, and to a very real degree, membership in the Senate was an inherited position, because a small number of influential families maintained a presence in the Senate for centuries. The Julian clan, from whom Julius Caesar sprang, for example, was represented in this august body for the entire span of the Republic and thereafter. The Senate controlled foreign policy, had the power to declare and wage war, and controlled a variety of crucial state revenues and resources. Yet the Senate was to a degree beholden to the popular assemblies. Notably, for much of the life of the Republic, the popularly elected Tribunes had the power to veto acts of the Senate (“VETO” means “I forbid!” And that is what the Tribunes did.)

For centuries, the Roman Republic successfully balanced the needs of the people with the wants of the aristocracy. The resulted in the pragmatic formation of an effective government which was willingly borne by the commoners and nobles alike. It is worth remembering that Rome’s very self-identity is expressed by the acronymic “SPQR,” “SENATVS*POPVLVSQVE*ROMANVS,” “the Senate and the Roman People.” This formula succinctly expressed Rome’s concept of its government.

As Rome grew more and more powerful, the impact and effect of an expanding empire induced strains upon this successful civil government. By the late First Century BC, several factions formed within the Senate, ultimately becoming two major rivals: The “Optimates,” or “the Best People,” and the “Populares,” or “the Popular Party.” The Optimates clearly favored the interests of many aristocrats in the Senate. (“Aristocrat,” bear in mind, comes from the Greek for “government of the best people.”) The Populares were associated with many programs that assisted the common citizen, such as agrarian land reform and public assistance for citizens.

Note that I will refer to these two competing groups as “factions” and not parties. They never represented anything like what we have termed political “parties” for the past 250+ years. In modern times, some interpreters assert an analogy between the Optimates Faction and the United States’ own Republican Party; likewise a parallel is drawn between the Populares and today’s Democratic Party. The comparison is temptingly easy, and satisfyingly simple. Yet it is also unhelpful and ultimately false. The two factions in Rome’s Senate did each have certain “popular” or “optimate” “planks,” but fundamentally, these two factions did not represent any identifiable principles at all.

Marxian historian Michael Parenti, in his 2003 work, “The Assassination of Julius Caesar,” claimed to find in Julius Caesar a champion of the common man against the arictocrats. Yet this seems far too much of a reach. Julius Caesar did build a powerful base of support from the commoners, but he was an aristocrat first and foremost. The real basis of the conflict and contest between Rome’s two major factions was simply rivalry for power. Ideology, such as it existed, was purely a means to the end of gaining power. The Populares built their base upon the leverage of the Popular Assemblies and the like, whereas the Optimates more plainly served the interested of the power elite. But neither “party” really gave a tinker’s dam about the people. The superordinate goal was simply power for each faction’s adherents and cronies.

By the late period of Rome’s remarkable Republic, the only consistent characteristic of either of its leading political factions was a drive for power for its own supporters and destruction of its rivals. So consumed by this petty infighting did the Republic become that its last century was basically ten decades of upheaval, chaos, and civil disorder. So fixated were Rome’s Senatorial factions that they neglected or abandoned the care of the state and the needs of the people; misery and catastrophe dominated. The end of this confusion came about with the demise of the Republic. First, Julius Caesar seized control as “Dictator for Life,” and after his assassination, his adopted son, nephew Octavian arose to become the first Emperor of Rome.

Stability finally returned to Rome, but the Republic survived only in ceremonial references. The people of Rome never regained their ancient Rights. For the final one thousand years that the last vestiges of Rome’s Empire survived, only autocrats and aristocrats had political sway. There were no parties, only factions; no principles, only the drive for power.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I doubt that I can even begin to I compose a proper bibliography. But some titles I am informed by include:

Michael Parenti, “The Assassination Of Julius Caesar,” ISBN-10: 1565847970

H. H. Scullard, “From The Gracchi To Nero,” ISBN-10: 0415584884

Erich Gruen, “The Last Generation Of The Roman Republic,” ISBN-10: 0520201531

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