In this last post on ancient political thought, we go to ROME!
Ahhh Rome! One of the most interesting parts of history revolves around this civilization. For 500 years, Rome existed as a republic. Unlike a “pure” democracy in Athen, the Roman Republic integrated democracy into its political system. In mathematical terms, democracy is a subset of the Roman Republic. The republic consisted of 3 government bodies: the Consuls (the monarch), the Senate (the aristocrats), and the Popular Assembly (the people). Each body possessed executive powers in different areas as part of the mechanism to impose checks and balances on the government. This unique political system, I would argue, was what made the Roman civilization great, leading it to expansions that created the Roman Empire. If you are familiar with the US political system, you would see that it also features this system of Republicanism. This parallel of the Roman Empire and the US superpower status today, is it just mere coincidence? Anyway, I digress, back to history:
The Fall of the Roman Republic
The Roman Republic saw political contest between many factions. The faction that emerged as the political dominant was the Populares. This faction was led by Julius Caesar nearing the end of the republic. Julius Caesar was an outstanding general in time of rapidly expanding Rome territory. This gave him considerable political power which he consolidated at a pace which the Senate found uncomfortable. When Caesar became a dictator, the Senate plotted to assassinate him. The assassination was, in literature texts, carried out in a Shakespearean manner with the dramatic betrayal of Julius Caesar by his adopted nephew, Marcus Junius Brutus, through a brutal stabbing process by many of the senates surrounding him. The dramatic episode ended with the last stab by Brutus, with Caesar feeling sorely betrayed and hopeless before laying his punctured body down in his own pool of blood. That story, of course, should not be taken as truth. No one really knows what happened but this story by Shakespear remains a good story to fill in the historical gap. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Republic fell into chaos and anger. Caesar’s adopted great nephew, Augustus Caesar, rallied the legions and formed 2 triumvirates, one after another to eliminate the senate. Each triumvirates ended in civil wars amongst the 3 dictators, in which Augustus Caesar (then changed name to Gaius Octavius to reflect his true lineage) emerged victorious. Octavius then established a Principate, establishing himself as the first Emperor of Rome, ending the Roman Republic.
Cicero was a Roman politician and an excellent orator. He was a staunch defender of the Republic’s system especially when Julius Caesar became a dictator. “He warned that a break-up of the Republic would prompt a return to a destructive cycle of governments. He said that from a monarchy, power can be passed to a tyrant (evidenced by emperors such as Nero); from the tyrant, it is taken by the aristocracy or the people; and from the people, it will be seized by the oligarchs or tyrants. Without the checks and balances of a mixed constitution, the government, he believed, would be “bandied around like a ball”. True to Cicero’s predictions, Rome came under the control of an emperor, Augustus…and power was passed…to a succession of despotic rulers.”(The politics book | Hardback, 2013).
Rome’s history was filled with tragedy, betrayal, power struggle, wars, despotism, and above all, a great lesson on politics – it is like an all-in-one package with a consistent narrative. The great political lesson would be realized with an observation: there is a delicate sweet spot in empire politics. Many things, I’ve realized, are best when balanced (I myself constantly struggle to remind myself to be balanced). This is the same for politics in big civilizations. A balance of power will create political stability. However, such a balance is delicate and difficult to maintain as men are ambitious creatures that seek only more power. This, however, must be limited to big countries today such as the United States. For small countries like Singapore and Israel, political stability can still be best maintained with one-party dominance. This is based on evidence and I do not proclaim to know the reason why. In fact, China, as a big country, is doing well without checks and balance. I have much to learn and I know that I know nothing, but I do see why a powerful and big country like US can be best managed with a Roman-inspired republic, just as Cicero had argued. As we move towards medieval political thought, I will endeavor to refine my ideas and find out these reasons behind these puzzling contradictions.