by Michael C. Anderson
December 02, 2020
Most people believe ancient political systems have had a minimal
effect on politics of the modern and postmodern world.
The common belief is that
the ancient world was largely barbarian, with human rights virtually
non-existent, so history from that time must be discounted.
Is this a correct assumption, or is there something can we learn
about politics from antiquity?
The earliest Western civilizations were theocratic, but that model
became obsolete with the advent of warfare.
Winning in battle
required military leadership and the power generated by a
military leader's success led to the evolution of kingship as
the center of civil power in the state.
The next step in the
evolution of government was the monarchy, which bolted hereditary
authority onto the kingship model.
Monarchies were the most
common form of government before the Enlightenment.
They survived because
the authoritarian state could manage the society efficiently
and, at the same time, protect its status.
In the midst of the
monarchies permeating the ancient world, stood two models that would
foreshadow modern politics:
the Greek Democracy
These governments were
true innovations in the application of liberty and human rights.
The mountains of
Greece were an opportune
setting for democracy.
They divided the
Greek landscape into small spaces which acted as incubators for the
development of rights-based political systems.
civilization ended, the Greek peninsula descended into a dark age
period, where political and social advancement came to a halt.
Then slowly, small
communities, governed by the people, began to develop.
communities blocked attempts by the wealthy to gain power, keeping
control in public hands.
The Polis evolved
to became the standard form of government across Greece after 700
Each Polis developed its own characteristics, but all featured
the institutions of democracy.
In time, Athens
became the most famous of the Poleis, because of its size and
influence over the Greek peninsula.
Athens developed its final
democratic form after periods of tyrants and a flirtation with
republicanism under Solon.
Its high point
occurred during the so called "Golden Age," in the fifth century BC,
Pericles was its leader.
The Golden Age was
also the beginning of the end for Athens, because she would soon be
defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The structure of the
Polis had weakened and the advent of the sophists ushered in a new
focus on the individual, replacing the cultural unity that had
It was only 60
years after the Peloponnesian war that Philip of Macedonia
(father of Alexander) subdued the Greek peninsula and the Polis
passed out of existence.
The Roman Forum
The story of Rome
was vastly different. Rome began as a hilltop community founded near
a ford in the Tiber River, in a part of Italy known as Latium.
early tribes of Rome were farmers, married to the land.
Rome was far from
the sea, and its people had no history of sea trade, so land was its
most valuable asset. Early Rome was influenced by the nearby
Etruscan civilization. Its customs and government structure were
readily adopted by the Romans.
Two of the early kings of Rome were
Etruscans. Rome could not
tolerate a monarchy.
threw off the last of the kings in 509 BC and became a republic.
The word republic comes from the Latin
res publica, or
"thing of the people."
This thing of the
Roman people was the rights they obtained through the people's
The republic featured an executive branch consisting of
elected magistrates, led by a pair of consuls.
branch consisted of the Senate and the people's assembly.
assembly could pass laws but not propose them.
The Senate could
propose laws but not vote on them.
Representation of the Roman senate
from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome,
house of the Italian Senate
In the early days
of the republic, Rome was dominated by the wealthy patrician class...
Descendants of the
three original Roman tribes, the patricians, controlled money and
power in the republic.
The Plebeians had no rights in the beginning,
but through organized efforts, they won for themselves an expansion
of their rights.
They fought for
executive branch representation, so the college of tribunes was
They demanded written laws, so the twelve tables were
posted in the Forum.
access to all elected offices and this was also granted by the
Senate over time.
What made the Roman republic work was the
willingness of the Senate to extend rights to all citizens.
prevented instability and allowed Rome to prosper.
But the republic
did not survive...
After 400 years, it began to crumble because of,
Until the end of
the second century BC, Rome had a citizen army:
farmers put down
their implements and went to war...
In 107 BC, Gaius
Marius, the leading general in the republic, created a professional
This caused the soldiers to shift their loyalty from the
Senate to their commander. Now any general, with a lust for power,
could bend the army to his will and overthrow the government.
That fear became a
reality when Julius Caesar made himself permanent dictator, leading
to the collapse of the republic.
Sack of Rome by the Visigoths,
by J.N. Sylvestre, 1890,
Musée Paul Valéry
the United States knew the
stories of Athens and Rome.
Most could speak
Latin and Greek, and they had read the history of antiquity in the
When it came time to create the American
Constitution, they thought long and hard about the design of their
The United States
would be the first "new" nation in the last thousand years of
but what form
should its government take...?
The founders looked
to the models of Greece and Rome as templates.
In a short time, the
Greek model was rejected...
The polis was small enough so that
citizens could attend meetings of the assembly and vote.
This was not
possible in a territory as large as the thirteen colonies.
government had to be built on representation; elected officials
The founders had
the experience of the colonial governments to draw upon and they
understood the British Constitution.
They decided that
adapting the Roman republic to America would be the most logical
Declaration of Independence,
by John Trumbull, 1819
Constitutional Convention, the design of each branch of government
was debated at length.
There was early
agreement on the Legislature which would contain an upper class of
"elders" and a people's assembly.
There was a long negotiation about
how the legislature should be constituted and how the
representatives should be elected.
A balance was
reached by having two senators per state and an assembly determined
by population distribution.
Senators would be elected by the states
and representatives directly by the people.
branch was also subject of a lengthy debate.
How would the chief
magistrate (president) be elected and for how long?
In the end, the
delegates chose a presidential term of four years with the
president elected by the states.
The founders looked
at the new government as a republic of state republics. The states
would share power with the Federal government with no overlap of
believed that too much democracy was dangerous:
that the public
could be influenced to vote for a tyrant.
Better to have the
senior legislative chamber and the president elected by the states.
They also battled
over the power of the Federal government.
Some wanted it to be
small, only functioning in areas inappropriate for states, like
treaties with foreign governments.
Others wanted it to
have more power, thinking that professional politicians from the
elite class would be the best managers of the country.
The Founding Fathers
of the United States
learned much from the ancient governments of Greece and Rome.
They could read
about the impact of citizens as direct participants in government.
They had the luxury of analyzing systems that failed so they could
avoid those same problems.
The debate about
the structure of the American government has continued from the time
of the Constitution until the present day.
During the passage
of time, the Federal government has grown exponentially, as the
demand for its programs have increased, the courts have accommodated
the shifting of the role of the Federal government to one as
caretaker for society, and the American social culture has changed
There is no
playbook for how to adapt a political system to these types of
changes, but we have history to guide for the direction we have to
helped us see that individual rights were important. That concept
allowed democracies to take over the world as the default political
The ancients taught us about the value of tradition as
applied to changing societies.
Tradition has to be
used as a guide for moving forward, because too much change creates
Revolution warned us what can happen when all traditions are
Why is the study of
ancient political systems important?
The answer lies in
the fact that all human societies are experiments in a public
morality built by a consensus of the individual moralities of their
Man did not evolve
to live among strangers; he evolved to live among small kinship
There are no human
socio-psychological mechanisms to cope with living in societies, so
each iteration becomes a unique model.
The brilliance of the
ancients is that their ideas can accommodate the postmodern society.
understood human nature well enough to create models that are
timeless and function at any time and place...