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Engineering Government: Flaws causing catastrophic failures

2017/01/31

The name of “democracy” became an excuse to turn on anyone regarded as an enemy of the state, even good politicians who have, as a result, almost been forgotten.

The failure of Athenian and Roman democracy

Article reposted from the World Historia Forum Archives (edited)
14 August 2007

1 – The general context

The Roman republic and Athenian polis were two great experiments in political philosophy in the ancient world. These two distinctly different methods of running a nation in both Athens and Rome have one similarity – that they were founded on the intent to give common law and justice to the people. That aside both of the nations, which will be discussed in this essay, was culturally, economically and historically quite different and approached the issue of statecraft in a very different and sometimes contradictory manner. Both of these republics – the Roman and Athenian were regarded to be in their time two of the most powerful nations in the world – the Roman republic after the 2nd Punic war and the Athenian republic at the age of it’s most famous ruler Pericles. But how did these two nations, so different in their approach to life and philosophy itself, fall ultimately by their own system, which had served them for so long? They fell to the oligarchies that they were built and intended to repress.

The Roman and Athenian republican both had a loathing (perhaps the Roman more so) for kingship and oligarchy in any of its forms. The republic fell to the whims of dictators such as the Triumvirs, Caesar and Sulla who abused its system, and Athens fell pray to tyrants using the turmoil after the Peloponnesian war to their advantage. One major similarity between the two nations is that they both had a growing degree of imperialism late in their republican period. The Athenian, abusing the rewards of the Delian league built to defend the common interest of Greece against the Persian empire, ended up with an empire which its’ small and inefficient form of statecraft was not equipped to manage. The Roman also found the same issue, which arose, like the Athenians, initially from a need for simple, honest self-defence. The two quotes below indicate the troubled and desperate issues that lead to the creation of these two states:

“By this blood – most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son – I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.”

– The speech of Lucius Junius Brutus, Livy 1.6

“The Athenians thought that the mythological hero Theseus was their first king, and they attributed to him the birth of the Athenian state. Before Theseus, the peninsula of Attica was home to various, independent towns and villages, with Athens being the largest. Theseus, when he had gained power in Athens, abolished the local governments in the towns; the people kept their property, but all were governed from a single political center at Athens. The Greeks called this process of bringing many settlements together into a political unity synoikism”

– Christopher W. Blackwell, The development of Athenian democracy

The issues that the sources above indicate are, in the first source, the collapse of the Kingdom of Rome in 509 BC and the declaration of republican democracy. The tyranny of the last Roman king, Tarquin Superbus, and his crimes against the people caused for such a measure to be implemented. This is more obviously an act of defence against tyranny on the part of the Roman republic. On the Athenian side, however, we are not so sure what exactly happened. According to Athenian myth, the Hero Thesus united the many tiny struggling states in Attica under one banner at the Mycenaean city of Athens. Naturally, this is myth and it has no real evidence to back it up, but whoever this statesman was, or what the exact conditions to cause such a drastic political change were, remain unknown. What is important, though, is not if the legend of Thesus is true or not, or who this statesman was, but the conditions for Greece proper at the time. The Dorian invasion had caused many Greeks to flee to Ionia and start up cities on the Western seaboard there – not so with Athens and the Atticans – she remained and gave the first material example of some kind of recovery from the “dark ages” of Greece in around 900 BC. It is at this period that the famous “Dipylon” vases showed the world the first signs of the emerging classical Greece. Conditions, in any rate, at this period following the Dorian invasion cannot have been good (it wasn’t called the dark ages for nothing) for the Greek cities still in Greece proper, and so political change and issues of political cohesion must have been rifle. Also, the Greeks at this stage were not a seafaring nation and relied almost solely on Phoenician exports for various commodities. The rising Assyrian imperialism in this period cannot have been helpful for the Greeks, for tyre was being besieged, and elsewhere, Egypt was crumbling. Economically, things were changing and thus some kind of adaptation would have been needed in order for these states in Greece to survive their perilous situation.

2 – The failure of the system

Both of these states crumbled from the inside out. Their internal decadence increased to such a level that the rot could not be prevented and in both cases, imperialistic interests prompted it. Both the Athenian polis and Roman republic were not built to last – they were built as measures for one city state, with no foresight of large imperialistic ventures and no foresight of the system needing to be changed. For a number of reasons, the internal mechanics of these early republics could simply not cope with the stresses put upon them by the rigours of imperialistic action. For a start, as I have mentioned, these states were built for one city and one city only. Each had more than one chief magistrate with an assembly of deputies, and citizens’ assembly and something resembling a second house – the Areopagus or the Senate – whose task it was to scrutinize and question the legislation passed by the current citizens. There were also many social differences – the Roman state, unlike the Athenian, was heavily class oriented and demanded a caste-system type of approach, even to democratic process. Whereas the Athenian citizen could openly debate with the citizens’ assembly and know that he was being listened to, the Roman citizen was tied to the political wishes of his patron by an elaborate web of dependency and fear

This social divide had not yet occurred heavily in Greece (with some exceptions), mainly due to the fact that large-scale agriculture hadn’t been utilized on poor Greek soil, one man could roughly farm enough food for himself. An agricultural slave was a burden, and for the average citizen, who had to go to work, attend the citizen’s assembly and do his own things, keeping an industry of slaves was far too much work. This simple ness of life in Athens and many Greek republics is shown in the political process – many of the things that the Roman rich had to have for pleasure the Greek simply did without. Thus, social divide did not occur as heavily in Athens as in republican Rome. The concept of “Polis” which this created is a difficult one to describe – the average Greek polis was based on collaboration of all the citizens. Every Greek citizen was expected to turn up – not enforced, to the citizens’ assembly. This was mainly a cultural reason – because the polis and their participation was the Greek way of life. So he just did not have time to organise the bureaucracy needed to have an army of slaves, go to elaborate games, follow a complex domestic structure and do many of the things that the Romans took for granted.

The polis was, in effect, based on the people that it was made up of rather than some abstract political ideology – the people over the state. The polis represented government on a scale comprehensible to its citizens – each member of the polis was a vital organ of its constant maintenance and growth. The Polis was, like the later Roman republic, strongly opposed to the principle that any individual should hold too much power, and that he should commence actions on the part of that polis without the constant scrutiny of the citizen’s assembly.

For many reasons, it would have been far more economically and politically viable for the Greek to have formed his own empire rather than keeping to a loose collection of cities. This was not the point – to a Greek, a “Barbarian” was one who did not live the life of the Polis. The Polis defined him; it made him who he was, culturally, not just politically. For a Greek, a state, which he could not walk from boarder to boarder between in two days, was not a state at all. To the Greek’s logic, the state was his home, and thus he could go to the citizen’s assembly, and have a say in it. Of course, for this reason alone, the Athenian state was weakened – a lack of professionalism certainly prevented unnecessary bureaucracy, but it didn’t encourage sound judgement and good decisions in times of war. In the Peloponnesian war, for example, it was mainly the whims of an ignorant citizen’s assembly who kept directing the efforts of the city to many different and inappropriate areas, thus not presenting an allied front against the Spartan aggressor. It is important to remember that many of the famous Athenian statesmen were little more than simple citizens without any political training. Cleon was a leather-worker, and Solon was originally a simple trader. This lack of political training didn’t help the Athenians address complex diplomatic situations that a Roman assembly may possibly have had the experience and the education to deal with in a more appropriate fashion.

In this sense, the Roman republic was a stronger unit of political power because of the restrictions placed upon the citizens by a more lavish way of life and less liberally minded political philosophy. More bureaucracy and a more rigid system meant that Rome was less likely to grind to a halt because of a minor disagreement in the citizen’s assembly or senate, but also meant that the entire state would become more cumbersome when attempting to deal with democracy.

The Athenians dealt with their imperialistic measures in a much more intelligently minded way that Rome ever did – disguising it as a league (as it originally was), the core government of the polis could remain the same without having to extend any governmental arms to aid with the construction of their empire. It was in this sense the Roman lack of the lethal Athenian political flexibility that caused them to try and extend their own city’s political structure beyond it’s boarders and simply, it didn’t work. Although Rome’s politicians may have come from a more educated stock produced by a rigid class structure, and although they may have had more intelligence to deal with delicate problems that the average Athenian citizen, who was possibly given too much of a voice in politics, they used roughly the same system that had been used to govern one city state in an attempt to govern what was going to be an entire empire. There was no separate office for the collection of taxes in the provinces – this was still regarded as a fundamentally municipal duty. Clerks and offices in Rome were practically overloaded with a responsibility that they could not handle. Pro-Curators, which mainly emerged under the emperors made the clear distinction between municipality and imperial provinces – separate but ultimately part of the same administration. This is one of the reasons why the experiment of Roman republicanism failed.

Both Roman and Athenian democrat had been brought up under so republican a system that, even when performing actions to the contrary, they still thought that they were acting to the best of their ability as democrats and saviours of justice first. For this reason, the Roman republican forces in the east and the Athenian forces around Greece were always using bland rhetoric to convince the general opinion that there was some republican reason for their actions that blatant imperialism, which their ideologies would not allow. This self-denial, especially for the Romans, lead for a desire amongst later members of these states to expose them for what they were – imperialistic states in the making under disguise. For some reason, in the ancient world, blatant imperialistic rhetoric seemed easier to defend than that of an abstract concept of democracy, which the listener in many cases would not have been able to grasp. It was for this reason that in 431 BC, the Spartans and Corinthians finally became exasperated with Athen’s rhetoric and contrasting, blatantly imperialistic actions and began to commence the Peloponnesian war.

The Roman republic survived longer because it kept those essential parts of oligarchy, which keep citizens on their knees. It was also founded at a much less vulnerable time in history in its’ location was probably more secure than that of Athens when regarding the local politics of the area. It cultivated such a dependent class-ridden society that any pretensions to democracy were futile and ultimately rhetoric rather than anything else. The Athenian republic attempted to deny human nature by allowing man a free reign – almost completely – to government. In times of war, such as the Peloponnesian war, this was shown to be the worst method, because strong, solid leadership was needed which had no time for open debate and human nature in the citizen’s assembly. The Roman republic was a semi-oligarchy. An attempt to combine the best of both worlds to give maximum cohesion met with ruin. The Roman republic at the end could not pass a single decree without civil war and public unrest. The Romans had many numerous gifts, but statesmanship was certainly something that was not one of them. The failures are ultimately, on the Athenian side of democracy, too much confidence in man’s free will, and on the Roman side, too much class strife and bureaucracy to allow for any avenue of reform before it was too late. Each was a unique style of government that left us with a unique view of early democracy.

3 – Epilogue

Republicanism was out of its time. It a world dominated by oligarchs, tyrants, kings and autocrats, the republic was a desperate – and ultimately unsuccessful – measure to attempt to give some cohesion back to a society which had suffered some kind of political trauma in the near past. Much of its failure is attributed (more to the concept of the polis that the Roman class style republic) to human nature – in it’s strongest sense, the Roman and Athenian republics allowed far too much human intervention into their management. There was, especially in the Athenian republic (although this is due to size more than anything) no political machine, just a political animal that acted sporadically and on the whims of man. Our current republics and democracies have a political machine – the work of the government is carried through faceless institutions with some kind of general forethought. Athenian and Roman democracy, apart from tradition (much Roman republican procedure, such as the Cursus honorum, was actually just loose tradition that was culturally acceptable to adhere to) was based more or less on constant debate, which allowed constantly the emotions to be brought into almost every single piece of political action. These two republics were ultimately half-finished affairs that never worked and had to resort to oligarchies in the end to restore social order and cohesion. But perhaps more importantly, is the political philosophy that they embodied – the freedom of choice of the citizen and his rights – and it is those principles, that even whilst practiced in a very different way, still lie at the heart of our democratic procedure today.

4 – Bibliography and resources

Titus Livy, Histories at http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Livy
Christopher W. Blackwell, The development of Athenian democracy at www.Stoa.org
H.D.F Kitto – The Greeks
Jermome Carcopino – Daily life in ancient Rome


Bring it up to date

Democrats Boycott  (Again and again)

The Athenians: Another warning from history?

(PhysOrg.com) — The collapse of Greek democracy 2,400 years ago occurred in circumstances so similar to our own it could be read as a dark and often ignored lesson from the past, a new study suggests.

“If history can provide a map of where we have been, a mirror to where we are right now and perhaps even a guide to what we should do next, the story of this period is perfectly suited to do that in our times,”

“It shows how an earlier generation of people responded to similar challenges and which strategies succeeded. It is a period of that we would do well to think about a little more right now – and we ignore it at our peril.”

The name of “democracy” became an excuse to turn on anyone regarded as an enemy of the state, even good politicians who have, as a result, almost been forgotten.

(Excerpt)

— Democrats To Kings,  Icon Books. 2009. Dr. Michael Scot,  Cambridge University Classicist

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