Early Rome: The Republic and Democracy at Rome
Early Rome: The Republic and Democracy at Rome
Differing Evaluations. In some respects, the Roman government was highly democratic. Magistrates were popularly elected, and even individual laws were all voted on only by the people. Yet, at least one contemporary observer saw it a little differently. The Greek historian Polybius, who lived in Rome for many years in the mid-second century b.c.e., described it as a mixture of democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical elements. Some modern scholars, noting that the magistracies were largely held by the same powerful families for generations, have gone even farther. They see Rome as run by a thinly disguised oligarchy—rule by the few. Some of the difference of opinion seems to come from how people feel about their own political systems, but there are legitimate questions as well. If modern elections have proved nothing else, it is clear that elections alone do not make for democracy. One must also consider what choices even appear on the ballot and what external pressures are put on voters. Asking these questions about ancient Rome reveals a variety of antidemocratic forces. There is no consensus at present as to the balance between these forces and the opportunities for popular participation. It is perhaps best, then, merely to note the individual forces and assess their impact in individual cases rather than rendering a once-and-for-all verdict on democracy at Rome. (It must also be recalled that there was a more general and profound aspect to the Roman political process: its total exclusion of women and slaves.)
Who Speaks?. One crucial issue is what topics are ever allowed to come up for a vote. Recall that the average citizen could not propose a measure, only a magistrate could, and magistrates were all members of the upper classes. Support of a magistrate was even required to participate in the public debates of the contiones. Thus, popular proposals could arise only with some support among the elite. Once a bill was proposed, the voting itself was biased. The wealthy could position themselves in various tribes and could afford to come to Rome, the only site for voting. Thus, they had disproportionate influence. When consuls and praetors were elected, the grouping of the centuriate assembly exaggerated this effect further.
Obstruction. Many officials had the power to slow or stop legislation single-handedly. Consuls could summon the people away from other meetings. Any of the tribunes could veto a magistrate’s proposal. Omens could be found (some would say manufactured) that would force the suspension of public business. In addition, the Senate was normally given a chance to review legislation before it was formally proposed. Even if it had been evenly distributed, such individual grants of authority would strengthen the hand of minority groups such as the rich. As it was, these powers were entirely in the hands of the officeholding elite.
Shaping the Vote. When a proposal (or candidate) came before the people, did they vote according to what one would consider their best interests, or were other factors in play? The elite used two sets of strategies to win over voters. One came down to buying votes. Sometimes, particularly in elections, this vote buying was done by simple bribery. This practice was illegal but hard to prove. Also, the candidates kept ahead of the law by providing benefits, such as meals, other than cash. Sometimes aristocrats made gifts to the entire people rather than to individuals—say, public games or a temple or a semipublic park. This practice is called “euergetism.” Such gifts were not necessarily tied to a particular vote, but aided the giver’s long-term reputation. Each aristocrat also served as a “patron” to a number of long-term supporters called “clients.” Clients received, legal support, and occasional material goods in return for attending to the great man, thus making his importance publicly. The clients of any given candidate were not numerous enough to be an electoral force, but they could form the basis of a much larger network of support on particular occasions.
While the ordinary citizen did not have a chance to speak in the official processes of government, a certain amount of gossip circulated and some of this gossip eventually had its effect even on the rich and powerful.
Publius Scipio Nasica, the light of political power, who as consul had declared war on Jugurtha, who with his own sacred hands received the Idaean Mother from her home in Phrygia when she came to our home, who crushed many dangerous seditions by the force of this authority, in whose leadership the senate had gloried for many years, was seeking the aedileship in his younger days, and took firm hold of a farmer’s roughened hand in the way candidates do. As a sort of joke he asked him whether he tended to walk on his hands. Once bystanders heard this remark, it flowed out to the rest of the people and caused Scipio’s defeat.
Other Strategies. The other set of strategies included ways of making accidents of birth and inheritance seem like personal virtues. For instance, noble families displayed ancestor portraits (imagines) in their homes and at their public funerals. These portraits reminded the people of how they had in the past elected many of this current generation’s ancestors to
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office. If the choice of the old, tried and true families had worked in the past, why not continue it? Euergetism (gift giving) worked similarly. The continued success of the family promised continued material rewards for Rome. The elite also tried to maintain advantages in public speaking, the only mass medium in the Roman world. An education in rhetoric (like the gift of a public building) was possible only for the wealthy. In fact, in 161 and 92 b.c.e. the government made legal attempts to limit the teaching of rhetoric.
Lily R. Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949).