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Democracy and Imperialism Discussion Forum 2013-4

Democracy and Imperialism Discussion Forum 2013-4 Discussion of Term 2 Lecture 5: Rome and democracy

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  1. •What point, if any, is there in looking for democracy in the Roman political system? •What did the Roman world do to (and for) democracy? •What kind of democracy was left in Greece during the Roman period?
  2. •What point, if any, is there in looking for democracy in the Roman political system? The best answer that I can think of for this question would be 'In order to compare it to Athens', but I believe that is for a variety of reasons. One of these is simply to track how politics is developing, and what system is dominant at this period, i.e. monarchy seems to have been exceptionally prevalent at the time of Troy, before oligarchy in the early archaic period, and then the development of democracy, etc. However, this could also refer to, if you were to identify a democratic system in Rome, how the term 'democracy' is defined, and whether or not this definition changed throughout this period (there is certainly evidence looked at in the last lecture from Aelius Aristeides and Justinian that suggests this, although Justinian was writing approximately 1000 years after Cleisthenes' reforms). However, on a basic level, I would argue that the point of looking for democracy in the Roman political system would be to compare and contrast the practical systems displayed by the dominant city after the Hellenistic period (Rome) with the city that arguably defined the Classical era (Athens). •What did the Roman world do to (and for) democracy? There seems to have been a belittlement in the importance and significance of it; from the handout "Rome tended to support oligarchies in Greece" - arguably, within Athens, oligarchy was the most legitimate threat to the democracy, as shown in the revolts of 411 and 403/2. There were certainly areas of the Roman Republic that seem to have been driven and championed by the populus; the tribune was an office for the mob, and the populares was a 'political party' that often opposed the oligarchic optimates. However, the Roman system itself, as both a Republic and Empire, seems to have been focused less on the masses and more so the aristocratic (with prominent families holding the majority of top offices), so therefore, there is an argument to be made that Roman influences hindered the progression of democracy.
  3. *What did the Roman world do to (and for) democracy?* The influence of Polybyus did much to shape public opinion in Rome (and to an extent, Greece) about the 'true' nature of democracy. He was a contemporary Greek historian and when he became closely associated with Scipio the younger, his point of view seemed to be decidedly Roman from then on. As a result, his colouring of Greek democracy into the concept of 'mob rule' (as it actually wasn't, given the long processes of decision-making) led to the Romans 'civilising' democracy into something they saw as less unruly. The Romans adopted democracy, and in the same motion they disgraced Greek democracy as totally different from their Roman democracy.
  4. What point, if any, is there in looking for democracy in the Roman political system? From Polybius’ point of view, the point of looking for democracy at Rome was to enhance his somewhat fabricated view of Rome as a ‘mixed constitution’; an idea implied by Herodotus in his Persian debate and often seen in Sparta particularly by authors such as Xenophon. The mixed constitution was idealised for its alleged ability to avoid stasis, something which Polybius actually directly comments upon. We must remember that mainland Greece, Polybius’ homeland, had been conquered by this point and in writing his pseudo-philosophical treaty of history, the historian intended to give Greece the reason why: Rome had a superior political system. This explanation is a very palatable way for Greeks of accepting Rome’s imperium, as the notion of good politics and a good state were intrinsically linked in their ideological thought. For our purposes however, I believe there is little point in searching for ‘democracy’ if the aim is to compare it to Athens as a result; much in the same way it would be fruitless to compare feudal Japan under the Shoguns and see how ‘democratic’ that system was compared to the Viking hierarchy. Rome had its own system of government which existed prior to contact with Athens, it is notable that the first person to claim ‘democratic’ elements in Rome was Polybius, a Greek outsider looking in and making what he saw intelligence to a Greek audience. It is only a useful methodology for the purposes of social structuralism which thankfully with the crumbling state of the Lévi-Strauss school might finally be consigned to the dustbins where it belongs. What did the Roman world do to (and for) democracy? With the exception of Mummius, who imposed oligarchies at his discretion after conquering mainland Greece in the 2nd century BC (perhaps in itself a reactionary strategy to what he deemed to be the failed policies of Flaminius), there is not a great body of evidence to suggest that Rome was overtly involved in the suppression of democracy amongst her socii et externae nationes sub imperio. Certainly there existed a hostile literary tradition towards the system amongst Roman elites, one need only think of the rich vocabulary with which they denigrated the common people: turba, multitudo, vulgus, plebes and so on. Perhaps oligarchical tendencies could be said to be encouraged by Rome through her diplomatic system, where benefiting one’s community suddenly became synonymous with having access to Roman notables and being able to speak Latin. This refocused the emphasis of Greek poleis back into the individual; the individual who could obtain permission for a temple, or get a favourable trade agreement. The number of inscriptions from Greek cities honouring individuals for their contacts in Rome increases dramatically in this period and afterwards. •What kind of democracy was left in Greece during the Roman period. Quite simply, any democracy but without the ability to determine its own foreign policy. Is this a huge issue? Possibly – again, it depends on how you define the term democracy. For me the continuation of key institutions such as the assembly at Athens which is still deciding important issues such as how to ensure the continuous supply of food, right up until its sack by the barbarian hordes of the Steppe, is clear evidence of democracy. Furthermore the Athenians did not abandon the term ‘demokratia’ after Mummius’ conquest; they were still using it. The Athenians are self-defining their own constitution as a democracy.

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