Government, Greek, Latin

Ancient Governments and Modern Iterations

There is nothing more indicative of our epoch’s desire to emulate the greatness of our ancestor’s civilizations than our governments. The ideal Western government, to most citizens anyway, is the democracy. Most modern Western governments are actually republics. These very words show how much we owe to the civic innovations of our predecessors. The very words ‘Democracy’ and ‘Republic’ comes from Greek and Latin, respectively. Modern Western governments have made very few innovations to the systems beyond adding to the pool of people who can participate.

In the fifth century BC, the Athenian Democracy was founded. It is one of startlingly few examples of a successful direct democracy, but even then it was short lived. And was hardly ‘inclusive,’ that all important yard-stick by which we measure success in our age. To participate in the Athenian Democracy one had to be male, a freeman, and own land. Hardly acceptable requirements in the modern era! This limited those who could participate to around 1/5 of the population of Athens. Those who could participate, however, were allowed a great impact on the course of government as they could vote on all major matters of state.

This may be acceptable insofar as the administration of a small city-state, but certainly not a large nation. Rome made her entrance as another small monarchy in Latium, but due to internal conflict and growth, she transformed into something novel in 509BC: a republic. A small group of men representing the will of the families of import took over as the main legislating body. To participate in the senate one had to be a male patrician, so it was far less inclusive than the Athenian Democracy. The vast majority of peoples, the plebes, were, over time, given rights and powerful representatives in government – tribunes. This is a government that lasted from 509BC – 44BC, it continued to exist under the Emperors until 476AD (or 1453AD in Byzantium). This is a form of government that proved to be elastic enough to survive a millenium. It certainly proved itself more durable than that most famous modern European Republic, what with its five iterations in three centuries.

Several important points can be drawn from successful governments of the past. One is that the voting class was much better educated than the hoi polloi. If one owns land, or is a patrician, he almost certainly has been educated to a comparatively high degree (especially in the latter case where societal pressure would require one to study both Roman and Greek literature, government, and oratory). Secondly, only those most invested in the economic success of the nation could vote: land owners and patricians. They have farm more to lose and therefore act far more carefully and conservatively. The masses are incitable (see the nike riots) were tempered by the government. Furthermore, the Greek system required one to be actively contributing to the polis, one would not end up with a situation like modern America where a very large percentage of the population is a net drain, yet can still vote for policies that, say, give them even more. This leads to pandering for votes by promising what are tantamount to bribes. But I digress.

Aristotle strongly supported an aristocratic ideal and so does this writer. Especially in Rome to be a successful politician one had to be superbly educated. The study of Latin, Greek, Oratory, Literature, etc. was required merely to have a good chance of a successful political career. Just as importantly these men were culturally obligated to serve in the military if they had political ambitions. Imagine if all of our politicians were required to serve in the military, be heavily invested in the success of the state, and meet very demanding educational requirements. I can think of many American, British, and Australian Presidents and PMs that don’t fit even two of these!


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