January 16, 2007

Fergus Millar The Roman Republic in Political Thought


In these Western parts of the world, we are made to receive our opinions concerning the institution and rights of Commonwealths, from Aristotle and Cicero, and other men, Greeks and Romans, that living under popular states, derived those rights, not from principles of nature, but transcribed them into their books, out of the practice of their own commonwealths, which were popular... And so Aristotle, so Cicero, and other writers have founded their civil doctrine on the opinions of the Romans, who were taught to hate monarchy, at first, by them that having deposed their sovereign shared amongst themselves the sovereignty of Rome, and afterwards by their successors. And by reading of these Greek and Latin authors, men from their childhood have gotten a habit (under a false show of liberty) of favouring tumults and of licentious controlling the actions of their soverieigns... with the effusion of so much blood: as I think I may truly say, there was never any thing so dearly bought, as these western parts have bought their learning of the Greek and latin tongues
Thomas Hobbes The Leviathen

Thomas Hobbes's Leviathen is a classic of European political thought- and it is a devastating counter attack upon what Hobbes beleived was his contemporaries' unfortunate obsession with Republican Rome- with authors like Cicero and Livy that gilded the ancient Republic, the Republic of the early Rome, with the laurels of liberty and acheivement. Hobbes was angry with this because as the quote above shows, his reading of Thucydides and his understanding of the English Civil War, made him beleive that Republican government and the aspiration to rebel caused in the end civil war, anarchy, murder and unhappiness- a war of all against all.

Hobbes is not unusual in European history in basing much of his ideas upon an image of the Roman Republic. Professor Fergus Millar's lectures delivered in memory of Menahem Stern in Jerusalem in 1997 and published in book form in 2002 focus upon the ways that philosophers and historians have sought to understand the Roman Republic's institutions and use that understanding to fortify their own political thinking. Acute observers like Polybius as early as 150 BC were already trying to work out what it was that made Rome a successful state. Polybius's work wasn't rediscovered until the 16th Century but based on the Augustan historian Titus Livius (Livy) medieval authors as important as Bartolus and Marsilius of Padua incorporated accounts of Rome into their political thinking. As Quentin Skinner and John Pocock have shown during the early modern period, Florentine writers like Machiavelli, English writers like Harrington and Milton and the American founders all turned to the Roman Republic to try and understand republicanism and the process by which Rome rose.

Millar's book is best understood as a piece of present day political polemic- he wants us to go back to Rome in order to discover what democracy means and especially what federalism means. Therefore he focuses more on what his authors leave out than on what they put in to their discussions of the Republic, as James Zetzel noted Millar's description of his thinkers is peculiar because it is as much about what they failed to notice as about what they noticed. Particularly, as Zetzel appreciates, Millar attacks Machiavelli and Milton for neglecting to write about the Roman Republic institutionally, rather they wrote about the civic morality that the institutions within Rome encouraged. Machiavelli- the most influential of these writers- was describing the way that virtu was encouraged by the constitutional order of Rome and by its practice of arming its citizens. He wished to contrast that vigour to the indolence of a tyrannical community which degenerated into slavery and with the false stability of a Republic like Venice or Sparta which refused to give their people arms for fear of revolution and ended up being overrun by foreign forces. Machiavelli's concentration was on the way that Rome's encouragement of civic virtu led in the end to its corruption and destruction under the Principate- he was less focused on the way that Rome presented an institutional model and more upon the way that it presented a moral exempla for the modern- in his case Florentine- Republic.

So Millar is an odd source when it comes to his discussions of political theorists- but in reality that is because he isn't really providing an account of them as much as he is providing an account of their failure. For Millar, the important thing to realise was that their Rome- the Rome of Livy and the Rome of Cicero- never existed. He argues- and admits that its an extreme position- that Rome was actually pretty much a democracy. Citizens voted, in later times by tribe, upon proposals put to them by magistrates. The Senate was not a leglislative body but an advisory body to magistrates elected by the people. Full male suffrage was a privilege of Roman citizenship- and Millar argues that Italy in the later Republic ressembled nothing so much more as a modern nation state. But within this state, echoing Cicero, Millar notes that each Roman citizen had two allegiances, one to the city of Rome and one to his own city. Furthermore like Machiavelli, Millar argues that Roman citizenship was linked to military service- Roman magistracy too was linked to service in the army.

Millar's book outlines this in two chapters one at the beggining which gives the reader an outline of the Roman Republican constitution as it stood in the time of Aristotle- so approximately the end of the fourth century BC, and the other at the end, an outline of the constitution in the times of Cicero so in the mid point of the 1st Century BC. Those chapters frame the historical account of how people have understood the institutional basis of the Republic- this chronological dash back to the time of Cicero is in my view completely deliberate. What Millar wants you to do is realise that a crucial strand of western political thinking has depended upon a mistake- that Rome's institutional framework offers us a way to understand the way a polis system of direct democracy might work within a nation state. There are obvious flaws to this- but its interesting to keep it in mind because what Millar is suggesting is that Rome is far closer to the kind of regimes that we have today- with multiple loyalties to civic, national and even transnational bodies and with a democracy that was far from perfect and depended upon geographical access. Consequently the problem of Rome- the problem of its eventual decay into the principate and the empire of Augustus- becomes much more central to the way that we think about our polities- what were the weaknesses of Ciceronian Rome, this nation state with possibly over a million citizens intitled to vote, that led to its downfall and are there any reasons to think that we are in a different position.

Millar's work in many ways is obliquely aimed at that conclusion- it is a conclusion suggested rather than spoken, but its worth considering. Rome's fall as an empire is something that we all know about- but its tragic fall from Republic into autocracy got as much ancient attention- from Polybius, to Suetonius, to Tacitus ancient Roman authors were perplexed by what had actually happened to the Roman Republic. Why had it become the victim of civil war and dissention. Most of them rejected the Hobbesian answer above- which is that Republics are inevitably unstable, that democracy results in mob rule. Some like Cicero argued for aristocratic virtue to hold up the Republic- the kind of Oligarchy that Milton was later to endorse. But its interesting to see Millar suggest that Rome was no oligarchy. Its interesting also that he misses out the non-Miltonic voice of the English Revolution, men like John Streater who argued that actually Rome performed the role of a democratic model and that men like Cromwell were to be feared as a second Caesar. Streater and the radicals opened up through the printing press another possibility- the education of a people so that they did not follow a Catilina or a Caesar into the jaws of tyranny but instead were educated out of being a mob. So that aristocracy and democracy in their original meanings became the same thing.

Millar's book is a fascinating contribution to political thinking- its a rather off the wall contribution because it invites one back into the arena of assessing the failure of the ancient Republics- a failure Hobbes for one was aware of. Millar wants us to appreciate, unlike Machiavelli or Milton, that the oligarchic image of Rome wasn't true and that Rome ressembled not so much a Venetian oligarchy as it ressembled in some ways a democracy. His analysis is timely- in a period when we are increasingly warned about the Gresham's law of knowledge operating on the internet and where mob rule as annunciated by tabloid editors has received more attention in the West, Rome as always performs the role of a horrific warning.

Millar's work therefore encourages us to reconsider the place of Rome in our accounts of the history of democracy, and to reconsider the Republic as a political entity when we talk about our own state today.

7 comments:

edmund said...

godo post-sounds like an intesing book-wasn' there not enough room for all the tribes to vote properly in Rome-and didn't the senate have enormous power over what the people could discuss/ do?

I think machiavelli ignores insittiuino in large part because he thinjks they're irrelvnt what matters is "virtu" (ie culture/ institutional character) I think there's a great deal in that one reason why in many ways Victorian Britian behaved more like a "liberla democracy" than Bangladesh does today.

Sounds like a very intesting work and is definitely a great review, hope to hear more on the ancient world on this blog!

Matthew Sinclair said...
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Gracchi said...

Great questions Matt and Edmund.

Ok Edmund yes I agree Machiavelli is far more interested in virtu than in institutions- though he does say that the ordine of a commonwealth are crucial to its survival in the Discorsi- one of the most interesting things about Machiavelli I always wonder about is the distinction say that he might draw between Alexander Borgia and Lycurgus or Brutus- Borgia was a man of virtu and the Prince is about him and his success but on the other hand the acheivements of Lycurgus and Brutus lasted longer because they set up institutions that made their people a people full of virtu. You can see that for example in the distinction that he draws between Venetian republicanism which was a republic for stability and Roman republicanism, a republic of increase- there obviously the institutions are actually orientating the virtu of the population. I agree his focus is more on teh people's character- but the other side of that is that Machiavelli beleives that the constitutional framework determines how that might be acheived.

Matt- other theories first. I suppose as for Machiavelli above it does effect them- there is a long stretch of theory back to a passage by Sallust which equates liberty to Rome's desire for glory (its quoted by Augustine and hence finds its way into medieval thought) which suggests that the orders of the Roman empire ended up effecting the way that Rome governed. The other important theorists in this regard are Republicans like Harrington- Millar gives the impresssion to me that Harrington was the most acute analyst of the Roman Republic since Polybius and he definitely saw the institution as vital to the way that Rome developed. Harrington you could argue was adapting in part a Roman constitution to 17th Century British circumstances in Oceana- and of course his work was very influential- people like Walter Moyle, James Maddison, Thomas Jefferson, Viscount Boilingbroke are all using him in the eighteenth century as a source for Whig political theory. So I think it is influential.

As for the Senate's role- he gives an interesting discussion of the role of the ROman client relationship but its very brief. Suffice it to say that he doesn't beleive its very important I'm only getting into this field- but he wrote a book on the Roman crowd which I found on Amazon for 1 pound so am getting soon and that should contain more about that area than this one does but there is a brief discussion of it and the implication is that the Senate's patronage wasn't that important.

Yes definitely read the book.

Sorry this answer was so long.

Gracchi said...

Oh and the service in the army point which I neglected- again Millar doesn't really focus on that- he just mentions it in passing. Machiavelli was very keen on that idea- for Machiavelli it changed the whole nature of the Roman polity and made it what it was. I beleive that Polybius has something to say about it too. There is a long literature about mercenary armies- just from memory Andrew Fletcher in the Scottish militia controversy of the 1690s which precedes the Act of Union has a lot to say about the way that militias effect an independent Scotland and of course the American constitutional clause develops out of the idea that arms and liberty are interdependent.

james higham said...

...Acute observers like Polybius as early as 150 BC were already trying to work out what it was that made Rome a successful state...

My reading is that it was a certain arrogance, brutality, monolithic thinking, expansive attitude, desire for sophistication and the view of subjugated peoples that the Romans did it better.

There are many parallels in British history.

Gracchi said...

Yeah that came into it!

Matthew Sinclair said...

I think there has probably been, largely in response to Gibbon, far more attention paid to the fall of Rome than to its rise. Also, I think that theories of why Rome fell are largely used as a proxy to assess why our own power might prove transient. This would appear to make all that analytical work more worthwhile.

I guess the question this book has to answer is how, other than Hobbes, this affects other theories on why Rome fell. Like Edmund says Machiavelli would not seem to be affected. Neither would Gibbon.

Also, isn't there a big question over whether or not the theoretical power of the masses translated practically. I.e. the extent to which they were overruled by the senate. What does Millar have to say about this?

As for service in the army, the Starship Troopers polity, how does Millar think that changes things?

Lol... too many questions, I should read this book.

Matt