The Greeks gave us the term “politics,” from polis/city-state. “Man is a political animal,” Aristotle wrote. He was thinking of how we as social creatures and citizens function, or malfunction, in the governance of the state. In our current maelstrom of presidential electioneering, two other political terms inherited from classical Athens swirl in the news daily, both from the same root, demos/the people, and yet with near opposite meanings. DEMOcracy is “rule by the people,” in contrast to plutoCRACY, rule by the rich, and autoCRACY, rule by a single person, a dictator. DEMagoguery, on the other hand, which originally meant “leading the people,” early acquired the sense that it has today, of luring people to follow by appealing to their fears, prejudices, and basest instincts.
Presidential politics are at a boiling point, now that Democrats and Republicans have held their nominating conventions and Americans are anxiously looking ahead to the November elections. The Romans elected their chief magistrates usually in July, originally named Quintilis, simply “fifth month” (as in QUINTet and QUINTuplets), until, in the midst of civil strife, the electoral process faltered, Julius Caesar was appointed Dictator in 47 B.C., and the senate renamed the month in his honor following his assassination in 44. (Heaven forbid that we should for any reason end up renaming a month “Clintonember” or “Trumpober”!)
Like the U.S. in certain respects, Rome revolted against an imperialist monarchy, the Etruscans, and around 500 B.C. reconstituted their government as a “republic.” The word, from Latin res publica, as in REal estate and PUBLIC, means literally “the people’s property” and generally refers to a system in which citizens have at least limited democratic powers. The Roman Republic had a senate, legislative assemblies, and elected magistracies. The senate was made up of former magistrates, and the magistrates were elected by the assemblies, whose membership was open to adult male citizens (women, slaves, and non-citizens could neither vote nor hold office). The chief state magistrates were called “consuls” (source of “counsel” and “consultant”). Two were inaugurated annually and took office on Jan. 1. The consular colleagues shared roles as the state’s chief executives and commanders-in-chief of the legions; each had veto power over the other.
The assembly that elected the consuls, the “centuriate,” was organized in “centuries” of originally 100 men each by economic class. Ultimately the one century that contained the largest group of citizens, the urban poor or “proletariate” (so called because their offspring, or proles, represented nearly the only property they owned), had but a single electoral vote, out of the hundreds cast in the elections. Thus Rome, like the U.S., was never a one-man, one-vote democracy like the one that governed Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries. Nevertheless, throughout the Republican period, male citizens retained the right to vote on who would govern them. Dissatisfaction with senatorial corruption, however, economic abuses by bankers and big business (the “equestrian” class), and widening income inequality had by the 2nd century B.C. led to polarization and civil discord.
Two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus - reminiscent in some ways of the Kennedys - stepped forward in the 130s as leaders of the populares, a political faction advocating debt relief and other economic reforms for the poor, including such radical measures as land redistribution. In short order both were assassinated and a century of mob violence, widespread executions, and outright civil war followed, leading to the clash of such political titans as the conservative general Sulla and the popularist leader Marius, and later between Pompey “the Great,” who emerged as a champion of the senate, and the reformer Julius Caesar. Four years after defeating Pompey, Caesar was himself murdered, on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., by a band of assassins fearing he aspired to kingship. A power struggle ensued between Caesar’s lieutenant Marc Antony and his nephew and adopted son Octavian.
Antony’s liaison with the Egyptian Cleopatra (subject of a new biography by Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff) and a series of actions that signaled his intention of sharing rule, and Roman lands as well, with the foreign monarch, led many of even his most ardent supporters to defect to Octavian. In 31 B.C. their forces clashed at sea in the Battle of Actium, one of the most consequential military encounters in the history of the western world. Antony and Cleopatra (aka, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) were defeated and fled to Egypt, where shortly thereafter both committed suicide.
Octavian returned to a Rome exhausted by a century of civil strife and, while proclaiming his “restoration of the Republic,” proceeded to establish one-man control over the Senate, degradation of the rights of the citizen assemblies, including popular elections, and domination of the state’s magistrates. The young general dubbed himself “son of the divine Julius,” had the Senate anoint him Augustus/the Revered One, and was declared permanent commander of the army, imperator, source of our words “emperor,” “empire” (as this final period of Roman history is called), and “imperialism.”
Weary of war, grateful for the return of “law and order” and the promised pax Romana, “The Roman Peace,” citizens and politicians more or less acquiesced in what was effectively the end of the Republic and establishment of the “Principate,” rule by the princeps/first man, the Prince. Augustus’ reign lasted 45 years, from Actium until his death at the age of 75 in A.D. 14. His dictatorship might be viewed as relatively benign. Certainly the worst was yet to come. Augustus was succeeded by his stepson and adopted son, Tiberius, who ruled from A.D. 14-37, abandoned any pretense of republican government, and ended popular elections—transferring selection of the consuls and other magistrates to the Senate, over which he presided with an iron hand. The historian Tacitus commented that the people didn’t complain much, and most senators were supportive, as it saved them the costs of campaigning and bribery!
Rome had intelligent, humane, highly capable emperors, to be sure; one thinks of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, two of those Machiavelli dubbed “the five good emperors.” But others were maniacal, thuggish brutes. The Empire itself survived for centuries more, by the force of momentum and military might. But free elections and “liberty and justice for all” were lost in Rome’s slide into tyranny. The problem with democracies is they are susceptible to demagogues, and have the right to elect them. And the problem with electing demagogues is their natural, narcissistic bent toward becoming despots—another Greek term, for the “master” of slaves.
The best means of avoiding this fate is to foster a society in which the demos are all well educated, have equal opportunity to share in the prosperity of the polis, and are thus neither tempted by the promises of a demagogue, nor susceptible to his rhetoric. In the short term, our own best recourse is going to the polls this November, voting for the presidential candidate who is less likely to govern by intimidation, bluster, and mean-spiritedness, and then working with our friends of all political persuasions to end gridlock and polarization and insure our res publica truly is and remains “the people’s property.”
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure there came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,”ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.