Well, THAT couldn’t happen in the U.S. (not even Clinton / Trump could), at least not without a constitutional amendment! But in the ancient Roman Republic two “co-presidents” were indeed routinely elected, each with supreme executive and military authority, and with veto power over one another. These officials were called “consuls” not “presidents,” though the term “president” does come from Latin praesidere, which means literally “to SIT out front” (as in SEDentary) or, more freely, “to guard or govern,” as in PRESIDe and PRESIDio, a fortress (something we may hope Washington is not devolving into).
New consuls (as in CONSULtant and COUNSEL) were inaugurated annually and were nearly always from the same political faction. In Cicero’s day these groups were called the populares, the “people’s party,” from populus/people as in POPULarist and POPULation, and the optimates, “the best men,” from optimus/excellent as in OPTIMal and OPTIMistic, as in hoping for the best (which is about all we can do this electoral season). These were not political parties in the formal American sense but might be loosely associated with, respectively, “liberals” (from Latin liberare, “to free” or “LIBERAte”) and “conservatives” (conservare, “to preSERVE/protect” or “keep unchanged”).
Rome was a “republic” (from Latin res publica, literally “the people’s business,” i.e., a participatory government) and not a pure “democracy” (Greek for “rule by the people”). Not everyone participated of course: slaves couldn’t vote or hold office (though once emancipated, their children had an unimpeded pathway to citizenship), and women too were disenfranchised - just as they were in the U.S. until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified less than a century ago. All adult male citizens could vote and participate in legislative and electoral assemblies. But on important matters, including consular elections, it was never truly “one man, one vote.” Electoral assemblies, in particular the comitia centuriata, were rigged to give the majority of votes to the wealthiest classes - Rome’s equivalent to the 1 percent - whereas the very poorest class, the proletarii/proletariate, had collectively only a single vote out of the 193 cast each year.
With no “Citizens United,” campaign finance was an expensive challenge, then as now, even for the unimaginably rich. Successful candidates, however, after their year in office, were awarded lucrative governorships in the empire’s provinces and there worked energetically to repay debts and recoup campaign expenditures through excessive taxation and a host of extortionate practices that would make even the Godfather pale. The Roman senate was largely controlled by a relatively small number of families constituting the aristocratic nobilitas/nobility, literally the “known/renowned folks,” and membership in the senate required that one have previously held national elective office, positions again open only to aristocrats.
The famous orator and statesman Cicero was an exception. Despite being a political outsider from an obscure family, what Romans called a novus homo/new man (as in NOVice and HOMicide), he rose through the ranks to become one of Rome’s leading senators and was elected one of the two consuls for the year 63 B.C. The senate had for years been bitterly divided between the conservative, monied old guard and a growing cadre of largely aristocratic but liberal reformers; by Cicero’s day, in the 1st century B.C., rioting and mob violence had become a norm in the city’s streets, far worse than what the New York Times called merely “violent scuffles” at a recent Trump rally but in some respects similarly motivated.
During his consulship Cicero managed to suppress a violent coup d’etat led by the popularist demagogue Catiline, but was later exiled for a time and, after Julius Caesar’s rise to power, went into seclusion to write some of his most famous political and philosophical treatises. When Caesar was assassinated by rival senators near the senate house on the Ides of March, 44 B.C. (subject of a 2015 book by Barry Strauss, The Death of Caesar), Cicero enjoyed a brief renaissance of political activity and influence. But in 43 B.C., after a long and distinguished career, he was beheaded by assassins dispatched by Caesar’s nephew Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, to appease his then ally Marc Antony, whom Cicero had gravely offended in a series of speeches directed against him the year before.
Within a decade, Octavian and Antony had morphed from allies of convenience into savage foes. Antony and his consort Cleopatra were defeated at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and, following their suicides and some military clean-up campaigns, Octavian returned triumphant to Rome, was named Augustus, “the revered one,” and gradually, under the guise of restoring peace, liberty, and republican institutions, took upon himself a vast array of political and priestly offices that together were tantamount to dictatorship. Thus the Roman citizenry, weary from years of political strife and civil war, quietly surrendered such political rights as they had previously enjoyed to an imperator/emperor who gave them in return the pax Romana, “Roman peace,” and a system of government that was forever transformed. Augustus reigned for 45 years, until his death in A.D. 14.
Senatorial gridlock, the abuses of oligarchy and of the 1 percent, violent scuffles, and political thugs. Well, thankfully THAT couldn’t happen here or was the 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke perhaps right to suggest that “those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it?”
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.