Roman Politics – Polybius & Cicero

The ancient Romans were nothing if not practical. Plato and Aristotle were both philosophers first, where Polybius and Cicero were more interested in statecraft. Polybius dismissed Plato’s utopia entirely on the basis that it had never been put into practice, so had nothing practical to teach. Aristotle provides a philosophical justification for statesmen over philosopher-kings, but not a political how to guide.

As Rome became the only power in the Mediterranean in the 2nd century BC, Polybius explains why he believes the Roman Republic is superior to all other forms of government. In principle its strength is its mixed constituency, with elements of kingship, aristocracy and democracy – the consuls, senate and assembly respectively. More than that, it was the ability to check the defects of the pure forms without losing their virtues. Each of the three elements had broadly equal power, and neither could function without the concurrence of the others. The ‘cursus honorum’ was the only path to high office. It was sacred and helped ensure that senior politicians were experienced. Like Greeks, Romans had a classical liberty as free citizens subject to law, not slaves subject to tyrants, and they fought to preserve it. However, Roman citizenship did not give eligibility for office. This was tightly restricted, which prevented Athenian chaos. Unlike Greeks, Romans granted citizenship to conquered people (though not always voting rights), providing protection from the state and opportunities for ambitious provincials. Note that while this mixed constituency develops Aristotle’s principle of balance, it is not the separation of powers. The functions of executive, legislative and judiciary were blurred and broadly mixed between the three powers.

Cicero was a contemporary of Julius Caesar. He owed his constitutional theory to Polybius, but lamented the death of the republic. Like Aristotle, Cicero considered both the best state and the most practicable state, but on more practical terms rather than from philosophical first principles. The Roman Republic before the Gracchi brothers is the most practicable form. With the Roman emphasis on experience, the overthrow of the kings is considered part of an orderly period of experiment that led to the perfect constitution. Cicero develops Polybius’ account by pointing out that while most citizens could vote, voting was organised in blocks that gave far more voting power to the rich. This is considered a useful buffer against mob rule. Cicero’s mixed government is not the modern version; his is keeping the many under the tutelage of the rich and well born.

Cicero develops the Greek distinction between natural law (which the Christian world would call divine law) with the laws of a particular state. Natural law is reflected in nature and is just. Laws that are unjust are no laws at all. Cicero gives an account of the demands of justice. He quotes Plato’s view that we are born for others not just ourselves, but develops this to mean we are born for our friends and our country. Plato pulls us to an inner search for philosophical truth where Cicero places us at the centre of concentric circles looking outward. Cicero’s justice is Victorian – giving people what they are entitled to but not more. Overt generosity risks imperilling our own ability to do good. 

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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