Exactly how the Roman republic came into existence remains shrouded in mystery. Critically so. As with our tradition of English common law and the necessity of knowing that its origins are “beyond the memory of man,” from “time immemorial,” “ancient beyond memory or record,” and “time out of mind,” so it is with the best republics. If we could identify the exact moment of origin and the originator or originators, a republic would lose one of its most important components: that it is a reflection of cosmic nature and not of human will. Its continuation must be of the will—just as with a trial by jury and the presumption of innocence. These must be guarded by the will, but they cannot rest in their origins in the mind of man (or men). If they did, they would lose their power and their very essence.
The Roman Republic, then, arrived not by the hand of any one founder, but by the revolution of a whole people against the political tyranny and moral corruption of the rulers, the Etruscans. Of all the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean, modern scholars know very little about the Etruscan people, other than their language (not fully) and the art that remained long after the Romans overthrew them. In contrast to the rustic simplicity of the Latins, the Etruscans appear to be a soft, sensual, and decadent people. The Romans must have despised them not just for their intrusive governance, but for their sexual libertinism and their effete civilization.
Whatever their successes—and they were many, especially in art and engineering—the Etruscans lost favor with the Romans, and the Romans violently overthrew them in 510 B.C. The following year, the Romans established a republic, only the second in recorded history. The Carthaginians had beaten them to it, but the North Africans had established a commercial republic, while the Romans desired a virtuous one.
Certainly, the Roman republic was not a democratic one, but, rather, an aristocratic one, with most of the power residing in the Senate (meaning “wise old men”), a body of the ruling families that controlled the finances, internal security, and foreign affairs. In his history of Rome, the Greek thinker Polybius claimed that Rome had a tripartite balance of powers from the beginning, even if power resided in the aristocracy. Around the Senate, according to Polybius, the people as a whole provided checks and balances, as did the executives through various offices. Almost nothing is recorded of the first few centuries of Roman republican history, so one theory or one guess, generally, is as good as any other. One way or another, the Roman constitution evolved to incorporate formal institutions representing the aristocratic, the democratic, and the executive elements of government.
Here, one must pause and consider the history of the Mediterranean world to understand the importance of Rome and its republic. Though it was the second republic, as noted above, the Roman republic came into being only a year after the first Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, wrote of the LOGOS being the primal matter, and a full four decades before Socrates was born. At the same time that Leonidas and his 300 defended the Gates of Fire against the Persians in 480, the Roman republic was a thriving polity. When Plato wrote his magnum opus, The Republic, in the fourth century, the Roman republic had already existed for nearly one-and-a-half centuries.
Yet, one must turn back again to Polybius, noting that the Greek writer believed that as all republics reflected the natural law, they were simultaneously the best and the most fragile of all governments. As they originated in nature and not in the will of man (or men), republics followed the path and route of all biological things. They came into existence, grew old, decayed, and died. “Whereas there is in everybody, or polity, or business a natural stage of growth, zenith, and decay; and whereas everything in them as its best at the zenith; we may thereby judge of the difference.” In other words, no one can expect a republic to last forever. To believe it immortal is to destroy one’s own republicanism. Or, at the very least, to render one’s own republicanism impotent. As with all organic things, it must live its natural life. While man cannot create the republic, just as he cannot create the tree, he can plant it, and, by his care and will, sustain and nourish it. Further, the Greek argued, one could even judge a republic, just as he could judge the state of a tree or a person. Unlike the tree, however, a republic, like a man, has free will, thus allowing one to judge its virtue or corruption. “For the true test of a perfect man is the power of bearing with spirit and dignity violent changes of fortune.” The same, Polybius asserted, is as true of a constitution and a republic.
Overall, though an enemy of Rome and a POW, Polybius approved of what he saw in the Roman republic. Not only had it properly incorporated the three elements of a good government—the democratic, the aristocratic, and the executive—it had treated its neighbors as well as its enemies with dignity and fortitude, if not always perfect wisdom. After all, as they had quickly expanded into neighboring areas, they incorporated the Latins living in what is now known as the Italian boot, though loose communities of the Etruscans resisted the Roman-Latin alliances for nearly 200 years before finally being broken completely. Sagely, as the Romans expanded their territory and rule for their first two centuries or so, they considered their new allies as equal citizens, incorporating them as such.
Most importantly for Polybius, the Romans had held their peoples together through the great unifying force of religion and Stoic worship of the dead, especially the dead who had given their lives for the republic. Polybius had no use for religion personally, but he understood its power to hold together a people, and he deeply respected that power.
That same power, Livy understood, kept the people as virtuous as possible for as long as possible, though it ultimately failed (as all republics must), and Virgil used that power to craft what was arguably the greatest myth ever created. But, Livy and Virgil must wait for another day and another essay….
This is the third essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Western Odyssey” series.
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