To long before the [minds of the people] roused…their

To properly understand how democratic the Roman Republic was, it is necessary to first understand how ancient scholars understood democracy as a political system. One can find a cohesive answer in the writings of the 2nd century Greek historian, and Roman captive, Polybius. According to Polybius, democracy is “where reverence to the gods, succor of parents, respect to elders, and obedience to laws are traditional and habitual…in such communities, if the will of the majority prevail, we may speak of the…government as a democracy.”  Polybius also details how democracy emerges from other political systems. Out of the state of nature, kings emerge as rulers. Over time kingship becomes hereditary and tyrannical and is overthrown by aristocratic plot; “but it is not long before the minds of the people roused…their fall therefore was very like the disaster which befell the tyrants.” Consequently, “the people are driven to take refuge in…a democracy…they regard their current constitution as a blessing and hold equality and freedom the utmost value.” Through his description Polybius provides a criterion through which to assess the Roman Republic as a democracy. Theoretically, at least, the sovereign power were the people.   As such only the populus could enact actual laws. Unlike all modern democracies Rome did not have a legislature: the only way to get a new law passed was through one of the citizen assemblies in which citizens themselves voted directly on laws.  So, in that sense Rome was notably more democratic than any modern state. However, in some other senses Rome was much less democratic because the system was design to ensure that some citizen’s votes counted more than others.   There were two different voting assemblies: The Centuriate Assembly was organized by wealth. with different property classes voting as blocs.  Each individual had only one vote but voting was winner-take-all within each property class.  The smaller, wealthier classes therefore dominated the voting even though they contained fewer people.  This assembly elected the highest magistrates: the consuls and the praetors. The Tribal Assembly was organized by location, so it was less obviously biased in favour of the wealthy.  It elected the junior magistracies (aediles and quaestors) and the tribunes. Both assemblies could pass laws, but many complex political and technical considerations could influence the choice of venue for a proposal.  One very important limitation on the democratic aspect of the Roman system was that citizens could not propose laws – they could only vote on measures which a senior magistrate had proposed: this was quite different from ancient Athens where any citizen could propose a law and the magistrates only provided minimal procedural guidance to the process. At first glance, these bodies, while imperfect, appear to be both quite democratic and powerful. While true in theory, in reality they were deliberately structured to disadvantage the vast majority of the Roman populace in favour of the old, conservative, and rich. This was most obvious in the Centuriate Assembly where 88 of the 193 centuries were held by the wealthiest ten percent with the vast majority of the populace holding the other 105; “as the vote went down the scale…the number of centuries diminished…in any case, voting always ceased as soon as a sufficient number of centuries had voted to settle the outcome…frequently, therefore, the lower centuries…would never be called upon.” By comparison the Tribal Assembly did not favor the wealthy to such an obvious extent. Seemingly, “no form of social stratification applied and each citizens vote counted equally…. however, this is a very misleading, if not downright disingenuous statement…. as tribally organized voting was biased in favor of rural men of property in the more numerous rural tribes.”15 Only wealthy rural property owners were able to afford travel to Rome. Consequently the wealthy were disproportionally powerful in both the Centuriate and Tribal assemblies. Furthermore, “ordinary citizens had little freedom of speech or initiative…they could not put forward any proposal…nor…seek to amend a proposal…all they could do was to vote for or against.”1 Another important limit on Roman democracy was the fact that Senate membership was for life.  The Senate could not pass laws but it did issue directives and day-to-day guidance to the current magistrates; in this regard it was similar to a modern civil service, which lives on despite the coming and goings of particular politicians and of popular moods.  One last limitation on the democratic nature of the system was its inherent complexity.  The system abounded in checks and balances: the tribunes of the people (elected by the more democratic tribal assembly could veto any proposed law or government action — but on the other hand the college of augurs, dominated by aristocrats and nominated by the Senate, could do effectively the same thing by claiming unfavourable omens.   And of course, there were two chief executive officers so that no one person was actually in charge – a defence against tyranny but also often an obstacle to efficient governance.   The drag factor of the Roman constitution made it less responsive to the popular will, something that many ancient political writers regarded as its key advantage over the much more erratic Athenian version.


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