You are currently viewing Ancient Roman Democracy, and its Modern Offspring

Ancient Roman Democracy, and its Modern Offspring

When compared to all the other slave-holding nations of history, ancient Rome was an astonishing aberration. By the time the quasi-democratic Roman Republic ended in 27BC, Roman society had been eroded from within through a kind of “revenge of the cradle” – a sociologically bizarre situation in which the proportion of free citizens to slaves and citizens of slave-ancestry – was ever-diminishing. It’s true that the Romans developed a carefully qualified and limited quasi-democratic system that included some serious checks and balances designed to block the sort of mob-rule for which Athenian democracy was known – and feared. But as Lord Acton pointed out, “the Republic which Caesar overthrew had been anything but a free state.” Surprisingly to us moderns, the bulk of roman literature, most of the civil law, the law of property, the mitigation of slavery, religious toleration, and a fledgling law of nations, belonged not to Roman democracy, but to its period of dictatorship. And so, Acton concluded, “the Roman Empire rendered greater services to the cause of liberty than the Roman republic.” This lecture recounts some of the extraordinary details of this failing system, the vast public displays of death, sex, and slaughter in the Coliseum before bloodthirsty crowds, and the extraordinary social-welfare measures that became necessary to control an increasingly impoverished, unsettled and hungry population with “bread and circuses” during the 150 public Feast days of every year. It also discusses the lessons learned by the so-called “Atlantic democracies” – America and Canada – in their different efforts to create political systems that avoided the worst effects of Athenian-style democracy, while adopting the best of the checks and balances of the Roman system as Mother England had done.

Leave a Reply

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.