Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic contributed greatly to the development of the modern world, bringing into it the notions of democracy and republic. The evolution of these concepts took them to a level much higher than one present in Ancient Greece and Rome respectively. However, modern society continues to draw on somewhat idealized accounts of the ancient world for inspiration in improving today’s governing procedures.
Greek Direct Democracy
Greek democracy was best developed in the city-state of Athens from where the very word “democracy”, meaning “the rule of the people” stems. People ‘ruled’ by electing officials through lot and making important decisions by majority rule. Democracy was direct, meaning that the Athenians “allowed the whole citizenry to assemble in the central eklisia, or the equivalent today of the main city hall, to vote on important issues” (Makedon 1995). In this sense, Athenian democracy differed from representative democracy that is currently prevalent in most states, in which officials are elected through democratic vote and then given authority to make decisions for the people. In Athens, elected officials were paid, but the pay was very low so that it compared with the wages of the poorest citizens and only covered the compensation of their time and effort.
The main limitation of the Athenian democracy was its restriction to the minority group of male citizens. The majority including women, foreigners, slaves and aliens was excluded from participation. In fact, the reduction in the number of politically active citizens made the establishment of democracy even easier – it was simpler to fit a smaller group of people into one area for the vote procedure. This gives scholars reasons to believe that “the exclusion of a large proportion of the population … from the citizenship of a Greek state allowed their particular form of direct democracy to take place much more readily” (Ancient Greek Slavery and its Relationship to Democracy).
The Roman Republic: Republic, But Not a Democracy
The Roman Republic, that was established in 509 B.C. and lasted well into the 1st century B.C., also included the election of leaders and passage of laws through popular assemblies. However, the major difference from Athens was the existence of a set of functioning political institutions with more power than in Athens, which allowed rich and noble families to usurp power and to manipulate the crowd for their own benefit. In this sense, the Roman Republic may be considered to be an oligarchy rather than a true democracy.
Thus, the Senate, the most influential institution of Ancient Rome, included aristocrats that formed the two semi-official parties of the optimates and the populares (Wikipedia). The basic principles of governance were annuality and collegiality. Annuality implied that the official could not hold an office for longer than a year, and collegiality required that officials make their decisions in conjunction with others. For instance, the Roman Republic had two consuls, each of whom could veto the other’s decision.
The collegiality was not absolute, however. The notable exception was dictatorship, as dictators made unilateral decisions without consulting others. The dictator, elected for half a year in case of military emergency, had full control of the state functions. Rome was in the first place a military power, and the need to strengthen control delegated to one person for military purposes demanded certain restriction of democratic procedures. The Romans could not go out into the square in the way Athenians did to vote major decisions in case there was a war going on, and the Roman Republic spent a lot of time in wars.
This partly explains why the Roman Republic finally turned into an empire. The legal power of one person was not much different from the dictatorship that existed, for instance, in the time of Lucius Cornellius Sulla, who severely restricted the assembly power and instead strengthened the authority of the oligarchic Senate and his own power.
Contribution of Rome and Greece to the Development of Modern Concepts of Democracy and Republic
The two ancient civilizations can in the first place be credited with inventing the corresponding concepts and setting the standards for their development. From Greece, the modern world derives the notion that it is more advantageous to have decisions made by the whole community than to relegate the function of decision-making to a single person. Greek direct democracy still remains an example for many modern states that cannot achieve the same standards of population’s participation and have to use representative democracy to ensure more efficient decision-making. At the same time, the exclusion of a large proportion of population from the decision-making process was certainly a limitation that modern-day democratic states try to overcome. However, initially the idea that some parts of the population can be barred from voting was so inherent that it took decades, for instance, to win the rights to women’s suffrage.
To the Roman Republic the world owes the concept of government institutions, many of which are present in today’s states, like the Senate, for instance. The concept of a legislative body in which different political parties vie for power, a process often lacking transparency for the outsiders, is also connected with Roman history. The technique of gerrymandering, manipulating the boundaries of electoral constituencies, populist and demagogue tricks in winning the hearts of the voters can also be traced to ancient Rome.
Thus, Greek democracy and the Roman Republic were important milestones in the development of global civilization. Their norms and principles were especially popular in European nations that often see their democratic and republican institutions as direct descendents of their Greek and Roman counterparts. Roman and Greek legacy therefore remains important for the future of democratic institutions throughout the world, inspiring modern policy-makers to go beyond the standards dating to over two millennia ago.
Ancient Greek Slavery and its Relationship to Democracy. BBC 28 November 2000. 7 December 2005 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A471467>.
Makedon, Alexander. In Search of Excellence: Historical Roots of Greek Culture (1). Chicago State University, 1995. 7 December 2005 <http://webs.csu.edu/~big0ama/articles/GreekCulture.html#The%20ancient%20Greeks>.
Roman Republic. Wikipedia. 7 December 2005 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_republic>.
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