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How Democratic Was the Roman Republic?

by Allen Ward, University of Connecticut
Original Text © 2003 Allen Ward. All rights reserved

Without getting into a detailed definition of democracy here, there are many other reasons besides the undemocratic voting arrangements in the popular assemblies why the Roman Republic was never formally or practically democratic, despite the introduction of secret ballots and other reforms, such as requiring the senate to give its ratification, known as the patrum auctoritas, before a vote on a legislative proposal or such as ensuring that more than the wealthiest centuries in the comitia centuriata had the opportunity to vote when it met. First of all, elected officials received no pay, so that only the independently wealthy could hold elective office. Candidates for high office could come from only the highest census class by wealth and could not stand for election unless they were accepted as candidates by the existing office holders, who presided over the elections. Even tribunes, the supposed defenders of the plebs, were usually young men from the wealthiest plebeian families. Since they were just starting their political careers, they usually did not want to offend the wealthy and powerful magistrates and ex-magistrates, who constituted the senate and could promote or hinder their advancement. If a tribune happened to propose radical legislation, another tribune usually could be found who would veto the proposal. (Tiberius Gracchus’ radical tactic of having an obstructionist tribune removed by a vote of the tribes was seldom copied.) Finally, even in official public meetings (contiones) held in the Forum, voters never could debate proposed legislation, and voters in the public assemblies could never initiate legislation.

Millar, however, stresses that in the late 70’s B.C. popular displeasure expressed in the Forum led to the overturning of reactionary laws that the dictator Sulla had instituted earlier to remove wealthy nonsenators from the public juries and take away the rights of tribunes to introduce legislation and hold further elective offices. Sulla had taken away those rights because the courts and the office of tribune were instrumental in the elite’s destructive political competition that had destabilized the Republic since the time of the famous Gracchi brothers between 133 and 122 B.C. Popular pressure in the Forum would have been irrelevant, however, if ambitious members of the elite like Pompey and Crassus had not been willing to use their offices to obtain the reversal of Sullan laws in order to use the courts and the tribunes to gain advantage over their rivals. Popular, but fundamentally undemocratic, aspects of the Roman Republican constitution became weapons in the political struggles among members of a wealthy ruling elite that destroyed what was always, if not an oligarchy, essentially a timocracy of wealthy property owners. They would have wholeheartedly endorsed those conservative bumper stickers from late 1960’s America that said, “This is a republic, not a democracy, let’s keep it that way.”

The irony is that the conservatives who embraced that anti-democratic slogan in the 1960s trumpet the rhetoric of Western democratic triumphalism today, the rhetoric that makes some Roman historians prone to distort the true nature of the Roman Republic.



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