What was the Roman Republic


Hans Vorländer

Prof. Dr. Hans Vorländer, born in 1954, has held the chair for political theory and the history of ideas at the Technical University of Dresden since 1993. There he is himself director of the Center for Constitutional and Democracy Research.
His main research interests are: political thinking and comparative political research, political theory and the history of ideas, constitutionalism and the constitution, democracy, liberalism and populism.

Law, statute and common good are considered the foundations of the political order in the ancient Roman Republic. Their mixed constitutional system is not only exemplary for the medieval city republics, but still has an impact today.

Republican thought goes back to Roman antiquity and the Republic of Rome. Rome itself was not a democracy, but an oligarchy, a rule of eminent and respected men. The so-called nobility, a small group of patricians (from Latin: patres, fathers), the landowning nobility, and wealthy plebeians (from Latin: plebs, people), above all farmers and craftsmen, was able to use a sophisticated clientele and patronage system control political decisions as far as possible.

The Senate was the decisive center of power, negotiating and voting on the most important public affairs in it. The people's assembly had gained influence after the class struggles between plebeians and patricians (500-287 BC), but it had no direct decision-making and control rights. However, the people's assembly was the place where the politics represented by the nobility was presented to the people as a whole and where the people had a certain possibility of influence.

Ancient Rome

The Roman Republic initially had a much more direct and stronger effect on political thought in the centuries that followed than Athens' polis-democracy. This was also due to the fascination that the rise of Rome, the conquest of Italy up to approx. 270 BC. And the subsequent establishment of the world empire until approx. 130 BC. Evoked.

The Greek historian Polybios (201-120 BC) sought an explanation for Rome's rise to world domination early on. He saw it as being based primarily on the elasticity of the Roman constitution, which made it possible to limit and control power, to enforce cooperation between social forces, especially patricians and plebeians, and political powers, and finally to ensure political stability.

In the mixed Roman constitution, the monarchical element, in the form of the consulate, the aristocratic element, in the form of the senate, and the democratic element, in the form of the people, were combined. Like Aristotle before, Polybius also considered a combination of different constitutional forms to guarantee a free order and political stability. According to Polybius' analysis, the consuls, the senate and the people's assembly had developed a system of equilibrium based on institutional interplay, on mutual influence and mutual control of institutions.

This created a balance for Polybius between the nobility and the people and at the same time a balance between the various political organs. Even if historians have repeatedly doubted that this mixed constitutional system in Rome actually existed as Polybius ideally described it, the view remained that such a mixed constitutional model had positive effects: moderation of power, equalization of social forces and control of political institutions their mutual entanglement.

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Constitutional doctrine of Polybius

[...] Polybios was a politician, strategist and envoy. After the defeat of the Greek cities of the Achaean League in 168 BC. BC against the Romans he was brought to Rome along with 1000 other members of the Achaean leadership, where this group had to wait for years for a trial that the Romans wanted to bring them to bear. [...] Polybius now develops what he considers to be a natural law of constitutional creation and constitutional consequences. In reality it is a historical-philosophical scheme of the chronological sequence of different constitutions according to principles of theoretically comprehensible necessity. [...]

This sequential model consists of six steps:
  1. New states emerge after natural disasters or in emergency situations. The people then gather around leaders who rule through physical strength and boldness and only last as long as these qualities. That is the rule of the individual [...].
  2. By getting used to it, it becomes kingship [...] by submitting oneself to a recognized ruler even when he has become old and weak. The royal dignity can also pass to the offspring, because the belief arises that someone who is descended from good men could also have special abilities through upbringing or heredity. Instead of violence, morality and law now begin to prevail.
  3. The descendants, however, move away from the subjects, claim special rights and thereby arouse envy, hatred and anger. From the kingship comes the tyranny.
  4. This is overthrown by conspiracies of the noblest, the purest and the bravest, because they could least endure the unreasonable demands and presumptions of the rulers. An aristocratic ruling class now rules.
  5. But when their sons take over this position of power, they no longer have any idea of ​​the sufferings of tyranny, the importance of free speech and other civil rights. The ruling class is transforming itself into an oligarchy and tends towards greed, corruption and scandalous moral violations.
  6. The crowd overthrows the oligarchs and must now take control themselves. This in turn works as long as people are still alive who remember the tyranny and prevent new degenerations. After that, however, this form of government also succumbs to the inexorable forms of decay, the new generation gets used to consuming foreign goods, joins grandiose leaders, steals and expulsions until a single ruler is found again. [...]
Polybios' doctrine of the cycle of constitutions is astute, illuminating and, in its immanent causality, extraordinarily convincing. It has only one disadvantage: it is empirically wrong. The teaching, the replacement of one constitutional form and the transition to the other take place in the next generation, at the latest the next but one, cannot be generalized. [...]

Walter Reese-Schäfer, Ancient Political Philosophy as an introduction, Junius Verlag, Hamburg 1998, p. 147 ff



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The state as a legal community of citizens

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero held the highest political offices in the republic during his career. In his political writings he defended the state as a matter of the people ("Est igitur ... res publica res populi").

[...] Every citizenry, that is, every constitutional order of a people, every state, which is [...] a matter for the people, must somehow be directed through systematic management in order to be able to exist in the long term. This systematic management [...] must either be entrusted to an individual or certain chosen ones or be taken over by the entirety of all citizens. So when all power is in the hands of one individual, we call this "king" and the constitution of this state "monarchy". But if [power] is in the hands of the chosen, then it is said that the state is governed by the decision-making power of the optimates (aristocracy). After all, democracy is [...] the constitution in which everything is in the hands of the people. [...]

But in monarchies all others have too little share in the common law and the systematic governance of the state; In the aristocracy, since they lack any participation in systematic management and power, the multitude can hardly have a share in freedom; and in a democracy, when everything is decided by the people (and no matter how just and measured it may be), equality itself is an element of injustice, since it does not have any hierarchy. [...]

Therefore I consider a fourth form of government to be the one that deserves the most recognition: namely one that is moderately mixed from the three mentioned. [...]

Because the law is the bond of the civil community, but the law means equality before the law - on what legal basis can the community of citizens be preserved if there are no equal conditions for the citizens? If one is not in favor of an even distribution of money and if everyone's talents cannot be the same, then the rights must certainly be the same for everyone who is a citizen of the same state. For what else is the state as the legal community of its citizens? [...]

Marcus Tullius Cicero, De re publica / Vom Staat, Erstes Buch, 25 (39) –32 (49), Latin / German, translated and edited by Michael von Albrecht, Stuttgart 2013, p. 57 ff.



Cicero's role model - the mixed constitution of the Roman Republic (& copy dtv Atlas Politik)

The analysis of the ancient republic of Rome made a constructive contribution to shaping modern democracies. Republican thought and tradition helped establish a model of moderate democracy based on separation and control of powers more than 18 centuries later.

According to the republican way of thinking, if a political order wanted to be good and just, it had to be based on justice, law and the common good. The Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 - 43 BC), who once again precisely described the principles of the republican form of government in the phase of the decline of the Roman republic, wrote "De re publica" (" About the State ", 54 - 51 BC) stated:" So the community is the cause of the people (res publica res populi), but a people not every somehow huddled together group of people, but the grouping of a crowd that is united in the recognition of the law (iuris consensu) and the commonality of utility (utilitatis communione). "

At the same time it was stated that a republic, as a "cause of the people", had to involve its citizens in the formulation of the laws and the common good, which by no means meant a direct and immediate participation of all free and equal citizens as in the Athenian polis-democracy was.

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The privilege of citizenship

[...] That people can be citizens and not subjects and that they have rights as citizens [...] is an achievement of antiquity [...]. The polites, the citizen, has its origin in the polis: He was a participant in the community and at the same time its co-creator.

[...] The polis demands a lot from its citizens. The restrictions on civil rights in Greece were insurmountable in the way of the formation of communities larger than a city. It would never have occurred to the Athenians to give their citizenship to the inhabitants of subjugated cities and thus to integrate them into their domain.

But that is exactly what the Romans did, whose empire also had its nucleus in a city-state. [...] With well-calculated generosity, the Romans granted their citizenship to the elites of the regions they had subjugated. In this way they created loyal trustees, first in the municipalities of Italy, and later in the provinces around the Mediterranean. The Romans did not have a problem with the fact that the new Romans also had the citizenship of their hometown. [...]

The unbundling of civil rights and city-state was not to be had without price. The participation rights guaranteed by the citizen status were sacrificed piece by piece to the territorially and personally growing civil community. Although it was a formidable military machine, it was not suitable for forming political opinions because it was opposed to insurmountable distances.

The fact that the Roman citizens flocked from the cities of Italy to the Roman people's assembly had become utopian at the latest when the Romans formally imposed their citizenship by law on the entire peninsula after a large part of their Italian allies had rehearsed the revolt against Rome in 91 BC. Since then, the citizenship status was decoupled from political participation, compared to its Greek counterpart, the citizenship of the Romans was only a "light" citizenship.

But that did not detract from the desires it aroused. Even without a ticket for political participation, it guaranteed rights and preferential treatment. It is not for nothing that Cicero states that the sentence "civis Romanus sum" works like a magic formula everywhere in the empire. It guarantees respect and legal certainty to those who express it. [...]

In a world that thought in strict hierarchies and in which honor and prestige were very important, citizenship contained immense social capital. On the fringes of the Roman world, where there were hardly any Roman citizens, being a citizen was synonymous with belonging to the local elite. Anyone who was a Roman had made it. [...]

In the Rome of Cicero and Trajan, citizenship was synonymous with the promise of social advancement. It was therefore an inseparable part of the Roman success story. If the Romans could not only conquer an empire that stretched from the Firth of Forth to the cataracts of the Nile, but also hold it for centuries, then they owed it at least as much to civil rights as to their legions. After all, the prospect of it guaranteed the good behavior of populations with completely different cultural backgrounds. [...]

One would think that the Romans tenaciously stuck to this successful model. They did that for a long time, but in 212 AD Emperor Caracalla granted all free residents of the empire Roman citizenship by imperial decree. The motives for this step are just as obscure as the consequences are controversial. The only thing that is clear is that citizenship suddenly lost its function as a catalyst for integration. Like any resource that is suddenly in abundance, the "civitas Romana" lost all value. [...] Citizenship no longer offered incentives for loyal behavior. The loyalty of the inhabitants of the empire remained with the empire for a few centuries. But it had to be enforced more and more by force.

Michael Sommer, "The magic formula for legal security", in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from August 31, 2016.

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