News and Opinion From a Team of Young People

Parallels Between Roman and Modern Politics

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Politics has always been an integral part of human society and no less so than in Roman government. In fact, ancient societies, such as Rome and Athens have been greatly influential in the structure of our politics today. For example, the Romans gave us the word ‘republic’, one of the main forms of governance in our modern world, coming from the Latin words res publica, literally meaning ‘public matters’. Athens gave us the great ideal of democracy, literally the ‘rule of the people’, which is the foundation of our modern government system. In fact, clear parallels can be made between ancient politics, particularly Roman politics that I will be looking at in further detail, and our modern politics.

Firstly, there are some obvious parallels between Roman politics and modern politics, through the names of political bodies and the forms of governance employed. An example of this is in the American political system. They have a body of elected people, known as senators, which make up their ‘senate’ to make decisions on issues along with the House of Representatives. This system of a ‘senate’ and indeed the name itself has been adopted from the Roman political system, as the Romans too debated issues within their senate, although far larger than the US Senate at 600 senators, compared to 100 in the USA, and made laws. Also, as above the names for systems of governance come from the Classical Era, such as republic and democracy et cetera, as well as the word politics itself (from the Greek polis – meaning ‘city state’).

Moreover, the idea of these so called ‘career politicians’ is a similar one in Roman and modern society. These politicians are in politics as a means of advancing their own careers, gaining prestige and power in the process, rather than for improving the country. An example in Roman politics would be Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (or Pompey). He sought power initially through military command and was successful as he attained many spectacular triumphs. He then used this reputation to skip the cursus honorem (the passage up the political ladder – like the modern equivalent of progressing from an MP, to a minister, to the cabinet and then to prime minister) straight to the highest job of the consulship in 70 BCE and this was very unprecedented. He used this power to enact laws and later in 59 BCE, along with Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus, he was involved in the ‘1st Triumvirate’ (literally a coalition of 3 men), which further increased his power and influence. Although, he was less highly regarded as a politician, as he was a general but Cicero went as a far as to say: “I long ago knew him [Pompey] to be the most incapable of politicians, I now know him also to be the least capable of generals”. These kinds of career politicians can be seen these days. Every politician dreams of holding the top job in a country’s government, whether as president or a prime minister. In the case of the UK Referendum ( which is again another Latin word meaning “needing to be brought back”), one could say that a politician like Boris Johnson is using the opportunity of leading the campaign to leave as an opportunity to further his career, after success as Mayor of London. For if he is successful with the Leave campaign, there is a chance that David Cameron could be ousted as prime minister and that could potentially open the door for him to have a chance as prime minister of the UK.

Furthermore, the use of rhetoric and oratory in politics has been a vital one throughout human history. A man who is a masterful orator can win over any audience to his case. A magnificent orator in the Roman Republic era was Marcus Tullius Cicero (or just Cicero). Every well-off Roman family had their boys educated in rhetoric among other things, and Cicero was no different. He learned not only Latin but also Greek and this enabled him to understand rhetoric. In his career, he used his powers of oratory to great success, as he made many political and judicial speeches, which bolstered his reputation, leading to his election as consul for 63 BCE. For me, even without being able to listen to his oratory in person, he is one of the greatest orators and users of rhetoric of all time, as he was so successful at persuading people of his cause and his recorded speeches are so excellently written and full of persuasive rhetoric. In modern politics, politicians still use rhetoric and oratory to sway audiences of potential voters. For example in a famous speech by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, effectively used rhetoric, through the use of the tricolon “Education, Education, Education”, in an attempt to demonstrate what his government intended when he entered office, which was to focus on improving schools in the UK, by increased funding. The speech was certainly effective at the time.

However, there are some differences in their systems. The Romans voted differently to how we do now. Roman citizens didn’t cast a ballot, like we do in UK elections; they were counted by head in the assembly and the richest classes, or centuries, voted first. This gave heavy advantage to the rich classes and when the majority was reached in these 193 centuries in the comitia centuriata, the assembly that elected the consuls and praetors. These were political magistracies that allowed a Roman citizen to have power and influence in the senate. The Roman political system is also very complicated and this diagram should make it a bit clearer:

Roman Government Diagram

The Romans also had many other problems in their political system, such as corruption, in the form of bribery and also electoral violence. ‘Bribery’ was used to persuade the people in your voting tribe in the Comitia Tributa to vote for you in the election but this was legal largesse if you only promised people benefits, such as public games and lavish banquets, within your own tribe. For if you did this outside your tribe then this was perceived as bribery and was an illegal electoral practice, so you could be charged by de ambitu (political corruption). However, a loophole around this was to persuade one of your friends to use largesse within his tribe to persuade voters to vote for you, as this was a perfectly legal practice. Violence was also prevalent, with gangs and soldiers used by many politicians to threaten the electorate to vote for them, as seen with Pompey and Crassus’ consulship of 70 BCE, where they refused to stand down their armies in order attain the consulship.

Ultimately, even though these are two very different time periods, we can thank our forefathers, the Greeks and the Romans, for our political governance of today, from the techniques of oratory and rhetoric, to the ‘democratic’ systems they deployed day to day. They made the foundations of our society, from our laws to our calendar, from our government to our roads.

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