Power to the popolus!  The framers of the American constitution used Republican Rome as a model. How much did they really understand about how Roman "democracy" really worked?

For generations historians said that powerful Senatorial factions, led by leading families, were able to manipulate the voting of the lower classes in the elective and legislative assemblies of ancient Republican Rome. It was always thought that this was done with a long established system of political and economic patronage known in Latin as "clientela". Some recent "revisionists", on the other hand, have claimed that Republican Rome was somehow really democratic and that the voting assemblies represented "popular" power.

Neither opinion appears to be correct. Although the "populus Romanus", in theory, did hold voting power that could have made them a formidable force in government, in practice this force was seldom realized, at least until very late in the Republic -- and even then it was controlled by demagogues. Up until a few years before the Republic became the Empire, the government was, in fact, dominated by a few, very rich, and well-connected Senatorial families, but it's now becoming clearer that the Senators didn't need a widespread clientela system to maintain their authority. Clientela was real, but most folks weren't really a part of it.

Slaves, of course, could be ignored completely: they were more than half of the population, but they never had the vote. Women couldn't vote either, although they certainly had some power in running household and family affairs and could influence their spouses some of the time: the proof of their leverage was the fact that laws to protect their rights were passed during Republican times.

Another large segment of the population simply didn't have the time or resources to participate. These were the "working poor", respectable people, but, of necessity, politically inactive: even after subsidies and the dole had been introduced, poor plebeians had to work hard and for long hours just to make ends meet. No one encouraged the masses to participate in elections or legislative assemblies, and for the most part they could not be bothered to do so: the members of the popolus were too poor and too busy ensuring their own survival to waste their time on political causes that would be of, at best, marginal benefit to them.

Even if they had been able to vote, there were no real mechanisms for mass participation. It was all, to some extent, a matter of scale: how many people could actually fit into the places where legislative action or elections took place? Recent estimates of the capacity of the Comitium in front of the Senate Curia, where early legislative assemblies were held, run from about 3600 to 3800 people. Legislative assemblies were moved from there to the larger square in the center of the Forum Romanum in 145 BC, and, later, legislative activities occurred in ad hoc assemblies called at various locations. Neither change was made to accommodate more voters -- on the contrary, the moves were political gestures made by independent-minded politicians and designed to show defiance against the Senate and to make sure that only selected "voters" would know where they were. The Forum Romanum could have accommodated up to 10,000, but this does not mean 10,000 people really showed up to vote on legislation, and overall turnout probably became even lower when ad hoc assemblies became the norm.

The Saepta, where officials were elected, might have been able to hold as many as 70,000 voters on election days, but literary evidence leads researchers to conclude that elective assemblies rarely attracted even 10,000 -- seldom were more than a few hundred from each "tribe" present. With a total population of eligible electors that ran to over a million, it's easy to see that all potential voters just could not be present for a vote on any issue or for the election of public officials, but even the minuscule venues that were available did not fill with voters.

Interestingly, no one even kept track of how many voters showed up: in elections or legislation, getting the most votes was vital: actual numbers of votes were irrelevant, and there was no need for a quorum. The elite, therefore, had no real reason to encourage large voter turn-out, and many ways and means to discourage it. Legislative power of the lower classes was clearly held in check in the comitia centuriata (assemblies of the "centuries"), where the propertied classes had vastly smaller membership but many more "centuries" -- no longer were centuries cohorts of one hundred persons. Comitia tributa (assemblies of the "tribes") and the concilium plebis (councils of the plebians) were less manageable by the aristocratic minority, although attempts were made to check lower class voting power in these groups by confining new citizens to only a few tribes. Voting was "corporate" (that is, each century or tribe had one collective vote), and centuries and tribes voted "from the top down". The upper class groups voted first, and issues were invariably decided before the lower class centuries or tribes were called upon to cast their ballots. There were no secret ballots, so any lower class participants who bothered to show up could see that their votes had no value.

Another tactic to minimize attendance at elections or legislative assemblies was to intersperse market days and election days. This prevented citizens who resided outside the metropolis from voting: it was impractical for country people to leave their fields and especially their animals for days at a time. Urban citizens, who had to work for a living were not, as mentioned above, able to give up even one full work day to queue for voting (which probably wouldn't count anyway), much less the several days over which legislation or elections might be spread. Together, the small capacity of the election venues and the multi-day voting protocols thus effectively excluded the masses. And then there were all of those citizens who lived in far away places -- other cities on the peninsula -- and the thousands who were away fighting Rome's battles.

Instead of residing in the masses, real power came to be distributed in the ad hoc public meetings. The lower classes were not prevented from attending a political caucus, but distance, the need to work, the frequent changes of venues of public meetings, and the lack of interest in political issues would have been enough to deter their participation. The purpose of ad hoc meetings was to provide politicians an opportunity to present themselves and their ideas to the very limited part of the populus Romanus who were rich enough to participate. Until the second half of the second century BC these were men whose interests and economic positions were similar to those of the ruling nobility.

After that time, however, and especially in the first century BC, things started to change as some of the elite began to co-opt numerically larger lower class members and to rely on pre-positioned groups of them -- paid supporters -- to force through "democratic" or "popular" legislation. The supporters were often, in fact, urban gangs recruited with the prospect of higher wages than they could earn by their normal labor. By the last few years of the Republic, most politicians were actually addressing gangs of their own thugs, who were always ready to shout down any opposition that might show up. Meetings to elect officials were more difficult to control by any one faction, and it was there that fighting often broke out among rival groups. This peaked in the 60s and 50s BC when the city was ravaged by large urban gangs in the employ of both the "populares" and their aristocratic enemies who claimed to be "optimates" -- the "best people". In 52 BC the Curia, where the Senate met at the edge of the Forum, was burned to the ground in riots after a gang leader was killed in fight between two political gangs: Milo's gang, which was funded by the "optimates, killed "Clodius, a politician and leader of a "popular" gang, in a running battle on the Appian Way

The final Roman Republican scene was played out in outright civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar. They were, in reality, the two most important political gang leaders. They had worked together for a while as two of the three members of the "first triumvirate," but each wanted to be "the boss of bosses." The situation was extremely complex, and whole books have, naturally, been devoted to the motives and methods of each of the two.

A much simplified version goes something like this: both initially appealed to "popular" sentiment, but Julius was more successful. Pompeii didnít want to be sidelined, so he sought support from the "optimates" -- essentially he switched sides. Pompey and the optimates thought they had tricked Julius Caesar into leaving town, but actually Caesar had figured out that a few years of looting in Gaul would give him a lot more money to bribe the electorate and the legions. When Caesar had sufficient funds for that purpose, he roared back into the Italian Peninsula at the head of a huge military force. He crossed the Rubicon River in 49 BC and quickly chased Pompey out of Italy, then to Greece, then to Egypt where Pompey was killed by the Egyptians: they surely didn't want to fight the winning legions of Caesar.

Julius Caesar dallied a while in Egypt with Cleopatra, and in the fall of 45 BC he came back to Rome (with Cleo in tow) to collect his winnings. But although he was a great general, he proved to be a lousy local politician and within six months his high-handed methods had alienated everybody in town. On the Ides of March, 44 BC, Republican democracy, which had been imperiled for two generations, was permanently ended when Julius Caesar was assassinated on the steps of the temporary Senate meeting hall at the back of the portico behind Pompey's theater.

His heir, Octavian, who later became Caesar Augustus, took another 15 years to consolidate his power, and then he controlled everything as "princeps" from 29 BC until 14 AD". After the urban gang battles and civil wars (Caesar v. Pompey and Octavian v. Marc Antony) the people were more than willing to give up "democracy" in exchange for law and order. By the time Octavian died very few folks were still alive who remembered a time when anyone else, rich or poor, had exercised political power.

So did the US Constitution framers have the right model in mind? Some analysts say that the founders may have tried to eliminated the wrong flaws in the Roman system but that they still produced a workable republic that is "democratic." (See the note below about why I put "democratic" in quotation marks.) The idea that families used "clientela" to control Roman Republican voting was already the prevailing opinion in the late 18th century, when the US constitution was being written, and that's what they were working to avoid when they built safeguards into the Constitution and into subsequent laws. The safeguards are generally considered to have been successful. Even though both candidates in the last presidential election were from political family "dynasties", the election, like almost all elections for national office in the US, hinged on ideological differences between the political parties and on the performance of the candidates. Voter participation is not always high enough to satisfy idealists, but those who do vote can rightly expect their votes to count just the way the constitution envisioned that they would. Interest groups do have a role in promoting legislation, but all social and economic classes have their voices and advocates.

It may be that this was the result of the fairly consistent growth in the US economy, or the fact that the US population is well educated, or it's all just happenstance -- just three of the many theories advanced to explain US success.

P.S.1: Why is "democratic" in quotes? It's not because I have any doubts about US democracy, but rather it's because in the ancient Roman context, "democracy" meant something entirely different: it was a bad thing. "Popolus" meant the "the people" (itself a suspect group in some circles), but "demos" -- a Greek word -- meant "the mob," and usually a rioting mob at that. To ancient Romans, "democracy" clearly meant "mob rule."

P.S.2: "Candidates", by the way, were men, usually office seekers, who made themselves more visible in the bright sunlight of the Roman forum by rubbing their togas with chalk. "Candida" was an adjective that meant "white", and "candidatus" meant "whitened." Calling someone a "candidate" could be a way of ridiculing him -- just as it sometimes is today.

Internet links:

US Constitution and the Roman Republican model:

Polybius: http://www.mmdtkw.org/VPolybius.html

Twelve Tables: http://www.mmdtkw.org/VTwelveTables.html

Roman Republic political system:




Roman Republican Political Violence:
http://www.collegetermpapers.com/TermPapers/European_History/HOW_DID_FORUM_VIOLENCE_OF_THE_PERIOD_5850BC_FIT_INTO_THE_POLITICAL_SYSTEM.shtml (This is a "college term paper" from an Internet site that lists thousands of such "free papers". It appears to be accurate and a well-researched effort, but the numbered footnotes donít link to anything. Students beware: your teachers know all about web sites like this one, so don't copy!)

Mechanics of voting:
http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Tabella.html (use links on the page for more info.)

Go to http://www.mmdtkw.org/Veneto2002.html for other articles.