Although there are, in one sense, many different forms of government – parliamentary democracies, unitary republics, federal republics, dictatorships, constitutional monarchies, absolute monarchies, oligarchic republics – in actual practice it comes down to just three archetypal forms, as one might put it. All real-world governments can be described in terms of how much they lean towards one or another of these ideal archetypes. The forms are monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. The key dynamic of all politics is the desire of aristocrats (with or without titles) to maximize their own power. Both monarchy and democracy are opposed to their doing this, and so aristocrats strive to limit the power of both kings and people, and to gather all control of the government and of life itself into their hands. In American national patriotic mythos (America being founded by an aristocratic rebellion against a monarchy), kings are portrayed as the enemies of popular liberty; in reality, though, while it’s true that kings, monarchs, dictators, absolute rulers in general, can at times be despots, for the most part they are a danger to aristocrats, not to the common people, who have more to fear from aristocrats than from kings.
As it happens, history holds a wonderful real-time example of how these three forms mix and what lessons we can learn from them.
That real-world example is Rome, which in its long life prior to the collapse of the Roman Empire was first a monarchy, then a naked aristocracy (very briefly), then an aristocracy with democratic pretensions, then a monarchy again. Rome does not give us anything approaching real (as opposed to pretend) democracy, but for the purposes of this writing that’s actually a benefit. Let me explain what I mean.
Rome began life as an agricultural and trading city-state on an Italian river and on a trade route for salt. Like most city-states, it was ruled by a monarch, but in the case of Rome, for a long time the monarch was a foreigner, an Etruscan, which nation had somehow established political control over central Italy, including Rome. The details of this we don’t know, but the usual structure of government in the city-states of the ancient world consisted of a class of hereditary nobles, whose wealth came from land holdings and who traditionally served as the city-state’s elite warriors and war-leaders, with a king at the top of the governing structure. That was the case with Rome, as we can see from the institutions which survived the overthrow of the monarchy. The King of Rome was advised by the Senate, which consisted of the heads of the great aristocratic families, originally an even one hundred in number. (It was increased in size later on.) The Senate possessed considerable power and authority, as did each Patrician (the original Roman nobility) in his own lands and over his own people. But the authority of the King served to moderate and mitigate that of the aristocrats.
There are stories told about the heinous tyranny of the seventh and last King of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, which may or may not contain elements of truth. What is undeniably true is that, whether they were goaded by the rule of a particularly offensive monarch or for some other reason, towards the end of the sixth century BCE the Roman aristocrats overthrew their King and created a new government, the Roman Republic. (The conflict of interest between monarchs and aristocrats is illustrated by the stories of King Tarquinius. It’s said that he murdered members of the Senate whom he suspected of supporting his predecessor, King Servius Tullus, who had usurped the rule after the death of Tarquinius’ father, King Tarquinius Priscus, and failed to replace the murdered Senators with new members. It’s also said that he ruled without properly consulting the Senate, as an absolute monarch or, in the strict sense of the word, a tyrant. And finally, there’s a story that the King’s son raped a noblewoman named Lucretia, who then committed suicide, driving her widowed husband and her family to overthrow the king out of personal outrage.)
The story of the Republic’s founding, complete with the alleged perfidies of King Tarquinius Superbus, is presented by Roman writers and those sympathetic to the Republic in later times as a triumph of liberty. The reality is not so simple. We must always ask ourselves two questions. Liberty for whom? Liberty to do what?
What was the governing structure of the Roman Republic actually like? As we shall see, it was a structure designed to maintain aristocratic rule. To that end, it contained both anti-democratic and anti-monarchical structures. Some of its structures served to concentrate power in the hands of the nobility and exclude it from anyone outside those ranks, or from the common people as a whole. Other structures served as checks and balances designed to prevent any one aristocrat – as opposed to the class of aristocrats – from gaining too much power. If the people became strong, if a genuine democracy was created, the aristocrats might lose their power and privileges in the face of popular resentment. On the other hand, if any one aristocrat became too strong, he might make himself a king, and restrain aristocratic rapacity from above. The Republic, in short, was not designed to protect the liberty of the common people. It was designed to maximize the privileges of the aristocracy, and to subjugate and plunder the common people not to protect them. That was the reality, and any claim to the contrary was mere pretense.
The official or at least semi-official title of the Republic was “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” or “The Senate and the People of Rome.” The Senate continued to exist in more or less the same form and with more or less the same powers as it had possessed under the monarchy. The People were a new creation, or perhaps an evolution of something that had existed in embryonic form under the monarchy. Note the capitalization. The People of Rome were not the same thing as the people or Rome or the citizenry of Rome. It was a formal body, a name for four different legislative and judicial Assemblies that passed the laws and conducted many, although not all, trials. These Assemblies were, from oldest to youngest, the Curiate Assembly (Comitia Curiata), the Assembly of the Centuries (Comitia Centuriata), the Assembly of the People or of the Tribes (Comitia Tributa) and the Assembly of the Plebeians (Concilium Plebis) In addition to the Senate and the Assemblies, the Republic included various elected magistrates who presided over the day-to-day governing of the city.
The Curiate Assembly was really important only in the first twenty years of the Republic, before the Plebeian Revolt. In the beginning, this Assembly passed all the laws and elected the consuls (at this time the only magistrates, later on the most senior magistrates), and conducted trials. It consisted only of aristocrats, and so was a true, naked aristocratic body of rule. Here was the actual motivation behind the Roman revolution, blatantly – perhaps too blatantly – on display. Within two decades after the founding of the Republic, in the face of plebeian unrest, most of the powers of the Curiate Assembly were transferred to the other Assemblies, which (as we shall see) were in practice just as lopsidedly aristocratic, but could more successfully pretend otherwise.
The Assembly of the Centuries elected the highest magistrates, the consuls and praetors, after this power was transferred to it from the Curiate Assembly. It also conducted trials for high treason and could (but rarely did) pass legislation. In this Assembly, the voters were divided into economic classes, with the richest Roman citizens in the First Class, and those of lower means assigned to the Second through the Fifth Classes, while the poorest were denied any vote at all in this Assembly. Each Class was further divided into Centuries (hence the Assembly’s name), which for the First Class actually consisted of 100 men each. (Women could not vote. There were very few, if any, ancient societies that practiced voting that granted the franchise to women, so that was not especially noteworthy on the part of the Romans.) The number of men per Century increased through the classes, so that a Century of the Fifth Class consisted of many more men than one of the First Class. When electing magistrates or voting on a law, each member voted within his Century, and the majority within the Century determined the vote of that Century. Because of the variation in Century size from one Class to the next, the very wealthy Romans (which of course meant the aristocrats) had a more influential vote than the poorer citizens. Voting in this Assembly proceeded from the Centuries of the First Class on down. Most of the time, a majority of the Centuries was achieved by the time the first two Classes had voted, so that in practice very few Romans had a vote. But in theory, any Roman citizen except the very poorest had at least some voice in the Assembly, so, unlike the Curiate Assembly, it possessed a veneer, a pretense of democracy.
The Comitia Tributa or Assembly of the People had a different structure. It was not organized by wealth. Instead, each citizen belonged to one of the thirty-five “tribes” of the Roman people. But the common people were almost all lumped into four huge “urban” tribes (in fact, most of the common people were in just two of them), while the aristocrats were distributed across the thirty-one “rural” tribes. In elections and legislation, each citizen voted within his tribe, and it was his tribe’s vote, as determined by the majority of its citizens, that actually counted. What this means is that the common people had just four votes, while the aristocrats had thirty-one. But here again, a veneer or pretense of democracy existed, because every Roman citizen could vote. In fact, even the poorest Romans had a vote. It just didn’t count for anything.
The Concilium Plebis or Plebeian Assembly had a structure very much like the Assembly of the People, except that it excluded the Patricians from voting. The Patricians were the original Roman aristocrats. One could be a Patrician only by right of birth or adoption, and Patricians could not vote in the Plebeian Assembly. In the beginning, the Plebeian Assembly had no legislative powers; after the Plebeian Revolt, however, it was granted such powers – and at the same time, the nobility began to admit the very wealthiest of Plebeians into the ranks of the aristocrats. Such men were still not considered Patrician, but they could enter the Senate, could run for the magistracies, and had almost all of the same privileges as Patricians. And again, the rich, aristocratic Plebeians joined the Patricians in the thirty-one “rural” tribes, while everyone else still got dumped into the four “urban” tribes. Here we see the mechanism of control at its best and most deceptive. The Plebeian Assembly, in spite of these measures, could at times be a subversive, almost democratic body, but there were sufficient checks on its powers through cooption and rigged voting that most of the time it served to reinforce the powers of the aristocrats, even though many of those aristocrats could not vote in it.
These four Assemblies are what was meant by “the Roman People” in the official name of the Republic: not the collection of all Roman citizens in some democratic fashion, but rather the bodies that passed the laws, and were designed to maintain aristocratic rule.
The laws were all passed in one of the Assemblies or another. But the day-to-day running of the Republic was done by the magistrates and by the Senate. The Senate was originally restricted to Patrician membership, but at the same time as the rich Plebeians began to be coopted into the aristocracy, the door was opened for them to enter the Senate as well. Even so, the Senate remained a thoroughly aristocratic body, because only the richest of Romans could belong to it. Its decrees did not have the force of law, and could be overridden by a vote of an Assembly. But the Senate controlled the public purse, foreign policy, and military practice, and could direct the actions of the government on a regular basis as long as no Assembly actually did vote to override its authority. Here was the most aristocratic of the Republic’s governing institutions, with no pretense to democracy at all.
The magistrates were elected for one year at a time, and it is perhaps in them most of all that we can see the other side of the Republic’s protection of aristocratic power, because in them more than anything else resided the checks and balances that kept too much power out of the hands of any one man. Theoretically, any Roman citizen could run for any magistracy, but in practice most of the offices were reserved for aristocrats. Even the office of Tribune of the Plebeians was the prerogative of wealthy men and men with aristocratic names (although they could not be Patricians). As for the consuls, those at the head of the government, only the most august of families could in most cases stand any chance of running and winning.
But the power of any man who held high office was carefully circumscribed. The government was led not by one man but by two, both of whom held the title of consul. The term of office was only one year. By law, no man could run for consul a second time until ten years had passed since the last time he held the office. And the entire aristocracy would combine to oppose any man who rose too high and became too popular, too strong, too much a threat to dominate his peers.
So that was the Roman Republic: a veneer of democracy over what was in practice a completely aristocratic government. It was limited neither from below by democratic accountability to the people, nor from above by a king. From the standpoint of the common people, it was incredibly rapacious and led to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a powerful few, leaving most Romans with very little. (In fact, below the level of even the poorest citizen was an enormous number of slaves, the true lowest of the lower classes.)
Over time, as Rome expanded in power and the size of her empire, this structure of government ran into difficulties from both the lack of democracy at one end and the inefficiency involved in preventing too much power going to any one man at the other. One problem was that the conquests resulted in wealth flowing into the society, which concentrated into the hands of the aristocrats, further amplifying their power and the resentment of the common people. Revolts occurred from time to time, led by aristocrats who were either honestly motivated by a desire for social justice or willing to make use of popular resentment to advance their own power and fortune. The other problem was that emergencies arose that the Republic’s deliberately weak and inefficient central government could not easily handle. Whether these consisted of revolts in the provinces, military threats from abroad, or piracy on the seas, it became necessary to step outside the Republic’s constitutional restraints again and again in order to prevent the empire from disintegrating from within, being conquered by barbarians, or having its trade strangled. In the end, the two cracks in the system met and a very popular and liberal-minded leader of immense administrative and military ability – a Patrician, ironically enough, named Gaius Julius Caesar – established dictatorial rule, and after his assassination his chosen heir implemented a new monarchy.
Now this has been a long-winded discourse on the political structure and history of a nation that no longer exists, but it does have relevance for our own situation in America particularly – although in other countries as well – today. Although America has no titled, official nobility, it can’t be denied that we do have aristocrats. These aristocrats run the biggest corporations, dominate our government through bribery of elected officials, and impose a form of censorship through corporate ownership of the major media. And as always happens, too much power in the hands of aristocrats is bad news for everyone who isn’t one of them.
Like all aristocracies, ours is concerned with limiting the power of government, which is the only thing that can easily limit their rapaciousness on an ongoing basis. As with all aristocracies, ours is concerned with preventing both democracy – the exercise of government power at the behest of the people – and monarchy – the rise of a popular, powerful individual that can swing the state against the interests of the rich.
This is the real motivation behind the political attempt to cut down the size of government. It is not to protect the liberty of the common people. It is to protect the privileges of the wealthy, and reduce the rest of us to servitude. Because for ordinary people, it is not the king, let alone any truly democratic government, that is the enemy of freedom. It is the aristocracy.
It is the rich.