BMCR 2002.05.31

The Roman Republic in Political Thought

, The Roman Republic in political thought. The Menahem Stern Jerusalem lectures. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002. ix, 201 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1584651989. $25.00.

At least until the end of the eighteenth century, two ancient societies above all were studied in Europe and America as models for political organization: one was Sparta, and the other was republican Rome. Although some attention was paid to classical Athens and imperial Rome, it was the long-lived instances of “mixed constitutions” that were of greatest interest. That is not surprising: after Polybius Book 6 became available in Italy in the early sixteenth century, it provided, together with Aristotle’s Politics, the major approach to constitutional analysis; and the Peripatetic description of the possible forms of government remained relevant until the French Revolution.

The afterlife of Sparta was analyzed thoroughly by Elizabeth Rawson more than 30 years ago in The Spartan Tradition in European Thought (Oxford, 1969), but the influence of Rome as a constitutional model has been studied less coherently, and the main lines of the importance of Rome are most effectively traced, often in passing, in the work of Quentin Skinner and his associates on the history of early modern political theory and in that of J. G. A. Pocock on the tradition of republicanism derived from Machiavelli.1 Now a distinguished Roman historian, Fergus Millar, has turned his attention from Rome itself to its later influences in The Roman Republic in Political Thought. His book is based on the Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures and in keeping with that format is sparsely annotated and intended for a popular audience. Historians of political thought are well aware of the Roman model, but for classicists who are not familiar with the major works of the republican tradition from Machiavelli to The Federalist, M.’s book serves as a useful introduction.

That being said, however, it must also be stated that this book approaches the topic from a very odd angle, and it is not altogether clear just what audience M. is aiming at. Classicists will probably not need the fairly basic introduction to Roman republican history and the republican constitution; historians of political thought may not be familiar with the work of Marchamont Nedham or Noah Webster,2 but they will certainly not need the brief accounts of Machiavelli’s Discourses, of Rousseau’s Social Contract, or of The Federalist. Although M.’s nominal subject is the use of the Roman republic as an instrument for thinking about constitutional government in Europe and America, his actual goal is two-fold. In the first place, he wants to reinforce his previously argued thesis about the democratic nature of the late Republican constitution;3 in the second, he is looking almost exclusively at later references to democratic elements in Rome. Since there are almost none of those, much of the three chapters devoted to political theorists from the Middle Ages to the late eighteenth century is taken up with explaining why so few people think of Rome as a democracy. That is Sherlock Holmes’s curious incident of the dog in the night on a very large scale. As M. knows, and explains more than once, it is the early books of Livy and (sometimes) Polybius that are the principal sources for Machiavelli and the rest; these texts present Rome as a mixed constitution (as, indeed, does Cicero, whose De re publica was largely unavailable until 1822). As a modern Roman historian himself, M. is used to relying on documentary evidence and scattered sources; he finds it surprising, more than once, to find earlier writers relying almost exclusively on narrative accounts—and there are, as he rightly says, no significant narrative accounts or theoretical analyses of the Roman constitution of the late republic.

One of M.’s goals in this book, and the one which he most successfully accomplishes, is to provide hypothetical versions of what Aristotle would have said about the Roman constitution, first (ch. 2) of Aristotle’s own day and then (ch. 7) of Cicero’s day. These provide a lively way to present what is known about Roman government in these periods but offer a worthwhile Aristotelian analysis to buttress M.’s own version (which he himself characterizes as extreme) of Roman democracy. His goal is, consistently, to present outsiders’ views of Rome rather than internal Roman discussions. In chapter 2, he deals with Aristotle, Polybius, and later Greek writers. In each of the central chapters (3-5) he analyzes the Roman comments of three writers (or sets of writers) in three different periods (from late antiquity to the Renaissance, the English seventeenth century, the eighteenth century in England, France, and America). In chapter 6 he discusses the use of Rome in some very recent works on political theory, before returning to his Aristotelian analysis in the last chapter.

What is striking (and strange) about this book is not its content, but its emphases. M. has read carefully the texts he discusses; he has also made a serious study of the major secondary literature. Where I know the field at all, his choices are sensible ones: Pocock and Skinner throughout, Bailyn on the American Revolution, Kramnick on The Federalist. One could have wished that he had read Judith Shklar on Rousseau, which might have changed his mind about describing Social Contract as “clear, coherent, and original” (113):4 the last adjective is true, but “coherent” Rousseau is not. And some of his judgments about the history of political theory are odd: to suggest that there are no important works of political theory “in the narrow sense” (108) not only slights Hume (whom M. does mention, but without adequate acknowledgment of the importance of such essays as “On the Original Contract”) and completely ignores Edmund Burke, who may not be a republican, but is a theorist of profound importance. One may at times also disagree with M.’s judgments, but he is always judicious and in good company in his opinions. But to construct a history of political thought using as the guiding theme “what do people say about the institutions, particularly the democratic institutions, of the Roman republic?” produces something that is neither a coherent history nor particularly enlightening about how people actually used Rome to think with, and why they picked the themes that they did.

M.’s treatment of Machiavelli will serve as an example of this. M. says (68) that he is giving an ancient historian’s reading of the Discourses — but of what use is that? As he knows (and says more than once) Machiavelli is using narrative sources that provide inadequate evidence from a historian’s point of view. Several times, M. points out that Machiavelli is concerned not with political institutions but with the social and moral bases of republican government, and he is quite right. Hence, he is reduced to discussing things that Machiavelli does not say, but which M. wants to emphasize. Machiavelli is indeed not very interested in the mechanisms of the Roman assemblies. He does not say very much about the extensions of the citizenship and the use of colonies. He does not explore the details of the Roman military system. Those interest M., not Machiavelli. Hence a reader who does not know the Discourses will emerge with a very peculiar image of Machiavelli’s book.

What is more, to write about these texts as a historian means that M. is looking primarily at historical sources and historical narratives. But for political philosophers who are in fact largely concerned with the ethical, not the institutional basis of republicanism, and who are much more interested in the sources of republican virtue than in the voting rights of republican citizens, Livy or Polybius were scarcely the only relevant sources. M. notes several times the frequency with which Sallust ( BC 7) is cited on the rapid success of Rome after the expulsion of the kings; he does not note that this sentence is also found in (and probably taken by later authors from) not Sallust, but Augustine’s City of God — and that is the text, if there is one specific text, to which Machiavelli is most obviously responding in his ideas of political life and political society in both Prince and Discourses. From Augustine, Florentine writers learned a great deal not only about the virtues of early Rome, but also about the text which, even though it was lost at the time, contributed most to their ideas about republican virtue, Cicero’s De re publica. Cicero’s description of the harmony of the state is quoted by Augustine; it is then quoted by the Florentine Francesco Patrizi; and it is used as late as John Adams’ Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America in 1787. Early Rome as the repository of republican uirtus was the theme of most of these writers; that is why they concentrate (like Augustine) on the period when Rome really was virtuous. They are not interested in the democratic element of the Roman constitution, both because it is not an important factor in the growth of Rome and because when it did become important — and I accept at least part of M.’s argument about this — the republic was failing. Machiavelli, Harrington, Rousseau and The Federalist had no interest in learning about corrupt states; they were interested in why Rome remained so long uncorrupted.

If M. wants to find discussions of Roman democracy, he is looking in the wrong place. Except for Rousseau (and M. is right to emphasize his importance to his theme), none of the writers he discusses was a democrat; it is not until the nineteenth century that democracy begins to be seen as a virtue of government rather than a vice. And yet the idea that Rome was a democracy is a very old one. M. rightly points to the discussion of the popular sovereignty underlying imperial rule in Pomponius and other early imperial texts; but in modern times, the idea does not first appear (as M. seems to suggest) in the eighteenth century, as illustrated by his citation from the 1771 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Long before that, Jean Bodin believed that Rome was a democracy rather than a “mixed constitution”, and he had followers in this.5 But in that tradition, the democratic element in Rome is analyzed not as a problem of moral governance but one of sovereignty. It is an approach that M. rightly traces back in Chapter 3 to early imperial writers, but he then drops the thread: Bodin never appears, any more than Augustine does.

Indeed, a basic problem with M.’s approach seems to me that he is expecting too much from a broad category of works which he describes in his title as “political thought.” Throughout the book, he seems also to expect that these works also be practical: he emphasizes the particular republican contexts from which many of them arose, and he is disappointed when they do not turn to the details of Roman governance to find useful models for contemporary use. But very few of these texts are truly practical manuals of advice: certainly not Machiavelli or Rousseau, possibly Harrington and some of the writers of the Commonwealth, but only definitely in the debate on the U.S. Constitution. Some are concerned with republican liberty (the relevant chapter of Skinner’s Liberty before Liberalism is entitled “The neo-roman theory of free states”); others are concerned with republican virtue; the contract theorists (including both Hobbes and Rousseau) are interested in the formal sources of sovereignty and power. Rome comes up in all three areas, but it comes up in different ways, none of which is deeply concerned with administration. It is perhaps also worth noting that even Rousseau has his doubts about the possibility of democracy, both because Europe (except Corsica) is too corrupt and because the only truly democratic society he knows, Athens, was based on slave labor. Even within the society of Social Contract, he has trouble with the relationship between the General Will and the will of all; notoriously, he believes that the citizens of his ideal state must be forced to be free. Democracy, perhaps, but a very strange idea of democratic government. Perhaps M.’s argument for Rome as a practical model for modern complex states would be a little happier without the estimable Jean-Jacques.

M. needs Rousseau for another reason, however. Once in the introduction (9) and again in the discussion of Rousseau himself (116), M. refers to Rousseau’s notorious statement that the English are slaves, free only at the moment when they elect representatives to Parliament. M. cites this with approval, and this is in many respects a very angry book. More than once (8-10; cf. 124, 145), M. attacks modern British government as profoundly undemocratic, citing as particular instances the abolition of London local government by Mrs. Thatcher and the retroactive elimination of tenure in British universities. In Rome, at least, citizens had the right to vote on laws and to vote directly in choosing their rulers; and, as M. points out, neither is true in England. I would not myself disagree in the least with his anger, but I am not yet convinced that Rome is the proper place to look for an antidote. What most of the writers M. discusses knew, and he generally underplays, is the fact that when Rome was most democratic, it was also most corrupt. The theorists of civic humanism whose lack of interest in Roman democracy so puzzles M. knew all about corruption; the choice between democracy and honest government has never been easy.6


1. The most important works (cited by M.) are Q. Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1978) and Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge, 1998); J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, 1975).

2. But on Nedham see Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism 13-15, 23ff.; on Webster see Pocock, Machiavellian Moment 533-35.

3. See most recently The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor, 1998).

4. See, for instance, J. Shklar, “Reading the Social Contract,” Political Thought and Political Thinkers (Chicago, 1998) 262-75.

5. See Rawson, Spartan Tradition 151-53.

6. I leave to a final note a few examples of the inadequate editing or proofreading of this book. Philip Pettit emerges as Paul Pettit (8); Isaac Kramnick appears as both Krammick (7) and Kramnik (192); J. G. A. Pocock as Pococke (82). Most strangely, the Gracchi are at one point dated to the 120s A.D. (112) — and the general use of Christian dating seems very strange in lectures delivered in Jerusalem and published for Brandeis University Press.