Tiberius Gracchus, or How My Roman History Exam Taught Me that Our System Isn’t as Broken as People Like to Think It Is
As some devoted followers of this column may have noticed, last week I was unable to write an article due to the massive amount of stress caused by my Roman History midterm. As I pulled several near all-nighters, though, and attempted to memorize what my TA likes to call “the romp through the wars” (i.e. any war or important battle that Rome took part in from roughly 504 BCE until 133 BCE), I was struck by a sudden realization: it’s a really good thing that the United States government does not function like that of the Roman Republic.
You readers may be laughing and thinking, “Lena, that’s obvious! Why would we want to be anything like a Republic that, through a series of devastating civil wars, devolved into an Empire that eventually crumbled and faded into memory?” or, more accurately, “Why can’t you write about something that has to do with the present day?” Those are both valid questions, and while I couldn’t possibly answer the first one, my response to the second is quite simple: because I like it when my concentration and my outside interests intersect, because history repeats itself, and, most importantly, because this topic allows me to address something that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while.
It seems that the media frenzy surrounding “Indecision 2012,” as Stephen Colbert likes to call the 2012 presidential election, wants voters to think that America’s biggest problem right now is our economy. I’m not disputing that claim, but the rise of support for third party candidates such as the Green Party’s Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson tells a bit of a different story—there’s a moderately-sized portion of the American population that thinks our current system is broken. I myself am a Democrat, but I can see where the third party supporters are coming from: both Houses of Congress grossly underrepresent America in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic class, and religion; campaigns revolve solely around who can raise the most money and say the most “crowd pleasing” soundbytes; it is nearly impossible to pass bills or enact legislation because of the stifling partisanship that has befallen Washington, D.C.; and, hmmm, for a nation that touts its separation of church and state, religion factors rather strongly into our social reforms (or lack thereof). Regardless of the party you vote for on November 6th, it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done if we want to consider ourselves a “more perfect Union.”
But, wait, that’s where Roman History comes in. You see, similar problems back in the good ol’ days of the Roman Republic. The incredibly rich and prejudiced patrician class controlled the Roman Senate. Rome’s cursus honorum, a group of powerful government offices (ranging from the low-influence quaestor to the all-important consul) that ran the affairs of the state, was largely closed to the lower-class plebeians. Voting took place based on economic status, with the wealthiest casting their votes first; once a majority was reached, all tallies were stopped, and as a result the poor citizens often did not get a chance to voice their opinions. In fact, one could only vote if he met the property requirement necessary to be a member of the Roman army! There was marriage, rather than separation, of church and state—if a priest decided that the “omens” were not favorable, all governmental progress was halted, be it a declaration of war, the passage of a law, or an election. Unsurprisingly, women had no place in the government and lower social classes were completely oppressed. In short, all of the issues that we as Americans face today were taking place tenfold during the Roman Republic.
The worst part of the Republic, though, was that those problems were institutionalized. Rome had no written constitution; instead, it had the Twelve Tables, which were twelve codified laws by which Roman society was expected to function. Those laws were mostly social or criminal, though, and did not speak to the structure of Rome’s government. The actual governmental body (the Senate) and offices (the cursus honorum) functioned via Rome’s obsession with customs, traditions, and “the Roman way” (i.e. Roman social values about what it meant to be a Roman that revolved around respect, dignity, honor, virtue, strength, family, etc.). For example, members of the plebeian class were not allowed to run for the position of consul until 367 BCE because, to put it colloquially, “that sort of thing just didn’t happen.” The rich patricians wanted to keep themselves in power and disdained the poor plebeians; to allow plebeians access to high-ranking governmental positions would have been breaking tradition.
To use a more extreme example, in 133 BCE tribune of the people Tiberius Gracchus impeached his fellow tribune Marcus Octavius in order to pass a law involving the redistribution of public lands. This type of tribune vs. tribune impeachment had never happened before, but because there was no written constitution to codify the power of the tribunes, the Senate could not stop him. Gracchus was killed soon thereafter (by the head priest, Publicus Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, at a riot on the Capitoline Hill), violating the previously-sacrosanct nature of the office of tribune. However, Gracchus’ brand of demagoguery would continue until the Republic turned into the Empire because it was so easy for charismatic or militarily successful individuals to bend the rules and manipulate the system in order to gain power.
At this point in my studying—roughly 3:00 am on Thursday—I exclaimed, “Thank God America has a written constitution!” My study partner was thoroughly confused, and at that point in time I was not coherent enough to explain my thoughts. I am now, though, so explain I will. The Roman Republic was a governmental nightmare for many reasons, notably its deeply engrained class divisions and its extremely close ties to both its military conquests and religious customs. However, had some sort of written constitution been established, it would have been much more difficult for the demagogues that caused civil wars and led to the Empire (Marius, Sulla, and Cinna are just a few) to rise to power in the first place. Yes, a written constitution probably would have made permanent the divisions between the rich and the poor, and the Roman idea of democracy was wildly different than America’s modern definition, but certain problems could have been avoided if the Romans had an equivalent to our Constitution of 1787.
Our Constitution provides a framework for our government, and the system of checks and balances ensures that no one branch gains too much power. Presidential term limits keep demagoguery from occurring, and our method of electing officials makes much more sense than Rome’s wealth-based system, although it is widely recognized that our electoral college needs to undergo some serious reform. There exists a Bill of Rights that spells out certain inalienable rights that the state can never touch (try explaining free speech to a Roman!), and all types of minorities can vote. In other words, our Constitution keeps our government from falling apart and provides us with several different means by which to protect ourselves and correct any problems should things start to get out of hand. Those concepts would have been unimaginable for a Roman citizen, and we should feel lucky to have such safeguards in place.
So, yes, the American system as it stands in 2012 needs some work. Core values must change, minorities need to be recognized, and partisanship has to take a backseat to policy if we want to accomplish anything. However, when you get frustrated by the filibuster or disheartened by the debt, just remember—you could be living in Republican Rome. A priest could sacrifice you to the gods at any minute for trying to pass a useful, pro-plebeian law. Isn’t the US looking better by the minute?