Monday, January 18, 2021

The Influence of Ancient Politics on Modern Political Systems

Most people believe ancient political systems have had a minimal effect on politics of the modern and postmodern world. The common belief is that the ancient world was largely barbarian with human rights virtually non-existent, so history from that time must be discounted. Is this a correct assumption or is there something can we learn about politics from antiquity?

The earliest Western civilizations were theocratic, but that model became obsolete with the advent of warfare. Winning in battle required military leadership and the power generated by a military leader’s success led to the evolution of kingship as the center of civil power in the state. The next step in the evolution of government was the monarchy, which bolted hereditary authority onto the kingship model. Monarchies were the most common form of government before the Enlightenment. They survived because the authoritarian state could manage the society efficiently and, at the same time, protect its status.

In the midst of the monarchies permeating the ancient world, stood two models that would foreshadow modern politics: the Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic. These governments were true innovations in the application of liberty and human rights.

The mountains of Greece were an opportune setting for democracy. They divided the Greek landscape into small spaces which acted as incubators for the development of rights-based political systems. After the Mycenean civilization ended, the Greek peninsula descended into a dark age period, where political and social advancement came to a halt. Then slowly, small communities, governed by the people, began to develop. These communities blocked attempts by the wealthy to gain power, keeping control in public hands.

The Polis evolved to became the standard form of government across Greece after 700 BC. Each Polis developed its own characteristics, but all featured the institutions of democracy. In time, Athens became the most famous of the Poleis, because of its size and influence over the Greek peninsula. Athens developed its final democratic form after periods of tyrants and a flirtation with republicanism under Solon. Its high point occurred during the so called “Golden Age,” in the fifth century BC, when Pericles was its leader.

The Golden Age was also the beginning of the end for Athens, because she would soon be defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The structure of the Polis had weakened and the advent of the sophists ushered in a new focus on the individual, replacing the cultural unity that had existed previously. It was only 60 years after the Peloponnesian war that Philip of Macedonia (father of Alexander) subdued the Greek peninsula and the Polis passed out of existence.

The story of Rome was vastly different. Rome began as a hilltop community founded near a ford in the Tiber River, in a part of Italy known as Latium. The early tribes of Rome were farmers, married to the land. Rome was far from the sea, and its people had no history of sea trade, so land was its most valuable asset. Early Rome was influenced by the nearby Etruscan civilization. Its customs and government structure were readily adopted by the Romans. Two of the early kings of Rome were Etruscans.

Rome could not tolerate a monarchy. It threw off the last of the kings in 509 BC and became a republic. The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, or “thing of the people.” This thing of the Roman people was the rights they obtained through the people’s assembly. The republic featured an executive branch consisting of elected magistrates, led by a pair of consuls. The legislative branch consisted of the Senate and the people’s assembly. The assembly could pass laws but not propose them. The Senate could propose laws but not vote on them.

In the early days of the republic, Rome was dominated by the wealthy patrician class. Descendants of the three original Roman tribes, the patricians, controlled money and power in the republic. The Plebeians had no rights in the beginning, but through organized efforts, they won for themselves an expansion of their rights. They fought for executive branch representation, so the college of tribunes was created. They demanded written laws, so the twelve tables were posted in the Forum. They demanded access to all elected offices and this was also granted by the Senate over time. What made the Roman republic work was the willingness of the Senate to extend rights to all citizens. That reality prevented instability and allowed Rome to prosper.

But the republic did not survive. After 400 years, it began to crumble because of mistakes by the Senate, inefficient government, and territorial expansion, which required a large army. Until the end of the second century BC, Rome had a citizen army; farmers put down their implements and went to war.

In 107 BC, Gaius Marius, the leading general in the republic, created a professional army. This caused the soldiers to shift their loyalty from the Senate to their commander. Now any general, with a lust for power, could bend the army to his will and overthrow the government. That fear became a reality when Julius Caesar made himself permanent dictator, leading to the collapse of the republic.

The founding fathers of the United States knew the stories of Athens and Rome. Most could speak Latin and Greek, and they had read the history of antiquity in the original language. When it came time to create the American Constitution, they thought long and hard about the design of their new government. The United States would be the first “new” nation in the last thousand years of Western civilization, but what form should its government take?

The founders looked to the models of Greece and Rome as templates. In a short time, the Greek model was rejected. The polis was small enough so that citizens could attend meetings of the assembly and vote. This was not possible in a territory as large as the thirteen colonies. The new government had to be built on representation; elected officials representing citizens.

The founders had the experience of the colonial governments to draw upon and they understood the British Constitution. They decided that adapting the Roman republic to America would be the most logical approach. During the Constitutional Convention, the design of each branch of government was debated at length. There was early agreement on the Legislature which would contain an upper class of “elders” and a people’s assembly. There was a long negotiation about how the legislature should be constituted and how the representatives should be elected. A balance was reached by having two senators per state and an assembly determined by population distribution. Senators would be elected by the states and representatives directly by the people.

The executive branch was also subject of a lengthy debate. How would the chief magistrate (president) be elected and for how long? In the end, the delegates chose a presidential term of four years with the president elected by the states.

The founders looked at the new government as a republic of state republics. The states would share power with the Federal government with no overlap of jurisdictions. The founders believed that too much democracy was dangerous: that the public could be influenced to vote for a tyrant. Better to have the senior legislative chamber and the president elected by the states. They also battled over the power of the Federal government. Some wanted it to be small, only functioning in areas inappropriate for states, like treaties with foreign governments. Others wanted it to have more power, thinking that professional politicians from the elite class would be the best managers of the country.

America’s founders learned much from the ancient governments of Greece and Rome. They could read about the impact of citizens as direct participants in government. They had the luxury of analyzing systems that failed so they could avoid those same problems.

The debate about the structure of the American government has continued from the time of the Constitution until the present day. During the passage of time, the Federal government has grown exponentially, as the demand for its programs have increased, the courts have accommodated the shifting of the role of the Federal government to one as caretaker for society, and the American social culture has changed enormously. There is no playbook for how to adapt a political system to these types of changes, but we have history to guide for the direction we have to take now.

The Enlightenment made us believe that individual rights were important. That concept allowed democracies to take over the world as the default political system. The ancients taught us about the value of tradition as applied to changing societies. Tradition has to be used as a guide for moving forward, because too much change creates instability. The French Revolution warned us what can happen when all traditions are discarded.

Why is the study of ancient political systems important? The answer lies in the fact that all human societies are experiments in a public morality built by a consensus of the individual moralities of their citizens.

Man did not evolve to live among strangers; he evolved to live among small kinship groups. There are no human socio-psychological mechanisms to cope with living in societies, so each iteration becomes a unique model. The brilliance of the ancients is that their ideas can accommodate the postmodern society. The ancients understood human nature well enough to create models that are timeless and function at any time and place.

Monday, October 12, 2020

A Unique Classical Event

Only the most highly respected members of society were invited to these parties, called Symposiums, where the best minds met to discuss all manner of things, from the nature of love to the origins of the universe… and some ideas too dangerous to share in the streets!

Scenes like this were common in Ancient Greece, when philosophy, learning, and good conversation were highly respected, and folks were expected to understand and participate fully in their democracy. 

But the tradition has faded away — modern “symposiums” are usually nothing more than glorified trade conferences, with none of the philosophy and mental investigation of a true Symposium. Classical Wisdom aims to bring back this storied ancient tradition!

To do this in our modern world, we have created a two-day online event, consisting of exciting presentations, a wine tasting, followed by a panel discussion. Attendees can join in whenever they like and ask questions. They will also receive full recordings of the event afterwards; in case they miss something or want to re-watch. 

This is a Classics event like no other! While the wine box option will only be available until October 14th, we will be offering a wine tasting with recommendations for those who are interested. But the best thing of all is that we’ve managed to gather some of the greatest thinkers on the classical world for one fantastic weekend. Attendees can listen to them speak Live as well as directly ask questions.

We’d like to think of it as an antidote to 2020 - an opportunity to get perspective and historical viewpoints on current events as well as philosophical insights to thrive in even the most challenging of circumstances.

Choose your ticket (one day or two-day pass) here: 

You can use this Promo code and get 40% OFF: CWW2020


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

What Happens to Democracy?

One of the more intriguing questions about politics today is “What happens after democracy?” Some ask this question out of curiosity; some out of fear. The fearful are concerned that democratic governments have become unstable.

In our 21st Century world, democracies predominate. This is explained by the fact that democracies, and their partner capitalism, have been more efficient at delivering goods and services than other government forms, making them the preferred model in the modern and postmodern world.

Lately, democracy is showing its age, and its governments are less able to “govern.” Tribalism, generated by ideological polarization prevents legislatures from acting for the good of the people. Candidates are selected by the elite class to perpetuate elite control. Lobbyists, under control of the elites, replace the will of the people. The people are less engaged and easily influenced by elite messaging.

How to we fit the current situation into the history of politics? A logical place to start is the work of Polybius.

Polybius was a Greek historian, who lived from 200 BC to 118 BC. He was taken as a hostage by the Romans in 167 BC and was held in Rome for 17 years. Polybius later become an associate of Scipio Aemilius, the Roman general who defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War. As an observer of Rome and Greece, Polybius wrote about political systems: their origin, structure, and stability. He created a cycle of governments to describe the forces that change societies from one form to another.

The cycle is Monarchy – Kingship – Tyranny – Aristocracy – Oligarchy – Democracy.

Monarchies appear by the natural and unaided rise in power of individuals who impress their people with leadership skills. As long as man has lived in groups, they have been led by those who, by intelligence or charisma, rise to the top. Monarchies first appeared after the beginning of agriculture in 3000 BC, because a hierarchical structure was needed to govern large groups of human beings. Monarchies were the government of choice for 4500 years until the Enlightenment. Some monarchies become kingships; a transition that occurred when leaders began to govern by fear rather than the approval of their people.

When kings became tyrants, they fell and were replaced by an aristocracy made up of wealthy and powerful elites, who exerted control to preserve their status. In time, the aristocracy saw its power concentrated in few leaders, and transitioned to an oligarchy (rule of few). The oligarchy fell when the people became tired of unjust rule. To replace the oligarchies, people demanded democracies. Democracies prosper as long as traditions, and commitment to justice, remain strong. When those characteristics die away, the cycle moves back to a monarchy. The people replace an unworkable system with one person they can trust.

If you think these concepts are fanciful and unrealistic, consider the following examples.

In Ancient Greece, the Mycenaean kings were replaced by an aristocracy, which became an oligarchy before it was a democracy. Tyrants popped up a from time to time, during the period of aristocracies, when the aristocracies failed to govern.

Ancient Rome was first ruled by monarchs, who became kings and then tyrants. They were replaced by an aristocracy (the patricians), who transitioned to an oligarchy. Rome never achieved a transition to democracy because dictators took control and created an empire.

The United States, as a child of the Enlightenment, did not have to endure a monarchy. It started as an aristocracy, transitioned to an oligarchy, during the time of the Federalists, and then became a democracy.

Polybius created his theory before the concept of collectivism/socialism developed, so there is no socialist model in the cycle. The most important socialist systems, Russia and China, developed from feudal systems so they don’t fit conveniently there.

Cuba serves as an interesting example. Castro overthrew a dictator (tyrant) to gain power. The step to aristocracy was interrupted by his revolution. At the time, Cuba was weak economically, so one might consider it a feudal state. Castro was propped up by money from the Soviet Union for decades. Without that help, he would not have been able to implement his Communist model.

If we trust Polybius and imagine what would happen if some democracies fail over the next decades, their replacement will feature concentrated power, because concentrated power can govern more efficiently than a democracy. The replacements will authoritarian leaders or dictators.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Ancient History Hall of Fame

Its fun and interesting to speculate about who would be in the Ancient History Hall of Fame if there were such a place, and I admit that building a list like this is subjective. Fame plays a significant role here, making it difficult to include those who are generally unknown to the public. My sense of antiquity is that individuals whose fame has endured over the millennia were the most important. My list omits the infamous whose misdeeds are their claim to fame.

To invoke a baseball analogy, there are a group of ancients that I will label first ballot hall of famers. That is individuals who would be on everyone’s list and would never have their selection questioned. That list includes,

Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Caesar Augustus, Cleopatra, Confucius, Constantine the Great, Hannibal, Herodotus, Homer, Jesus, Julius Caesar, Moses, Saul (Paul) of Tarsus, Pericles, Plato, Siddhartha Gautama, Socrates, Solon, and Thucydides. That’s nineteen.

In the second tier I would place Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Attila the Hun, St. Augustine, Demosthenes, Euclid, Euripides, Hammurabi, Hippocrates, Nebuchadnezzar II, Pindar, Sappho, Scipio Africanus, Sophocles, Thales, Virgil, Xerxes, and Zoroaster. Another eighteen.

My third tier would contain Archimedes, Cato, Empedocles, Galen, Justinian I Mithridates VI, Ovid, Plutarch, Ramses II, and Spartacus, making the list total 47.

Do we add more and, if so, by what criteria? A structured approach would dictate selection by category of accomplishment. For example, the Greeks made significant contributions in philosophy, science, drama, and poetry, so we should choose one or more from each of these. Right? But, trying to build a list like this, and limiting its size, gets one into trouble quickly.

It is generally thought that the four greatest dramatists of all time were Shakespeare, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, and Euripides. If all three Greeks are in a class with the Bard, shouldn’t that make them hall of famers?

Philosophy is tougher still. You start with Plato and Aristotle and then it makes sense to add Socrates and Thales. Who else? There are so many candidates – Zeno, Epicurus, Anaximander, Heraclitus, etc.

There are two groups I have not selected from: those too obscure to be eligible and those who didn’t quite make the grade for a short list. In the first group I include Ashkoka (Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty), Hashesput (fifth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt), Inhotep (a Polymath circa 2650 B.C.), and Sargon the Great (Akkadian king of 2300 B.C.).

The second group contains Agrippa (important as Augustus right hand man) but not quite good enough, Thermistocles (admiral of the Athenian Navy), Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Tacitus.

Now let’s move on to a few more who are worthy. There are seven in this group: Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Livy, Leonidas, Lysander, Isocrates, and Cicero. The Golden Age of the empire is an important period and Trajan and Marcus are its bookends. Trajan reigned from 98-117 A.D, stabilizing the empire and initiating a period of calm lasting 82 years. Marcus Aurelius was the last of the dynasty and is important for his reflective personality and stoic philosophy. It was a sad irony that Marcus hated wars and yet was fated to fight in them for almost his entire reign.

If you have Herodotus and Thucydides on the list you have to have Livy -- Rome’s greatest historian. We are all the poorer because so many of his books were lost.

In my view, you can’t construct an Ancient’s Hall of Fame without Spartans, so I have included two: Leonidas and Lysander. Leonidas is famous for one single event, his defense at Thermopylae. That story has resonated around the world ever since as an example of courage, honor, and devotion to the cause. Leonidas has a unique place on the list because his contribution occurred during a single event that cost him his life, rather than contributions over a lifetime. Lysander was Sparta’s greatest admiral, largely responsible for ending the Peloponnesean War in Sparta’s favor.

I thought of including Lycurgus, architect of the Spartan political system, but we’re not sure a single person with that name existed.

I include Isocrates, at risk, because some would call him obscure. He labored under the shadow of Plato but his contribution to the development of educational systems that followed him is unequalled. He was Athens’ greatest orator and had a great influence over the politics of is day.

So now we reach the end with Cicero, who as a philosopher, orator, statesman, lawyer, and political theorist had a significant impact on late Republican Rome. Cicero’s Latin prose was unequalled as he built a Latin philosophical vocabulary by translating the Greek. His letters, when discovered during the 14th century, helped launch the renaissance, through an emerging interest in the writings of antiquity. Cicero’s humanist philosophy influenced the renaissance, while his republicanism influenced the founders of the United States.

We could add more women and make the list longer. Perhaps someone will want to provide some names. We have Cleopatra and Sappho on the list. Others, including Augustus’ wife Luvilla And Leonidas’ wife Gorgo come to mind. Unfortunately, women didn’t receive the publicity in the ancient world that men did and their lack of access to power and status made it much harder for them to become famous.

Now we have a complete list of 54 – an odd number and no more than an arbitrary stopping point based on subjective criteria. It’s too bad we have so few Hall of Famers like them today. In this modern age, power and money have subverted wisdom and knowledge.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Crossing the Rubicon

Crossing the Rubicon is a piece of history that made its way into American popular culture --the saying describing a situation where there is no turning back.

The historical event that created the saying occurred on January 10th, 49 BC, when Julius Caesar led a single Roman legion across the Rubicon River in Northern Italy.

The Rubicon River in Eastern Italy and the Arno River in Western Italy formed the northern boundary of Republican Italy in the 1st Century BC, separating it from Cisalpine Gaul. Roman law required that that only city magistrates from Rome lead an army south of the two rivers and Pro-consuls who had military control of the provinces were not allowed to enter with an army. Violation of this law, meant the loss of Imperium to command troops and was an act of treason.

Caesar, through his agents in the Senate, which included the Tribune Antony, tried to negotiate an accommodation with Pompey and the Senate. Caesar requested a new provincial assignment in order to retain Imperium and avoid prosecution for bribery and theft in office. The Senate was unwilling to meet his demand and circumstances began to move toward a confrontation.

A resolution was introduced on the Senate requiring that both Caesar and Pompey give up their commands as an attempt to satisfy both factions. Caesar was in favor, but a small group of Senators vetoed the resolution because they suspected a trap. The Senate then introduced a resolution proposing that two of Caesar’s legions be sent to Syria. Pompey favored this attempt to declaw Caesar and Caesar complied.

In December 50 BC a second resignation resolution was proposed in the Senate, requiring Caesar to give up his command without requiring Pompey to do so. This was later amended, requiring both men to give up their posts simultaneously. The vote was 370 for and 22 against.

This action by the Senate was immediately rendered useless when a panic followed. Rumors started that Caesar was already matching on Rome, so the Senate granted Pompey command for the defense of the city. A resolution was introduced placing a fixed date on Caesar’s resignation, but this was vetoed by Antony. Then, on January 7th 49 BC, an emergency decree was passed, legalizing Pompey’s authority and requested that all major officials move to protect the state. Antony was forced to flee Rome or suffer penalties under this martial law. The Senate’s final act in this drama was to assign new governors for Gaul, replacing Caesar.

The Senate’s behavior convinced Caesar that diplomatic efforts were no longer possible and a show of force was necessary, so he crossed the Rubicon on January 10th. He divided his legion into two columns: one headed for Arretium and the other Ariminum.

The speed with which Caesar advanced astonished the Senate and Pompey, who were not convinced he would try to press an attack with one legion. By day three, Arretium had already fallen. Rather than resisting Caesar, the locals along his route opened their doors to him and even expelled Pompey’s garrisons from their territory. Surprised at this, Pompey retreated south to Capua, leaving Rome unprotected and forcing his allies in the Senate to abandon the city and join him.

Caesar arrived in Rome the first week of March with six legions. He had accumulated additional troops on his way south based on loyalty to his cause. There was some resistance, on the way, but little bloodshed because his enemies had melted away. Caesar impressed all with his leniency toward those who opposed him by setting them free.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Sorry about going Dark

The blog has been down for most of July and all of August until today. The reason was that my site license did not get renewed correctly and the site was suspended. All is well now.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Capitalism in the Roman Republic

Capitalism is an economic system in which wealth, and the means of producing wealth, are privately owned and controlled rather than state-owned and controlled. Through capitalism, the land, labor, and capital are owned, operated, and traded by private individuals or corporations and investments, distribution, income, production, pricing and supply of goods, commodities and services are determined by voluntary private decision in a market economy.

A division of labor has always existed in human society. As a population grows, demand for goods and services forces the development of new skills. Capitalists show up in societies as salesmen or entrepreneurs who are clever at buying and selling, so they take opportunities for profit when they present themselves.

To hear modern historians tell it, capitalism began with the Enlightenment in the late 16th century. The break from the Catholic Church and authoritarian monarchs allowed people to exert their individual rights and take control of their lives. This new freedom, allowed citizens to form their own businesses, go to market, and make a profit.

The focus for today’s scholars may be on this new-found freedom of the Enlightenment, but that was not the origin of capitalism.

When Rome began it was strictly an agrarian society. The only asset considered valuable was land. In Roman society, wealthy patricians controlled the land and those without wealth or land were the Plebeians. Patricians considered mercantilism beneath their dignity and refused to engage in such low enterprise. Cicero once referred to all salesmen as liars.

As Roman trade evolved, laws were passed that prohibited senators from investing in shipping. That left the Plebeians to control that market. The same story happened with the Roman civil service. As it grew, the new positions were given to the lower class, and the resulting economic environment fostered the growth of a new middle class (the Knights). The first “businessmen” were called Publicans. They were employed by the state to manage public contracts: to collect taxes, manage mining companies, and oversee road construction. Contracts were awarded to bidders at auction and their duration was five years.

During the Punic Wars Publicans built ships for the Roman Navy and equipped the Roman Army. In 215 BC, three Publican contractors were censured because they provided financing to Spanish tribes, who were Rome’s enemy at the time. They scuttled their ships and sued the Republic for reimbursement.

The Senate chose to utilize the Knights commercially, instead of creating a civil service, but the power of the Knights grew, and they were able to exert great influence as a class. In 169 BC, the censor Tiberius Gracchus cancelled all Publican contracts because of corruption, but the Knights rebelled and accused him of treason against the state. Tiberius was acquitted, but all Rome now understood the power of the middle class.

By the fall of the Republic there were hundreds of corporations selling shares to investors. Manufacturing and trades flourished: including furniture making, leatherwork, weaving, metalworking, stone working, and food processing.

Many of the business terms we are familiar with today were in use in Roman times, including insurance, banks making loans, individuals owning shares in companies, competition, hoarding commodities to influence prices, investments, lawsuits, and monetary speculation.

There is one major difference, worth noting, between capitalism in the time of Rome and the Enlightenment Period. There was no industrial revolution in Roman times because there were no machines available for mass production. Those machines gave the Enlightenment a black eye because they led to worker exploitation and harsh working conditions. As a direct result, socialism was developed as an alternative to the evil capitalistic model.

This story suggests that capitalism is the default behavior in human society. The combination of a large and diverse population and the need for skill differentiation to efficiently supply goods and services to people, generates a market model.