Thursday, February 27, 2014

Florence, 1100-1532, What a Republic!

Florence, in this blog? I thought this was supposed to be ancient history! Yes, but sometimes we can find value when we compare political systems from different times in history. The Republic of Florence an interesting case to compare to Republican Rome, because it gives us another example of how men try to build stable governments. Florence was a city republic like Rome but it was never able to expand in the same way because of the circumstances of its time. Still, its leaders faced the same challenges the Romans did – socio-economic class differences, economic interests, and cultural influences. In my last post I mentioned that those designing Republics, including America’s founding fathers, went to great lengths to insure their infant political systems would not revert to monarchies through the consolidation of power. Florence stands as an extreme case of this paranoia.

As one of the great merchant cities of the middle ages (Pisa or Antwerp would be other examples), Florence escaped participation in the feudal system because it had a strong capitalist engine and could operate as an independent political system. Feudalism could only take root where bureaucracy failed and it did not fail there. The Florentine political system certainly had its ups and downs, but it was business that moved Florence forward and politics were regulated by business.

By the year 900 A.D, the great cities of Europe had been weakened to a point where it was necessary to start from scratch. Commerce and artisanship had to be rekindled by recruiting citizens with the right skills from the outside, mostly from the agrarian economies of the surrounding territory. Florence always found aristocratic control unacceptable, so any tendency in that direction was continually resisted. Its leaders were a new class of man; middle class merchants we call burghers, who were independent, entrepreneurial, and confident. Between the years of 900 and 1250, these burghers turned Florence into an autonomous institution by resisting and expelling those who would attempt to impose on them some kind of hierarchical model of government. They were aided in this effort by the emperors and popes who wasted time and money fighting among themselves for control of Italy rather than attacking the city.

In the early days, Florence was probably managed by community groups and block organizations, who worked together to provide basic services. This was an incubator republic which evolved into rudimentary courts and militias as it became more formalized. No wealthy family was recognized as a leader and a pact between families (association) was put into place to show mutual dedication to the success of the city.

By the twelfth century, an executive committee of ten was in operation as the magistrate apparatus for governing. The committee derived its power from control of the local militias and utilized a temporary executive to manage the bureaucracy. One vestigial authority retained power over this structure; the Parlamentum, which was a general assembly of all citizens brought together in times of crisis to save the city. The Parlamentum was a destabilizing institution because it was unmanaged and its output was unpredictable. For example, it had been known to throw out the city’s constitution on occasion. Fortunately, the stability of Florence was more determined by power arrangements between the social classes than formal governmental systems.

In 1207, the city fathers (Grandi) decided to introduce a new magistrate from the outside called a podesta, the theory being that an outsider would not be subject to the bias of an insider. The role of the podesta was to arbitrate disputes between powerful families, but this hardly ever worked because he had little power and the families could treat with each other and solve their problems outside of his efforts. This useless office of podesta plodded along for centuries to no purpose.

During the early 1200s, Florence came to be dominated by two families with tongue-twister names: the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. These families were essentially political parties -- the Guelfs loyal to the Pope while the Ghibellines were loyal to the emperor. By the mid-century, a feud between them developed and assassination in the name of foreign policy became commonplace. At one point, each of the families set up their own republic within the city. Between 1250 and 1260 the Guelfs ruled and the Ghibellines were in exile. The situation was reversed between 1260 and 1267. Was this a republic? Hard to understand how it could have been called one.

In the midst of the strife and assassination, two important things occurred. Large numbers of the middle class were brought into the political system (like the knights of the Roman Republic), which had the effect of damping out conflict, and there developed, through Guelf influence, a sentimental opposition to monarchy.

The introduction of the middle class into government created a comic act of complexity in organization. Beneath the first level of magistrates previously described, a second level was built of middle class citizens. Now the government apparatus was well insulated against a power grab but it was also unworkable because no man could steer the city on his own. As William Everdell points out in his brilliant book End of Kings:

“In a kind of mitotic ecstasy, Florence between 1250 and 1450 multiplied offices beyond the capacity of historians to count them. There were so many, they ran out of names for them and came to call them by number of members and purpose -- seven of flood or ten of war. It was a glorious carnival of magistrates elected, chosen by lot, or appointed by a committee. So that no one would miss a chance to govern, terms of office were shortened to as little as two months, the shortest in republican history.”

In 1343, the most mature of the many Florentine constitutions was created. It defined hundreds of public offices and its rules were amazing to complicate. For example, an elected committee could appoint another committee to draw up list of candidates for committees and selections from the list were made by a third committee. The system was designed to keep everyone involved in the government so the aristocratic families could not consolidate their power, but it did so in a manner that defied logic. No doubt this mad matrix of offices prevented an accumulation of power -- bossism was prevented by through election by lot. Coups may have been possible until the army was disbanded in 1351 in favor of mercenaries. Meanwhile, Florence weathered wars with the cities of Tuscany, a credit collapse, and the plague without a scratch.

The Republican system was seriously threatened for the first time in 1390, when the opportunist Visconti decided he would like to control all Italy north of Rome. Starting with Milan, Visconti began to work his way south rolling up town after town. Once Pisa and Siena fell, only Florence was left to conquer. The Florentines never considered surrender and were prepared to fight Visconti to the death when a miracle occurred. Visconti died of the plague, his empire fell apart, and Florence was saved.

And now we unveil the true culprits behind the fall of the Florentine Republic -- the Medici. The first of their clan, Cosimo, while trying to protect his business interests, was able to constitute and control a committee charged with filling a hat with names of candidates for important offices. Cosimo used this authority to create a base of power and control. Before his death, Cosimo and his son Piero had become leaders of most powerful political party in Florence. When Piero died in 1469, key power blocks asked his son Lorenzo to lead the republic. Using public support to his benefit, Lorenzo gradually gained control of the most important magistracies and chipped away at the republic. When he died in 1492, power was consolidated in a way that republicans could no longer resist.

Finally, in 1530, the pope allied with the Habsburg emperor, defeated Florence in battle, and the republic was no more.

What have we learned from this story? We learned that republics are built to oppose monarchies, that they depend on unique circumstances for their creation, and that they require middle class participation to hold the aristocracy in check. These elements existed in Florence as they did in Rome. Both republics lasted nearly five hundred years, both were able to adapt their political systems to maintain stability, and both collapsed when an opportunist appeared who had no reservations about tearing down what had been successful for centuries.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Roman Transition to a Republic

As you may know from previous posts, the Roman Republic was born out of the overthrow of an Etruscan monarchy. When the break occurred in 509 B.C. the components of the Republican government were largely in place, so the transition to the first stable Republic in history was relatively smooth. Still, Rome was fragile for three or four decades while she built her confidence to a level that would see her conquer the western world.

What is a Republic, you ask? The word comes from the Latin res publica or thing of the people. In other words, a government without a monarchy that allows citizens with voting rights to have a say in government affairs through participation in assemblies. Voter eligibility rules required that a man had to be a property owner and citizen in good standing in order to cast a ballot. The assemblies were conducted in the Roman forum and only those attending could vote, so travel distance had an important impact on participation. Tribes located at a great distance would have to see the benefits to them of making the long journey before they would commit to it. In one famous case, remote tribes refused to attend a critical assembly meeting because they were in the middle of the harvest.

The history of the Roman monarchy is a combination of folklore and invention. It’s first king, Romulus, is apocryphal. The next four remain foggy in history, although the third of those, Tullus Hostilus, is credited for building the first Senate House. The next three include two Etruscans and one Latin, named, Servius Tullius, who was the most notable of the entire group.

The Roman government during the time of the monarchy consisted of the king, who was the principal administrator of the government and the guardian of the religious apparatus, the Senate, made up of one hundred men, from each of the three original Roman tribes, and the tribal assembly, called the comitia curiata. The latter was mostly a figurehead body, approving legislation passed by the Senate, but Servius Tullius created a second and more powerful assembly, called the comitia centuriata, which was modelled after the Roman army. Power was divided by wealth; cavalry at the top and common foot soldier at the bottom. The distribution of votes in the body was rigged in favor of the wealthy, who had a majority of the votes and could carry or block any initiative.

The last king, the Etruscan Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, received the nickname Superbus (arrogant) because of his autocratic behavior. He was ultimately expelled along with his family when the Roman people decided they had had enough of him and kings in general. The orchestrator of the coup was Lucius Junius Brutus, nephew of the king and a republican idealist. In the first act after the expulsion of Superbus, Brutus made the Roman people swear allegiance to the new political system:

Omnium primum avidum novae libertatis populum, ne postmodum flecti precibus aut donis regiis posset, iure iurando adegit neminem Romae passuros regnare.

To quote Livy, “By swearing an oath that they would suffer no man to rule Rome, it forced the people, desirous of a new liberty, not to be thereafter swayed by the entreaties or bribes of kings.

Brutus was named the first consul of the new Republic along with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, but almost immediately there was trouble. The former king tried to regain the throne by using his ambassadors to put together a conspiracy against the Republic, and the rebels included two of Brutus’ sons. Forced to abide by his principles and save the young Republic, Brutus had his sons executed along with other conspirators. Superbus then tried to wage war on the Rome, but he was repulsed for good at the Battle of Silvia Arsia. Brutus led the cavalry on the side of the Republic but did not survive the battle.

With the threat of the former king extinguished, the Republic was free to move forward in its new form. The administrative function of the king was given to a pair newly created magistrates (consuls) and religious authority was granted to a magistrate called the Pontifex Maximus. The consuls were given veto right over each other to avoid an accumulation of power and as a further brake on the latter, their term of office was limited to one year. A common element of republics throughout history has been the design of governmental structures that make it difficult to accumulate power, because republics are built by those who abhor a monarchy.

In the first decades after the removal of the king, Rome would face twin threats to her sovereignty: wars with her neighbors and an internal class struggle. In the former case, she was attacked by almost everyone: first Etruscans, Samnites, Latins, from nearby who were conquered and assimilated; and then the Volci and Aequi, tribes from the western edge of the Apennine Mountains, who fought Rome for nearly a century. We think of Rome in later times as imperialistic, but her posture here was totally defensive, and she was just trying to survive. Those early military victories sharpened her skill in battle and honed her cultural will for the future.

Class struggle would carry on for centuries and nearly everyone is familiar with the terms patrician and plebian, which survive to the present day as labels for rich and poor. The Rome of the monarchy had built a patronage system of mutual benefits -- patricians were able to use plebs to act as their agents and those plebs received protection and compensation in return. But that system was not enough to keep class differences under control once the Republic came into being. In 494 B.C, the plebs initiated a strike to demand a grain distribution to help those suffering from a famine. The Senate resisted at first, but was eventually forced to give in. Ultimately, the plebs spent a couple of centuries trying to achieve equality in office and equality in power. The Senate fought them all along the way but reforms were gradually put in place without a major disruption or civil war. Laws were written down in 451 B.C. and displayed in the Forum, offices that were originally restricted to patricians were made open to plebs, and a new magistrate was created, the Tribune, designed to protect the people from abuses of the upper class. The political relationship between classes remained stable until the period after the Punic Wars when the economic status of the lower class plunged to a point where it acted as a catalyst for social unrest and eventually civil war.