Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room: Chapter 5 Summary

The Roman Republic: Oligarchy With A Hint Of Democracy

“… round he throws his baleful eyes, That witness’d huge affliction and dismay, Mix’d with obdurate pride, and steadfast hate…”

What about Rome, was there anything democratic about the Roman Republic? Certainly not in the early years. Before and during the period of the Republic, the ultimate and enduring power lay with the Senate, which was composed principally of wealthy families and former magistrates. For the most part, it was the senators—that is, the leading men of the most prominent families—who established foreign policy, extended imperial reach, and maintained control of finance and state religion.

The domestic conflict that was the ultimate undoing of the Republic—the Conflict of the Orders—began early on. The plebeians (the population at large), whose interests were being ignored by the patricians (the wealthy aristocracy, who controlled the Senate), made their voices heard for the first time in 494 B.C.  The first negotiators for the plebeians were known as “tribunes.” What began as a temporary form of representation went on to become a fixture of the Roman Republic.

It was only after considerable pressure from among the population at large as well as from within its own ranks, that the oligarchy, reluctantly and often temporarily would cede some power to the common folk and address its needs in the form of legislation and policy. There are two democratic achievements that stand out. Going to war was voted by those who were going to risk their lives in fighting it. Although most legislative initiatives came from the senate, only those proposals became law that the people agreed to accept.