Past but Not Least: Political Lessons from Civilizations of Yore

Part 1: Ancient Europe

By: Samrin Saleem

Human civilizations have existed for thousands of years; the first city-states developed around the 4th millennium BCE. Over the past 6000 years, civilizations have risen, flourished, declined, and disappeared. We have seen wars, death, destruction, and carnage. But we have also witnessed development, innovation, revolutions, and peace. We consider ourselves lucky to live in the modern era, with its rights, freedoms, and inventions; a world where fever won’t kill you and not just half of all children grow up to be adults.

Granted, we have progressed far, far beyond our ancestors. I, for one, enjoy the luxury of typing this on a keyboard instead of engraving it onto a rock. But perhaps it is not so black and white. With all the luxuries of the modern world, we also live in a time where weapons have become more destructive than ever, and politicians increasingly tyrannical. How can we fix this? How can we regain the freedoms we would boast of? Perhaps the answer is in the past.

In this 5-part series, we will explore the governing bodies of the most prominent city-states to have existed. Political systems from Ancient Europe to Mesopotamia can teach us what to do and what not to do to ensure a peaceful, free, and fair country.

Do as the (ancient) Romans did

The Roman Republic was founded in 510 BCE, from what historians refer to as “the ashes of a monarchy.” Prior to the establishment of the Republic, the Roman people endured the rule of kings. Taxing as this ordeal was, it led to the realization that power must not be concentrated in the hands of a single individual.

The Republic, and later the Roman Empire, divided authority, or imperium, among three basic elements of the government — elected magistrates, a Senate, and popular assemblies. However, much like most present-day governments, power was exclusive to the elite, while the common people (the plebians) were excluded. Soon, this too changed. The plebians made up the majority of the Roman army, and this power imbalance made it easy for them to voice discontent. Their rebellion led to the 200-year long Conflict of Order, which in turn resulted in the establishment of a plebian assembly, the Concilium Plebis.

As it expanded into Asia and Africa, the Republic found it difficult to manage the governance of so many people. Thus entered Augustus, the first emperor, who brought with him the end of Roman democracy. Under the emperor, assemblies disappeared, and the Senate was merely a ceremonial vehicle to enable his wishes. Augustus took control of the military and of appointment to office. In an attempt to cure Rome of her declining morality, he revived the old religion and its temples. Appointing himself as the Chief Priest, or Pontifex Maximus, he consolidated his status as the father of the country. This near-worship of the emperor would later morph into the imperial cult of Ancient Rome.

Even over 2500 years since their establishment, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire continue to teach us lessons, however, these lessons seem to fall on deaf ears. It is clear how the mistreatment of the Roman plebians led to revolts and unrest, but modern-day governments continue to ignore the basic needs of their poorest citizens. They make promises during campaigns which they double back on after their election. Many political leaders today have fan followings bordering on fanaticism, that resemble an imperial cult. Criticism, especially online, is met with death threats and sometimes physical violence.

Rome showed us that invading and infringing upon the sovereignty of other nations can ultimately ruin a country, yet we see today’s “developed” nations continue to exert their political, economic, and military power on developing nations. Under the guise of bringing peace and democracy, developed countries capitalize on civil unrest and kill innocent civilians. If we fail to learn from the mistakes of Rome, we will drive ourselves to ruin.

It’s all (ancient) Greek to us

The word democracy is derived from the Greek word dēmokratia, which itself was derived from the Greek word for the citizen body, dēmos, and kratia, which means power. Athens is famous for being the birthplace of democracy in 460 BCE. However, Athens was not the first Greek state to implement democracy, rather the most familiar. Other Greek states such as Argos, Syracuse, Rhodes, and Erythrai also established similar political systems. Apart from the common practical challenges of democracy, Athenian democracy was imperfect even in theory; only males above the age of 18 were considered citizens and could speak and vote in the assembly.

In practice, the situation was worse. Distant citizens had to be paid as an incentive to attend meetings. Citizens made up 10–20% of the population, of which only about 3,000 were active in politics. As few as 100 citizens dominated the assembly, influencing decisions inside and outside of it. This power, which could be concentrated amongst a few good orators, was quoted by the opponents of democracy as its shortcoming. Democracy, however, was not the only form of the Greek government. Monarchies, tyrannies, and oligarchies were common, as Greece explored different forms of governance.

Greek monarchies were distinguished from tyrannies solely by the benevolence of the hereditary ruler. Monarchies, though rare, existed in Macedonia and Epeiros, where they were aided by an assembly. Sparta was special in that the citizen assembly ran side-by-side with a system of two kings. However, even these kings were not completely powerful. Beyond leading Spartans to war, these kings were kept in check by assembly-elected ephoroi. The only real advantage they had over the assembly members, who were elected at 60, was that they were members of the gerousia and were admitted to it from a young age.

In contrast to how tyranny is viewed today, tyrants in Greece were not necessarily evil rulers; they were merely selfish. In fact, some tyrants were especially benevolent, like Peisistratos in Athens (who ruled from 560 BCE) who paved the way for democracy. Regardless, Athenians viewed tyranny as the polar opposite of democracy, because it allowed one citizen to exercise unlimited power.

Oligarchy, by definition, included forms of government in which power would rest in the hands of a group of individuals. For the Greeks, anything that did not fall into the above three categories (democracy, monarchy, and tyranny) was classified as an oligarchy. Oligarchy was the most common political system and often resulted from failed democracies. Little information about them exists, save for the knowledge that an oligarchy of 400 once took over in Athens, and that oligarchy also existed in city-states like Megara and Thebes.

Democracy, both etymologically and practically, was the people’s favorite. While Athenian democracy was not perfect (few things are, especially in their infancy), the Greeks were certainly on the right track. They understood the importance of including all citizens in the decision-making process. Over the years the definition of “citizen” has become more inclusive, and population size has increased — so total involvement may be impractical. But it is important to include citizens in at least low-level decision-making in their villages or towns.

Today, out of 167 countries, only 23 are full democracies. In many countries, democracy exists only at the surface level; the real power is in the hands of the elite, or an individual. These are the 52 flawed democracies, which govern 41% of the world’s population. It seems that today’s politicians and voters do not understand the lessons that Greek oligarchies and tyrannies teach us.

Watch this space as we explore the Indian subcontinent next week.

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