A Little Less Greek

On a recent foray into a used book store I stumbled over an excellent flyover of Roman history.  During my reading I was intrigued by the settlement of a political conflict in the Roman republic of the fourth and fifth centuries BC.  During that period a power struggle ensued between the hereditary aristocracy and the commoners.  Compromises during the period ended the contest in the early third century with a relatively stable power-sharing arrangement.  The aristocracy of birth was diluted with an aristocracy of political office and wealth, and the political offices were divvied up between the classes.

The author, Donald Dudley, highlights the results in Rome by contrasting them with the conflicts in Greek city-states:

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“Roman sources stress that the entire contest over some five generations was carried out with no bloodshed and with the minimum of violence. It is common to pay tribute to the political good sense of a society in which this could be done. Credit where it is due must not be withheld. But once again the factor of enlightened self-interest can be invoked. Rome lived in a world of enemies, and each of the parties in this internal political dispute needed the other. The patricians needed the numbers and courage of the common people to defend the state in war, the plebs needed the leadership and experience of the patricians. It is true that, in the insensate fury of the class struggle, Greek city-states were only too apt to forget an enemy at the gates. But in the Roman Republic, as yet, there was a readiness for compromise and common sense. Furthermore, where the Greeks were fatally apt to conduct their political disputes in terms of principles (and in the spirit which later made martyrs and heresiarchs), at Rome political disputes arose over practical issues.**”

There might be something in this for the modern world.

The current polarization in US politics produces entertaining media theater.  Unfortunately the stage show seems to favor shouted one-dimensional answers and celebrities with out-sized personalities.  There appears to be little appreciation for the practical and difficult discussions of complex issues appear completely frozen out.  If ideas cannot be reduced to sound bites and Twitter posts they are knocked flat in the gale of personal invective, cynical populist rhetoric, and simplistic expressions of principle.  Demagogues and ideologues.  The whole thing seems very Greek.

On the other hand the founding document for the US political environment seems very Roman.  The US Constitution appears to be a very practical exercise in spreading power. It encodes a recognition of what happens when too much of it is concentrated in one place and requires broad consensus to get anything significant done.

Unfortunately the framers appear to have not recognized the limits of their practical problem solving.  The three-fifths compromise in Article One was morally bankrupt and baked in the mechanisms of its own dissolution.  This attempt to reconcile political power arrangements with the treatment of people as property was eventually paid for with 600,000 casualties in the American Civil War.

There is a balance to be found somewhere in between the practical thinking of the US founding fathers and the very loud chaos of the current media circus.  But at the moment the balance could a bit more Roman and a little less Greek.


**Donald R Dudley.  The Romans: 850 B.C.-A.D. 337.  Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 1993. ISBN 1-56619-456-3.  P40