We close out our unit on early governments by looking at Rome – both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Roman forms of government and the experience of Rome falling from a representative democracy to a monarchy had a big influence on future generations, especially the American Founding Fathers.

The connection between ancient Greece and Rome and our Founding Fathers is this book – the Lives of Plutarch. Plutarch was a Greek historian who wrote a series of short biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, ranging from the legendary (Theseus) to the contemporary (Julius Caesar). These biographies were collected into one volume and were extremely popular in the Enlightenment Era (18th Century) in both Europe and America.

We mention Alexander the Great only briefly and as a necessary connector between the government traditions of Europe (especially Greece) to the government traditions of the East (especially Persia). Although Alexander (tutored by Aristotle) had much exposure to Greek traditions and was familiar with Greek democracy, he chose to adopt an Eastern style of absolute monarchy when he built his kingdom. His large empire connected Persia and India to Europe and North Africa. His descendants spread Greek culture (Hellenism) throughout this vast region, paving the way for the Romans.

Southern Italy and Sicily had been colonized by the Greeks so the Latins (the tribe that lived in Latium which contained Rome) were very familiar with Greek ideas. Much of Roman culture and religion was borrowed from the Greeks. “Jupiter” the chief Roman god is an amalgamation of “Zeus” (the chief Greek God) and “pater” (Latin for father) so that “Jupiter” is just “Zeus Pater” or “Zeus, the Father”. As Rome expanded, they came into conflict with Carthage, an empire based in North Africa. When Rome permanently defeats Carthage around 150 BCE, they become the primary power in the region and take control of trade on the Mediterranean.

The Roman Republic is a representative democracy. Citizens (men of property) elect Senators who then decide on the laws of the country. The “SPQR” seen above on many monuments from the days of the Republic stands for “The Senate and People of Rome”. The body of Roman law also sets boundaries and puts constraints on their government – this is legal-rational authority. In times of crisis, Roman law allowed for the appointment of a dictator to serve for a limited time but during that time, to have unlimited power. Cincinnatus is a great example of this idea. He was a farmer and former senator who was made dictator to deal with an invasion by a nearby hostile tribe. He assumed absolute power, organized the Romans to repel the invaders and once peace was established, retired to his farm and gave his power back to the Senate and people of Rome. This example of civic virtue was certainly influential and in no small part served as a template for George Washington who, after two terms as President, retired to his Virginia farm rather than seek a third.

Julius Caesar, made dictator in 49 BCE, did not follow the example of Cincinnatus. Caesar wants to keep his power, become a long-term dictator, end the rule of the Senate and people of Rome. This is met with hostility from the Senate and a group of Senators organize his assassination. After Caesar is killed, Rome falls into chaos and civil war. The eventual winner is a member of the Caesar family – Octavian – who renames himself “Augustus” and as emperor, presides over the transition from republic to monarchy.

Cato the Younger was a Senator at the time of Caesar who opposed the dictator and who ultimately killed himself rather than live under a tyrant. His example of fighting tyranny inspired the Founding Fathers. His life was the subject of a popular play that was a huge hit in America in the 1750’s and 60’s. In that play, as Cato kills himself, he says: “Give me liberty or give me death”.

As time passes, the Senate becomes less important in the new Roman Empire. At first, Augustus gave the Senate much respect and consulted with them often. By the third generation of emperors, the Senate is not being consulted on anything. Pictured is the actor Joachim Phoenix from the movie “Gladiator”. In the film, Phoenix plays the real-life emperor Commodus who was one of the worst emperors in Roman history. He was the son of one of the best emperors, Marcus Aurelius – demonstrating one of the weaknesses of monarchy, that there is no guarantee that genetics will produce consistently good leaders.

The (western) Roman empire collapses about 475 AD. This leaves Europe in a state of chaos known as “The Dark Ages”. Roman power established law and order, good roads, reliable trade. Without Rome, outlaws, bandits and pirates are free to prey upon the defenseless folk of Europe. Local wealthy landowners begin to establish their own private armies to maintain law and order in their own territories. They trade protection for services, usually in the form of food production. This system, where the leader of a local military elite provides protection in exchange for service is known as “feudalism”. Over time, these local leaders will pledge their service to a regional leader who may style himself as a “king”. The story of European history during this time period is the conflict between kings who want absolute power and their nobles who want to put boundaries and constraints on the king’s power. In England, King John is forced to sign a document (the Magna Carta) in 1215 that limits his power and protects his nobles from arbitrary imprisonment or confiscation of their property and guranteees them a right to trial, amongst much else.

As monarchy became the only type of government found in Europe during the Middle Ages, monarchs found it useful to work with the Church to justify their reign. Thus was born the idea of “The Divine Right of Kings”, this being the belief that God Almighty gave kings the power to rule and that to disobey the King or question their authority was to go against the will of God (an act of blasphemy). This belief was very powerful and even as late as 1776, was still used by American Loyalists to defend their support of King George III.

I’m using the playing card suits because each one represents a different segment of medieval society. Hearts represented the Church, Spades stood for the knights (the military class), diamonds represented the merchants and the lowly peasants were represented by clubs. Three of these classes (The Church, the nobility and the merchants) had access to land, to wealth, to money. The peasants sadly didn’t have any of that. As the centuries progress, the three wealthy classes (Church, nobles and merchants) are in conflict with each other over who should control the resources of the kingdom (think back to the Conflict Perspective). The Middle Ages begin wit the king and Church having near-absolute power. As the years progress, merchants and nobles put constraints on the King and on the Church. This results in the development of constitutional monarchies in which the King must follow the law and is not above the law.


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Early Government: Resources Day 3

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