SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 9. Greek democracy versus Roman liberty

A theme which threads through Mary Beard’s history of ancient Rome, SPQR, is the difference between Greek notions of democracy and Roman ones of liberty.

Although Romans had lots of elections, for a wide range of officials, starting with the annual election of consuls, although the Romans voted on the passage of laws, voted for or against wars and so on – Rome was never really a democracy and the Greek word δημοκρατία or dēmokratia was never central to its political culture (p.189). That role was played by the concept of libertas or liberty (p.291).

Romans fought for, and about, liberty, not democracy. (SPQR p.189)

Politics was the province of privileged, rich and literate Romans (the only people who have left extended texts which we can study). To stand for election to any political office in Rome you had to be phenomenally rich and pass a financial test that comfortably excluded most citizens. The fundamental value of Roman politics was not anything like the voice of the people, but the liberty of the citizen against any form of oppressive government (even if ‘citizen’ mostly meant, in practice, the relatively small number of wealthy citizens who made up the intricately interlinked ruling elite. This was the group Cicero referred to the optimates, derived from optimi, meaning ‘the best’ men in the state, in other words, the wealthiest and best connected, p.227).

Against kings

The fundamental meaning of libertas as being against oppression went back to the Romans’ overthrow of their kings in the early 500s and the establishment of their republic. 450 years later, a cabal of assassins murdered Julius Caesar in the name of this ‘liberty’, fearing that he was about to become a dictator for life, little less than a king. They had coins struck which showed the daggers used to kill Caesar alongside the pileus, the cap worn by newly freed slaves, and the words Ides referring to the Ides of March when the assassination took place (p.295). Daggers and freedom. The assassins called themselves the liberatores, the liberators. Assassinating the tyrant was, in their view, vital to preserving libertas.

The EID MAR denarius issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC showing, on one side, Brutus’s profile, on the other the freedom cap, the daggers and EID MAR denoting the Eidibus Martiis or the Ides of March, 15 March, the day Julius Caesar was assassinated (p.295).

Liberty means different things

The trouble with libertas as a slogan, though, is that ‘freedom’ means different things to different people. It is one thing to rally huge crowds in city centres chanting for freedom and the overthrow of dictators from Caesar to Ceaușescu. But once you’ve overthrown the tyrant, what do you do next?

Because libertas is an empty slogan onto which people project their own fantasies and desires – millions of conflicting wishes and hopes – it is inevitable that revolutions in the name of a liberty in which everyone has vested their deepest hopes will turn out to be disappointing. You cannot fulfil everyone’s dreams and fantasies of a better life, especially in exactly the kind of turbulent, crisis-ridden times which give rise to revolutions in the first place.

Inevitable, too, that in the chaos of conflicting wishes and plans and parties which follow a revolution, someone will eventually have to step in and establish order – as Caesar tried to do as the Roman Republic collapsed, was assassinated before he could make the attempt, and as his adopted heir, Octavian , finally succeeded in doing.

Greek demokratia

For the Greeks, by contrast, dēmokratia was in intrinsic part of the administrative system of their states (well, some of them; ancient Greece was divided into numerous city states and not all of them implemented ‘democracy’ as it was understood in ancient Athens). The Athenians believed that their democratic system was created after the expulsion of the last in a series of ‘tyrants’ at the end of the 6th century BC (at pretty much the same time as the Romans had expelled their last king, Tarquin the Arrogant – p.128).

But without getting bogged down in a mass of historical detail, the basic point is clear: Democracy is a practical, implementable policy and everyone knows what it means: it means all adults get to vote for their leaders and key policies of state. Liberty, on the other hand, is a great rallying cry for revolutions to overthrow kings and tyrants and dictators (‘Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood’, the French revolutionaries said they were fighting for, p.129). But once this is achieved, what next? Unlike democracy, liberty is not a practical, implementable policy – it’s just a rallying cry and a slogan.

The liberators

The conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar in the name of libertas, thinking they were eliminating a tyrant in order to restore the values of the Republic. Instead they ushered in 14 years of bitter civil war which, after a series of unstable power-sharing arrangements, led to the rise of Octavian, a ruler much stronger and more ruthless than Caesar would ever have been. Murder in the name of liberty led, in fact, to the decisive overthrow of the Republic they set out to preserve.

The French revolutionaries executed Louis XIV in the name of liberté but instead created an ever-intensifying Reign of Terror which, after a series of unstable constitutional experiments, led to the rise of the Europe-wide dictator Napoleon, a ruler far more sweepingly dictatorial than any king had been.

The paradox of liberty

The paradox that overturning a dictator in the name of ‘liberty’ often leads to the rise of an even more repressive ruler than you got rid of, is captured by a quote from Tom Holland’s history of the Roman Republic, Rubicon. He quotes the lawyer, orator and politician Cicero expressing puzzlement that Caesar’s assassins had definitely overthrown the Tyrant – and yet, the Republic and the ‘Freedom’ they claimed to be reviving went on to collapse:

“Freedom has been restored,” Cicero noted in perplexity, “and yet the Republic has not.” (quoted in Rubicon, page 352)

Something like this happened 2,050 years later during the so-called Arab Spring, when liberals and intellectuals and disaffected crowds in Libya and Egypt and Syria set out to overthrow their repressive rulers (Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Bashar al-Assad) but ended up with political chaos,  a collapse into warlordism, or a ruler tougher and more repressive than the one they overthrew.

Moral of the story

If you’re marching in the streets to overthrow a dictator don’t do so in the name of ‘Liberty’, because the idea will be hijacked by the canniest political operator or strongest warlord or toughest general on the scene, who will then twist your ideas out of recognition, twist them till they’ve turned your idea of liberty to fit into their idea of Order and Security.

Write ‘Democracy’ on your banners because the simple call for regular elections to chuck out corrupt leaders and elect new ones cannot be talked away, reinterpreted or redefined. It is a clear, simple, practical programme, and so likelier to be achieved.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: