Roman thought is usually accused of being secondary to Hellenistic and Hellenistic thought. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is through the prism of the differences in attitudes of the Greeks and Romans to life. The latter put practical action higher, hence it is precisely in the heyday of the Roman Empire that its “practical” areas, such as rhetoric, come to the fore of philosophy.
But the achievements of the Romans must be judged on the basis of systemic practice. It was the perfect organization of the state that made the small Latium at the beginning of our era the heart of the pan-European superpower.
Let’s follow the legal and political concepts that were at the root of this success.
Mixed constitution of Polybius
Polybius (c. 200-118 BCE) was a Greek historian who was captured by the Roman Empire. In Italy, he was patronized by the Scipio family. He was an educator and advisor to Scipio Africanus Minor. After the occupation of Greece by the Romans in 146 BCE was appointed to administer this country. In his work “Universal History”, Polybius glorified the political system of Rome as a result of natural and spontaneous development. This system was to combine elements of the monarchy (consuls), aristocracy (senate) and democracy (people’s assembly).
The apotheosis of the Roman system – making Polybius a kind of “ideologue of the aristocracy” – favouring Roman civilisation’s spread, becomes obvious considering that Polybius referred to Plato in his typology of political systems.
In his theory of cyclical development, the state goes from the stage of growth (when it is ruled by a monarchical or aristocratic system) to the stage of decline (when there is tyranny). Aristocracy, a form conducive to the involvement of all classes in power (with the primacy of the best) and developmentally beneficial, degenerates towards oligarchy, i.e. powers degenerated by wealth, and further – under the influence of the people’s anger – towards democracy. The consequence of democracy, enabling demagogues to manipulate the crowd, is the last phase – tyranny, autocracy. However, it opens the way to a new cycle – royal power.
At the same time, considering the mixed system to be the best conducive to development, Polybius adopts the concept of Aristotle’s polytheia. Such a system was to break Rome out of the vicious circle of a cyclical succession of subsequent political forms.
It is impossible not to notice Stoic influences in the syncretic worldview of Polybius. They are expressed in praise of the concept of world civilization, a kind of cosmopolitanism.
The views and work of Polybius had a significant impact on the later Roman historiosophy (Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch), but also on the creators of the Renaissance, such as Niccolo Machiavelli, or the 18th century (Montesquieus).
Gaius Sempronius (c. 152-122 BCE) and Tiberius Sempronius (162-132 BCE), the Gracchi headed the popular party, supported them also the equites (middle-class social class whose members got rich as a result of military conquests). Faced with the growing advantage of the oligarchy, which manifested itself in seizing the estates of legionaries in wars (which led to the erosion of the middle class, the base of the army), they proposed to reform surplus land. In 133 BCE Tiberius Gracchus was elected people’s tribune. He submitted to the people’s assembly a draft stipulating that one citizen may not own more than 500 Jugers (a Juger is about 1 hectare), and in special cases – more than 1000 Jugers of land. The surpluses were to be divided into 30 juger plots of land and allocated to poor citizens on hereditary leases, without the possibility of selling. For this purpose, an appropriate commission was established.
The proposals met with resistance from the optimists, who led to the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and 300 of his followers.
In 122 BCE Gaius Gracchus became the tribune. He carried out reforms consisting in introducing the sale of cheap grain to the poor and increasing the rights of equites. They were given the right to file a complaint before the judicial tribunals of senators who had committed abuses while serving as provincial governors.
Another proposal by Gaius Gracchus was to expand the circle of Roman citizens. Again, this was met with opposition from the optimates, and Gaius, like Tiberius, was killed.
The Gracchi brothers personified the aspirations of the Roman people and were venerated after their death. Their activities weakened the aristocracy and strengthened the most class of the equites.
Marcus Tullius Cicero – theory of state and law
Marcus Tullius Cicero (January 3, 106 – December 7, 43 BCE) – politician, rhetorician, and representative of the optimists from the equite class. Author of the treatises “On the state”, “On rights”, “On duty”, as well as rhetorical works, such as “On the orator”, “Speech against Catilina”, “In defence of Milon”, “Philippicae” (directed against Antony) or “Speeches against Verres”.
In philosophy – an eclectic, combining the teachings of Plato with the Stoic tradition, in politics – Hellenic and Roman traditions.
At the beginning of his career, he belonged to the popular camp; He became associated with the optimists when the aristocracy appointed him as a counter-candidate of radical Catilina in the election for consul in 63 BCE. After the conviction of the Catilina (conspiracy revealed Cicero) he received the title of pater patriae from the Senate. In 58 BCE, after populares came to power, he was exiled. He returned a year later. He was an opponent of Caesar and a supporter of Pompey. Pardoned, he returned to Rome in 48 BCE to devote himself to writing. In 43 BCE he defended the senate against the takeover of power by Marcus Antony.
In his political thought, Cicero referred to the concept of balance of powers by Polybius. The attempt to juxtapose the solidarity of the upper classes (and thus the aristocracy and equites) with the “agreement of the states” with the progressive decay of the republic was to prevent autocracy.
The ideal structure for him was a combination of the power of the aristocratic senate, the popular assembly and the supreme official subject to law. At the same time, in critical moments, power should belong to a perfect statesman who would play the role of a peacemaker. He drew a lot on Greek thought, which he openly admitted when writing about his works:
These are copies that are created without much trouble; from myself I only add words that I never miss.
There are many contradictions in his thoughts, but the key ones are references to Stoic concepts. From them, he drew ideas such as the principle of moderation and justice in action, and the concept of eternal and unchanging justice, order encompassing all nations. This did not mean, however, the acceptance of the postulates of the lower classes, but rather the protection of the status quo.
An important place in his views was occupied by the concept of the laws of nature. According to Cicero, it is the laws of nature that can be used to decide whether the conduct is right or wrong. In addition to these rights, there are also human rights – ius humanum, within which he distinguished Cicero ius gentium, i.e. the legal ideas of all mankind (as a perfect reflection of the laws of nature), and ius civile, i.e. laws specific to a particular nation. He referred to the Law of the Twelve Tables which was the foundation of Rome.
According to Cicero, the state, res populi, was a moral community of people bound by rights and obligations. Thus, it is not a participation in social life (as in Hellenic thought), but the legal community that constitutes the factor constituting the state society. According to Cicero, the law takes the first place – each type of system is only a type of state management in which law is a sovereign element.
The concept of universal citizenship also referred to the ideals of the Stoic social circles. The stages of this citizenship are the union of a woman with a man (coniugium), then – the domestic community (familia), the city-state (civitas), national unity (gens, natio), and finally humanity (genus humanum), being a social community (societas humana), bound by a sense of the law of nature. The result is world citizenship (civis totius mundi).