“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” – Plato
The question at hand is whether there were any similarities that led to the fall of Ancient Greek and Roman democracies. This essay will discuss how wars and territorial expansion led to a rise in populism, which brought political chaos, and how it is the fundamental cause of the decline of democracy in Ancient Greece and Rome.
The first forms of democracy started in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. In Ancient Greece, democracy and politics were more related to the Athenian city-state – because Sparta was more of a military dictatorship – than any other city-state in the region. As for Rome, the brief period between the Roman Kingdom and the Roman Empire, known as the Roman Republic, came to be a symbol of democracy in the Ancient Roman time period. Though democracy is defined as a form of government in which its people make decisions that directly influence their daily lives, the ancient forms of democracy were slightly different. It is clear that the Athenian city-state was more democratic than the Roman Republic, but both had forms of oligarchy that tampered with the image of ideal democracy. The Roman Republic had its Senate, and the Athenian city-state had its Areopagos, groups of aristocrats that usually dominated the region’s politics. Some sources even suggest that “Rome never became a democracy in the sense that they (the citizens) ever controlled the government for long.”
But whatever democracy existed in these areas was short-lived. Even though these democracies existed in different time periods, they had similar reasons to their downfall. Scholars suggest that these democracies fell because of the sheer landmass each had to control after their numerous victories. The Roman Republic stretched the Italian Peninsula and controlled parts of Northern Africa; Athens ruled much of mainland Greece and the Ionian states (the Delian League basically put the Ionian states under Athenian subjection) along the Mediterranean coastline. The constitutions built for Athens and the Roman Republic were figuratively too small to control these newly added territories. Since the constitutions were made only to satisfy the populations of the homeland itself, the constitutions had gaps in which politicians abused, ultimately leading to political corruption. Another cause reasoned for the downfall of democracies in both states is the democracies’ fallout with their common citizens. Citizens of Rome and Athens consequently wanted a single strong ruler after years of war had created panic among all levels of government. However, though these two reasons are valid, there was another significant cause for the fall of these two democracies.
The rise of populism in both the Athenian city-state and the Roman Republic was crucial to the deterioration of their democracies. The Athenian city-state fought many wars such as the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian Wars. To fight these wars, the Athenians needed income. The common Athenian citizen had to fund the war, similar to the Roman Plebeians and their war taxes, creating heavy discrepancies between the rich and poor. This in turn paved the way for many populist reforms – reforms that favored the working class – most importantly, Pericles’ reforms. Pericles removed the property restrictions on army enlistment to provide more troops in the Athenian war machine. This reform, along with the previous reform of Cleisthenes that enlarged the Council of 400 to five-hundred people, allowed for the “… involvement of a large part or even the whole of the citizen body in the state’s affairs,” giving the citizens too much power. Citizens, whom had no experience in politics, started to make decisions for the Athenian public.
This proved detrimental in Second Peloponnesian War, when Athens could not effectively place its troops because of quarrels within the Council of 500 (and a weakened Areopagos due to Pericles’ reforms), leading to a defeat that nearly crumbled the existing form of democracy in Athens. This inefficiency of the government moved citizens and thinkers, such as Plato, to view democracy as an ineffective form of rule. Citizens now shifted their sights to Macedonia as their only hope for survival. The case for the Roman Republic is similar. The plebeians funded wars which created discrepancies between the Patrician class and the Plebeians. This allowed the Patricians to dominate the state’s resources, such as land, which started to deteriorate the economy of the Republic. To counter these movements, reformers such as the Gracchus brothers and Gaius Marius turned to populist ideals to gain a strong plebeian holding.
In trying to do so, the reformers disobeyed many of the constitution’s preexisting laws which brought political instability: Tiberius Gracchus tried to illegally obtain another year as tribune, resulting in the first “daggers in the forum,” Gaius Gracchus tried to start a plebeian reform, which failed, and Gaius Marius and Sulla created a clash between the populares and optimares, creating conflict within Rome. These attempts at populist reforms seemingly started a trend within politicians to undermine the authority of the Roman constitution. Sulla was elected dictator for two consecutive terms – Roman law only allowed for a single term in case of national emergency – and Julius Caesar declared himself dictator-for-life and crossed the Rubicon into Rome with his troops, which were both illegal. All of these attempts at populist reforms created confusion amongst the Roman public, whom now viewed dictatorships more pleasurable than the current Republic mess. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Octavion took over, marking the end of the Roman Republic.
As discussed above, wars were the backbone to the populist movements. It is important to note, however, that in Ancient Greece, the fall was associated more with the populist reforms itself, and that in Ancient Rome, the fall was associated more with the push for populism, rather than the reforms itself. Another rather interesting fact was that the increase in democracy in Greece actually led to the demise of the democracy itself. However, in all, populism was a common factor that brought the collapse of the democracies in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.
[ 1 ]. Roberts, J. M. “The Making of the Roman World.” The Penguin History of Europe. London, England: Penguin, 1997. 51. Print. [ 2 ]. Roberts, J. M. “Ancient Greece.” The Penguin History of Europe. London, England: Penguin, 1997. 31. Print. [ 3 ]. A term used to describe the first appearance of violence in the Roman General Assembly; it is blamed for start of the disregard of the Roman constitution by many politicians to follow.