The Best and Worst of Oligarchy and Democracy

Friday, March 5th, 2010

The Romans, like the Greeks, were quite attentive to athletic exercises:

Plutarch relates what pains Cato the Censor took in training his son in throwing the javelin, in riding, in swimming rapid rivers, in enduring heat and cold; how Marius, throwing off his old age and his infirmities, went daily to the Campus Martius, where he took his exercises with the young men; and how Julius Caesar did not make his feeble health an excuse for indulgence, but by unwearied exercise and frugal diet, by constantly keeping in the open air and enduring fatigue, struggled with his malady, and kept his body proof against its attacks.

The effect of the Roman system of athletic exercises in strengthening and hardening their bodies, appears from the fact that a Roman soldier usually carried a load of sixty pounds weight, besides his arms; that under this load the soldier commonly marched twenty miles a day, sometimes more, usually completing the day’s march in five hours, that is, marching twenty miles in five hours, sometimes twenty-four miles in that time.

National strength is not just about fortitude though:

But the Roman system of training, while, like the Spartan, it cultivated the physical qualities of bodily strength, activity, and endurance, with the moral qualities of fortitude and patriotism, did not cultivate in the least degree, like the Spartan also, the moral qualities of justice and humanity. Their leading principle, to which all others gave way, was the extension of the empire; in other words, universal dominion and universal plunder.

Nevertheless, the Roman constitution, or system of government, possessed elements of duration which did not belong either to the Spartan or Athenian system. The Spartan government was, as we have seen, an almost pure oligarchy, the Athenian an almost pure democracy; each of which worked out rapidly its own destruction, without check or counterpoise. On the other hand, the Roman system of government had in it the two elements of oligarchy and democracy, which acted as checks on one another; for a time at least. It is true that they mostly acted in such a way that now the one predominated, and now the other. At last, however, after great struggles, the government of Rome was brought to a just equilibrium, under which there was no insurmountable obstruction to merit. The republic was thus managed for several ages without internal discord.

But as wealth and luxury increased, especially after the destruction of Carthage, the more wealthy piebeians united with the patricians, and the two parties of rich men, the old and the new, engrossed between them all the honours and emoluments of the State. The body of the people were impoverished and oppressed, and at the same time brutalized by the gladiatorial shows, while they were also thoroughly corrupted by idleness and by dependence for food upon those public men who intended to use them for their own purposes.

We thus see that while, for a time, the government of Rome enjoyed the advantages of a combination of the oligarchical government of Sparta and the democratical government of Athens, it afterwards suffered at once from the evils of both kinds of government. In this state of things the Roman plebeians became the ready instruments, first, in the hands of Marius, and afterwards in those of Julius Caesar, for the complete destruction of the Roman constitution. Then came to pass in Rome what, as we have seen, had before come to pass in Sparta and Athens — the total destruction of the military spirit of the people, and of their ability to defend themselves from foreign aggression; and those who had conquered and oppressed nearly all the world were conquered and oppressed in their turn.

The cause of the disease, in this as in all similar cases, was bad government.

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