Expanding the Liberty Canon: Rome and Carthage in the Histories of Polybius

This historically-based exploration of writing on liberty now reaches the point where the Greek world has fallen under the domination of Rome, but even at this point we can see that the Greek language and heritage will continue to be important in a Roman dominated Mediterranean, particularly in the eastern parts, leaving the legacy of the Christian Gospels in Greek, the fifth and sixth century CE transformation of the eastern Roman Empire into a Greek Empire, still known to itself as Rome, but to us as Byzantium. In Polybius we see the beginning of a history of major writing in Greek within the Roman world, which continued through many areas of thought, producing major classics at least up until the philosophy of Plotinus in the third century CE. The founding figure of the Byzantine system, the Emperor Justinian took Christian teachings to the extreme of closing the Academy of Athens in the sixth century, and that is a convenient marker of the end of the greatness of ancient Greek writing and thought. Of course all such markers are arbitrary and the antique Greek tradition did not abruptly vanish at that moment, and the writing of the last Athenian philosophers had a very different context from that of original Athenian classicism and even more so from earlier Greek thought.

Polybius’ Histories may contain the last important work of political thought in ancient Greek, though such claims are always up for debate. He was born in about 200 BCE in Megalopolis in the central part of the Peloponnesus, that is the southern land mass of mainland Greece. The Greek city states had previously lost full independence to the hegemony of Macedonia. Roman expansion provided both an alternative to Macedonian rule and subordination to a new hegemonic power. The Achaean League had allied Megalopolis and other southern Greek states at a time of renewed independence from  Macedonia. However, the complications of continuing competition between the Greek city states, along with trying to play Macedonia and Rome off against each other, ended with absorption into the Roman state system expanding outside of Italy.

These political complexities led to Polybius becoming one of the hostages taken to Rome to ensure the adherence of the Achaean League to an alliance. Polybius was an aristocratic politician and general who served the Roman need for hostages who would tie the elite to Rome. Polybius could have left Rome long before his death, but became a friend of leading citizens and an admirer of the Republic, so stayed in Italy though maybe dying in southern France in 118 BCE. He wrote various books, though all we have left is the Histories, and that is not complete. It is mainly concerned with the Punic Wars, that is the wars between Rome and Carthage, and is one of the main sources for that major event in antique history, which is more than just  a war. It was the triumph of one form of republic over another for hegemony in the Mediterranean world. In the end, the Carthaginian Republic was completely destroyed including the city of Carthage itself and Rome changed in nature from a  major power in Italy to the dominant power from Anatolia (the major landmass of what is now Turkey) to Spain, from central Europe to north Africa.

The transformation attracted the attention of later writers on liberty, who will appear in later posts. In particular, two great Enlightenment figures Giambattista Vico and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et Montesquieu were centrally concerned with the story as that of a triumph of republican liberty, that of Rome, mingled with a subsequent decline of liberty, and the loss of another model of republican liberty, that of Carthage. The story and the political interpretations were well known over centuries to writers on liberty.

Polybius studied the Punic Wars in depth, using his friendship with the Roman general Scipio and a journey through the Alps where the great Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed into Italy. Within that historical account, in Book VI Polybius embeds an account of the Roman constitutions, itself mingled with a discussion of the Roman military system.

Polybius concluded that Rome had the greatest of all constitutions known to him. His comparisons were with the Greek city states and with Carthage. He admired the Spartan constitution most out of the Greek constitutions, which may surprise many now. However, as a recent post on Aristotle points out, many Greek thinkers were suspicious of Athenian democracy as allowing a kind of mob rule over law and traditional restraints on power. The way Polybius supports that positions is to refer to the limited endurance of Athenian democracy, (defended by Pericles as reported by Thucydides) compared with the more oligarchic, or aristocratic, Spartan republic. Republic is a Latin originated word, which is very close in meaning to the Greek term for a city based on laws, which in modern English becomes polity, so when discussing Rome and Greece together, republic is a useful term.

The idea that Sparta was a better model for a modern republic than Athens, goes up to the Constitution of the United States. The Framers were conscious of the idea that the Athenian republic had failed, because it was too democratic, maybe too much based on the rule of the propertyless majority to be a republic. The United States did not have a citizen assembly like those of ancient Greece, but the Framers thought of the House of Representatives as an equivalent body, to be restrained by an aristocratic-oligarchic body, that is the Senate, along with a monarchical body, that is the President. Senators were nominated by state governments at that time, and the Electoral College to appoint the President was understood much more at that time as a vote for electors who would make up their own mind than as a embellishment in the direct election of the President.

It seems to me that this attempt to replicate ancient Sparta had broken down by the 1830s, or that is certainly what is suggested by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (to be discussed in later post), who suggests that  America was already both republic and a democracy on a modern rather than an ancient model. The continuing claim of some in the United States that the country is ‘a republic not a democracy’, therefore seems highly unsatisfactory to me, and I doubt that many who use this slogan have thought about the Sparta above Athens message implied.

Anyway, Polybius’ arguments did influence the deliberations of the Framers, and even though I doubt those deliberations completely captured what a republic must be in a modern commercial society, his arguments are worthy of continuing consideration as thought about laws and institutions can work for liberty.

Polybius admired the way that Sparta balanced powers between different forces, so that though there was a citizen assembly, it largely deferred to a senatorial body, the Gerousia composed of aristocrats along with two other institutions: a monarchy made up of two kings from different royal families, who sat in the Gerousia; five ephors selected for one year, with the power to protect laws, customs, and institutions. This was underpinned by the famously extreme training of male citizens as soldiers, who maintained Spartan citizens as an aristocracy by force in relation to groups that were completely unfree, or who had legal rights, but no citizenship.

The Roman model seems to Polybius to be significantly similar to Sparta, and the differences are to the advantage of Rome, since not only has the Roman system already lasted centuries, but it has supported a far greater spread of military and political power than Sparta, which never extended its territory beyond the Peloponnesus. He sees the Roman system as embedded in the military system, and to a large degree sees military and political systems as embedded. Given the constant war and mobilisation of adult male citizens in the ancient world, this is unsurprising, particularly as citizenship rights and political systems were associated with what kind of military there was and which groups provided the most part. The Spartan system reflected the role of Hoplite infantry from the landowner-farmer class, while the Athenian system reflected the role of labourers employed to row naval ships. The Roman republic was a land military power, with different kinds of unit selected from all classes above slave, which fits with Polybius’ vision of republic as a mixed political system.

The Roman mix was a monarchical element of two consuls appointed for a year. The aristocratic-oligarchic element was the senate where the major landowners and state officials sat for life. The democratic element was the city assembly along with the tribunes appointed by that assembly. As with the earlier Greek writers, Polybius associates democracy with the political participation of the propertyless, or nearly propertyless classes of labourers, small traders, and craftsmen.

We may now sympathise with the idea of a system that prevents anyone institution or social groups dominating everything else, turning laws and administration into means of economic plunder. However, liberty advocates now may be less happy with Polybius’ advocacy of a vision of the virtue of citizens, in which military self-sacrifice is at the centre and commercial spirit is dismissed as corrupting. Polybius shares an attitude to be found in Aristotle and most antique writers (there may not be any clear exceptions at all) according to which wealth based on inherited landownership and state service is honourable, while wealth based on production and services for other peoples needs and wants is somehow disgraceful and immoral. This was part of antique suspicion of Athenian democracy which existed in a relatively commercial society, something else to be remembered by those inclined to oppose ‘republic’ to ‘democracy’. The suspicion of democracy and commerce extended to a suspicion of navies as a military instrument compared with land armies. The Romans were not as good sailors as the Carthaginians, because they were less active in trade and commerce. They built a navy against the Carthaginians as a duty and necessity, not by inclination.

Anyway, Polybius compensates for his faults with regard to his limited appreciation of virtue, and therefore of how liberty is exercised, does supply us with an alternative model to Rome, though it is sadly lacking in detail. Polybius concedes that Carthage had a great republican constitution worthy of comparisons with Rome and Sparta, along with the other Greek cities. For Polybius, the Carthaginian constitution must be inferior to those of Rome and Sparta, because it was a society of commerce, sea trade, and a navy to protect those activities. We may think something different and look to Carthage as an important model, where the commercial capacity was so great Rome feared to allow the Carthaginian city and republic to exist even after victory in two major wars. There is less we can say about Carthage than Rome, but we know that it balanced a citizen assembly with a political and military aristocracy, and that the people prospered from a spirit of commercial liberty as well as political liberty.

6 thoughts on “Expanding the Liberty Canon: Rome and Carthage in the Histories of Polybius

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