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.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Pericles and the Funeral Oration

Pericles (495-429 BCE) was one the most remarkable figures of an age of great figures, that is Golden Age Athens, the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in philosophy, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, in tragedy, and so on. The building most associated with Golden Age Athens, the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis (sacred hill at the centre of ancient Athens) was commissioned by Pericles. He was a friend of the philosopher Anaxagoras, sponsored tragic performances, and so was a full part of the city life, apart from his political role.

Pericles was an aristocrat descended from powerful figures in Athenian political history, and though he was associated with furthering Athenian democracy, was respected as a personality of admirable character by critics of democracy like Plato and Aristotle. In the ancient context, democracy means direct decision making by citizens gathered at in an assembly, where they make laws and decide on the major state actions of the time.

For the contemporary critics of democracy, Pericles’ excellence as a character enabled him to ameliorate what they saw as the irrationality and short term thinking of the citizen mass, and İt seems to me there is a kind of groping towards the modern understanding of democracy as the best way of getting the best leaders (of the least bad available) into power through a competitive character testing process. The Athenian city state, like other Greek states of the time was small compared with any modern city, so the political process was very personalised.

As I pointed out with regard to Aristotle, the Greek city states, including Athens, were not ideal with regard to equally of rights by modern standards. A significant part of the population (estimates of the proportion vary) were slaves, or unfree in some way, women had no political rights, and very limited legal rights, and the respect for the right  individuals to be different from, or independent of, majority religious and customary thinking, was very limited by modern standards. However, we have to make some allowance for the times when judging thinkers and give credit to those who made some progress with regard to liberty, however limited they seem by our standards. Our standards came from somewhere and evolved over time, so that we should take some interest and give some respect, with regard to those who something to move thinking in the right direction.

Pericles is different from most people, maybe everyone in this series of posts, because despite his high level of culture he was not a writer, or even a practitioner of philosophical debate like Socrates, who wrote nothing but inspired others to write down what they thought was true to his thought. What we have from Pericles is the record of his life, and most importantly for present purposes, a speech attributed to him by Thucydides (460-395 BCE). That is the historian, usually recorded as the second known historian (in the west) after Herodotus. He was an Athenian aristocrat and army general who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War after being pushed out of his command role. The war concerned was a thirty year war between Athens and Sparta, which like its closest allies was  located in the Peloponnesus land mass south of Athens. The book is unfinished but is still a classic of history, international relations, and military thought, widely read by students and specialists within those fields. It is a book that should be read by anyone interested in the history of political thought and ideas of liberty, though more because of its importance in adjacent fields rather than its own contribution to political thought.

The exception is the few pages of a speech Pericles apparently made at a funeral of soldiers during the war. We have no way of knowing how far the speech records any words ever uttered by Pericles. Thucydides was and is respected for his commitment to objectivity and reliable evidence, particularly by way of contrast with Herodotus, so it seems plausible that the recorded speech is at least as honest attempt to report what Pericles really thought, given what Thucydides knew about him. The lack of any other record, and the tendency of ancient historians even Thucydides, to report speeches based on what they thought people should have said in certain situations makes it hazardous to presume any further.

Here is a link to the speech. Other versions and postings should be available through an online search for ‘Pericles Funeral Speech’, and the same applies to Thucydides text as a whole.  Anyway, here is a link to the translation by Thomas Hobbes, edited by the nineteenth century English radical William Molesworth, posted at the Online Library of Liberty.

What Pericles (strictly speaking what Thucydides tells us Pericles said, but I will leave that as assumed from now on) argues in his speed is that the fallen soldiers did not just die in the cause of defending their homeland, but an idea of a political system represented by that homeland.  That is, according to Pericles, Athens makes concrete the best principles by which a city can organise itself and people can live together.

Those principles are listed in order to contract Athens with Sparta, in which citizens formed a military aristocracy, and supposedly led an ascetic military life style in every way, according to the strictest morality and with minimal private property. Pericles proclaims that in Athens everyone can share in government and that no one is excluded from office by poverty. Thought poverty is not shameful failure to struggle to overcome poverty is. Everyone can live their life their own way and respects everyone else’s rights in that regard. The Athenians show courage in war which comes from their determination to defend their way of life, not a life time of brutal military discipline. Their courage is even greater than the Spartans and is based on a life that recognises goods and values other than military courage.

The Athenians are not closed off from the world (an implicit contrast with the apparently autarkic Spartans) and enjoy items imported from all countries. They have wealth, but want to use if for great things not just to be rich for its own sake. Their society includes beauty and variety to such an extent that they are educating all of Greece in such things. The Athenians do not need a Homer to glorify their courage in that way, which has its own motivation. The point of the reference to Homer is presumably that the heroes in Homer’s epics are motivated by the glory of war, and the hope of living on in memory and poetry as great warriors. Homer referring of course to the two epic poems attributed to a poet of that name, The Iliad and The Odyssey, in which the idea of war as the means to the greatest possible glory plays a large part. Pericles is presumably saying that the Athenians have more to their lives and the society which they are defending then the desire to achieve status through slaughter in battle. Pericles is still advocating a spirit that might seem brutal to us, in which states celebrate their triumphs over states; as Pericles suggests it is great to be famous for terrible  acts as well as acts of goodness. If we compare Pericles with Homer, we can see some progress.

Pericles of course represented a people of state which turned other Greek states into colonies, and destroyed them if they did not comply, and forced them to pay for its architectural glories, but it is a sad reality that nations in which liberty advanced in some significant respects were often involved at the same time in imperialist and exploitative projects, in which people excluded from moral sympathy and political rights paid a terrible price. We do not need to overlook or excuse the the very considerable faults of Pericles and the ancient Athenians, however, to recognise that they were drawn to ideas which in the course of human history have become applied in universal and inclusive ways.

A brief conclusion to Pericles’ speech endorses one of those inexcusable Athenian attitudes, which is the assumption of women’s inferiority and the desirability of their social invisibility. A major qualification needs to be made to Pericles’ deplorable remarks. He lived with and had children with one of the remarkable women of his time who was certainly not socially invisible, Aspasia (470-400 BCE). She was from the Greek colony in Miletus, western Anatolia and is known through attacks made upon her at the time. There is a lack of definitive evidence about her life, but it seems definite that she had wealth of her own and paid tax. Additionally, it can at least it can be said that she was used to attack Pericles because she was taken as a woman who was too free in her opinions, and led too public a life in which she displayed her considerable culture and intelligence. So even in this area where Pericles’ thoughts are disappointing, the status of women, he may have had a personal influence undercutting the words attributed to him.