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Ancient Greece

Polybius on the Roman Constitution

(Taken from Polybius ‘Histories’ Books I and VI)

Translator’s Introduction.

Polybius (c. 200-118 B.C.) was born in Megalopolis, Arcadia, and was the son of Lycortas, the commander of the army of the Achaean League. After the defeat of Perseus, the King of Macedonia, by Lucius Aemilius Paullus, in 167 B.C. Polybius was sent to Rome as a hostage, and he remained in this position until 150. During this time he tutored Paullus’ son, Scipio Aemilianus, to whom he became closely attached, and whom he accompanied during the Third Punic War which ended with the complete destruction of Carthage in 146. Polybius’ “Histories” cover the period 264-145 B.C. but concentrate particularly on 220-167, the fifty-three years during which Rome subdued Carthage, conquered Greece and became the mistress of the Mediterranean world. Polybius was a remarkably sophisticated historian with strong views on the importance of explaining events and not just recounting them. He also took the trouble to travel to many of the places which feature in his historical writings. He is seen by many as a worthy successor of Thucydides in terms of his critical reasoning, factual integrity and objectivity, and is undoubtedly the foremost source for the times about which he wrote, and was a key source for Livy, the Latin historian of the Augustan Age, who has traditionally been the writer most closely associated with the Punic Wars.

One of the most important aspects of Polybius’ work, and the part which has been translated in the extracts below, is his analysis of the Roman constitution. As a Greek, this interest came naturally to Polybius, since it was a common belief among Greeks that the nature of its political constitution was the key to the fortunes of a state. His view that the intricate interdependency of the elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy within the constitution of the state was the principal reason for Rome’s success in achieving its position of international dominance is fascinating. Indeed without his careful analysis, one might have thought that Rome had succeeded, in spite of its constitution, rather than because of it. While Rome’s remarkable tenacity in withstanding Hannibal’s invasion in the years 218-202 and its subsequent crushing of Carthage and the Hellenistic Greek states must point to some of the strengths inherent in the mixed constitution of Rome, his analysis is too abstract to be entirely compelling, and fails to take account of the dominance, which was scarcely hidden, of a small number of aristocratic families, such as the Cornelii Scipiones and the Claudii Pulchri, within the Roman state. In view of Polybius’ close association with Scipio Aemilianus this is perhaps surprising, but then his almost hagiographic treatment of the latter is one of the weaknesses in his work.

The Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who, like Livy, also wrote in the Augustan period, was a critic of Polybius’ style and said that no one could read all of his work. Certainly Polybius is not easily translated. He uses many words not in use in the classic period of Attic Greek, i.e. the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C., and his writing is perhaps rather more compressed and elliptical, and makes more use of the Genitive Absolute construction, than is common in the authors of that period. However, Polybius remains a Greek historian of the most select group, and, despite the above comments of Dionysius, was read very widely by both Greek and Latin writers in subsequent times.

Book I. Introduction.

1) (1) If it had happened that praise with regard to history itself had been passed over by those writing about (human) affairs, it would perhaps have been necessary (for me) to exhort all (readers) to (adopt) the choice and receipt of such records, because there is no better guide for men than the knowledge of past affairs. (2) But, in truth, all (historians), everyone without exception, so to speak, have made use of this (theme) at their beginning and ending, asserting that education, in the truest sense, and training in political affairs is the study of history, and the clearest, and, indeed, the only teacher of how to bear, with dignity, the vicissitudes of fortune (is) the remembrance of others’ reversals of fortune. (3) It (is) evident (then) that no one should feel obliged to repeat the same things as those which have already been said so eloquently and so often, and least of all in my own case. For the unexpected (nature) of the events, (4) about which I have undertaken to write, is, in itself, sufficient to challenge and stimulate everyone, both young and old, to the study of my work. (5) For can any man be so small-minded or so indifferent that he does not wish to know how and under what system of government almost all of the (countries) across the inhabited word were conquered and fell under the sole rule of the Romans in a little less than fifty-three years (i.e. 120-167 B.C.), (something) which is not known to have happened previously, (6) and, again, who (is) so passionate about any other subjects of spectacle or study that he could regard anything (as) more important than the (acquisition) of this knowledge?

Book VI.

From the preface.

2) (1) I am not unaware, then, that some will be at a loss as to the reason why I have left off framing and delivering the continuous flow of my narrative, (and) have postponed until this moment my account of the aforesaid constitution: (2) but I think I have made it clear in many (passages) that for me this (analysis) was from the outset one part of the essential (aspects) of my entire design; (3) and especially at the beginning of, and the preface to, this history, in which I stated that the best and most useful function of my work for the readers of this study was to come to know and to understand how and under what system of government almost all of the (countries) across the inhabited world were conquered and fell under the sole rule of the Romans in a little less than fifty three years, (something) which is not known to have happened previously. (4) This (purpose) having been chosen, I could find no more suitable time for a pause and an examination of the things which I am about to say about the constitution than the place where we now are. (5) For, just as in private life, whenever those wishing to make judgments about good or bad men come to make a true test about the (conduct of) a life, they do not make inspections at a time of uncomplicated ease, but during the mishaps arising from sudden reversals of fortune and during the lucky (moments) arising from success, (6) (while) thinking that the only true test of a perfect man is the capacity to bear complete change of fortune with magnanimity and with dignity, it is necessary to consider a constitution in the same way too. (7) And so, not seeing anyone come upon a sharper or greater degree of change in our (day) than that which befell the Romans, I reserved this (as) the place for my study of their aforesaid constitution …………….

On the Roman constitution at its prime.

11) (1) From (the time of) Xerxes’ crossing into Greece, and (more especially) some thirty(-two) years after that, the (details) of the aforesaid (Roman constitution passed) ever continuously (through even more successful modifications and) reached its best and perfect (form) at the time of the Hannibalic (wars), when, for this (reason), I have composed this digression ……………….. (11) There were three elements controlling the (Roman) constitution, all of which I have mentioned before; and everything was so fairly and suitably ordered and regulated in turn by means of these (elements), that no one, not even (one) of the natives, could ever say with any certainty whether the constitution as a whole (was) an aristocracy or a democracy or a monarchy. (12) In fact, it was natural that this (should be) the case. For if we were to scrutinise the authority of the consuls, it would appear completely monarchic and royal, and, if at that of the Senate, on the contrary, (as) aristocratic; and, indeed, if one were to look at the power of the people, it would seem to be clearly democratic. (13) What parts of the state each element ruled over, both then, and, except for a few modifications, still (does) now, is as follows.

The Consuls.

12) (1) The consuls, before they are required to lead out the armies, are present in Rome and are in charge of all public affairs. (2) For all the rest of the magistrates, except the tribunes, are subject (to them) and obey them, and (it is) they (who) present (foreign) ambassadors to the Senate. (3) Besides these duties, they refer urgent matters (to the Senate) for deliberation, (and) they are entirely responsible for the implementation of its decrees. And, indeed, when matters concerning public affairs come (to them), it is their duty to consider those things which must be authorised by the people, and summon (meetings of) the popular assembly, bring the measures before them, (and) execute the decisions of the majority on their behalf. (5) And, in truth, with regard to the preparations for war, and, generally speaking, of arrangements in the field, they have almost absolute power. (6) For they have the power to impose upon the allies whatever they think appropriate, to enlist soldiers and select those who are suitable (for service). (7) In addition to the things which have been stated, they have the authority to inflict whatever punishment they wish on those under their command (while they are) on active service. (8) And they also have authority to spend as much public money as they see fit, being accompanied by a quaestor, who readily complies with everything that they have instructed. (9) So that, whenever one should concentrate (one’s attention) on this element (alone), one could reasonably say that the state is plainly a monarchic and a royal (one). (10) And, if any of these (functions) or the (functions) which I am about to describe should suffer change, either in the present or (at) some time in the future, it would not be in any way contrary to the analysis which is now being made by me.

The Senate.

13) (1) Now, the Senate has, in the first place, control of the Treasury, and regulates revenue and expenditure alike. (2) For the quaestors cannot make any disbursement for the needs of each department (of state) without the decrees of the Senate, except for (those of) the consuls. (3) The Senate has the power (to approve) what is by far the most important and largest (item of) expenditure, (that is) what the censors lay down for the repair and construction of public (buildings) every five years (i.e. each lustrum), and it makes a grant to the censors for this (purpose). (4) Similarly, all of the crimes (committed) in Italy, which require a public investigation, and I speak of such (as) treason, conspiracy, poisoning, (and) assassination, these are the concern of the Senate. Besides these, (5) if any private citizen or city across Italy requires the arbitration (of a dispute), or a formal censure, or help or protection, all these (matters) are the responsibility of the Senate. (6) And, indeed, if there is a need to dispatch some embassy to any (countries) outside Italy, either to reconcile (peoples who are quarrelling), or to remind (them) of their duty, or to impose formal demands, or to receive (submissions), or to declare war, it demonstrates its concern for these things. (7) In the same way too, whenever (foreign) embassies arrive in Rome, how each one should be treated and what answer should be given (to them), all these (questions) are addressed by the Senate. These (matters) have absolutely nothing to do with the people. (8) So, again, if anyone were living (in Rome) with no consul being present, the constitution might appear completely aristocratic. (9) Indeed, many Greeks, and (many) kings likewise, happen to have believed this, because almost all their business was ratified by the Senate.

The People.

14) (1) So, might one not reasonably ask what sort of part, and whatever is (the part which is) left for the people in the constitution, (2) when the Senate exercises control over the (functions) which I have described in turn, and, especially, as all revenue and expenditure are managed by it, and, again, when the consuls have absolute power over the preparations for war and absolute authority over the soldiers in the field? (3) But (this lack is) assuredly not (the case), (as) a part is left to the people too, and (the part that) is left (is) most important. (4) For the people is the sole source of honour and punishment in the constitution, (and it is) by these (powers) alone that kingdoms and states and, in short, the whole life of mankind are held together. (5) For whether such a distinction between these does not happen to be recognised, or, if recognised, it is badly managed, none of the business in hand can be dealt with properly; for how (is this) likely, if good things are held in equal honour with bad things? (6) The people, then, often tries (cases involving) money (fines), whenever the penalty for the crime (is) a considerable (one), and, especially, (when the accused are) those who have held distinguished magistracies. And it alone tries (cases) where the death (penalty is involved). (7) And, with regard to this arrangement, there is one (custom) worthy of commendation and record alongside the others. For, in the case of those being tried in relation to the death (penalty), whenever they are in the process of being sentenced, this practice gives them permission to depart openly, (thus) passing a voluntary sentence of exile upon themselves, so long as one tribe among those determining the verdict is still left not having voted. (8) There is safety for these exiles in the city of Naples, and (that) of Praeneste, and of Tibur, and at other (cities) where such sureties are in existence. (9) And, indeed, (it is) the people (who) bestow offices on those (who are) worthy (of them); this is the noblest reward for good character within (the gift of) the state. (10) It also has the power with regard to the examination of laws, and, most importantly, it deliberates over war and peace. (11) Furthermore, with regard to forming alliances, the cessation of hostilities and the making of treaties, it is the (people) who have the authority to ratify each one of these (matters), or the reverse. (12) So, again, from these (considerations) one could reasonably say that the people have the greatest part (in the constitution) and that the state is a democratic (one).

Division of political power at Rome.

15. (1) So, in what way the (functions) of the state have been divided up between each element has been described; (and) again in what way each of these parts can, when they choose, counteract or cooperate with each other will now be explained. (2) The consul, then, when, having obtained the authority which has been mentioned beforehand, he sets out with his force, seems to be in total control with regard to the accomplishment of the (tasks) which he has been given, (3) but he is in need of (the support of) the people and the Senate, and without them he is not able to bring his operations to a successful conclusion. (4) For (it is) obvious that the legions always need their supplies to be sent after (them); but without the the decree of the Senate neither corn nor clothing nor pay can be supplied to the legions, (5) so that the undertakings of the generals are unavailing if the Senate sets out to be unhelpful or obstructive. (6) And, in truth, (whether) the plans and designs of the generals are accomplished or not depends upon the Senate; for it has the authority to send out another commander when the one-year period of time has passed, or to allow the existing (one) to stay on. (7) And, indeed, the Senate has the power to exaggerate and magnify the successes of the generals, or, on the contrary, to diminish and belittle (them); (8) for these (processions), which are called ‘triumphs’ by them, through which the vividness of the deeds which have been achieved by the generals is brought before the eyes of their (fellow-)citizens, they cannot stage them, as is fitting, or indeed ever hold (them) at all, unless the Senate agrees and grants the funds for them. (9) As for the people, it is exceedingly important for them (i.e. the consuls) to court (their favour), even if they may happen to be in a place very far away indeed from home; for, as I have stated before in an earlier passage, it is the (people) that effects the ratification and rejection of the cessation of hostilities and the making of treaties. (10) But, most importantly, when laying down their office, they have to provide an account of their actions before it. (11) So, in no way is it safe for commanders (i.e. consuls) to regard lightly the good-will either of the Senate or of the multitude.

16. The People’s influence over the Senate.

(1) Then, again, the Senate, which has so much power, is compelled, in the first place, to take account of the multitude in relation to public affairs, and to respect the wishes of the people, (2) and it cannot carry out the most serious and the most important investigations and punishments relating to offences against the state, for which the death penalty follows, unless the people join (them) in ratifying what has been decreed. (3) The same (is) the case even in matters pertaining to it; for if anyone brings forward a law aiming to remove from the Senate some of its current authority in accordance with custom, or depriving (them) of their privileges and honours, or even effecting by oath a reduction in their personal property, in all of (these cases) the people are empowered to pass such (measures) or not. (4) But, most important of all, if one of the tribunes interposes his veto, the Senate (not only) cannot bring any kind of debate to a conclusion, but cannot meet or sit (in council) at all — (5) now the tribunes are always bound to implement the decisions of the people, and, especially, to respect its will — therefore, for the sake of all the things which have been mentioned, the Senate stands in awe of the masses and pays attention to the people’s (wishes).

The Powers of the Senate.

17) (1) In like manner, again, the people is dependent on the Senate and is bound to respect its wishes, both collectively and on an individual basis. (2) For there are many contracts, which one cannot readily count, which are given out by the censors in every (part) of Italy for the repair and construction of public (buildings), and also as many (revenues) as accrue from the many rivers, harbours, gardens, mines (and) lands, when taken together under the government of the Romans; (3) (and) it transpires that all these activities which have been mentioned are managed by the people and almost everyone, so to speak, is engaged in the buying or undertaking of these (contracts). (4) For some purchase the contracts from the censors for themselves, others join them as partners, and, again, others provide security for the contractors and pledge their property to the treasury for them. (5) Now, the Senate has control over all these aforesaid (transactions); for it can grant an (extension of) time, and, if a mishap occurs, (it can) lighten, or agree a release from the contract altogether, if fulfilling it (is) impossible. (6) Then, there are, in fact, many ways in which the Senate can cause great hardships for, or, on the contrary, come to the assistance of, those who are managing the public (property); for the appeal in all such cases is referred to it. (7) But, most importantly, the judges in most (trials) are drawn from it, whether the contracts (are) public or private, whenever there are heavy charges. (8) Consequently, everyone is bound to its good faith, and fearful of the uncertainty of their need (for its support), is cautious about obstruction and resistance to the will of the Senate. (9) And, for a similar reason too, (people) oppose the enterprises of the consuls with reluctance, since they may all, as individuals and collectively, come under their authority in the field.

Interdependency brings strength.

18) (1) Such, then, is the power of each of the elements to harm or help one another, and it turns out that their union is suited to every situation, so that it is impossible to find a political structure better than this constitution. (2) For, whenever some imminent common threat from outside compels them to be of one mind and work with one another, it happens that the strength of the state becomes so great and of such a kind (3) that no task that needs to be done is neglected, inasmuch as everyone vies unfailingly with one another to meet their designs, nor does what has been decided fall short of the time required, since each person, collectively and individually, cooperates with regard to the accomplishment of the business before them. (4) Consequently, the peculiar (form) of the constitution happens to be irresistible, and able to achieve everything that it decides to do. (5) Moreover, whenever, having been freed from these external threats, (the people) reap the prosperity and abundance which comes from their successes, as they enjoy this affluence, while being flattered and becoming idle, they turn to insolence and arrogance, (something) which usually happens, (6) it is then, especially, that this very constitution is seen as able to bring a cure from within itself. (7) For, when any one of the elements becomes puffed up and contends in rivalry (with the others) and seeks to rule over more than it should, (it becomes) apparent, in accordance with the recent passage, that none (of the three) is completely independent, but that the designs of each one can be restrained and blocked by the others, and that none of the elements swells up and becomes overbearing. (8) For the rules of every situation remain laid down, any aggressive impulse is checked, and, from the outset, each (element) fears the censure of their fellow-elements.

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