Saturday, September 18, 2010

Plutarch: Sparta and Rome - Part II

Scipio Africanus was one of Rome's greatest generals. He defeated Hannibal and the Carthaginians at Zama in 202 BC and thus made Rome the greatest power in the Mediterranean. Two of his well-known grandsons were Tiberius (163-133 BC) and Caius (153-121 BC) Gracchus who went on to become Tribunes of the People of Rome. In this role, each tried unsuccessfully to introduce land reformation and redistribution of wealth similar to that attempted by Cleomones and Agis in Sparta a century earlier.


Following his grandfather's path, Tiberius served in the Roman Legions as a military tribune while fighting in the Third Punic War.  Because of the rapid militarization of Rome during this time, many citizens were giving up their farms to serve in the legions.  In addition, wealthy land-owners were buying up much of the land conquered from campaigns, leaving nothing for the poorer citizens.  Originally 500 acres was the most land one could own, but wealthy individuals were circumventing this using false identities and other tricks. When veterans returned from their military campaigns, they had no land to farm, let alone any other property.  This greatly disturbed Tiberius, who began pushing for land reform and an equal distribution of property for all soldiers. 

Tiberius was later elected a Tribune of the People, to represent their interests in the Senate.  Here he said, "Wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens, each has a place of repose and refuge. But the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy nothing but the air and light; without house or home they wander about with their wives and children"

The Senate with its wealthy members would not enforce the previous land agreements (i.e. the 500 acre law) so Tiberius by-passed them and went directly to a vote by the Concilium Plebis (the Popular Assembly). The Senate used a procedural trick to prevent this, but Tiberius countered by shutting down the government's daily business to punish the Senate.

This sounds a lot like the political tit-for-tat tactics we see in Washington today. 

Things reached a head in 133 BC when King Attalus III of Pergamum died, leaving his entire fortune (including the whole kingdom of Pergamum) to Rome. Tiberius sought to use the agrarian reformation laws to redistribute the wealth to all the citizens of Rome, but the Senate was absolutely opposed to this.

Tiberius pressed the issue on the senators.  A final confrontation in the Senate turned deadly as Tiberius was attacked and bludgeoned to death with chairs and stools by the senators (a civilized lot, huh?) and they threw his corpse into the Tiber river.  Many of his followers suffered a similar fate.  This ceased debate on the topic of property reformation and equal rights until....


Younger than his brother by nine years, Caius (Gaius) was even more zealous about social reform than his ill-fated brother.  Serving as Tribune of the People, Caius tried to include all Italians as Roman Citizens.  Later he also tried to include all people in Roman colonies and Roman allies.  He also sought cheaper grain for the poor, a more fair judicial system, re-division of the land and free clothing for soldiers serving in Rome's Legions. 

The Senate did not try to use procedural chicanery on Caius like they did with Tiberius, but instead used another Tribune (Lucius Opimius) as a spoiler.  If Caius promised cheap grain, Lucius would promise free grain; Caius would offer low rent land, but Lucius would offer free land. Of course Lucius' promises were untenable and impossible to grant, but this still had the affect of undercutting support for Caius among the masses. Eventually the Senate trumped up some legal charges and passed a measure calling for Caius' arrest. Caius committed suicide rather than defend himself. 


Plutarch compares the lives of these two Romans with the two Greeks mentioned in my last post.

All of these men hoped to promote a more equal division of property and wealth among their citizens.  For the Spartans, they thought it would make their city-state stronger and be true to their ancient traditions.  For the Romans, they wanted their soldier-citizens to receive the same privileges as any other free individual.  All were thwarted by the wealthy, elite and well-entrenched castes of their respective societies.

It is remarkable to see how politics has changed so little in the last 2000 years.  Of course people are not being bludgeoned to death in our Capitol, but the same political maneuvering, the same attempts at legal tricks and loopholes are still played out today. 

Plutarch says that it is "difficult to change the government without force or fear".  In these four examples we can see that to be true.  In the end, the lack of reformation in Sparta resulted in it slipping into a state of decandance and avarice from which it never recovered.  Rome grew from an aristocracy to an oligarchy/democracy, but maintained a strong military. Eventually Rome became a tyranny/dictatorship under the Caesars.  It eventually followed the same path as Sparta, growing accustomed to luxury and sloth and tolerant of inequality of wealth.

As Aristotle said in Politics, inequality is the cause of rebellion and the decay of society.  Of course no one is more resistant to equality than the ones who benefit from the difference, and we have seen historically that equality among the classes can be violently opposed by those in power. 

Plutarch: Sparta and Rome

I have previously read and written about Plutarch (46-120 AD),  the ancient Greco-Roman biographer who compared and contrasted the lives of noble Romans and Greeks.  My readings about Plutarch this time concern a pair of Spartan kings (Agis and Cleomones) and a pair of Roman brothers (Caius and Tiberius Gracchus). 

The commonality between these two sets is that both the Spartans (Greeks) and the Romans were trying to attempt major land reforms and redistribution of their country's wealth among the poor.  All four characters would confront intense resistance from the nobles in their societies. Likewise, all would die as a result of their attempts to reform their governments.  In some ways, these stories build off Aristotle's ideas of democracy (equality), but are also a proto-socialist state similiar to that suggested in the Communist Manifesto, which I discussed earlier. 


In the ancient world, Sparta was one of the world's greatest warrior states in no small part to the laws of Lycurgus (800-730 BC) which I described in a previous blog post.  These laws encouraged austerity, eschewed vice and wealth, and promoted equality among the citizens.
During the Peloponessian War (404 BC), Sparta and her allies defeated Athens leaving Sparta the preeminent power in Greece. The city state of Thebes and the Macedonians (i.e. Alexander the Great) later eclipsed Sparta and by 260 AD Sparta was in decline. The Spartan King Agis IV (264-241 BC) thought that the wealth gathered following Athen's defeat had corrupted Sparta, making her accustomed to luxury and coin, weak and effeminate.


King Agis IV decided to relign Sparta with the ideals of Lycurgus.  To do this he cancelled all debts and redistributed the land amoung the poor.  This was very popular with the lower classes, but vehemently opposed by the Ephors (Spartan nobles) and his co-monarch Leonidas II.  This was partially because Leonidas grew up in the luxurious court of the Greco-Persian King Seleucus II  and married a Persian.  King Agis had the obstructionist Leonidas exiled, then had all Spartan bonds, debts and securities and had them burned in the market place.  However, called to a military campaign, he was not able to redistribute the land as he hoped before he left.   

Leonidas later returned from exile with mercenaries, captured Agis, and together with the Ephors conducted a mock trial.  Fearing a popular revolt, they quickly had Agis put to death along with his mother and grandmother.  This was the first time a Spartan king had been executed by the Ephors - made all the worse given his noble intentions. 


After Agis's death, Leonidas II assumed the monarchy and forced Agis's wife to marry his son, Cleomenes (263-219 BC).  Cleomenes greatly admired Agis and his attempt restore Sparta to its former glory. Even more ironic, when Clemones became king of Sparta in 235 he would attempt the exact same reforms that Agis did!  Cleomones waged war throughout the Peloponese, fighting in Corinth, Argos, Megalopolis and Manitea and nearly succeeded in uniting the entire peninsula.  With his growing military honors he returned to Sparta and had the treacherous Ephors executed. 

Cleomones gave all his land to the state, and was followed in example by his family and friends, then by all the other citizens.  An equal division of land was given to each individual, and the state population was increased by granting citizenship to non-citizens.  Cleomones then instituted military reforms, including the introduction of the Macedonian sarissa (pike) and restoring social and military discipline. 
Unfortunately these reforms may not have come soon enough for Sparta.  Bad luck, bad timing and a massive Macedonian army lead to Cleomones defeat at the battle of Sellasia (222 BC) and he was forced into exile and death in Alexandria, Egypt.

Next...ROME and the comparison with Tiberius and Caius Gracchus!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Aristotle: Politics - What is democracy?

We often hold our democratic form of government as the most successful and fairest form of administration, the natural evolutionary endpoint of hundreds of years of failed states.

Democracy has its roots in the Greek world, (dêmos) "people" and κράτος (Kratos) "power", so it is quite appropriate to read Aristotle's thoughts as he compares democracy with other forms of government.  A true democracy, as Aristotle states, gives each citizen an equal voice in the government.  But, as Aristotle quotes Homer, "it is not good to have a rule of many". Even a relative contemporary, Winston Churchill, acknowledged that, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time"

The first problem with democracy is that it can be very difficult to reach a consensus.  In addition, many opinions will come from inferior minds lacking experience, knowledge or ability to contribute effectively.  In a true democracy, everyone participates in government so citizens "elected" to office must be chosen at random.  What would this be like today?  First off, anyone could be a senator, a judge or even president!  The multitude of people in the US, many without college or high school degrees and no political experience, could ascend to positions of great power.  It would be a true democracy, but also chaotic, capricious and probably destructive.    Democracies are also very susceptible to demagogues, popular leaders who appeal to the masses.  They often play toward common feelings of inequality against the wealthy, the educated and other notable classes of society.  Demagogues have been a threat to many governments (think Hitler, Mussolini) and have been shown to be a destabilizing factor even recently.  Concluding, Aristotle lists many failed democracies throughout the Mediterranean including: Thebes, Megara, Rhodes, Syracuse and others.  It seems that even the inventors of democracy did not think it was perfect. 

Essentially, democracy is a monarchy of the multitudes.  It marginalizes the rights of the few (wealthy, highly educated, noblity, etc) for the benefit of the many (poor, less well-educated, no birth right).  In contrast, an Oligarchy is rule by the few over the many.  Aristotle points out that this can be favorable since only a few individuals will be truly "virtuous", educated and experienced enough to run the government.  Of course this can disenfranchise the multitudes who would have had power in a democracy.

In the US we have a combination of both an Oligarchy and a Democracy.  Everyone has a vote and everyone has the potential to hold office.  In reality, it is largely the elite of society who hold political positions.  Many politicians represent corporate interests, come from wealthy well-educated families and political dynasties.  I'm not saying this is a bad thing;  Aristotle would agree that "notables" should run the government rather than less qualified individuals.  However, by the strict definition, we do not live in a pure democracy.

The universal and chief cause of revolution is inequality, says Aristotle.  A democracy is not truly equal, since wealthy property owners are stripped of their superior position.  Similarly an oligarchy, like our government, is not equal to the majority.  Aristotle says that an oligarchy can mitigate this disparity by treating the majority well. 

Ultimately, Aristotle says, the chief aim of any government is the preservation of that government.  That seems short-sighted and self-serving but it is manifestly true. Everyone involved in the government (e.g. "elected officials") will do everything possible to preserve the status quo.  This reminds me of what Karl Marx said when he decribed police as "heavily-armed thugs" whose purpose was to protect the rights of the ruling class.  Police are essentially agents defending the government from dissention and supporting its policies and values. Aristotle also goes on to say that the size of the military should be large enough to support the policy of the state "commensurate with the scale of her interests".  This would include maintaining the status quo.

The last few books of "Politics" regard the education and employment of the youth.  Aristotle states that, "All paid employments absorb and degrade the mind", by which he means we should all be self-employed.  I can agree that working for someone is essentially degrading since we work largely for a paycheck.  In contrast, being self-employed frees us from payday and grants us a unique self-interest in our work. 

Similarly, Aristotle elaborates that learning for the sake of others is menial, servile and reflects an illiberal character.  We are responsible for our own education and we should ensure that we are learning for our sake and not to be used as a tool.

Finally, as an aside, Aristotle says that the ideal state should be entirely visible at a glance. This seems practical to the city-states of ancient Greece (Athens, Thebes, Sparta, etc) but he probably did not imagine a state as large as the USA. However, if we consider that all politics are local, then the governing of a large country is merely a matter of organization and scale.

Aristotle: Politics - Why do we have a government?

Last year I did a brief introdution of Aristotle and I read a portion of his work "Politics" which I discussed. This time my assignment was to read all eight "books" of Aristotle's Politics. 

Aristotle famously says, "Man is by nature a political animal", and perhaps nothing (sadly) is more important to the advancement of civilization than politics.  It is the foundation of government, society, culture and our welfare.  Therefore a critical examination of the mechanics of politics is required for the development of any successful state.

Aristotle asks many questions such as: What are the elements of a successful government?  Why are there different types of government? What is the best government? 

Why do we need government?  Aristotle says that within a "state" man is perfected, the best of all animals.  However when he is removed from law and justice he becomes the worst.  I suppose many would agree with that assessment, including Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who said that without government man would be in a "war of all against all" and thus have lives that were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

Who should rule?  Aristotle says that some individuals are made to rule, just like some are naturally slaves and others masters.   Just like the mind rules over the appetites, so should the superior rule over the inferior.  At first I dismissed this idea as anachronistic and undemocratic, but now I am wondering if Aristotle is correct.  Do we want bad leaders?  Of course not, but what qualifies someone as good or bad? Education?  Experience?  Intelligence?  Birth?  It is worthy of further thought. 

Who is a citizen in our government?  What an apropos question as the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and the status of illegal aliens in the US is currently in the news.  Aristotle suggests that a citizen is someone who can participate in the government, specifically in the judicial system.  A virtuous citizen is one who can both obey and lead. 

What is the best government?  Aristotle compares different governments weighing their pros and cons. 

Governments can be divided into how many people rule over the state.  This can be one (royalty/tyranny), a few (aristocracy/oligarchy = governement of the best), or the many (democracy/constitutional government).

Having a smaller ruling party results in a more efficient government which does not require a consensus for its action.  It is also possible to have the best (most virtuous) rulers who are highly educated and skilled.  Conversely, having a small number of people in charge means they are more likely to express bad judgement than a larger number would.   Smaller governments also disenfranchise a great number of people. 

The worst form of government is a tyranny where one man rules without restraint.  According to Aristotle, a democracy is not too far behind. So what does Aristotle think is the best form of government?  He wryly says it is the one that is administered by the best.

Aristotle does make it clear though that inequality is the root cause of rebellion and that a strong middle class is essential.

"Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely be be well-administered, in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible that both the other classes...for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme"