Democracy Is Not Capable of Empire There are reasons why many of historys greatest empires have tended to be either oligarchic or monarchial in nature. In observing the development of two of the ancient world’s most prominent models of representative government, the Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic, it can be concluded that when coupled with the political, economic, and social changes that come with expansion, the complications inherent with systems with democratic design prove incapable of running an empire.
The primary purpose of democratic government is of course to represent the will f the people in the form of the sovereign and its policies. In the quest for empire, however, this goal becomes difficult and potentially detrimental in the face of great political, economic, and social changes. Athens was a direct democracy, and Rome was a republic of a democratic and oligarchical mix, but the small and inefficient forms of statecraft of both civilizations were not equipped to effectively manage the empires both would become.
The problem with democracy in empire is rooted in the issue that democracy itself seeks to answer – the issue of representation. Ideally, a orking and trustworthy democracy requires a general public composed of good and educated citizens that will act and vote on what is best for the society as a collective whole. This concept is rather too idealistic, for class and social divisions profoundly beget and affect individual interests. In effect, determining what the objectives and priorities should be in empire building can be difficult in the realm of a democracy, given the vast number of people who are entitled to participate.
This complexity that lies in the determining of the “general will” consequently inhibits effective solutions in government. An account of the Athenian Mitylenian Debate from Thuycidides’s History of the Peloponessian War illustrates how the democratic process impedes decision-making in government. In this particular democratic discussion, the Athenians are debating whether or not to overturn their assemblys initial decision to execute and enslave the rebellious Mitylenians for revolting against their imperial rule (Thuycidies, 173).
The statesman Cleon, in favor of strict punishment as a deterrent, criticizes the uncertain Athenians for forgetting that “empire is a despotism (Thuycidies, 174)” and that by granting the Mitylenians concessions, they re committing political suicide in encouraging their other territories to revolt as well. Obedience in empire building, he says, is maintained not through concessions, but through one’s superior strength and power over subjects (Thuycidies, 174).
After the painstaking process or arguing and debating all sides of the argument and coming to a consensus, the Athenian assembly, by a narrow margin, decides to reverse itself and sends another order that arrives Just in time to halt the wholesale massacre of the Mitylenians. Had the order not arrived on time, the outcome of the entire venture of debating would have been futile. The debate reveals the hindering effects of increasing political and ethical confusion on the Athenian democratic system in a time of imperialism.
The fact that the orders to reverse the sentence were extremely to make decisions and enact policies in times of necessary war and strife in empire. The Athenian Mitylenian Debate highlights an insightful aspect regarding the workings of democracy. It reveals that unless there is a unanimous agreement, a democratic system necessitates that there will be a majority and a minority. When taken into the context of empire, this has serious implications. Politically, an existence of a majority and minority signifies the existence of factions.
In times of imperial expansion and growing prosperity, factions, when encouraged to openly express their demands and/or desires, as they are in a democracy, are inclined to conflict. This case in point is illustrated in the struggle between the Roman commons and its oligarchy senate, as told in Plutarch’s The Lives of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Plutarch tells of tensions between the increasingly landless commons and the Roman senatorial aristocracy that sought to maintain its monopoly over wealth and power uring the changing times of expansion (Plutarch, 346).
When Tiberius Gracchus, tribune of the plebeians, legally sought to reform agrarian legislation at the request of the people, political turmoil in the Republic arose. Tiberius endangered the oligarchic Senate’s control of policy when he courted popular favor to pass fresh laws, including the demand for equal equestrian citizens in the Senate (Plutarch, 351). By doing so, Tiberius weakened the central government of the Republic, and Senate forces soon employed violence to reconsolidate their authority.
The incident oncluded with the death of Tiberius, but it would not be the end of similar democratic reform attempts on government. A decade later, Gaius Gracchus, the brother of the fallen Tiberius, attempted similar reforms. The senatorial oligarch contributed to the precedent of force, also illegally forcing Gaius’ death and decreeing death without trial for some three thousand of his supporters (Plutarch, 354). The struggle between the Roman commons and the aristocracy (the majority and the minority, respectively) points to the instability of democratic systems in times of turbulent change.
It points to the unstable dangers caused by the factions that democracy innately breeds. The death of the Gracchi brothers underscores the weakness and fragile nature of constitutional governments such as the Roman Republic – a weakness inherent in its democratic design. Stability in empire is a necessity, and democratic models are inclined to be instable. A critical view of democracy exposes the general irresponsibility of its nature. The partisanship that democracy engenders does not conclude at the concept of a majority and minority. In fact, it persists down to the individual level.
Democracy, when not serving majorities or minorities, by default serves the individual. It provides the individual the necessary connection to power and influence that he needs to promote his self- interest. This danger was evident in era of Athenian politics after the death of Pericles, as expressed in the writings of the Old Oligarchy. In the writings, the speaker criticizes the self-interested economic basis of the Athenian imperialism embraced by the commons: “When oligarchical states do not keep to the agreement of their alliances and oaths, penalties can be exacted from the few who made it.
But whenever the commons makes an agreement it can lay the blame on the individual speaker or proposer, and say to the other party that it was not present and does not approve what they know was agreed upon in full assembly (Old Oligarch, 171). ” The Yet, the words of the oligarch show that the lack of a collective responsibility in democracy is also open to fallibility, corruption, and abuse. As it did in Athens and Rome, democracy in empire fuels neglect and indulgence via partisanship. This assures that those who seek to utilize the apparatus of the state as a tool for profit will be able to try.
The work of a demagogue, when coupled with the combination of these issues, is then all that is needed to undo the loose fabrics of democratic society. Indeed, the Greek historian Polybius believed that democracies are inevitably undone by demagogues. Considering the causes and seeing the interrelation of events throughout history, Polybius held in his political evolution theory of anacyclosis that every democracy eventually decays into a government of violence and a strong hand (Polybius, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, 331).
The shortcomings of the Roman Republic confirm Polybius’s belief, for among the omplex problems that destroyed the Republic, the immediate and most apparent one was the rise to supremacy of military leaders strong enough to defy constitution, Senate, and assembly alike (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 397). Perhaps the most famous of these was the populist general Julius Caesar. Caesar’s rise to power as a dictator in the Roman Republic further proves that democracy is self-defeating in the quest for empire.
By 60 BC, the Roman Republic had expanded to a size that outmatched the potential of its statecraft. The partisanship that came as a result of mperial expansion increased as plebeian responses to economic and social changes aroused internal strife (as evident in the reforms of Tiberius and Gaius Grachhi). The indulgent and corrupt government of the late Republic, unable to deal with the problems of the time, lost the respect of the citizens. At the same time, ambitious military leaders consolidated the loyalty of their soldiers and populaces as they sought to add conquered provinces to Rome.
The deep-seated and largely unsolved issues that had arisen during more than a century of Roman expansion were undamental to the decline of the Republic, and it was on the sword of these victorious and supremely powerful generals that the Republic committed suicide. Three military leaders – Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus – together relinquished their rivalry to control Rome in their own interests and in defiance of the constitution. The founding of this Triumvirate ultimately represented the apparent decline of the Republic in the face of the pressures of empire.
Democratic conditions certainly did not improve when Caesar prevailed as “dictator for life” to proclaim the Republic “was othing, a mere name without body or form (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 401). ” The Senate eventually overthrew Caesar, but it was not long before the resisting democratic remnants of the Republic collapsed. The Roman Principate was later established under the Emperor Augustus, and what could have been considered democratic necessarily became autocratic. The fall of the Roman Republic revealed the greatest failure of the imperial democratic model – its inability to prevent its own demise in the face of empire.
Polybius is right to have predicted that democracy ould fall to ochlocracy and tyranny. The failures of the Roman Republic and the unsustainability of the Athenian direct democratic experiment suggest that the practices of democracy prove self-defeating in the course for empire. In all, the political and economic changes that come with imperialism are too great for lacks of strong central government, and ineffective government solutions. They themselves are incapable of empire and must either be destroyed or replaced by its strains or give up its cause. The Athenian demagogue Cleon was wise to say, “Empire is despotism (Thuycidies, 174). “