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Polybius, Carthaginian Terror and The Roman Mixed Constitution.

In classical antiquity political theory was often organized around typological analysis of constitutions. Representative of this tradition, Aristotle delineated three types of “straight constitutions”: Kingship, Aristocracy and Polity. That is, rule by one, rule by the few and rule by the majority of citizens. These neat classifications of straight constitutions, considered inherently unstable, had their corresponding deviant forms. For some political philosophers, the threat of decay and decline innate in straight constitutions necessitated mitigating elements. In the classic Aristotelian argument, virtue is a mean between two extremes, and therefore when a state approached goodness in its constitution it was a compromise between two diametrical opposites. Expressed in practical terms, Aristotle’s concept of good governance lay in a compromise between rule by the one and the many, resulting not in a strict aristocratic regime but one tempered by a virtuous demos. Historically, the constitution of the Roman Republic could not easily fit into the typology of straight constitutions. To address this problem, Polybius, a Greek statesman and Historian with connections to the Scipiones, popularized a theory of mixed constitution. He held that Rome’s constitution was a unique blend of monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements combined to form a particularly resilient structure of government. However, given the highly volatile and fluid nature of the Roman constitution, and moreover Rome’s ardent distrust of monarchic government, Polybius’s thesis is susceptible to numerous criticisms.

Polybius commenced his treatment of Rome’s constitution by rearticulating Hellenistic conceptions of governmental forms and their internal evolutions. Moreover, he asserted as fundamental the notion that states, like biological organisms undergo an evolution from one life-stage to another in a natural cycle. Like Aristotle, Polybius conceived that straight constitutions were particularly disposed towards deformation and therefore good constitutions required a distribution of power which created constitutional balance and canceled out excesses. For Aristotle, this was achieved by the dominance of a middle stratum of society over those who controlled vast amounts of wealth and those who had little, guarding against the respective vices of “hubris” and “rascality”. Constitutional balance, according to Polybius, was not necessarily achieved by the dominance of a particular social class, but attained by composite governmental structure. Whereby, one branch of government counterbalances the power of another, allowing for both stability and adaptability in times of crisis.

Rome’s longevity and increasing dominance over the Mediterranean world was taken by Polybius as evidence of its institutional strength. The growth of Rome’s constitution was counterpoised with the development of Sparta’s constitution, the supposed brainchild of Lycurgus, by Polybius because Rome developed in a haphazard manner through a process of trail and error. Polybius neglected to outline the evolution of the Roman constitution, vaguely commenting that from the time that Xerxes’ traversed the Hellespont into Greece until the Hannibalic war, Rome’s government passed through “satisfactory modifications” achieving a level of perfection. Given both Polybius’s didactic purpose - the examination of causation in order to determine “the best policy to follow” - and furthermore the stress he lay upon cycles of political change, it appears odd that he would neglect an assessment of such vital material.

The origins and development of the Roman political system, especially from the aristocratic revolution of 509 BC onwards, are indispensable antecedents in a study of the mid-republican constitution which Polybius idealized. While elements of the constitution pre-dated 509 BC, this year marked the foundation of the Roman Republic and ipso facto was a –if not the- key turning point in the development of Rome’s constitution. By ousting the last king Tarquin the Proud, Lucius Brutus had ended the Monarchy, but this resulted in the problem of how to establish constitutional mechanisms that ensured tyranny and despotism could not be reasserted over the people of Rome. The immediate solution to the problem of governance was the formation of the consulship. Adorned in the insignia of the Etruscan kings, the consuls were the element of the constitution which Polybius defined as monarchal in nature. Initially, the first consuls (Brutus being one of the two) had the powers attributed to monarchs, but they held office for one year which ensured a temporal limitation upon their power.

Brutus’s first acts as consul were to provide later generations of Romans with a paradigm for virtuous behavior. Perhaps the most important of his constitutional reforms was his strengthening of the Senate. By replenishing its numbers with members of the equestrian rank he fostered unity between the orders and established a tradition of collective rule. Before the Republican revolution and Brutus’s consulship, the Senate had been a mere advisory body to the Kings. Polybius appropriately argues that the Senate represented an aristocratic component in the political system of Rome. However, there is equivocation on the importance and power of this assembly in his treatment of the constitution. Whilst Polybius considered that the consuls exercised “supreme authority over all public affairs” when not on campaign away from Rome, he neglected to stipulate how exactly the consuls counterbalanced the power of the Senate..

In fact, during the early republican period consuls were strictly members of the patrician order and ergo members of the inner aristocracy. Sallust comments, that even by the late republic, when the patrician monopoly upon high office had been broken, Novus homo (new man, non-patrician and the first in their family to attain a consulship) were only begrudgingly accepted into the high office. Even though Cicero, the new man to whom Sallust referred in his comment, was himself a supporter of the senatorial party. This example underpins the conservatism and in-group exclusivity of the patrician political mentality and moreover the extent to which the consulship was not a monarchal counterbalance to the Senate, but rather a functional mechanism used by the aristocracy for political expediency. On the power of the Senate to offset the power of the consulship Polybius describes numerous means, both formal and informal, by which the Senate asserted its power.

While the Senate was not technically a legislative body it controlled much of the civil administration and its members held all magistrate offices. Members could only hold office at legally determined intervals, if elected, ensuring that individual were dependent upon and responsive to the concerns of the collective assembly. Consuls were thus bound to the concerns of the Senate. Furthermore the Senate decided if a consul’s term could be extended for special circumstances or that new leadership was required, moreover after a campaign was concluded the Senate determined if the commander was worthy of a triumph. The prestige of individual politicians was therefore not only a question of proficiency in office, but of their deference toward the Senate. Further evidence that while the Senate was correctly identified as aristocratic, the consuls were not counterbalanced to but an arm of the aristocratic senate. Polybius acknowledged the aforementioned senatorial means of controlling the consulship, but he considered most important of all the power of the Senate through control of the treasury. This allowed the Senate to stymie any rough magistrates (with the exception of a Consul based in Rome) and more insidiously argues Polybius, to influence the tribal assemblies the legislative and so-called democratic branch of government.

Theoretically, the legislative power of the Roman Republic remained within the hands of the people through the tribal assemblies. In the early republic the notion of a democratic element to the state is farcical, because the combined patrician and equestrian votes could pass a measure. By the mid-republic, there had been a general trend increasing the legal authority of the Plebian order and therefore of the tribal assemblies. Motions past by the concilium plebis (council of the plebs) gained the force of law without respect any other assembly in 287 BC. Polybius argues that this power was limited by a lack of legislative initiative on behalf of the general public, though the Tribute of the Plebs could introduce legalisation. Despite its legal decline though, de facto the Senate actually increased its powers. The expansion of the Roman Empire throughout the Mediterranean increasingly required that Consuls be away from Rome, and therefore the Senate took on more and more of the civil administration into their own hands.

The power of the Senate was for Polybius the defining advantage of the Roman Republic in its war with Hannibal. He postulated that Carthage itself had a mixed constitution, but was undergoing decline, while Rome was increasing its power and constitutional strength. This decline was precipitated by the increasing influence of democratic elements in the constitution. The result of which, according to Polybius, meant that Rome’s policy derived from the considerations of the best men and was therefore superior to the Carthaginian’s overall strategy - despite setbacks in the field. In concluding his analysis of the Roman constitution, Polybius suggests that it was these setbacks in the field which best demonstrate the strength of Rome’s constitution.

Polybius argued that the mixed constitution of Rome functioned like a gestalt when faced with an external threat. Rome’s response to the battle of Cannae, the greatest single defeat suffered by Rome up until the time of the Second Punic war, was taken by him to typify the constitutional strength of the Roman republic. Roman casualties in this battle exceeded 70,000 by Polybius’s own account, one consul was killed and many allies deserted Rome. Despite this, the Senate maintained control and organized Rome’s defenses to face Hannibal, eventually defeating the Carthaginian general and reasserting their control over Italy and gaining hegemony over the wider Mediterranean basis. This, of course, was an example of the Roman Republic under threat from outside forces. The constitution and branches of government did not function so well, when faced with an internal crisis.

A few years after the destruction of Carthage in the third Punic war, Rome was faced with an internal crisis when the Tribute of the Plebs Tiberius Gracchus had announced an agrarian reform bill. For his trouble he was murdered by members of the Senate, Appian in his account of the civil wars which destroy the Republic starts his narrative with this incident. Tiberius Gracchus was said by Appian to be the first man murdered in civil strife in Rome’s long history despite merely trying to reinforce a lapsed law. Sallust later wrote after the death of Julius Caesar, that the Gracchi had been too extreme in their methods. Though, in actuality the Gracchi had been following the constitutional rout to pass a law. It merely contrived the interests of the wealth land owners among the Senate and therefore the Gracchi were murdered by members of the Senate. This aberration is hard to explain given it happened not soon after the period which Polybius had declared the Roman constitution to be near perfect. An explanation to this can be seen in Rome’s relationship to Carthage. The different elements of the government, both aristocratic and democratic, functioned well together when faced with an external threat, but Polybius’s idealized balanced constitution became unstuck when left to its own devices.

The theory of mixed constitutions which Polybius offered to explain the success of Rome is only a partly accurate picture of Rome’s government. Commencing his treatment of Rome’s constitution from the assumptions of largely platonic Greek philosophy he applied abstract concepts to explain political dynamics with a high degree of irregularity. He misconstrues the nature of the consulship by denoting it as monarchal counterbalance to the senate. The consulship was not a counterbalance to the Senate, it was an office always held by individuals from the Senate and accountable to it. The Senate’s power increased with the expansion of Rome, a fact not captured by the process of legislation. But Polybius, while he gives lip service to the power of the Roman people identifies the dominance of the Senate as curial for Rome’s success against Carthage. Carthage was also an important influence upon Rome’s good government. Fear of it forced cooperation between different sections of the elite and between the orders. Once Carthage had been defeated, that external pressure was alleviated and there was no force to ensure a tightly ordered government. Rome proved unable to moderately govern itself through internal upheavals and this ultimately led to the death of the Republic and its constitution.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Aristotle, The Politics, Trans T.A. Sinclair, (Suffolk, 1976).

Appian, The Civil Wars, Trans John Carter (London, 1996).

Crawford , Michel, The Roman Republic, (London, 1992).

Fritz, Kurt Von, The Theory of Mixed Constitution in Antiquity: A Critical Analysis of Polybius Ideas, (New York, 1954.

Livy, The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of The History of Rome From its Foundation, (London, 2002.

Polybius, The Rise Of The Roman Empire, Trans Ian Scott-Kilvert (St Ives, 1979).

Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Conspiracy of Catiline, Trans S.A. Handford, (London, 1963.

Vishnia, Rachel Feig, State, Society and Popular Leaders in Mid-Republican Rome 241-167 BC,(London, 1996).


Basir said…
Rome never defeated Hannibal. Hannibal beat Rome relentlessly, but never occupied Rome due to exhaustion and company depletion (low manpower). Hannibal returned home never actually conquering Rome.
Mathew Toll said…
The Battle of Zama: Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal in 202 bc.

No, Hannibal never captured Rome itself. But no one here claims that.

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