The Senate of the Roman Republic. Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism. By Robert C. Byrd, United States Senator. Senate Document 103-23 (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995) frontispiece + xvii + 189. 15 illustrations.


This book, by an intelligent man and a patriot, is engaging in many ways. It is an example of a living interest in the classics, and cannot but evoke the memory of the great Roman statesman-orators who mined their history to find suitable rhetorical examples for their arguments.

But because the book seeks to exploit historical "facts" to influence public policy debate, it is fitting to look it over with a hard skeptical eye, especially because Byrd shares with his illustrious Roman forbears a willingness for the sake of polemic to exploit anachronistic, unhistorical, and impertinent examples taken (in this case) from a credulous reading of the ancient sources. Ordinarily it would be boorish to subject a layman's historical work to hard-nosed criticism, but the expressed purpose of the book and its method of execution (not to mention printing at taxpayer expense) expose Byrd in a way that you or I would not be exposed under normal circumstances. Let slip the dogs of war, in other words, and perhaps we can plug the gap in E2 coverage of the Roman republic a bit while we're at it.

Byrd's model, thesis, and purpose.

The foreword, written by the director of the US Senate historical office, states that Byrd gave a 14-week series of hour-long addresses on the floor of the US Senate; these speeches were collected and published as the 14 chapters of this book. Byrd thus consciously emulates Cicero's 14 Philippics aimed at Marc Antony, his Antony being the line-item veto and its cousin, enhanced rescissions, which he has long fought as chairman of the senate appropriations committee. These measures (he asserts) would break the integrity of the separation of powers and the checks and balances of the US constitution, and break the spirit and intent of the framers by giving the US president undue powers over the purse–hitherto reserved by the constitution to the congress (1-5).

As evidence that such a yielding up of power by the US congress is dangerous, Byrd summons examples from a sketchy recapitulation of Roman republican history to show how that republic decayed from an ideal state to the tyranny of the emperors because the senate lost its initiative, courage, and moral authority, and in the end, gave up its powers.

His justification for importing these Roman precedents into the US constitutional debate: the framers were heavily influenced by both "the English experience" and "the political theory and philosophy of Montesquieu" (7), and since Montesquieu had studied Roman history (he wrote an essay "Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline"), the latter is therefore relevant for understanding the American constitution (7-8). This characteristically simple view cuts the Gordian knot of the complex genesis of the US constitution and the many other influences on the framers (Byrd does not take any other French enlightenment philosophers into account). His overall goal (41):

I hope by these speeches to enhance the understanding and the appreciation of all those who will listen–members of the Senate, members of the House, representatives of the press, and the public in general. I hope to enhance their understanding of the importance of maintaining a legislative branch that is free of domination from an all-powerful executive, and of the critical role that the power of the purse plays in the constitutional mechanism of separation of powers and checks and balances handed down to us by the constitutional framers....

Problems of method.

The book has two major flaws of method which outweigh its numerous specific errors. Speeches admittedly cannot be held to the same standards of citation, reference, and research as a closely reasoned written treatise, but of course Byrd is offering us a book. The only hint that Byrd realizes that a higher standard exists for works in print is a single footnote giving his (laudably long) reading list of ancient historians of Rome (9). He gives no indication of which editions he used, but some of the quoted ones are so creakily old as almost to be in a different dialect (95):

"Jubellius Taurea approached the Roman consul, Fulvius, and cried out to him: 'Since thou art so thirsty for our blood, why not strike me thyself that thou mayest boast of having killed a braver man than thou'?"

The archaic language of dated translations obscures meaning; worse, archaic translations do not offer Byrd the corrective contact with new ideas that more recent translations, with their often excellent introductory essays, offer. Such contact might have helped counter Byrd's often credulous reading. The only 'modern' works Byrd mentions are Gibbon's ("one of the greatest of all historians"), Will Durant's highly dated and popularizing Caesar and Christ (New York, 1944), and Boak and Sinnigen's A History of Rome to A.D. 565, fifth edition (New York, 1965). There was nothing bad about any of these books in their day (and Gibbon remains great literature), but that day has passed, and many of the ideas held unquestioningly in these works have been overturned.

Byrd's research was thus an extensive reading of the ancient historians of Rome with only minute corrective contact with modern scholarship. If that sounds like an arrogant critique, look at it this way: this guy is trying to influence debate on extremely important public policy (as he admits), and for that reason, he owes it to his audience to make at least a half-hearted effort to get it right! (And I note that he is not only a published historian--so he should know better--but has instant access to one of the world's greatest libraries.)

As a result, Byrd's book suffers from a second great flaw: he accepts uncritically--and then, as I will again stress, repeats back to us in a discussion meant to influence policy debate--"facts" of Roman history as related by the ancient authors. The ancient authors were not a pack of liars, but they misunderstood and misrepresented things sometimes, and most importantly, they wrote for their own purposes, not necessarily ours. On the basis of taking the ancient accounts at face value, Byrd himself severely misrepresents the nature of the Roman senate, its constitution, and their downfall. Byrd's idealized view of the Roman constitution comes from his reading of Polybius' discussion of it (his influence can be traced throughout Byrd's book, summarized 178-183) and the romanticizing view of Livy (written about 150 BC and the time of Christ, respectively).

The Byrd's-eye view.

Byrd sees the senate as a discrete organ of government and the magistrates as another "executive" branch, and he thus builds on the basis of Polybius a Roman practice of separation of powers (52-53, 179, etc.). He thinks the senate had an unbroken tradition going back to Romulus, and was (until the Gracchi) supreme in the Roman state (43, 95-96). The senate had control over state finances ("the purse"), the right to veto all actions of the assemblies (33, 43, etc.), and was comprised of the very wisest old men (5) who, as ex-magistrates, had thus in a sense been elected to that body (43), and "served only for the honor of serving the state" (36).

To this misleading picture of the senate is compounded another error: that the division of power inherent in collegial magistracies, the supposed requisite approval of the senate before actions of the assemblies became valid, and the tribunician veto, among other things, all add up to a principle of checks and balances (21, 52, 180-181). Byrd's picture of Rome increasingly resembles the US, a serious misrepresentation. (Always a danger. 19th century historians had wrongly interpreted Roman republican politics along the lines of the Tories and Liberals of their own day, and this was only corrected over time.)

Alas, in the last century of the republic, the Roman senate "lost its nerve and voluntarily ceded away its powers. It chose, in time, to yield its authority to military dictators and, later, to the emperors" (81). The lesson is clear (to Byrd): the checks and balances and separation of powers of the US constitution must not be disrupted by the line-item veto, lest the US eventually suffer Rome's fate: a tyrannical executive (81, 167, 172, 176, etc.).

How is this wrong?

To the best of our ability to interpret the scanty evidence that survives from the earliest period, the senate originally formed a subset of the patrician class, which had superior civic status due to its bearing the brunt of warfare (its wealth making it able, and hence legally responsible, for outfitting itself in heavier arms and armor), a timocratic distribution of privilege which Rome shared with many other city states in the ancient world. In time, wealthy ambitious plebeians won the higher magistracies and thus entered the senate, but simply joined the patricians in forming a new, equally exclusive nobility (pace Byrd 32)–but Rome's days as a city state were numbered, and the old pragmatic reasons for the superior privileges of the wealthy disappeared because of Rome's growth and the influx of enormous wealth from conquests and tribute.

This elite class of the wealthy (out of whose ranks the highest magistrates–and hence, senators–came) was unwilling to forego its privileges or suffer them to be much diluted or diminished. They therefore (it seems) consciously fostered a highly conservative national ideology in which the rustic virtues of the city state–and the aristocracy which (supposedly) exemplified and perpetuated them–were extolled and artificially preserved long after they had both become obsolete, and innovation thus carried with it a suggestion of immorality. This was in strong contrast to the comparatively open and innovative nature of the early republic, particularly visible in its surprisingly free extension of citizenship and acceptance of immigrants.

The picture of the senate we get in our sources is largely based on this third century BC and later ideology, and Roman historians (who only began writing in that century) reconstructed their distant past as an extrapolation backwards of their contemporary situation (so we need not slavishly follow the picture Polybius gives us, despite his having lived at the height of senatorial prestige and power: pace Byrd 182-183). Thus when Byrd writes (176)

Roman power derived from Roman virtue, basically; in other words, from great moral qualities. The average Roman, as we have noted, was simple, steadfast, honest, law-abiding, patriotic, and reverent, and his leaders were men of uncommon dedication and acumen . . . .

we are getting a Roman myth condensed and simplified to serve modern polemic. Note the interesting flattery of the American audience and the US senate–so like the Romans and their senate! (Other supposed similarities between the US and Rome: 176-177).

The Roman senate was never a monolithic body, in the sense of being an organ of state (nor, incidentally were there anything like established political parties or factions as Byrd implies, 101-102, 105). Even at its zenith it was the consilium, or "advisory body" to the consuls, and it is necessary to recall that the power of the senate was based largely on its auctoritas–its authority based upon the massed moral and political weight, the dignitas, of its members (Byrd knows this, but does not seem to understand its implications: 96). Its power was more negative and conservative; it could not pass laws at all, though it could grant exemptions to existing laws.

It reigned in magistrates by the weight of its collective authority: high officials–even those with theoretically unlimited powers thanks to their imperium–came from its ranks and would return there as ex-magistrates after their office expired. If a magistrate were to ignore the advice and requests of the senate, what help or consideration–absolutely vital in a society heavily dependent upon systems of patronage and reciprocal obligation like the Roman–could he expect to receive from his fellows when he returned to their ranks?

All the higher magistrates and other senators sprang from the same wealthy class which also included the business elite. The senators themselves (and their sons) were barred from capitalist ventures by a lex Claudia of 218, but family or class ties led to conflicts of interest nevertheless. Magistrates in office did favors for senators and other friends; senators, when they sat on juries of the criminal courts often returned a favor to ex-magistrates undergoing prosecution. The relationship among all these was so complex and fluid, and categories so broad and indistinct, that there can be no question of a separation of powers in the republic similar to that created by the framers of the US constitution.

To address one typical error, the senate had no right, as Byrd asserts (33, 43, 52, 96), to approve or veto legislation. To say so is to mistake the legal powers of obstruction various individuals or magistrates possessed for some suppositious power of "the senate" as a body.

There were many ways, both legal and shady, for individual senators to influence voting, ranging from bringing pressure to bear on their clients during voting (eliminated by the secret ballot for elections and legislation, by the lex Gabinia of 139 and the lex Papiria of 131 respectively), the ability (not limited to senators) to obstruct assemblies by the announcement of ill-omens, the right of patricians to refuse to sanction laws and elections (stifled by the lex Publilia of 339 and a lex Maenia of the third century requiring advance approval), and the right of presiding magistrates to approve proposed laws and electoral candidates and to annul laws and invalidate elections carried out with flawed procedure.

Byrd should know better, since he has read Polybius and even repeats a passage (6.16.1-3, distorted, page 181) which contradicts his own assertion! The possibility of passing laws over the senate's most strenuous objections can be seen in the case of the aforementioned lex Claudia, the reforms of Tiberius Gracchus, which among other things confiscated all public land held by wealthy landowners over a certain modest acreage permitted under an old dead-letter law, and countless others.

The republic did not fall because the senate yielded its powers to an "executive" through cowardice or expediency (pace Byrd 162-164, placing the critical juncture at the dictatorships of Caesar). The downfall of the republic is too complex a problem to be explained by placing the blame on the senate for yielding power to Caesar or anyone else: to do so is to judge the entire play on the basis of the last act. There were strains in Roman society which were tearing it apart, and many of these can be traced back to the conservative ideology and consequent artificial preservation of city state institutions inadequate to the social and political realities of the late republic, especially imperial administration.

To avoid innovation in governing the provinces, the Romans had adapted their regular chief magistracies, giving retiring magistrates another year in a provincial governorship or military command (the two were related). Increased size of the empire led to far-flung problems, and some of these promagistrates were entrusted with increasingly longer commands (during which they might win the personal loyalty of their troops) and more powers to deal with complicated situations–and given the natural ambition of Roman aristocrats, these tools proved too expedient not to use: so Sulla marched on Rome with his army, and later, Caesar marched on Rome to preserve his dignitas–in effect, his political career. But both were senators, both were supported by some senators and opposed by others.

The tribunate, an office which was a hard-won protection for commoners in the early republic, was another obsolete but dangerous weapon for unscrupulous or cynical politicians of the late republic. The anachronistic constitutional limitation on the movement of tribunes to within the first milestone from Rome (where the bulk of the people needing their direct intervention had once lived) made this old office useless even in principle to the large and growing percentage of extraurban citizens in the late republic.

The tribunes' veto and their right to bring legislation directly before the people were largely dormant powers after laws were passed establishing due process and regularized methods for bringing forward legislation, but with the end to the spirit of moderation and cooperation which characterized the high-stakes politics of the late republic (conservatives were as guilty as the renegades), they were resurrected and ruthlessly exploited with disastrous results.

A perceptive Roman historian (Christian Meier) wrote that the republic faced a Krise ohne Alternative, that is, a no-win situation. The problems of the late republic could not be solved without fundamental change, yet its aristocracy did not have the imagination to escape their tradition-bound ideology. Caesar smashed the system, but died sitting atop a pile of ashes. The first emperor, Augustus, securing his own position, honored but disenfranchised what was left of the aristocracy, and presented the senate and people with a monarchy disguised as a "restored republic" superior in some ways to what it had replaced.

The flaws of this book could have been combatted by even a minimal consultation with historians, who would have given Byrd a very short but essential reading list (one instantly thinks of Matthias Gelzer's fundamental The Roman Nobility, Ronald Syme's Roman Revolution, and many other works). But perhaps the complexity of history, not admitting the simple equations Byrd posits, would not have allowed him to argue his case.

The pity with this book is that it would have been worthwhile to highlight problems the Romans faced (lack of cooperation, partisan obstruction of the process of government, tensions between constitutional ideals and practical reality) which we face today. There is a real parallel between the no-holds-barred politics of the late Roman republic and the increasingly desperate form of politics in the United States, and this frightens me more than terrorists or deficits.

Bibliography.

Cornell, Timothy. "Rome, the History of an Anachronism," in City States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy, edd. A. Molho, K. Raaflaub, and J. Emlen. 1991. Pp. 53-69.
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Crook, J.A., Lintott, A., and Rawson, E. The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume IX, The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 B.C. Third Edition. 1994.
Earl, D.C. Tiberius Gracchus. A Study in Politics. 1964.
Fornara, Charles. The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome. 1983.
Gelzer, Matthias. The Roman Nobility. Translated by Robin Seager. 1969.
----------. Caesar, Politician and Statesman. Translated by Peter Needham. 1968.
Lintott, Andrew. The Constitution of the Roman Republic. 2003.
Meier, Christian. Res Publica Amissa. 1966.
Münzer, Friedrich. Roman Aristocratic Parties and Families. Translated by Thérèse Ridley. 1999.
Scullard, H. H. From the Gracchi to Nero. Fifth edition. 1990.
Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. 1939.

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