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22 November 2010 @ 04:51 pm
Politics in the Roman Republic  
Various political science theories involve a concept of the "selectorate", i.e., the group of individuals in a given society with the power to choose the leader(s) of that society. In modern democracies, the selectorate is equivalent to the electorate (e.g. adults 18 and older in the United States). In autocracies and oligarchies, the selectorage is generally a smaller group (e.g. a group of military officers, etc).

The political science concept of a "cleavage", while not nearly so titilating to the more common use of the word, is nevertheless a fascinating concept. It is typically used in the modeling of electorates to describe opposed blocks of the selectorate. In my previous post, I discussed two of the most common cleavages in US politics: social conservatives vs social progressives, and laissez-faire economics vs. socialist economics. However, depending on the society, various other cleavages might be salient. For example, papal authority vs secular authority in medieval europe, military engagement vs peaceful engagement with the Palestinians in modern Israel, urban vs rural in industrializing societies, etc.

The selectorate of the Roman Republic consisted of Roman citizens: male aristocrats and male "middle-class" commoners. The most significant cleavage in the late Republic was that between the populares and the optimates. The former derived their power from appealing to the common people, advocating policies such as a subsidized grain dole and limits on slavery (since slaves competed with commoners with jobs), while the later derived power from the aristocrats, who advocated limiting citizenship to existing Roman families and retaining the aristocratic ownership of most Italian land.

This effects of this cleavage on late Republican politics has an interesting history. From 287-133 BCE, the Republic experienced a long period of relative political stability during which the primary political concerned was with military and other foreign-policy issues and the Republic defeated Carthage to become the sole major power in the Mediterranean basin. By the mid-second century, however, the Republic experienced an economic downturn and attention became increasingly focused on domestic politics. A series of reforms were enacted which benefited the commoners at the expense of the aristocracy, intermingled with social upheaval and assassinations of many leading reformers. However, by 83 BCE, Lucius Cornelius Sulla rose to power in Rome with the backing of the optimates and reversed, often with great violence, a number of the previous reforms. This status quo was maintained by various optimate Senators such as Cato and Sulla, but was finally reversed by Julius Ceasar and later Octavian Ceasar, who rose to power on the back of popular anger with the optimates and eventually eliminated both the power of the aristocracy and the democratic elements of Roman society.

For many decades now, various writers have enjoyed comparing the United States to the Roman Empire, predicting some sort of dramatic collapse and invasion my metaphorical visigoths. However, if one truly feels compelled to compare modern political economy to that of the ancient world, a comparison between the United States and the late Roman Republic is perhaps more apt; push the distribution of wealth and power too far in favor of a small minority, and even a powerful, well-developed state risks a dangerous and traumatic shift away from democracy.