Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rome: Fundamental Justice Brought to Reality

Ancient Eastern kingdoms were headed by despots (i.e. one person held absolute power), while Greek and Phoenician poleis were either absolute democracies or absolute oligarchies - i.e. either the majority or the minority wielded virtually unlimited power. Moreover, they generally failed to create federations in the true sense of the word - their alliances were usually dominated by the hegemon city in a tyrannical way and were inherently unstable (the Athenian, Spartan and Carthaginian empires). Meanwhile, Hellenistic kingdoms were a mixture of despotism and poleis.

Rome was the first polis founded on a stable foundation - the rule of law. Neither one person nor a minority nor a majority ruled. It was a constitutional republic with checks and balances. Moreover, it was the first successful federation - Rome's allies did not suffer oppression similar to previous city-state alliances. As you can guess, Rome served as a major inspiration for the United States - a federal constitutional republic. Law had existed since the beginning of civilization but only in Rome it acquired its modern sense - not primitive irrational custom but impartial justice based on reason. It is this factor that made Roman rule attractive for the entire Mediterranean and caused Rome's military triumphs - to the unpredictable whims of despotism and majority rule the empire's subjects preferred the secure aegis of Roman law. The inertia of Roman law kept the wheels turning even for some time after the constitutional system collapsed in the imperial period, when the principle of princeps legibus solutus est (the sovereign is not bound by the laws) came to the fore (though the position of emperors was very precarious and the ultimate check on their power was the tyrannicide's sword). 

Rome was not a liberal constitutional republic (unlike the U.S.) - because liberalism did not exist yet and numerous atrocities were inevitable - but it was the highest political achievement up to that time. To a certain extent, it was the first government of laws, and not of men - the Aristotelian ideal brought to reality. It was a precursor to the republic of the Founding Fathers. 

It is for this ideal of fundamental justice - not for persecution - that the early Christians hated Rome and considered it the new Babylon. The this-worldly success of the Roman way of life was a refutation of Christian other-wordly escapism - just like the success of America is a refutation of Islamist self-denial and self-flaggelation and is therefore hated by jihadists today.

Interesting insights on the nature of the Roman government can be found in the God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson.

2 comments:

Reasonsjester said...

"The this-worldly success of the Roman way of life was a refutation of Christian other-wordly escapism - just like the success of America is a refutation of Islamist self-denial and self-flaggelation and is therefore hated by jihadists today."

That appears to be a very strong claim. I should read some of Paterson's book to flesh this point out, assuming that you are either following up on or summarizing an argument in her book.

Reaganx said...

No, in this case it's my own claim. Paterson was pro-Christian in a way (she was a deist but thought that Christianity was a positive factor generally in the West's history).
I've fleshed out this view in my numerous posts criticizing Christianity.