Constitutional Differences Between Rome and Athens in Light of Polybius’ Praise

Greek historian Polybius, while spending time as a hostage in Rome, remarked on the effectiveness of Rome’s constitution, giving it praise for adapting to suit human nature and avoiding a cyclical process of political evolution and decay. The question exists of if Polybius’ praise of Rome’s constitution could be applied to the democratic constitution once present in Athens. Polybius’ claim about the perfection of the constitution of the Roman Republic cannot be similarly applied to the democratic constitution of Athens as the two central elements of his praise, it’s ability to adapt to human nature and the avoidance of a cyclical process of political evolution and decay, were not represented by the democratic constitution of Athens.

A central element of Polybius’ praise for Rome’s constitution was its ability to adapt to Polybius’ belief of human nature. Polybius and the Roman constitution reflect a belief of human nature consisting of evil and corruption, suggesting that if men are left to their own devices, they will choose to exploit what is at hand. This belief of human nature is reflected through the enforcement of strict control throughout Rome, affirming that the virtue set out by the state is ultimately in the good of the public as the common people will default to evil otherwise. The thought behind this system, that is motivated in part by fear, is that the common man’s natural choice will not align with what is the best choice for the good of the greater people. Polybius praised this element of the Roman constitution as he believed that evil or foolishness being a default in human nature was inevitable, and additionally that humans had a tendency to appeal to sympathy and fear, allowing fear to be a effective manner of motivating and controlling a population.

The same element that Polybius praised as effective in the Roman constitution is countered by the position towards human nature in the democratic constitution of Athens. Athens, instead, presented a more opportunistic or optimistic view of human nature. Rather than choosing to shape the virtue of its population through fear, Athens allowed its citizens to live their lives within the limits of the law, which were effectively broader than that of Rome’s. Additionally, Athens system of democracy reflected an active trust in the people of Athens to vote on, and influence the government, whether it be through assembly, taking part in juries, or practicing routine administration as magistrates. This element of trust in the public’s decision is reflective of a contrast in the views of human nature between the optimistic opinion of the democratic constitution of Athens, and the Roman opinion of people being evil in nature and needing to be controlled. Since the view of human nature being evil and effectively controlled out of fear is what Polybius was praising in Rome’s constitution, and the view and method of control are not shared in the democratic constitution of Athens, it can be said that this core element of Polybius’ praise for Rome is lacking representation in the case of Athens.

The second core element of Polybius’ praise for Rome’s constitution was it’s avoidance of falling to a cyclical process of political evolution and decay that he found common among all political outfits. The observation, termed “anacyclosis”, is summarized by the scenario of a man of great virtue obtaining power through said virtue, then passing his power on to his successor who does not possess the same virtue, who then, as a result, exploits said power until the next man of great virtue comes around to reform the cycle. Polybius praised Rome’s constitution in regards to its avoidance of anacyclosis through appealing to human nature in utilizing methods of fear to sustain political systems. This manifested in Rome through the separation of power in the three divisions of the government. The respective branches of legislative, judicial and executive each consistently feared having their power encroached on by the other branches. The fear held by each branch allowed for none of them to acquire an overarching position of power that would allow for the exploitation of power that gives way to anacyclosis. 

The democratic constitution of Athens achieved democracy in the same way that anacyclosis depicts all political regimes to have, through the great virtue of a man or men who sought to bring an end to the exploitation of the system that was in place at the time. Polybius’ praise of Rome for implementing a system in which a natural cycle of conflict and fear effectively benefits them, is not mirrored within democratic Athens, as reflected by the country’s political system being more susceptible to eventual exploitation than Rome’s. With the common man holding enough weight to have influence on the state by way of individual voting, the motives behind a given vote became too easily exploited, as the poor could vote to acquire a rich man’s money without it being deserved. Since the system was too easily exploited to suit individual desire, the democratic constitution of Athens does not reflect the second core element of Polybius’ praise for Rome’s constitution, the ability to avoid the paradox of anacyclosis. 

Polybius made a substantial claim of praise for Rome’s constitution and this praise centralized around two core elements, neither of which are represented by the democratic constitution of Athens. Polybius praised the assumption of human nature being evil and best controlled by fear, and additionally the avoidance of the paradox of anacyclosis. Since the democratic constitution of Athens fails to represent these articles that received praise by Polybius, it is not accurate to state that Polybius’ claim about the perfection of the constitution of the Roman Republic can be similarly applied to the democratic constitution of Athens. 

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