Roots of freedom: Athens or Rome?

With regard to my thoughts on Athens and democracy, Robert Mayer of Publius Pundit writes:

I have to disagree on the ultimate point that freedom originated in Athens  — and to note, you bring up many of the reasons why I would. For certain, the idea of pure democracy originated there. But too much democracy is a bad thing; in fact, too much democracy leads to an absence of freedom. Like you said, in Athenian democracy, the majority rules. If the majority voted to takes someone’s property, it was legal. If the majority voted to hang a man (for any reason), it was done. Athens had democracy, but it did not necessarily have freedom. But your argument in favor of representative democracy, republicanism, is right. So in actuality, I would say that the beginnings of freedom started in Rome, where independent judiciaries, property rights, rule of law, and separation of powers first came into play. Athens rose and fell without real impact on the world thereafter, but Rome’s classic ideas of government stayed in play for thousands of years. It is not democracy that guarantees liberty, but liberty which guarantees a libery-preserving form of government based on liberal constitutionalism, property rights, separation of powers, independent judiciaries, individual rights, etc.

Well, I am second to none in my admiration for Rome.  The Founding Fathers were really Englishmen seeped in English legal and political traditions, but when they looked to history for models, they looked to Rome.  That’s why we have a Senate as well as a House.

The Roman genius for law and government, and the Roman legacy to the world in terms of citizen rights and republican institutions, has been unmatched by that of any other nation; only Britain comes close. Besides that, the personal and family lives of the Romans were very much like ours, and unlike the Athenians’:  Roman women were strong and able players in their society, and Roman men were less interested than the Athenians in good-looking boys.

That said, I fundamentally disagree with Robert’s statement.  Let me explain why.

First, the Athenians.  By no means did the majority run roughshod over individuals, whenever seized by some political passion.  In some ways, the majority had less say in Athens than in America.  They didn’t elect officials, for example.  These were chosen by lot.  They couldn’t cheat the system to keep popular favorites in power.  No citizen was allowed to hold any office more than, at most, twice in a lifetime.  Juries were huge, and there was no deliberation, so that each citizen consulted only with his own best judgment when rendering a verdict.

Athenian democracy was less about majority rule than about total participation by the citizenry in self-rule.

Robert suggests that hot-headed majorities in Athens confiscated people’s property for arbitrary reasons.  I’m not sure what specific events he’s referring to – but I do know that Athenians, like all the ancient Greeks, quite literally worshipped their law, and considered freedom from arbitrary power to be the difference between a “Hellene” and a “barbarian.”

A man caught in an adulterous relationship with a married woman, for example, could by law be killed by the offended husband; in a well known case, when the adulterer pleaded for his life, the husband replied, “I won’t kill you – the law will.”  That may sound specious to us, but captures perfectly the Athenian mindset.  People, they thought, were weak and corruptible, and the rule of persons, even of a majority of them, was tyranny.  Only submission to the law made a citizen free.

Then there’s the Romans.  Yes, they were brilliant at law and government, and yes, they established many of the theoretical underpinnings of republicanism, but they were always ruled by a narrow oligarchy, and they always interpreted the law to favor the wealthy and the powerful – who called themselves optimates, “the best.”

If the Athenians were a tough-minded people, the Romans were downright bloody-minded.  According to Roman law, if the master of the house was murdered by a slave, every slave in the household was to be condemned to death.  In a famous first-century case of a murdered master, there were demonstrations by freedmen and agitation by right-thinking persons, showing that the monstrousness of punishing innocents with death was perfectly understood; yet the executions were carried out nonetheless.  The Athenians thrived because of their freedom; the Romans, because of their unyielding discipline.

And as for confiscation of property, I can think of any number that took place during Rome’s long, tortured history:  the tyrants Sulla and Marius, for example, paid informers with the property of the people they informed on.

I guess my strongest objection is to Robert’s remark that Athens rose and fell without real impact on the world.  I believe he meant direct political influence, and that would be right.  But in most other respects, I can’t imagine a place and a time that had greater impact on posterity.  The correlation of freedom and genius, both achieved in Athens to the highest degree, is surely the most magnificent legacy bestowed by a single culture to the human race.

Ultimately, we are the children of both Athens and Rome:  in Washington, near where I live, our Capitol bears up its Roman dome, while the Lincoln Memorial replicates the Athenian Parthenon.  Both celebrate freedom, and I suppose that is a condition which, however inherited, we must ourselves maintain.

ROBERT RESPONDSFantastic. I think I got a bit off track in my argument, though. To clarify a little, and in less words, the reason I think that Athenian pure democracy didn’t guarantee liberty was that, after all was said and done, the individual was expected to bow before the will of the community. Liberty then, in it’s essense, is a guarantee to the individual, which is why I don’t think Athens’ communal democracyhad a particular influence on modern forms of government. That’s why I make the argument for Rome, whereas the republic eventually degenerated for a long list of reasons, the base core of the system was one that guaranteed one’s individual liberty despite the system.


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