When speaking of the government system in modern Western countries, we usually say how it is based on Athenian democracy. Although this is correct, Roman influence on government and democracy should never be overlooked due to its major impact. So, how did the Rome influence the today’s democracy?
World’s First Elected Officials
Rome’s primary influence on modern government is the concept of elected officials. Rome was the first country in the world to operate in such a way, even in a more limited fashion than we do nowadays. In the beginning of the Republic, all Roman officials were selected from a pool of patricians, the noble-born people of Rome. They were placed at various posts, whereas the most important one was that of a consul. The consul was the binary position of the executive leader of the Republic. They had no say when it came to creating and passing laws, or in the working of the courts, but they did hold the power of leading the military, and making executive decisions regarding the workings of the state such as immediate response to a catastrophe, or perhaps an uprising.
Modern countries today invest these powers in the position of the president, or in some cases, the monarch.
Division of Government Branches
The other important thing the Romans brought to today’s democracy is the division into executive, legislative and judiciary government branches. Even though most of the elected officials were selected from the pool of the members of the Senate, which was the legislative authority, during their terms on other functions, officials were unable to affect the work of the Senate.
Similar rules are usually present in every modern country, where various legal mechanisms prevent politicians from taking multiple position within the system.
In fact, Romans believed that by separating the positions so strongly, not allowing them to be taken by the same person, would protect the Republic from devouring itself. The transition into the Empire began with Cornelius Sula, and then continued with Caesar, who used their military strength to amass civilian power.
The Birth of Legislation
Roman society recognized two distinct classes: patricians – the noble-born, and plebeians – the common folk. In the birth of Rome, plebeians held virtually no rights whatsoever, and in order to obtain them they fought for a long time. Which is where the internet slang word “Pleb” comes from, meaning the commoner.
The greatest success was establishing the position of the tribune. At any given time, there were ten of the plebeians, chosen from the ranks of the commoners, and they had the right to prevent the Senate from passing detrimental laws to common folk through vetoing them. Veto is actually a Latin verb with the meaning of ’I forbid’. This tradition of preventing detrimental laws remains to this day as a part of the arsenal of a president in the West where they have the ability to dispute a law, or send it to be reanalyzed by the parliament.This would seem unreasonable to the Romans of the Republic – the man who leads the Army is at the same time the one who protects the common folk? Where is Cicero to protect the fatherland from vicious the mighty?
The base for all subsequent development of Roman law was the Law of 12 Tables, written down in the 5th century BC. Initially it only included laws that were related to the patricians, letting them treat plebeians any way they wished. An uprising allowed the plebeians to be introduced in the legal system, and thus setting a path for the common man to fight for his rights.
Equality Before the Law
Romans introduced one very important thing into their code of law, introducing the concept of equality before the law. All Roman citizens, both man and women, as well as children, would be held accountable to law on the same terms. We can see how important this was for Romans since there were laws punishing a noble-born who would kill his slave, without a trial. There was also no legal difference between a noble and a commoner, and the laws even had a tendency, especially in the later period, to be in favor of the commoner.
Without this notion of equality, most modern lawmaking processes would be unthinkable. The possibility of a person being able to escape the rightful punishment because of his class or background is simply unfathomable for most societies today, just like it was for the Romans hundreds of years ago.
Yes, the Greeks may have brought that initial spark of democratic governing to our culture, but without the Roman influence, most of the aspect praised by modern thinkers would not have come to be, or would have developed much later. It could even be said that the Roman heritage defines our government system and democracy much more than Greek one does. The Romans had successfully lain the foundations for a democratic society we have today, and have planted the original ideas that still stand strong even today.