The Balance of Power inThe Balance of Power in
the Roman Republic,the Roman Republic,
the US Constitution,the US Constitution,
and Todayand Today
Michael E. NewtonMichael E. Newton
The Path to Tyranny:The Path to Tyranny:
A History of Free Society's Descent into TyrannyA History of Free Society's Descent into Tyranny
The Three Political Estates
• Monarchy: undivided rule or absolute
sovereignty by a single person
• Aristocracy: government by the best
individuals or by a small privileged class
• Democracy: government by the people;
especially : rule of the majority
• Roman Kingdom overthrown by Lucius Junius
• Power of kings given to the magistrates.
• Magistrates included consuls, praetors, censors,
aediles, quaestors, tribunes, and dictators.
• Each had checks on the other.
• Term limited.
– Commanded military.
– Public order.
– Summoned assemblies.
– Introduced measures.
– Administered popular decrees.
• Roman Senate created by Romulus in 753
BC. Survived about 2000 years.
• Composed of wealthy citizens.
• Nominated magistrates
• Senate passed decrees for the
magistrates to execute.
• Foreign policy, but did not manage wars.
• Civil administration of Rome.
• Controlled the money.
• Elected magistrates.
• Enacted new laws.
• Capital punishment cases.
• Declared war and peace.
• Approved/disapproved alliances.
• Individuals had provocatio (due process).
Balance of Powers in Rome
• Polybius: “None of the three is absolute, but the
purpose of the one can be counterworked and
thwarted by the others, none of them will
excessively outgrow the others or treat them
• Montesquieu: “The government of Rome was
admirable. From its birth, abuses of power could
always be corrected by its constitution, whether
by means of the spirit of the people, the strength
of the senate, or the authority of certain
Trial and Error
• Polybius: “The Romans while they have
arrived at the same final result as regards
their form of government, have not
reached it by any process of reasoning,
but by the discipline of many struggles and
troubles, and always choosing the best by
the light of the experience gained in
disaster have thus reached…the best of
all existing constitutions.”
The US Constitution
• The US replaced the three political power
bases with the three roles of government:
• Based on the British system and
Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws.
Similarities of Roman & US Constitutions
• Monarchy: Executive branch
– Commander-in-Chief=temporary dictator
– Treasury (now Fed too)=Censor
• Aristocracy (meritocracy): Supreme Court,
Senate, Electoral College
• Democracy: House, trial by jury, state and
Balance of Powers
• Madison: “The accumulation of all powers,
legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the
same hands, whether of one, a few, or
many, and whether hereditary,
selfappointed, or elective, may justly be
pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Federalist No. 47
• Madison: “Ambition must be made to
counteract ambition.” Federalist No. 51
– Checks & balances more important than
separation of powers
Changes in the US System
• More power to aristocracy:
– Representative for 700k instead of 33k.
• More power to monarchy:
– Congress giving law-making powers to executive agencies.
– Wars without Senate declaration.
• More power to the people (democracy):
– Direct election of Senators (1913).
– Popular election of electoral college replaced selection by
– Ballot propositions replace state legislatures.
– Primary elections.
– Modern polling.
The Fall of Roman Republic
• In ancient Rome, coalition of the people and
Julius Caesar (Consul) aligned to overthrow the
• Plutarch on Julius Caesar:
– “Introduced sundry allotments and distributions of
land… the populace were delighted.”
– “As for the nobles, to some of them he promised
consulships and praetorships in the future, others
he appeased with sundry other powers and
honours, and in all he implanted hopes, since he
ardently desired to rule over willing subjects.”
Fall of the United States?
• In the US, democratic and executive powers
have grown. Aristocracy has been diminished.
• President (political party) promises free gifts to
• President (political party) promises favors to
Reps and Senators (earmarks, Stupak).
• Checks and balances disappear. Government
grows. Tyranny commences.
– Madison: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative,
executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether
of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary,
selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced
the very definition of tyranny.” Federalist No. 47
Polybius detailed the powers of the consuls: “It is they who consult the senate on matters of urgency, they who carry out in detail the provisions of its decrees. Again as concerns all affairs of state administered by the people it is their duty to take these under their charge, to summon assemblies, to introduce measures, and to preside over the execution of the popular decrees. As for preparation for war and the general conduct of operations in the field, here their power is almost uncontrolled; for they are empowered to make what demands they choose on the allies, to appoint military tribunes, to levy soldiers and select those who are fittest for service. They also have the right of inflicting, when on active service, punishment on anyone under their command; and they are authorized to spend any sum they decide upon from the public funds, being accompanied by a quaestor who faithfully executes their instructions.” Polybius, The Histories 6.12.
Senate: “In the first place it has the control of the treasury, all revenue and expenditure being regulated by it. For with the exception of payments made to the consuls, the quaestors are not allowed to disburse for any particular object without a decree of the senate… Similarly crimes committed in Italy which require a public investigation, such as treason, conspiracy, poisoning, and assassination, are under the jurisdiction of the senate. Also if any private person or community in Italy is in need of arbitration or indeed claims damages or requires succour or protection, the senate attends to all such matters. It also occupies itself with the dispatch of all embassies sent to countries outside of Italy for the purpose either of settling differences, or of offering friendly advice, or indeed of imposing demands, or of receiving submission, or of declaring war; and in like manner with respect to embassies arriving in Rome it decides what reception and what answer should be given to them. All these matters are in the hands of the senate, nor have the people anything whatever to do with them. So that again to one residing in Rome during the absence of the consuls the constitution appears to be entirely aristocratic; and this is the conviction of many Greek states and many of the kings, as the senate manages all business connected with them.” Polybius, The Histories 6.13.
“After this we are naturally inclined to ask what part in the constitution is left for the people, considering that the senate controls all the particular matters I mentioned, and, what is most important, manages all matters of revenue and expenditure, and considering that the consuls again have uncontrolled authority as regards armaments and operations in the field. But nevertheless there is a part and a very important part left for the people. For it is the people which alone has the right to confer honours and inflict punishment, the only bonds by which kingdoms and states and in a word human society in general are held together… It is by the people, then, in many cases the offences punishable by a fine are tried when the accused have held the highest office; and they are the only court which may try on capital charges… Again it is the people who bestow office on the deserving, the noblest regard of virtue in a state; the people have the power of approving or rejecting laws, and what is most important of all, they deliberate on the question of war and peace. Further in the case of alliances, terms of peace, and treaties, it is the people who ratify all these or the reverse. Thus here again one might plausibly say that the people&apos;s share in the government is the greatest, and that the constitution is a democratic one.” Polybius, The Histories 6.14.