Friday, September 20, 2013

Deuterocanon Friday: Roman Republic

Now Judas heard of the fame of the Romans, that they were very strong and were well-disposed toward all who made an alliance with them, that they pledged friendship to those who came to them, and that they were very strong.... [A]s many as ever opposed them, they destroyed and enslaved; but with their friends and those who rely on them they have kept friendship. They have subdued kings far and near, and as many as have heard of their fame have feared them. Those whom they wish to help and to make kings, they make kings, and those whom they wish they depose; and they have been greatly exalted. Yet for all this not one of them has put on a crown or worn purple as a mark of pride, but they have built for themselves a senate chamber, and every day three hundred twenty senators constantly deliberate concerning the people, to govern them well. They trust one man each year to rule over them and to control all their land; they all heed the one man, and there is no envy or jealousy among them.

1 Maccabees 8:1-2, 11-16 (NRSV-C)

It needn't be said that this report of Roman government in the Republican period is quite idealized. The Senate did not in practice meet every day, and except in emergencies the Romans in fact split all of their most powerful offices, giving them to two people, to prevent one person from having too much power. However, I'm struck by how much it accords with a comment made in a Chinese report about Rome, the Weilue, that MrD posted about a couple of weeks ago:

The ruler of this country is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment.

Roman succession in the Republic looks quite like ordinary politics to us, only more unruly and violent, and not the sort of thing about which we would say that they showed no envy or jealousy. But all of the powerful offices had term limits and so the passing of power from one person to another was completely a matter of course. At the time it must have seemed astounding that the Romans kept giving people immense power then taking it away, while treating it just as their form of ordinary government -- so much so, apparently, that the stories of it were apparently still being remarked on in some form in China several centuries later.

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