September 21, 2003

First Western Civ Paper

I'm too exhausted from writing this paper to type up a real entry, so I'll bore, um educate you with some more of my homework (I've been doing that quite a bit lately). The question for this first Western Civilization assignment was,"Keeping in mind the histories of Thucydides and Polybius, do you think that the common people of Athens and Rome played a significant part in the governing of these two states?" My answer is as follows:

The citizens of Athens and Rome did have at least some influence in the governing of these two states. According to Thucydides (in capturing the spirit of Pericles' funeral speech), the power of the Athenian government resided "in the hands of the many and not of the few." For him, that was the essence of democracy (Dept. of Hist. at GMU 28). With regards to Rome that distinction was harder to make. Polybius explains that, "No one could say for certain, not even a native, whether the constitution as a whole were an aristocracy or democracy or despotism." This determination relies on which branch of the government one focuses his or her attention on to the complete detriment of comprehending how it is that all three function in tandem with one another (Dept. of Hist. at GMU 32). It is because one of those three branches was representative of the people that the Roman government could have been witnessed as being a democracy.

During a class discussion of Thucydides' history two weeks back, we collectively agreed that Athenian citizens were not only permitted to participate in the state politics, it was further seen as their duty to do so. A man who neglected his civic responsibility to get involved with public affairs was not merely useless; he actually diminished the effectiveness of the system. Based on that information, we concluded that the Athenian state was governed by an active participatory democracy (Grindel 8 Sept. 2003). No one was excluded on the basis of wealth or poverty. Poverty alone may not have been enough to bar someone from participation, but certainly citizenship was. Less than half of the actual population was considered to be a part of the citizenry: left out were the women, children, foreigners, slaves, as well as the residents of conquered regions. Our textbook states that, "Any assessment of the Athenian democracy must recognize the injustice suffered by the great number of the excluded" (King 56). The quote I borrowed earlier from Thucydides now requires some qualification. In Athens, "the many" was limited to include only those who were considered citizens. However, it can still be said that this minority was for the most part politically active.

Our class determined last week that Polybius had viewed the Roman government as an adaptive system (Grindel 15 Sept. 2003). It consisted of a representing body, but there also existed along side it two other branches to help keep it in check. Therefore, not all of the power resided with the people, but they clearly had a sphere of influence. For example, Polybius explains that "If the Tribunes intersperse their veto, the Senate not only are unable to pass a decree, but cannot even hold a meeting at all, whether formal or informal." Further, "The Senate stands in awe of the multitude, and cannot neglect the feelings of the people" (Dept. of Hist. at GMU 34). I was suspicious, after learning of all those who were excluded from the citizenry in Athens, of just who these "people" were, whether they were common or citizen, rich or poor. I could not determine whether or not citizenry in Rome was more widespread than it was in Athens. That actually became irrelevant to me when I uncovered this next point I am about to make. Our textbook states that, "Officials were elected by the Centuriate Assembly. That body included all of the citizens of Rome down to the very poorest. But it was dominated by the wealthiest because of its voting procedure" (King 95). There was always the possibility that the poorer citizens would not get an opportunity to vote. Once a majority was reached, that was it, voting was closed. Unlike Athens, poverty in Rome constituted a bar to wielding power in the state. The citizens (even if it is not exceptionally clear who was meant by that term) were represented, but on some occasions their voices still went unheard.

Now that I have considered the governments of both Athens and Rome separately, I clearly see that common people had very little influence over their government. A man could be completely destitute, but so long as he was a citizen of Athens he could participate in politics. However, citizenship was not equally enjoyed by all who lived under the Athenian government. In Rome, more people were considered citizens and they had the Tribunes to collectively represent themselves. However, there was always that chance that the poor of the populous would not get an opportunity to voice their opinions on matters held to a vote.

When discussing a government that appears to have been a democracy or seemed to contain elements of one, it is important to first understand who exactly "the many" or "the people" refers to. Only then can you make that determination of whether or not it was the common people who exerted influence over the government.

Works Cited

Department of History at George Mason University. The Western Civilization Reader. 2nd ed. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2003.
Grindel, Bernard. Lecture. George Mason University. Fairfax, Virginia. 8 Sept. 2003.
Grindel, Bernard. Lecture. George Mason University. Fairfax, Virginia. 15 Sept. 2003.
King, Margaret L. Western Civilization: A Social and Cultural History. Combined volume. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001.

-- CrystalShiloh @ 11:14 PM