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Ancient History. Polybius on the Roman Republic Report (Assessment)

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Updated: May 17th, 2021

As Polybius states himself, he is so interested in the Roman Government because he wants to explain to his readers (and, perhaps, understand himself) how “almost the whole world fell under the rule of one power, that of Rome.” He even marks the rule of Rome as an event that cannot be compared to anything in earlier history. The unique governmental structure that combines monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy is what Polybius finds highly valuable, although he admits that those who are not familiar with this structure might sometimes see it as purely aristocratic. This unique combination of governmental elements is the main strength of the Roman Republic, states Polybius. Namely, the Republic’s balance between these government forms is what makes it especially powerful.

Another strength of this government system is, according to Polybius, the people’s role in it. People have the right to impose fines on other citizens, to punish them, or even to sentence them to death. Polybius believes that other societies that have a different distribution of power eventually produce disorder. Compared to the pre-industrial societies described by Crone, the Roman Republic had a much more advanced and complicated societal and governmental structure. For example, Crone states that “nobody that the ability to impose order on everyone else.” As we can see from Polybius’ description of the Republic, people did have the ability to control and punish those who had violated the law. Moreover, people also had the power to approve or disapprove laws, according to Polybius. By comparison, those who lived in other pre-industrial societies typically could have some influence if they had influential relatives or were wealthy, but such conditions are quite temporary.

As it was mentioned in the lecture, the Roman Empire was a set of institutions. What is more, existing governments are partially based on these sets of institutions because the existing political systems emerged from an interpretation of those systems that existed in the Roman Empire. Crone compares the pre-industrial societies based on self-help to existing ones. However, the laws that existed in the Roman Empire were in some ways very similar to modern ones; for example, unlike the case in other pre-industrial societies, it was impossible to steal something and go scot-free. Although Polybius argues that the system of the Empire was perfect, it was not entirely democratic as the Senate was by far the most powerful element. Since it had so much power, other parts (the consuls and the people) were dependent; this sometimes led to abuse of authority.

Moreover, it seems that consuls were the most dependent branch, although their tasks and duties were also crucial for the well-being and safety of the Empire. Although the Empire tried to balance between the three main executives, the Senate still was the most influential and powerful one. This proves that the Empire was not as balanced as it wanted to appear. I do agree with student A and student B that Polybius tried to remain neutral when describing the Empire because he provided wide-ranging facts and details for his reader. He is a good source because he was a witness of that time, and he tried to describe facts as they were (at least partially). However, I do not agree with student A that his investigation was unbiased. First, Polybius lived in better conditions compared to other hostages, which implies that he was treated more or less equally, which influenced his perception of the Government. Second, Polybius does not explicitly state any weaknesses of the Empire but only argues how perfect and unbreakable it is. As we know, this Empire eventually crumbled and fell.

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