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The Freedom Genome




The Freedom Genome in Ancient Rome


The Montreal Review, June, 2010



The long Eastern history of despotic governance contrasts with the long Western tradition of aristocratic rule. The peculiar in East idea of the omnipotence of the ruler, the cultivated sense of respect and submission to human authorities has never been a significant part of the Western political culture.

In West, the submission under the will of a master has always been perceived as equal to slavery. This is one of the reasons for the early disappearance of the feudal societies in Western Europe and the advent of capitalism in Holland, England, France, and Germany. In Western Europe and especially in America, the respect to authority was actually a respect to law and the Western law has never been a complete expression of ruler's personal will. Historically, in Europe, there were attempts of development of absolute monarchy, but these attempts, compared with the Eastern tradition of uninterrupted chain of despotic regimes, were always shot-lived, turbulent and followed by revolutions. North America, despite the restlessness of its political life, does not know political tyranny as a form of government.

Meanwhile, today it is hard to imagine Russia without powerful or despotic leader, China without strong and monolithic government, or a Muslim country without strong military or religious elite. The authority and legitimacy of the power in these countries comes not from the law, but from the raw power - military, economic, or religious. In East, peaceful and constant rotation of governments and political elites seems unthinkable even in modern times. The president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, has been in office since 1981. Colonel Gaddafi has been a dictator of Libya since 1969. The Communist party has been ruling China since 1949. In Iran, political life has been controlled by the religious elite since 1979. Russia, after a long communist rule and a short period of anarchy in the 1990s, now is in the hands of a political clique controlled by the former president Putin. In all these countries loyalty to the leader or the ruling party is of primary importance. The ruler or the ruling party makes the law, and the law's first aim is the perservance of the privileges. The law is armour of an immovable political power. The ruler or the ruling party has supreme authority.

In West, the law has authority, not the rulers. Their political power is temporary, and the law does not serve the ruling party. And more important, the Western law has a transcendental origin that shapes the political realities. In contrast with the Oriental and Eastern law traditions - where the Prophet's earthly substitutes, the Ruler, or the Party are sources of law-making and the law is a cover or defender of despotism - the Western law tradition is based on Tradition, Reason, and Revelation. The Western Charters of Rights balance the political interests of the particular groups and serve as an obstacle against non-democratic statutes. The Western law system is not an emanation of the power of the earthly rulers and heavenly proxies. The Western law is a mix of Judeo-Christian principles (invisible God above all), Roman tradition (codification), Pragmatic Reason (regulation of civil and trade relations) and precedents (auctoritas or historical examples).


We can find the traces of freedom genome in ancient Rome. In the Roman Empire, the political fractions always tried to connect their legitimacy and justify their political ambitions with tradition of "good government". For example, in the 2nd BCE the Roman senate started to usurp the power thanks to the overextension of the Roman Empire and the impossibility to convoke people's assemblies (because of the wars and the drain of people and offices abroad). The senators and their supporters (the "optimates") claimed that the senate had auctoritas or unwritten right to rule since the time of the kings. The democratic opposition, the populares, insisted that the Senate had always been an advisory body.

The Roman senate was an influential advisory and in times of crisis an active governmental body with roots deep in the foundations of Rome. The first kings of Rome, Romulus and Numa Pompilius, were advised by the senate. When Tullius Hostilius, the third king of Rome, violated the rules of the good government, the senate dethroned him and chose his successor, Ancus Marcius. Lucius Junius Brutus, with the support of the senate, organized a successful revolt against the seventh and last king of Rome, Tarquinus Superbus (509 BCE). By a common consent Roman people thought this revolt as "lawful", because the king violated the tradition of good government. After Tarquinus the Roman Republic was founded by the will of senate and people. The senate approved the constitution of the new republic. Heads of the Roman Republic were two elected consuls, who stayed in office for a period of two years, and whose power the senate, the tribunes and the peoples' assembly was checking and balancing. Despite senate's influence and glorious history, the Romans never accepted its power as absolute. The senate was influential, advisory body, but not more important than the other governing institutions - turbinate, people's assembly, and consulship. With dubious arguments and twisted interpretations of the tradition, the senate tried in 2nd and 1st BCE to usurp the power, but faced strong opposition from the peoples' representatives - the tribunes - and their supporters. The tribunes believed that according to the Roman political tradition their opposition was "legitimate". The big political battles in Rome were always accompanied by something higher than raw power, and this was the legal argumentation that every party used to support its right to rule. Each party wanted the law and the tradition on its side. This feature of Roman political life contrasts with the despotic political traditions in East. In East, the political battles between the parties ended with physical destruction of the opponent, and the adversaries count on the raw power, they did not bother to think about the legitimacy of their political aspirations. The political logic was - if we have power, we have legitimacy. In Rome, it was the opposite - if we have legitimacy, we have power.


In Rome, it was always difficult for a person or a group of people to claim power and demand submission. Even after the fall of the Roman Republic, most of the emperors, supported by the army, did not claim that their rule is military or heavenly, they preferred to call it "Republican" or at least "Augustinian." They did not admit openly that the legitimacy of their power was based on military support, and most of them did not claim divinity like the Eastern monarchs. The first Roman emperor, Augustus, did not seek deification, although in East there was a cult to his person; in Rome, he preferred the title Princepts, or first citizen, first among equal. Augustus, Trajan, the Antonines, all good emperors claimed that their power rests on republican principles and wanted to comply, at least externally, with the requirements of these principles as much as they can. Later, with the decline of the Roman institutions and power, this republican (aristocratic) spirit of equality, this superiority of the law and tradition slowly disappeared. The late formed Byzantine Empire was not anymore Roman in culture and spirit. Byzantine was an empire in eastern model with all-powerful emperor, ruling eastern people - Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt and the Balkans - used with political despotism.

In the Eastern political culture, submission under the power of the ruler is an accepted duty. The tales about the advance of Alexander the Great in East show how easy the Eastern people deified him and how easy they submitted under his power; meanwhile the Greek citizens felt disgust and contempt to Alexander's despotic temptations. There are numerous examples in the Roman history that show the Roman disdain to the Eastern despotism: Romans vilified Carthaginian kings as savages and cannibals, although Hamilcar and Hannibal were no less civilized than Scipio Africanus or any other great Roman general. Cato the Elder was speaking with fear and contempt against the "eastern" tempers and Greek's treacherous culture and political constitution (although the Greeks had much more democratic tradition than Romans had). Augustus depicted Antony, the lord of Egypt and pretender for the throne in Rome, as an eastern despot, and with smear campaigns, he won the support of the public opinion and the senate against his Eastern opponent. During his long history Rome proudly manifested its democratic institutions and love to freedom as opposed to the traditions in East, and Greece considered itself politically superior and free in comparison with the Asian and African kingdoms. This "deification" of freedom, this state of mind, have never been present in East. It is interesting to notice the Roman respect to Germans, who, although savage people, liked freedom as Romans did.


The freedom genome of Western civilization can be found in the Roman institutions and political traditions, it was transmitted to the German people and reinforced with a new element - the spirit of Judeo-Christian religion.


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