Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part IV

The Voting System

Compared to the rather straightforward – one man, one vote – system of most European states, the first-past-the-post voting system of the United States appears quite complex. No clear majority is needed for the successful candidate, no proportional relationship between the number of seats and the overall vote, and then there's the whole absentee voting thing...

The ancient Roman system was equally confusing. From what we can understand today, each citizen could vote, in theory, but, as the rich were the first to vote, and their opinion had a lot more weight in the final result, the process was stopped when a winner could be named, which was usually way before the poorer citizens got to cast their vote.

Weird as it may be – and in no way the direct democracy the Athenians dreamed of – the system worked for a long time, before it collapsed under the pressure of corruption. And even then, it was formally maintained, and probably quite effectively in place at local level in some cities of the empire.

The Decadence Obsession

The Roman civilization was not decadent, as neither is the US today – at least compared to its Western European cultural counterpart. Quite to the contrary, the Romans were a rather solemn, puritan and somber bunch – and they went down in history for their luxury and decadence because they made such a big fuss about it.

Truth is, there's not a shred of hard evidence that those infamous orgies ever took place. More likely, each meal that consisted of more than bread, cheese, figs and a bit of wine with water was branded as an orgy by the outraged neighbors, because it broke away from the frugal traditions handed down from the ancestors. Ecology and the green current wasn't big at the time, but still, a lot of voices from the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire pleaded for a return to a simpler way of life, one closer to nature and to the first roots of mankind.

The Legal System

You know all those lawyer jokes? The Romans invented them. Young politicians made a name for themselves in court, by suing old politicians for the most trivial of reasons, and sometimes for the best reasons, when they knew perfectly well they couldn't win. And they couldn't care less, either way – it was the fame of the trial itself that mattered, not the outcome.

The funny thing about Roman lawyers was that they weren't paid for the job – they were supposed to defend their client out of honest belief they were doing the right thing. As you can imagine, the work was far from pro bono, and the fringe benefits associated with being a successful lawyer were huge.

Go to:
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part I
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part II
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part III