Liberty Matters

The Roman Senate in a Democratic Age

Professor Kewes writes persuasively of the many methodological and disciplinary reasons that contemporary scholarship has unduly neglected the critical influence of the Roman senate on early modern European thought and literature. Professor Evrigenis proposes that the contemporary challenges to recovering a proper appreciation of the Roman senate are, alas, even more formidable than Kewes suggests. He emphasizes that current scholars often lack the necessary training and thus access to the textual sources that might facilitate a renaissance in our understanding of that peculiar Roman political institution and its intellectual reception among modern political thinkers, both those who decisively rejected, as well as those who praised the mixed nature of the Roman republic. Happily, Professor Evrigenis’s Bodin@Tufts project, aimed at producing a new edition of Jean Bodin’s Six Books on the Commonwealth, as well as Professor Sabetti’s recent edition of Gasparo Contarini’s The Republic of Venice, mark encouraging steps towards addressing these deficiencies. Nonetheless, the heroic interventions of Kewes, Evrigensis, and Sabetti necessarily encounter an even more deeply rooted historical challenge, one likely to prove more daunting than that which a lack of scholarly interest, reliable translations of critical texts, and advanced philological training pose: what Tocqueville identified as the profound democratic spirit of the age. Evrigenis puts his finger on the problem: “To modern ears an institution linked so closely with aristocracy in all its forms is bound to sound antiquarian, if not odious.”
While it’s generally agreed that the framers of the American republic were admirers and imitators of the “mixed regime,” one that necessarily integrated an “aristocratic” element into its constitution, at least since the Progressive era, it has been precisely that element that has fallen into extreme disfavor among “advanced” thinkers and politicians. Scholarly neglect of the legacy of the Roman senate is the predictable consequence of a widespread democratic hostility toward all things aristocratic, a hostility shared, at least in the United States (and more generally in the West) by the left and right alike. In the United States, contemporary attacks on the unrepresentative character of the Electoral College, on the outsized influence in the American Congress of thinly populated rural States, and on the unelected and undemocratic character of the Supreme Court are the predictable consequences of a deeply-rooted contemporary conviction that pure democracy is the sole legitimate form of government. But so too is the recent rise of new forms of “populism” with their profound suspicion of corrupt global elites and their ominous alliances of the people with charismatic and dangerous demagogues.
Given the decayed historical condition of the American senate, one populated for decades almost exclusively by conspicuously wealthy individuals, directly elected by the people since the passage of the 17th Amendment, but all too frequently representing rent-seeking special interests, a body whose public duties rarely mandate a scrupulously reasoned and deliberative consideration of matters of state, and whose members seem almost solely devoted to the symbolic performance of mere partisanship, any attempt to restore an appreciation of the aristocratic element within a mixed regime will seem Quixotic or worse. The task at hand would appear to involve much more than a reconsideration of the enduring importance of the Roman senate in modern political thought. It would, more urgently, require us to reexamine the vexed relationship between that institution and the original meaning of aristoi: the best, a noble character, a right nature. Anything less will leave us in the position of Shakespeare’s Brutus, a tragic and noble figure whose most conspicuous political act ironically confirmed the decay rather than the restoration of the Republic.