Liberty Matters

A Crucial Lesson

In Federalist 63, James Madison writes "history informs us of no long lived republic which had not a senate," adding that "Sparta, Rome, and Carthage, are, in fact, the only states to whom that character can be applied." As Madison noted, the paucity of information about the latter case forced those interested in the history of that institution to concentrate on the first two, and although Sparta and Rome were both used frequently as shining examples of long-lasting states, it was Rome that stood out. Although Professor Kewes' focus is on early modern Europe, Madison's observation strikes me as apt because it summarizes two of her several important insights: the crucial role of a senate in an enduring state, and the fact that our understanding and employment of ancient examples is constrained by the very limited evidence available to us, which, to make matters worse, reaches us after having been processed by interested parties. Madison's observation also provides powerful evidence that Kewes is correct in claiming that Rome served as an inspiration not only in literary and antiquarian enterprises, but also in the weightiest of political debates. Even though the suggestion that the early modern sources that Kewes is interested in were the ones that paved the way for Madison's study of Roman political institutions would not raise any eyebrows, Kewes is correct in arguing that our understanding of the connection between the two is nowhere near as clear as it should be and that a new history of the Roman senate would be an important step towards improving it.
Kewes' diagnosis of the state of this field is correct, in my view, as are her hypotheses about some of the reasons for it. As she notes, the questions that we need answers to are easy to ignore, either because they require the study of tedious minutiae about extinct institutions or because those who know something about one institution or state are not sufficiently proficient in others to be able to think about them in evolutionary or comparative terms. But why is that the case, especially when at present we have readier access to more sources than ever, as well as a host of tools that can enable us to use them effectively? Many of the early modern works that would form part of the corpus on which Kewes' proposed study would be based are but a few clicks away, yet few scholars have the skills necessary to study them in their original forms and they do not qualify for translation, for several reasons. As such, they appear impenetrable. Yet, how could one seriously understand what a sophisticated reader of Latin thought about early modern or Roman sources that he read in (two different versions of) that language, something that would seem to be a requirement for any serious attempt to argue that he used those sources in this way or that? I thus expect that Kewes' project will be more challenging than it already appears, as it will require both serious translation and bringing into conversation specialists who are not used to interacting with one another.
While also correct, Kewes' second observation regarding the state of the field seems to me to be missing an important part of the story. Kewes identifies Machiavelli as a key figure in the early modern reception of Rome, and notes that because he "had little to say about the senate in the Discorsi, students of its reception have understandably skirted the issue." I think that Kewes is being charitable here. Machiavelli had plenty to say about the senate in the Discourses, but those who see him as the patron saint of republicanism would understandably indeed have little time for that part of his story. Yet that part is crucial to Machiavelli's view of Rome, whose greatness he saw as rooted in conflict between the orders. In Discourses I.2, for instance, Machiavelli argues that "remaining mixed, [Rome] made a perfect republic, to which perfection it came through the disunion of the plebs and the Senate" (Mansfield & Tarcov trans.). Before early modern European political thinkers and Madison would come to the same conclusion, Machiavelli had already noted that a "perfect republic" cannot exist without a senate.
To modern ears an institution linked so closely with aristocracy in all its forms is bound to sound antiquarian, if not odious. But why did early modern European thinkers consider it so important, not just for Rome, but also for their own states? On the most basic level, as Kewes notes, Rome, and especially the Roman republic, were seen as exemplars of strength and success. The enduring appeal of Sallust's account of Roman moral degeneration rooted in conflict between the orders that was checked only by the threat of Carthage, especially as that account was filtered through Saint Augustine's Christian reading of the history of Rome, made that ancient example a universal point of reference among educated early modern Europeans. Rome was the obvious model, often providing, in Kewes' terms, "a normative code of conduct." Even if simplistic and embellished, accounts of Roman greatness in which the senate played a big role were very appealing to anxious thinkers trapped in far less impressive states surrounded by uncertainty and danger.
As Kewes points out, it was under precisely such conditions that Jean Bodin composed his magisterial Six livres de la république, in 1576. Bodin re-issued that work as De Republica Libri Sex ten years later, in a substantially different form, clearly aimed at a wider European audience. That work, which was intended to replace Aristotle's Politics as a comprehensive treatise on political science, provided the vocabulary and conceptual framework for the Peace of Westphalia, not least by proposing a modern conception of sovereignty that has since become the dominant understanding of that elusive concept. Bodin's work is the perfect example of both the kind of work that Kewes has in mind and of the types of problems I listed above. Working from both the French and Latin originals, Richard Knolles produced an English edition in 1606, which reads like neither original on its own. That edition remains the only one ever produced in English. Bodin's work, which was used by every major political thinker since then—including such figures as Grotius, James VI/I, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Kant, Madison, Adams, and Jefferson—is not available in print in any language today, perhaps because in Knolles's version it contains some 600,000 words. A twentieth-century German translation from the French was completed without annotations, as that would apparently have made an already Herculean project insurmountable.
Yet that is the sort of work that contains the elements for the comparative and institutional study that Kewes is rightly calling for. Eager to understand political institutions not simply in intellectual terms, but mainly for urgent practical reasons, Bodin defines a senate as "a lawful assembly of advisors that deliberates for the commonwealth and for those who have the sovereign power of the commonwealth" (3.1). This definition is the result of his study of numerous instances of bodies that call themselves "senate," after the manner of the Roman institution, but Bodin's survey gives the Roman senate pride of place. Yet his definition is the careful product of serious reflection and, hence, not limited only to those, but rather extends to other consultative bodies, such as privy councils and parlements. Rejecting Polybius's superficial view, Bodin declares that the Roman senate had no power, since its decisions could always be overridden by other bodies and, ultimately, by the people. As Kewes notes, Bodin's emphasis on this point is animated by his own concern for the dangers inherent in even the slightest hint of divided sovereignty, the consequences of which would ravage Europe for the better part of a century.
But no power did not mean no significance. Surveying the history of the Roman senate from its inception to imperial times, Bodin argues that at its best that institution was seen as a source of the best advice for rulers, because its members were older (as its name suggests) and therefore had more experience, but also because they were rich and did not have to worry about money. Their financial independence also rendered them likelier to give frank advice. As such, they came to represent a higher form of deliberation, which quickly became associated with the rational part of the body politic, as Kewes points out. But even individuals primed for better deliberation cannot be trusted entirely, so Bodin highlights the institutional measures that were introduced to ensure better outcomes or, at least, prevent the worst ones from materializing. Of many important lessons here, one stands out: senate seats should be reserved for former magistrates. With such measures in place, the senate could advise towards the common good, in accordance with the dictates of natural law. Its lack of power, however, meant that in the wrong hands—such as Caesar's—it was exposed to insignificance at best or subject to becoming a diversionary tool for tyrants at worst.
Although Bodin's name is more recognizable to students of political institutions than Zamojski's or Manutius's the fate of his Republica, which was once mandatory reading for political scientists and statesmen, is an apt illustration of the difficulties involved in the study that Kewes is proposing. Despite these challenges, I concur with her that we reduce early modern political thought to maxims and crude summaries at our peril. Even a cursory glance at the politics of that period reveals the extent to which its central political preoccupations were very much our own. Studying the Roman senate, early modern European thinkers realized that when the deliberative organ ceases to do its job properly, the body politic is in trouble. We should heed their warning.