Law and Justice – Roman Law and Human Rights – 14.1 Monarchy and Freedom
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Law and Justice – Roman Law and Human Rights – 14.1 Monarchy and Freedom

August 28, 2019


>>>>In the aftermath of the Catilinarian Conspiracy,
when the Senate was deliberating whether or not to execute the conspirators, Julius Caesar
gave a speech that warned his colleagues about the risks of political innovation, of breaking
with constitutional tradition. He warned that someday there would come a politician who
wasn’t a Cicero and who would aim at a more royal kind of power. And that man was Julius
Caesar himself, that’s the irony of Caesar’s speech in the histories of Sallust. Julius
Caesar would represent the figure who brought the Roman Republic to an end and inaugurated
what we can call the Imperial period of Rome, and so in this lesson we begin to turn from
the Republican period of Rome the period when Rome was a res publica ruled without a king
since 509 BC with its mixed constitution with its magistrates forming a royal element, with
its Senate forming an aristocratic and its assemblies forming a popular or democratic
element in the constitution. This system, this balanced constitution had been unbalanced
since the age of Tiberius Gracchus. There had always been tension within the Roman political
and social order, but from the age of Tiberius Gracchus begin a series of civil wars that
turned into social conflicts over the distribution of wealth and property between the senatorial
classes who wished to control the ship of state, through the Senate and their enormous
wealth, and through the common people who inhabited the great cities like Rome, who
staffed the Imperial armies, and who were often desperately at the mercy of the wealthy
landowning classes. And these tensions would continue to manifest themselves in a series
of civil wars that with recur again and again reaching their climax in the lifetime of Julius
Caesar, who defeated the forces under the command of the general Pompey, Pompey the
Great, once the greatest military figure in Rome until he himself was overshadowed by
the rise of his rival– Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar was a great populist leader. In fact,
he comes out of the tradition of Tiberius Gracchus even although less radically, that
of Catiline. Julius Caesar represented the interests of the common man in Roman society.
Julius Caesar represented the victory of the popular element over the oligarchic faction
of the Senate. Although Caesar himself was of illustrious ancestry, he more than any
political figure in his time had the support of the common person and represented the triumph
of the common interests in the Roman state. And so when we imagine the end of the Republic
and the rise of the monarchies although it would not be a monarchy in name, but only
in fact, imagine this as the triumph of the common person over the senatorial factions
over the oligarchy of the Senate. For that is how Julius Caesar rose to power. Julius
Caesar had himself declared perpetual dictator. In fact in the Roman constitutional system,
dictator is an emergency office that can be used in desperate times of conflict. A six-month
term of office, so there’s precedent for a dictator but Caesar has himself declared perpetual
dictator. Again it’s one of these kinds of constitutional innovations that we see in
the last century of the Roman Republic. Caesar had himself declared perpetual dictator but
again, just as Tiberius Gracchus had been assassinated in a senatorial coup by a band
of senators who believed that he was aspiring after royal power, so too rumor began to spread
through Rome that Julius Caesar was intent on claiming himself King. And on March 15
in the year 44 BC he too was assassinated, stabbed to death by a band of senatorial conspirators.
But the death of Caesar did not see the rebirth of the Republic. It did not see even a return
to dominance of the Senate. Instead, after the death of Caesar, there was another round
of civil wars that were won very quickly by the supporters of Caesar: his adopted son
Octavius and his lieutenant Marc Anthony, who would come to dominate the Roman state.
Marc Anthony would assassinate our friend Cicero for opposing his tyranny, but never
again would the Senate truly dominate Roman politics. Ultimately, Marc Antony and Octavian
would struggle amongst themselves for control of the Roman state, and in 31 Octavian would
defeat Anthony at a climactic naval battle at Actium and would become the sole ruler
of the Roman world. Octavian would eventually have himself declared Augustus. He would take
on the name Augustus, which means the holy one, the revered one, the sacred one. He would
take a title, Imperator, which meant general, a man with absolute military command. He would
accrue other titles: Princeps, the prince, the first citizen, but he would never take
the title of rex– king. Nevertheless Augustus established a monarchy in effect. He left
the Senate and the assemblies in existence, but in reality these were no more than what
has been called a constitutional façade. And in fact Augustus, the Roman Emperor, was
the true seat of Roman power, and for the next five centuries what we called the Imperial
period Rome would be ruled by a monarch. Not a king but an Emperor, and so this period
of Roman history is called the Imperial period. It’s one of the great periods of Roman history
even though Rome was longer a Republic, she was an extraordinary state. An Empire seated
in Rome, seated in Italy, but that would control the entire Mediterranean world. One of the
history’s great empires lasting for centuries. It was a period of extraordinary prosperity
and it was a period of law. We call this period the Classical period of Roman law. The famous
Roman Law system, which has influenced across the millennia nearly all other Western legal
systems flourishes as never before, because the Roman emperors rule according to the rule
of law. They are careful, punctilious, in their observance of the rule of law. They
placed tremendous authority in the figure of the jurist. That is the figure of legal
professionals who can interpret the law, and help the monarchs, help the emperors themselves
create and shape Roman law. So the age of monarchy these popular monarchies that emerge
out of the late Republic, are also the greatest age of Roman law. They’re an age of the rule
of law and an age of individual freedom. There’s a passage in classical Roman law that says:
“Freedom, libertas is the natural power of a man to do as he pleases.” Think about that
definition in terms of some conversations that we’ve had throughout this course. That
is a classic liberal definition of freedom. Libertas is a man’s power of living as he
pleases and that’s the ideal of the rule of law under the Roman emperors. They believe
that they protect the freedom of ordinary people across this empire by enforcing the
law that protects their liberty, their right to do as they please. Think back to the conversations
we have going back to the Greeks to Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty.” One, a
positive kind of liberty–power of the citizen to govern himself. The other a negative liberty,
the absence of coercion, the ability to do as you please and this is the model of freedom
that is embodied in Roman law and that flourishes in the Roman Empire under the rule of the
great emperors who rule this Mediterranean empire.

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