It was a momentous step in the progress of nations when the principle that every interest should have the right and the means of asserting itself was adopted by the Athenian constitution. But for those who were beaten in the vote there was no redress. The law did not check the triumph of majorities, or rescue the minority from the dire penalties of having been outnumbered. When the overwhelming influence of Pericles was removed, conflict between classes raged without restraint. The history of Athens provides a classic example of the perils of Democracy. It is bad to be oppressed by a minority; it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. In Athens it followed that the sovereign people had a right to do whatever was within it power, and was bound by no rule of right and wrong but its own judgment of expediency. In this way the emancipated people of Athens became a tyrant. They ruined their city by attempting to conduct war by debate in the marketplace. Like the French Republic centuries later, they put their unsuccessful commanders to death. They treated dependencies with such injustice they lost their maritime empire. They plundered the rich, until the rich conspired with the enemy; and they crowned their guilt by the martyrdom of Socrates.
Rome eclipsed Greece but had to work through many of the same problems. Most of the eminent public men of Rome, like Scipio and Cicero, moreover formed their minds on Grecian models. Romans actually adopted their cultural aesthetics and learning from Greece. The constitutional history of the Roman Republic, however, turned more on endeavors of its aristocracy, who claimed to be the only true Romans. Common families were increasingly impoverished by incessant wars and finally reduced to dependence upon an aristocracy of 2000 wealthy men. After years of struggle, the people who depended on public rations for food were ready to follow any man who promised to obtain for them by revolution what they could not obtain by law. For a time the Senate, representing the threatened order of things, was strong enough to overcome every popular leader that arose, until Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.)
supported by an army he had led in a career of conquest, as well as by famished masses, and admittedly skilled in the imperial arts of governing-converted the Republic into a Monarchy.
Of course the Republic that Caesar overthrew had been anything but a free state. It provided admirable securities for the rights of citizens, but it treated with savage disregard the rights of men; and allowed the free Roman to inflict atrocious wrongs on his children, on debtors and dependents, on prisoners and slaves. Ironically, the Roman Empire rendered greater service to the cause of Liberty than the Roman Republic. The poor got food and circuses; the rich were better protected. The rights of Roman citizens were extended to people in the Provinces. To the imperial epoch belong the better part of Roman literature and nearly the entire Civil Law;
and it was the Empire that mitigated slavery, instituted religious toleration, made a beginning of the law of nations, and created a perfect system of the law of property. Eventually the lower class of plebs were admitted to political equality in the year 285, and there followed 150 years of prosperity and glory.
The Empire preserved republican forms until the reign of Diocletian (284-305 A.D.). Notwithstanding, the will of Emperors was horribly uncontrolled, their use of power arbitrary. Individuals and families, associations and dependencies were so much material that the sovereign power consumed for its own purposes. The passengers, as it were, existed for the sake of the ship! Both Greece and Rome destroyed vital elements on which the prosperity of nations rests, and perished by the decay of families and the depopulation of their countries. A generous spirit prefers his country to be poor, weak and of no account, but free, rather than powerful,
prosperous and enslaved. It is better to be the citizen of a humble commonwealth in the Alps, without the prospect of influence beyond a narrow frontier, than subject to a superb autocracy that overshadows half the world.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West
Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for
U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. This piece largely
abridged and condensed from an address by Lord Acton to the Bridgnorth Institute in
England on 26 Feb 1877. Email: email@example.com.