Polybius was a Greek writer of history who served as a military adviser to the Roman General Scipio Africanus the Younger. However important his advice might have been to the destroyer of Carthage (in 146 B.C.), Polybius was even more important for America’s Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution.
We are often told that the U.S. Constitution owes much to Montesquieu and Cicero. Yet these writers were themselves students of Polybius. When Cicero praised the “mixed constitution” of Rome in “De re Publica,” he was praising the separation of powers, he was praising checks and balances, but more significantly, he was echoing Polybius. (Note: Cicero’s book on republican government was lost until 1815 and would not have been available to the founders.)
It is alleged by many that America’s founders were in thrall to English political traditions and to John Locke. Yet again, the influence of Polybius was more profound. As R.A. Ames and H.C. Montgomery have pointed out in their essay, “The Influence of Rome on the American Constitution,” the U.S. government “owes nothing to any source but that of Roman government” as conceived and explained by Polybius.
Polybius not only praised Rome’s constitution, but he explained how and why it worked. Anyone proposing a republican constitution in the 18th century would have naturally turned to Polybius for inspiration.
Marshall Davies Lloyd has shown in a paper titled “Polybius and the Founding Fathers” that the founders were steeped in classical writings. They were, he says, the children of Roman antiquity.
James Madison, James Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, James Otis, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton knew the text of Polybius on the Roman constitution. During the Virginia state convention on ratification of the Constitution, Monroe even read passages from Polybius on the floor.
What was so special about Polybius?
The Power of Rome
In the sixth book of Polybius’s history, there occurs a critical examination of “the Roman constitution in its prime.” Polybius wanted his readers to understand how “nearly the whole world fell under the power of Rome” during a 53-year period. According to Polybius, Rome’s world-dominant position owed everything to the Roman system of checks and balances.
In his discourse, Polybius identified three types of constitutions: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Which of these did he recommend? According to Polybius, “It is plain that we must regard as the best constitution that which partakes of all three elements.” In other words, the three simple forms of the state are inadequate in and of themselves. The best thing is to mix the three simple constitutional forms into a system of checks and balances.
What is the reasoning behind this arrangement?
Each of the simple constitutional forms tends to degenerate: Monarchy degenerates into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into mob rule. When Lord Acton wrote, “All power tends to corrupt; [and] absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” he was echoing Polybius’s discourse on the degeneration of the simple constitutional forms.
This degeneration through the accumulation of too much power can be checked by a mixed constitutional system consisting of all three forms at once. For example, the Romans had two chief magistrates (consuls) so that even the monarchical principle was divided. Rome’s aristocratic principal was contained in the Roman Senate. The power of the people was found in the tribunes who summoned and led the popular assemblies and held the power of veto over the Roman Senate.
Thus, the Roman constitution was simultaneously a double monarchy (or diarchy), an aristocracy, and a democracy.
We can see that the U.S. system also combines elements of monarchy (in the president), aristocracy (originally in the Senate), and democracy (in the House of Representatives). In addition, the American system makes use of federalism—the separation of power between the federal government and the state governments. All of these elements serve to prevent the emergence of an all-powerful individual or ruling body.
Absolute power cannot corrupt absolutely if nobody can get hold of it.
The advantages of this system are many. But the special advantage of the system was and is in its stability and the prevention of what Polybius said was a violent cycle of revolutionary upheaval or civil war.
As observed in the ancient city-states, a monarchy eventually degenerates into a tyranny, which triggers a revolution led by aristocratic citizens. Next, the spoiled children of the new aristocratic government grow intolerably arrogant and exploitative, leading to a democratic revolution. Finally, the people become ungovernable and lawless.
“For the mob,” wrote Polybius, “habituated to feed at the expense of others … produces a reign of mere violence.”
Polybius described this situation in terms familiar to students of the French or Bolshevik revolutions, depicting “tumultuous assemblies, massacres, banishments, redivisions of land; until, after losing all trace of civilization, it has once more found a master and a despot.”
Mixing the simple forms of constitution preserves society against the bloodshed of civil strife and the vagaries of official corruption.
Polybius credited the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus with the invention of mixed government. Naturally, mixed governments themselves would eventually succumb to degeneration. But this process would take centuries rather than decades. This was shown by the examples of Sparta, the Republic of Carthage, and Rome.
It is useful to know that the U.S. Constitution is based on the principle of mixed government as outlined by Polybius. Using Polybius’s method of analysis we can see, in the present constitutional crisis, that the people exercised a check on America’s elite (oligarchy) in November 2016 by electing the non-politician Donald Trump as president of the United States.
In the first two years of his presidency, the maverick national executive was continuously berated and attacked by the bureaucratic elite and by lackeys of the dominant ideology in the press and universities. The struggle between President Trump and the statist oligarchy now continues with mixed midterm results.
The Fall of Rome
A significant section of American voters recognize that a bureaucratic and “intellectual” oligarchy, at the national level, governs against the people’s interests. This is especially obvious in the oligarchy’s desire to import alien nationals as future voters in order to undercut a likely constitutional check on their power. This situation would be akin to the Roman Senate importing barbarians into Rome for the purpose of neutralizing the people’s assemblies.
In addition, a system of welfare bribery—of bread and circuses—is administratively used to progressively impoverish and simultaneously placate the populous, drawing votes for the oligarchy from the poorest people. Thus, it behooves the oligarchy to expand the poorest class of citizens—to make the poor into loyal clients of the administrative welfare system. In this way, the socialist ideology of the bureaucratic state promises to become the ruling ideal of the masses.
This process is naturally accelerated through bureaucratic schooling, university brainwashing and credentialing, and by a larger and larger flood of poor immigrants overpowering the native middle class—permanently destroying the economic self-reliance and political autonomy of the electorate.
This appears to be a conscious strategy for the concentration of power by an administrative elite that now advances a socialist type of ideology under the banner of “democracy.” It is a process by which an oligarchy of officials transforms a free country into administrative despotism.
The key element is a cultural tyranny, introduced and maintained by elite media and prestigious schools, which forces all constitutional elements into an ideologically homogenized way of “thinking” by threats of ostracism and exclusion, labeling those who resist as racists, sexists, or xenophobes.
As the cultural power of the socialist administrative ideology grows, the system becomes increasingly immune to correction. Abuses and illegalities are beginning to appear more openly. Lawbreaking politicians are not prosecuted. Innocent politicians are falsely accused. Brazen fraud is visible in various schemes of vote-stealing. Violence has made its appearance in America’s national discourse as supporters of the Constitution and the rule of law are directly threatened by mobs incited by the party of administrative Caesarism.
All these elements were present in the fall of the Roman Republic.
The disintegration of the Roman constitution led directly to civil war. This may be where America is heading. Even now as we turn the pages of Polybius’s discourse, we find a lucid analysis of republican principles and also discover, in ancient Rome, a distant mirror of ourselves.
J.R. Nyquist is a columnist and the author of the books “Origins of the Fourth World War” and “The Fool and His Enemy,” as well as co-author of “The New Tactics of Global War.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.