Augustus: Lessons for the modern world
Augustus worries us in our modern world. We have an inherent belief in what we call ‘democracy’ and here is someone who overthrew democracy and replaced it by a monarchy — and with great success. We need to re-assess our own attitudes to democracy. Our own definition of democracy is skewed: in the ancient world, democracy meant every citizen voting in the Assembly. What we fail to realise is that the ancient world failed to invent what we see as the basis of democracy, that is representative democracy. This was something invented in England over a long period between the Middle Ages and the 18th century whereby representatives are elected to form the government. Democracy to us, in practice, consists of putting a cross on a piece of paper every five years. What we think we mean by democracy is something quite different, that everyone should be able to ‘do their own thing’. Let us not blame the Romans for not inventing representative democracy: let us learn from their shortcoming.
The trouble is that our definition of democracy has gone wrong. Democracy has become a catch-all good word, the be-all and end-all of our political endeavours: if we have democracy, everything else will follow. But what we really mean by democracy is not the ability to put across on a piece of paper every five years but rather to live a life where we can ‘do our own thing’, make our own choices. Winston Churchill famously called democracy the worst form of government — except for all the other forms. Sophisticated commentators often point out that democracy should be taken as one of a trio of desiderata, with the rule of law, and market economy alongside democracy. Indeed it is sometimes suggested by subversive thinkers that it would be better to live in a world with marketplace and rule of law but no democracy, rather than to live in a world where there is democracy but no rule of law.
In this argument, the Roman constitution as laid down by Augustus offers us valuable insights. Certainly, after Augustus there was no democracy, though there was probably some sort of democracy at a lower level in the individual towns. But for at least the next two centuries, the rule of law existed and so did a thriving market economy, together with peace and prosperity which is perhaps the fourth great desideratum. Of course, the Romans did not talk of democracy, they talked of liberty, but the same argument applies: the loss of liberty brought about by Augustus brought peace and prosperity, and the ’liberty’ that it replaced had not existed for nearly a century
The case against democracy is that it encourages divisiveness and short-term-ism – people always tend to vote for the candidate who offers them the highest benefits and the lowest taxation — all at the same time. Rule by a central organisation provides a longer term vision, as the apologists for modern China or modern Singapore often tell us. Admittedly, this is often not achieved (see North Korea) , but certainly the two centuries after the settlement of Augustus were a golden age when decisions were the most part taken on a long-term basis.
The secret surely is that democracy only works in conjunction with the marketplace. In the marketplace, the main decisions of our life, how we get our food, where do we get the roof over our heads, are decisions that largely we can make ourselves, where we do not have to rely on our rulers. In barbarian societies, where rulers provide both roof and food, the whole of society becomes bound together, and where the rulers control the economics of everyday life, then they will be quite unwilling to give up their power. In those modern barbarian societies, where the ruler’s brother owns the electricity system, another controls the army, and a third owns the oil industry, the ruler, not unnaturally becomes somewhat reluctant to give up power, because by doing so not only does he lose his own position, but so do his brothers, his sisters, his cousins and his aunts.
In imperial Rome, the army was inevitably under the control of the emperor, and with the army, much else besides, while the emperor had vast imperial domains such as the Fens in Eastern England. But outside this, the towns, the villas and the countryside – to say nothing of the pottery industries – were owned and run by individual owners who were able to control their own destiny in the marketplace, and decide where it was most profitable to buy, and where to sell, where to expand, and where to contract; this is how the Roman Empire really worked by delegating decision to the lowest possible level. As long as the rulers were sensible, Rome flourished. It is only in the third century when the rulers decided to debase the currency and thus unleash inflation that the system began to collapse.
We should take greater care in our own society to burnish the other virtues beside democracy, such as the rule of law and a market economy, leaving as few decisions as possible to the taken by our rulers. We should also take care to make democracy work by applying the other two main rules – that governments should be elected for at least five years and we should try to ensure a two-party system, where a party once in power can take unpopular decisions without having to pander to the special interests of minority parties. It is only with these provisions in place that democracy can work.
And finally, at this point let me exhort you to read on, to find out about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and to learn what went wrong. For after 300 years, Rome eventually did go into decline, till eventually Roman civilisation came to an end. All nations decline: we need to ensure that our own decline is as slow and as graceful as possible.