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Checks and Balances Aren’t a New Concept—Just Ask Polybius!


In a daring move that completely ignores the results of the election that just happened last night, I’m going to talk some more about Roman History! I know that the Tiberius Gracchus article was a huge hit with my readership, so I’ve decided to write more about Roman History… more specifically, the Greek historian Polybius and his analysis of the unwritten constitution of the Roman Republic. Polybius (born in Macedonia then taken to Rome during the Third Macedonian War) lived from 200 to 118 BCE, and his work The Histories details the rise of the Roman Republic’s power between 220 and 146 BCE. An important section of the work is in Book VI, where he outlines three distinct “branches” of the Roman government and discusses why the Republic works. What surprised me when first reading this excerpt was how easy it was to compare Roman governmental roles to modern-day American ones.

According to the historian, the Roman Republic was a success because it was a “mixed constitution” with elements of a monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy, much in the way that our modern day constitution has a similar mix of these elements in the President (monarchy), House (democracy), and Supreme Court (aristocracy). (Side note: it’s debated as to how one should categorize the Senate—some scholars argue that the Senate counts as the “democracy” aspect along with the House because they are elected by the people, not electorates, but others argue that they belong in the “aristocracy” category because senators were not originally elected directly by the people in each state.)

In Polybius’ analysis of the Roman constitution, the “monarchy” was consolidated in the position of Consul. Rome had two consuls, reelected every year, who were both in charge of legions of the Roman army and who had the power to summon assemblies and introduce various measures to the Senate. The equation of consuls to kings is a bit strong, considering that Polybius recognized two other branches of government, but the fact that they have nearly-unlimited control over the Roman War Machine does indicate that they had significant power similar to that of Greek kings who Polybius would have learned about. Our “monarchy”—the President—is similar to consuls because of his position as Commander in Chief and because both positions had to be popularly elected; however, consuls did have lower officers that answered to them, but they did not have anything like a Cabinet or analogs to our modern-day departments (such as the DOJ or HUD).

According to Polybius the Senate represented the “aristocracy,” and this assertion is sensible. The senate in Rome was made up of the city’s wealthiest population (as I discussed in my last Rome-related article) and it was its own social class; it also included individuals who had previously held public office (such as consul, praetor, or other positions on the cursus honorum It was unquestionably a place for Rome’s elites, and these elites controlled the treasury, presided over many judicial matters, and were in charge of foreign affairs aside from the actual process of waging war (e.g. sending emissaries abroad and deciding when to declare war). Our American Senate is similar to Republican Rome’s because as part of the larger Congressional branch of government it plays a major role in foreign policy and does have a say in the budgeting process. It could also be argued (as I have done in occasions past) that our Senate is an elitist body just as Rome’s senate was and that much of America’s population is not fairly represented. What separates Rome’s senate from ours is the fact that our judiciary is its own branch, where in Rome the senate served many judicial functions that were augmented by other courts. Also, senators in Republican Rome were literally their own social class that lorded itself over and closed their ranks against the lower class citizens; our social classes are less rigidly structured and all-controlling than those of Rome.

Finally Polybius arrives at the “democracy” aspect of Rome—a vague discussion of what he calls the People. He places the power of the people in their ability to vote, which gives them the opportunity to “bestow office on the deserving,” approve or reject laws, agree to go to war, and ratify treaties. Interestingly, he neglected to mention the fact that most votes conducted in Rome were largely slanted towards the wealthiest Roman citizens due to the way Roman voting worked (see my previous article regarding Rome or this useful page It seems that Polybius’ description of the Roman People is comparable to a mixture of our House of Representatives and Senate (approve/rejecting laws, ratifying treaties, and agreeing to go to war), but his description of the people’s ability to “bestow office on the deserving” invites a comparison to the general American public that is able to vote for public officers, from town comptrollers to President of the United States.

In looking at the similarities between Polybius’ analysis and our current governmental system, it’s easy to see the text and/or ideas from which the Framers of the Constitution drew inspiration. What’s even more impressive, though, was Polybius’ innovative explanation of checks and balances. (Examples of these checks and balances were: consuls had no power without their armies, but the senators paid the soldiers in each army; the tribunes of the people could veto senatorial decrees and the people had to confirm these decrees; and the people had to submit to the will of the senate and consuls because they had to serve under consuls and rely upon the senate for funding to build public works and for the distribution of farmland.) Polybius names these checks and balances as the main reason for the Republic’s success—in his eyes, because each branch holds the other two accountable, no one part can grow powerful “out of proportion,” and thus the interests of the state as a whole are best preserved.

The United States Constitution is shaped in the same way: we are so successful (or at least moderately successful) because each branch of government is able to check the other two. No one branch can ever get out of control—the President could never run away with the armies and wage war on his own government, as consuls eventually would during the fall of the Republic, because Congress would probably impeach him and if a case was brought against him in the Supreme Court he would lose. Also, two of our three branches are directly accountable to the American People and if they get too out of line the people can vote them out of office, as Tuesday night proved with Senator Todd Akin. Many individuals view checks and balances as a hindrance to our country’s success because Congress and the President are usually in gridlock and very little legislation is passed, but I think that the Framers were right to follow the lead set by Polybius’ constitutional analysis. Without counterbalance between the democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical aspects of our government, we might very well end up with a situation similar to that which ended the Roman Republic and started the Empire. For a democratic republic like ours to work, power has to be spread equally and easily stopped.

About the Author

Lena Barsky hails from Arlington, VA and is a Classics concentrator who graduated in 2014. When not translating the works of Vergil and Ovid, she spends her time keeping tabs on all things judiciary. Her primary areas of interest are the Fourteenth Amendment, questions of federalism, immigration, and combating domestic violence and sexual assault. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an idol of hers, and her favorite opinions to read are those written by Justice Robert Jackson. Her hobbies include performing in various ensembles on the clarinet, reading anything and everything she can get her hands on, swing dancing, and fighting for women’s rights.