CHAPTER V. THE ROMAN CONSTITUTION.
But we must bear in mind that, whatever were the popular rights enjoyed in the republican era, and however vast were the powers wielded by the emperors after liberty had fled, yet the constitution of Roman society was essentially aristocratic. All the great conquests were made under the rule of patricians, and all the leading men under the emperors were nobles. The government was virtually, from first to last, in the hands of the aristocracy. Still there was an important popular element, especially in the latter days of the republic, to which revolutionary leaders appealed, like the Gracchi, Marius, Catiline, and Caesar. One of the most humiliating lessons which we learn of antiquity, we are forced to own, was the signal incapacity of the people to govern themselves, when they had obtained a greater share of power than the old constitution had allowed. The republic did not long survive when successful generals and eloquent demagogues were sustained by the people. Had Rome been a democracy, as some suppose, the empire never could have been established. We comfort ourselves, however, by the reflection, that when the people surrendered themselves to factions and demagogues and tyrants, they were both ignorant and depraved. Self-government has never yet succeeded, because there have never been virtue and intelligence among the masses. So long as we can boast of virtue and intelligence among the people, we need not despair with the government in their hands. An enlightened self-interest will suggest the wisest policy. We only despair of the government of the people when they are ignorant, brutal, and wicked. As there was no period in the ancient world when they were not unenlightened, we are reconciled to the fact that a wise and vigorous administration of public affairs was always conducted by kings or nobles who had intelligence and patriotism, if they were proud and imperious. Whatever faith we may justly cherish in reference to popular sovereignty, grounded on the principles of natural justice, and the hopes which are held out as the fruit of Christian ideas, still, as a fact, there is but little in the history of the Roman commonwealth which reflects much glory on the people, except when controlled and marshalled by the aristocracy. Just so far as the popular element prevailed, the state was hurried on to ruin. The aristocratical element had the ascendency when Rome was most prosperous and most respected. Yet, while the Roman constitution was essentially aristocratic for five hundred years, it had a strong popular element mingled with it. The patricians had the chief power, but they were not lords and masters in so absolute a sense as to trample on the people with impunity, nor were they able to deprive them of their rights, or of all share in the government. They were not feudal nobles, nor a Venetian oligarchy. And yet it were a mistake to suppose that the distinction between the classes implied that the aristocratic power was lodged with the patricians alone. The patricians were not necessarily aristocrats, nor the plebeians a rabble. The political distinctions passed away without destroying social inequalities. There were great families among the plebeians which really belonged to the aristocratic class, at least in the time of Cicero. Aristocracy may have been based on birth, as in England, but it was sustained by wealth, as in that country. A very rich man gained, ultimately, admission to the noble class, as Rothschild has in London. Without wealth to uphold distinctions, any aristocracy soon becomes contemptible. That organization of society is most aristocratic which confers great political and social privileges on a few men, and retains these privileges from generation to generation, as in France during the reign of Louis XV. The state of society at Rome under the republic, favored the monopoly of offices among powerful families. It was considered very remarkable for even Cicero to rise to the highest honors of the state with his magnificent genius, character, attainments, and services; but he shared the consulship with a man of very ordinary capacity. The great offices were all in the hands of the aristocracy, from the expulsion of the kings to the times of Julius Caesar. Even the tribunes of the people ultimately were selected from powerful families.
[The Roman Gens.]