Peter Jones

Ancient and modern: Romans and republicans

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During the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, every Polly in the world chanted dispraise of Her Majesty, who is personally responsible (one claimed) for Trident, public schools, income difference, lack of job opportunities and tax havens. What they want is a Republic.

The Republic was invented in 509 bc (traditional date) by the Romans to replace a tyrant king, who ‘ruled neither by decree of the people nor authority of the Senate, had no right to the throne bar force ... instilled fear by executing, exiling, and confiscating the property of, many ... and governed the state through a private circle of advisers’. The parallel with the power of Her Majesty is obvious.

‘Republic’ is formed from two Latin words, res meaning ‘property, wealth, affair, interests, business, situation’; and publica meaning ‘of or belonging to the people corporately, official, universal, public’. So to a Roman, res publica carried with it meanings associated with affairs of state, the body politic, the public good, a state in which all citizens participated.

Romans expressed it another way. SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘Senate and Roman People’, was the acronym displayed on army insignia and inscriptions all over the Roman world. This added another element: the Senate. This was the body that advised the consuls (the annually elected heads of state) and other officials on the running of affairs. Admission to the Senate was automatic for those who had once held any of the top offices. It was therefore a body of huge experience. All legislation emanated from the Senate, but the People came into the equation because only they could ratify it, by vote. True, the voting system favoured the Senate; but there was still an element of democratic control. All this clearly made the point that the Republic was run by an equal partnership of Senate and People.

If any stray Polly could show how the introduction of a Republic would usher in greater democratic control of our closed oligarchic parliament, they might have a case. But their sole desire is to end the monarchy. They are oligarchs to a woman.