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Ancient democracy has lessons for today

Posted on October 5, 2016 by Taber Times

Power-sharing arrangements are nothing new in a democratic society. In fact, some of the oldest democracies in history were virtually predicated on the idea of at least two individuals sharing ultimate power in a modern state structure, such as the Roman Republic.

Following the departure of former CAO Greg Birch last month, whose contract was not renewed by Taber town council, that body chose to temporarily distribute administrative power through a triumvirate made up of finance director Devon Wannop, public works director Gary Scherer, and planning director Cory Armfelt.

While hardly a resurgence of the reign of the Caesars at the Town of Taber, for those who know their history, the idea of a triumvirate — three men who hold power — is more than two millenia old.

While the First Triumvirate — a loose political alliance between Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus in the 1st century B.C. — held within it some of the deeply dysfunctional seeds that would eventually contribute to the fall of the Roman Republic and its replacement by the Roman Empire, the idea of power-sharing at the highest levels of government is actually much older.

Under the Roman Republic, where citizens actually had the right to choose their own political destiny — still a remarkable idea considering this was almost 2,500 years ago, when at the time, democracy was still an altogether foreign idea in most societies — citizens elected two consuls (the highest elected political office) every year, to serve for a one year term.

What still surprises those who are unaware is that each consul alternated holding “imperium” on a monthly basis, trading power back and forth like so many playing cards.

From our lofty perch looking back through the centuries, most would conclude that such a ponderously unwieldy system was lucky to have lasted as long as it did before a reformation under Augustus Caesar and the creation of the Roman Empire. But work it did, at times remarkably well, for almost five centuries before Roman democracy was put under the knife.

To put the idea of consuls and their bizarre power-sharing arrangement into perspective in a modern context, this would be like electing Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper — two opposite ends of the political spectrum — and allowing them to each control power only six months of the year. In a modern system, the ideological deadlocks and partisan infighting such a system might create would be paralyzing.

And while the Roman Republic had no small measure of staying power, some of the weaknesses inherent, such as the nature of the consular system, would all come to contribute to its eventual downfall.

There is little doubt that power sharing hasn’t had a charitable reputation in modern times. Even today, there are those on the right who argue that power centralized in the hands of one all-powerful individual is the medicine needed for an ailing world, to stamp out the bickering limp-fisted liberals in the democracies in favour of a system that is Fascism repackaged in everything but name. Despite all the historical context and evidence to the contrary, is it not terrifying to still encounter mobilized millions in the 21st century who are more than willing to surrender their disbelief? After all, the Hitlers, Stalins and Pol Pots of the world weren’t all that bad, right?

In the end, power-sharing in the historical context — certainly in the case of the Roman Republic — definitely contributed to the deterioration of the republic’s democratic institutions, and the later rise of an imperial dictatorship. Still, the Romans understood the need for strong, singular leadership during rare crisis moments in their history. Their constitution allowed for the election of a “dictator”, which occured during the Second Punic War when Rome was threatened by Hannibal’s elephants.

And previous to the Roman Republic, ancient democracy largely failed in Greece — virtually the same system the Roman Republic was modelled on — for many reasons, but chief among which was the destablizing influence of a series of tyrants who would subvert democracy and rule the city-states with an iron fist.

It is tempting to paint our steadfast town managers in the historical roles of the First Triumvirate, for amusement if for no other reason. Crassus, who amassed a gargantuan fortune during his lifetime and was considered the richest man in Rome? Devon Wannop. Julius Caesar, who among other things, embarked on a large program of land reform and public works? Gary Scherer. And Pompey the Great, whose success in planning great military campaigns and victories was paramount? Cory Armfelt.

Humour aside, our three paragons of administrative prowess will probably have little to do with the fall of the Town of Taber, and probably much to do with the continuing efficient operation of the relatively humdrum goings on of a day in the life of the town. Which, of course, is unlikely to involve any subjugating of barbarian races, tax collecting in the provinces, or orational intrigue on the rostrum addressing crowds in the Roman Forum.

Then again, 2017 is an election year, and while our brave triumvirate of administrators probably won’t be fervently addressing crowds with wild gesticulations and impassioned speech, that doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing that from a new collection of political hopefuls ready to stamp out municipal injustice with a broad stroke of their exuberant pens. And while the idea of bread and circuses as a method of controlling the masses has shifted to our vast professional sporting mausoleums, and government “control” has become an exercise in well-spun propaganda, the true cut-throat essence of professional politics has in many ways hardly changed much since the days of the Roman Republic.

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