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[Editor's Note: The following essay was written by John P. McCormick, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. You may send him comments at the following email address: jpmccorm@uchicago.edu. I thank Prof. McCormick for submitting it to the Political Theory Daily Review.  I would also like to take this opportunity to remind visitors that they are welcome to submit articles or essays to be considered for linking or providing space on our site.]

Abstract: The chapters of Rousseau’s Social Contract devoted to republican Rome prescribe institutions that obstruct popular efforts at diminishing the excessive power and influence of wealthy citizens and political magistrates.  I argue that Rousseau reconstructs ancient Rome’s constitution in direct opposition to the more populist and anti-elitist model of the Roman Republic championed by Machiavelli in the Discourses:  Rousseau eschews the establishment of magistracies, like the tribunes, reserved for common citizens exclusively, and endorses assemblies where the wealthy are empowered to outvote the poor in lawmaking and elections.  On the basis of sociologically anonymous principles like generality and popular sovereignty, and by confining elite accountability to general elections, Rousseau’s neo-Roman institutional proposals aim to pacify the contestation of class hierarchies and inflate elite prerogative within republics—under the cover of more formal, seemingly more genuine, equality

Key words: Rousseau, Machiavelli, Roman republic, democratic theory, republicanism

Rousseau’s Rome and the repudiation of populist republicanism
John P. McCormick

          "The few always behave in the mode of the few."
          -Niccolò Machiavelli

          "What the smallest number had decided passed for a decision of the multitude."
          -Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings have inspired democratic theorists and activists for centuries.  Yet, at crucial if neglected junctures of his political magnum opus, Rousseau fairly explicitly prescribes institutions that enable rather than constrain the prerogative of elites within republics and popular governments.  This article demonstrates that the chapters of the Social Contract[i] devoted to the Roman Republic promote institutions that obstruct popular efforts at keeping the wealthy from dominating society and magistrates from exercising excessive political discretion. Like Niccolò Machiavelli before him, Rousseau expounds his theory of liberty and well-ordered government through an extensive discussion of republican Rome.  But while the Genevan citizen famously champions the republican bona fides of the author of The Prince (SC III 6, 95), he directly repudiates specific aspects of the Florentine secretary’s populist appropriation of Roman republicanism in the Discourses.[ii]  I argue that Rousseau’s analysis of the Roman Republic undermines Machiavelli’s efforts to reconstruct and promote institutions through which common citizens might control or contain economic and political elites; and forecloses the possibility of an alternative, robustly anti-elitist strand of modern republicanism that in subsequent centuries would have better served democratic theory and practice.  Through the promulgation of sociologically anonymous principles like generality and popular sovereignty, and by confining elite accountability to elections alone, Rousseau’s institutional analyses and proposals allow, nay encourage, wealthier citizens and magistrates to dominate the politics of popular governments in semi-surreptitious and unassailable ways.  

To sketch the contrast governing this essay: Machiavelli democratizes the assemblies of the Roman Republic, intimating that they functioned via majority rule and insisting that they granted plebeian citizens equal voice with patricians.  On the contrary, Rousseau emphasizes the timocratic voting structure of the republic’s primary assembly, the comitia centuriata, an arrangement by which wealthy citizens effectively disenfranchised poorer ones.  Machiavelli singled out the “tribunes of the plebs” as the domestic institution above all others that preserved Rome’s liberty.  Machiavelli’s tribunate was a standing magistracy reserved for plebeian citizens that enabled them to contest the power and privilege of Rome’s senatorial class.  For his part, Rousseau blames the demise of the republic and the rise of the emperors on the Roman tribunate, and, in his own reconstruction of the magistracy, demotes it to temporary status and neutralizes its usefulness to common citizens.

Put simply, whereas Machiavelli insisted on plebeian-specific and extra-electoral techniques of magistrate appointment/sanction to keep a republic from descending into mere oligarchy, Rousseau promotes a formally egalitarian but substantively inequitable “aristocracy” that confines popular contestation of elites to electoral procedures biased toward the wealthiest citizens.  Central to Machiavelli’s republicanism was a strenuous attempt to undermine and mitigate the state of affairs described in the epigrams above; at the core of Rousseau’s is a subtle, elaborate effort to ratify and preserve precisely such a state of affairs.  I suggest that a substantive, contemporary theory of democracy requires reforms inspired by Machiavelli’s class-specific, Rome-inspired model of popular government rather than Rousseau’s already too influential model of formal political homogeneity.[iii]  The crisis of political accountability that besets contemporary democracy demands institutional means through which economic and political elites are actively contested instead of those that conceal and sustain the entrenchment of their privilege and prerogative (see Arnold 1993; Przeworski, Stokes, and Manin, eds., 1999; and Mansbridge, 2003).[iv]

1. Rousseau and democracy

To be clear from the outset, the central question is not whether Rousseau is a “good democrat,” but rather, based on his interpretation of the Roman Republic, whether Rousseau’s political thought is a worthy resource for democratic theory and practice.[v]  In the Social Contract, Rousseau never claims to be a democrat.  In fact, he is skeptical of whether democracy is practicable at all and harshly critical of actual regimes called “democracies.”  Rousseau famously insists that “a genuine democracy never has existed and never will exist” because the people cannot remain assembled to decide all of the matters that good governance constantly requires (SC III 4, 91).  According to Rousseau, administrative necessity always undermines rule by the many because government requires smaller bodies that irresistibly accumulate more and more power for themselves (SC III 4, 91).[vi]  If democracy could be approximated in reality, Rousseau insists that it requires rare circumstances: a small state where citizens are readily assembled and easily know one another (SC III 4, 91).  But even under such conditions, Rousseau is reluctant to endorse democracy since such “popular governments” are more prone to “intestine turmoil” than all other regimes (SC III 4, 92).   

No, Rousseau is no democrat.  He is a “republican,” even if this too is hardly an unproblematic attribution.  After all, Rousseau’s most general definition of a republic does not delineate a specific regime type or particular institutional form.  Rousseau avers that any regime, even a monarchy, is a republic so long as it adheres to the rule of law and governs in the common interest—if it is “legitimate” (SC II 6, 67).  But just as Machiavelli sets out a very broad, general definition of republics within which he intimates more particular socio-institutional preferences, so too does Rousseau have ideas on the best institutional form of what we would recognize as a republic.[vii]  In each case, for Machiavelli and Rousseau, the best republic conforms to the author’s respective reconstruction of ancient Rome.  But before turning to Rousseau’s or Machiavelli’s Rome, I discuss a few aspects of Rousseau’s theory of generality to help explain why the inequality of certain elements of Roman politics that he praises do not necessarily violate the standard of equality promulgated by this most celebrated of “egalitarian” theorists.[viii]

2. Generality , aristocracy and elections

I will neither recite nor rehash the intricacies of Rousseau’s theory of the general will (see, esp., Riley 2001 and Strong 2002). Instead, I briefly describe some of Rousseau’s requirements for determining whether institutional arrangements can facilitate expression of the general will.  First and foremost, the general will abides no exclusion of citizens: no one’s votes may ever be discarded and no citizen may be declared ineligible for a specific privilege or an individual magistracy on any particularistic grounds (SC II 2, 58 n).  Contrary to some interpretations, Rousseau does not insist on unanimity, as an expression of the general will; a majority vote will do, again, so long as all citizens participate in the vote (SC II 2, 58 n)—but not necessarily equally, as we will see.  Rousseau’s antipathy to public discussion in advance of voting—his, as it were, communicationless deliberation—is notorious (SC II 3, 60), and comports quite well with the voting, not speaking, quality of Rome’s legislative and electoral assemblies (see Taylor 1990).

Ultimately, however, formal requirements as such do not guarantee realization of the general will.  Actually, a quality that inheres within the will, for Rousseau, whatever way it is formulated, “generalizes the will” (SC II 4, 62).  For instance, some stipulation that a certain number of citizens participate in will-formation is not what generalizes the will, and Rousseau’s anxiety over the dangers of majority rule are well known (e.g., SC II 11; IV 1; & IV 4).  Rather, Rousseau suggests that “the common interest that unites them” is what generalizes it (SC II 4, 62). It is not until readers encounter Rousseau’s subtle endorsement of Rome’s timocratically organized assembly, the comitia centuriata, that they can begin to comprehend how this precept might operate in practice.  If some number among the sovereign better understand the common interest of all, in Rousseauian terms, the republic may downgrade the votes of those who are less perceptive in this way—so long as it does not completely exclude them from the vote.  He remains adamant throughout the Social Contract that the “whole people” must be included in the promulgation of law  (SC II 6, 67).  But it turns out that by privileging those citizens most likely to understand the common good in the lawmaking process a republic may better guarantee that this good is realized.  In Rome, as Rousseau explains in Book IV, this was achieved by weighting votes according to wealth in the republic’s most important assembly.

As we will observe in the next section, this logic allows Rousseau to praise Rome’s assembly by centuries for performing precisely those tasks that he admonishes the Athenian assembly for undertaking.   Rousseau criticizes the Athenian assembly for acting without generality when it honored or ostracized particular citizens--even if such measures passed by overwhelming majorities (SC II 4, 62). Rousseau is suspicious of a democratic people’s capacity to act both generally as sovereign and particularly as the government.  While the Athenian demos gathered in assembly might pass laws appropriately, according to Rousseau’s notion of separating sovereignty from government, they ought not render particular judgments like assigning honors or conducting political trials.[ix]  Yet why does he not reproach the Roman comitia centuriata assembly for exercising both sovereign and governmental functions by legislating, on the one hand, and trying cases or conducting private business, on the other (SC III 12, 110; IV 4, 136)?  I will suggest that Rousseau prefers the inequitably structured Roman assembly to the equitably structured Athenian one; the former might successfully function as both sovereign and magistrate, while the latter most certainly does not.  

If this is so, then equality may possess two dimensions for Rousseau: one, strictly formal, the other, deeply, almost illusorily, substantive.  Formal equality is satisfied by general inclusion; substantive equality might be realized by inequitable procedures intended to guarantee the good for all. The comitia centuriata best exemplifies both for Rousseau: all Roman citizens are included in the assembly but the wealthiest ones have more votes within it.  In such a case, the general will is divined by those with better access to it, it is not secured through strict adherence to egalitarian procedures like majority rule and one man/one vote as in the case of the Athenian assembly.  This notion of a more profound substantive equality that is achieved through inequitable institutional arrangements justifies Rousseau’s rationale for deeming aristocracy, albeit elective aristocracy, the best form of government in the passages examined here.   According to Rousseau, elective aristocracy gives preeminence to the wise, who, in turn, govern with the common interest in mind: “the best and most natural order is to have the wisest govern the multitude, so long as it is certain that they will govern for [the multitude’s] advantage and not their own” (SC III 5, 93).[x]  

Rousseau’s argument for election seems, at first blush, to be based on a genuine faith in the multitude’s ability to choose magistrates who will serve the common good.  In the passages devoted to election generally, that is, before his discussion of the assembly by centuries in the next book, Rousseau never raises the possibility that voting should be structured such that rich citizens have greater say in the election of magistrates.  Electoral outcomes seem to be in the hands of the multitude, which presumably appoints magistrates on the basis of simple majority rule.  In this context, Rousseau declares that election is “a means by which probity, enlightenment, experience, and all the other reasons for public preferment and esteem are so many further guarantees of being well governed” (SC III 5, 93).  His explicit preference for elected aristocracy—or, aristocracy “properly so called”—over hereditary aristocracy suggests that the electorate makes individuals aristocrats through the electoral process (SC III 5, 93).  As opposed to a hereditary system where an aristocratic designation is conferred prior to the political process, from birth, elective aristocracy presumably opens the ranks of magistracies to anyone.  On this account, one might assume that election creates aristocrats; it does not merely ratify those who already exist.  Things are not quite that simple.  Rousseau equivocates over the purported equal opportunity offered by elective aristocracy before ultimately conceding that elections do bias the magistrate appointment process, and hence his own republican model, in favor of the wealthiest citizens—whether or not voting procedures are structured in their favor, as in Rome.

At first, Rousseau merely seems to tolerate economic inequality in his aristocratic republic: such a regime requires “moderation among the rich and contentment among the poor” (SC III 5, 94).  But he immediately reveals that elective aristocracy, aristocracy proper, relies on significant inequality: “it seems that a rigorous equality would be out of place in aristocracy; it was not even observed in Sparta” (SC III 5, 94).  Presumably a “rigorous” equality among citizens would make it difficult or impossible for the electorate to identify who among the citizenry are the best, and therefore, who should be elevated to office.  Rousseau never entertains the notion that everyone might be more or less equally virtuous, competent or public spirited in such a regime.  Instead, Rousseau’s statement permits wealth, the attribute most rewarded in electoral contests from time immemorial, to be the preeminent marker of political worthiness (see Manin1997, 42-93, 132-60).  For elections to function properly, some distinctions must prevail among citizens, and without some institutional adjustments, wealth is too easily associated with or mistaken for virtue under such circumstances.

After all, wealth enables citizens from the “best” families to cultivate greater reputation, a more distinctive appearance, and better public speaking skills such that voters almost inevitably choose them in electoral contests.  Democratic Athens minimized the oligarchic biases of elections by distributing most magistracies through lottery among the entire citizenry and Italian republics guaranteed positions in executive councils and committees to members of middling and lower guilds (McCormick 2006).  Furthermore, Rousseau’s inability or unwillingness to distinguish virtue from wealth in the context of electoral politics raises unpleasant ramifications for his endorsement, to be discussed below, of hierarchical patron-client relations in the Roman Republic: money allows wealthy citizens to fund, groom, and/or bribe non-wealthy candidates to serve their interests at the expense of the wider citizenry.    

Perhaps uncomfortable with the inegalitarian implications of his argument for unqualified election, Rousseau quickly attempts to banish any appearance that he actually accepts the association of wealth and virtue and, in fact, he attempts to associate the notion with somebody else.  Rousseau insists that it isn’t he but Aristotle who favors a “certain inequality of fortune” so that the rich should rule; Rousseau merely favors material inequality so that those with leisure time might assume the magistracies (SC III 5, 94).  But unless public provisions enable all citizens to hold political office, as many democracies and democratic republics afforded their poorer citizens, wealth and spare time will be irrevocably linked.  Therefore, whether Rousseau’s motivation is that those with wealth or those with spare time should rule, the fact is, in either case, the rich shall rule.  Rousseau admits that magistrates will be drawn mostly from the ranks of the wealthy in his aristocratic republic, but he insists that this is not why they rule (SC III 5, 94).  Rather, they monopolize offices because they are the most meritorious of citizens.  Unfortunately, Rousseau’s argument here is as unfalsifiable as it is potentially ideological; he offers his readers no way to distinguish candidates or magistrates who are merely wealthy from those who are truly virtuous.

So what, in the end, is the difference between hereditary and elective aristocracy?  Both generally facilitate rule by the wealthy—except, Rousseau suggests, that the latter provides for the instance, “occasionally,” when a token non-wealthy citizen will assume office (SC III 5, 94).  How and why?  Rousseau suggests that such tokenism serves to “teach the people that men’s merit offers more important reasons for preference than do riches” (SC III 5, 94).  But who does the teaching, if the electorate itself is the one who places a non-wealthy citizen in office?  Why do the people need a lesson in something they’ve just accomplished? Perhaps Rousseau means that the people can learn from their own decisions or that a subsequent electorate can learn from the choices of an earlier one.  Still, the idea that elections can “teach the people” if it is they who do the electing is rather strange.  The statement makes more sense in light of Rousseau’s reflections on Roman assemblies:  if the election of magistrates is firmly in the hands of the few they can decide to elect a common citizen now and again “to teach the people” that a republic like Rousseau’s Rome is a meritocratic aristocracy and not merely a plutocratic oligarchy. 

3. Rousseau and the Roman Assemblies

Rousseau declares that the concrete example of Rome is the key to an appropriate understanding of his abstract theory of political right, and that the voting arrangements of the Roman assemblies, especially, the comitia centuriata, may guide “the judicious reader” on governing a large republic  (SC IV 3, 127).  I quote Rousseau at length here because commentators tend to underestimate or ignore the extent to which he wished to teach his general theory of republican government through the specific example of Rome, especially with respect to the inequitable organization of voting in the republic’s primary assembly.  If scholars discuss the Rome chapters at all, they usually treat Rousseau’s institutional analysis as descriptive and not prescriptive; i.e., he merely reflects on the way politics was organized in Rome, he does not recommend the republic as a model for emulation.  The following passage that occurs at the juncture where Rousseau is about to speak about the place of popular assemblies in his own political theory raises serious questions about such an interpretation: 

It remains for me to speak about the way votes should be cast and collected in the assembly of the people; but perhaps the historical sketch of Roman administration in this matter will explain more concretely all the maxims that I might establish.  It is not unworthy of a judicious reader to consider in some detail how public and particular business was conducted in a Council of two hundred thousand men. (SC IV 3, 126-27)

I will refer back to this passage often throughout this essay for it reminds the reader that Rousseau uses Rome prescriptively rather than descriptively and that he enjoins his readers to pay careful attention to his account of that republic’s institutions.  In particular, Rousseau emphasizes Rome’s voting procedures, which, as we will see, are highly inequitable because they are weighted in favor of the wealthy.

In addition, Rousseau alerts readers to pay careful attention to the minute details of Roman institutions like the assembly by centuries because, as demonstrated below, he often lets the details speak for themselves rather than elaborate at length on their ramifications for power relations within a republic.  The reference to the conduct of “public and particular business” in a large assembly further substantiates a claim I’ve already made but will discuss further in this section:  In the abstract, Rousseau disapproves of popular assemblies performing the tasks of both sovereignty and government, as demonstrated by his severe criticisms of the Athenian demos.  Yet he condones the Roman comitia centuriata’s exercise of these “public and particular” functions, when, respectively, it makes laws and tries cases (SC IV 4, 136).  While Rousseau never says so explicitly, I suggest that he expects his judicious reader to conclude that this inconsistency is attributable to the Roman assembly’s peculiar voting structure, where citizens with the most wealth have the most votes.

Finally, in remarking on the enormous scale of the comitia centuriata in the passage cited above, Rousseau makes a case for the viability of large republics.  As he goes on to write, Rome illustrates that “the bounds of the possible” in republican politics are not so narrow as many think; through Rome’s example, Rousseau demonstrates “what can be done in the light of what has been done” (SC III 12, 110).  Democracy may require a small regime in which citizens know one another.  Rome, a city of “four hundred thousand citizens bearing arms,” on the other hand, serves as inspiration to those who imagine a republic of large expanse.[xi]  By adhering faithfully to the sovereign (general), electoral and timocratic aspects of Rome, and jettisoning the plebeian-specific, popularly contestatory elements that Machiavelli praised in his Discourses, The Social Contract opens the possibility of republics whose success, from Rousseau’s perspective, surpass even that of Rome.

Rousseau’s Rome is ostensibly the republic of the Roman “populus,” of all the people, plebeian and patrician alike, the Rome concerned first and foremost with the “res publica,” the “public thing,” the business of every citizen.  Rousseauian Rome is not the republic as “SPQR” (Senatus Populusque Romanus), in other words, senatorial versus plebeian Rome, the republic that Machiavelli praises for its class conflict or “tumults” (D I.4; I.5).  Rousseau’s admiration for the unitary, politically homogenous, sovereign republic is evident in statements like the following:  “Few weeks went by when the Roman people was not assembled….  It exercised not only the rights of sovereignty, but a part of those of government as well” (SC III 12, 110).  Rousseau’s disposition is less than critical when he remarks on the fact that the Roman people, assembled as sovereign, passed laws and also “dealt with some business, tried some cases, and on the public square this entire people was nearly as often magistrate as it was citizen” (SC III 12, 110).  Again, this description begs the question: why does Rousseau elsewhere criticize the Athenian demos gathered in assembly for behaving precisely as he praises the assembled Roman people here? 

Rousseau buttresses the argument that Rome at its best was sovereign and that its popular assemblies expressed a general will with his insistence that Roman magistrates were not representatives (SC III 14, 112).  Only the assemblies expressed the common good, the magistrates did not reflect or embody the sovereign people’s general will.  According to Rousseau, when the comitiae assembled, the chief magistrates, the consuls, were mere presiders or conveners; the tribunes of the people were simply speakers, and the Senate “nothing at all” (SC III 12, 110).[xii]  For Rousseau, the people’s magistrates are not their representatives but rather their agents: 

In ancient republics… the people never had representatives; the very word was unknown.  It is quite striking that in Rome where the tribunes were so sacred, no one ever so much as imagined that they might usurp the functions of the people, and that in the midst of such a great multitude they never attempted to pass a single plebiscite on their own authority alone. (SC III 15, 114)

In seemingly robust Athenian voice, Rousseau asserts that “assemblies of the people” like Rome’s have always been “the dread of chiefs,” the scourge of tyrants, deterrence to magistrates who would pretend to speak for the regime (SC III 12, 110). But Roman assemblies are something other than democratic assemblies.[xiii]  They are organized much differently than Athenian-style assemblies where majorities rule and one-man, one-vote prevails.  Tellingly, Rousseau, the renowned proponent of formal political equality and generality, begins his discussion of assemblies with praise for the imposition of social stratification in early Rome.

Rousseau is much more forthright than was Machiavelli about the sketchiness of information on Rome under the kings and during the early republic.  He concedes that most accounts of “the first times of Rome” amount to little more than “fables” (SC IV 4, 127).  Nevertheless, Rousseau proceeds to commend Servius; the king reputed to have reformed Rome’s social order and ensured its future success.  First, Rousseau praises Servius for protecting the social prominence of the patricians: he reformed the racial cum residential tribes of Rome in response to an influx of foreigners that threatened to overwhelm the tribes populated by the leading families (SC IV 4, 128-29).  Servius created six classes of Horsemen between the lower and upper classes, and gave the rural tribes, dominated by patricians, preeminence over the urban ones comprised of plebeians, proletarians and freedmen (SC IV 4, 128-29).

Without fully explaining how, Rousseau links these reforms to the republic’s success at insulating high political office from foreign contamination or lower class infiltration: for instance, he celebrates the fact that no freedman ever became a magistrate as a result of these arrangements (SC IV 4, 129).[xiv]  However, he does blame the patricians (“the great and the powerful”) for abusing these divisions for their own advantage through the office of the censors, who were responsible for managing the place of individuals within the social hierarchy (SC IV 4, 129-30).  These excesses provoked “the rabble” of the urban tribes to start selling their votes in response (SC IV 4, 129-30).  But this insight does not prompt Rousseau to question whether the very idea that some better, wealthier, more prominent citizens should have more say in determining the common good necessarily invites such corruption.

Bracketing these residential, class divisions that had an indirect political impact, Rousseau reserves his greatest praise for Servius’s second effort at social organization: the arrangement of the Roman citizenry into voting classes weighted by wealth in the comitia centuriata or “comitia by centuries” (SC IV 4, 130).  These classifications had the direct effect of minimizing the political impact of votes by poorer citizens without their knowledge:

Servius distributed the whole Roman people into six classes, which he distinguished neither by district nor by persons, but by goods: So that the first classes were filled with the rich, the last with the poor, and the middle ones with those who enjoyed a moderate fortune.  These six classes were subdivided into a hundred and ninety-three other bodies called centuries, and these bodies were so distributed that the first class alone contained more than half of them, and the last formed a single one.  Thus it came about that the class with the smallest number of men had the largest number of centuries, and that the entire last class counted only as one subdivision although it alone contained more than half the inhabitants of Rome. (SC IV 4, 130)

As a result of this arrangement where votes were weighted according to wealth, the richest citizens could enact a law or elect a consul before the poor even had a chance to cast a vote:

Since of the hundred and ninety-three centuries which formed the six classes of the entire Roman people, the first class comprised ninety-eight, and the votes were only counted by centuries, this first class by itself alone prevailed over all the others by the number of its votes.  When all of its centuries were in agreement they did not even go on collecting ballots; what the smallest number had decided passed for a decision of the multitude, and in the comitia by centuries majorities of cash more often than votes can be said to have settled affairs. (SC IV 4, 133)

Note that Rousseau does not lament the state of affairs described in the last phrase of this passage.  I suggest that it needs to be read in light of two earlier discussions: the relationship of election and rule by the rich, and the ability of assemblies to decide the common good or realize the general will.  Since the comitia centuriata elected the consuls, and, initially, passed all major legislation, Rousseau is instructing his “judicious reader” how to arrange for the appointment of the “best” magistrates and the passage of laws reflecting the general will: allow the wealthiest citizens to do so themselves by less than transparent means.  In this light, the penultimate phrase of the above-cited passage, excerpted as one of the two epigrams that began this essay, is what I take to be the core of Rousseau’s republicanism, and indeed the guiding spirit of modern mass democracy.  It bears repeating:  “what the smallest number had decided passed for a decision of the multitude” (SC IV 4, 133).

When discussing Rome’s more plebeian assemblies, Rousseau seems to conflate two that are generally understood to be separate, the concilium plebis and the comitia tributa:  “The comitia by tribes were properly the council of the Roman people.  They could only be convened by the tribunes” (SC IV 4, 134).  Rousseau claims that the tribunes not only presided over this comitia but also, in fact, had themselves founded it (SC IV 4, 132).  But the comitia tributa was a formal, legitimate assembly, and thus it is unlikely that the tribunes, who began as unofficial, informal magistrates, would have had the authority to establish it.  On the contrary, the concilium shared the same early “illegitimate” status with the tribunes.  It was the concilium, and not the comitia, as Rousseau suggests, that likely “elected the tribunes and passed their plebiscites” (SC IV 4, 134).  The concilium probably excluded patricians and might in fact have been founded by the tribunes.  The comitia tributa, on the other hand, may have included patricians, but since it was subdivided by tribes rather than centuries, plebeians and poorer citizens would have had the numerical superiority to outvote their social betters (see Millar 2002, 28, 20-21). In general, it seems to be the concilium that Rousseau conjures when he states the following of the comitia tributa:

Not only had the Senate no standing in them, it had not even the right to attend them, and the Senators, forced to obey laws on which they could not vote, were in this respect less free than the last of citizens.  This injustice was altogether ill conceived, and it alone was enough to invalidate the decrees of a body to which not all of its members were admitted. (SC IV 4, 134)

Thus, more important than Rousseau’s confusion (understandable in light of the available historical evidence) over these two plebeian dominated assemblies is his reaction to the fact that at least one of them formally excluded patricians.  He cannot contain his indignation at the thought that the most prominent citizens were not eligible to attend this plebeian assembly and yet were nonetheless subject to its legislation.

Observe how Rousseau denies to the assemblies that tended toward “popular government” the praise he lavishes on the comitia by centuries because the former “lacked the Senate and the patricians”: Rousseau pronounces that “the whole majesty of the Roman people resided” in the comitia centuriata because no one was excluded from it, even though it tended toward “aristocracy” in its voting procedures (SC IV 4, 134-35).  Within the framework of conventional interpretations, one could attribute Rousseau’s indignation to his vaunted commitment to egalitarianism and preference for generality: nobody should be subject to laws they did not participate in formulating.  However, on the basis of the analysis that I’ve been developing here, one may also detect a certain class elitism: how dare the plebeians bar patricians, the best citizens, from a political body of such consequence.

As we have seen, Rousseau has no such complaints about the de facto exclusion of the poorest citizens from suffrage and legislation in the comitia centuriata.  He certainly does not fret that they were “less free in this respect.”  At least, Rousseau might protest, poor citizens had the de jure right to vote in such assemblies, and, in fact, their votes did have genuine impact when the wealthiest classes of citizens were in sufficient disagreement that balloting continued into the lowest voting classes.  In other words, when the wealthiest citizens agree on candidates or policy, matters should be so.  When they do not, the lower classes may be permitted to participate in the decision.  But, from the plebeian perspective—in many respects adopted by Machiavelli—Rousseau has things backwards:  the patricians and the wealthy possess so much privilege and wield so much power within a republic—freedom, after all, favors wolves over sheep—that it is more legitimate, more just, to exclude them completely from certain assemblies or offices so that common citizens might have some direct impact on law- and policy-making.  As gratuitous as it is to formally include plebeians and the poor in all bodies while substantively exacerbating their power disadvantages within them, it is simply ridiculous to declare that the senatorial class is “less free” than common citizens in any respect.

Therefore, neither inequality nor even exclusion per se so perturbs Rousseau in this instance; rather it is plausible to conclude that the plebeian assembly’s violation of the Rousseauian principle of aristocratic affirmative action—weighted voting for the rich—provokes his ire.  This passage reminds us that Rousseauian popular sovereignty is a sovereignty of inclusion but not one of equality; the political holism of a citizenry does not entail equality of each individual citizen in any meaningful sense.[xv]  And here we see most clearly how much Rousseau disdains Athenianesque, one-man/one-vote, majoritarian procedures:

Even if patricians had attended the comitia [by tribes] as, in their capacity as citizens they had the right to do, they would have been counted as simple particulars, and would therefore have had scarcely any impact on a form of voting which consists in counting heads and in which the least proletarian counts for as much as does the prince of the Senate. (SC IV 4, 134)

Rousseau’s principle of republican citizenship is simple: everyone must be eligible for every assembly or office, qualify for every privilege or immunity, but some persons are entitled to enjoy decidedly more of such eligibility and qualification than others.  Some need to count as more than “simple particulars.”  Substantive equality and majority rule are not necessary, and, in fact, the equitable practice of “counting heads” should be avoided.  Of course, Rousseau attempts to downplay the extent of inequity in his preferred voting procedures by speaking of all the Roman assemblies together: “since there was not a single citizen who was not enrolled in a curia, a century or a tribe, it follows that no citizen was excluded from the right to vote, and that the Roman people was genuinely sovereign both by right and fact” (SC IV 4, 132)—but not all “genuinely sovereign” in exactly the same way within the most important assembly that elected magistrates and passed a preponderance of legislation.

Rousseau then proceeds to wade into the pool of perversity.  He seems to justify the Roman practice of weighted voting for the wealthy by suggesting that it was actually unnecessary: even if patrician privilege had not been formally enshrined in the procedures of the comitia centuriata, the social practice of clientage would have guaranteed the same policy outcomes anyway.  The socio-economic indebtedness of plebeians to patricians, and poor to rich, allowed the latter to guide the former’s political behavior toward the common good.  Loans, jobs and favorable marriage arrangements provided to poor clients by rich patrons insured that voting would never depart too far from the interests of the patricians and, hence, to Rousseau’s mind, the general interest of the republic.  Rousseau, the great denouncer of servitude and dependence, a man who compares parliamentary representation to slavery (SC III 15, 115), deems this clientalist system of hierarchy and manipulation, “admirable” and “humane” (SC IV 4, 133).

Rousseau admits that the Roman Patriciate was contrary to the spirit of the republic when status was inherited as opposed to conferred by election (SC IV 4, 133).  But even when the Patriciate was hereditary, he praises its success at preserving itself through the “honorable” and “fine example” of patronage.  Patron-client relations “never led to any abuse,” in Rousseau’s estimation, unless one considers the vote buying entailed by the system to be abusive (SC IV 4, 133).  This assertion appears to conflict with Rousseau criticisms, raised both previously and later (SC IV 4, 129-30, 135), of vote selling on the part of poorer citizens.  On the basis of the preferences that Rousseau has been signaling throughout these chapters, one may confidently resolve this inconsistency in the following way: presumably, the vote-buying that patricians orchestrated in the early republic is acceptable to Rousseau because it resulted in the realization of the common good by facilitating an expression of the general will in the comitia centuriata.  But when populare politicians, like the Gracchi or Gaius Marius (about whom more below) exploited the practice for the advantage of plebeians and (undoubtedly) themselves in the later republic, Rousseau deems it unacceptable because it threatens the expropriation of wealthy citizens rather than the furthering of their preeminence, which better coincides with the common good.  Rousseau, himself, however, does not elaborate.

But just when Rousseau suggests that the “extreme authority” of the patricians within the comitia centuriata—whether procedurally enabled through weighted voting or socio-culturally guaranteed through clientalism—was unavoidable and irresistible, he almost completely reverses himself.  Rousseau ruminates along the following lines: “The division by centuries favored aristocracy to such an extent that one is at first left to wonder why the Senate did not always prevail in the comitia which bore that name and which elected the consuls, censors and other curule magistrates” (SC IV 4, 133-34).  At first, Rousseau gestures to the influence of the tribunes, whom I’ll discuss in section 5, and the possibility that rich plebeians who entered the ranks of the highest voting classes may have counterbalanced the biases of the patricians (SC IV 4, 133-34).  

Rousseau then settles on a procedural convention that purportedly kept centuries from simply voting in the socio-economic interest of their own class: the random century that was granted the right to vote first by a lottery set a religiously legitimated precedent that subsequent centuries were meant to follow.  In other words, when a poor plebeian century was designated at random to vote first, any departure from that vote by succeeding centuries, whatever their class biases, would be perceived as impious.  “In this way,” Rousseau avows, “the authority of example was withdrawn from rank and given to lot in conformity with the principle of democracy” (SC IV 4, 133-34).[xvi]  Lottery, the alternative appointment method to election by which the unruly Athenian demos undermined oligarchic domination of most magistracies (see Hansen 1991, 230-31), emerges here, with religious overtones, to democratize Roman election practices.  However, as Rousseau explained previously, the richer classes possess a disproportionately large number of centuries (SC IV 4, 130). The wealthiest voting class which contains the fewest number of citizens enjoys a majority of the 193 centuries, 98, while the lowest voting class containing the majority of citizens is allotted a single century.  Therefore, even a random selection of the particular century that initiates voting affords the voting class dominated by the wealthy or patricians to set the agenda on any vote.[xvii]  If Rousseau expects his “judicious reader” to do the math, they would easily learn that the richest voting class has a 51% chance of casting the first vote; the poorest has a .5% chance of setting the voting agenda.  This is Rousseau’s idea of a “principle of democracy” worth upholding.  The Athenians employed genuine lottery to avoid oligarchy; Rousseau advocates a sham lottery to conceal it.

Even if one believes that this passage shows Rousseau relenting in his preference for a large republic where the few enact decisions that merely appear to have been made by the many, they should consider this observation:  “what is incredible is that thanks to its ancient regulations this immense people, in the midst of so many abuses, did not cease to elect magistrates, pass laws, try cases, dispatch public and private business almost as readily as the Senate itself might have done” (SC IV 4, 136).One might interpret this statement as a comment on the efficiency of the comitia centuriata, a marveling at its ability to decide issues as expeditiously as would a smaller council like the Roman Senate.  But it occurs in the midst of a passage dealing with the quality of the assembly’s decisions; how the republic’s “ancient regulations” encouraged the people assembled in the comitia centuriata to make good judgments until the final days when “ambition eluded” all procedural prohibitions against corruption.  What seems best for Rousseau about the assembly by centuries, in the context of this passage and in light of the ancient regulations that gave the assembly both a popular appearance and a timocratic structure, is its capacity to generate the same outcomes that the Senate would have enacted unilaterally.  Presumably, public order and legitimacy are better served by a generally inclusive, but internally hierarchical assembly governing the republic than a blatantly exclusionary council.

In this sense, senators enjoy a dual-role in Rousseau’s Rome: when seated in the Senate house, they serve as visible members of a council of elders with mere consultative authority; but, when voting within a structured “popular” assembly weighted by votes toward the wealthy, they act as the invisible prime movers of appointments and legislation.  As we observe in the next section, according to Machiavelli, if a republic is to have a Senate, and tolerate the immense aristocratic power that inheres within it, that republic also requires popular assemblies that are proto- and not pseudo-democratic in nature, in order to offset such power. 

4. Machiavelli on the Roman Assemblies and the Tribunes

By way of contrast with Rousseau, I’d like to emphasize two aspects of Machiavelli’s treatment of Rome’s popular assemblies.  In Machiavelli’s account they function more like the Athenian assembly than the comitia centuriata of historical fact because he suggests that (1) one-man/one-vote, majority rule obtains within them, and (2) they permit public deliberation and were not strictly confined to voting.  The point is that for Machiavelli, a republic, a mixed regime, must be properly mixed; that is, there must be institutions monopolized by wealthy and poorer citizens.  The former cannot dominate all of them, either overtly or covertly, if every kind of citizen is to exercise and enjoy the liberty promised by a republican way of life.

Machiavelli seems to acknowledge a distinction between the comitia centuriata and the concilium plebis.  He calls the former, the comizi consolari (D I.14), or simply the comizi (D II.28), and describes it as the assembly that elected the consuls and the so-called consular tribunes.[xviii]  On the other hand, Machiavelli seems to refer explicitly to the concilium when he juxtaposes the publico consiglio to the Senate (D III.30), and he probably namelessly makes reference to it when he mentions the assembly where tribunes proposed laws for the people to discuss and vote on (D I.18).[xix]  Why do I assume that Machiavelli is either oblivious to the historical reality of weighted voting for the wealthy in the comitia centuriata or explicitly rejects it as an aspect of his reconstructed version of the assembly?  Well, Machiavelli establishes a rather sharp contrast between the popolo and grandi in Rome, the many and the elite (D I.5), a distinction that corresponds fairly closely with a plebeian versus patrician (or Senate) divide.  In the course of describing the ongoing conflict between these two classes, Machiavelli recounts a scenario that only makes sense if the lower classes, the common people as such, have the opportunity, via majority rule, to determine outcomes in this assembly.

As an example of the power of what Bernard Manin dubs, “the aristocratic effect” of elections (Manin 1997), Machiavelli demonstrates how the Roman plebeians, after clamoring for eligibility, continued to elect patricians as magistrates as soon as they were finally granted eligibility for the office (D I.48; cf. also I.47).  Unless plebeians have it within their power to elect one of their own to the office—unless they can, by sheer force of numbers, and without obstructionist provisions that inflate the voting prowess of patricians or the wealthy—the example makes no sense at all.  (One of the lessons of the episode is to reinforce the necessity of a plebeian-specific magistracy, like the tribunate, within republics; general eligibility for an office, under the conditions of even the widest suffrage, will most often result in the election of wealthy and prominent citizens—even without the special weighting of rich voters that Rousseau favors. [xx]  I continue this line of reasoning in my discussion of the tribunes below.)

Machiavelli also makes it a point to praise the Roman people, that is, the people more or less identified with plebeians at the exclusion of the grandi or patricians, for consistently electing, via “free votes”(D I.20), the best candidates to offices throughout the life of the republic.  This praise would be misplaced if the electoral system were weighted, in Machiavelli’s model, such that the grandi could effectively elect whomever they liked with ballot-counting seldom or never reaching common citizens (D I.58).

An ambiguity concerning Machiavelli’s version of Rome’s assemblies is whether or not his concilium, his pleb-dominated assembly, excludes patricians.  He writes of the assembly presided over by the tribunes:  “A tribune, or any citizen whatever, could propose a law to the people, on which every citizen was able to speak, either in favor or against, before it was decided” (D I.18).  The sentence is vague.  Is the “any citizen whatever” mentioned only confined to plebeians participating in the concilium, as would have been the case historically?  Or, does it mean literally any citizen such that this description must include patricians and therefore it implies that they too participate in the concilium?  

Or, does Machiavelli’s sentence refer to any one assembly at all?  Perhaps Machiavelli suggests that tribunes propose laws in the concilium, while “any citizen,” including patricians, can propose laws in the comitia centuriata.  Perhaps the discussion and disputes over the law that Machiavelli mentions take place, not in the plebeian-specific environment of the concilium, but rather in the informal assemblies reserved for public deliberation, the contiones or concioni, that Machiavelli frequently describes (D I.4-5, III.34), but does not mention here.  However, if it is in fact the concilium that Machiavelli invokes in this instance, it is unlikely to include patricians for this reason: since Machiavelli’s social antagonists are even more class-conscious than were their actual historical antecedents (if that’s possible), it is hard to believe that the proud and insolent grandi, patricians or ottimati would have deigned to participate in an assembly presided over by “tribunes of the plebs.”[xxi]

Thankfully, Machiavelli is decidedly more definitive on the place of deliberation in Rome’s assemblies.  In the passage just cited, Machiavelli proceeds to give reasons why, contra Francesco Guicciardini in his own day and Rousseau centuries later, public deliberation in advance of voting on laws is healthy for a republic: “it was always good that each who intended a good for the public could propose [a law]; and it is good that each can speak his opinion on it so that the people can then choose the best [opinion] after each one has been heard” (D I.18).  Machiavelli uses the same rationale for justifying discussion in advance of the election of magistrates, if not in the comizi then certainly the concioni:  “good orderers of republics have ordered that when [the people] have to create the supreme ranks of the city… it is permitted to every citizen and is attributed to his glory to make public in councils [concioni] the defect of [a candidate], so that the people, not lacking knowledge of him, can judge better” (D III.34).  Historically, the presiding magistrates of concioni had the discretion to recognize whomever they liked as speakers, a practice that invariably favored prominent individuals.  But Machiavelli is insistent here, as elsewhere, when discoursing on public deliberation: anyone entitled to attend an assembly—from a senator in the Senate to a pleb in a concione—must be entitled to speak within it.[xxii]

In short, Machiavelli’s view of republican assemblies is more differentiated than Rousseau’s and provides a genuine voice for common citizens.  The patricians and the wealthy populate the Senate; all citizens attend the comizi, which favors the wealthy through the aristocratic effect of (unweighted) elections; and the plebeians attend their own assembly presided over by their own magistrates, the tribunes, that generates real laws, the plebiscites.  Every citizen who is eligible to attend these assemblies enjoys free speech within them, just as they all do in the informal concioni.  The proceedings of no Machiavellian assembly are disproportionately weighted toward privilege.  Plebeians and the poor, and patricians and the wealthy, may be excluded from a particular assembly but no one is treated inequitably within any specific assembly.  Rousseau believes that each citizen should be eligible for every assembly but can be treated differently within them.  Machiavelli advises separate assemblies for citizens of different social classes.  Rousseau’s theory of assemblies is egalitarian in principle, but not practice; Machiavelli’s is explicitly inegalitarian in a way that, counter-intuitively, may produce more egalitarian outcomes, or at least those that are more contestatory of power and privilege.

However much he admires Rome’s assemblies, Machiavelli reserves his highest praise for the tribunes, the republic’s magistracy of the common people, for holding back the “insolence” of the patricians or grandi (D I.3).  According to Machiavelli, the grandi’s insolence, and the appetite for domination from which it arises, are threats to the liberty of citizens, and to the stability of republican regimes: the grandi will eventually raise up a prince or enlist a foreign power to further their inexhaustible efforts at oppressing the people, or the latter will resort to such measures themselves for protection from or in retaliation for persistent abuse. 

Over the course of the republic’s history, two to five to a dozen plebs would serve as tribunes for one-year terms.  Plebeians elected the tribunes in one of their assemblies, likely the concilium plebis, since it probably excluded patrician citizens.  As discussed above, the tribunes conducted deliberation over the passage of plebiscites in the concilium.  Their bodies were “sacrosanct,” that is, patricians could not touch them physically, and the plebs pledged to kill anyone who dared try.  Moreover, tribunes wielded a power akin to habeas corpus: they could demand the release of plebs who had been seized (usually in situations of debt bondage) by patrician citizens or magistrates, and appealed to the tribunes (provocatio).  Furthermore, the tribunes could veto laws favored by the Senate, and about to be enacted by their agents, the consuls.  Finally, the tribunes wielded the authority to accuse magistrates or powerful citizens of political crimes and try them before one of the assemblies. 

On the basis of Machiavelli’s discussion of the assemblies and, especially, the tribunate, it is striking just how much his reconstruction of Rome differs from Rousseau’s socially holistic vision of the republic.  Machiavelli’s Rome is a tale of two cities: within the one republic there is, on the one hand, a poorer, popular polity, which shadows, on the other, an elite, more wealthy one.  The former serves as the latter’s mirror, its negative image:  The grandi deliberate policy in the Senate, the plebs in the concilium (D I.18) (and both in concioni).  The Senate influences the consuls to enact laws that it favors; if the people dissent, they press the tribunes to veto them.  The consuls wield the power of life and death; but the tribunes can deliver plebeians from just such a threat through the provocatio.  Indeed, it seems that the formal separation of these two polities within one allowed the less dangerous one, the plebeian polity that, according to Machiavelli, wants only to avoid domination, to patrol the one that Machiavelli explicitly claims is more dangerous, a patrician or grandi polity that seeks perpetual oppression over others.

It cannot be overstated how difficult it is to sell patrician or grandi citizens on the establishment of a tribunate, or some functional equivalent thereof  (see Cicero 1999, 164-67, and Montesquieu1999, 84).  Common citizens have leveraged magistrate selection methods involving lottery fairly regularly in the pre-modern history of republics.  Council seats and even whole assemblies reserved exclusively for poorer citizens are not unusual.  But a popular magistracy for which the wealthiest and most notable are ineligible is a rarity in the history of republican constitutions.  Yet Machiavelli considers an institution modeled on the Roman tribunate indispensable to a free regime.  Popular government requires, almost paradoxically, both the participation and loyalty of the grandi, and the establishment of an institution that they inherently detest.  This is confirmed by Machiavelli’s constitutional proposal for a republican constitution in Florence: he insists on including, albeit subtly and almost surreptitiously, a tribunate institution, the provosts (proposti), into the plan (Machiavelli 1519-20/1958, 111). 

5. Tribunates, Roman and Rousseauian

While obviously not the great fan of the tribunate that Machiavelli was, Rousseau is not completely dismissive of the Roman magistracy.  However, he believes that its authority should have been confined to its negative functions (the veto, provocatio, and accusations) rather than its positive ones (i.e., promoting laws), both of which Machiavelli praised.  According to Rousseau, the tribunate should “do nothing” pro-actively legislative or executive, but merely have the power to “prevent everything” (SC IV 5, 137).  Only when it operates within such parameters, does the tribunate deserve to be “sacred and revered as the defender of the laws,” as in those cases in Rome when “those proud patricians, who always despised the entire people, were forced to yield before a plain officer of the people wielding neither patronage nor jurisdiction” (SC IV 5, 137).  The tribunes should only serve as a check on patrician self-aggrandizement that threatened the liberty of plebeians.  They should not attempt to change the shape of the republic by proposing to reform its constitution.

While “a wisely tempered tribunate is the firmest bulwark of a good constitution,” Rousseau insists, “if it has even a little too much force it overthrows everything” (SC IV 5, 137).  I suggest below what Rousseau means by a tribunate “wisely tempered.”  Here I try to gauge his sense of what it means for tribunes to exert “too much force.”  Rousseau never provides concrete examples of the tribunate functioning as a “bulwark” of Rome’s constitution, when healthy, rather, he seems singularly preoccupied with its purported excesses.  This is the context in which to consider Rousseau’s intermittent swipes at the Gracchus brothers—along with Marius, the bêtes noire of all apologists for oligarchy.  Rousseau contends that the republic was only plagued by “commotions” when magistrates, like these tribunes, forgot the fact that they did not speak for the people (SC III 12, 110).  As tribunes, the Gracchi, to Rousseau’s consternation, passed their pro-plebeian legislative agenda by purportedly enjoining a portion of the people to “cast its vote from the rooftops”—i.e., by threatening the patricians and the Senate with violence (SC III 15, 115).  Echoing his critique of Greek democratic assemblies, Rousseau contends that in such instances the Roman people went beyond lawmaking and magistrate-appointment to “usurp” the “most important functions of the government” (SC IV 4, 132).  In these cases, Rousseau insists that the tribunes took it upon themselves to represent the people by usurping the rights of the Senate (SC III 15, 115).  He fails to mention that the Senate responded by usurping, in much less legal and much more violent ways, whatever authority the Gracchi legitimately commanded as tribunes (see Plutarch 1965, 153-94).

In any case, Rousseau blames tribunes, generally, for the fall of Rome through their appropriation of executive and legislative authority for themselves: “the excessive power that the tribunes had gradually usurped served, with the help of the laws that had been made for the sake of freedom, as a safeguard to the emperors, who destroyed freedom” (SC IV 5, 137).  The tribunate and its legal functions that were intended to defend the people wound up empowering the Caesars.  Rousseau never even entertains the notion, intimated by Machiavelli (D I.37; I.39; III.24), and quite evident in the histories of Sallust (1963, 78-79), Appian (1996, 5-8) and Plutarch, that the Senate ruined the republic by impoverishing the plebeians by seizing their land while it sent them away in ever distant wars, failing to alleviate their debts and insuring that they would become more loyal to the generals on whom their material welfare depended than the republic itself.  This is the situation that the Gracchi unsuccessfully attempted to redress as tribunes or special commissioners, and that Julius Caesar successfully exploited as Rome’s first tyrant.[xxiii]  But for the author of “The Discourse on Inequality,” the problem runs as deep as the fact that Augustus Caesar partially legitimated his imperium by assuming the mantle of tribunate authority as defender of the people (SC IV 5, 137).[xxiv]

As attuned to the abuses to which the tribunate could be put Rousseau seems quite confident in the many means available to the Senate in constraining its range of action.  In fact, Rousseau looks with favor on many limitations of the tribunate that Machiavelli basically reported as facts (D I.13; I.39; III.11).  For instance both note how the patricians used religion to keep the tribunes from advancing legislation favorable to the plebeians; and exploited the fact that the tribunate was a collegial magistracy that required concerted action to be effective.  In the first instance, by manipulating the interpretation of auguries, Rousseau remarks, “the Senate held in check a proud and restless people and, when necessary, tempered the ardor of the seditious tribunes” (SC IV 4, 132).  In the second regard, the greater the number of tribunes at any time the more likely the Senate could bribe, intimidate or delude one tribune into vetoing the pro-plebeian actions of another (SC IV 5, 137).  The plebeians preferred having more tribunes around so that the latter could be more accessible to citizens in need of protection from patricians, but this proliferation of their numbers undermined the tribunes’ ability to pursue a pro-plebeian legislative agenda.

However, Machiavelli never stooped to the classic oligarchic disparagement of the tribunes’ authority or motivations to act on behalf of the poor to which Rousseau resorts.  He insinuates that the tribunes were merely the wealthiest plebs and hence wannabe patricians who were clearly only out for themselves:  Rousseau refers to tribunes as “well-to-do” citizens, who were really only nominally “plebeians” (SC IV 4, 133).  Certainly, the tribunate was an elected, not lottery-distributed, magistracy, and hence, the wealthiest or most notable citizens among the plebs would be expected to become tribunes most of the time.  However, since plebs selected tribunes from their own ranks, the class-specificity of the office minimized the full extent of election’s aristocratic effect (D I.4, I.6, I.37; and Lintott 1999, 120).

Turning to Rousseau’s reconstruction of the tribunate, his reformed magistracy is not a permanent institution by which common citizens surveille, contain and/or repel better-resourced and more powerful wealthy citizens within a republic.  On the contrary, Rousseau envisions the magistracy as one that occasionally restores balance, equilibrium or “exact proportion between the constitutive parts of state” (SC IV 5, 136).  Whereas Machiavelli wanted to further empower tribunate institutions and encourage their spread, Rousseau proposes their emasculation by making them only occasional not standing offices (SC IV 5, 137).  Because most republics are oligarchically organized and do not have functional equivalents of the tribunes, Machiavelli thought that they needed to devise ways of establishing them.  Rousseau, on the other hand, remarks that republics should be considering ways to make tribunate institutions less prone to usurpation, adding the curious phrase, “a means that has so far not occurred to any government” (SC IV 5, 137).  One would think that the rarity of such institutions, especially in its pro-plebeian form, is itself a sufficient check on its usurpation.

Rousseau’s remarks suggests that, unlike Machiavelli, he is largely unconcerned with the basic fact that the wealthy enjoy persistent power advantages over commoners such that the latter need and deserve an institution of their own to continually challenge patricians, grandi, ottimati, etc.  On the contrary, according to Rousseau’s formulation, a tribunate should serve all and any branches of government when they are threatened with oppression: a tribunate should act “sometimes to protect the sovereign against the government, as the tribunes of the people did in Rome, sometimes to uphold the government against the people, as the Council of Ten now does in Venice, and sometimes to maintain the balance between the two, as the Ephors did in Sparta” (SC IV 5, 136).  Rousseau’s conception of the tribunate is more of a floating ombudsman than a defender of the people.

Note how Rousseau is particularly concerned that government elites have recourse from time to time to a tribunate institution against the people, when the latter become oppressive.  Based on the discussions above, we might also suspect that behind this insulation of government officials from popular assault is a concomitant protection of socio-economic elites.  It is certainly intriguing that Rousseau discusses the actors who should have access to an anti-populist tribunate as government institutions, not as an ascendant socio-economic class, the targets of the tribunes in Rome.  Rousseau may not describe his reform-as-reversal proposal for a tribunate in terms of patricians and plebeians out of fear of betraying his preference that the former be better protected from the latter.  In any case, by making the tribunate an institution that at various times serves multiple competing institutions, sometimes including the people, rather than one that exclusively serves the people in resistance against hierarchical class oppression, Rousseau effectively neuters it.  As such, he is co-responsible with other anti-populist contributors to modern constitutional thought—Guicciardini, Harrington, Montesquieu and the Federalist Madison—for insuring that post-eighteenth century republican constitutions contain no such magistracy.


Scholars have tied themselves into knots attempting to decipher the intricacies of Rousseau’s conception of republican politics—especially, his abstract theory of legislation ensuring that majority votes reflect not the mere will of all (the simple counting of heads) but rather the general will.  In this essay, following Rousseau’s own directions, I have pursued a less complicated route and examined his assessment of a concrete republic, arguably history’s greatest, ancient Rome.  Rousseau denounces and neuters Rome’s plebeian-serving institution of elite-accountability, the tribunate, and praises and elevates as exemplar the republic’s most inegalitarian feature, its timocratically organized assemblies, where wealthy citizens outvote poorer ones.  The contrast with Machiavelli’s assessment of Rome’s tribunate and assemblies better positions democratic theorists to analyze the elected aristocracy recommended by the purported intellectual father of modern democracy (see McCormick n.d.).

When not asserting a fundamental agreement between the two theorists, conventional interpreters often juxtapose Rousseau and Machiavelli in a strange way.  Rousseau is credited with founding modern democratic theory, while Machiavelli is, at best, considered the champion of an antiquated republicanism that casts in relief the deficiencies of contemporary liberalism.  (Or, less generously, of course, he is still depicted as the adviser of oligarchs and tyrants in the art of manipulating the people).  This is odd indeed.  If equality and elite accountability are crucial components of modern democratic theory and practice, it is Machiavelli who more intensively explores ways to pursue them, while it is less than clear whether Rousseau considers these to be desirable pursuits at all.  Returning to the quotes that served as epigrams at the outset of this paper:  Machiavelli exposes and criticizes “the few” in the midst of a plea for more fully empowered and broadly populist institutions; Rousseau celebrates an oligarchy cloaked as a popular government as the best state of affairs in Rome at its height and as an example to be followed by all republics in general.

Notwithstanding the highly abstract philosophical gymnastics that Rousseau performs to explain sovereignty and the general will in other parts of the Social Contract, his Roman Republic reveals his political theory to be not all that different from the aristocratic republicanism of Aristotle, Cicero, Bruni, Guicciardini or Harrington.[xxv]  According to this tradition, a republic is a collegial regime that governs toward the common good, the people’s welfare or the public interest, but the substance of these are determined and realized by the best, most notable or wealthiest citizens, and institutions must be arranged to enable them in this regard.  The people should participate only to the extent that they are deluded into thinking either that they rule or that they are consulted in the process of government.  Only in cases of last resort when the best citizens disagree on such matters should the people be genuinely empowered to decide anything; in the normal course of events the wealthiest citizens, the senatorial class, must hold sway.

As a dissenter from this dominant strand of republicanism, Machiavelli insisted that plebeian institutions are necessary to protect the people from oligarchic domination and provide them with enough control over grandi behavior to channel it in ways that preserve the liberty of republics.  Were he afforded the opportunity to comment upon Rousseau’s Social Contract, Machiavelli likely would insist that the establishment of a single, sociologically anonymous constitutional framework—with or without the privileges for the wealthy that Rousseau builds into the model—only allows the grandi to manipulate the people in a relatively unchallenged fashion.  Even a somewhat less than fully judicious reader of Rousseau’s account of the Roman Republic would have a fairly clear sense of what his response to that would be.


Author’s Note:  For comments and criticisms on earlier drafts, I thank Richard Bellamy, Mary Dietz, Nan Keohane, Nomi Lazar, Jim Miller, Melissa Schwartzberg, Tracy Strong, audiences at the 2005 APSA meeting in Washington, D.C., at the Columbia University Seminar on Social and Political Thought, and three anonymous reviewers for CRISPP.

[i].  Rousseau (1762/1997), henceforth cited as SC, with book, chapter and page numbers inserted parenthetically within the text.  I also take the liberty of reducing to lower case many words that the translator capitalizes.

[ii].  Machiavelli (1513-19/1997), hereafter cited within the text as D with book and chapter numbers in parentheses. All Italian references correspond with Machiavelli 1997.

[iii].  Jean Starobinski (1990) carefully delineates the oligarchic strands of Rousseau’s political theory.  I contribute to this line of interpretation here by focusing attention on Rousseau’s interpretation of Roman institutions, and contrasting it with Machiavelli’s.  In the latter regard, even the most thorough comparisons of the authors’ respective republicanisms do not treat institutions with sufficient care, and, consequently, perhaps too complacently conclude that Machiavelli and Rousseau were more or less in accord on what constitutes a “well-ordered” republic.   See Viroli 1988 and 1989.  

[iv].  Any theory of popular government that takes seriously the republican principle of “non-domination” requires robust institutional means that insure elite accountability.  On this principle, if not the institutional apparatus to realize it, see Pettit 1999.

[v].  The paradigmatic application of Rousseau’s political thought to contemporary democratic theory is perhaps Barber 1984.  A quite lively recent debate demonstrates just how confounding such efforts can be:  see Putterman 2003, Scott 2005, and Putterman 2005. Miller (1984) meticulously explores the complexities of Rousseau’s democratic dilemmas, while Wingrove (2000) provides fresh insight into the dialectic of freedom and subjection in Rousseau’s political thought.

[vi].  Rousseau asserts: “I believe I can posit as a principle that when the functions of government are divided among several tribunals the least numerous will sooner or later acquire the greatest authority; if only because of the ease in dispatching business, which naturally leads them to acquire it” (SC III 4, 91).  Machiavelli suggests something quite similar, but in a more nuanced manner, in the chapter from which the epigram that starts this essay was drawn.  When he pronounces that “the few always behave in the mode of the few,” Machiavelli argues that small political bodies are much more inclined than large ones (preferably ones comprising the whole citizenry) to act in a biased fashion when passing judgment on prominent citizens accused of threatening liberty (D I.7, cf., I.49).  After all, in most cases, the wealthy and prominent citizens who tend to sit on such committees share the political proclivities of the accused.  But, unlike Rousseau, Machiavelli also leaves open the possibility that members of smaller tribunals may be more susceptible to intimidation and, so, such bodies can be weaker than large bodies.  

[vii].  In the Discourses, Machiavelli suggests that a republic is any regime where more than one person rules, as opposed to a principality where only one rules.  To formulize this in a manner that might have pleased Rousseau: in a principality, rule = 1; in a republic, rule = 1 + n.

[viii].  Obviously, see Rousseau 1754-55/1997.  The most eloquent interpretation of the many dimensions of Rousseau’s egalitarianism remains Shklar 1965.

[ix].  Rousseau famously remarks: “if there were a people of Gods, it would govern itself democratically.  Such a government is not suited for men” (SC III 4, 92).  Explaining this statement, Manin remarks that for Rousseau the ability act generally in one instance and concretely in the next “is beyond human capacity.”  See Manin 1997, 75-76.  As we will see, the differences between the people assembled in Athenian and Roman fashions, enables Rousseau to attribute this rare, indeed divine, ability of deciding both general and particular tasks to the Roman people, under very specific circumstances.

[x].  Rousseau also provides a foreign policy rationale for preferring elective aristocracy to assembly democracy: “the state’s prestige is better upheld abroad by venerable senators than by an unknown and despised multitude” (SC III 5, 93).

[xi].  Other important differences conditioning the possibility of popular government in Greece and Italy are the place of slavery within each and their respective climates.  The Roman people, for instance, could not constantly assemble because slaves were not responsible for most material reproduction as in Greece, and the seasons’ varied from temperate to intemperate weather in Italy (SC III 15, 115).

[xii].  On the full ramifications of Rousseau’s enmity toward representation, see Urbinati, forthcoming.

[xiii].  For more up-to-date details of Roman political institutions, see Nicolet 1980 and Lintott, 1999.  

[xiv].  This remark may not reflect class elitism but rather fear of political corruption: Rousseau may not be outraged at the prospect of former slaves holding office per se, but merely that such men were notoriously dependent on their former masters, who remained their patrons.

[xv]. Rosenblum (n.d.) situates Rousseau’s “republican holism” within the context of various lineages of anti-party, anti-pluralist and, hence, anti-political political thought.  I would supplement this account with the argument that Rousseau’s holism is actually the most systematically developed version of an aristocratic republicanism that emphasizes the “common good,” political generality and social homogeneity while actually elevating some particular sub-set of the citizenry to political preeminence.

[xvi].  Rousseau suggests that lottery is used in a democracy because magistracy is a burden (presumably because even the poor must assume office), not necessarily on anti-oligarchic grounds (SC IV 3, 125).  

[xvii].  In fact, the lottery determining the century with the “prerogative” of voting first was confined to the wealthier classes exclusively. See Nicolet 1980, 257, and Taylor 1990, 70-74.

[xviii].  Tribunes with consular power were a magistracy devised by patricians, and accepted by the plebeians for a time, that undercut the tribunes of the plebs and placated plebeians who demanded eligibility to stand for the consulate.  They were effectively patrician tribunes.

[xix].  I agree that Machiavelli could be more precise in his discussion of the Roman assemblies, but Millar goes too far in his criticisms of the institutional deficiencies of the Discourses—especially given his quasi-democratic reading of Rousseau on Rome’s assemblies.  See Millar 2002, 71, 75, 113.  On Machiavelli’s use of Roman history, class relations and political institutions, see Coby 1999.

[xx].  Machiavelli’s aristocratic interlocutor, Francesco Guicciardini (1994 and 2002), promoted general election—open eligibility and wide suffrage—on precisely these grounds.

[xxi].  The historical concilium almost certainly excluded patricians.   While Lintott cannot say so definitively, he muses that “it would surely have been improper, even repugnant, to include patrician votes in a decision which would be described as ‘X… plebem rogavit plebesque iure scivit’”; that is, a law made by and for the plebeians.  See Lintott 1999, 54.  He adds a footnote of citations supporting the fact that patricians did not attend the concilium until late in the republic (54, n. 67), which Taylor (1990, 60-64) corroborates.

[xxii]. Urbinati (2002, 65) grasps the singular novelty of this aspect of Machiavelli’s political thought within the republican tradition.

[xxiii].  Machiavelli pays the obligatory lip service to the prejudices of the ottimati to whom the Discourses are dedicated when he denounces the role of the Gracchi in the collapse of the republic (D I.37).  He adds, however, that the patricians would have destroyed Roman liberty long before that point had it not been for pro-plebeian, anti-patrician efforts precisely like the Gracchi’s legislative agenda.   Moreover, his ultimate judgment on the Gracchi is that one should praise their “intention” more than their “prudence” (D I.37).  Machiavelli speaks abstractly in terms of the need to temporize rather than legislate in such circumstances.  But the implication of the line preceding this is that the grandi will eventually share offices with plebeians, but will never, without extraordinary violence, share their property with the plebeians (even if they’ve appropriated it from the latter in the first place).  The imprudence of the Gracchi may have been their belief that property can be redistributed through legislation alone.  Martin Luther King, it might be noted, was not assassinated while championing voting rights, but only once he endorsed the Poor People’s Manifesto.

[xxiv].  In a note, Rousseau, quite curiously, seems to contradict himself: he depicts Rome as “a genuine democracy” whose transformation into the tyranny of the emperors was generated by aristocratic corruption (SC III 10, 107, n).  On the “Machiavellian” possibilities pregnant in this contradiction, see Miller 1984, 68-69.  Nevertheless, Rousseau still manages to criticize the tribunes rather than, like Machiavelli, exonerate them in this passage.

[xxv].  In particular, Florentine “civic humanism” or “civic republicanism,” which emphasized socially holistic rather than class- or guild-contestatory notions of citizenship often served to legitimate Florence’s more oligarchic republics.  See Hankins, ed., 2000, 75-178.  This fact seems lost on many contemporary political theorists and intellectual historians who study and attempt to revive it today.  For criticisms of such intellectual efforts and/or the programmatic uses to which it is put: see Sunstein 1988, 1539-90; Patten1996, 25-44; Jurdjevic 1999, 994-1020; and McCormick 2003, 615-643.  Also consult Eric Nelson’s (2004) often-surprising excavation of the interplay of political and social inequality in the history of republicanism.

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