What are the similarities and differences between the Roman republican state and the Athenian polis?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would argue that the biggest similarity between the Roman and Athenian political systems lies in the historical context which underlines the evolution of Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic. To a certain degree, it does appear that both systems were designed to try to address similar challenges and answer...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

I would argue that the biggest similarity between the Roman and Athenian political systems lies in the historical context which underlines the evolution of Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic. To a certain degree, it does appear that both systems were designed to try to address similar challenges and answer a similar question, although their respective answers were radically different from one another.

It should be noted that Athens was not always a democracy. In fact, Athens had previously been aristocratic and was one of a number of Greek polises that fell under the control of Tyrants—individuals who were able to seize control of a given Polis. This history is important, because part of what lent Athenian democracy its radical nature was this history, because it was not always democratic and did fall under the spell of strongmen (most notably Pisistratus). Ideas like Ostricism, or the selections by lot—Athenian democracy was designed in such a way that whenever possible, power would be diluted to such a degree that future Tyrants and Oligarchs would never be given the chance to emerge. Democracy evolved in response to real questions and challenges.

Likewise, we see in Roman history a similar dynamic, with the Republic being preceded by a quasi-legendary era of kings, and as with Athens, there are certain elements of the Roman Republic which seem designed to minimize the centralization of power. Most notably, there was the selection of two consuls, each for a term of only one year, and each of whom had the ability to veto one another's actions.

Of course, the political systems themselves were quite different. Still, it does seem to me that there's an argument to be made that the two political systems had to evolve to answer similar questions and similar concerns, even if they came to answers very different from one another.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Athenian city-state was a direct democracy.  For one-year terms, five hundred Athenian citizens (men, specifically) would be elected to lead in the Boule.  It is important to note that they were selected by lottery, so this is not too similar to our democratic process today. They would meet in the upper agora (think of it like a marketplace) and vote using shards of pottery.

The Roman Republic was comprised of many layers, but to simplify it:

  • Two Consuls (an executive leader; think of it like a President)
  • A Senate made up of 300 upper class (Patrician) citizens
  • A Tribune made up of 10 lower class (Plebeian) citizens
  • Citizen Assemblies (adult male citizens)

Similarities:

  • Each allowed for "common" men to have a say in government, bringing in the problems of local areas within the city/territory and representing the word of the "people"
  • Each had elections of some sort
  • Each prohibited women and slaves from participating in the political process

Differences:

  • The Athenian polis chose their elected leaders at random, while members were selected for the Roman Republic and voted in by the leadership.
  • The Romans had a two party system, the Patricians and Plebeians, while Athenians included all male citizens.  There was no distinction between class in Athens.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Romans did not have strict barriers with regards to citizenship, while the Athenians enforced strict limitation to the extension of citizenship. The situation made the Romans build an empire through conquest and extending citizenship to the conquered people.  However, this later proved a challenge to the Roman Republic.

Both the Roman Republic and the Athenian Polis were established on a city-state model. However, differences in their geographies saw the states develop in different ways. The Athenians had exclusive cities, which later united through force. Rome, on the other hand, developed on a plain and succeeded in establishing a centralized city-state.

Both the Roman Republic and the Athenian Polis developed well-organized political practices. However, the Romans developed a two-party system consisting of patricians and plebeians, while the Athenians had no political parties.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Athenian democracy was unusual in being a direct democracy in which the citizen assembly could vote on laws. Important magistrates were selected by lot rather than elected. As far as the political system went, all adult male citizens were inherently equal (one citizen, one vote), rather than being divided up into orders. The legal system did not have professional advocates acting for people, but rather people had to represent themselves in court and be judged by a jury of their peers.

In the Roman republic, elected magistrates held considerable power and made laws for the people. Like Athens, only adult males could vote, but rather than all citizens being equal, the patricians (aristocrats or senatorial class), equites (knights or rich bourgeois), and plebians had different rights under the law and different roles in government. Freedmen could become full citizens, and women had greater property rights. The legal system was more professionalized, with advocates acting for clients in the courts.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team