Applying Wisdom of the Ancients to the Modern Legislature

Our most cursory grade school experiences taught us that the Founding Fathers looked to the great minds of the ancient world to develop the foundations of our nation. And yet, this common elementary school lesson aside, I have always received one spectacularly consistent question when I tell people that I majored in Ancient Greek & Roman Classics: “What are you going to do with that?”

The answer I always give — and always will — is simple: I could do anything! I always found it surprising that others were so incredulous as to how it would apply to a future career, as if the people who came before us aren’t entirely responsible for the roots of our modern-day society. Medicine, art, law, science, math, and countless other professional fields were given life by the people of classical times. How better to understand the world around me — and particularly the world of policy and government — than by knowing and understanding the people who created it?

As we approach 2020, it is easy to feel so far from the people of antiquity. But as I embark further into my career in politics and governance, I find the ideas of the ancient world reverberating more present than ever. Three years post-grad, still receiving eyebrow-raises for the dubious title of my degree, it might be fitting to shine a light on the ways in which antiquity shapes our world. Although my primary interest remains in Ancient Rome (the result of many years as a student of Latin), the most significant contributions to our Founding Fathers’ inspiration for government and policy can be traced back to the Greeks. Our federal government and state legislatures alike are rooted in the governing bodies from those ancient times.

Democracy derives from the Greek demōs (meaning “village” or “people”). It is often said to have taken root in Athens around 460 BCE, although evidence exists of similar political structures in other Greek states. If you’ve ever voted in an election, you can thank some old Greek guy by the name of Solon.

Solon was an Athenian poet and lawmaker, who was called upon to mediate the deepening divide between the wealthy minority and working-class majority as 6th-century Athens faced an economic crisis. Among Solon’s extensive reforms was the formation of the Ekklesia (“assembly”). The Eklessia consisted of Athenian citizens who had the power to not only elect their officials, but also hold them accountable for their actions.

As part of those constitutional reforms, Solon also developed a council of 400 (or Boule). This group was designated to help decide which topics the greater assembly would discuss. He additionally lowered the criteria required of political candidates, making high office more accessible to Athenian citizens. Solon’s legislation was constitutional, judicial, and economic in scope, and not all of it was adopted, but it was certainly bold and unprecedented for its day.

Solon paved the way for a government by the people, but it was Cleisthenes in 508 BC who would be remembered as the Father of Democracy. Solon’s government divided its people into four classes based upon wealth, which still left much power with the upper class. But Cleisthenes organized Athens into ten regional divisions, so that their political organization and identification relied solely upon location and not status. The Boule was expanded to 500 members, with an equal number from each tribe. Citizens were randomly selected for other positions in the government, preventing aristocracy from playing any role in its leadership.

Under Cleisthenes, the Athenian government consisted of three principal institutions: The Assembly of the Demōs andthe Boule (council of 500), as well as the People’s Court. Throughout the year, the Assembly would meet in Athens, called to session by the Boule. Various religious rituals occurred at the start of the meeting, and then the Assembly began their discussion on matters of public business.

They voted on bills chosen by the Boule, which could be amended, passed, or rejected. The legislative year had a schedule and chairmen existed within the Boule. Further, the process by which laws were passed was called nomothesia (legislation). Sounding at all familiar?

Of course, this is a Sparknotes version of the degree to which the Classical world shapes our modern legislatures. Ephialtes, Pericles, and Eucleides further aided in the foundations of democracy, and those were just the Greeks! The pathways of our modern world were also blazed by the Etruscans, Romans, Egyptians, Metsopotamians, Phoenecians, Babylonians, and countless other ancient peoples.

Is my Classics degree obscure? Absolutely. But it could not be more relevant to my chosen career. I find it humbling that for as advanced as our ever-improving society is, there were people before us, making equally groundbreaking strides for us to build upon. Ancient antiquity is maddeningly complex and endlessly fascinating — maybe its most profound parallel with our modern world. But it is, more than anything, relevant, as it exists every day, woven into the structures by which we live, work, study, and legislate.

This blog post was written for Ridge Policy Group by Allison Zito, Legislative Assistant in our Harrisburg, PA office.

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