World History Blog

We could learn a lesson in compromise from the Ancient Romans

August 16, 2013 Posted by Peter Britton We could learn a lesson in compromise from the Ancient Romans

The news for Egypt is so depressing. The perils of he politics of "winner takes all", "no compromise", "we're right, you're wrong" are plain to see.

In my opinion, compromise (in most circumstances) is what makes the world go round - and go forward. You can see what damage the opposite approach can do again and again in world history.

Modern history throws up the Balkans, Northern Ireland, many others....the list goes on.

But the chapter in history which shows the virtues of compromise and the perils of uncompromise (is that word in the dictionary?) are seen most clearly is the history of Rome.

The entire Roman constitution was built around compromise. You couldn't get anywhere as a politician unless you got the support of a broad range of citizens. Above all, the Patricians and the Plebeians, whose disagreements could easily have torn the state apart (and the conflict between aristocrats and common people did so in many other city-states, especially in Greece), were prepared to sit down and thrash out their differences. The end result of numerous rounds of negotiation was Roman law and the concept of Roman citizenship - all citizens are equal under the law, all citizens have legal rights, law courts are there to protect citizens, not to harm them.

This constitution worked very well for the Romans while they followed the path of compromise in their political life. It took them from being a small city-state to ruling half the Mediterranean world. They not only practised it in their dealings with one another, they extended it to their foes. In so doing built up an alliance of loyal allies which stood the test of time and which formed the springboard for extensive conquests.

However, the wealth which came with conquest created a wealth gap between rich and poor which made compromise hard. The will to see the other side's point of view weakened. Violence became the order of the day - and on a vast scale. The rounds and rounds of brutal civil wars were horrendous for everyone, rich and poor alike.

And what made matters worse was that the Roman constitution , which had worked so well in the past, made things worse now. It prevented any one person, or any one party, from being able to push through much-needed reforms. It was only when one leader had utterly vanquished all his enemies that he was able to impose on the state a solution which brought an end to the vicious cycle.

This solution might well have been just a temporary reprieve, like others before it. In fact it formed the basis for two hundred years of stability and peace for millions of people. Why? Because it was one of the most masterful applications of compromise in the whole of world history.

I am talking, of course, about the Augustan settlement of 31 to 27 BC, that package of laws and measures which formed the political foundations for the Roman Empire. We could learn a lot from it today.


By Peter Britton

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