Our Republic Is In Crisis: What Went Wrong With The Roman Republic*

Date: August 1, 2012

by Shiva Kant Jha

The Roman Republic lasted for 482 years from c.509 B.C. Its Constitution, though unwritten, established a polity with the broad features which characterize our modern constitutions. Like our Constitution it bore certain dominant features: (i) the Roman Republican constitution was shaped by a long-drawn struggle between the patricians and the 'plebs' in which struggle the plebs succeeded in being recognized equal in exercise of the state powers; (ii) it illustrated remarkably well the theory of the separation of powers; (iii) it established accountability by ensuring the operation of checks and balances; (iv) it was founded on the shared view that sovereignty inhered in demos (people); (iv) it was generally accepted that it was the People of Rome who exercised legislative powers through the assemblies; and (vi) it was an excellent product to ensure liberty to people founded on egalitarian ideas so noble that Tiberius, the tribune, reminded the people of their great dignified status in the words capable to give everlasting joy to any republican and democratic society. Yet the Roman Republic sank into morass, and declined through civil wars, power-maneuverings, and the greed of the power-hungry leaders. The death-knell of the Republic was sounded in the battle of Pharsalus, in Thessaly, in 48 B.C. when the forces commanded by Pompey failed to stop Julius Caesar from acquiring brute power. The way he did that is graphically portrayed by the historian H.A. Davies in Chapter XII of his An Outline History of the World (Oxford, 1937 ed.):

"He [Caesar] got himself appointed dictator for life and consul for ten years; he filled the Senate with his own supporters and nominees, so that it was always prepared to do his bidding; divine honours were paid to him; and to all intents and purposes Rome was ruled by one man."

The Republic was almost dead, and military dictatorship had begun. It was 1954, only about four years after the commencement of our Republic's Constitution (the precise date being 26 January 1950), that my teacher of history had expressed his apprehensions that, if things did not go well in our country, our Republic too would not survive. At his instruction, I read H.A. Davies[1]. It is also not possible for forget that song of a Hindi film which had expressed the most sincere expectations of our freedom-fighters from their countrymen: Ham layein hain toofan se kashti nikal ke, Is desh ko rakhna mere bachhon sambhalke ('We have brought our canoe to the coast suffering tempests in our way. We hope, dear children, that you would preserve and protect it.)

I have felt over the years that many things have happened in our country which do not augur well for our Republic. I intend to summarize the features of the Roman Republican polity, and to show how such sinister features are becoming manifest in our country more and more. It is not a mere figment of my mind if I see the ship of our Constitution sinking into the treacherous sea; it is no hallucination for me to hear some silhouette singing the very requiem for our Constitution. In order to be brief, I would draw up a table setting forth some of the morbid features of the Roman polity which bring to my mind some of the symptoms and features of our present ailing Republic. I am indebted to H.A. Davies, H.A.L. Fisher, and Nehru, from whose books I had profited a lot as a student, and from which I have received my insight into the current affairs of our Indian Republic.


The features of the decadent Roman Republican Polity 

Features marking the polity in the Republic of India of these years


The Corruption galore amongst the wielders of the governmental powers.
  "The supremacy of Rome in the world was now indisputable, but it had been won at a ruinous cost for the majority of the Roman people. The long wars and the resulting conquests caused money to flow into the Roman treasury, and Roman officials were able to enrich themselves at the expense of the conquered provinces."

Things are happening in public life which were  never  anticipated before. There are several glaring instances of misuse of power by men in authority and position. This is a phenomenon of which the Courts are bound to take judicial notice."This Court cannot be oblivious to the fact that there has been a steady decline of public standards or public morals and public morale.  It is necessary to cleanse public life in this country, along with or even before cleaning the physical atmosphere. The pollution in our values and standards is an equally grave      menace as the pollution of the environment. Where such situations cry out, the Court should not and cannot remain mute and dumb."   "One, it suggests that corruption  is a way of life in India and two, that there is one law for the citizens and another for the rich and powerful who hold or have held political office."

"….the country's economy may "increasingly be dynamic, but our moral universe seems to be shrinking. Graft and greed are on the rise. The principles on which Independent India was founded, for which a generation of great leaders fought and sacrificed their all, are in danger of being negated."' "Gaining inappropriately from a range of sectors, cattle fodder to civil aviation, corruption knows no limits. Its width and depth cut across party lines." "The scams have a symbiotic relationship with the black economy. The number of scams is growing and so is the size of the black economy, which has reached a mind-boggling level of 50 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product, that is, it annually generates Rs.33  lakh crore in black income. While the 1980s saw eight major scams, in the period between 1991 and 1996 there were 26 and during 2005-08, there were around 150…. It is suspected that many have their hands in the till. Included here are Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, Ministers, top industrialists, military personnel, judges, bureaucrats, policemen, and professionals and so on…. Underlying this vast illegality is a 'Triad' involving the corrupt business class, the political class and the executive. Since the mid-1980s, the criminal has also entered this Triad, leading to growing criminalization". 'In July 2008 The Washington Post reported that nearly a fourth of the 540 Indian Parliament members faced criminal charges, "including human trafficking, immigration rackets, embezzlement , rape and even murder"' In recent years a number of serious scams  have disturbed us. Things have become much worse now than what they were in 1980s when our Supreme Court considered it appropriate to make the above quoted observation. In 2010, the Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 'India was ranked 87th out of 178 countries'.

Corruptions have  much increased, and have become chronic in our country. If you cry against this evil, mighty Satanic forces emerge to destroy such  initiatives. Such things  have led to the present gloom. Now  persons have emerged to justify 'corruptions' How 'development' and 'morality' can go apart can be illustrated with reference to the justification of 'corruption' in Korea even in this phase of its great economic growth. It is publicly argued there: "Organized corruption thus quietly served a purpose that open public administration could not." We are not far behind. Their number is increasing fast who consider "corruption" justified and "greed" good.. These so-called intelligent people amass their gains on tiny islands, or in the digitally numbered bank faults in secrecy jurisdictions. They would never think that such islands are close to be sucked inside the waters; and such numbers are likely to get lost someway. 'Mystery', thy name is 'Man'!


The triumph of Consumerism and hedonism.

"The city of Rome reflected the new prosperity in the many public buildings that sprang up; the gardens and villas of the rich, filled with sculpture from the cities of Asia and Greece; the reading of Greek books and the sending of Roman youths to Athens to receive a Greek education; and the many fine roads spreading in all directions from the city."

In the present-day plutocracy created by New Capitalism of our day, life is struggle in which, we, like Sisyphus, keep pushing a stone uphill, knowing that when we stop for a momentary respite "it will roll back down again." Billionaires increase; paupers increase, inequality is growing,   Massive propaganda by vested interests have promoted luxury and consumerism in a country in which ' a third of the world's poor' live, and where 'around 700,000 Indians die each year from diarrhoea'.  The growing hedonistic culture has led the rich to callousness, and they have no sense of fraternity with the rest.  The number of starvation deaths can go down substantially if even this growing graze to look beautiful abates, if this ugly fashion of hair colouring  goes, and the sale of the hair color refreshers goes down. And all this is happening in a country  of which half  of children  are underweight calling to mind the pathetic conditions of Sub-Saharan Africa.


The triumph of the plutocratic oligarchy and the plight of common citizenry

"One of the most noticeable features of the time was the increased wealth of the richer classes. This wealth came from the conquered provinces. Most of the Roman governors looked upon provinces as legitimate prey. The unfortunate inhabitants were shamelessly taxed, bribes were accepted without scruple, and a provincial's hope of justice generally depended upon his ability to pay for it. From 73 B.C. to 7I a man named Verres was governor of Sicily, and his exactions during these three years are said to have desolated the island more than the war between Rome and Carthage for its possession." '…yet the age which witnessed these dazzling feats of arms was one of the most unhappy and uncomfortable in Roman history. . It was marked, indeed by a great advance in wealth and luxury, by the growth of huge private fortunes…'

Noam Chomsky, one of the greatest amongst the American intellectuals, says in his Hegemony and Survival (at p. 133-133): "India ….is governed by a proto-fascist party that is handing the country's resources to foreign multinationals while preaching an ultra nationalist line for domestic  purposes…India has a wonderful software industry and sectors of great wealth----uninterestingly, also hundreds of millions of people living under some of the worst conditions in the world, where the plight of women is not very different from life under the Taliban."  "In nutshell, the root of money power in Indian politics is essentially its non-representative nature and this is deliberate. It is not that politics needs big money but that money needs to control politics.  Black money is a result of a basic contradiction in our system and the elite wish to control the political process for their continued charmed existence." "Whilst our economy is growing at  9 per cent and the much crafty  crony capitalism is working for the elite and the corporations  producing the largest number of poor in the world with hundreds of millions earning less than $1 per day and the  billionaires  more  than the number Japan (when  a per capita income in Japan is  $36,000 'being  roughly 60 times India's figure of $600.'). The pathetic conundrum  in the 6th decade of Independent India is clear if these facts are turned into metaphors:"


The plight of the Roman farmers.
(a) "But the condition of the Roman farmers was lamentable in the extreme. Military service in Africa and Spain had torn them away from their small holdings, and when they returned it was to find that the holdings of their neighbours had been gradually absorbed by the large estates of wealthy landowners, worked by slaves."

(b) "The returned soldiers could not hope to compete with these and it was only a matter of time before their estates were also absorbed and they themselves obliged to drift into the capital, where living was cheap, where candidates for office were ready to buy votes, and where were the distractions of the theatre and the circus.."

(c ) "Another circumstance that helped to reduce so many of the Roman people to a swarm of state-fed paupers – for the state also gave doles --- was the fact that  with the expansion of the Roman Empire great corn ships sailed up the Tiber from Sicily, Sardinia, and the Nile country."

(d) "The result was that the produce of the small farmers was undersold in the Roman market, and they themselves were forced to sell their lands, and flock into the capital."

"Dr. Vandana Shiva, Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology has called the suicides of more than 40,000 farmers a genocide. This genocide is a result of deliberate policy imposed by the WTO and the World Bank, implemented by the Government, which is designed to destroy small farmers and transform Indian agriculture into large scale corporate industrial farming. The suicides are a result of debt and debt is a result of a rising cost of production and falling prices, both linked to free trade and trade liberalization policies in agriculture. Sonia Gandhi, the Congress President has cautioned the Prime Minister to not rush head long into Free Trade Agreements in the context of farmers suicides." (http://www.navdanya.org/news/06may08.htm) Our government may break new grounds for resources by granting lands to the corporate zamindars, by granting right to exploit our resources by conferring licenses and franchises to corporations to rule the country. If water resources are exhausted, riverbeds can be leased or auctioned. When all these are exhausted, human beings, now fast becoming commodities can be sold in international market. After all, under the WTO regime it is the Market which rules. India's Constitution, it is possible to argue, stands repealed to the extent it conflicts with the commands of Market, and the WTO.


The Corruption at the highest judicial level
"As chief judge he (Verres)   sold all his decisions, and he plundered the farmers of their crops, keeping the proceeds for himself. He was fond of art, and as he journeyed through the island he stole pictures, statues, vases, and any other objects of value which appealed to him from both private houses and temples. He crucified on the beach a trader who resisted his demands, so as to discourage similar conduct in others. Asked if he did not fear judgement when he returned to Rome, he replied that he intended to use two-thirds of his wealth to bribe the lawyers and judges, and that the third which remained would be quite sufficient to make him rich for life."  

Never had we heard so much being said by so many against the integrity of the judges. It is no solace for us that the Judges of the United States are no better, or even the great British Judiciary has been bitten by the vice of our Time. Even the judges are not seen to appreciate that when serious allegations are made by persons, not subjecting themselves to credible investigation can have only one result: the charges made would stand amply  proved in public mind. 


Reforms by Tiberius and Grachhus, and the morbid response of the ungrateful Roman citizenry. The Plight of those who work for public weal.

(i) 'Tiberius and Grachhus,  realizing how the real strength of Rome was being sapped and undermined, endeavoured to improve the situation by limiting the amount of land which any one could hold (in accordance with the Lex Licinia of 367 B.C.) and redistribution what was left over among the poorer citizens, as property which could not be alienated and for which they paid a nominal rent to the state.'
(ii)  'In his desire that the poorer classes should reap the benefits of empire  [Caius Grachhus ]  set up great corn  depots in Rome, where they could purchase corn at an exceptionally low price.'

(iii) 'He also proposed to pay the citizens  for their share in government, a scheme  that worked well under Pericles. But Rome was not Athens.'
"When Tiberius became tribune in I33 B.C. he tried to rouse the Romans to a sense of their position: 'The beasts which roam over Italy', he declared, 'have each his den, his resting-place; they who fought for Italy have only light and air as their share in it … called masters of the world, you have not really a clod to call your own.'
But the work of Tiberius and his brother Caius ended in failure: senatorial authority was too strong; the Roman mob was little better then canaille utterly demoralized and unprincipled; it was easy to work upon their ignorant prejudices; and at the end of his year of office in I33 B.C. Tiberius Gracchus was murdered by them, while eleven years later his brother Caius experienced the same fate……. His unselfish soul never dreamed that those who shouted for their own freedom would deny liberty to others……"

"It was during the struggle for independence that it  had been realized that political independence without social and economic freedom was not enough. The cultivators of land should acquire ownership rights. The Congress Agrarian Reforms Committee had prepared a blue print of the abolition of intermediaries of all kinds." "The Planning Commission noted  the existence of impediments of the pre-independence agrarian system and realized that their removal was necessary to bring about changes in the agrarian structure to realize the constitutional objective of a just social order." "The Constitution (Twenty-fifth Amendment) Act, 1971 inserted a new Article 31C in the Constitution to protect legislations enacted to give effect to directive principles contained in Article 39(b) and (c) against a challenge on the ground of alleged inconsistency with fundamental rights guaranteed….The Supreme Court from beginning till today has upheld the validity of agrarian reform legislation against all kinds of attack."
 But we have forgotten all those ideas and ideals. Who remembers Art 51A of our Constitution:  "to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our  national struggle for freedom". The   Zamindari system (we may call it 'corporate zamindari') is back.  The Special Economic Zones, and other ventures  in the Special Economic Zones  are negation of our constitutional commitments. Farmers are dying in thousands: how many of them are dead is a matter for speculation for our Stock-Market ruled Government. Our people have forgotten their commitments to the great cause, perhaps believing as the decadent Romans had once felt: "no point in steadfast adherence to a cause, when no cause is important or has a chance of stable victory… The man, whose virtue has no source except a purely terrestrial prudence will, in such a world, become an adventurer if he has the courage, and, if not, will seek obscurity as a timid time-server."







The greatest irony of history is that  the 'great beast', the demos, could be easily befooled. "The only result of paying the citizens of Rome was to turn them into the most shameless species of paupers, ready to support Gracchus when he gave them what they wanted, but quite as ready to go against him when a fellow tribune named Drusus, put up to it by the Senate, outbid him in the Comitia with wild promises which he never intended to fulfil."


The political realities in our world's some of the greatest so-called democracies reveal themselves the political morality of the wielders of political power. Harold Pinter has aptly said: " …. the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power." Here, in our country the cleavage between practice and precepts is so shockingly wide that a candid reflection on the situation becomes difficult.
[ But Indian genius deserves to be understood well. The common Americans might have appeared " great beast. " to Alexander Hamilton , the common  people of  our country  have insight, critical sense, and competence  to see through games.. ]



During the declining years of the Roman Republic the popular representative institutions lost vigour, creativity and assertiveness. The Senate of the Republic even persuaded to appoint Caesar the dictator. After the battle of Pharsalus, it had a short melodramatic existence but ever bleeding fast to death.

The Executive government thinks its Treaty-making power is not under our Constitution's discipline. It could enter into the WTO Treaty without Parliament's approval.  Our Parliament could not inhibit the Executive assigning legislative powers to the WTO.  Our Constitution does not permit assignment or outsourcing of legislative or judicial powers.  The Indian citizens do not vote for the WTO .





The republican democracy was dead. "Roman was thus an aristocratic republic."    Carthage was 'the great commercial republic.'

Our democracy is critically ill. "Indian democracy appears to be tottering. Corruption charges  have been leveled against chief ministers and prime ministers. With no one owning responsibility,  democracy is  taking a beating…. " 'The foundations of the Constitutions have been shaken by the folly of the people, the corruption of our politicians and the negligence of the elite"   "India, the republic, is now on sale. Participating in the auction is a group of powerful individuals, corporate houses, lobbyists, bureaucrats and journalists." Under the present-day neoliberal paradigm, powerful vested interests have transformed the present-day republics into oligarchic republics. We see with what nakedness the corporate oligarchy calls shots even in our own country. 



Decline of  Senate
"More important was a decline in morale, a loss of heart, evident  even in the Senate, the body which should have led the Commonwealth in the civic virtues of honour and independence, courage and patriotism. No contrast can be more tragic than the picture which Levy paints of the Roman Senate in the days  of its glory during the Punic Wars, and the image of the same assembly abasing itself in servile adulation before the somber Tiberius, which Tacitus presents to his readers."

Decline of Parliament
I would set forth my reflections on our Parliament at work in the next Chapter.


We are, when all is said, incorrigible optimists

I have drawn up the portrait of our plight with the sole objective to stimulate our great people to think of our sad comedown. I am sure that we can set our affairs right. If we assert with wisdom and creativity, we can prove our worth, and make our country great. Time has come.

Uddhared atmanatmanam

Natmanam avasadayet

Atmaiva hy atmano bandhur

Atmaiva ripur atmanah. [28]

[We can lift ourselves through our endeavours alone. We must not degrade ourselves through our actions or inactions. We are ourselves our friends, and are ourselves are our foes.]

Prometheus in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound establishes the triumph of the moral order ensuring the existence of Hope despite all the sufferings of being bound on the wheel of fire. Demogorgon, who overthrew the tyrant Jupiter, whose wrath Prometheus suffered, comes to tell people to struggle to save what we cherish for the weal of all :

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night;

To defy Power which seems Omnipotent;

To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates. . .

We must interpret our Constitution in accordance with ethics of a democratic republican polity. Joseph Storey had aptly said in The Miscellaneous Writings of Joseph Storey; "Frame constitutions of government with what wisdom and foresight we may, they must be imperfect, and leave something to discretion, and much to public virtue." Art 20(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany goes to say:

"All Germans have the right to resist any person seeking to abolish the constitutional order, should no other remedy be possible."

Though our Constitution does not say such a thing in so many words, such commitments are implied in our Constitution also as this Constitution too has been made by 'We, the People' in whom the unalienable ultimate political authority vests. .Our Constitution makes certain high constitutional functionaries to swear to 'uphold' our Constitution. But it is ever abiding duty of the political sovereign, 'We, the People', to keep even them under critical vigilance. Ultimately the people alone can protect, preserve, and destroy the Constitution they have framed through their representatives. Only time would judge us and our institutions whether our wisdom matches with the responsibility which our Destiny has cast on us. How infinitely wise was Sachchidananda Sinha, provisional Chairman of the Constituent Assembly, in quoting the words of the great Joseph Story who, after praising the features of his country's Constitution, warned its keepers:

'The structure has been erected by architects of consummate skill and fidelity;…. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, THE PEOPLE. Republics are created – these are the words which I commend to you for your consideration – by the virtue, public spirit and intelligence of the citizens. They fall when the wise are banished from the public councils because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded because they flatter the people in order to betray them.'

[1] Quotations are from, and the exposition of the situations in the Roman Republic is based on, Chapter XII (The Roman Republic ) of An Outline History of the World by H.A. Davies (Oxford, 1937 ed. Reprint 1950)

* Taken from my Autobiographical Memoir, On the Loom of Time (Chapter 21 ).

[2] H.A. Davies, An Outline History of the World p. 172

[3] Shivajirao Nilangaker Patil v. Mahesh Madhav Gosavi, AIR 1987 SC 294 at page 311and 306 (repeated in R. S Das v. Union AIR 1987 SC 593 at 598).

[4] The Statesman, 27 Sept. 1992. in C.R. Irani, Caveat p.33

[5] Smt. . Sonia Gandhi , as reported in the Times of India dated Nov. 20, 2010 (Patna edition)

[6] The editorial in the Times of India dated Nov. 18, 2010 (Patna edition)

[7] Prof Arun Kumar of JNU , 'Honesty is indivisible' ( The Hindu of Jan 30, 2011)

[8] Wikipedia. Accessed on March 18, 2010

[9] Alan Beattie, False Economy P. 222 (Viking, 2009)

[10] H.A. Davies, An Outline History of the World p. 172

[11] H.A. Davies, An Outline History of the World p. 182

[12] Fisher, A History of Europe P.77

[13] Prof. Arun Kumar, The Black Money Economy of India Ch.5

[14] Quoted from my Intervention Petition in Good Governance India Foundation & Anr. v. Union of India & Anr. W.P.(C.) No. 679 of 2007 before the Supreme Court of India

[15] H.A. Davies, An Outline History of the World p. 174

[16] The WTO admits that 'Overall, the results of the negotiations provide a framework for the long-term reform of agricultural trade and domestic policies over the years to come." "The terms, tone and temper of the Agreement on Agriculture, under the WTO under the WTO umbrella no different from those which had been shown by the imperialists in such treaties as the Treaty of Allahabad, the Treaty of Nanking, the Treaty of Wanghia and the Treaty of Whampoa while spreading imperialism in the 18th and the 19th centuries.". "It was during the struggle for independence itself that the Indian National Congress had realized that political independence without social and economic freedom was not enough. It was also accepted that the permanent settlement of 1793 must be repealed and actual cultivator of land should be granted ownership rights. The Congress Agrarian Reforms Committee had prepared a blue print of the abolition of intermediaries of all kinds." [ Prof. M.L. Upadhyaya, Law, Poverty & Development (Taxman) p. 104];. "The Planning Commission noted the existence of impediments of the pre-independence agrarian system and realized that their removal was necessary to bring about changes in the agrarian structure to realize the constitutional objective of a just social order." [ ibid] "The Constitution (Twenty-fifth Amendment) Act, 1971 inserted a new Article 31C in the Constitution to protect legislations enacted to give effect to directive principles contained in Article 39(b) and (c ) against a challenge on the ground of alleged inconsistency with fundamental rights guaranteed….The Supreme Court from beginning till today has upheld the validity of agrarian reform legislation against all kinds of attack."[16] [Prof. M.L. Upadhyaya]."The effect of the Agreement on Agriculture is in utter forgetfulness of our constitutional commitment of binding nature. The constitutional commitments have been given up under the WTO instructions/ influence. Zamindari system is back." 'The Special Economic Zones, and other ventures in the Special Economic Zones are negation of our constitutional commitments. Farmers are dying in thousands: how many are dead is a matter for speculation for our Stock-Market ruled Government". [ all are the extracts from my Writ Petition ( c) 445 of 2006 that I had filed before the Supreme Court of India.

[17] H.A. Davies, An Outline History of the World p. 184

[18]H.A. Davies, An Outline History of the World p. 174

[19] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy p. 237

[20] H.A. Davies, An Outline History of the World p. 175

[21] Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival p. 5

[22] H.A. Davies, An Outline History of the World p. 164

[23] H.A. Davies, An Outline History of the World p. 166

[24] Prof. Arun Kumar, The Black Money Economy of India Ch.5

[25] Nani Palkhivala, Selected Writings p. 75 (Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, 1999)

[26] Outlook, the weekly magazine Nov. 29, 2010

[27] H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe P.108

[28] The Bhagvad Gita VI. 5

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