Nature of Roman Political Thought. In general, the Romans derived their philosophical ideas from the Greeks, the doctrines of the Stoics being especially popular. Deliberate purpose played little part in the creation of Roman political institutions. Aside from the general policy of playing off her enemies one against another, and of attaching each newly conquered region directly to herself, the empire resulted from the situation that confronted Rome, and not from any general plan or theory.
Even after the completion of the imperial system, no effort was made by any Roman writer to formulate a system of political philosophy, as Aristotle had done for the Greek world. However, the Romans, in applying to the facts of political life some of the ideas which they borrowed from the Greeks, reduced them to more definite form, and in their system of government and law they unconsciously applied certain principles which mark an advance over Greek thought.
Among these the most important was the idea of positive law. This involved the separation of politics and ethics, the formation of an abstract conception of the state, distinct from society in general, and the development of the idea of the legal personality and of the political sovereignty of the state as a maker of law.
In Roman thought the state did not absorb the individual, as in the theory of Plato, nor was the state considered non-essential as in the teachings of the Epicureans. The Romans separated state and individual, each having definite rights and duties. The state was a necessary and natural framework for social existence; but the individual, rather than the state, was made the center of legal thought, and the protection of the rights of the individual was the main purpose for which the state existed.
The state was thus viewed as a legal person, exercising its authority within definite limits; and the citizen was viewed as a legal person, having rights which were to be safeguarded against other persons and against illegal encroachment by the government itself. On the basis of this conception, the elaborate system of Roman law was created.
The content of this law is plain. It is to be found in the works of Gaius and Ulpian and in the Justinian Code. Its source, however, is less clear. Conflicting beliefs and a divergence of practice from theory complicate the issue. A belief in divine-right absolutism was supported, as just mentioned, in some circles during the years of Roman imperialism. At the same time, however, the established view that ultimate authority resided in the people still claimed adherents.
According to this view, the emperors were said to receive their authority from the citizens and were considered to be responsible to them. In practice, nevertheless, this latter group conceded that the emperor’s will had the force of law. His decrees replaced popular action and he came to be considered as the sole legislator. The justification for this is given by Ulpian in a famous passage.
The will of the Emperor has the force of law, because by the passage of the lex regia the people transfers to him and vests in him all its own power and authority.
Carlyle comments that few phrases are more remarkable than this almost paradoxical description of an unlimited personal authority founded upon a purely democratic basis. The Emperor’s will is law, but only because the people choose to have it so.
This transfer of power was in the form of a contract, an idea which played a large part in Roman legal theory. Like the Greeks, the Romans considered the state so natural as to need no justification, and the idea of a social contract by which men gave up their natural rights in order to form a body politic held no place in their thought.
On the other hand, they did develop the idea of a governmental contract, by which the authority of the people was delegated to the public officials. Once chosen, however, the power of the magistrate within his legal duties was complete, the people having no right to withdraw the powers which they had conferred.
The Romans recognized no right of revolution. Their idea of the governmental contract was similar to that held by Hobbes, rather than that of Locke; and, as in the case of Hobbes, they used the doctrine to justify autocratic government.
The creation of law also took the form of a contract during Rome’s earlier years. New laws were enacted in the form of an agreement between the magistrates and the people in their assemblies, being proposed by the former and ratified or rejected by the latter. Law was not a command imposed by a sovereign upon his subjects, but a contract arranged among the constituent organs of the state after negotiation.
The idea of contract was likewise important in Roman religious thought, their worship consisting largely of a bargain by which the worshiper agreed to perform certain ceremonial duties to the gods in return for certain expected benefits from them. Finally, the Romans clearly recognized the nature of a contractual relation among individuals and built up a large part of their private law upon that conception.