Republics are one of the world’s oldest and most successful forms of government. Republican governments have existed from ancient times, but history often obscures.
There were many Republics in the ancient world but only know the history of a few of them. Interestingly, some historians think the Buddha was born in the small republic of republic of the Sakka (Skt Sākya) in modern-day India between 642 BCE and 623 BCE.
Hence, there were republics in many parts of the Ancient World. Yet we only have detailed knowledge of a few republics in the Ancient Mediterranean. In particular, the Roman and Athenian Republics.
Notably, our knowledge of the second largest ancient republic, Carthage, is small. Partially, because Carthage was a Phoenician or Punic and not a Latin or Greek state. Additionally, the Romans destroyed Carthage and tried to erase its culture and government from history.
Republics are Not Democracies
Hence, republics are not a recent phenomenon. Yet they are now the world’s most popular form of government. Notably, the world’s three richest and most powerful nations in the early 21st century; the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of India call themselves republics.
Thus, a study of long-lasting republics can help us understand our world. We need a better knowledge of republics because many do not understand what republics are.
Notably, a republic is not automatically a democracy, as some American conservatives love to point out. Instead, a republic is a government whose leaders are not hereditary or aristocratic. Hence, the People’s Republic of China is a republic, even though it is far from democratic.
Similarly, both the United States and India have strongly undemocratic features. India has a powerful unelected civil service that controls some aspects of government, for instance. Conversely, the upper house of the US Congress (the Senate) is undemocratic because it does not represent most of of the American people.
The World’s Longest-Lasting Republics include:
The government of San Marino claims to be the world’s oldest continuous republic. Residents of San Marino, claim Marinus, a Christian stonemason feeling Roman persecution, founded their Republic in 301 AD.
San Marino is one of the world’s smallest nations. It has a population of around 33,400 people and an area of 23.6 square miles (61.2 square kilometers). The country is on the slopes of Italy’s Mount Titano.
A 60-member Grand and Great Council governs San Marino. The Council elects a 10-member Congress of State to run the government. Interestingly, San Marino still uses the Ancient Roman model of government in which the Grand and Great Council elects two captains regent to serve as heads of state every six months. The Roman Republic elected two counsels or chief executives.
Although Italy envelops it, San Marino is an independent country that is part of both the United Nations and the European Union. Interestingly, San Marino is the last survivor of many independent Italian republics that flourished during Mediaeval times and the Renaissance.
The Republic of Venice
The Republic of Venice, or Venetian Republic, endured for over 1,000 years.
They elected the First Doge (Chief Executive) of Venice Orso Ipato (Ursus) in the 8th Century AD. In 1797 Napoleon Bonaparte, ironically a general in the Army of the French Republic, destroyed the Venetian Republic by giving its territory to the Austrian Empire in the Treaty of Campoformio.
At its height in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Republic of Venice was the richest and most powerful nation in the Mediterranean. During the Renaissance, Venice was the cultural and financial center of Europe.
Venice’s power came from the Republic’s control of trade between Europe and Asia. In particular, the Venetian naval power dominated the trade routes in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. After 1100, Venice replaced Constantinople as the Western Terminus of the Silk Road that stretched all the way to China.
After 1400, Venice’s power declined as the Ottoman Empire conquered most of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Meanwhile, Portuguese, Dutch, and British sailors created new ocean trade routes that made direct European commerce with Asia possible. As the trade routes shifted, Venice’s wealth and power shrank.
Venice’s government comprised a Chief Executive who served for life (the Doge), an aristocratic senate and a legislative body they called the Great Council. In 1175 and 1179, they established two more legislative bodies, the Minor Council and Council of Forty (Quarantia) to give wealthy families power over the government.
In 1223, they combined the two councils into the Signora, which became Venice’s government. The Singora comprised the Doge, the Minor Council and representatives of the Quarantia. Interestingly, the Quarantia also functioned as Venice’s Supreme Court.
Similarly to the Roman Republic, Venice had several legislative bodies, including the Arrengo, which was theoretically a legislature comprising all Venetian citizens. For example, the Council of Ten (formed in 1310) became Venice’s primary decision-making body.
Although it was a Republic, Venice had one of Europe’s first secret police force, the Supreme Tribunal of state Inquisitors, who monitored the public for threats to the ruling elite. In later years, the Supreme Tribunal became an important legislative bod and assumed some powers of the Council of Ten.
The Republic of Venice created the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced navy and a large army. During the Cretan War (1645-1669) the Venetians fought alone against the world’s most powerful military machine – the Ottoman Empire. The Venetians could inflict massive losses on the Ottomans, although they eventually lost.
By 1796, however, Venice was so weak it surrendered to Napoleon’s army without firing a shot. The Republic of Venice defeated powerful enemies but couldn’t resist political and technological changes that destroyed the basis of its economy.
The Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the ancient world’s longest lasting and most successful republican regime.
The Roman Republic began around 509 BCE and lasted until 27 BCE. Hence, the Roman Republic lasted for around 482 years. In contrast, the United States is only 246 years old, dating to 1776 AD.
We can regard the Roman Republic as the most successful republic because it spawned the Roman Empire. The Republic created the Roman Empire by conquering the entire Mediterranean world and much of Europe.
The Roman Empire lasted from 27 BCE to 476 AD. Various successor states to the Roman Empire; including the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires lasted until the 20th century. The Byzantine Empire, which claimed to be the Roman Empire, lasted until 1204 AD. A reconstituted Byzantine Empire held out until 1453.
We know more about the Roman Republic than any other ancient regime. In particular, we know the basic structure of the republic’s government.
The Roman government comprised three legislative bodies, and a number of executives known as tribunes and consuls. The legislatures were the popular centuriate and tribal assemblies and the Senate. Theoretically, the centuriate assembly controlled foreign policy and the tribal assembly was Rome’s civil government. In reality, they concentrated most power in the aristocratic Senate.
Importantly, the Senate controlled Rome’s military and appointed the republic’s dual chief executives the Consuls. Senators served as generals and eventually gained the right to raise and command armies.
The Senate could also appoint a dictator. In the Roman Republic, the dictator was a chief executive who exercised absolute power in extreme emergencies. For example, the Senate appointed dictators when Rome faced invasion or civil war.
In its later history, the Roman Republic experimented with other governmental structures. Under Sulla and Julius Caesar, Rome became a military dictatorship. The powerful politicians, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, created another arrangement called the Triumvirate in which they shared power.
Caesar’s heir Octavian experimented with both dictatorship and a second triumvirate. Eventually, Octavian became a permanent dictator, and as Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor. Octavian became dictator and emperor by exercising total control political system but allowing a façade of the Republic to survive. Under Octavian, the Senate still functioned and elected consuls, but the dictator made all the decisions.
Interestingly, Romans of Augustus Caesar’s time thought they were still living in a Republic – not an absolute monarchy. The Romans did not realize they were living under an absolute monarchy until the mid-1st Century AD.
History shows republics can last for a long-time and flourish. Yet even the greatest republics, such as Rome and Venice, can vanish.