The Republic (Great Books Reading Project)

Every time that I have read The Republic I have found myself secretly hoping that Plato will change his mind and admit Homer. I am, as readers of this blog probably know, an ardent admirer of Homer. I have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey several times. I began my journey of learning Greek last summer by starting with Homer’s works. That Plato, whom I also admire a great deal, excludes him from his ideal state is more than a bit disturbing to me.

Yet, I do see Plato’s point. His argument could, I think, be used in a modified way to debate many of the texts that are used in America’s public schools. If we admit Aristotle’s point in the Poetics that even tragedy and seeing people and gods do bad has the effect of producing virtue in the viewer, I think we can reorient Plato’s argument to one about good and bad literature rather than good and bad in literature.

My most basic educational principle is that children should be exposed to the best that has ever been thought and said. Homer undoubtedly should be so classed. A good chunk of what children are reading in schools today should not be so classed. At the end of the day, I would rather that a high school student reads about Odysseus’s self-absorption or Achilles’s rage than that he reads the nonsense that is Dreaming Cuban or the anti-Western polemic “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry,” both of which are recommended in the Common Core State Standards. The former at least has something to teach us about what it means to be a human being, which is, I believe, the ultimate purpose of all literature.

What do you think?

The Roman Republic (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.3)

After the overthrow of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BC, the Romans decided to get rid of monarchy altogether and become a republic. Whereas one person rules the whole nation under a monarchy, all of the people take part in government in a republic. The Roman Republic is very different from the Athenian democracy in some important ways, but what they had in common was a concern that all citizens have the opportunity to have their voice heard and to help make decisions.

Not everyone was considered equal, however, and some people played a bigger role in governing Rome than others. Under the Roman Republic, there were two main social classes. They were called the patricians and the plebeians.

The patricians were the wealthy and powerful upper class of Rome. They claimed to be the descendants of the 100 men whom Romulus had chosen to help him rule the new city after he founded it. Only patricians could hold the highest and most powerful positions in Rome.

The other social class, called plebeians, was made up of all of the common people. Not all of the plebeians were poor, but almost none were as rich as the patricians. And none at all were more powerful than the patricians. The plebeians participated in the government under the Roman Republic by voting for their leaders.

The government of the Roman Republic had three layers. At the top were the consuls. Under the Republic, two elected consuls shared the highest and most powerful position in government. Consuls were members of the Senate who had been elected to serve one year terms as consul. The consuls’ most important power was that they controlled the army. No decision could be made by one consul without the other consul agreeing to it. Both consuls held the right to veto the decisions of the other.

The Senate consisted of 300 men, all of whom were from the patrician class. Senators were appointed by the consuls and, once appointed, served as senators for life. The senators were the lawmakers of the Roman Republic. They controlled all spending and approved other decisions made by the consuls.

The largest layer in the government of the Roman Republic was the Assembly. The Assembly was composed of all the plebeian citizens of Rome. The Assembly did not have a building to meet in like the Senate. Instead, the plebeians who wanted to vote gathered at the Forum, an open area near the center of the city of Rome. For the most part, the Assembly’s power was very limited. They could vote for or suggest laws, but the Senate could block their decisions. The Assembly could also vote to declare war but the Senate could override them on this also.

The Assembly did, however, have one right that made them very powerful. It was the members of the Assembly who voted each year on which two members of the Senate would serve as consuls. As a noble, if you wanted to rise to the level of Consul, the highest position in government under the Republic, you needed to gain the support of the plebeian class. Since it was the Consuls who filled empty seats in the Senate, if the Assembly chose their consuls well, they could slowly gain power in government by putting people in charge who were sympathetic to their needs. As a result, plebeians gained more rights over time and some of them even became very powerful and wealthy. A few plebeians were even able to become members of the patrician class!

Above all else, what made a person powerful and influential in Rome their ability to speak well. The Romans loved a good orator more than almost anything else. When the Assembly met at the Forum, many speeches were going on at the same time. One speaker might say, “Rome’s roads need repair!” Another speaker might say, “We need to stop crime in the streets.” If you wanted your speech to have an impact, it did not matter how rich or poor you were. What mattered was how persuasive you were as a speaker.


Review Questions

 1. What were the two social classes of the Roman Republic? Describe each social class.

2. What were the three layers of government under the Roman Republic? What was the job of each?


Vocabulary Words

 Orator – a public speaker, especially one who is eloquent or skilled.

Veto – Latin word meaning “I forbid;” the power to stop the enactment of a law

The Beginning of Rome (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.2)

Like most ancient civilizations, the Romans did not remember how their civilization had started. Instead, they told a legend about twin brothers named Romulus and Remus. According to the Roman legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of a princess and Mars, the god of war. Because the king, the father of the princess, feared that the two brothers, who were half-god and half-human, would try to take his power from him, he ordered them to be drowned in the Tiber River. The brothers were saved by a she-wolf, however, who took care of the babies until they were old enough to take care of themselves. When they became adults, they decided to found a new city. They disagreed, however, on where to found the city. As a result of their disagreement, they fought each other and Romulus murdered his brother Remus. Romulus then founded and became the first king of the city of Rome.

After the death of Romulus, a man named Numa Pompilius was selected by the Romans as their new king. Numa reigned for 43 years.. Numa spent much of his reign as king building large and beautiful buildings in Rome, such as a temple dedicated to the god Janus. During his time as king, the tradition developed of closing the doors to the temple during times of peace and keeping them open during times of war. Numa was able to keep the doors closed for almost his entire time as king by keeping peace with Rome’s neighbors.

A total of seven kings would reign over the Roman Kingdom. Unfortunately, not all of them were as wise and peaceful as Numa Pompilius. The seventh and final king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, for example, came to power by assassinating the king before him. Once he became king, he engaged Rome in wars with its neighbors and mistreated his own people. He was a tyrant who used violence and intimidation to make the Roman people obey his orders. He also showed disrespect to Roman customs and treated the leading men of Rome badly. The result was a revolution in 509 BC.

Although not everything always went well during the reigns of the seven kings, it was during this time that much of Roman culture took shape. Much of Roman culture came from an imitation of the Etruscans, a tribe who lived just north of Rome on the Italian peninsula. The Etruscans had a close relationship with the Greeks and resembled them in many ways, including their clothing styles, their art, and their religion. The Romans then adopted these parts of Greek culture from the Etruscans. It was during this period that Romans began to worship the Greek gods, though with different names, began to wear togas, and began to make statues and other art like the Greeks.

Rome eventually decided to put an end to its monarchy. The stories of its kings, though, continued to inspire the Roman people for many generations to come. The culture that the Romans had absorbed and developed during this period also became important to their way of life. It was when Rome became a republic, however, that their greatest success began.


Review Questions

 1. What are the names of the legendary founders of Rome? What is their relationship to each other?

2. What kind of government did Rome have at first? How many rulers did it have during this time?


Vocabulary Words

 Monarchy – rule by a king; in a monarchy, just one person has all of the power

Republic – rule by the people; in a republic, people vote for their leaders

Tyrant – a leader who uses his power for his own good and mistreats the people he rules over