Ancient and modern

Rome’s collegiate system was more logical than America's

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

So Humpty Trumpty has had his great fall. But how democratic or logical was his election in the first place since, thanks to the USA’s ‘collegiate’ system, he became POTUS even though he lost by three million votes? Romans, too, used an undemocratic collegiate system for appointing their consuls, but at least there was a certain logic to it.

The logic arose from the Roman ‘class’ system. This defined both how much tax you paid, and in which ‘college’ you were placed for voting purposes. To these ends, regular property censuses divided citizens into seven bands by wealth.


The top band (equites) consisted of the richest in society, from which senators were drawn; then followed five classesgraded by wealth (expressed as the ability to provide armour); and finally the last band, the proletariiwho could provide only children (proles, ‘child’). The senate determined any annual tax-take as a fixed proportion of your wealth. Given Rome’s huge wealth inequality, the top band and first classispaid vastly more than any other.

This baffled the historian Livy: what was in it for the wealthy to agree to pay so much more than the poor? His answer was that these same bands also voted for the top officers of state. They did so ‘collegially’. The top band was made up of 18 ‘colleges’, yielding 18 votes, and the first classis of 80: total, 98 votes. The remainder consisted of 95 ‘colleges’, yielding 95 votes. So if the two top bands voted as one for a candidate, the rest need not bother.

As a result, just two bands — the wealthy and the best equipped (and presumably most experienced) soldiers — usually appointed Rome’s leaders. This gave the most politically and militarily experienced a grip on affairs of state, to which they themselves contributed far more tax than anyone else. Very logical.

By contrast, though all western voting systems have their anomalies, what is democratic, or logical, about the USA’s straight contest between two candidates such that the most votes do not necessarily determine the winner? It might almost have been designed by Mr Trump himself…

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