THE SECRET LIVES OF WORDS

Elections in Apalachicola and ancient Rome

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The two most important agenda for citizens in a healthy democracy are voting and following The Golden Rule. A headline I spotted recently offers another invaluable reminder: “The People Counting the Votes… Are Our Friends and Neighbors.”

We held a successful mid-term election earlier this month, in Franklin County and across the country, and by “successful” I mean, not that your candidates and mine were necessarily all elected, but that procedures appear to have gone smoothly enough and folks pretty much followed that “do unto others” principle of decent behavior and responsible citizenry. Good for us, good for America!

If our candidates won, we celebrated graciously; if not, we (and those who lost) accepted the outcome and moved on, rejoicing that we have the right to vote and that we and our neighbors freely exercised that right and were “good losers” or “good winners,” as our moms and dads dutifully taught us to be. I expect that here in Franklin County and hopefully throughout Florida and the U.S., we’ll enjoy a similar experience in 2024.

Elections worked differently in ancient Rome. After 250 years of monarchy, where kings were appointed or seized power, Rome’s last monarch was overthrown ca. 500 B.C. and a Republic (from Latin res publica, “the people’s property”) was established with provisions for regularly elected magistrates.

A model for our own founders, Rome’s Republican government was tripartite, with an executive office (two consuls elected annually), a judiciary (headed by justices called “praetors,” also elected), and a bicameral legislature. The people’s assemblies were an approximate counterpart to our House of Representatives, and the Senate (Lat. Senatus, as in SENior), originally a council of elder statesmen, was later automatically filled, at the end of their terms of office, by elected treasury officials known as quaestors, who then were senators for life.

The country’s slogan was Senatus Populusque Romanus/SPQR, “The Senate and the Roman People.” Not all those people were treated equally, however. Slaves and women could neither vote nor hold office, and the votes of free male citizens, who were divided into classes based on wealth, were heavily weighted to favor the rich.

Nevertheless, the Republic endured for nearly five centuries. Sadly, the Republic’s last hundred years were marked by a series of bloody civil conflicts, the result of failures not unfamiliar to us today — collusion among politicians and financiers, an enormous income gap, and, in Rome, the disenfranchisement of a large proportion of the population, in the U.S., efforts by some (Not in Apalach!) to make voting more difficult than it ought to be.

You likely know the rest of the story in broad outline, if only from Elizabeth Taylor’s “Cleopatra” or Shakespeare: Caesar’s illegal march on Rome in 49 B.C., his dictatorship, and his assassination on the Ides of March, 44; the defeat of Mark Antony and his consort, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, by Caesar’s nephew and heir Octavian; and Octavian’s ascension, as Caesar Augustus (“The Revered One”), to the role of emperor, a post he held for some 40 years, effectively transforming the Republic to an imperial autocracy.

There are lessons to be learned from the collapse of Rome’s electoral system and the peaceful transfer of power. We seem thus far to be dodging that bullet here in the U.S. - something to be truly thankful for this Thanksgiving - and I’m hopeful we can long continue to do so. One sure path is by preserving, and exercising, our right to vote.

Americans can do it, Floridians can, and the good folks of Apalach and Franklin County can - in 2024 and in all future elections. Vote always for the candidates of your choice, Democrat, Republican, or Independent; not voting is never a rational or patriotic option.

If you vote in person, be sure to tip your hat to your precinct’s staffers and volunteers who, in ensuring the integrity of our election processes, labor to assure the vitality of our precious democracy. And, please, never forget The Golden Rule.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin and Classics at the University of Georgia; his latest books are The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of his widely distributed newspaper columns, and Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. He and wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.

Elections, Rick LaFleur, Franklin County, Rome

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