Coin Reveals Historic Rome’s Combat In opposition to Voter Intimidation

David B. Hollander/The Dialog

This silver denarius, minted over 2,000 years in the past, is hardly essentially the most enticing Roman coin. And but, the coin is significant proof for the early levels of a political wrestle that culminated in Caesar’s assassination and the autumn of the Roman Republic.

I first encountered this coin whereas learning Roman historical past in graduate faculty. Its uncommon design gave me pause – this one depicted figures strolling throughout a slim bridge and dropping one thing right into a field. I moved on after studying it depicted voting, reasoning that Roman mint officers often made idiosyncratic decisions.

However as voting entry evolves within the U.S., the political significance of this centuries-old coin appears extra compelling. It seems that efforts to control voting entry go means again.

Roman Voting

Voting was a core function of the Roman Republic and a common exercise for politically lively residentsMales, and solely males, may vote in a number of elections and legislative assemblies annually. So why would P. Licinius Nerva, the official accountable for this coin, select to depict such a banal exercise?

The reply lies in voting procedures that generally closely favored elites.

The Roman Forum was a common site of political activities. (BeBo86/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Roman Discussion board was a typical website of political actions. (BeBo86/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Within the comitia centuriata, the meeting that elected Rome’s chief magistrates, every citizen was a member of a voting unit primarily based on wealth. Unit members voted to resolve which candidates they collectively supported, like U.S. presidential elections the place it’s not the favored vote however the variety of Electoral Faculty votes that determines the winner.

The wealthiest Romans managed greater than half of the voting items on this meeting. The poorest residents had only one voting unit; since they voted final, and solely throughout unsure outcomes, they may not vote in any respect.

Moreover, residents voted orally and overtly. Elites may straight observe and doubtlessly intimidate poorer voters.

Regulating Roman Electioneering

That every one started to vary in 139 BC when the Roman politician Aulus Gabinius handed a regulation mandating written ballots for elections. Two additional legal guidelines, each handed within the 130s, prolonged using written ballots to legislative voting and most trial juries.

These written ballots made it tougher for elites to affect voting however not inconceivable. Every unit fashioned its personal line resulting in a bridge the place voters obtained ballots to mark and place in a basket. Elites may station themselves or their allies on the bridge to encourage folks to vote the “proper” means.

The reverse of Nerva’s coin depicts the reception and deposit of the poll, the primary and final moments of a voter’s time on the bridge. The absence of nonvoter figures on the coin, aside from a ballot employee, is essential to understanding its message.

Reverse of a Roman silver coin minted by P. Nerva, circa 113 BC. (American Numismatic Society)

Reverse of a Roman silver coin minted by P. Nerva, circa 113 BC. (American Numismatic Society)

In 119 BC, a younger politician named Gaius Marius handed a regulation that narrowed voting bridge widths, permitting voters to mark their ballots with out elites trying over their shoulders. Nerva’s coin, minted six or seven years later, nearly definitely refers again to this regulation. By exhibiting solely voters on the bridge, Nerva was celebrating an essential voting rights victory and saying his allegiance to Marius.

The aristocrats by no means managed to repeal the voting legal guidelines and had been nonetheless grumbling about them even because the Republic collapsed.

The lengthy Roman wrestle over voting procedures supplies a helpful and even perhaps comforting reminder. Altering state voting legal guidelines and election lawsuits are nothing new. The struggle over voter entry to the poll is an inevitable facet impact of democracy.

Prime picture: left obverse and proper reverse of the silver denarius from Rome, dated 113-112 BC. Supply: American Numismatic Society

This text was initially revealed underneath the title ‘Historic Rome efficiently fought towards voter intimidation − a political story informed on a coin that resonates at present’ by David B. Hollander on The Dialog, and has been republished underneath a Artistic Commons License.

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