I've written several essays about Islam, the West and our supposedly shared Greco-Roman heritage. One part of this legacy which we definitely didn't share was secular Roman law. Here is what Norman Davies says in his monumental book Europe: A History, page 173: "It is often said that Roman law is one of the pillars of European civilization. And so, indeed, it is. Latin lex means 'the bond', 'that which binds'. The same idea underlies that other keystone of Roman legality, the pactum or 'contract'. Once freely agreed by two parties, whether for commercial, matrimonial, or political purposes, the conditions of the contract bind the parties to observe it. As the Romans knew, the rule of law ensures sound government, commercial confidence, and orderly society."This does not mean that the legal traditions of Rome were bequeathed to modern Europe by any simple line of direct inheritance. Most of the law codes fell into disuse with the disintegration of the Roman Empire and had to be rediscovered in medieval times, at which point they had to compete with other, and often contradictory, legal practices. Davies again:
"Rome was only one of several sources of European jurisprudence. Customary law, in all its diversity, was equally important. In some countries, such as France, a balance was achieved between Roman and customary traditions. In most of Germany, the Roman law arrived in the fifteenth century, at a very late date. In England, exceptionally, the common law, modified by the principles of equity, was to gain a virtual monopoly. Even so, the Roman distinction between the public and the private domains was to suit the purposes of Europe's growing polities; and civil law in most European countries was to be based on codified principles in the Roman fashion (as opposed to the Anglo-American concept of legal precedent). In this regard, the single most influential institution came to be the French Code Napoléon (1804). Whatever their connections, all educated European lawyers acknowledged their debt to Cicero and to Cicero's successors. It was Cicero, in De legibus, who wrote: Salus populi suprema lex, 'the safety of the people is the highest law'. One could equally say that the rule of law provides the people with the highest degree of safety."
According to Henry Bamford Parkes in Gods and Men - The Origins of Western Culture, page 310:
"To these tribalistic attitudes the Romans added another and most essential virtue: strict good faith (fides) in the execution of treaties, agreements, and promises. Their belief that states and individuals were bound by contractual obligations pervaded their whole view of life, and led to the practice of an elementary honesty that may be regarded as the basic Roman contribution to human development. This was the quality that especially differentiated the Romans from all their rivals and made it possible for them not only to conquer an empire, but also to organize it. Unlike their Greek and Near Eastern competitors, the Romans could trust each other and could inspire confidence in foreign peoples. Institutionalized in the Roman legal system, the Roman emphasis on the performance of contracts became through this medium an essential part of the Western tradition….Romans never wholly lost their respect for personal integrity and the consequent sense of mutual trust. For this reason Roman political and social life differed in its whole tone and atmosphere from that of Greece, and is much more nearly intelligible to the modern West."
We often label the civilization of the Roman Empire "Greco-Roman," and with good reason. The Romans adopted and spread many Greek achievements in arts and the sciences, yet they didn't think they had much to learn from the Greeks in war, law and politics; the Greek language was never used in the military and legal fields. Why did the Romans admire the Greeks in particular out of all the numerous peoples that they conquered? Here is the opinion of Nicholas Ostler in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, page 253:
"The Greeks were the masters of luxury, and it took little higher discernment to want more of this. The Latin word pergraecari, 'to Greek off', meant devotion not to high thinking but to high living, feasting and drinking. At the same time, the sheer knowledge possessed by the Greeks impressed the Romans: the Greeks knew their own history, as well as that of their neighbours, they could theorise on any topic, and provide quotations from poetry centuries old. Above all, they were fluent and convincing speakers: they had been trained in how to hold an audience, and get people to do what they wanted. This explicit skill in rhetoric was highly in demand in the civic society that the Romans had created, where people were constantly running for office at every level from village council to the republic itself, and measures were presented orally for approval by assemblies. Above all, we can see the Romans (and hence the whole Mediterranean world) attracted by the sheer sense of savoir-faire generated by a large-scale and highly elaborated culture, self-confident to the point of solipsism."
After rapid military advances during the second century BC, the Romans controlled most of the Greek-speaking world. At the same time, well-educated Romans could be counted on to be bilingual in Greek. Romans came to be educated on a Greek pattern, but with a strong emphasis on poetry and the practice of public speaking: the musical and gymnastic sides were rather neglected. The tutors were typically bilinguals of Greek extraction. Educated Greeks could find employment as educators all over the Mediterranean.
It is no coincidence that one of the greatest orators of Roman Antiquity, the lawyer, statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), had studied with Greek rhetoricians and teachers. He introduced some aspects of Greek philosophy to a Latin-speaking audience and thus provided Romans (and later Europeans) with some of their philosophical vocabulary. His learning benefited his political career and much of his extensive writings have been preserved, in fact more than that of any other Latin author. A contemporary with Gaius Julius Caesar (100–44 BC), Cicero lived during the early phases of the turbulent period when the Roman Republic ended and became the Roman Empire. It is almost impossible to exaggerate Cicero's influence throughout European history. Thinkers from Saint Augustine (354–430 AD) in Late Antiquity via Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) to William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and leading figures of the Enlightenment were familiar with Cicero's writings, yet he was almost totally ignored in the Islamic world.
One of the most persistent myths promoted by Eurabian Multiculturalists is that of the "shared Greco-Roman heritage" between Europeans and Arabs which is now going to lay the foundations for a new Mediterranean Union, Eurabia. It is true that countries such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Algeria were just as much a part of the Roman Empire as were England, France and Spain. However, the Arab conquerors later rejected many elements of the Greco-Roman era once they invaded these nations. Many Greek classics were translated to Arabic, but Muslims were highly particular about which texts to exclude. There was a great deal of Greek thought that could never have been "transferred" to Europeans by Arabs, as is frequently claimed today, because many Greek works had never been translated into Arabic in the first place. Muslims especially turned down political texts since these included descriptions of systems in which men ruled themselves according to their own laws. This was considered blasphemous by Muslims, as laws are made by Allah and rule belongs to his representatives. Even Aristotle's (384-322 BC) political texts were turned down.
As Iranian intellectual Amir Taheri states, "To understand a civilisation it is important to understand its vocabulary. If it was not on their tongues it is likely that it was not on their minds either. There was no word in any of the Muslim languages for democracy until the 1890s. Even then the Greek word democracy entered Muslim languages with little change: democrasi in Persian, dimokraytiyah in Arabic, demokratio in Turkish.…It is no accident that early Muslims translated numerous ancient Greek texts but never those related to political matters. The great Avicenna himself translated Aristotle's Poetics. But there was no translation of Aristotle's Politics in Persian until 1963." According to scholar John Dunn, the word demokratia entered modern Western discourse in the 1260s in the Latin translation by the Dominican Friar William of Moerbeke (ca. 1215-1286 AD) of Aristotle's Politics, "the most systematic analysis of politics as a practical activity which survived from the ancient world." The Flemish scholar William of Moerbeke was fluent in Greek, made highly accurate translations directly from Byzantine Greek originals and even improved earlier, flawed translations of some works. His Latin translation of Aristotle's Politics was completed around 1260 and helped expand the political vocabulary of Europe. The permanent recovery of Classical learning was undertaken as a direct transmission from Greek, Orthodox Christians to Western, Latin Christians, although earlier translations via Arabic had certainly increased the interest for these texts.
As historian Bernard Lewis states in his book What Went Wrong?: "In the vast bibliography of works translated in the Middle Ages from Greek into Arabic, we find no poets, no dramatists, not even historians. These were not useful and they were of no interest; they did not figure in the translation programs. This was clearly a cultural rejection: you take what is useful from the infidel; but you don't need to look at his absurd ideas or to try and understand his inferior literature, or to study his meaningless history."
Even Dimitri Gutas in his very pro-Islamic book Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (page 1) states that "from about the middle of the eighth century to the end of the tenth, almost all non-literary and non-historical secular Greek books that were available throughout the Eastern Byzantine Empire and the Near East were translated into Arabic." It is true that most scientific works in Greek, and some in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages, were translated during this period and that all later scholars in the Islamic world were deeply affected by these translated works. But as Gutas indicates, even at the best of times High Greek (and other non-Muslim) literature was never translated, not even the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. European scholars were interested in the entire body of learning and literature from the Greco-Roman era and from other cultures while Muslims consistently ignored much of it. Muslims who wanted translations of Greek or other non-Islamic works were primarily concerned with topics of medicine, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. They usually ignored playwrights and dramatists such as Sophocles (ca. 496-406 BC) and Euripides (ca. 484-406 BC) or historians such as Thucydides (460?–404? BC) and Herodotus (ca. 484–ca. 425 BC). This corpus of literature could only be saved from the originals preserved by Byzantine Christians since Roman times. There was a large body of Greek learning that was never available in Arabic in the first place. In addition to being selective about Greek works, Muslims showed little interest in Latin writers, for instance Cicero.The Greek historian Polybius (ca. 200-ca. 118 BC) spent a lot of time in Rome, first as a captive, and had plenty of opportunity to study the city's politics and rise to world power status. His writings later gained a renewed audience in Renaissance Italy, among them Machiavelli. He viewed the Roman constitution as nearly unique in being a "mixed constitution" which had not been created by a lawgiver, as Sparta's had allegedly been by Lycurgus in the seventh century BC, but had developed over time in a process of evolution, the only parallel being the constitution of Carthage. For Polybius the powers of the consuls, the Senate and the people constituted respectively the monarchic, the aristocratic and the democratic elements of this mixed constitution. He viewed the organic growth of this constitution, with a complex system of natural checks and balances, as one of the reasons for the rise of Rome to preeminence. Modern historians obviously look at many factors as well, but political institutions are still considered important. Stoicism was one of the Greek philosophical doctrines that played an even greater role among the Romans than among the Greeks, but Cicero does not mention Stoic doctrine as one of his sources for the De Re Publica. In contrast, the influence of Aristotelian doctrine from the Politics and other works is clearly evident – something which Cicero himself stressed. Here is Andrew Lintott in his book The Constitution of the Roman Republic, page 221:
"Cicero takes over the classification of three good unmixed constitutions, paired with three corrupt ones. He holds that the good, even though they have no particular failings, may degenerate into their corresponding corrupt counterparts. However, following Aristotle rather than Plato and Polybius, he does not think that this is inevitable or, more specifically, that a single natural one-way process determines such changes. There are instead a number of cycles, which allow a tyranny or oligarchy, for example, to be followed by any of the other simple constitutions. Like Aristotle again, Cicero believes that human society does not only derive from weakness and a need for protection but from a natural social instinct, leading to a pursuit of common interests and an acceptance of law. In the light of this he sees the advantage of the mixed constitution to be in what he calls aequabilitas, evenhandedness, which allows privilege to the aristocracy and liberty and participation to the common people. Cicero's ideal, then, is a society held together by just organization, and this is how he envisages the constitution of the Roman Republic, not as something produced by evolution and conflict and relying on mutual threats…as portrayed by Polybius."
Machiavelli was more influenced by Roman than by Greek Antiquity, and his view of politics, as controversial today as it was in the early sixteenth century, differs sharply from the planned, idealistic views of Plato. He was intimately familiar with Cicero's work. Lintott again, page 243: "We find, therefore, in Machiavelli an appreciation of the Roman Republic which goes far beyond what he read in the pages of Livy, or in the other ancient sources, and an interpretation which is highly perceptive, complex, and idiosyncratic. In particular, like Polybius, he subtly makes a virtue out of the conflict between classes and institutions that others considered a fatal vice and indeed he himself concedes to have been at the root of the Republic's final downfall. This view in particular will be seen to have had an important influence on later political thought."
The Founding Fathers of the United States, among them John Adams (1735–1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), were all familiar with both Enlightenment thought and Classical writers. Lintott, page 252:
"John Adams used ancient examples of mixed governments, including that of the Roman Republic, as a guide to the form of state government he advocated, including a representative senate as well as a representative assembly in order to avoid giving too much power to the democratic element. His reluctance to imitate Greek democracy too closely was based on belief in the fundamental imperfection of mankind, its greedy pursuit of self-interest and susceptibility to emotion. James Madison, moreover, argued this same point strongly in The Federalist, when advocating the limitation on the number of representatives in the Congress and the creation of a federal senate. 'In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.' '…History informs of no long-lived republic which had not a senate.' The Anti-Federalists remained attracted by the model of the self-contained face-to-face society of the classical city republic with its assembly, rotating magistracies, and citizen militia (the history of Rome showed what happened when a citizen militia was replaced with a standing army under a powerful executive)."
The writings of Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) and James Madison (1751–1836), the "father" of the American Constitution, in The Federalist in the late 1780s appear under the name of Publius, that is, Publius Valerius Publicola (d. 503 BC), the founder of the Roman Republic. Andrew Lintott writes in The Constitution of the Roman Republic, page 254:
"However, the overriding aim of Madison and Hamilton was to combine the strength and effectiveness of a united central authority with the liberty they had fought for, and here the division of powers in the Roman Republic (and in the constitution of classical Sparta) provided not so much a model as a mark to surpass. Here their acceptance, indeed presumption, of conflict between interests as a means of preventing any single authority in government exercising a tyrannical predominance owed much to the entrenchment of opposition between elements of the Republic at Rome, as it had been expounded by Polybius, Machiavelli, and their successors, even though Hamilton and Madison did not envisage in America the violent conflicts that had occurred at Rome and had no wish to encourage class-consciousness among their own plebeians. In short, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Roman Republic to western political thought is the legitimacy and desirability of opposition and competition as constituents of liberty and stimulants of effective government."As the great thinker and economist F.A. Hayek says in his Constitution of Liberty, the modern concept of political liberty and limited government can hardly be traced farther back than seventeenth century England, and even there it was more an accidental result of a struggle than a deliberate aim. The Magna Carta (1215 AD) and similar documents played a part as weapons in this, but the struggle itself was new. Outside of England, especially in France, the parliaments and political liberty of enjoyed during medieval times had declined with the rise of absolutism. Hayek, on page 145, explains Aristotle's views on law and government:
"In the Politics he stresses that 'it is more proper that the law should govern than any of the citizens,' that the persons holding supreme power 'should be appointed only guardians and servants of the law,' and that 'he who would place supreme power in mind, would place it in God and the laws.' He condemns the kind of government in which 'the people govern and not the law' and in which 'everything is determined by majority vote and not by law.'…If we add to this the following passage in the Rhetoric, we have indeed a fairly complete statement of the ideal of government by law: 'It is of great moment that well drawn laws should themselves define all the points they possibly can, and leave as few as possible to the decision of the judges, [for] the decision of the lawgiver is not particular but prospective and general, whereas members of the assembly and the jury find it their duty to decide on definite cases brought before them.' There is clear evidence that the modern use of the phrase 'government by laws and not by men' derives directly from this statement of Aristotle."
The spirit of the laws of free Rome was transmitted to us mainly in the works of the historians and orators of the period, who later became influential during the Renaissance and into the seventeenth century. The most prominent of them were Cicero, the Roman historian Titus Livius, or Livy (ca. 59 BC–AD 17) and Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 AD-ca. 120 AD), senator and maybe the greatest historian who wrote in the Latin language. Hayek, page 146:
"Livy….who supplied Harrington with the distinction between the government of law and the government of men – Tacitus and, above all, Cicero became the chief authors through whom the classical tradition spread. Cicero indeed became the main authority for modern liberalism, and we owe to him many of the most effective formulations of freedom under the law. To him is due the conception of general rules or leges legum, which govern legislation, the conception that we obey the law in order to be free, and the conception that the judge ought to be merely the mouth through whom the law speaks. No other author shows more clearly that during the classical period of Roman law it was fully understood that there is no conflict between law and freedom and that freedom is dependent upon certain attributes of the law, its generality and certainty, and the restrictions it places on the discretion of authority."
Virtually everything that I have quoted in this essay was ignored by Muslims throughout Islamic history. There was no institution similar to the English Parliament in the Islamic world, nor was there developed a concept similar to Montesquieu's (1689–1755 AD) separation of powers, and the political writings of Aristotle, Cicero and others was aggressively rejected. All the elements underlying the American political system were thus rejected by Muslims before the USA had even been created. If Americans had remembered that, they might have been less eager to export their political system to Muslim countries. They might also have remembered that the idea that "democracy" is 100% good and the only valid political system is naïve. It is a development of the period after the French Revolution and was not shared by serious thinkers before this, including the American Founding Fathers.