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When does a politician cross a line between accepting a gift from a friend and taking a bribe? That’s a question that concerns Americans today, and, as political scientist Lisa Hill writes, it was also a big issue for people in ancient Athens and Rome.

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Hill writes that both societies had governments that were ripe for corruption. They had large bureaucracies, and many public officials were either unpaid or poorly paid. In many cases, legislators, judges, and bureaucrats also had big expenses, such as putting on dinners and paying others to run their farms or businesses while they carried out their public duties.

The lines between bribery and gift-giving were often unclear. For Athenians in particular, giving and receiving gifts was a crucial part of a civilized society and an important way of cementing social bonds. Practically, bribery was often necessary to get things done, including in international affairs. Bribes could bring about alliances or convince military leaders to concede defeat. Even the Delphic oracle might be bribed. And, of course, offerings to the gods were a parallel method of currying favor.

Yet, Hill writes, if bribery was widespread, that didn’t mean it was considered acceptable. Plato accused some officials of being “bribe-takers and money-lovers.” Aristotle called for a political system in which “magistrates cannot possibly make money” and proposed a system of government financial transparency.

And this wasn’t just idealistic rhetoric. According to the orator Demosthenes, someone who gave or accepted a bribe to the detriment of any individual or the public at large could be punished by having his property confiscated and the right to vote taken from both him and his children. By one estimate, between 430 and 322 BCE, 6 to 10 percent of major Athenian public officials were tried for bribery, and about half were convicted.

In Rome, electoral bribery was big business. In the late Republic, organized associations coordinated schemes of bribery and extortion. Large-scale borrowing to get money for bribes is even said to have created so much financial instability that it contributed to the 49–45 BCE civil war.

But, Hill writes, just like in Athens, many Roman elites were deeply upset by this situation. A law passed in 55 CE allowed for the prosecution of bribery clubs and individual members. After elections were mostly eliminated in the Roman Empire, the statesman Quintus Aurelius Symmachus described it as one of the “blessings of our age” that “the hideous voting tablet, the crooked distribution of the seating places in the theater among the clients, the venal run, all of these are no more!”

In both Athens and Rome, writers addressed corruption as a problem for social cohesion because the rich could buy their way out of consequences. The Roman orator Cicero, for example, viewed the ability to manipulate the justice system through wealth as “pernicious to the republic.”

Hill concludes that, while Athens and Rome were unable to stamp out corruption, it was very much a concern for many of the societies’ leaders.

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History of Political Thought, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Winter 2013), pp. 565–587
Imprint Academic Ltd.