Lorenzo de Medici

Today in Wisconsin, the Koch brothers stand exposed as manipulators of Governor Scott Walker, and the Republican state government. This is scandalous and disturbing, because it is the worst sort of political corruption. In Washington, D.C. the criminal Wall St. banksters have pretty much captured the entire government, and the regulatory agencies meant to curb their predations.

Yet, sadly, corruption in politics is nothing new. Ancient Roman elections during the late Republic were rigged to favor a handful of powerful families. “New men”, like Cicero, who managed to achieve wealth and prominence, still required the support of more powerful patrons.

In the fifteenth century Republic of Florence an attempt was made to limit the potential for abuse by filling most of the magistracies by sortition rather than election. Names of citizens were drawn from different bags for lesser and higher offices. This somewhat random process was supposed to ensure that people could do their civic duty without fear or favor, not having made any promises to win their elections.

Of course, no method of selecting officials is incorruptible. The Medici family, and its supporters  in fifteenth century Florence, learned how to game the system. During a year in which the Medici faction dominated the highest council, they created a quasi-official group of “bag-holders” that were given the honor of maintaining the integrity of the bags. These “bag-holders” were not paid any government salary or given any authority beyond the selection of government officials. For half a century these “bag-holders” did what the Medici faction required. For many of the lesser magistracies, no tampering was needed. Men from small-time merchant or artisan families were thrilled at the chance to help regulate the scales at the fish market. They didn’t make waves. For more important posts, the “bag-holders” would rig the bags so that opposition leaders could not control a particular council. So, for example, the pro-Medici folks might dominate a council 11 to 9. They would be careful to give their most prominent opponents a chance to express their opposition, without being able to make meaningful policy changes. This charade was finally ended by the expulsion of Piero de’ Medici from Florence in 1494, and the restoration of a more genuinely republican government. By 1512, however, the Medici were back with a vengeance, and ultimately established themselves as the hereditary ruling family of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, marrying into the highest royal houses of Europe. Of course, like all good plutocrats the Medici weren’t content to become mere royalty. Three different Medici popes (Leo X, Clement VI, and Leo XI) helped to further the family fortunes in heaven and earth.

[The above picture is of Lorenzo "il Magnifico' de' Medici-- it was his princely attitude, while ostensibly just another citizen, that led to the uprising that pushed the Medici out of Florence in 1494, just two years after his death.]