Republic - Origin of The Term

Origin of The Term

In Medieval Northern Italy, a number of city states had commune or signoria based governments. In the late Middle Ages, writers, such as Giovanni Villani, began thinking about the nature of these states and the differences from the more common monarchies. These early writers used terms such as libertas populi, a free people, to describe the states. The terminology changed in the 15th century as the renewed interest in the writings of Ancient Greece and Rome caused writers to prefer using classical terminology. To describe non-monarchial states writers, most importantly Leonardo Bruni, adopted the Latin word res publica.

While Bruni and Machiavelli used the term to describe the states of Northern Italy, which were not monarchies, the term res publica has a set of interrelated meanings in the original Latin. The term can quite literally be translated as "public matter". It was most often used by Roman writers to refer to the state and government, even during the period of the Roman Empire. The English word commonwealth is a calque (literal translation) of res publica, and its use in English is closer to how the Romans used the term res publica.

Today the term republic still most commonly means a system of government which derives its power from the people rather than from another basis, such as heredity or divine right. This remains the primary definition of republic in most contexts.

This bipartite division of government types differs from the classical sources, and also the earlier of Machiavelli's own works, which divided governments into three types: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. As Machiavelli wrote, the distinction between an aristocracy ruled by a select elite and a democracy ruled by a council appointed by the people became cumbersome. By the time Machiavelli began work on The Prince, he had decided to refer to both aristocracies and democracies as republics.

A further set of meanings for the term comes from the Greek word politeia. Cicero, among other Latin writers, translated politeia as res publica and it was in turn translated by Renaissance scholars as republic. The term politeia is today usually translated as form of government, polity, or regime. One continued use of this archaic translation is the title of Plato's major work on political science. In Greek it was titled Politeia and in English is thus known as The Republic. However, apart from the title, in modern translations of The Republic, alternative translations of politeia are also used.

In English the word first came to prominence during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. While commonwealth was the most common term to call the new monarchless state, republic was also in common use. '

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