Collections: How to Polis, 101, Part IIa: Politeia in the Polis

This is the second post of our three-part series (I, IIa, IIb, IIc, III) looking at the structure of the ancient Greek polis. Last week we looked at how the Greeks understood the component parts of a polis, so this week we’re going to look at how those parts were governed.

The Greek term for the structure of a polis government was its politeia (πολιτεία), a which would could mean the government (the way we would say ‘the state’) or the structure of that government (it’s ‘constitution’) or the rights and conditions of the citizenry (in the sense of ‘citizenship’); as with the many meanings of polis, the many meanings of politeia all shade into each other and are understood as blended.

Because this week we’re interested in the politeia of a polis, that’s going to mean we’re mostly focused on the politai, the citizens, who we discussed last time as one of the key building blocks of the polis. Now, as we noted last time, its important to keep in mind that the politai are not all of the people in the polis or indeed even very many of them: women, children, resident foreigners, native members of non-citizen free underclasses and slaves were all set outside the politai and often had no means of gaining entrance. We’re going to talk about all of those folks in more depth in the third part, where we’ll look at the status layer-cake of polis society. But for now I just want to note that all of those people are there, even if they won’t figure very prominently in this discussion of the structures of polis government.

Now we’ll explore this question of how a polis was governed in four parts (two in part A this week and two in part B next week): first laying out the standard elements of a polis constitution, which as we’ll discuss were surprisingly similar from one polis to the next. Then we’ll deal with variations in how those elements are structured, which the Greeks understood to define the differences in the three kinds of constitution that a polis might normally have: oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. Then in part B we’ll look at what sort of magistrates a polis might have and what their jobs might be as well as the structure of the legal system a polis might have.

THis is going to mean this week that we’re discussing the ‘constitutions’ of poleis, but I want to be really clear here at the start that these are almost never written constitutions. So when I say ‘constitution’ below, understand that we mean this in the broad sense of ‘the actual makeup of the state’s institutions’ rather than in the narrow sense of ‘a formal set of instructions for the running of the state.’ Some poleis did actually have the latter (the oldest we have that I know of is a constitution established by Ptolemy I Soter for Kyrene in 322; the fact that this is a constitution dictated by a king to a subordinated polis should signal how odd it is), but they seem to have been very rare.

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Elements of the Politeia

One of the truly fascinating things about the Greek polis is that while we are talking about more than a thousand tiny, (mostly) independent little states, nearly all poleis share the same basic organs of government. What makes poleis governments different are not that they have radically different institutions but rather how those institutions relate to each other, how their members are selected, and the powers they have. In particular, almost every polis government is made up of 1) an assembly (ἐκκλησία, ekklesia) of all the politai, 2) a smaller council (βουλή, boule or γερουσία, gerousia) of selected politai, 3) a set of executive magistrates (ἄρχοντες, archontes, usually Anglicized as archons) who carry out the day-to-day functions of the state and 4) law courts (δικαστήρια, dikasteria) in which serious disputes are settled, typically by juries composed of the politai. These institutions may be somewhat differently structured or have different names in different places, but the Greeks had no problem recognizing them in most poleis.

We can start with the ekklesia. As noted, it was notionally an assembly of all of the politai, but recall that this definition might be more narrow than you expect: even in democratic poleis, citizenship was typically limited to the children of citizens with no regular means for resident foreigners to gain it. In oligarchic poleis it might be even more restricted, with a wealth requirement also limiting the size of the ekklesia. In most poleis the ekklesia seems to have met in the agora, but larger poleis might need a designated space for it to meet, such as the Athenian Pnyx; the Spartan ekklesia (sometimes still referred to as the apella) met in a building called the Scias which Pausanias (writing in the second century AD) supposes to have been built in the sixth century BC by Theodorus of Samos.

Meetings of an ekklesia usually occurred on a regular schedule (once a month seems to have been fairly common); obviously so large a body could not have been a standing body. An ekklesia also generally didn’t set its own agenda, but rather voted (and perhaps debated) issues put before it either by the boule or the magistrates. Nevertheless the ekklesia usually had at least the notional final say over new laws (including honorary decrees and extraordinary grants of citizenship) and the issues of war or peace; they also very frequently elected magistrates. In this sense, even in oligarchies or tyrannies, notionally it was the ekklesia which was the sovereign, supreme authority from which the powers of all other bodies derived, though of course in practice an ekklesia might be much weaker than this. Finally, in some cases the ekklesia could function as a whole as a sort of high court; in Athens the ekklesia could try cases of certain high crimes under a procedure known as eisangelia.2

Via Wikipedia, the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, which also housed meetings of the ekklesia twice annually.

That brings us to the council and these come in two major types; a polis may or may not have both types but they almost always have one. The first type, a boule (lit, “council”) is a relatively large body, often of around 500 citizens drawn from the assembly. Alternately, a gerousia (lit: ‘elders,’ often translated as ‘senate,’ which is a very similar Latin word deriving from the Latin word for elder, senex) would often be much smaller (e.g. 30 men in Sparta, 100 in Kyrene). The selection between these two bodies also often differ substantially: a boule often functions as a cross-cut of the ekklesia, with members selected by lot from that larger body to act as a sort of directing board for the larger and more unwieldy ekklesia. By contrast, members of a gerousia are often elected, either directly or because they achieve membership by virtue of having held a magistracy; this might be further compounded by restricting magistracies to specific families which would then in turn restrict the gerousia to specific families.3

The main job of both of these sorts of councils was to act as a sort of steering committee for the assembly: councils often met more frequently and had the job of setting the assembly’s agenda, including drafting legislation for it to vote on (this task is known as proboulesis and the draft legislation a probouleuma, the pro- prefix here meaning ‘before’); a major difference between constitutions is if the ekklesia can modify that agenda or draft legislation or if it must merely vote yes or no. In some cases, a council might also sit as a court. Athens had a gerousia-style council of ex-magistrates, the Areopagus, which was stripped of nearly all of its power in the reforms that created the Athenian democracy, but it remained a court that tried serious crimes, particularly murder. Likewise, the Spartan gerousia functioned as a high court which could even try the two hereditary Spartan kings. We’re often very poorly informed about how powers would be balanced in systems that had both a larger boule-style council and a smaller gerousia-style Senate (except in Athens, where we can chart this fairly clearly), but it wasn’t that uncommon; Kyrene had both a 500-person boule chosen by lot and a 101-person gerousia elected for life by the ekklesia (both having the requirement that those serving be older than 50).4

Via Wikipedia, the ruins of the Bouleterion of Priene, a relatively small Ionian polis.

The decisions of these bodies (the assembly and council or councils) are then carried out in practice a bunch of executive officers scholars will collectively call magistrates; the most important of these fellows in a Greek polis were often called archons (lit: ‘leader’), but there are a bewildering array of these positions: strategoi (generals), Boiotarches (generals, but Boiotian), ephors (the major Spartan magistrates), kosmoi (their matching counterparts in Crete), thesmothetai (Athenian judicial officials) and an absolute mess of minor magistrates we’ll get to in a moment. The Greeks tended to understand (Aristotle says this explicitly) that these archons took over the powers originally held by kings, breaking them up into smaller units; the presence of archons whose job was to fill-in for the non-existent king in religious functions (the archon basileus or ‘king archon’ in Athens) supports that notion.

This is one of those posts with a lot of topics that are very hard to find good pictures of, so instead here is a fourth century Campanian marriage pot (a lebes gamikos) from the British Museum which shows a woman and her cat and what is likely to be a very concerned bird.

The most important magistrates tend to be charged with organizing and leading the military, performing key religious duties associated with the state and managing the court system. This last duty is one that bears some explaining because we are used to judges who set trial dates and oversee jury selection, but who also have the job of explaining law to the jury and acting as the ‘referee’ in court proceedings and who may even deliver judgements or set sentences. The role of ancient judicial magistrates is typically much more restricted; at some early point they held the power to hear disputes and make judgements but by the time we can observe these systems, the power to make judgements (at least in the most serious cases) has passed to juries, the ekklesia or one or another form of council. Judicial officials were thus more organizers than judges; they heard complaints and then directed the case to the relevant body (a public court with a jury (or the council or the assembly) for serious crimes, but there was also typically a system of arbitration to resolve less serious disputes more quickly).

Crucially it is worth noting that the magistrates here all have relatively small areas of authority; they are not ‘general’ magistrates the way the US President is or the Roman consul was; you usually have one group of guys running the courts and another group of guys running the army and this fellow over here whose job is to do some religious rituals and these guys over here who regulate the market and so on. Magistrates are also generally organized as boards of multiple individuals rather than singular, powerful figures (and this tends to be more true the more powerful and important the magistracy): thus Sparta has five ephors, Athens has ten strategoi and the Boiotians have seven Boiotarchs.5

These magistrates were also not generally experts nor did they have any particular training. Terms of service were typically very short, usually just a single year, and outside of military officials it was very unusual for these to be offices one held more than once. Indeed, in democracies, the archons might even be selected at random (by lot) from the politai. That means your market official or your court-organizers are not going to have any particular legal or judicial experience in most cases and for a lot of ancient governments (this goes for the Roman Republic too) that was generally thought to be mostly fine; these jobs weren’t usually complex enough to require special expertise. As noted, the exception to this rule were generals, who were almost always elected officials (except in Sparta, where this job fell typically to the two hereditary kings) and could generally serve multiple years in succession as long as they kept getting elected.

Putting that all together again: the ekklesia (‘assembly’) votes to confirm the laws and actions proposed by a council (either a boule of select members of the ekklesia or a gerousia of elders or former magistrates). Those actions are then carried out by the magistrates, executive officials with specific, narrow authority over one or a few matters in the state, either elected by the ekklesia or selected by lot to serve short terms.

And that’s it. If you were expecting a whole bunch of professional administrators or large bureaucracies, you are bound to be disappointed: even the largest of these states have very little of that. The closest we get are public slaves – that is, enslaved workers owned by the state – called demosioi (lit: ‘those of [owned by] the demos‘), but these enslaved workers mostly did physical laboring tasks. We can see them most clearly in Athens, where there were perhaps one or two thousand demosioi – keep in mind that Athens was a huge and very wealthy polis, so that is an absolute upper limit.6 In Athens these folks fit into four big groups (as Paulin Ismard lays out neatly): public craft-workers (including workers in the public mint), a body of enslaved Scythian archers Athens used as a police force to keep order in the assembly and markets, enslaved workers assisting the priests managing various temples and finally a relatively small body of enslaved administrative assistants to the magistrates (scribes, archivists, secretaries, etc.). As you can see a subset of these enslaved workers were specialists since doing things like detecting fake coins, minting new ones, performing the duties of a clerk or accounting officer, since the existing political system provided very little in the way of available expertise. These enslaved workers seem almost always to be operating under the direct supervision of an elected magistrate and the Athenian law which ordered the market supervisors in Athens to “beat him [the coin tester] with fifty lashes” if “the tester does not sit at his post or if he does not test according to the law,” gives us a sense of the subordinated role they played despite their expertise.7 And again, that’s in Athens, which is going to have more demosioi than anywhere else on account of its size and wealth.

Different kinds of Politeia

But just because all Greek poleis had the same basic set of governing institutions does not mean they were all the same. Instead, the differences in polis government provide an excellent example above how relatively small changes in a government can almost entirely change its nature. Indeed, the Greeks understood all poleis governments as conforming essentially to one of three basic types: democracy (δημοκρατία, rule by the demos), oligarchy (ὀλιγαρχία, rule by the few) or tyranny (τυραννία, rule by a τύραννος, a tyrant), though pedantic philosopher types like Aristotle would increase the count to six (to add ‘corrupted’ forms of each) and there was also the notion of a ‘mixed’ constitution sitting somewhere between democracy and oligarchy.

But if all of these poleis had the same basic governing institutions, what made an oligarchy different from a democracy or a tyranny? By and large the difference isn’t adding or removing major elements of the government, but changing who is eligible for them and how they relate to each other.

Let’s start with eligibility. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the development of particular poleis (by which I mean Athens, which by far the best attested)8 but a major part of the emergence of democracy in the Greek polis was the widening of civic participation to include a broader range of the politai at more levels of power. That both meant bringing poor citizens who under older, more oligarchic constitutions wouldn’t have been admitted even to the assembly in, but it also meant opening more powerful offices to poorer members of the politai.

Oligarchies worked, as you might imagine, in exactly the opposite way. Often membership in the ekklesia was limited by wealth. A mild form of this sort of restriction which is quite prominent in our sources (particularly Aristotle) is the ‘hoplite polis‘ (in German, the Hoplitenpoliteia) where political participation was limited to the class of farmer with enough wealth to afford their own equipment to fight as hoplites in the phalanx (perhaps something like a third to half of the politai). This form of polis has often been taken as a sort of ‘standard’ polis, particularly a standard early form of oligarchic polis out of which more democratic forms might evolve. But, as Matthew Simonton has recently noted, true Hoplitenpoliteia are actually pretty rare in the historical record. When we see a politeia restricted, it is often much more narrowly constrained than this. For instance, in 411 a coup in Athens overthrows the democracy and attempts to instate an oligarchic government with five thousand Athenians able to form the ekklesia, but this must have been less than half of the hoplite class; Athens had fielded 9,000 hoplites at Marathon in 490 BC and the sense we get from the sources is that the Athenian citizen body had grown in size and wealth since then (with perhaps 50,000 citizens total). Instead, actual oligarchies often seem to have been quite a bit narrower; the evidence doesn’t really allow a firm quantification, but one should probably be thinking a quarter or less of the free male population being admitted to full civic participation.

And here, from the British Museum (1867,0508.1175) is an early fourth century Apulian wine cup (a skyphos) on which a young man greets a female figure (perhaps a young woman), holding a bird in his hand that the cat on his shoulder would very much like to ‘play’ with. The themeing of this scene becomes more clear when you see the reverse side, where Eros – the god of erotic love – takes the place of the male figure approaching a female figure holding a mirror.

Alternately, an oligarchy might be structured so that specific parts of the government were restricted. The most closed sorts of oligarchies might, for instance, restrict specific offices to a handful of eligible families. We’re told by Aristotle that the chief magistrates on Crete, the kosmoi (their equivalents of the Spartan ephors) were elected from a closed group of households, while the Cretan gerousia was composed entirely of ex-kosmoi (Arist. Pol. 2.1272a). Thus despite all of the citizens being admitted into the Cretan ekklesia, Aristotle concludes that the system is in fact a δυναστεία (dunasteia), the word that gives us the modern ‘dynasty’ but here means something like ‘hereditary oligarchy,’9 because enough of the power was wielded by offices which were limited not merely by wealth but in Crete’s case to certain families.

Alternately, magistrates and members of the council might be selected by co-optation, that is, by the existing office holders or somehow by other members of the oligarchy. Aristotle alludes to this (Pol. 4.1298b) and as Simonton (op. cit.) notes this seems to have been the practice in oligarchies in Massalia and Larissa, where ‘worthy’ members of the masses were pulled into the government, which of course gave the core oligarchic members a tool to reward collaborators and informants among the lower classes as well as to fill out key roles in their government.

The more subtle way of doing this might be to employ systems of elections which were prone to influence of subterfuge. Spartan elections in its ekklesia for the ephors and members of the gerousia, for instance, were done by acclamation; the spartiates would shout for the candidates they wanted and victory was judged by who got the loudest shouts when it was their turn. Absent modern decibel meters, this is a pretty error prone system and the pattern whereby the Spartan state tended to be dominated by its wealthiest families, arrayed around the hereditary kings suggests that the two royal families were perfectly capable of manipulating this very easy to manipulate system. Likewise, as Simonton notes (op. cit.), systems of open, non-anonymous voting were prone to abuse, especially in a polis where most of the wealth and power is already controlled by a relatively small clique who can see how individual members of the assembly vote and retaliate accordingly, which is indeed how the brief oligarchic government of the Four Hundred in Athens is able to ‘persuade’ the assembly to vote itself out of existence (Thuc. 8.66.2-4).

The other factor in the character of the government was the relationship between the constituent parts. As you may get the sense above, different parts of a polis government are likely to be dominated by different groups. Even in a constitution where offices are open to everyone, if they are elected they will tend to be dominated by the elite whose money and status can buy them votes,10 and that will of course carry over to any council that is made up of ex-magistrates, like the Cretan gerousia we just mentioned or the Athenian Areopagus (made up of former archons). Meanwhile the ekklesia, run on an one-man, one-vote system is going to tend to favor the demos, assuming a broad range of the citizenry is able to be present, because the middling and poor will so vastly outnumber the elite.11 But that can mean that the balance of power between these institutions can impact the democratic or oligarchic character of the state, even when a state has all of the institutions which might allow for a democratic or oligarchic system.

Via Wikipedia, a picture of the Areopagus or the ‘hill of Ares.’ The council of ex-Archons was named after the hill on which they met.

The key question here is generally the powers and competence of the ekklesia; in almost every polis the ekklesia was the final stop for confirming any law or decision, granting that decision the imprimatur of the whole demos and thus the legitimacy of a communal consensus decision. In a democratic polis, the ekklesia was likely to be supreme, with both broad powers to set its own agenda (or have its agenda set by a boule of randomly selected members of the ekklesia) and also broad powers to direct the magistrates and to punish any magistrates who refused to be so directed.

But if either of those links is broken, an oligarchy could ‘tame’ the ekklesia. The cleverer way to do this was through the agenda-setting power. The Spartan ekklesia, for instance, could only vote on laws put before them by the gerousia or the ephors and could only give a yes or no vote to those very decisions; it could not debate, nor propose alternative decisions. This sort of system, where an oligarchic body like a gerousia or another body of magistrates is able to use its agenda setting power to simply prevent any proposal that the oligarchy does not already approve from coming to a vote was common enough for Aristotle to note it as a common tool of oligarchy (Arist. Pol. 4.1298b).12 An oligarchy could thus ensure no radical proposal ever reached the ekklesia, while at the same time, tailoring its proposals to be just moderate enough to garner a majority of votes (under a system where, as noted above, chances are the oligarchs can ‘push’ fairly hard to get quite a lot of preference falsification), resulting in a government that is out of step with the popular will but still has that popular imprimatur; after all, there was a vote and we all agreed to this.

Alternately, the assembly could be cut out altogether, as in Boiotia, where decisions were made not between a council and an assembly, but rather each polis had four councils, all limited by wealth, which would deliberate seperately with laws that passed all four becoming valid, though this seems to have been a rare sort of structure as far as we can tell (Hell. Oxy 16.2-5, discussed in Simonton, op. cit. 81.)

The less clever and more blunt way to do this was to empower the magistrates and slant the courts, pulling both outside of the power of the ekklesia. For instance, by putting more power to judge and punish in the hands of the magistrates (or in the hands of juries composed of members of the elite), an oligarchy could gain the power to violently regulate the mass of the citizenry, destroying on trumped up charges anyone who seemed a threat (and once again, Aristotle notes this tactic, Pol. 4.1301a) and also refuse to punish its own members who engaged in extrajudicial violence to suppress the demos. At some point, for instance (presumably before the Cleisthenic reforms), the Athenian Areopagus (you will recall this is a council of ex-magistrates) had the power to watch for and punish the ‘disorderly’ (ἀκοσμοῦντες, a wonderfully broad term, Isoc. 7.46), a broad mandate to enact social control. The problem, of course, is that this kind of blatant display of oligarchic power might trigger a rising of the demos.

In practice it should be noted that most poleis seem to have been some mix of this. Athens’ relatively complete democracy and the relatively complete oligarchies of poleis like Sparta or Thebes may be more prominent in our sources (compounded by the tendency of writers like Aristotle to want to pick out extreme forms of each kind of government), but a lot of poleis will have had effectively mixed constitutions. But what if a polis wasn’t constitutional at all?

But What If I Was In Charge?

The normal expectation for Greek tyranny is that the system works like the Empire from Star Wars: A New Hope, where the new tyrant abolishes the Senate, appoints his own cronies to formal positions as rules and general makes himself Very Obviously and Formally In Charge. But this isn’t how tyranny generally worked: the tyrant was Very Obviously but not formally in charge, because he ruled extra-constitutonally, rather than abolishing the constitution. This is what seperates tyranny, a form of extra-constitutional one man rule, from monarchy, a form of traditional and thus constitutional one-man rule.

We see the fisrt major wave of tyrannies emerging in Greek poleis in the sixth century, although this is also about the horizon where we can see political developments generally in the Greek world, still our sources seem to understand this development to have been somewhat novel at the time and it is certainly tempting to see the emergence of tyranny and democracy in this period both as responses to the same sorts of pressures and fragility found in traditional polis oligarchies, but again our evidence is thin.13 Tyrants tend to come from the elite, oligarchic class and often utilize anti-oligarchic movements (civil strife or stasis, στάσις) to come to power.

Because most poleis are small, the amount of force a tyrant needed to seize power was also often small. Polycrates supposedly seized power in Samos with just fifteen soldiers (Hdt. 3.120), though we may doubt the truth of the report and elsewhere Herodotus notes that he did so in conspiracy with his two brothers of whom he killed one and banished the other (Hdt. 3.39). I’ve discussed Peisistratos’ takeover(s) in Athens before but they were similarly small-ball affairs. In Corinth, Cypselus seized power by using his position as polemarch (war leader) to have the army (which, remember, is going to be a collection of the non-elite but still well-to-do citizenry, although this is early enough that if I call it a hoplite phalanx I’ll have an argument on my hands) expel the Bacchiadae, a closed single-clan oligarchy. A move by any member of the elite to put together their own bodyguard (even one just armed with clubs) was a fairly clear indicator of an attempt to form a tyranny and the continued maintenence of a bodyguard was a staple of how the Greeks understood a tyrant.

Having seized power, those tyrants do not seem to have abolished key civic institutions: they do not disband the ekklesia or the law courts. Instead, the tyrant controls these things by co-opting the remaining elite families, using violence and the threat of violence against those who would resist and installing cronies in positions of power. Tyrants also seem to have bought a degree of public acquience from the demos by generally targeting the oligoi, as with Cypselus and his son Periander killing and banishing the elite Bacchiadae from Corinth (Hdt. 5.92). But this is a system of government where in practice the laws appeared to still be in force and the major institutions appeared to still be functioning but that in practice the tyrant, with his co-opted elites, armed bodyguard and well-rewarded cadre of followers among the demos, monopolized power. And it isn’t hard to see how the fiction of a functioning polis government could be a useful tool for a tyrant to maintain power.

That extra-constitutional nature of tyranny, where the tyrant exists outside of the formal political system (even though he may hold a formal office of some sort) also seems to have contributed to tyranny’s fragility. Thales was supposedly asked what the strangest thing he had ever seen was and his answer was, “An aged tyrant” (Diog. Laert. 1.6.36) and indeed tyranny was fragile. Tyrants struggled to hold power and while most seem to have tried to pass that power to an heir, few succeed; no tyrant ever achieves the dream of establishing a stable, monarchical dyasnty. Instead, tyrants tend to be overthrown, leading to a return to either democratic or oligarchic polis government, since the institutions of those forms of government remained.

Now, because this post is already long and my time is already short, next week we are going to turn and look at the other two elements of the polis government in more detail that have gotten rather short treatment today: the many magistracies that a polis might have as well as the general structure of the court system.

  1. Bonus points for those who realize that this structure, where the Senate votes, but one person has the extraconstitutional power to ignore the Senate and gets to shape the options it votes by means that our ACOUP polis is in fact a tyranny. Ollie and Percy are my club-wielding bodyguards!
  2. Eisangelia legal term often translated as ‘impeachment’ but which is better understood as a process to try cases of treason or subversion of the democracy (so the better translation here might be ‘denouncement’). Greek law is really complex and eisangelia is a particularly thorny issue in Athenian law, so we’ll leave it aside for this blog post. The monograph treatment of the topic is M.H. Hansen, Eisangelia: the sovereignty of the people’s court in Athens in the fourth century BC and the impeachment of generals and politicians (1975), but I have to say I differ with Hansen’s treatment on several points and in any event that is not an easy book to get a hold of unless you have access to a university library.
  3. As was done on Crete but not in Sparta, see Arist. Pol. 2.1272a
  4. I keep mentioning Kyrene because it is unusual in that it gives us a written constitution, dated to 322 when it was revised by Ptolomy I Soter after the death of Alexander, giving a top-down view on the structure of its government.
  5. Another difference from the Roman model here, it is typically the board that acts; the strategoi collectively have the power to command the armies, not any individual strategos on his own. By contrast each of the two Roman consuls is fully vested, individually with the powers of the consul (called imperium) and does not need to consult their colleague in order to act. Even when you have, for instance, ten Roman quaestors, they do not function as a board, but rather each functions as an individual empowered individually to make decisions.
  6. Unless we define the Spartan helots as public slaves.
  7. By contrast I feel the need to note that clerical officials t Rome, the apparitores, were paid civil servants who had their own collegiae (guilds, more or less). That’s not to say Roman officials didn’t make use of a lot of slave labor – they absolutely did – but that even in the republic there was some space for a non-enslaved civil service, although I should note it was quite minimal in the republic.
  8. The process by which the Athenian democracy emerged is fairly well documented in our sources and one of the sets of changes was the steady expansion of eligibility to participate in the polis to poorer citizens, first in Solon’s constitution of c. 594 which created what we might regard as a weak or open oligarchy and then the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508, which begins the democracy. The full flower of Athenian democratic institutions come in the back half of the 400s, funded in no small part by the tribute of the Delian League (soon to be the Athenian Empire), creating one of the enduring ironies of the Athenian democracy that its most democratic expression relied on the oppression of other Greeks to be funded. That said, after the collapse of the Athenian Empire, Athens was essentially faced with a problem of either scrapping the democracy (because enabling wide civic participation was expensive) or ceasing to be a first rate military power and chose the latter, sacrificing the navy on the altar of its democratic institutions. David Pritchard goes into this trade off in more depth in Public Spending and Democracy in Classical Athens (2015).
  9. ‘Close oligarchy’ is a common translation, though Aristotle later defines what he means (4.1292b) that a dunasteia is form of oligarchy specifically in which the magistracies are hereditary and wield disproportionate power in the state.
  10. If not directly than indirectly by enabling those people to do various prominent things in the state, like rebuilding public buildings, sponsoring plays and so on.
  11. Watch for a future series on how the Romans take their assemblies and explicitly weight them by wealth to avoid this very problem.
  12. As an aside, this is exactly how the assemblies of the Roman Republic worked: they could only vote on laws proposed by magistrates.
  13. Simonton tries to push back on this notion of oligarchy-first, democracy-second, instead trying to frame oligarchy as a response to democracy. I think he is right that the more formal and repressive oligarchies we see in in the better documented fifth and fourth centuries are responding to the threat the emergence of democracy posed to the oligarchs, but this still raises the question of what sort of government those poleis would have had in the sixth century and the evidence seems to clearly suggest the answer is just oligarchy. So it might be better to say that the emergence of democracy forced evolutions in the practice of oligarchy, but the basic oligarchy-first, democracy-second narrative seems right to me.

131 thoughts on “Collections: How to Polis, 101, Part IIa: Politeia in the Polis

    1. ‘Thales was supposedly asked what the stranged thing he had ever seen was and his answer was, “An aged tyrant”’

      ITYM ‘strangest’

    1. It’s me getting the spelling wrong for some reason. Autocorrect? It’s Areo- as in Ares, not Aero as in flying. Not sure what happened there. Fixed now.

        1. Assemblies no, but single-person man-lifting kites and various low-performance glider designs are entirely within the reach of any civilization that has sailing ships. (Upslope wind, running downhill, four-horse-chariot tow launches work; bungee rope launch needs at least a rope deliberately laid for springiness, but probably new materials.) Alternatively, hot-air balloons are theoretically an option, though those are really much more practical if someone invents paper first (“hey, sometimes we don’t spin-and-weave wool but turn it into felt; maybe we should try it with linen/hemp/etc. as well”). In principle, very fine parchment can be used for the gastight membrane, but the cost makes such a balloon an empire-scale project before industrial agriculture.

          I mean, they even had the myth of Daedalus inventing non-magical/religious human flight and personally flying a successful sortie, yet they didn’t actually invent even stationary kites.

          Likewise, it would have been entirely unsurprising if they invented e.g. heliography. Some rich hoplites had metal-surfaced shields; non-tiny numbers of mirrors were supposedly used for combat (blinding/distraction) in the siege of Syracuse; the Byzantines had a stationary and single-bit bonfire relay system.

      1. As witness the first trial there was Poseidon accusing Ares of murdering his son. (Ares was acquitted on the grounds, depending on the story, that said son had either been trying to rape, or had raped, Ares’s daughter.)

        And that’s where they got the name.


  1. Cats with clubs, oh my! I think we need pictures. Do the cats source the wood for their clubs from the pedant-tree?

  2. Something seems to have gone wrong with a footnote in the “Let’s start with eligibility” paragraph.

  3. I think you have a wonky footnote between 7 and 8:
    (by which I mean Athens, which by far the best attested)[efn_ntoe]
    possibly ending
    David Pritchard goes into this trade off in more depth in Public Spending and Democracy in Classical Athens (2015).[/efn_note]

  4. I have a few, actually serious questions. How did actual monarchical poleis function? There’s a bit about how a tyranny operated differently, but what distinguishes a monarchy from an oligarchy insofar as how it relates to the other governmental organs?

    Secondly, if a tyrant is ruling by force and the threat of force, how were such small bodyguards able to pull it off? I gather that most poleis had fairly weak civic institutions, but if the Tyrant is strolling around with a bodyguard in the dozens, just how hard could it be to gather up a few households of angry people, grab their own clubs or other weapons, and form a superior force to either fight or at least threaten the tyrant? Or is that part of why tyrannies tended to not last long?

    1. Actual monarchies with actual kings rather than tyrants subverting the political system?

      There aren’t any poleis with that model of government by the classical period, so we don’t know how it would have worked. All you have a tyrants, oligarchies, democracies and poleis in the midst of a civil war transitioning between them. The Macedonians have a monarchy, but they are pretty clearly different and don’t live in poleis. Maybe we can talk about Macedonian-style monarchies at some point.

      1. Oh. I hadn’t realized there weren’t any monarchies in the classical period. For some reason I thought they were rare but still extant. Nevermind then.

      2. What about Sparta? Or are those kings just magistrates with a different title and selection method?

        1. Sparta is the odd exception of having kings, but the Spartan hereditary kings are honestly a lot more like hereditary polemarchs-for-life than kings in the sense we think. They can’t legislate and there are magistrates that can bring them up in charges and boot them out of office.

          1. So if it was the case that Monarchy didn’t exist in that way in these city-states, what were Tyrants actually trying to transition to? Was it a conscious attempt to imitate other societies that did have monarchs, or was it more like the father trying to set up his sons for success (and usually failing)?

            Unrelated to that, where do the priesthoods figure into this? Was being a priest a full-time job for a citizen, or was running the temple overall a magistrate’s job, while the day to day of the temple was for non-citizens?

          2. Macedon has been a monarchy for as long as it’s visible to historians, and Egypt was just a short jaunt across the Med and was also a well-established monarchy. It’s not too hard to imagine a tyrant seeing those (large, powerful polities) and think they could set themselves up as the monarch of all Greece and enjoy the wealth and power that would bring.

    2. The Tyrant doesn’t need a bigger bodyguard than his Enemies List. He just needs a bigger bodyguard than the number of really committed fighting men his most powerful enemy can put together in secrecy.

      Sure, there might be a hundred oligarchs who would rather the Tyrant was dead and they were in charge again. But most of them aren’t willing to die to make that happen. Even if twenty of them are, chances are they don’t all trust each other. So here’s your four oligarchs who do trust each other AND hate the Tyrant enough to risk death, and they can each bring a couple of sons or cousins along who are also committed, and maybe another couple of hangers-on who will keep their mouths shut and fight but aren’t really going to die for the cause. That’s twenty men, not all of whom are equally committed. A tyrant with twenty bodyguards who *are* committed and are better armed, more cohesive, and better trained doesn’t have to be too scared.

      Now, your other scenario, the “angry mob” setup where a couple hundred people are mad enough to throw a rock at a bodyguard’s shield but not eager to get stabbed, probably does happen pretty often. A savvy Tyrant can handle that too. You back off, find somewhere safe to bunker down for the night, and set to work dividing your enemies. Are there factions of that angry mob I can split up or buy off? Almost certainly. Are there concessions that will appease other segments and send them home? Of course. Do I now have an excuse to arrest a few of the hardcore? Yes I do!

      None of this is a sure thing, of course, and tyrants don’t tend to die in bed. But it doesn’t take five hundred bodyguards to boss around a hundred oligarchs either.

      1. Some notable tyrants seem to have come from established ruling families, and several major ones were able to pass on their rule to sons or brothers. Particularly in Ionia, where tyranny was favoured by the Persians, it does not seem to have been a risky job – at least if you kept on the good side of the satrap.

      2. Also, of course, it’s really tricky to have a bodyguard of five hundred without including enemies, especially given that they can become your enemies precisely because they are your bodyguards.

  5. Very few poleis have monarchies by the time we’re talking about, although Sparta does, and I know Athens had legends about former kings. Was this seen as something that distinguished the Greeks from other peoples? Did all Greek poleis have legends about former kings?

    1. The polis is an unusual political institution, but not an entirely unprecedented one and civic governance systems in particular tend to resist monarchy, so areas that are very urban and not subsumed into a large imperial framework often end up with non-monarchical systems of rule.

      1. Yep, postclassic maya city states are another good example. (there’s a movement from monarchies in the classic period to rule-by-council in the postclassic)

  6. Meanwhile the ekklesia, run on an one-man, one-vote system is going to tend to favor the demos, assuming a broad range of the citizenry is able to be present, because the middling and poor will so vastly outnumber the elite.
    Footnote: Watch for a future series on how the Romans take their assemblies and explicitly weight them by wealth to avoid this very problem.

    Framing “the impoverished majority has more sway relative to the wealthy elites” as a problem without so much as a set of air-quotes is…a choice.

    1. It’s a problem according to the Romans (that write to us) and Cicero is explicit on the structure of the comitia centuriata being to ‘fix’ this ‘issue.’ That said, while I am very much in the pro-democracy camp – as anyone reading this blog well knows – I think we do ourselves a disservice by simply assuming democratic precepts a priori. Not all, or even most systems of political philosophy assume democratic systems are best or make for the best governance.

      1. Indeed one of the most famous anti-democratic ancient writers is Plato, who likens democracy to a flock of sheep trying to herd themselves. The idea that “the great unwashed” simply cannot effectively govern is a widespread one.

          1. Plato was the snobbiest of snobs, whose contempt for people in general and poetry in specific is deeply embedded in his politics (“what we really need is a philosopher you all have to listen to or be killed, who’ll figure out who’s a natural slave”) to his understanding of knowledge (“so my worldview is an open field in the sun, while your worldview is shadow puppets on a cave wall”) to his concept of the afterlife (“the properly philosophical will exist divorced from mere form to exist entirely in contemplation, while the losers who are into sensation and experience can reincarnate as the shit-eating grubs you are”).

            What happens when someone never learns to wash his vegitables.

        1. I’ve always liked that image. In my free time I’m working on writing a novel entitled “Shepherd in a Sheep’s World”, and you can probably guess something about the themes of the book from that.

      2. Indeed, very few educated people today believe that pure democracy is desirable. Their view nowadays tends to be phrased as “Basic human rights should not be subject to majority vote” rather than “The many must be guided and controlled by the few,” but the two formulations are isomorphic.

        1. Wait, distinguish at least two claims.
          1) Completely ignoring goals, morality, etc., the claim is that “pure democracy” is less capable of executing its goals than some other structure. A society (even a mostly democratic one) with an institution like a General Staff, or a non-political civil service, can have exactly the same set of goals as a “pure democracy” and would tend to do obviously better at achieving those goals. (The military version is obvious; the civil service variant is that e.g. the notable coastal cities of the US are heavily in favor of decarbonization but are demonstrating themselves utterly incapable of matching the achievements of peer cities in East Asia or Europe.)
          2) Talking exactly about morality, the claim is that a “pure democracy” would pursue worse goals than the salient alternative. In other words, the speaker takes it for granted that they would be one of the few, not of the many.

          1. The price borne by the few is so high that even a reasonable chance of being part of the few dwarfs the benefits of being one of the many.

            And if there is one thing democracy proves historically, it’s that everyone has a reasonable chance of being part of the few.

          2. OT, I know, but
            “the civil service variant is that e.g. the notable coastal cities of the US are heavily in favor of decarbonization but are demonstrating themselves utterly incapable of matching the achievements of peer cities in East Asia or Europe.)”
            is a bizarre assertion, considering that since Copenhagen the US has made significantly greater reductions in carbon emissions than has Europe- and China isn’t even trying.

          3. @Godfrey

            -That’s interesting. I haven’t seen hard numbers on carbon emissions reduction in a long time. Do you have a link? I’m curious.

        2. >Their view nowadays tends to be phrased
          >as “Basic human rights should not be subject
          >to majority vote” rather than “The many must
          >be guided and controlled by the few,” but the
          >two formulations are isomorphic.

          Are they?

          There’s a big difference between saying that (1) firmly established laws should grant all citizens rights that cannot be stripped away on the grounds that the citizen in question is unpopular and (2) saying that the people must be ruled over by a small elite.

          We can easily imagine a society with a small ruling elite that “guides” and controls the masses, but which does not respect basic human rights; there are an ocean of examples throughout history.

          And we can assuredly imagine a society where every person has rights that cannot be stripped away “by majority vote” but where it would be absurd to pretend that this somehow represents rule by an elite.

          Those two statements are not, in and of themselves, ‘isomorphic.’ Thus, the formulations are not isomorphic.

          The only way to make them isomorphic is to assume that being required to respect another person’s rights is, in and of itself, a form of oppression that must be imposed upon oneself by some outside anti-popular elite. Which requires an odd mental flip-flop in which the evidence that an elite is oppressing me is that I, presumably not an elite because assuredly I am common as muck, am not being allowed to oppress someone else.

          1. Yes, they are. “Firmly established laws” can do nothing. In practice, that means a small elite gets to say that a person’s being unpopular with the mob means nothing, because they are people, who can actually act.

            And as we can all see, in practice, the firmly established laws do little if anything to protect those who are not popular with that small elite.

          2. I confess that my political views are firmly materialistic, even Leninist. “Who, whom?” is really the only political question. Since I don’t know how to recognize a “basic human right” (abortion? gun ownership? whatever), the only question is whether the majority rules on these questions, or whether an elite overrides them to protect what the elite considers basic human rights at any given moment.

          3. While in any particular instance only a select few (with the kind of techne in legal expertise that the Greeks thought should not be brought to bear on politics) rule on whether a right has been violated, pretty much all democratic systems allow a majority (sometimes a super-majority) to determine what constitutes a basic right.

          4. Yes, most democratic systems allow a determined majority to override elite political decisions (e.g., by passing a Constitutional amendment, an elaborate and difficult process). In this manner, the many are guided and controlled by the few.

          5. “pretty much all democratic systems allow a majority (sometimes a super-majority) to determine what constitutes a basic right.”

            This isn’t necessarily true. In India, for example, the basic principles of the constitution have been declared by the supreme court to be *unamendable*, even by supermajority vote. (Lots of Indian governments have had supermajorities in the past, including as far as I know the current one). If you disagree *fundamentally* with the current social order, your only option is, really, revolution.

            I don’t know how many other countries share this legal doctrine, but I doubt India is the only one (Wikipedia says Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia are others). You could debate whether some or all of those countries are democracies, i guess.


          6. There you go. The Supreme Court is the elite. No doubt they will also decide whether any given thing violates those rights.

          7. If you hate dictatorship and love democracy, it must be a distressing dilemma to see something like a dictator protecting the Jews in his realm from being exterminated by an anti-Semitic majority.

          8. Much more prudent to regard governments as means and value them according to their ability to produce results in particular situations.

          9. Coming back to this a whlie later, I still find this entire line of discussion very confusing.

            Individual rights that cannot be violated or abridged except by due process of law are a basic component of democracies. This is something out of Political Science 101.

            Within the context of a democracy, the idea that you are being ‘tyrannized’ or ‘oppressed’ by the fact that you aren’t allowed to harm some minority group is nonsensical. The basic principles here are adequately laid out in the foundational philosophy of the Enlightenment.

            No, the idea that having a judge tell you that you can’t harm members of a minority group is “tyranny” only makes sense within the context of oligarchy. If the courts tell a hereditary duke that serfdom is abolished, the duke feels like he’s being “tyrannized” by those big government bureaucrats. Because the duke liked the power structure the way it was, and so views any change as an attack [i]on him[/i] rather than a matter of respecting the rights of others to not be slaves.

          10. Nope.

            Democracy means rule of the majority. Insofar as the majority is prevented from ruling, you have departed from democracy.

          11. Practically speaking, minorities and their rights are protected by guarantees that require a 2/3 to 3/4 supermajority to overrule, such as the process to amend the US constitution. Perhaps not coincidentally this is roughly the margin needed to guarantee victory in a civil war.

          12. OTOH, this is, by definition, not democratic. All anti-majoritarian measures are.

            And on the third hand, that’s only the letter of law. Which does not enforce itself.

          13. “Democracy”, the English-language word, has an incredibly broad meaning. Even the definition you give, “rule by the majority”, is vague – what counts as a “majority”? Why is supermajority democracy any less “rule by the majority” than simple majority democracy?

            And of course the law enforces itself, that’s how government works. Political power is rooted in the willing compliance of the governed. If a law is perceived by the people as legitimate, then it doesn’t matter whether that law was set down by a court or by a previous majority of the people – it has just as much force either way.

          14. “And of course the law enforces itself, that’s how government works.”

            What does that mean?

          15. One reasonable interpretation is that within the context of a state that in plain common English would be called democratic, it’s a false dichotomy to view “the rulers” and “the populace” as strictly separate entities. Which is, indeed, rather the point of democracy.

            In a state with a clearly identifiable dictator or council of ruling aristocrats, there’s a well defined separation between “those who rule” and “those who are ruled.” It’s on some level almost assumed that the peasants would rebel against this kind of government if they didn’t expect that to get them all killed.

            This creates one of the recurring themes in human society. We see societies where, to borrow a very useful and compact phrase, “there are those whom the law exists to bind and not to protect, and those whom the law exists to protect and not to bind.”

            When this concept is applied to democracies, it leads to the notion that the elected government and the laws it enforces must be an imposition by some hostile elite, who seeks to rob the real “us” via taxation and to subjugate “us” to some group of masters.

            When someone locked into the thinking that they need to look for a group that is “protected and not bound” to find the ‘real’ rulers, it’s unsurprising that sometimes they say: “Aha, the government just told me I can’t lynch members of that ethnic minority for being uppity, therefore whoever’s behind the government must be a conspiracy to turn that ethnic minority into the rulers of society?” Or “the government is trying to pass laws that tell me that my male employees can’t sexually harass women, so clearly this is a feminist dystopia ruled by women who hurt and oppress men!”

            But the assumption is fallacious. That is not how a republic works; the word literally means “public affair” because the republic’s population is the public.

            When the government tells you that you can’t lynch members of an ethnic minority, it’s not because the government is secretly ruled and mastered by people who want that ethnic minority to rule the world. It’s because one of the founding principles of the state is they are a part of us. Laws that protect ‘them’ from mob violence or that collect tax money some percentage of which goes to the poor are, ultimately, products of the electorate, not of tiny conspiracies.

          16. This theory is perhaps strained in the case of the Antebellum American South and Reconstruction. The whole point of racist persecution of the African-American minority was simply that as far as Southern whites were concerned the African-Americans were NOT “us”: that they were only wanted in the first place as absolute chattel slaves, and failing that to be the modern equivalent of helots. The majority that wanted the slaves to both be free and have full citizenship was the United States as a whole, which is exactly why the South had attempted to secede in the first place. Moreover, freeing the slaves was less a noble upholding of human rights than it was making sure that the raison d’être of secession was annihilated; and granting the freedmen full citizenship in the circumstances meant that every newly enfranchised freedman was a guaranteed Republican vote. The “Birth Of A Nation” view of Reconstruction was racist and exaggerated, but by no means entirely made up out of whole cloth; from the (white) Southern point of view (white) democracy HAD been overturned by a conquering elite that cynically exploited the helpless South.

          17. That is silly. It is obvious in every modern democracy that there are the people and the rulers. Indeed, many rulers are immune to democracy because they are bureaucrats and can’t be removed even by elected officials.

            The most flagrant example is that when VA officials won a cash bonus by tricks with waiting lists that caused *deaths*, they were not charged, or fired, or even made to pay back the bonus

  7. Is the cat-and-bird generally understood as a metaphor for seduction? Is that what’s happening in the first pot as well?

  8. Actually, the whole mentioning of Sparta just brought a question to my mind. What happened to Spartan citizens that lost their citizenship, as you mentioned in the sparta series? Did they have any particular recognition, or did they just become a gray middle spot in between the citizens and the helots?

    1. As Dr. Devereaux says, it’s gone over in the Sparta series, but to note something important: the failed Spartiates held a role above the helots but below the perioikoi, the non-citizen residents. (As well as below the nothoi, the offspring of Spartiate fathers and helot mothers, which was a common enough occurrence that they had their own social class…)

  9. Wait, if the ACOUP structure is a tyranny, does that make all your patrons…Tyranids?

  10. This is really fascinating! Gives one lots of story ideas! Too bad I had a test on Classical Greece earlier this week and not now!

  11. Also, I hope Phoenician city-states will be mentioned in this series, if just as a comparison

    1. We know *very* little about how Phoenician city-states were ruled. Carthage is the best attested and even then we’re doing a LOT of guessing. Maybe we’ll put a ‘what we know about Carthaginian government’ on the list, but honestly it’s not a ton.

      1. I’ve always been fascinated by the seeming juxtaposition of “kings” and “judges” in some of the Old Testament books, and the entire bit about how the word used for “Judge” is the same for a carthaginian magistrate. (the biblical narrative of course have judges coming first and *then* people demand a king)

        1. In context “king” (no idea what is the original Hebrew word used) seems to mean specifically king in the role of warlord. So as the tribes became more powerful, they wanted someone who would lead Israel into being a empire such as peaked under Solomon.

          1. no idea what is the original Hebrew word used

            Mélech, cognate to Arabic malik; it still means king today. And in context, it’s said to be in mimicry of other nations in the Levant. There’s expectation of heredity, with the usual level of stability of ancient kingship (e.g. Absalom’s rebellion).

  12. “stable, monarchical dyasnty” should probably be “stable, monarchical dynasty”..

  13. “Bonus points for those who realize that this structure, where the Senate votes, but one person has the extraconstitutional power to ignore the Senate and gets to shape the options it votes by means that our ACOUP polis is in fact a tyranny. Ollie and Percy are my club-wielding bodyguards!”

    Two cats with clubs only….hmmmmmm…..Anyone else want me to be the next tyrant? 🙂

    Seems Caesar is vaguely similar to tyrants, if I’ve heard right that he responded to lower class demands/popular movement goals as a way to grab power (and was an Aristocrat himself.) Though I’m sure there are a lot of subtle differences. I’ll see in a few weeks what the Roman government posts have to say.

    Otherwise, enjoying this set of posts.

    1. Caesar did fit the pattern among Greek tyrants in quite a few ways. Such as not disbanding any major institutions of his city, such as having near-absolute power in large part due to his unofficial control and ability to threaten the elites who formed those same institutions, and of not living to old age because the aforementioned elites ganged up on him and stabbed him to death.

      1. But then his great-nephew perfected the system – “First Citizen” really says it all – and died at a respectable 75, probably of natural causes. He only failed to make it hereditary due to the familial contingencies of weak sperm and a fondness for murder, but even if not really hereditary he still founded a dynasty. The “elites,” the senators and knights, never really challenged the Principate at all.

      1. What about the infamous “cat o’ nine tails” flail? If cats can wield bats, could bats wield cats?

  14. The last few paragraphs about Tyrannies reminds me a lot of how dictatorships in the modern era operate and are established, particularly the part about the appearance of functioning institutions being very helpful to the Tyrant. I’m sure we can all think of a number of examples of modern countries that are or used to be like this.

        1. My spell-check said it was ok. As I understand it, there’s no standard for how to transliterate Arabic into the Latin alphabet, so there are probably several spellings of his name that are considered correct.

          1. The advantage of spelling it with a Q is that it conveys that in standard Arabic, it starts with a sound that has no English equivalent (so we wouldn’t want to use K or G, which are English letters, or KH and GH which are more commonly used to convery other foreign sounds). Like we spell the name of the country “Iraq”, and mroe recently have switched to spelling Quechua names like “Qosqo” instead of “Cuzco”.

            Qadhafi himself though, and other Libyans, would have pronounced it with a G, unlike the Q sound in standard Arabic.

    1. Yes, very few dictators today rule by nakedly saying “obey or else”. They insist that they are the beloved president of the People’s Republic, voted in by a 99.5% vote.

      1. Alternatively, a government can base its legitimacy on ideology (communist, nationalist, socialist, religious, etc.), rather than on force or elections. Those types of government used to be more common during the Cold War, but there are still a few, e.g. Vietnam and Cuba, or Iran.

        1. Even these usually have some kind of theoretical election: The Soviet Union had elections, they were just larely symbolic on several levels (the potential candidates were pre-selected, and the assemblies they were elected to had very little power in practice)

          I remember reading Alf Ross’ (“Why Democracy?” (“Varför Demokrati?”, 1946) for poli-sci, and he made a bunch of arguments for how democracy is or isn’t restrained.

          Basically you can restrain it based on *inclusivity*: What portions of the population is allowed to take part. Just about all democracies restrict participation to citizens (at least for most levels of governance) of course, and the extreme case is an absolute monarchy which only allows a single person.

          The might be called *scope* in the sense of “What is the electorate actually allowed to decide about?” it can range from requiring constitutional amendments or having constitutional limitations, to things like early-modern and 19th century constitutional monarchies where there were elected representatives with certain powers (taxation, declaration of war, etc.) but other powers were reserved for the monarchs (or some other kind of unelected body)

          The third is “effect”, the ability for the electorate to change their opinions, the example of a very low effect type is the traditional elected monarchy: (certain people) gets to pick the king, but once you’ve picked him you’re stuck until he dies): Long office terms, etc.

          Ross’ point is that democracy isn’t so much a “thing”, but rather an *ideal type*: There is a theoretical “pure democracy”, but in practice all democracies are to some extent restricted (if only for practical reasons) and societies are *more or less* democratic.

          1. That’s a fair point, but I still think it’s a distinction worth making. The communist states (and regimes like Iran today) had elections, but in the last analysis they didn’t think their legitimacy *rested* on election results. They had, in both cases, alternative sources of legitimacy (both for the general public and in their own minds), that derived from their particular ideological interpretations of history. (Those narratives of history are pretty coherent and compelling, at least to me: it’s not like either various communist revolutionaries, or the Islamic revolutionaries of 1979, were just making things up to provide a transparent excuse for themselves to take power). In the 20th century, rule by an ideological vanguard party became the main *serious* alternative to democracy, as things like monarchy and aristocracy became discredited. I think that’s likely to remain the case in the years and decades to come.

            Your point about the ways democracies restrict the scope, effect or inclusivity of “democracy” is really well taken. I’d add a further restriction: many/most democratic (or “democratic”) countries also place limits on what kinds of questions can be raised through the political process, and what kinds of ideologies are completely out of bounds. (In that sense, no country in the world that I can think of has absolute political freedom). I brought up India above, so I’ll bring it up again : in India, for example, while the political environment is liberal and democratic in many ways, some brands of political opinion are simply not allowed to have a hearing through the political process. Secessionism, for example, is illegal: it’s both illegal to be a political party advocating for secession, and it’s illegal (according to the Basic Structure Doctrine) to amend the constitution to allow a state to break away. You can express many other shades of political opinion, but if you belong to an ethnic group which would like to have its own country, then you’re out of luck and your only real option is armed struggle. (Which may be one reason India has had to deal with so many ethnic insurgencies throughout the years).

        2. Royal absolutism, full theocracy and full democracy have single sources of legitimacy (divine right, divine approval and the general will, respectively). They are all reasonably rare. Most polities have multiple sources of legitimacy – emphasising one or another as politics requires. Medieval rule, for instance, rested on a vaguely theological notion of hereditary right, elite support and popular acquiescence; Islamic rule in theory looks to the will of the ‘umma – the collective faithful, but also to divine approval as signified by success (Iran replaces this last with the ‘guidance’ of the theologically expert).

          While ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ is the ultimate democratic bedrock, in practice it’s not the only – or even, for many – the most important source of legitimacy in the US, or indeed many other modern democracies.

          1. I’d say that another important source of legitimacy, in practice, is what you could call inertia, or tradition. Most people, most of the time, like order and stability and fear change because they think it’s likely any change would be for the worse, so any system that’s been around for a matter of decades has a kind of legitimacy simply because it is the established order.

            And of course, in the last analysis, a government doesn’t have to be good or likeable in order to get people to defend or fight for it, it just has to be perceived as being “less bad’ than any of the likely alternatives.

    2. …sort of. What Bret describes as the model for Greek tyranny (or the Principate) is uncommon in modern dictatorships; its best modern analogy is democratic backsliding, in which there still are elections but they’re coopted.

      But that kind of democratic backsliding is not that common. The purest examples that I can think of are Hungary and Venezuela. Russia did that but is well beyond that point – Putin is no longer really bothering with the pretense that the elections aren’t rigged, making him more like Lukashenko or even Xi Jinping. Turkey tried that as well, but evidently the three largest cities have opposition mayors, and the state hasn’t been able to punish them much (it found an excuse to deny Istanbul infrastructure financing, so the city instead got EIB financing and at this point pays lower interest rates than the Turkish state), and right now most polls have Kılıçdaroğlu handily beating Erdoğan.

      Meanwhile, in Myanmar, democratic backsliding meant a formal military coup in which the formal leadership is Tatmadaw, and the same is true of many other anti-democratic or reactionary coup regimes.

      1. But notably Putin still bothers with a constitution: He subverts it, rather than directly abolishing it and declaring himself an autocrat. Russia still has democratic institutions: They’ve just been neutered to the point where they don’t matter much. There’s basically no modern polity (no matter how undemocratic in practice) that does not at least *pretend* to be democratic. (with the possible exception fo the Pope)

        One point with these things (and something that adds to the instability of tyrannies) is that these institutions can, if the tyrant slackens, reassert some independence or power (usually happens after a transition of power or major defeat of the tyrant though)

        1. “There’s basically no modern polity (no matter how undemocratic in practice) that does not at least *pretend* to be democratic. (with the possible exception fo the Pope)”

          I take your point, but I still disagree. I think any state that formally, in its constitution, includes a leading role for a particular party (or in Iran the clergy, which functions similarly to leading parties in ideological party-states) is, by definition, claiming that they have a higher source of legitimacy than popular votes. So, at a minimum, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and any other countries which say straightforwardly in their constitution that a particular party is *guaranteed* power.

          These aren’t failed or sham democracies, they’re regimes which explicitly say that they have a higher and better source of legitimacy than democracy.

  15. Could you say that “Eisangelia” means what most people use the term “impeachment” to mean colloquially, but not what the “official” or “legal” definition of “impeachment” is?

  16. That was tough going for me, but here are some proofreading concerns that still existed while I was reading:

    a which would could mean the government > [which words do you want?]
    (it’s ‘constitution’) > its [no apostrophe, please!]
    governments different are not > is not
    the state and 4) law > state [comma] and
    provide an excellent example above how > [was the word above intended to be of?]
    bringing poor citizens who under older, more oligarchic constitutions wouldn’t have been admitted even to the assembly in, > [there’s too
    much separation between the parts of the phrasal verb “bring in” making this entirely to difficult to parse!]
    formal positions as rules and general > as rulers and in general
    degree of public acquience from > aquiescence
    clerical officials t Rome, > [is the stray letter t intended to be the word in?]

  17. The vase painting of the woman and the cat is wonderful! Pet cats in ancient Greece, it wasn’t just Egypt. And as a cat owner, I believe that bird is meant to be a TOY — a stuffed bird that is meant for the cat to play with. The whole pose suggests that, and the cat’s body language. I recognize it.

  18. “patrons at the Patres et Matres Conscripti level can be part of the ACOUP gerousia (oddly without needing to be old)”


    “a body of enslaved Scythian archers Athens used as a police force to keep order in the assembly and markets”

    Wait, this is fascinating. Who were these guys? How did they end up as slaves in Athens? Did they ever rebel? What steps did the Athenians take to stop them from?

    1. “Slave” of course can have several graduations of position. Absolute chattel at one end of the spectrum, something closer to indentured servant at the other. Maybe the Scythians were something like “P.O.W.s entrusted on work release”?

      1. More to the point, “slave” can mean anything from “raw material to be used up in the working process” (salt mines, anyone?) to “the chief advisor of the king, whatever the laws say.”

  19. The ancient Greek polisses (I favour regular plurals) actually provide some pretty good case studies on the benefits of constitutional law (that is, laws which limit what the popular assembly can do).
    On the most basic level, just try running a meeting without rules of order :). Add an emotive topic. The best outcome is that people agree on some rules of order that will let them actually have a debate.
    On the higher level, humans have a tendency to act in self-interest, and in partisan ways, and on impulse, in ways they will later regret. One countermeasure: agreeing on some basic principles when no specific case is at stake, and writing them down, and committing to be bound by them until you undertake a dificult and lengthy process to change them. This helps make democratic descisions more consistent and principled, and discourages, say, voting for genocidal massacres of prisoners.
    By “pure” democracy, do you mean an unfettered majority-can-make-any-decision democracy? In such a state, I, personally, would vote for constitutional limits on our power, including some individual and collective rights.

  20. The bird might well be a toy, its pose does look stiff. But don’t cats play with live prey as well?

  21. You’ve mentioned at several point that poleis didn’t really have much of a bureaucracy, and your talk on hoplite warfare kind of shows us how an army can be organized without much of one, but what about the navy?

    While a hoplite can theoretically afford his own equipment, a navy seems like a much more complicated affair, ships need to be built and crewed, maintained, etc. (You also mention greeks did not drill for land warfare, but what about rowers? Did they just throw completely untrained landlubbers into the galleys and hope they could follow the timekeeping?)

    Viking-age scandinavian polities seems to have worked on a systme where districts were responsible for a crewing and maintaining a ship, did the greeks do something similar? (but maybe with internal city subdivisions?)

    1. Navies suck up cash – for ships, gear, rowers (well-paid in classical times). Athens paid initially from the silver at Laurion, then from the empire. The Spartan navy was funded by the Great King. Corinth had commercial revenues and so on. Your average polis, cash-poor, could not afford one.

    2. In Athens’ navy, at least, and I believe it was much the same in the other democratic poleis, rowers were generally recruited from those citizens who didn’t have the money to be hoplites. They were well paid for their effort, also. OTOH, these were definitely wartime or “peacekeeping” volunteers, there not being a civilian pool to draw from: merchant shipping required few rowers, and triremes were useless in commerce.

      Hollywood’s “galley slave” trope is only anachronistic by around 2000 years……

      1. The lowest wealth-class of citizens enlisted as rowers, but triremes were so manpower-intensive that others were needed. Persian subsidies enabled the Spartans to entice rowers from the Athenians, leaving their fleet under-manned. A fair proportion of the population of Hellas drew a living from the sea, and knew one end of an oar from another.

  22. I think i’d love to read the reverse of this sort of article where a modern constitution is explained to Aristotle

    1. That would be an interesting essay, indeed. A good example of such historical inter-cultural “explanation” is a Swedish runestone that says something along the lines of “Thordur sailed to Miklagard and served with emperor who gave him gold.” (Quoting from memory.) So, most likely, Thordur was a member of the Byzantine Varangian Guard, and received his due retirement bonus. In the contemporary Nordic society, this literally true statement translates, however, into “Thordur was a trusted man of the emperor who was given a lavish gift as a personal boon.”

      Any similar attempt to describe a modern society would have similar problems of overcoming huge cultural gaps. I would say that most Westeners would not really qualify as free people at all, as being in a long-term employment relationship was altogether too close to being a slave.

  23. I like the Star Wars example, because the notable thing about it isn’t that the Senate is abolished, but that it still existed for however long the Empire has been the Empire instead of the Republic and that Leia thinks her status as an ambassador for the Senate matters and is shocked when she hears the Senate is disbanded.

    So presumably, up until then Palpatine *had* been keeping the old institutions and forms in existence, even as he ruled as a tyrant. And since he leaves them around for a while and then abolishes them, presumably they hindered or troubled him in some way that he wanted to get rid of them, but also getting rid of them would also have hurt his rule, if not crucially, at least enough to be worth not abolishing them.

    Presumably at the start of “A New Hope” he feels secure enough in his rule that he no longer needs even a neutered Senate for legitimacy, but prior to that he must have been following the pattern of greek Tyrant (or a Roman Emperor is likely a better analogy and what it’s specifically modeled on) and keeping the institutions of a democracy intact while keeping all actual power for himself.

    People’s view on the prequels and Clone Wars legitimacy to the story may vary, but those also show him doing exactly and ruling with increased power, but still the pretense of Democracy.

    1. Indeed the (former) function of the Senate is explicitly stated in ANH:

      “The Rebellion will continue to gain support in the Imperial Senate-”

      “The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the old Republic have been swept away.”

      “That’s impossible; how will the Emperor retain control without the bureaucracy?”

      “The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. FEAR will keep the local systems in line; fear of this battle station!”

      So: the sheer size and heterogeneity of the Empire formerly required the Senate to administer it; probably in particular, to provide the legitimacy and local police power to maintain the rule of law. But the Senate was starting to balk at (or no longer was able to suppress resentment of) the measures the Empire was implementing. So the moment the Emperor felt he had the power to rule on an absolute “or else” basis, he dissolved (possibly literally) the Senate.

    2. Tarkin actually points it out: The reason Palpatine feels confidence in abolishing the Senate is that he feels the Death Star is a sufficiently big stick. “Fear will keep those planets in line… fear of this battle station.”

  24. I have to say, the section on how oligarchies, democracies, and tyrannies are differentiated was uncomfortable when thinking about US states, and overall about representative democracy itself (which arguably can never be anything but an oligarchy by Greek standards).

    First, the restriction by wealth speaks for itself, though there are some representatives that have won despite having little personal wealth. Mostly it seems wealth is an informal barrier to elective office but often a high one.

    Secondly, with gerrymandering and voter suppression of various kinds, wouldn’t that put many US states as extremely similar to ancient oligarchies? If the popular vote is for a majority by one party but due to gerrymandering another gets the majority or a supermajority, due to maps they themselves drew and okayed by judges biased towards them, it sure sounds like an oligarchy captured control. If many people have trouble voting and that disproportionately affects one party, similarly that tilts the whole thing.

    On a deeper level, there is also the question of that direct vote. Certain US states allow initiatives and referendums, which are at least closer to democracy, but interestingly that puts some of the seemingly “more democratic” states as being oligarchic. Hawaii, for example. I know marijuana would definitely be legal in that state like it is elsewhere if there was initiative system. To be honest, Hawaii always felt kinda oligarchic when I was there, but I never quite had the word for it.

    Of course, it’s not exactly fair to compare a city-state of 50,000 people to states with hundreds of thousands or millions, often spread out into many different urban centers and associated agricultural areas. Sheer population alone makes direct comparison imperfect. But definitely this essay made me think a lot about it. An oligarchy with elections is still an oligarchy, isn’t it?

    1. Greeks by and large considered elections to be oligarchic, rather than democratic: The democratic way to chose an officeholder was by lot (or just by having the assembly meet and discuss things)

    2. In making defenses of (e.g. Swiss-style) direct democracy, I’ve called representative democracy “elective oligarchy”, but the elections do matter. Sure, in a literal sense you have a ‘few’ (hundred) people writing laws, but it’s not a closed set: who those few hundred people are, and which faction has the most power, is subject to the democratic vote. That’s pretty different from not having elections.

      Though also yes, gerrymandering and increasing efforts to limit who can (easily) vote are related to those oligarchic tools to manipulate elections that Bret describes.

      There’s also local government, which might seem more democratic at first glance — close to the people! — but in practice favors homeowners over renters, and automatically excludes people who might want to live there but aren’t. Thus American zoning laws designed to keep housing expensive and exclusive, and thus American housing crises.

  25. >> Ollie and Percy are my club-wielding bodyguards!

    Being cats I suspect them of favoring sharp, pointy weapons.

    If they were Labs, I’d believe the clubs; those tails can be lethal.

  26. The phenomenon mentioned in Footnote 8 fascinates me when taken in consideration with an assertion that I believe you’ve made elsewhere about the Romans: that they expanded civic participation mainly in order to pursue greater military power. What, do you suppose, was different for the Athenians such that they found these two to be in tension rather than harmony? Is it to do with the conditions of already having had an empire, using it to fund expanded democracy, and then losing it?

    (Of course I’ll add Pritchard’s book to my reading list to get a more detailed answer. Surprisingly affordable!)

    1. I would guess it’s easier to expand citizenship when doing so doesn’t dilute your power.

      A new but poor Roman citizen had various rights, but didn’t change much politically, while (if male) he was new fodder for the military machine.

      A new Athenian citizen had equal voting rights, (in the 300s) a share on the public purse from paid jury service, and there was maybe less of a military machine to make use of him, depending on when Athens has less of a navy which could use poor citizens as trireme rowers.

      Among modern democracies, Switzerland is by the most democratic and also the hardest to get citizenship in.

    2. One part is that the polis was entrenched in Greek culture as the rightful form of governance. Only in the post-classical period did federations (the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues) appear, and the later powers always claimed their efforts to dislodge the current overlord of Greece were with the aim of ‘restoring the freedom of the Greeks’. There is a parallel in post-Carolingian Europe, where the ‘nation’ (not quite the same as a modern nation) was universally thought entitled to its own laws and customs – so you could add them together under one person, but integration ran from difficult to impossible. In both cases, larger unions were slow to form and conquest ran against the cultural grain.

      1. There’s also the point that these greek city states literally didn’t have either the bureaucracy or even neccessarily the military power to keep other cities under their thumb effectively (even Spartans barely managed it with Messenia) if all your soldiers are expected to go home after the fighting season, and you don’t have a bureaucracy to pay them it gets very hard to keep anyone under your thumb unless they want to. (which is presumably why a lot of greek hegemony-seeking involved trying to empower sympatethic parties)

  27. The end of footnote eight is fascinating, and it’s implications staggering. I’d love to see you write an article about it one day.

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