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A primer on the development of ancient democracies and on Sparta: The First Republican Democracy ever!

Posted by olympiada στο Μαΐου 9, 2018

*Many thanks to Cambridge Professor Paul Anthony Cartledge for his invaluable comments and insights!

Heraclitus (late 6th cent.BC) said it all: «… all things happen according to strife and necessity» [DK22B80], and that «war is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, it is war who made some slaves and some freemen.«[DK22B53]

Democracy, itself, in its various ancient forms, slowly arose, as Plato, Aristotle (and 22 centuries later Karl Marx) analyzed, from the strife between the classes of the rich (who sought ever more wealth), and the class of the poor masses who yearned,

(1) for Freedom from slavery and freedom to run their own affairs, and (2) some sort of Equality in the right to participate in the running of the affairs of the city!

The process of change started following the era of heroic monarchies of, say, the late bronze age, when the noble ancient kings begot offspring and descendants that were not just, or competent, and not capable of securing the safety and prosperity of the State.

It was first the nobles (and not the common folk) that demanded a say in the running of State affairs, much as the Magna Carta was imposed on King John in 1215, not by the people, but by a group of rebel barons, who instituted next to the king, a council of 25 barons who oversaw his actions.

In Athens, possibly starting around the late 8th century BC, the nobles forced the creation of the Council of Άρειος Πάγος (and of the magistracies of the 9 archons). Areopagus was an “aristocratic” institution, and was considered by the people as being the political center of those supporting an “oligarchical” system of government.

By “oligarchical” we mean a constitution (σύνταγμα, πολίτευμα) where only those that met stringent income and property criteria were allowed to vote and to be elected in various government offices.

“Democratic” was the system of government in which the poor were fully allowed to vote, be voted (especially by κλήρωση/ draw by lot, where luck carried much more weight and allowed for much greater political equality, than the ability a rich person had to buy influence and votes by deploying his wealth)!

The process of change from monarchies to democracies started when the class of nobles demanded from the kings a major say in the running of state affairs. Sequentially, the lesser nobles also started demanding a say, then the rich and the landed gentry also started demanding a share, then the lesser rich teamster class (ζευγίται) demanded similar political rights with the richer πεντακοσιομέδιμνοιclass, and so on until the class of the very poor also demanded and got substantial powers.

So progressively, more political power and a say in Government was handed down to the financially meeker and weaker classes: In Athens, Draco around 621 BC formally drafted an «oligarchical» constitution by giving power to legislate and to elect the 9 Archons to all who could provide (and carry) their own arms for the defense of the City! [Arist.Const.Ath. 4.2] «ἀπεδέδοτο μὲν ἡ πολιτεία τοῖς ὅπλα παρεχομένοις: ᾑροῦντο δὲ τοὺς μὲν ἐννέα ἄρχοντας καὶ τοὺς ταμίας οὐσίαν κεκτημένους οὐκ ἐλάττω δέκα μνῶν… »

Aristotle writes that the «Council of 400″ was also instituted under Draco, whereas others consider that it originated under Solon. («βουλεύειν δὲ τετρακοσίους καὶ ἕνα τοὺς λαχόντας ἐκ τῆς πολιτείας. κληροῦσθαι δὲ καὶ ταύτην καὶ τὰς ἄλλας ἀρχὰς τοὺς ὑπὲρ τριάκοντ᾽ ἔτη γεγονότας, καὶ δὶς τὸν αὐτὸν μὴ ἄρχειν πρὸτοῦ πάντας ἐξελθεῖν: τότε δὲ πάλιν ἐξ ὑπαρχῆς κληροῦν.» [4.3]

The basic oligarchical (self-serving) argument was that only those who could pay taxes, finance public works and can purchase, carry heavy arms for the defense of the city and can finance themselves during wars, should have the right to vote on matters of public interest and hold public office. 

The wealthier class had something to lose in case of foreign invasion and had a vested interest in the continuity of the State. Thats why they required some property assessment and minimum wealth for the the «citizen» to actually have citizen rights! 

On the other side, the oligarchical argument went,

1. The very poor had almost nothing to lose, so had a much lesser vested interest in the salvation of the system,

2. They very poor, could did not have the leisure time and money to cultivate the αρετή = virtue, and were not considered pillars of virtuousness

3. They argued that if one cannot create some wealth for himself and his own household, how could he help the city prosper? [see f.e. Xen. Memor. Γ’ VI.14]

4. The poor did not have the means to acquire heavy arms and support themselves during the military campains.

Following Draco, Solon (c.594 BC) instituted two major proto- democratic reforms: 

1. He allowed the very poor θήτες to also vote in the general assembly of the Athenian citizens, but not to hold public office! Public magistracies under Solon (and before him), were reserved for the 3 upper classed, ranked by wealth: the pendakosiomedimnoi, the triakosiomedImnoi (or knights) and the diakosiomedimnoi or ζευγίται (teamsters).

The reasoning had to do, in addition to the four points above, with the following practical consideration: if a very poor person was caught misappropriating public funds, he would not have the monies to pay the heavy fines to be levied upon him.

2. Solon also allowed the participation of all citizens to the jury-courts of Appeal, thus giving weight to every Athenian. Who could ignore a poor person if he was also a judge and you could face him in Court one day?

3. Apparently it was also Solon that instituted the body of the «Βουλή of the 400″, some sort of Senate, deliberating and crafting the legislation before it went to the final arbiter, the Ekklesia of the dēmos. The Members of the Vouli were chosen by lot (and not by vote), and for a one year tenure.

According to Plutarch, Solon’s Council existed as a check on the power of the people; the 400 Councillors were “to deliberate before the People, and nothing was to be brought before the Assembly without an initial resolution of the Council” («οὓςπροβουλεύειν ἔταξε τοῦ δήμου καὶ μηδὲν ἐᾶν ἀπροβούλευτον εἰς ἐκκλησίαν εἰσφέρεσθαι») [Plut. Sol. 19.1]. 

The Council of the Areopagus and the Council of 400 intended to keep a balance between the wealthier classes and the poor, “just like anchors” (ὥσπερ ἀγκύραις). [Plut. Sol. 19.2] This was a sort of a «Republican type» of constitution, as it provided for full voting rights for the poor, but with some buffers to the immediate, spontaneous, possibly whimsical or overly aggressive desires of the poorer masses! {The idea of the Vouli was possibly copied from Lycurgus’ constitution of Sparta, even though there has been a debate on whether Lycurgus actually existed or whether he was a mythical figure, and what he really instituted there. My reading is that he did exist and that many of the ρήτραι of Sparta’s constitution were indeed his!}

Despite the fact that Solon decreed that the poor did not have to pay back their debts (something for which, oddly, the poor were not really grateful to him as they expected him to also expropriate and redistribute the lands of the rich), the rift between the rich and poor continued, allowing the populist Peisistratus to impose his tyrannical (albeit rather moderate) regime.

That is, Solon’s very progressive reforms were not uniformly successful! Between 545 and 509 BC, Athens went through turbulences with the tyrannical governments of Peisistratus and his sons Ipparchus and Ippias!

Following that regime’s downfall, Cleisthenes as leader of the democratic faction (c.508/507 BC) abolished the previous class divisions that were principally based on wealth, and decreed a new system based on mixed tribes that allowed the poor (the dēmos), not only to vote, but also to hold office, and via their overwhelming numerical superiority to run the affairs of the city!
Bear in mind that before the time of Pericles, the richer classes did not call themselves «oligarchic», but the «kaloi k’agathoi» (=the good and virtuous= «καλοί κ’ αγαθοί»), or the party «τῶν ἐπιεικῶν», «τῶν γνωρίμων» καὶ «τῶν εὐπόρων» [Arist. Pol. 1274a]

According to Plutarch, Thucydides, the leader in Athens of the «καλοί κ’ αγαθοί», asked his followers (around 450 BC) to gather and sit near each other in the «Ekklesia» (= the all people’s assembly), rather than being dispersed all over the assembly, so they would appear ‘weightier’!

However, it then became more obvious that they were grossly outnumbered and it was then that Pericles, the leader of the demotic party, apparently coined the derogatory term «οί ὀλίγοι» = ολιγαρχικοί = the oligarchs (the party of the few who want to govern the many), also connoting that they were the enemies of «the people» (preferring Solon’ constitution to Cleisthenes’, and always looking for ways to re-establish

And according to Plutarch’s Life of Pericles, it was indeed Pericles who caused a much deeper fracture between the factions of the richer and more noble, and the dēmos! [Πλούτ. Περικλ.11.3] «ἦν μὲν γὰρ ἐξ ἀρχῆς διπλόη τις ὕπουλος, ὥσπερ ἐν σιδήρῳ, διαφορὰν ὑποσημαίνουσα δημοτικῆς καὶ ἀριστοκρατικῆς προαιρέσεως, ἡ δ᾽ ἐκείνων ἅμιλλα καὶ φιλοτιμία τῶν ἀνδρῶν βαθυτάτην τομὴν τεμοῦσα τῆς πόλεως τὸ μὲν δῆμον, τὸ δ᾽ ὀλίγους ἐποίησε καλεῖσθαι.»

From that time on, the rift went from bad to worse, causing Thucydides the historian to write in despair that this rift caused tremendous destruction in Greece, both from the wars and the fighting between cities run oligarchically against those with the dēmos in power, as much as from the civil wars between the two parties (democrats and oligarchs) within each city! [Θουκ.1.23.2] «οὔτε γὰρ πόλεις τοσαίδε ληφθεῖσαι ἠρημώθησαν, αἱ μὲν ὑπὸ βαρβάρων, αἱ δ᾽ ὑπὸ σφῶν αὐτῶν ἀντιπολεμούντων (εἰσὶ δ᾽ αἳ καὶ οἰκήτορας μετέβαλον ἁλισκόμεναι) οὔτε φυγαὶ τοσαίδε ἀνθρώπων καὶ φόνος, ὁ μὲν κατ᾽αὐτὸν τὸν πόλεμον, ὁ δὲ διὰ τὸ στασιάζειν.»! Despite its various transformations, this rift still holds well in our times.

Even though the whole world admires the Athenian Democracy, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Xenophon, Isocrates and a host of others, harbored great doubts about the fairness and efficacy of having a city run by the political party of the dēmos (the democrats) = of the non-nobles and the non-tax-paying poor, rather than the parties of the nobler, wealthier and more educated.

At any rate, the invention of constitutional direct democracy was probably the foremost ancient Greek innovation and supported the explosion of classical arts, letters philosophical and and political thought!

Despite all of those doubts, democracy offered a number of advantages 

1. It allowed people freedom of expression and creativity, thus allowing a burst of activity in the arts and letters but also in business (see Herodotus E 66, 78) 

2. It allowed for the common folk to feel included, or better not excluded (see Aristotle 1281b) 

3. It allowed the city to benefit from «the wisdom of the many», who even though maybe very mediocre as individuals, their combined wisdom, added to that of the wiser citizens makes for a much more potent decision-making capability. [Arist. 1281a] As Aristotle further pointed out, a buffet where everyone brings a dish cooked elsewhere, is more fun than one served by one very good chef! [1281b] The most expensive dish, when joined with humbler fresh bread, olives and a choriatiki Greek salad makes for an even better meal! (the choice of foods is mine😇)

Nevertheless, Plato, Aristotle and Isocrates (and others who were not lovers of the powers of the political party of the poor), argued that given the nature of people, the understandable, natural and noble desires for freedom and equality soon deviated and degenerated into 

(1) a desire to do as one pleases without regard to the rights of others [Plato Rep. 557-558], 

(2) the freedom of the many (οί πολλοί) to take, not as individuals, but as a’majority’, unfair measures, typically against the wealthier classes [Plato Laws 627b, Arist. 1281a, 1134a], while, 

(3) the demand not only for full political equality for all, but also equality of incomes and wealth!

This could be achieved in four ways: (i) by overtaxing the wealthier and demanding pay for participating in the General Assembly, in the law-courts and for all sorts if public service, including an 8-month tenure in the Athenian navy [f.e., Plut.Per.11.4 «ἑξήκοντα δὲ τριήρεις καθ᾽ ἕκαστον ἐνιαυτὸν ἐκπέμπων, ἐν αἷς πολλοὶ τῶν πολιτῶν ἔπλεον ὀκτὼ μῆνας ἔμμισθοι, μελετῶντες ἅμα καὶ μανθάνοντες τὴν ναυτικὴν ἐμπειρίαν.» 

(ii) by confiscating the properties of the wealthier and the landed gentry, using one penal pretense, or the other [Arist. 1309a]

(iii) by demanding land redistribution, 

(iv) by demanding the forgiveness of debts!

(v) by demanding communal ownership of all land (communism)! This was the subject of scrutiny by Aristotle in his Politics and by Aristophanes [Ecclesiazusae or The Assemblywomen; (Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι Ekklesiazousai) c.392 BC and Wealth (Πλοῦτος Ploutos; Latin Plutus) second version, 388 BC]

Income inequalities, poverty and the enmity of the poor against the rich could reach such levels, whereby the people would acquiesce in giving a populist leader dictatorial powers which he could then exploit to become a full tyrant! Or alternatively, by allowing hyper charismatic figures, like Pericles, to run the city’s affairs as he pleased, thus becoming, «πολλῶν βασιλέων καὶ τυράννων ὑπέρτερος»! [Plut.Per.15.5] As Thucydides noted, Athens appeared to be a democracy, but in fact was run by its greatest citizen! («γίγνετότε λόγ μν δημοκρατίαργ δ π τοπρώτου νδρς ρχή.») [B 65.9]

In fact, a democracy can also downgrade itself by allowing the assembly to disregard the laws, «to exercise despotic control over the better classes, whilst the decrees voted by the assembly are like the commands issued in a tyranny»! [Arist. 1292a]

These issues as described in detail by Aristotle (and to a lesser degree by Plato), are still lurking in one form or another, in all modern societies.

The Republican Democracy of Sparta 

Even though, as we noted earlier, there are still doubts harbored as to whether Lycurgus did exist, he allegedly established the first republican-type of constitution, with systems of ‘checks & balances’:

1. an institution of dual monarchy, with two kings reigning simultaneously (to keep an eye on each other and to discourage tyrants), but with limited internal executive powers (copied by the Romans in their institution of two Consuls and the US system of President and Vice-President), 

2. a two-chamber parliamentary system: a Senate (as a more ‘aristocratic’ institution), and and a General Assembly of All Spartans (the απέλλα), which had the final say in all major decisions. 

3. About maybe 150 years later, to simplify the running of the City’s affairs, the απέλλα itself, was represented by a system of 5 all-powerful Ephors! It is not clear whether the Ephors were elected by vote in the Apella (as were the Senators), or whether they were appointed by lot (for only a one-year tenure each). A passage from Aristotle clears that all Spartans were an integral part of the political system, because they did indeed elect the Senators, and through the ephors! («τος μν γργέροντας αρονταιτς δ φορείας μετέχουσιν») But he also notes that in Sparta, «πάσας αρετςεναι τας ρχς κα μηδεμίαν κληρωτήν» [Pol. 1294b 29-31] That is, while he does not actually write that the ephors were elected by vote like the Senators, he does mention that no office in Sparta was by lot («μηδεμίαν κληρωτήν») [1294b 33] (and that this was an oligarchical feature of the system)!

At any rate, Aristotle considers that mixture of oligarchical and democratic and aristocratic features of the Spartan constitution as indeed a splendid one, securing that none of the parts of society would consider destabilizing it!! (« μν ον τρόπος τς μίξεως οτοςτο δε μεμεχθαι δημοκρατίαν κα λιγαρχίαν [15]ροςταν νδέχηται λέγειν τν ατνπολιτείαν δημοκρατίαν κα λιγαρχίαν») [1294b 13-14]

This core system has influenced the Framers of the US Constitution! The Spartan kings, like the US President were Commanders-in-Chief. They presided over the workings of the Spartan Senate, like the Vice President of the US is presiding over the US Senate, while the 5 Ephors like the US President ran the day-to-day affairs and decisions, representing directly the citizens of Sparta! This first real and stable Republic lasted for about 600 years! Athens allowed voting rights to its citizens about 240 years after the Spartan citizens had obtained full voting rights!

So the Spartan Constitution was “republican” in its essence.

It had direct-democracy features:

• All citizens could vote for the election of the Senators

• All citizens had the right to be candidates for being elected by draw Ephors

• All the citizens had equal voting rights in the assembly of the Apella

• All Spartan kids got the same public education.

One reason why the public don’t think of Sparta as the pre-eminent republican democracy, is because Sparta even though it had a republican type of constitution, was also a kingdom, much as the UK is today, with a Queen, but also with fully functioning Houses of Commons and Lords! And kingdoms could not be viewed as»republics»! 

There are some others: 

• no use of the lottery system for appointment to office, 

• no popular jury system. Judicial authority was exercised by the Senate and the Ephors, most likely with a view to limit populism,

• excessive power of the Gerousia over the Apella, 

• election to a common mess as a conditon of attaining citizenship etc etc. 

But every system over time will face deviations from its original more noble intents! But these were deviations that should not distract us from the advantages and the uniqueness of that constitution that lasted for 600 years!

Athens was certainly more democratic, in the sense that the average citizen wielded potentially more power as a juror, as a member of the Ekklisia, as a candidate to be drawn for membership in the Vouli, as a candidate for those public offices that were distributed by the lottery system, and of course by having the right and freedom to speak at the assembly of the Ekklisia!

At the same time, the expectations for more freedom, more equality, better incomes, combined with the continuous mistrust and envy of the richer classes, gave rise to a class of demagogues (=leaders of the poorer classes), to professional orators and politicians, who in turn allowed the passage of directives disregarding basic laws! This caused the system to go through periods of excesses, great stress and instability, and self-destruction!

And lets keep in mind that the ancient scholars much more admired the constitution of Lycurgus than the workings of the Athenian democracy! [Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Isocrates, Diodore Siculus, Plutarch, Dion Alicarnass,…]


-Petros G. Doukas

2 Σχόλια to “A primer on the development of ancient democracies and on Sparta: The First Republican Democracy ever!”

  1. Anaconda said

    Καλά τα λέει ο Πέτρος, αλλά μέχρι να ενημερωθεί προσωπικά ότι κάνω το κόμμα, δεν έλεγε κιχ για Ρεπουμπλικάνους, στηρίζει με θέρμη τον Κούστα (χρηματοδότη Μητσοτάκη) και πολλών άλλων φανατικών υποστηρικτών της Χίλαρυ, τώρα πώς πάει να μηδενίσει το κοντέρ;…

    Μου αρέσει!


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