Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI: the republics of antiquity - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XVI: the republics of antiquity - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the republics of antiquity
Though it is the newer forms of democracy that are the subject of this book, some account must be given of popular government in the ancient world, where that government appeared in its earliest and simplest form, for though the constitutional arrangements were often complicated, the principles stand out sharp and clear. In the history of the Greek commonwealths we discover many traits of character which recur in the modern world. It is instructive to study in their free play, when mankind was making its first political experiments among economic and social conditions diverse from ours, those tendencies inherent in human nature which are the groundwork of scientific history.
There is also another reason why the ancient republics should still interest the student. Democracy is a new thing in the modern world. More than nineteen centuries have passed since it died out on the coasts of the Mediterranean. During all those centuries down to the days of our greatgrandfathers, those who thought or wrote about it had to go back to classical antiquity for example and for instruction, since the only descriptions of its actual working they could use were provided by ancient writers. Among those writers there were two of such outstanding power and range of mind that they formed the views of all who came after them till the eighteenth century saw a new series of experiments in free government begin. To Plato and Aristotle, and to the historians of Greece and Rome, often misunderstood and sometimes misrepresented, may be traced nearly all the doctrines that have been propounded regarding the respective merits and defects of divers forms of government. Their writings have become a part of the subject itself.
Only in three countries of the ancient world did men reach the stage of a settled and constitutional political life, and of these three only one need occupy us here. There were the Phoenicians of Carthage, there were some peoples in Italy, and there were the Greeks, whose small self-governing city communities scattered themselves out from continental Hellas along the coasts of the great inland sea as far as Trebizond and Kertch in the east, Monaco and Marseilles in the west.
Moderns have been apt to say: “What light can these little city states give to us who frame our systems for vast countries? Athens and Syracuse in the height of their power had fewer citizens than a single English or French constituency counts to-day. The voters who at Rome chose a Fabius or a Julius to be Consul were sometimes fewer than those who fill the hall of a nominating Convention at Chicago.” But the difference in scale and in other things, too, are not so remarkable as the similarities. As the problems of good government were essentially the same, so were the motives and the temptations. The gifts by which power is won and the faults by which it is lost are as discernible in the careers of Greek and Roman statesmen as in those which engage our curiosity to-day. On the small stage of an ancient city republic both figures and tendencies stand out more boldly, the personalities are less conventional, the action moves faster, and it is often more dramatic.
Of Carthage I have not space to speak, and the data we possess are scanty. It was an oligarchy rather than a democracy, in its earlier course singularly stable, for Aristotle tells us it never had a revolution. Neither was the Roman Constitution democratic, though it had a popular element in the assemblies which chose the magistrates and passed laws. It is the Greek democracies that best deserve attention. Before coming to their governments, let us note some of the points in which the conditions of their political life differed from those of modern times.
That social stratum which has been in the modern world the poorest and least educated lay altogether below the level of civic rights. Slavery did in one sense make democratic institutions more workable, because the class on whom hardship first fell had no political power, because the menace of its revolt sometimes prevented the free citizens from pushing their quarrels to extremity, and because every freeman, having as large or an even larger class below him than he had above him, acquired a certain sense of independence and personal dignity. Though servitude was less harsh among the Greeks than at Rome, it everywhere disposed men to cruelty and a disregard of human life. Unscrupulous adventurers could recruit among the slaves a force for revolutionary purposes, or might degrade citizenship by the admission of an ignorant and dangerous element.
The small size of a Greek republic, the territory of which seldom extended beyond a few dozens of square miles round the city, and the number of free citizens, usually less than ten and seldom exceeding thirty thousand, made it easy to bring within the hearing of one voice a majority of all who were entitled to vote in the popular Assembly, and enabled everybody to form his opinions on the personal qualities of those who aspired to leadership or to office.1 But it increased the power of personal attraction, intensified hatreds and antagonisms, furnished opportunities for conspiracies or secret combinations formed by a few families or a group of ambitious politicians.2
Representative government was unknown, superfluous where the whole body of citizens could meet in one spot to discuss public affairs. It does not seem to have entered the thoughts of any among the philosophers or constitution framers.3 This deprived the ruling power in a State of such benefits as may be expected from the deliberations of a parliament whose members their fellow-citizens have chosen as best fitted by their abilities and character to give counsel, but on the other hand it raised the capacity, as well as the familiarity with public business, of the average citizen, raised it indeed to a higher point than it has ever attained elsewhere, except perhaps in Switzerland.
The citizens of these republics were originally, and most of them continued to be, cultivators of the city's territory, and many of their internal troubles arose over the distribution and enjoyment of land. Some, like Marseilles and Byzantium, were commercial: a few, like Miletus, derived wealth from the making or dyeing of woollen stuffs. But they were, taken all in all, less industrial in the character of their population than the cities of mediaeval Italy and Germany; and industries (apart from mines) were seldom worked by large-scale producers employing many hands. The organization of the citizens into orders or sections was accordingly not by trades or guilds, as in most parts of modern Europe, but either by tribes, based on real or supposed kinship, or else locally connected in respect of the district where they dwelt. Religion played a great part. As the city had its common gods whom it took for its protectors, and as every family worshipped the ghosts of its ancestors, so also tribes, and often local divisions also, had local or peculiar deities or semi-divine heroes whom it honoured at local shrines.1
The citizens were organized on a military as well as a civil basis, for war service was obligatory. The cavalry, the heavy-armed infantry, and the light troops often constituted different classes for political purposes, the two former enjoying a privileged political position, and furnishing their own equipments according to their wealth. An interesting parallel may be found in the arrangements of the two Dutch Republics of South Africa, where the military officers (such as field cornets) also discharged political functions.
That which seems the most conspicuous contrast between these communities and modern European States, viz. the absence of newspapers and of the use of the printing-press for political purposes, did not make quite so much difference as might be supposed, for in small communities news spreads fast, and the inaccuracy to which it is exposed in spreading was hardly greater than the divergence between “happenings” and the newspaper reports of them observable in some modern countries, where nevertheless the average reader continues to fancy that a statement is true because he has seen it in print. The Greeks, enjoying their open-air and leisurely life, spent much of their time in talking, as do their descendants even unto this day. News was never wanting.
Abstract principles affected politics less than they have done in most modern democracies. Those who owned slaves could not very well have talked of the Rights of Man, for though the Americans of the South did so talk before the Civil War, reading the Declaration of Independence publicly on every Fourth of July, their difficulty was reduced by the fact that the bondmen were of a different colour, whereas among the ancients the slave might well be of as light a tint as his master, and possibly superior in natural intelligence.1 The one abstract principle which did lead to strife and induce revolutions was the passion for political equality. Free citizens of a gifted race, prone to vanity, and valuing themselves all the more because they saw slaves beneath them, would not, when society had passed from its earlier stages into conditions comparatively orderly and peaceful, submit to the rule of a few persons who, while richer or better born, were neither wiser nor morally better than themselves, and dwelt as their neighbours in the same city. Political equality seemed to be prescribed by justice, for though Aristotle is at great pains to explain that justice must be measured with reference to the difference in the capacities of the individual, and in the value of what service each citizen can render, so that Proportionate Justice will assign larger functions, not indeed to the Rich, but to the Wise and Good, this was a doctrine then as now unwelcome to the average man. Moreover, Greek oligarchs always abused their power, so there were sure to be practical as well as theoretic grounds for attacking them.
In all or nearly all the Greek states the first form of government was a monarchy or chieftainship, but, as we learn from the Homeric poems, it was a monarchy tempered by public opinion, which found expression in the public assembly (of the city or tribe) convoked by a chieftain and in practice guided by the leading men, but in which any freeman might speak his mind.1
After a time kingship either died out, being replaced by elected magistracies, or was greatly reduced in authority, though sometimes (for religious reasons) continued in name. Power passed, in most cities, to the heads of the chief families, who were also the rich and the lenders of money. Their rule, sometimes respecting forms prescribed by old custom, sometimes based on force only, became more or less odious according as it was more or less harsh, but everywhere demands arose for a definition by law of the powers of magistrates and for the admission of the bulk of the citizens to the public offices and the councils. This was the beginning of democracy. In many cities the transition took place through the stage of a so-called Timocracy, in which only the richer sort held the offices and enjoyed a greater voting power than the rest of the citizens. Without attempting to trace in detail the process of evolution, which in Athens lasted for more than a century, it will suffice to describe the features of a normal full-blown democracy such as was that of Athens from the reforms of Cleisthenes (508 B.C.) till the days of Demosthenes, when the combined forces of Athens and Thebes were overthrown by the Macedonian Philip (338 B.C.) on the fatal field of Chaeroneia.
All these democratic republics had what we should call a Constitution. But this was not a Rigid Constitution (such as that of the United States or Switzerland), but merely a mass of laws, which could be altered by the people when and as they pleased. Constitutional law was constantly altered, not only, as was natural, during the process of evolution from an oligarchy to democracy, sometimes with intervals of tyranny, but also when the occurrence of a sedition had made new guarantees for liberty necessary. Athens had lived under eleven constitutions from the time of Draco (624 B.C.) to the settlement of 404 B.C. Aristotle collected and described in a treatise an immense number of constitutions, only one of which, that of Athens, is known to us in its minuter details.
The laws of these States covered the whole of civic life, every little city commonwealth being for political purposes an independent nation, making war and peace, maintaining its own army and navy, frequently at war with its neighbour cities. None (except possibly Athens) had a population of more than thirty or forty thousand free citizens, and few more than five thousand. Imagine such towns as Dover, Canterbury, and Maidstone in England, or such cities of the second or third rank as Salem, Concord, and Pittsfield, in Massachusetts, each one standing alone in a world full of other equally independent communities, if you wish to form an idea of what ancient republics were. In England all municipalities have practically the same form of municipal government. In the United States there is more, yet not very great, variety. In the Hellenic cities the variety was infinite, and the changes in the same city were frequent. There was seldom any distinction between what we should call National government and Local government, because the whole republic was usually smaller than most of our local administrative divisions in England or America. All offices were in fact national as well as municipal.
Confining ourselves to the democracies, let us note their characteristics. The salient feature was the vesting of supreme power for all purposes in the whole body of the citizens. That body was at once a Parliament and a Government, an Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary in one. It did much executive work, because it settled many important current questions by its vote. Not only did it choose the generals and other magistrates, it also instructed the generals, listened to envoys from other States, declared war, concluded peace, ratified treaties, ordered public ceremonials, civil or religious, received public accounts. It was the Legislature, passing Laws intended to be permanent, and Decrees prescribing the main issues of State policy from one meeting to another, and imposing taxes or burdens either generally or on some particular class of rich men. It, or a part of it, formed also the Judiciary, for the citizens acting as one body or divided into sections which may be described as gigantic juries, heard and determined nearly all cases, both civil and criminal, while the Assembly as a whole could, and sometimes did, even if irregularly, pass without any trial sentences of death or fine or exile upon those officials whose action had displeased it.
How did this system work in each of the three branches of government? I take Athens as the best example, for we know more about it than about any other republic, but, as already observed, there was no one general form of republican government.
As respects executive business, there were magistrates, civil and military, the former chosen almost wholly by lot, the latter by the vote of Assembly, for even these ardent equalitarians felt that skill and experience are essential in war. Whereas in other offices no man could serve more than once — even in the Council only twice — generals were often reelected, Pericles fifteen times, Phocion forty-five. Terms of office were short, none exceeding a year. The chief civil officials, the nine archons, were chosen by lot for a year, but the post carried little distinction and gave little scope for ambition. Far more important were the generals, elected yearly, ten together, each to be a sort of check on his colleagues. Sometimes an important command was given to one specially, but more frequently they exercised their functions jointly. They, or some of them, not only led in the field, but brought questions of foreign policy before the Assembly, and, since charged with military preparations, had war finance also to deal with. Whoever showed high capacity and won confidence became a leading man in the city.
For legislative purposes there was a Council which was meant to prepare work for, and to some extent guide, the Assembly.1 It consisted of five hundred members, fifty being taken by lot from each of the ten tribes. No one under the age of thirty2 was eligible, no one could serve in it more than twice. Each tribal group of fifty was placed in charge for the term of thirty-five days (one-tenth of a year), called a Prytany, and was responsible for the arrangement of the business that had to come before the Assembly during its term. This Council appointed, again by lot, a president (ἐπιστάτηs) whose office lasted for twenty-four hours only, and who could not be reappointed. This president took, again by lot, nine other persons (πρoέδρoι) out of the nine other tribes who were not then presiding, and from these nine took, once more by lot, one to be chairman. These nine then received the programme (πρóγραµµα) of business to be dealt with by the Assembly, and provided for the orderly conduct of business in that body, proposing the questions to be dealt with (including the elections of the magistrates chosen by vote), taking the votes, supervising the proceedings generally, but leaving to the Assembly all matters of policy. These ingenious arrangements were devised not only to respect the principle of equality, but also to prevent any one tribe from having things too much its own way, even during its thirty-five-day term. Yet the function of arranging and directing the course of business, though it gave importance to the annual appointment of the Council, carried less power than that which the Speaker enjoyed till recently in the American Congress, or that which the “Steering Committee” now exerts there; and much less than the Cabinet exerts in the British House of Commons. The Council nowise interfered with the freedom of the Assembly to discuss and (if it pleased) to decide a question raised by any ordinary private citizen.
The power of the Assembly was complete and absolute. As Aristotle remarks, it did what it pleased.1 Its action embraced every department of State work, and was uncontrolled. There was no King, no President of the Republic, to interpose his veto, no Second Chamber to amend or reject a bill, no constitutional limitations fettering the Assembly's action, save one (not always respected) which is peculiar enough to be worth describing.
Holding the doctrine that political sovereignty, complete and final, rested not with the citizens but with the laws of the city, embodying the settled mind and will of the people, the Greeks drew a distinction between Laws (Nóµoι), containing general rules of permanent operation and Decrees (ψηφιµατα),1 passed for a particular occasion or purpose. Now at Athens the Laws were liable to be amended once at least in every year on the proposal either of any private citizen or of a body officially charged with the duty of revision (Thesmothetai). When on the proposal either of the Thesmothetai or of a citizen, a resolution to amend was accepted by the Assembly, a body of citizens called Nomothetai, and constituting a Legislative Commission, was appointed by lot to preside over the process of amendment. The Commission discussed and voted on the amendments submitted, thus giving to the Laws their revised form, which lasted till another process of amendment was put through. This may be called Constitutional Legislation in the strict sense of the term. It was passed at a special time and by a sort of special Committee, though a huge one, sometimes of as many as one thousand citizens, taken by lot. Now in order to protect the Laws from being infringed by the Assembly, that is to say, to protect the citizens against their own hasty or ignorant action, a check was contrived. Whoever brought forward and carried in the Assembly any Decree or proposition which transgressed any Law in form or in substance, might be prosecuted by any citizen for his wrongful act in misleading the Assembly into an illegality. If the prosecution succeeded, the culprit was fined, or possibly even put to death, and the decree of the Assembly (if still operative) was annulled; but if a year had elapsed from the date of the illegality, no penalty was inflicted. This was called the Indictment for Illegality (γραφὴ παρανóµων), and served to deter the orators who guided the Assembly from reckless proposals infringing the formal safeguards; though often enough the threat was insufficient, and resolutions were passed which had worked their mischief before their illegality had been established. The same kind of indictment was employed where some one had proposed to amend a Law without following the formalities prescribed for that purpose. In this way the Constitution (as we should say), was deemed to be guarded, and that by a sort of judicial proceeding, the people being too jealous of their power to permit any presiding official to arrest their action as illegal, or to entrust to any authority but their own (acting in a judicial capacity) the duty of afterwards declaring it to have been illegal.
Though we know far less than we should like to know of the way debates were conducted in the Assembly, a few things stand out clearly.1 There were no regularly organized parties. Any citizen could speak, but much of the debating fell to the practised orators whom the people knew and were apt to follow. The rule that every proposition ought to come through the Council was not strictly observed, and as those proposals which were brought from the Council could also be added to or varied, the Assembly's hands were practically free. There was little disorder, though sometimes much excitement, for the audience, which might number more thousands than any hall in London or Washington could well accommodate, and met in the open air (at Athens usually in the early morning), was so well accustomed to the exercise of its functions that we must think of it not as a mob or a mass meeting but rather as a House of Commons or Congress raised to seven or ten times the number of those legislatures. Four regular meetings were held in each Prytany period of thirty-five days, notice being usually given five days beforehand; and special meetings could be summoned in an emergency, sometimes by a trumpet-call. For some few purposes a quorum of 6000 was prescribed. Every one who attended received a sort of ticket or token, on presenting which at the proper office he was (in later days) paid his small attendance fee, payment having been introduced in the fourth century, long after the time of Pericles. Order was kept by the Scythian archers, public slaves or servants acting under the directions of the presidents.2 We hear of no rules of closure, but large popular assemblies have speedier and more drastic means of curtailing debate. Attendance was chiefly given by those who dwelt in the city, or in the port of Piraeus, and seldom exceeded 5000 out of a possible total of 30,000 to 35,000 adult male citizens. Voting was usually by the holding up of hands, but sometimes by pebbles dropped into urns for the Ayes and the Noes.
Besides passing decrees and carrying on the executive work already described, the Assembly acted also as a Court of Justice to hear an impeachment (εσεἰιςαγγ∊λία) of persons charged with political offences, and could inflict on those whom it condemned fines, or exile, or death, all this without the formalities of a judicial proceeding.1
There were, however, many details of current business which it could not deal with. These were left to the Council, formed as already described. It was a sort of Committee of the Assembly, as the British Cabinet is a sort of Committee of Parliament. But it was chosen by lot, and thus represented not the ripest wisdom and experience of the Assembly, but its average intelligence, consisting not of leaders, but of rank and file, with no preference for men of ability and influence. It sat in public, and was approachable by every citizen. Besides preparing business to be brought before the Assembly, it exerted a general supervision over the state administration as a whole, and particularly over finance, doing this mainly by committees or commissions appointed from itself for special purposes. Meeting daily, the Council was the constantly working organ of state life, by which the other numerous administrative Boards were kept in touch with one another, so that nothing should be omitted through the default of any one of them. Responsibility for neglect or misfeasance was strictly enforced, even when the error was one of judgment only, not of evil purpose. The Athenians thought they made up for their laxity in some respects by their stringency in others. The Assembly might break its own rules, but that made it none the less harsh towards others who did the like. Greek governments were often unjust and sometimes cruel.
Oddest of all, to modern eyes, of the features of Athenian democracy was the machinery provided for judicial business, and the use made of it for political purposes. The citizens were organized for judicial work in a hody called the Heliaea, which consisted of all who offered themselves to take the judicial oath. Its normal number is given as 6000; that being the number chosen annually for the purposes by the Demes (δῆµoι), local circumscriptions which exercised a sort of self-government in local affairs. Probably no more than 6000 could be found willing to serve, at least in the Demes with an agricultural population living some way from the city. Though the Heliaea might sit as a whole, it usually acted by sections, of which there were ten. They were called Dikasteries, and their members Dikasts, names which I use because the words “juries” and “jurors” would inevitably convey to modern readers the notion of small bodies, whereas these sections were very large.1 The normal number seems to have been 500, but it was often smaller, perhaps 250 or 200. The lot determined who should sit in each section. To some one of the Dikasteries every case, civil or criminal, was referred. Plaintiff and defendant, accuser and accused, pleaded their cases in person, though they often read aloud the speeches which had been prepared for them by professional advocates. Sometimes a party to a cause was allowed to have the aid of a friend who would follow him and support his cause. The Dikasts were judges of every issue, for the presiding magistrate had no right either to state the law or to sum up on the facts. All was left to the crowd of Dikasts who, being a crowd, were impressionable, quickly excited by appeals to their feelings or prejudices, easily beguiled by plausible misrepresentations.2 In such conditions, the law came off ill, and the pleader's skill was chiefly directed to handling, or mishandling, the facts. From the vote of the majority of the Dikastery there was no appeal. It not only delivered the verdict but fixed the penalty.
Seriously as these defects injured the course of justice in private suits, they were even more pernicious in their political results. There were not, as in modern countries, regular public prosecutors. Any citizen could indict another for an alleged offence against the State, and that not merely when an official was charged with negligence or other breach of duty, or corruption, or when any person was arraigned for a treasonable plot, or for having led the Assembly into a breach of the Laws or given it bad advice which it had followed. To prosecute became an obvious means not only of injuring a political opponent but of winning distinction for the accuser, and of levying blackmail by the threat of legal proceedings. A class of informers called Sycophants sprang up who made prosecutions their trade, and deterred many good citizens from coming forward to serve the public. Thus the battles of politics were fought out in the law courts almost as often as in the Assembly, the former being scarcely more impartial or circumspect than was the latter. Not only politicians, but almost every wealthy citizen who was worth worrying or harrying lived in perpetual disquiet.1 He might be at any moment accused of some offence which could not be disproved without labour and anxiety, so it was probably cheaper to buy off the Sycophant than to fight him before the Dikastery. The system was often denounced, but it stood, partly because it was deemed to guarantee the safety of the State both against the predominance of any one man and against secret conspiracies, but also because the Dikasts found occupation and drew emolument from this incessant political as well as private litigation. Their pay, three obols a day, was scanty, but living was cheap, and the work light, suited to elderly men who liked to sun themselves in the city listening to well-turned rhetoric. A citizen drawing pay on most days for his judicial duties, and for his presence in the Assembly at least once a fortnight, had a chance of further pay for some other among the numerous lot-awarded offices, could attend some theatrical performance for which the means of paying were provided him, and received a share, small as it might be, from the silver mines or other source of public revenue. The fear of losing these “stakes in the country “was sufficient — so we are told — to make the orators use the argument that if heavy fines were not imposed on rich defendants so as to replenish the coffers of the State, there would not be enough left to pay the jury fees and Assembly fees of the citizens.
Who worked this machinery of government, legislative and administrative and judicial? Not a Cabinet, for there was none. Not party organizations, for there were no organized parties, but only tendencies which disposed this or that section of the voters to adhere generally to one type of view or follow some particular politician who had gained popularity. One can hardly talk even of political leaders, for though there were always prominent men who figured in debate, these could not count on any assured following among the voters. So far as there was any one centre of authority, it existed in the Assembly, a crowd of four, five, or six thousand persons, not always the same men, for the country dwellers came irregularly, and the more ignorant and irresponsible seaport folk and small tradespeople were apt to give more frequent attendance than did the richer class, who had their private affairs to look after. This grew in course of time as the number of poor citizens increased; and complaints were made that the quality of the Assembly was declining, though it did not sink so low as did that of the Comitia in the last century of the Republic at Rome. The Assembly never, however, became a mob, for it knew how to listen, and those who addressed it were commonly either orators with whom it was familiar, or some few generals whose services or character had won its confidence. Usually it was led by the orators, practised rhetoricians, most of whom held no office, and who devoted themselves to politics, some from ambition, some from public spirit, some in the hope of turning their influence to personal gain. Nowhere perhaps has the power of eloquence been so great as it was in these republics, where the ruling Assembly was full of bright and alert minds, equally susceptible to ingenious arguments and to emotional appeals, with every passion intensified by the contagion of numbers. It was the orators that practically held sway, and that an irresponsible sway, for as they had not the measures like the executive of a modern country, to carry out, they recommended, any blame for the failure of those measures would fall on others. They were Demagogues in the original sense of the word, for they “led the people.” Among the leaders there were great men like Themistocles and Pericles and Demosthenes, honest men like Aristides and Mcias and Phocion, who commanded respect by their talents or character. But many, especially in later days, were demagogues in the sense the word came to acquire, unscrupulous politicians, flattering and cajoling the people for their own selfish ends. Having power, they were often tempted by those who wished to get some benefit from the people. When tempted, they mostly fell. To take a bribe was hardly deemed an offence, unless it was given as payment for treason to the city's interests.
To a modern eye the strangest part of all this strange frame of government was the plan of leaving to chance the selection of nearly all officials except those generals for whom military skill was indispensable. Yet the use made of the Lot, as well as the other arrangements described, was deemed to be imposed by the supreme need of averting oligarchy, and still worse, Tyranny, the disease always threatening Greek republics, as it destroyed sixteen centuries later the republics of mediaeval Italy.1 The vesting of public functions in large Boards instead of in individual officials was meant to make each member a check upon his colleagues. The short terms of office tended to prevent corrupt men from forming secret schemes for robbing the public funds. Thus power was brief as well as limited. The throwing open to every citizen of the right to prosecute officials made the way of transgressors hard, for it turned every ambitious rival into a detective. The Lot itself not only gave each man, however obscure, his chance of office, making him feel his equality with the richest, but threw difficulties in the way of treasonable plots, for those who had to exercise political power together were not, as in modern popular governments, party associates or social intimates, with common aims in view. By all these devices, and also by Ostracism, the power of voting into exile, without any specific charge, a politician whom it was desired to keep away from the city, the Athenians sought to prevent any man from rising markedly above others in influence or power, and if this could not be quite prevented, to reduce his opportunities for doing mischief. And, on the whole, the devices succeeded. It was defeats in war that brought the first democracy to an end. After its re-establishment in 403 B.C. Athens never regained the commanding position she had held in the days of Pericles as the head of a confederacy of subject allies. But though her government was thereafter perhaps less efficient and certainly more offensive to the rich, its democratic character was not seriously endangered during the eighty years that followed down to the melancholy day when Macedonian troops were placed in the port-fortress of Munychia to overawe the people.
Athens lacked, and so did most of her sister republics, some features found in modern free governments. There was no proper judicial establishment, no regular civil service, no permanent military establishment (despite the frequent wars), no organized political parties, little interest in or importance attached to elections to office, and an imperfect constitutional check on the action of the ruling legislature. Executive power was comminuted and distributed among a large number of Boards, each consisting of many persons and restricted to a few special functions. Such a government could hardly have been worked save by a wonderfully keen and active-minded people, whose courage and resourcefulness largely compensated for their instability and deficient respect for authority. They held their ground well against their neighbour and often hostile republics, whose weaknesses were like their own. Had no other foes appeared, the Republics of Hellas might have provided the world with still more to admire, and still more to take warning from. What would the democracy of Athens have become had its quality been tested by another two centuries of life? Would ingenuity and patriotism have discovered remedies for the evils which Aristotle noted? Or would the intensification of that antagonism of Rich and Poor which was already visible in the later days of Plato have led to revolution and the establishment of an oligarchy or even of a tyranny. Unhappily the drama was never played out. After the first three acts, in the first of which Solon, in the second Pericles, and in the third Phocion and Demosthenes played the leading parts, the curtain suddenly fell. The military monarchy of Macedonia, reared by the craft of Philip, and thereafter wielded by the resistless force of Alexander, cut short the free life of Athens. Democracy virtually ended when (in 323 B.C.) Antipater reduced the number of citizens and planted a garrison to control them. Free governments, more or less democratic, remained in some other cities, notably in those of the Achaean League, till they succumbed to Pome. But at Athens, though she continued to be the most famous seat of instruction in philosophy till Justinian closed her schools in A.D. 529, the day of great statesmen, great poets, and great philosophers was gone for ever.
The defects of the Greek Republics have been dwelt upon by a host of writers, who found material for their strictures in the accounts given by the two finest philosophic minds of the ancient world, both of whom lived in Athens and described its democracy in treatises which were the earliest and remain among the most precious contributions ever made to political thought. The judgments of Plato are more severe than those of his great disciple, because he tries what he saw by the standard of that Ideal Polity which he imagines to be stored up somewhere in the heavens, never to become actual on earth till the day comes when philosophers are kings or kings are philosophers,— a day of which not even the dawn is yet discernible. Aristotle applies a standard drawn from the facts of his own time, and he finds Athens rather above than below the average of excellence which its republics presented. The kind of government he sketches as being the best attainable under existing Greek conditions is founded on his observations of the institutions which were working well in various cities, including Carthage (he had unfortunately no data from Rome), and shows that he wished to blend some features of an aristocratic with others of a democratic type.1 Both philosophers should of course be compared with the contemporary references to the working of democracy to be found in Thucydides and Xenophon and the Attic orators, nor should the plays of Aristophanes, albeit caricatures, be omitted. From all these sources we get a vivid picture of public life in the most keen-witted, versatile, and inventive community the world has ever seen, men whose achievements in art and literature are models for all time. The Athenians had no doubt the defects of their qualities. But what qualities!
A farewell glance at the salient features of their public life shows us a whole people always busy, or supposed to be busy, directing and administering their State in the Assembly, in the Council and its Committees, in the law Courts, in the various other bodies, Thesmothetai, Nomothetai, and the numerous smaller Boards. Most citizens had at some time or other filled some office, and everybody was paid, even for attending the Assembly. But the Athenians were also fond of talking and fond of amusement. The ideal of a steady and strenuous co-operation of all citizens in the daily duties of government was far from being attained in practice. State work was compatible with laziness.1 The average man loved oratory and was readily moved by it, was clever enough to enjoy its brilliance and not quite wary enough to discount its artifices. Its sway was tempered only by bribery and by the fear of a prosecution for having misled the people.
Gathered in their Assembly the citizens were hasty and variable, easily swept off their feet by passion, unable to pursue a fixed foreign policy, unless they found a Pericles or a Phocion whom they had grown to trust as both sagacious and incorruptible. Impatient of restraints, even such restraints as they had by law imposed upon themselves, they ruled as a despot rules, exemplifying the maxim that no one is good enough to be trusted with absolute power. Demos, says Aristotle, is the sole sovereign, Demos becomes a Tyrant.
The spirit of independence, the love of equality, and the dread of an ambitious usurper made them trust their magistrates with so little power that in many branches of administration there was no permanent control, no fixed policy, no means of throwing responsibility on any one for the neglect to take action when needed or to provide precautions against impending danger. But when roused they could put forth efforts worthy of heroes, manning their fleets with splendid celerity and throwing their hearts into combat.
In their relations with other States they showed that deficient respect for the rights of others, and for liberty as a principle, which belonged to every Hellenic community. There was little chivalry or love of justice where strangers were concerned, and no love of peace. Among the Greeks, patriotism sometimes reached its highest, and sometimes fell to its lowest level. There were men who willingly died for their city. There were others, sometimes of the most brilliant gifts, who, like Themistocles and Alcibiades, did not hesitate, when exiled, to do their utmost to injure it. The power of money and the greed for money appears from the prevalence of bribery and the frequent embezzlement of the public funds. These Republics did not live by Virtue. Rather might one say that they lived by disbelief in it.
If the faults enumerated constitute a grave indictment of Greek democracy, let no judgment be passed till Greek oligarchy also has been examined. It had few of the merits and all the faults of democracy, except perhaps in the sphere of foreign relations, for in these policy is usually more consistent and foreseeing when directed by the Few rather than the Many. In the oligarchic cities there was less security for property and for personal liberty, and far less chance of justice, for the rulers took without scruple what they wanted, and everything went by favour. Oligarchs were as corrupt and more rapacious than any body could be in a democracy. The common man could not count on his own safety or on the honour of his family. Seditions and conspiracies were frequent, for not only did the mass of the people try to overthrow the oligarchs,— who, with the Greek aversion to compromise, did not, like the patricians of old Rome, know when to yield in time,— but the dominant families themselves quarrelled and fought against one another. Aristotle condemns the rule of the Few as more pernicious than the rule of the Many. The only thing worse still was Tyranny, for which both he and Plato reserve their blackest colours. Liberty at least, Liberty as the unchecked development of the individual man, was secured by democracy, as Plato recognizes when he condemns its excess.1
Two facts stand out to the modern historian when he surveys these Republics from afar. One is this. They reached in an early stage of the political development of mankind the high-water mark, attained elsewhere only by the primitive communities of Switzerland, in the uncontrolled sovereignty of the whole people, and in the rule of the Average Man. If it was not a success, it was more successful than could well have been expected. The value of the lesson for moderns is no doubt reduced by the fact that the communities were small and that the lowest stratum of the population consisted chiefly of slaves. Yet high is the value that remains.
The other fact is that after all the changes of seventy-five generations the tendencies of human nature remain substantially what they were. Nowhere else do we find so vivid and various a record of these tendencies in their full and free play, embodied as they are in striking characters and dramatic situations. To those experiments in the government of the people by the people which the Greeks were the first to try, they brought an incomparable eagerness and resourceful ingenuity. Their fitful life, filled with wars and conspiracies and revolutions, was illumined by a blaze of poetry, philosophy, and art, which no subsequent age has equalled. Short indeed was the life of these republics, but it was intense, and it was wonderfully fruitful for all later generations. It has for us the unfading charm of showing human thought and passion in their primal simplicity. The stream, still near its source, runs with the clearness of a mountain spring welling up from the deep recesses of the rocks. We see men as Nature made them, obeying their first impulses, ardent and curious, full of invention, full of imagination. We see them unfettered by traditions and recollections, unguided by settled principles, without the habits and prejudices and hesitations which the memories of past failures implant, weaving theories, enriching the world with ideas and maxims as they move onward in the confident joyousness of youth.
Aristotle in his Polities, where the best kind of constitution for a republic is fully discussed, contemplates a city which is not too large for one man's voice to be heard by the whole assembly (Pol. Bk. vii. ch. 4).
A striking picture of the fierce hatreds which internal strife aroused in these city republics is given by Thucydides in the chapters of Book III., Chapters 70-85 of his History, which describe the seditions at Corcyra.
The nearest approach to representation made in the ancient world seems to have been in the assembly of delegates from the chief cities of the Roman province of Asia under the Roman Empire; but it met for religious or ceremonial not for political purposes.
A brilliant, if possibly exaggerated, description and estimate of the influence of religion on civic organization and politics will be found in the well-known book of Fustel de Coulanges, La Cité Antique.
The Athenian prisoners enslaved after their defeat at Syracuse improved their lot by reciting passages from Euripides to their owners, who had heard of the poet's fame, but had never seen his dramas acted.
As to this institution of the Assembly of all freemen, which appears in Switzerland as the Landesgemeinde, see Chapter XII p. 146, ante.
See Polity of the Athenians (now generally accepted as a work of Aristotle), where (chapters 43-46) the functions of the Council and the duties of these and other official persons are described. This treatise, discovered in an Egyptian papyrus, and published by Sir F. Kenyon in 1891, is the only part of Aristotle's treatise (or treatises) on the Greek constitutions which has been preserved to us Parts of it are wanting, or undecipherable, in the MS. The outline I have given in the text describes the system generally. To set forth the variations between the earlier and the later arrangements would involve a much fuller treatment.
Eighteen was the age which qualified a maa to sit in the Assembly.
Polity of the Athenians, ch. 41.
A somewhat similar distinction is drawn in France and Switzerland between Lois and Arrêtés (Beschlusse), though the Greek υóµos corresponds in a sense to a French Uri canstitutionelle.
For a vivacious description of what the Assembly may have been like, see the bright and suggestive book of Mr. A. E. Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth, pp. 163-7.
There was also a corps of 1600 free citizen archers maintained at Athens and paid as a city guard.
The Assembly sat judicially also where another kind of charge was brought by what was called a πρoβoλη, condemnation in which did not carry therewith a penalty, but might be followed by a prosecution in the courts.
The great size of the courts was due not only to the idea that the people ought to rule, but probably also to the fear that smaller tribunals would be bribed. The judicia at Rome, despite their large numbers, often were.
The speeches of the Athenian orators which have come down to us furnish abundant illustrations. These speeches were of course hardly ever, if ever, reported as delivered, but were written out before or afterwards, and possibly used as political pamphlets, as were some of the famous orations of Cicero, e. g. the speech for Milo and the Second Philippic (divina Philippica), neither of which was actually delivered.
The rich were also heavily taxed, but in spite of everything there were always rich men. It is wonderful how much the richer class can bear and still be rich. We shall find this in Australia also.
See as to the use of the Lot the interesting little book of Mr. J. W. Headlam, Election by Lot at Athens, with which compare the concise Handbook of Greek Constitutional History of A. H. J. Greenidge, a scholar too soon lost to learning. The Lot is to Aristotle a characteristically democratic institution. It was used in the Italian republics. notably in Florence in the fifteenth century.
He wished to have magistrates chosen from persons possessing a property qualification, not so high as to exclude the majority of the citizens, to let offices be unpaid, to strengthen the power of the middle class by taking steps to reduce the inequality of fortunes, and to have the legal tribunals filled by competent citizens. He prefers elections by the citizens in tribes rather than by the whole people, and so may be cited as favouring scrutin d'arrondissement as against scrutin de liste “ward elections “as opposed to the “general ticket” of American cities (see chapters on France and on the U.S.A., post).
“…, says Aristotle, in whose time the sense of civic duty was probably lower than it had been in the days of Pericles.
To see the best and the worst that could be said of the Athenian democracy, read and consider the two striking descriptions given by two famous Athenians, the statesman and the philosopher, the long funeral oration of Pericles in Thucydides, Book ii., and the description of democracy in Plato, Republic, Book viii