162 – Where did democracy emerge?

Posted on September 2, 2012 by

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The conventional trope is that democracy emerged in Athens, 2’500 years ago. Never mind that it did not last long and enjoyed a thoroughly bad press after the political experiment failed (Plato for one hated it, and Aristophanes savaged it is his comedies). Or that those who argued in the agora were in a sense an oligarchy: about 5’000 men together as “equals under the law”, who ruled women and untold numbers of slaves toiling in silver mines so that the citizens could debate. Athens’ experiment with an egalitarian political model of self-government  soon failed because the deliberation was all about “winning” an argument in the agora (with the help of the PR men of the day: the sophists) by silencing the opposition through aporia (irresolvable internal contradiction) – rather than achieving a constructive balance between the factions.

What political system to chose? The contemporary Herodotus[1] had three “wise men” argue over the relative merits of autocracy, aristocracy or oligarchy, and democracy. A circular argument develops. All three methods have merits, but they can be seen to degenerate rapidly – personalities overwhelm the structures. None can be shown as superior or sustainable. Aporia ensues.

What next? Rewind the historical tape and shift to Italy. Enter Romulus, the founder of Rome in (conventionally, but quite accurately) 753 BC. or thereabouts and well before Athens had emerged. Romulus arrived from outside and united politically a cluster of proto-urban settlements nestled at a bend in the Tiber where fording was possible and a salt road (via Salaria) was the main economic feature. Romulus achieved his political goal by creating a constitution as well as building public places where politics could be exercised.

Romulus was both king and diviner. As he could not overcome the Sabine peoples living close by, he eventually settled for joint kingship with Tito Tazio. Direct transmission of kingship to one’s child was forbidden, lest kingship become hereditary (the Tarquinii tried – and lost). Romulus relied on a priestly caste to sustain his rule. There was also an assembly of the leading patres familias meeting in what was later called curia. The people gathered in the comitia curiata. All deliberated and an agreement had to be reached. An army of 3’000 foot soldiers and 300 horsemen could be raised. Soldiers were not allowed to enter the city – political rule was strictly and firmly in civilian hands[2].

From the beginning the Roman constitution was conceived as balance between autarchy, oligarchy, and democracy (in Herodotus sense). This chart put a constructive – and sustainable – compromise between recognizable interests at its core. It could only be sustained by ongoing commitment by all factions to the whole – the res publica. It was grounded in an appreciation that one could disagree without becoming enemies, but also the insight that failure to do so would tear the city apart – as it did during the civil wars. This balance played itself out year after year in the public spaces of the forum, in the curia, and in the comitia. It was not easy, and on the way to learning the system most of the seven kings, including Romulus, got killed.

Romulus’ constitution proved on the whole successful. When the autocratic branch tried to overwhelm the system, the king was driven out of town and replaced by two consuls[3] renewed yearly in elections. After that the constitutional experiment became sustainable, though conquest and expansion probably sustained it to a large extent. The people got a good share of the booty and later on were awarded plots of land. The oligarchy grew wealthy on their newly acquired latifundia and the spoils from administering conquered countries.

This innovation is epochal, and one that has not been sufficiently acknowledged today, though its students at the time were fully aware of it and underlined the unique character of the experiment[4]. It took another thousand years before the concept of positive balance was taken up again. And indeed, if one takes the judiciary to be in some way an “aristocracy” that stands super partes in order to adjudicate, we may recognize modern political democracies with their “checks and balances” as distant descendants of the Roman concept of constructive “compromise” and “balance”.

This balance would not emerge or be sustained automatically – the Romans knew that. Cicero was adamant: it required education and study. Being a good citizen was, in a way, as much profession as declaration of belief in the system.

Aristotle, fine observer as he was, perceived[5] the phenomenon of “wisdom of the crowds”[6] – common deliberation can be an improvement over the opinions of individuals[7]. For a long time this view hovered somewhere between the simple “sum of the parts” and the novel “emergent” properties of a group. Adam SMITH’s “invisible hand” injected an element of automaticity into such phenomena, a view that has now subliminally pervaded our thinking – we live in an age of “economism”. No longer do we need to seek balance – balance would flow automatically form the contraposition of interests in debate and subsequent vote – winner take all. This belief that “democracy takes care of itself” through debate is closer to the Athenian than the Roman view.

When one notices the angriness of current partisan political discourse one wonders what is left of the Roman understanding that every participant in the deliberation in the end must bear responsibility for the whole, and thus for the outcome – workable compromise.


[1]           HERODOTUS: Histories. III 80 -82

[2]           I’m endebted for these details to Andrea CARANDINI (2007): Roma. Il primo giorno. Editori Laterza.

[3]           See E.g.: Andrea CARANDINI (2011): Res publica. Come Bruto cacciò l’ultimo re di Roma. Rizzoli, Milano.

[4]           POLYBIUS : Histories, VI ; Marcus T. CICERO : Res publica I, XIV as quoted in Gustavo ZAGREBELSKY (2007): Imparare democrazia. Einaudi, Torino.

[5]           ARISTOTLE: Politics, III, 11, 1281a42-b2.

[6]           See James SUROWIECKI (2004) : Wisdom of crowds. Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations. Little Brown, New York.

[7]           See: Gennaro CARILLO (2003): Katechein. Uno studio sulla democrazia antica. Editoriale Scientifica, Napoli.

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