Greek Political Institutions

Greek and Roman cities were political communities, which possessed the institutions required for autonomous collective decision-making. This remained a characteristic of ancient cities from one end of antiquity to the other, even if under monarchical or imperial rule the autonomy of poleis and civitates was somewhat more restricted.

The Greek City-State

Although the political ideas and institutions of the Orient are of interest, it is primarily to Greece that we must look for an understanding of the origins of Western culture. In literature, in art, and the sciences inquiries into our past begin with the great names of early Greek society.

Sophocles and Euripides, Phidias and Polycletus, Euclid and Hippocrates, are only a few of those that might be mentioned. This is even more true in political philosophy. Despite notable refinements made over the centuries, we must still return to the great age of Plato and Aristotle for answers to political questions that continue to plague mankind.

Nowhere, for instance, have the questions of reason and authority, justice, and the rule of law been subjected to closer scrutiny. This will be illustrated when we consider the dialogues of Plato and the Politics of Aristotle. But to place such a study in perspective, it will first be desirable to consider the institutional background provided by the unique city-state.

Greek Political Institutions

The Hellenic world consisted of a group of cities, scattered among the valleys of Greece and on the neighboring coasts and islands. These cities had a tradition of common origin and possessed common social and religious institutions. Politically, however, they were independent, save for impermanent alliances and the efforts of certain cities to dominate their neighbors. Colonies were frequently sent out, but they soon severed political ties with the homeland, becoming autonomous.

Kingship in the Homeric tradition appears very early in the political organization of these city-states. But by the seventh-century b.c. oligarchies, composed of the heads of the leading clans or tribes, controlled most of the cities. These oligarchies, grown lazy and quarrelsome, were themselves replaced from 700 to 500 B.C. by tyrants, who appeared first as champions of the people.

Soon, however, it became evident that the corruption and arbitrary rule of the oligarchies had been mild in comparison with the capriciousness of these ambitious men. Uniting with the aristocracy the people successfully rebelled in city after city, driving the tyrants out. There then ensued a long period of democratic control punctuated by contests with the aristocracy. It was during this period that Greek political thought had its beginning.

Of the city-states, two stand out in importance. Sparta and Athens early asserting their leadership. It was to these cities that the Greeks turned when the Persian invasion compelled united action, and it was Sparta and Athens whose later rivalry ended in the Peloponnesian War.

The government of Sparta was based upon a rigid social system that divided the population into three classes. The most numerous were the Helots, or serfs, whose agricultural labor supported the population, but who had no share in civil or political rights. The Perioikoi, or middle class engaged mainly in industry and commerce, possessed civil rights, but had no share in the political life of the state.

The Spartans proper, descendants of the original Dorian conquerors, though few in numbers, had absolute control in public affairs. They owned the land, were forbidden to engage in trade, and devoted their energy mainly to military service until the maturity of physical life was passed, after which they assumed the duties of government. Their life was rigidly regulated and communistic.

Children at the age of seven were placed in the hands of state officials for uniform training; the adult males ate at the public mess hall. Physical perfection and eugenics were emphasized, and all forms of luxury and inequality were prohibited. In every dispute, the judgment of the magistrate was final, written laws being expressly forbidden. Intercourse with foreigners was narrowly limited.

The governmental system consisted of an assembly composed of the whole body of Spartans; a senate of twenty-eight members, elected for life; two kings, equal in authority; and an annually elected board of five ephors. The ephors, intended originally as a check upon the power of the kings and senate, gradually acquired political supremacy. As the number of landowners decreased, and many of the Spartans, unable to furnish – their share for the public tables were excluded from participation in government, real power fell into the hands of a narrow oligarchy.

With such conditions prevailing, it is not surprising that Sparta contributed little directly to Greek political thought. But indirectly its importance must not be underestimated. The philosophers of Athens were writing at a time when Athens was rapidly disintegrating. Lacking social stability and military success, they turned to Sparta, drawing heavily on Spartan institutions.

In many respects, Athens and Sparta provided a striking contrast. During a major part of its history, Athens was intensely democratic in both organization and spirit. Moreover, Athens was maritime and commercial, not agricultural; it had no traditional social distinction between conqueror and conquered; it admitted a large alien population into social and economic privileges; and it did not exercise vise-like control over the lives of its citizens.

Social classes in Athens included slaves, resident foreigners, and Athenian citizens. The slaves constituted a full third of Athens’s inhabitants and were completely without rights. Much of the manual labor, of course, fell to their lot. But it would be a mistake to assume that all of it did, leaving the citizens as a leisure class. It is quite false, as Sabine points out, to imagine that in a city like Athens, the citizens were typically men whose hands were unsoiled by labor.

Nonetheless, most of the mines and larger farms were worked by slaves, and they were employed by the city to carry out the menial functions of the administration. The abuses that such a system entailed were not widely discussed. Slavery existed everywhere and was largely taken: for granted.

The second class, the resident foreigners or metrics, also constituted a sizeable segment of Athens’s population. As some of them were transients, their numbers varied. But many families remained who had lived for generations in Athens without acquiring citizenship. Citizenship was granted through birth to Athenian citizens only so that aliens had little hope of assuming a share in the control of Athens. Otherwise, however, they were not discriminated against. They were possessed of full civil and social rights and were, as a group, rather prosperous.

All political power was vested in the last group, the citizens. They in turn were divided into nobles and commons, the former representing the distinguished families in the city. Originally all political authority had belonged to the nobles, but in the seventh century B.c. a conflict between nobles and commons led to the reforms of Solon. These made wealth instead of birth the basis of political power and opened to all citizens some share in public life. When the tyrants were expelled in 510 B.C., the legislation of Cleisthenes gave a further impulse toward democracy; and in the next century, under Pericles, Athenian democracy approached its final form.

To be a citizen in Athens was to hold an active membership in the business of governing. If a citizen did nothing else, he participated in the assembly, which was the supreme organ of government. More than ten times each year citizens over twenty met together to consider the state of public affairs. Decrees of this assembly were law and superseded action taken by the Council of Five Hundred or by the magistrates.

While the assembly was supreme, it seldom attempted to formulate or execute policy. This was left to other organs of government, held responsible by the assembly.

Chief among these was the Council of Five Hundred. This body was representative. Members were nominated by local districts called demes. From those nominated, five hundred were chosen by lot to serve for a year.

The use of lots in this connection has always interested later democratic countries. Athenians considered their system to be more democratic than merely voting because the use of lots gave every nominated citizen a chance to be elected.

As the council was to represent the people, it was felt that elected officials should be representative of a cross-section of the population not chosen because of special merits which distinguished them from others. The theory was that each is ruled by all and in his turn each rules over all.

Powers of the council included those now associated with the executive branch of government. It sent and received ambassadors, it controlled the navy and lesser administrative bodies, and it formulated a legislative program to be presented to the assembly.

Associated with the council were boards of magistrates, composed of ten members who were chosen from each of the ten tribes into which Athens was divided. They, too, served short terms and were chosen by lot. Such administrative powers as they had were severely limited by the assembly, the council, and the courts. Their accounts were audited monthly by a committee of the council. Their tenure of office was subject to monthly review by the assembly. A piece of information might be brought against them at any time by private citizens, leading in some cases to their dismissal.

More favorably situated was the Board of Generals. This group of ten military leaders held a special place in Athenian society. It answered to a considerable degree the need for security felt by the people. Its members were not chosen by lot but were elected directly by the citizens. Moreover, members of this board could be reelected indefinitely. Legally its powers were restricted to purely military matters, but in periods of crisis, it assumed a place of first importance in the control of foreign policy as well.

Finally, there were the courts. These differed greatly from our system | of courts, being completely democratic in organization and spirit. They were composed of judgment-finders, who were selected from a jury panel of six thousand. Often as many as four or five hundred citizens served at once and on the same jury. The theory behind such large numbers was that the Courts were the people, acting in particular cases to register popular approval or disapproval. These juries had the power to reach decisions in both civil and criminal cases and to impose penalties from which there was no appeal. They also had the power to try laws. Laws held contrary to custom or the Athenian constitution could be nullified by court action. This gave to the courts, as a similar power gives to the U.S. Supreme Court, a marked degree of legislative authority.