In classical studies and terminology, a (political) constitution is a concept that describes how a particular political system operates. It is a descriptive term and refers to actual political entities. It is, therefore, unlike what Americans are accustomed to hearing when that term is used. Rather, we think of The Constitution, a formal founding document which not only describes the skeleton of our political system, but has also attained the status of a normative standard for what is intrinsically proper political action. Thus, we can talk about constitutional law and of rights recognized in that document in defining not just how things are done, but how they ought to be done.
In that, our Constitution is unusual. The ancient Greek cities lacked such formal documents that were self-consciously founding a new political order. However, there were analogous decrees and laws which shaped aspects of government. In that sense, we, too, might say that a statute that organizes a branch of government might be “constitutional,” not in the sense that it is somehow a noble law, and not just that it is within the textual limits of the Constitution. Instead, the term conveys that such a law simply sets up basic procedures to run the government, procedures that people use and, thereby, at least tacitly accept as legitimate. An example might be a statute that establishes a specific system of federal courts.
Moreover, functional descriptions of constitutions must take into account not only formal written rules of government for that entity, but the unwritten customs and practices that shape, refine, or even negate those written rules. Even our formal written Constitution is subject to such informal influences, one prominent form of which is the collection of opinions of Supreme Court justices on the meaning of the words in that document. The ancients, too, were keenly aware of the importance of such long-adhered-to customs to influence the practice of politics and also to give—or deny—legitimacy to political actions. The Greek playwright Sophocles made the clash between a novel royal decree and custom in the form of the “immortal unrecorded laws of God” a central plot device in his play Antigone, a part of the tragic Oedipus Cycle. For the Roman Republic and the early Empire, one must look to the use of constitutional custom through the mos maiorum (the “custom of the ancients” or “practice of the forefathers”) to understand the political order.
As with our own polity, it would be foolish to describe the constitutions of the Greek poleis (city states) as unchanged over the centuries of their existence. Cultural perspectives and societal needs do not remain static. Thus, one must give an evolutionary overview, made more specific through a snapshot of a particular period. When Aristotle (or his students) wrote Athenaion Politeia (the Athenian Constitution), he did just that, providing a history and a contemporary description. As an aside, Aristotle is credited with analyzing 158 Greek constitutions, of which the Athenian is the only one to survive in substantial form. With that number, it is more likely that Aristotle’s students compiled these surveys, perhaps on behalf of their teacher’s research.
As the Greek city states evolved, so did their governments. The chieftain or kingly form of government under a basileus, limited often by powerful individual noble warriors, prominent in Homer’s Iliad, typically gave way to an aristocracy based on land ownership. In Athens, as later in Rome and in the history of Europe and North America, there were further pressures towards democratization, influenced by the growth of commerce and sea trade. Both Plato in Politeia (the “Republic”) and Aristotle in Politika (the “Politics”) wrote about these trends. Neither was a fan. Plato, especially, saw these developments as evidence of degeneration.
While much of this history is murky and in shadows, apparently the major power of government in early Athens was in the Areopagus, a council of aristocratic elders with legislative and judicial powers. Significant constitutional changes in Athens began in 621-620 B.C. with the Code of Draco (who may have been an individual or a signifier for a priestly class), which solidified the powers of the holders of large estates in a legislative Council of 400. This body was selected by lot from the class of those who, according to the Code, could supply a certain level of military equipment.
Solon, regarded by many historians as the founder of Athenian democracy, undertook various political reforms in the early 6th century B.C. One was to deprive the Areopagus of much of its judicial power. Instead, jury courts took over that role, including the ability to adjudicate suits against public officials for unjust treatment. The most significant reform was to expand political participation based on size of land ownership. Four classes were created. All, even the landless laborers could take part in the ekklesia (assembly) and the jury courts. However, only the top two classes could hold the significant public offices. Members of the third class could hold minor administrative positions. In effect, this diminished the role of the hereditary aristocracy and entrenched the wealthier oligarchy of large landowners. The Council of 400 controlled the agenda of the assembly, thereby ensuring more control by the landed elite.
The process of democratization continued with the reforms by the military leader Kleisthenes who came to political power in 507 B.C. He organized the citizens in Athens and the surrounding area into ten “tribes.” While Athens had many residents from other Greek cities and from non-Greek areas, these “metics” were not counted. Tribe is not to be understood as an ethnic concept, but merely as a convenient label for a geographic constituency, such as a community or district. Kleisthenes eliminated the Council of 400 and replaced it with the boule, a Council of 500. Each tribe would have 50 seats in that council, chosen annually by lot from male citizens over 30 years old. The Council was a powerful entity, in charge of fiscal administration. It also set the agenda for the Assembly. Council members could serve only twice in their lifetimes. Kleisthenes had his reforms approved by vote of the Assembly, which gave particular legitimacy to the rules and increased the Assembly’s constitutional significance. However, the nine archons, the senior civil officials, as well as other magistrate offices, such as judges, were still drawn from the nobility and the wealthy landowners.
During the 5th century B.C., further reforms occurred under Ephialtes and Pericles, resulting in what historians often call Athens’s “Golden Age of Pericles.” The Assembly was the focal point of Athenian democracy. It met on a hill near the central market. Sessions were held on four non-consecutive days each Athenian month. There were ten months, with thirty-six days each. A quorum was 6,000 of the estimated 40,000 Athenian male citizens. Anyone could speak on items placed before the Assembly by the Council. Laws generally were adopted by majority vote of hands, though some laws required approval also by a special body drawn by lot from the jury rolls.
This façade of radical democracy must not fool casual observers of Athenian politics. First, there was the matter of demographics. Of the estimated 300,000 residents of Athens and its environs, most were slaves, metics, women, or children. It is estimated that only about 15% were adult male citizens. Second, the members of the Assembly did have final authority to vote, but on proposals shaped by the Council. Finally, business could not have been carried on if thousands of people exercised their right to speak. Thus, informal customs were observed. Speeches on proposals were given by a small number of recognized leading members of the community. These speakers were the “demagogues” (demos means “people”; gogos means “leader”). Initially, the term had a neutral meaning. It soon took on the modern sense, as various individuals sought to gain favor and influence with the voters through inflammatory language, theatrics and emotionalism.
As happens not infrequently, many such spokesmen for the people were from noble families or wealthy businessmen seeking to advance their economic interests. Notorious among them were Alcibiades, known for his charm, wealth, good looks, and Spartan military training; Hyperbolus, namesake of a word that represents theatrical and emotional language, a frequent target of satire by Greek playwrights, and the last person to be “ostracized” (that is, required to leave Athens for ten years); and Cleon, a man who, centuries before William F. Buckley, declared that “states are better governed by the man in the streets than by intellectuals …who… want to appear wiser than the laws…and…often bring ruin on their country.” Such speakers could “demagogue” issues and exploit, exacerbate, and even create divisions within the Athenian populace. However, they also served a useful role in that they were usually well-informed and regular participants in the debates. They could explain to the more casual attendees unfamiliar with the intricacies of Athenian government and politics the issues of the day. It is reported that ordinary Athenians, not known to be reticent in matters of political debate, were anything but shy about vocalizing their opinions about the various speakers through shouts, jeers, cheers, laughter, and a multitude of other sounds even if they did not make speeches.
As noted, the Assembly’s power was not unrestricted. The Council of 500 controlled its agenda. More precisely, since a body of five hundred could not realistically expect to control the shaping of public policy and its administration, it was a standing committee of the Council that performed this work. The standing committee of 50 rotated monthly among the ten tribes which composed the Council.
Athens had no king or president. The archons were senior magistrates and judges. They were selected by lot and, in theory, by the 4th century B.C., any male citizen was eligible for the office. Archons served for one year and thereafter could not be re-selected. Strategoi were the military commanders of the army and navy. Since those positions required particular expertise in war and leadership capabilities, they were not selected by the chancy method of the lot. Rather, the Assembly elected them for one-year terms. Unlike the civil magistrates, because wars operate on their own timetable, military commanders were typically re-elected. At the same time, the Assembly could revoke their commands at any time and for any reason. In addition, Athens had many junior bureaucrats who held their offices longer.
By the end of the fifth century B.C., the jury courts, well-established in the litigious Athenian society, had also taken on a political role. They were in charge of the confirmation process that each official had to undergo before taking office. If challenged on his qualifications, a jury would have to vote by majority to approve the selection. The courts and the Assembly also could hear “denunciations” brought by Athenian citizens against public officials and military commanders after an initial review by the Council. Finally, upon completing his term of office, a public official was subject to a review (euthenai) by an administrative board. If a citizen brought a complaint of mistreatment by the official, that complaint also would be heard by the courts after an initial review by a committee of the Council.
Despite its source in the demos, the Athenian system was not an unrestrained democracy. Such a system would have collapsed quickly, given the size and complexity of the Athenian state by the 6th century B.C. Athens was a “mixed” government (mikte). What brought it to eventual collapse was defeat in the Peloponnesian War at the hands of Sparta, the overextension of its colonial reach, the interference by foreign powers during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. in the politics of Athens (from Persia to Sparta to Thebes to Macedon), and the usual interest group conflicts that plague societies (rich versus poor, landed versus commercial interests, creditors versus debtors, new elites versus old, traditionalists versus modernists). The social frictions and political instability caused by the violence of the successive factions that controlled Athens in the early 4th century B.C. based on support of, or opposition to, Spartan influence, undermined the system to the point that the city could not resist its eventual assimilation by the Kingdom of Macedon and its successor, the Alexandrian Empire. Both the oligarchic pro-Spartans, such as the Thirty Tyrants, and the democratic anti-Spartans seized the property of defeated political rivals and resorted to death for people suspected of supporting those defeated rivals. It was the democratic faction, after all, that convicted Socrates and sentenced him to death for a trumped-up charge.
All of that said, one must not forget that between the initial democratic stirrings under Draco and the Macedonian occupation, the Athenian democracy functioned three centuries. Even after the end of its independence as a city-state, the Athenian constitution continued, albeit in modified form and with less power abroad.
The Spartan system was superficially similar to the Athenian constitution yet was grounded in some fundamentally different social and political realities. Like some other thoroughly stratified and structured societies, Sparta was highly legalistic. The tight and intrusive control over life that is associated with the “Spartan way” was rooted in law, not tyrannical arbitrariness. Law, in turn rested on tradition, not written statutes, allegedly due to a directive from its possibly fictional founder, Lycurgus.
Spartans attributed the origin of their system to their great “lawgiver,” Lycurgus, supposedly in the 9th century B.C. Because so little is known about Lycurgus, historians have questioned the timing and, indeed, his very existence as a real person. Still, this event lay at the base of Spartan claims that their democracy antedated that of Athens by a couple of centuries.
In some sense, it is curious to imagine Sparta as “democratic,” but there is a basis to that description. The apella was the Spartan Assembly, to which all adult male citizens authorized to bear arms belonged. Moreover, Spartan women were far more equal in status to men than were their Athenian counterparts. While they were not given formal political powers, Spartan women were expected to voice their opinions about public matters. Most important, they also, unlike Athenian women, had rights to their own property through dowry and inheritance.
At the same time, the real political power was exercised by two institutions, the gerousia (Council of Elders—gerontes) and the ephoroi (magistrates). The Assembly could only vote on proposals presented by the Council, not initiate them. There is dispute about whether the Assembly could even formally debate proposals, but it is likely that vigorous debates in fact took place. The Assembly was composed of Spartan warriors, after all. The Council consisted of the two Spartan kings and 28 citizens over the age of 60 who were elected by the Assembly for life. This made the Council the main legislative power in what might be considered a bicameral system. Cicero analogized the Council to the Roman Senate. While the Council was not composed of a hereditary “aristocracy,” as was the principal – but not sole — characteristic of the Roman Senate, its members were drawn from the most prominent and tradition-minded elements of Spartan men.
Political writers since ancient times often pointed to another feature of the Spartan constitution, the dual monarchy. The origins of that system are obscure. For example, historians have sought to locate that origin in an ancient dispute between two powerful noble families that was settled by making the leader of each a king. Others have seen this as the result of a union of various villages or tribes at the city’s founding, the chiefs of the two most powerful becoming the kings. In later years, the system evolved that one king was responsible for domestic matters, mainly religious and judicial, while the other was typically away on military expeditions. The two kingships were not explicitly hereditary, and the kings were elected, another democratic feature. But they were elected for life and from those same two ancient families.
Whatever its origins or democratic bona fides, writers have often lauded the dual monarchy as representing an effective barrier to centralization of power in a single tyrant. The force of tradition and the natural rivalries among powerful faction kept each in check. Given the largely ceremonial role of the kings, except in military campaigns, and the checks otherwise placed on the kings make this justification for the dual monarchy less compelling.
The final piece of the formal Spartan political structure was the board of magistrates. The ephoroi were elected annually by the Assembly. Even the poorest citizen theoretically could be elected. There could be no re-election to a subsequent term. Initially, the ephoroi had limited powers, but as time passed, their offices gained substantive powers. When away on a military campaign, the king was accompanied by two ephoroi. Similarly, the kings lost the power to declare war and to control foreign policy to the ephoroi and the Council. Much of this might be traceable to security concerns that a king could make surreptitious deals with enemies of Sparta or get entangled in foreign schemes injurious to Spartan survival. Except while acting as generals, the kings over time became figureheads. But the ephoroi themselves also had significant limitations on their powers, chief among them their short tenures.
Polybius, often described as the founding light of constitutional and political studies, described the Spartan system as a true balanced and mixed government. In the classic understanding, that meant it contained a mixture of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements balanced in harmony to produce an effective government duly attentive to individual rights. It seems unpersuasive to describe the rigid and totalitarian Spartan society in that manner. In light of the functional dominance of the Council, with its life tenure and its selection from the upper levels of Spartan society, one might more readily classify Sparta as an oligarchic system.
The end of Spartan power was not due to any inherent defect in the constitutional structure. More likely were the combined factors of demographic collapse and overextension in foreign and military ventures. The near-constant warfare of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. against Persians, then Athenians in the Peloponnesian Wars, then against the combination of Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Persia in the Corinthian Wars, and, finally, against Thebes alone, depleted the Spartan hoplite infantry on which Spartan military success depended. The population of Spartan citizens shrunk, and their rule over the helots which made up 90% of the state’s residents became increasingly precarious.
The rigid nature of Spartan society, the paranoia reflected in the Spartan security state, and the traditionalism of the Council, shown for example by their unwillingness to extend citizenship to the helots, may have contributed to the downfall of Spartan influence after the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. Still, the city at that time had been a powerful actor in the Mediterranean world for three centuries. Moreover, the system continued to operate reasonably well within the Roman world for nearly another eight hundred years, until it was sacked by Alaric and the Visigoths in 396 A.D.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.