Ancient Democracies Weren’t As Terrible As Modern Democracies

Though neoreaction is typified by a suspicion of democratic government and ideology and has produced numerous, powerful theoretical arguments against democracy, it must be conceded that the empirical case is not nearly so strong. Democracies have certainly made mistakes, pursued foolish policies, and committed atrocities, but the historical record does not show unequivocally that democracy is much worse as a form of government than other arrangements.

The major problem with the empirical case against democracy is the lack of data. The first democracies arose in Greece, but we have good historical records for Athens alone, with partial information about Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and a few other city-states. After the Classical period, states calling themselves democracies have been few and far between. The first such state was Republican France, but the rise of democracy worldwide has taken place primarily in the 20th century and gone hand-in-hand with the rise to world supremacy of the United States of America.

Another issue is definitions: even the most radical democrat in antiquity would never have dreamed of putting the political franchise on a territorial basis, of handing out citizenship to anyone simply born within his city. Athens didn’t even have universal manhood suffrage, let alone extend voting rights to women. If we want to condemn democracy as it is understood today, then we have virtually no data whatsoever. Pretty much all we have are governments which we claim are in the process of destroying themselves and their societies, but which, for better or for worse, haven’t gotten around to it yet.

We do have one good example of the dysfunction of democracy in France. The horrors of the French Revolution are well known, and in the end, the First Republic couldn’t even preserve itself for fifteen years before it fell. Still, a single datum does not a convincing argument make.

At the same time, the Athenians back in the days of yore did call their government a democracy, and many advocates of democracy today hark back to the Athenian example, so it does seem reasonable to count Athens as a democracy. Indeed, it was the example of Athens, and especially the opinions of historical commentators, which gave to democracy the unpleasant reputation which it held until very recently.

Thucydides and Xenophon chronicle Athens’ fall in the late 5th century and paint a grim picture. Thucydides’ account of the civil wars throughout Greece which resulted from the titanic clash between Athens and Sparta makes for gripping reading, and it is hard to come away from these sections without being deeply moved. Other stories, such as Cleon’s high-handedness with his political enemies and the judicial murder of Socrates, also darken democracy’s image.

But there are problems.

For one, the civil wars throughout Greece were in no way the fault of democracy or even democratic ideology. Oligarchic parties were just as complicit in the wars as democratic ones, and they could be just as ruthless in victory, as the behavior of the Thirty Tyrants shows. Also, Athens was not subject to such civil discord, at least not until the oligarchs gained Spartan support. Indeed, Athens, Sparta, Argos, Corinth, and Thebes, all the top-tier Greek cities appear to have been domestically quite placid since no outside force was in a position to change their government. Whether a city was governed by an oligarchy or by a democracy made little difference as long as it stuck to its choice of regime.

Additionally, the constitutional distance between an oligarchy and a democracy was quite small in the ancient world. Every Greek city had magistrates, an aristocratic Council, and a popular Assembly. A democracy had a proportionally larger citizen body and vested more power in the Assembly, while an oligarchy placed the balance of power with the Council. Both democratic and oligarchic parties justified their power through appeal to the general populace: democrats offered the common man participation in government, while the oligarchs claimed to be better at governing. If these two constitutional arrangements produced radically different domestic policies, the surviving historical record does not show it.

Foreign affairs appears to be the realm where democracy performed badly. The Athenian democracy was very aggressive, provoking Persia, subjugating its Delian allies, antagonizing Sparta and other cities, and striving to regain its empire even after its crushing defeat in 404 B.C. Thebes also adopted a democratic constitution in 378 B.C., and this moment signaled Thebes’ aggressive rise to supremacy in the Greek world. In the 3rd century, the Achaean League emerged as a power in the Peloponnesus as a democratic confederation.

One should not be surprised at this point to learn that there are problems with this assessment.

The first is that democracy is far from unique in presiding over foreign aggression. All societies go through periods of waxing and waning, and when waxing, tend to be aggressive toward their neighbors. Argos subjugated the Peloponnesus under a tyranny; Sparta did so under an oligarchy; the Achaeans repeated the feat under democracy. Countless non-democracies have been just as aggressive: Persia, Macedon, Babylon, Assyria, Carthage, and Rome.

The second is that a society, even a democratic one, tends to expand when under the leadership of a small number of extraordinary men. Athens had Themistocles, Aristides, and Cimon; Thebes had Pelopidas, Epaminondas, and their companions; the Achaean League had Aratus and his fellow tyrants. Once again, this feature is not unique to democracies, but it even more strongly suggests that democratic government is not what causes foreign aggression.

When the men who have led a society to greatness perish, there arises the challenge of maintaining their gains, and it is here that democracy fares poorly. New territories and new peoples have to be incorporated into the political order and governed effectively, and the new geopolitical reality has to be comprehended as well.

A monarchy or aristocracy moves smoothly into an imperial position because it is already accustomed to ruling over one society. Forging personal connections with conquered peoples and finding experienced administrators is relatively easy for people accustomed to doing so just to govern their own society. Additionally, elites tend to have a better idea of what their society is actually capable of, since they administer, if not constitute, much of its wealth and institutions. Cimon knows that trying to conquer Boeotia is a bad idea; a random Athenian on the street probably does not.

Though Athens is considered the archetypal democracy—which makes sense, considering it was the first one—the Achaean League deserves some special attention. The Achaean League began as a coalition of democratically governed cities in Achaea, naturally, but expanded by admitting new cities on equal terms to the founding cities. They also did not oppose tyrants who ruled cities they wanted to conquer, but instead offered them jobs in the League government. This gave the Achaeans a pool of talented administrators and generals and helped maintain a balance of power among the League cities. The scheme was remarkably successful—the Achaean League only fell because it ran afoul of Rome.

The best historical argument against democracy is simply that democracies have not emerged organically very often. Some kind of popular government seems well-suited to cities and very small societies, but for large, spread-out societies it just hasn’t worked out until the modern day. And these historical, small-scale, and limited democracies have not been noticeably worse at governing than monarchies or aristocracies. The main failing of democracy comes in imperial government, something that a lot of societies don’t have to worry about.

Modern democracy, however, is a very different animal. Ancient democracies belonged to ethnically homogenous societies rather than geographical areas, women did not participate in politics, and the corrosive ideology of Leftism did not hold sway. It is these features that have transformed a perfectly good form of government into something hostile to civilization itself.

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  1. I think one key difference between ancient and modern democracies is the invention of mass media. The early democracies were all connected to a single intellectual meeting place: if you weren’t in the senate you could still get your case heard by the senate. The equivalent in modern times are mass media outlets screaming at each other.

  2. Very important essay.

    We have to work with what we’ve got at hand and part of that is participatory government.

    You are also correct in your diagnosis of corrosive leftism, but it’s corrosive everywhere. Even Stalin made getting rid of it his top priority.

  3. Bad governance is the norm throughout history, and good governance is the rare exception. This is true for all forms of government. What keeps a people going through the times of poor governance is a strong culture. Unfortunately, we have a smoking crater where our culture used to be, so surviving our horrible government will be difficult.

  4. The crucial difference is Egalitarianism. And as a white millennial, an American, and even a former Lutheran, I have been surrounded my whole life by the idea that this is a non-negotiable principle. It’s hard enough just to get people to see that the reason we have bad schools, is because we have bad students. How will we ever make the case to (blacks and Hispanics for instance) that the reason they’re communities have declined so greatly is because of they’re increased influence and participation in their government? Women? Etc.

  5. I don’t buy it. The earliest warnings we have about the dangers of democracy are from Plato, who was no stranger to Athens. In the back of the Republic is a section in which he analyzes the different types of governments that existed in his time, including democracy. The flaws he talked about then – loss of social and fiscal discipline, eventually leading to insolvency and then to tyranny as the people search for someone to restore order – are precisely the same basic flaws we see in our system now. They may be accelerated and turbocharged due to our modern technology (including media), but fundamentally, they’re the exact same problems.

    Basic teleology tells us that A always, inevitably leads to B. That it should have done so more slowly in an age in which everything moved more slowly shouldn’t surprise us, and does not seem very significant.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly.

      This article states: “The best historical argument against democracy is simply that democracies have not emerged organically very often.” This is an exceedingly weak conclusion. Many of the Italian Renaissance city-states, and their guilds in particular, had pretensions to democracy — and, in every case, their pretensions collapsed quickly. There are known failure-modes inherent to democracy; sometimes they are reached quickly, other times they are reached more slowly, but every democracy experiences the same issues. Democracy simply does not make for stable societies.

      The article also states: “Modern democracy, however, is a very different animal. Ancient democracies belonged to ethnically homogenous societies rather than geographical areas, women did not participate in politics, and the corrosive ideology of Leftism did not hold sway.” I’d add: In the case of Athens, only 10-20% of the population was eligible to vote, and all of those men were relatively wealthy warrior-farmers of the yeomanry. The USA’s system would be analogous if only military veterans who own land valued at over $1M are able to vote in a direct democracy — and, indeed, are honor-bound to vote. Modern democracy, with its absurd representative system, and with welfare-takers and tax-burdens given the vote, would be an abomination to the Athenians. Based on the character and motivations of our representatives, and on the US media’s absurd obsession with voter equality, it’s fair to assume that they’d call it a kakistocracy.

      …Needless to say, one should consider that there are more than merely historical arguments against democracy; there are obvious moral and practical problems with democracy as a system of government, as well.

  6. The system by which you are governed is quite possibly irrelevant. The character of the governors ultimately decides your fate, and you cannot properly assess the character of someone if you don’t know them personally. Decentralization is the answer.

    1. In Traditional society, the form of government does decentralize and so achieves what you seek. Fathers, landed nobility, and the local church are the prime authorities, with contact between the average individual and his sovereign monarch being rare, only exhibited through taxes and conscription, by and large.

    2. character of the governors ultimately decides your fate

      I think this is undoubtedly correct. I’m not even sure that intelligent advocates for democracy would disagree. The crux of the issue is what system ensures the best character of governor. I would contend the quality of governor is inversely proportional, statistically speaking, to the size of the committee charged with selecting him.

  7. Anglican Minarchist August 26, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    My reading on Athenian democracy is generally that up until the death of Pericles, democratic dysfunctions were kept in check by the fact that the demos were nonetheless inclined to elect exceptionally capable men (like Pericles himself) and let them govern. Once Pericles died, though, they ended up with demagogues (Cleon), second-rate statesmen (Nicias), and amoral adventurers (Alcibiades) in power. Socrates was killed largely for his association with young men (“corrupting the youth”) like Critias and Plato who saw the damage done by this system to Athens.

    I think a much stronger anti-democratic argument can be made by looking at the French Revolution and its progeny. The effect of the press in shaping public opinion (which is of course central to Moldbug’s arguments) is a factor that didn’t really exist in the ancient world. I think it drives many of the pathologies we see in modern western liberal democracy. Put differently, the ancients didn’t have anything like a Cathedral in the neoreactionary sense.

    It is also interesting that in Athens, many offices deemed within the reach of any normally capable man were filled not by election, but by lot, whereas the ten strategoi (generals, of which Pericles was regularly one) were elected. No election, no manufactured public opinion driving the debate.

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