Polybius on the Genera of Political Order

In a passage from the sixth book of his Histories remarkable for its synthetic comprehension and concision, Polybius (floruit circa 200 BC – 118 BC) sets forth the three genera of political order, and shows how each develops from the devolution of the last:

Most of those whose object it has been to instruct us methodically concerning such [political] matters, distinguish three kinds of constitutions, which they call kingship, aristocracy, and democracy. Now we should, I think, be quite justified in asking them to enlighten us as to whether they represent these three to be the sole varieties or rather to be the best; for in either case my opinion is that they are wrong. For it is evident that we must regard as the best constitution a combination of all these three varieties, since we have had proof of this not only theoretically but by actual experience, Lycurgus having been the first to draw up a constitution – that of Sparta – on this principle. Nor on the other hand can we admit that these are the only three varieties; for we have witnessed monarchical and tyrannical governments, which while they differ very widely from kingship, yet bear a certain resemblance to it, this being the reason why monarchs in general falsely assume and use, as far as they can, the regal title. There have also been several oligarchical constitutions which seem to bear some likeness to aristocratic ones, though the divergence is, generally, as wide as possible. The same holds good about democracies.

The truth of what I say is evident from the following considerations. It is by no means every monarchy which we can call straight off a kingship, but only that which is voluntarily accepted by the subjects and where they are governed rather by an appeal to their reason than by fear and force. Nor again can we style every oligarchy an aristocracy, but only that where the government is in the hands of a selected body of the justest and wisest men. Similarly that is no true democracy in which the whole crowd of citizens is free to do whatever they wish or purpose, but when, in a community where it is traditional and customary to reverence the gods, to honour our parents, to respect our elders, and to obey the laws, the will of the greater number prevails, this is to be called a democracy. We should therefore assert that there are six kinds of governments, the three above mentioned which are in everyone’s mouth and the three which are naturally allied to them, I mean monarchy, oligarchy, and mob-rule. Now the first of these to come into being is monarchy, its growth being natural and unaided; and next arises kingship derived from monarchy by the aid of art and by the correction of defects. Monarchy first changes into its vicious allied form, tyranny; and next, the abolishment of both gives birth to aristocracy. Aristocracy by its very nature degenerates into oligarchy; and when the commons inflamed by anger take vengeance on this government for its unjust rule, democracy comes into being; and in due course the licence and lawlessness of this form of government produces mob-rule to complete the series. The truth of what I have just said will be quite clear to anyone who pays due attention to such beginnings, origins, and changes as are in each case natural. For he alone who has seen how each form naturally arises and develops, will be able to see when, how, and where the growth, perfection, change, and end of each are likely to occur again. And it is to the Roman constitution above all that this method, I think, may be successfully applied, since from the outset its formation and growth have been due to natural causes.

Perhaps this theory of the natural transformations into each other of the different forms of government is more elaborately set forth by Plato and certain other philosophers; but as the arguments are subtle and are stated at great length, they are beyond the reach of all but a few. I therefore will attempt to give a short summary of the theory, as far as I consider it to apply to the actual history of facts and to appeal to the common intelligence of mankind. For if there appear to be certain omissions in my general exposition of it, the detailed discussion which follows will afford the reader ample compensation for any difficulties now left unsolved.

What then are the beginnings I speak of and what is the first origin of political societies? When owing to floods, famines, failure of crops or other such causes there occurs such a destruction of the human race as tradition tells us has more than once happened, and as we must believe will often happen again, all arts and crafts perishing at the same time, then in the course of time, when springing from the survivors as from seeds men have again increased in numbers and just like other animals form herds – it being a matter of course that they too should herd together with those of their kind owing to their natural weakness – it is a necessary consequence that the man who excels in bodily strength and in courage will lead and rule over the rest. We observe and should regard as a most genuine work of nature this very phenomenon in the case of the other animals which act purely by instinct and among whom the strongest are always indisputably the masters – I speak of bulls, boars, cocks, and the like. It is probable then that at the beginning men lived thus, herding together like animals and following the lead of the strongest and bravest, the ruler’s strength being here the sole limit to his power and the name we should give his rule being monarchy.

But when in time feelings of sociability and companionship begin to grow in such gatherings of men, then kingship has struck root; and the notions of goodness, justice, and their opposites begin to arise in men.

The manner in which these notions come into being is as follows. Men being all naturally inclined to sexual intercourse, and the consequence of this being the birth of children, whenever one of those who have been reared does not on growing up show gratitude to those who reared him or defend them, but on the contrary takes to speaking ill of them or ill treating them, it is evident that he will displease and offend those who have been familiar with his parents and have witnessed the care and pains they spent on attending to and feeding their children. For seeing that men are distinguished from the other animals by possessing the faculty of reason, it is obviously improbable that such a difference of conduct should escape them, as it escapes the other animals: they will notice the thing and be displeased at what is going on, looking to the future and reflecting that they may all meet with the same treatment. Again when a man who has been helped or succoured when in danger by another does not show gratitude to his preserver, but even goes to the length of attempting to do him injury, it is clear that those who become aware of it will naturally be displeased and offended by such conduct, sharing the resentment of their injured neighbour and imagining themselves in the same situation. From all this there arises in everyone a notion of the meaning and theory of duty, which is the beginning and end of justice. Similarly, again, when any man is foremost in defending his fellows from danger, and braves and awaits the onslaught of the most powerful beasts, it is natural that he should receive marks of favour and honour from the people, while the man who acts in the opposite manner will meet with reprobation and dislike. From this again some idea of what is base and what is noble and of what constitutes the difference is likely to arise among the people; and noble conduct will be admired and imitated because it is advantageous, while base conduct will be avoided. Now when the leading and most powerful man among the people always throws the weight of his authority on the side of the notions on such matters which generally prevail, and when in the opinion of his subjects he apportions rewards and penalties according to desert, they yield obedience to him no longer because they fear his force, but rather because their judgement approves him; and they join in maintaining his rule even if he is quite enfeebled by age, defending him with one consent and battling against those who conspire to overthrow his rule. Thus by insensible degrees the monarch becomes a king, ferocity and force having yielded the supremacy to reason.

Thus is formed naturally among men the first notion of goodness and justice, and their opposites; this is the beginning and birth of true kingship. For the people maintain the supreme power not only in the hands of these men themselves, but in those of their descendants, from the conviction that those born from and reared by such men will also have principles like to theirs. And if they ever are displeased with the descendants, they now choose their kings and rulers no longer for their bodily strength and brute courage, but for the excellency of their judgement and reasoning powers, as they have gained experience from actual facts of the difference between the one class of qualities and the other. In old times, then, those who had once been chosen to the royal office continued to hold it until they grew old, fortifying and enclosing fine strongholds with walls and acquiring lands, in the one case for the sake of the security of their subjects and in the other to provide them with abundance of the necessities of life. And while pursuing these aims, they were exempt from all vituperation or jealousy, as neither in their dress nor in their food did they make any great distinction, they lived very much like everyone else, not keeping apart from the people. But when they received the office by hereditary succession and found their safety now provided for, and more than sufficient provision of food, they gave way to their appetites owing to this superabundance, and came to think that the rulers must be distinguished from their subjects by a peculiar dress, that there should be a peculiar luxury and variety in the dressing and serving of their viands, and that they should meet with no denial in the pursuit of their amours, however lawless. These habits having given rise in the one case to envy and offence and in the other to an outburst of hatred and passionate resentment, the kingship changed into a tyranny; the first steps towards its overthrow were taken by the subjects, and conspiracies began to be formed. These conspiracies were not the work of the worst men, but of the noblest, most high-spirited, and most courageous, because such men are least able to brook the insolence of princes.

The people now having got leaders, would combine with them against the ruling powers for the reasons I stated above; kingship and monarchy would be utterly abolished, and in their place aristocracy would begin to grow. For the commons, as if bound to pay at once their debt of gratitude to the abolishers of monarchy, would make them their leaders and entrust their destinies to them. At first these chiefs gladly assumed this charge and regarded nothing as of greater importance than the common interest, administering the private and public affairs of the people with paternal solicitude. But here again when children inherited this position of authority from their fathers, having no experience of misfortune and none at all of civil equality and liberty of speech, and having been brought up from the cradle amid the evidences of the power and high position of their fathers, they abandoned themselves some to greed of gain and unscrupulous money-making, others to indulgence in wine and the convivial excess which accompanies it, and others again to the violation of women and the rape of boys; and thus converting the aristocracy into an oligarchy aroused in the people feelings similar to those of which I just spoke, and in consequence met with the same disastrous end as the tyrant.

For whenever anyone who has noticed the jealousy and hatred with which you are regarded by the citizens, has the courage to speak or act against the chiefs of the state he has the whole mass of the people ready to back him. Next, when they have either killed or banished the oligarchs, they no longer venture to set a king over them, as they still remember with terror the injustice they suffered from the former ones, nor can they entrust the government with confidence to a select few, with the evidence before them of their recent error in doing so. Thus the only hope still surviving unimpaired is in themselves, and to this they resort, making the state a democracy instead of an oligarchy and assuming the responsibility for the conduct of affairs. Then as long as some of those survive who experienced the evils of oligarchical dominion, they are well pleased with the present form of government, and set a high value on equality and freedom of speech. But when a new generation arises and the democracy falls into the hands of the grandchildren of its founders, they have become so accustomed to freedom and equality that they no longer value them, and begin to aim at pre-eminence; and it is chiefly those of ample fortune who fall into this error. So when they begin to lust for power and cannot attain it through themselves or their own good qualities, they ruin their estates, tempting and corrupting the people in every possible way. And hence when by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence. For the people, having grown accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from the houses of office by his penury, institute the rule of violence; and now uniting their forces massacre, banish, and plunder, until they degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch.

Such is the cycle of political revolution, the course appointed by nature in which constitutions change, disappear, and finally return to the point from which they started. Anyone who clearly perceives this may indeed in speaking of the future of any state be wrong in his estimate of the time the process will take, but if his judgement is not tainted by animosity or jealousy, he will very seldom be mistaken as to the stage of growth or decline it has reached, and as to the form into which it will change.

It would seem that we stand now somewhere in the beginnings of the rule of violence characterizing the last ochlocratic stages of democracy, that then develops into monarchy.

20 thoughts on “Polybius on the Genera of Political Order

  1. Pingback: Polybius on the Genera of Political Order | Aus-Alt-Right

  2. Pingback: Polybius on the Genera of Political Order | Reaction Times

  3. Polybius’ text is formative and central with respect to Voegelin’s project of creating a history of order.

  4. For it is evident that we must regard as the best constitution a combination of all these three varieties, since we have had proof of this not only theoretically but by actual experience, [the American Revolutionaries] having been the first [moderns intentionally] to draw up a constitution – that of [America] – on this principle.

    And yet most of your “reactionary” friends *hate* America, and wish it to fail.

    • America has had no monarch since 1776. It started an aristocracy, then soon skipped on to democracy.

      The Framers did their best to follow the advice of Polybius, given their rejection of the royal office. But given that rejection, they could not succeed.

      American traditionalists don’t hate America. They think rather only – as you do – that she is ill. They love her, and wish she were well.

      • The President is not a monarch; a fortiori is the President no sort of king. Polybius argues that the best sort of constitution combines aristocracy and democracy, not with monarchy simpliciter, but with kingship.

      • It is a big mistake to assume that the American notion of separation of powers is consonant with the classical and medieval notion of a mixed polity. The American view is a half shadow pervison owing more to De Montesquieu and other Enlightenment thinkers. Its typical Whig history that obfuscates the gulf between modern and premodern thought.

        wish it to fail.

        Wish it? It has already failed. It just that some “conservatives” haven’t realized it yet.

  5. A republic is the convergent recognition of interested parties of the value in the commons and the determination to maintain and grow that value; it is, by corollary, the determination to keep trespassers and predators out of the commons.

    The model of a republic is the Roman Republic, which came into being by disestablishing an alien monarch, and by following the tutelage (it might seem paradoxical) of a king.

  6. A republic is a polity in which the state is neither —
    – the private property of an individual or family (i.e. not a monarchy)
    – the private property of a consortium of individuals or families (i.e. not an oligarchy)
    – the property of no-one (i.e. not a democracy)

    • You’ll find the legend in Livy.* A king is always a sacred figure. Rene Girard indeed defines a king as a victim whose sacrifice has been indefinitely postponed. Our own every-four-years presidential elections have a distinctly sacrificial character that recent decades have steeply exaggerated. In democracy, which is not what the Constitution prescribes but what the USA has become, every election has a plebiscitary “thumbs-up or thumbs-down” quality, with entire gamut of nasty implications.

      *Livy writes that there were in his day two versions of the Death of Romulus. In one, Romulus, reaching the age when Fortune destined his death, succumbed to a great wind that dropped out of the sky only to rapture him heavenward amidst clouds and dust. In the other, the senate, finding the king obstinate, enturbled itself around him in a mob, and tore him limb from limb. The second story is naturally more plausible than the first, but it by no means indicts Romulus.

      Ilion, in reference to your comment below, your word was “semi-legend.” The earliest level of history is a penumbra that often shows an intermixture of the mythic and the political, for which legend and legendary seem to me to be good words. You need no one’s permission, of course, to use whatever vocabulary item seems most appropriate to you.

      • So, you’re saying that it’s history-that-you’re-calling-legend, whereas I said it partakes of both history and legend.

  7. Whatever the procedural means of his ascension, a good ruler has to establish an organic and immediate connection between himself and the people. The people must intuit, in his person, the corporate unity and embodiment of the nation, and his as the voice with which this body politic speaks. No Constitutional arrangement of any type can produce this personal charisma; what’s needed is the art of its cultivation.

    • Nor can such charisma arise in a so-called republic of 320 million people. In such a context, only the illusion of that charisma, in the form of political celebrity-hood, can arise.

  8. Pingback: History and Archaeology sciences looked at #1 Encyclopedism and enlightenment | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  9. Pingback: Evolving a Feudal Stack of Sovereign Corporations – The Orthosphere


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