In contemporary democracies politics are practiced for the benefit of their citizens. This section presents the history and basic principles of political systems and points out how national and European politics can influence the lives of citizens as well as how the citizens themselves can influence politics.
The gathering of people in groups and later on in settlement areas (villages- cities) led to a need for definition and acceptance of common rules of co-existence and survival. Those rules were either formed and passed on from generation to generation through tradition and religion or imposed by rulers (kings, aristocrats or tyrants).
People got organized in larger cities- states a fact which imposed the creation of a more complex system of rules (laws) and institutions. Due to the fact that they were addressed to the city and its inhabitants (its citizens) those rules were given the name “political system” (derived from the Greek πολίτης meaning “citizen”).
A political system is a summation of rules which determine:
The relations (rights and duties) among citizens, as well as between citizens and the community.
It also determines
- how these rules are defined
- how they are imposed or contended
- how disputes and differences are settled
- how the ones responsible to perform those procedures are chosen
- how the system which will materialize all of the above must be established
In other words, a political system consists of all the rules and institutions which define how a state functions (in the broader sense).
Aristotle was the first to define the political system as [...την τάξιν ταις πόλεσι την περί τας αρχάς, τίνα τρόπον νενέμηνται και τι το κύριον της πολιτείας, και τι το τέλος της εκάστης κοινωνίας εστί..] (…in what way is power contributed in the cities, what is important for the state and what is the objective of each society…), (Politics III 5) a definition which stands to this day.
Political systems are divided into different groups sharing common characteristics called forms of government. For example, a democratic system has several forms of government such as parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy, direct democracy etc.
The political system in contemporary forms of government is usually defined by the constitution and constitutional laws.
The political system defines several aspects of the relationship between citizens and state institutions, as for example the basic liberties and civil rights, the form of governance, the kind and form of state authorities, the selection method of rulers and representatives, the state’s obligations towards its citizens, civil duties, etc.
At this point a distinction must be made between political and legal, economic and cultural systems. Although a political system, by defining the relationship between citizens and state institutions, includes parts of the systems mentioned, they do not coincide and it is possible for a system to function independently.
Legal System: Legislative functions are part of the political system. However, there are cases in the history of some nations where the whole body of laws regulating and defining the lives of citizens did not represent a complete political system because they did not define in detail the ways to choose a form of governance. Such are the cases of the code of Hammurabi, Solon’s reforms and the “Corpus Juris Civilis” issued by order of Justinian I, Byzantine Emperor.
Economic System: The economic system is the summation of economic rules which regulate the production and distribution of goods and services. Thus, capitalism [the economic system which supports the management of production and capital by private initiative and determines transactions based on the free market] is an economic system which can be adopted by various political systems.
Cultural System: Local culture (traditions, religion) can function independently or influence political systems, while in rare cases it can even determine the political system (Theocracy).
Early efforts to codify laws
The codification of laws does not institute a political system but an early form of structure in societies and can be considered a forefather of political systems. The first reference to a political system can be found in 3000 BC in Egypt. A civil code comprised of twelve volumes was written based on the principles of the deity Ma'at and included prohibitions, ethics, social equality and impartiality.
Around 1760 BCE, the Babylonian king Hammurabi creates the Codex Hammurabi, the first legislative code, composed of several rules-laws.
The 10 commandments as well as the entire first part of the Old Testament were written in the 6th century BC, according to contemporary scholars, during the exile of Jews in Babylon. The 10 commandments as well as basic instructions for organizing society described in those records are influenced by the Codex Hammurabi.
Forms of government in the prehistoric era
We have no knowledge of an existing political system in primitive societies. However, the study of societies dating back to this era (Bushmen, Aborigines) leads to the assumption that these small societies functioned in a democratic way that is, there were councils for decision making were everyone within that society participated while the elders were greatly respected.
The prevailing form of government for the majority of prehistoric societies was monarchy, especially in the form of a dynasty where the right to succession is hereditary.
However, it is thought likely that in the city-states of early Sumerian Mesopotamia (during the 3rd millennium BC) existed a democratic form of government with an elected leader. The system decayed due to continuous warfare. Other cases of early forms of collective power appear in ancient NW India before the 6th century BC, prior to the birth of Gautama Buddha. Those republics were known as Maha Janapadas. The Panchayat form of government (5 elected wise men who hold power converse with a citizens’ assembly) can still be found in certain communities in India today. In areas of modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan soldiers of Alexander the Great came across democratic forms of government and reported that “the form of government is democracy and not monarchy”
Democracy in Ancient India by Steve Muhlberger
Μesopotamia: Earliest Formal Democracy? by Raul S. Manglapus
Early Greek Civilization
The Pelasgian society, believed to be matriarchic and peace-loving, had a theocratic system. Property and probably family did not exist, at least not in the contemporary sense. The land belonged to the temples and all could cultivate it as long as they offered part of the crop to the temples in the form of donations. Important decisions were made by priestesses and all women were socially equal, while men were considered inferior and useful only for labour and reproduction. This regime was overthrown when warlike races descended from the North and took over the land, easily conquering the peace-loving indigenous population. Memories of this earlier state remained (amazons, important female deities like Rea, Gaia, Athena, Demeter, the Argonauts’ adventures, female place-names, priestesses and areas forbidden to men).
Johann Jakob Bachofen Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World
Archaic period - Monarchy
In Prehistoric Greece, monarchy is the dominant form of government. Miniature states, which are usually named after tribes, are ruled by kings. The king is the absolute leader, responsible for the functions and security of his city, aided by a council of elders (senate) or representatives from the tribes in his vicinity.
Polis- A new form of state
According to the inscriptions on the Parian Chronicle (1251 BC) the mythical Theseus united the 12 towns of Attica and established Democracy (from the Greek “rule by the people”). One historical version is that following the dissolution of the first Ionian League the towns of Attica decided to continue their collaboration by founding the polis of Athens. Ancient “poleis” (pl.) were not an “asty” anymore, meaning it was not a city in the contemporary sense, but a state which included the city. At the city centre there usually was a citadel, called the acropolis, and several suburbs and smaller settlements with their own local aristocrats and rulers. This is the reason why their names were in the plural form (Athens, Thebes). The people in a certain polis were called “polites” (citizens) while any reference to these new cities was made not in accordance to the place but in accordance to its citizens (Athenians, Spartans, etc). This structure led to a need for expansion of governance from one person to a group of people, as well as the gradual creation of a form of government effective for all citizens.
In 800- 700 BC, noblemen or other aristocrats in Athens pushed kings aside and took over power by establishing an oligarchic form of government, which was later on called an “Aristocracy”.
The society of the free Athenians (shown below) was separated into four classes: the Pentacosiomedimni (making a profit of 500 medimnoi annually, meaning very wealthy), the Hippeis (who are able to own and raise horses, moderately wealthy), the Zeugitai (farmers who own land) and the Thetes (all the rest).
Slaves and metics (non Athenians) were not considered members of the society.
In late 8th century BC a conflict began between aristocrats and merchants, farmers and craftsmen who were demanding access to power.
In late 7th century BC, 9 elected rulers assumed power for one year. Those were:
- the Archon Eponymos who was the polis’ leader
- the Polemarch was in charge of the military
- the Basileus who only held religious authority
- six Thesmothetes who were involved in judicial and administrative issues.
At the same time, the “Areios Pagos” (the chief homicide court), who had replaced the noblemen’s council, was supervising the Archons’ rule. Only the Pentacosiomedimni could participate in those positions, while probably in extremely rare occasions, when very important decisions had to be made, the Archon Eponymos would summon the Ecclesia, in which the Hippeis also participated.
In the 8th century BC, Lycurgus unites the Spartan towns in one city, ranks all free Spartans as equals and sets a political system containing several democratic elements: The statutory political authorities were 2 kings, a thirty-member senate and the Apella (the popular assembly), in which all free Spartans over 30 years of age participated. The kings and the senate were elected by the Apella and they were lifelong rulers. Later on, 5 Ephors, who represented the 5 main towns of Sparta, were also elected annually by the Apella. The senate held legislative authority and the Apella would vote on the suggested laws without permission for further discussion. Women, Spartans younger than 30 years old, “helots” (the serfs of Sparta) and “perioikoi” (non-citizens) had no political rights and had to obey to Spartan laws.
Structure of the Spartan political system
This Democracy, although the first to issue equal rights without discrimination to all free citizens of Sparta, was overridden by the Senate on a number of occasions and the decisions of the Apella were not applied, for the common good.
In mid 7th century BC, a new form of monarchy, the “tyranny”, appeared in many cities. Initially, it did not have the negative meaning it later on acquired. The tyrant was a form of absolute ruler, usually elected, with aristocratic lineage and not royal (as opposed to monarchy). Tyranny was not considered a direct form of government but rather an emergency form necessary in times of trouble and warfare. Tyranny expanded to most Greek cities (except Sparta).
In 624 or 621 BC, the elected tyrant Drakon attempted to codify laws for the first time, imposing heavy sentences on law-breakers. The Areios Pagos gained great amount of power.
In 507 BC, Democracy was established through Cleisthenes’ reforms:
- Citizens were divided into 10 tribes which also represented military units. Each tribe lived in 1/3 urban, 1/3 rural and 1/3 seaside establishments, thus insuring that townsmen, farmers and fishermen were included in each tribe.
- The Boule of the 500 which brought issues to the Ecclesia (the popular assembly) for discussion or vote was established.
- The Court of Heliaia and the Areios Pagos were maintained.
- 10 generals were elected annually as supreme military commanders, a position which also held great political importance.
- In order to protect the new form of government from tyranny, “ostracism” was introduced; 10 year banishment for anyone with the ambition to set himself up as tyrant by overall vote from the citizens.
- The selection of officials was characterized by equal participation of all tribes through vote or choice by lot.
- Citizens held the right to propose laws to the assembly of voters.
Administrative positions could be held by honest citizens coming from all social classes, who were paid a monthly salary for their work.
Initially, only citizens from the upper classes could be Archons, but in 450 BC this restriction was abolished.
Finally, an institution aiming to help the equal distribution of wealth was the “Leitourgia” (meaning public work) or “Chorigia” (sponsorship), a honourary tax addressed to wealthy citizens. The tax usually meant covering expenses for the construction of a trireme or the production of a tragedy.
This form of government of the Athenian Republic was maintained throughout the Athenian dominance period and constituted the model for modern democracies.
The Athenian Democracy, however, was a direct democracy and its basic differences with contemporary democracies are:
- Officials for several positions were elected through secret vote directly from the citizens or chosen by lot.
- Officials did not exceed one year of service and there was continuous change of position holders.
- A large number of citizens (approximately 7.000 simultaneously) participated in various functions. (This is why Pericles mentions in the “Epitaph”: “The rule of many and not a few is what we call a democracy”.)
- Laws were voted by all citizens, who also had the right to present an argument.
- Citizens could propose new laws.
- The salary of officials was as high as the basic salary of a farmer (in order to allow the poor to participate and to insure that money would not become the motive for assuming a position).
- Women, slaves and “metoikoi” (non Athenians) were not regarded as citizens.
- Athenian democracy from wikipedia
- Η πολιτική της κλασικής Αθήνας from the Foundation of the Hellenic World
- Πώς εκλέγανε οι Αθηναίοι τους άρχοντες τους Article by D. Germiotis
- Sakellariou, M.B.: The Athenian democracy, Πανεπιστημιακές Εκδόσεις Κρήτης
- Κ. Καστοριάδη, Η αρχαία ελληνική δημοκρατία και η σημασία της για μας σήμερα. Εκδόσεις Ύψιλον and as pdf αρχείο
Monarchy (753-509 BC)
The earliest form of government was an elected constitutional monarchy. Power was exercised by the king, the Senate and an assembly of 30 tribal representatives called “Comitia Curata”. Roman society was organized in classes and only members of certain tribes participated in politics, while the rest were considered politically inferior. The king was elected from a list of candidacies chosen by the tribes and submitted to the Senate. The king had to have the tribes’ consent on every decision. The king was also inspected by the Senate. The Roman Kingdom was ruled by a succession of seven kings.
Democracy (509-27 BC)
Several riots caused the abolition of monarchy and a form of Democracy was established which lasted for 500 years. This new form of government was called “res-publica” (public thing), meaning that power came from the people.
In this democratic period, power was exercised by the Senate, the magistratus and public assemblies. The Senate was a council comprised of 300 members, chosen among tribal leaders, former administration officers etc. the Senate appointed the magistratus, who were elected by the public assemblies, the prefects and other administrative officers and held the legislative power.
A magistratus was a kind of annually elected minister with specific responsibilities:
- Consul. There were two Consuls who ruled in turns, presided over the Senate and were in charge of the army in times of war.
- Praetor. Praetors were in charge of the judiciary branch of government.
- Censor. Censors were responsible for maintaining the census, supervising public morality, and overseeing certain aspects of the government's finances, like collecting taxes etc.
- Aedile. Aediles were responsible for the supply of food and other goods in Roman cities, the maintenance of public buildings and streets and the regulation of public festivals.
- Quaestor. Quaestors supervised the treasury and financial affairs of the state.
- Dictator. The Dictator was a temporary magistratus appointed by the Consuls in periods of war or crisis. He held absolute power over all other magistrates for six months.
- Tribune. This magistracy was established several years after the foundation of the Roman Republic due to a public (Plebeians’) demand and in order to protect the public’s interests.
Appius Claudius Caecus was a patrician who served as Consul and Dictator. He was held responsible for the Roman defeat precipitated by Pyrrhus of Epirus (Pyrrhic victory). This fresco depicts his famous speech against an envoy of Pyrrhus of Epirus declaring that Rome would never surrender. This is the first recorded political speech in the Roman Senate, and the source of the saying "every man is the architect of his own fortune" (Latin: quisque faber suae fortunae).
The public assemblies elected magistrates and approved or disapproved laws but could not introduce new laws. There were four public assemblies:
- Comitia curiata was the oldest assembly of the Roman Republic. It consisted of tribal representatives and approved the magistrates elected by the other assemblies.
- Comitia centuriata elected the Consuls, the Praetors and Censors.
- Comitia tributa included both patricians and plebeians distributed among all Roman tribes and together they elected the Aediles and Quaestors.
- Concilium plebis (Plebeian Council) was a subset of the Comitia tributa and was concerned with plebeian issues.
For a closer look on the structure of government in ancient Rome go to:
For more pictures on ancient Rome go to: http://www.romereborn.virginia.edu/
The Roman Republic, in contrast to the Athenian, maintained its social structure (classes) and even though all free citizens participated in politics their civil rights were differentiated according to their class. As in the Athenian, the Roman Republic did not include slaves, who in 71 BC rose in rebellion, led by Spartacus, and looted the roman dominion.
Cicero in his work De republica (51 BC) tried to emphasize on the concept of democracy, but to no avail since democracy was soon to be abolished by Roman Emperors.
Cicero attacks Catalina (in the bottom right corner) in the Comitia curiata.
(Cesare Maccari, fresco, 1880)
The Roman Empire (27 BC- 476 AD)
The Roman Empire lasted for five centuries and during that time it conquered the Mediterranean and became a vast and powerful empire with a well organized administrative and legal system. Emperors were originally elected by the Senate but they gradually imposed their authority through the army forces. They ruled the army and appointed or dismissed the magistrates as well as the prefects who governed many of the conquered territories of the vast empire. They were, in essence, the absolute dictators and they were worshiped as gods. The Senate was now composed of citizens from all over the empire and gradually it lost its definitive role and ended up a merely consultative assembly. The term “Res Publica” was still used in euphemism by the emperors, meaning that the administration was addressed to the people.
Caesar’s last Senate (Source: http://www.allempires.com)
In 212 AD, by decision of the emperor Caracalla, Roman citizenship was granted to freemen throughout the Roman Empire.
The decline of the Western Roman Empire concluded in its fall by the year 476 AD.
The Roman imperial system was maintained for another thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the converted to Christianity Eastern Roman Empire, later named by historians Byzantine Empire or Byzantium.
The Senate, as a constitution, was maintained together with the magistrates (consuls, censors, aediles, praetors, etc.) to which other administrative positions, such as exarchs, vicars and hundreds of other honorary titles were later on added.
Justinian I and his retinue (6th century AD). Mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.
The ruler of the empire, originally called the imperator was renamed to “basileus” (the Greek word for king) and later on to “autokrator” (the Greek word for emperor). The basileus due to the Christian dogma was not worshiped as a god but was considered to be chosen by God and ruled with God’s grace. He was usually elected by the Senate, the people, the army and the local councils not by vote but by shouts of approval. However, it was not unusual for usurpers to take over the throne by force. In certain cases, due to the vastness of the empire two emperors ruled simultaneously, one in the eastern and one in the western part of the empire, as was the case with Justinus and Justinian.
The Byzantine Empire contributed immensely to the legal system by organizing and codifying former Roman laws into the “Corpus Juris Civilis” (“Body of Civil Law”), creating a complex legal framework. The supreme judicial ruler was the basileus but a network of professional jurists was created throughout the empire, establishing professions such as lawyers and notaries. Supreme courts, such as the court of appeals, were established. Another court established by the “Corpus Juris Civilis” was a supreme court that produced quick decisions which were to be executed immediately even by the basileus himself.
Painting of Emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer (976- 1025 AD) from a Byzantine manuscript.
The Byzantine Empire was constantly engaged in warfare due to foreign threats. It was common for some military officers (Pronoiars) to receive land in exchange for their service which they could use but couldn’t be inherited or sold and they couldn’t use serfs to cultivate it. This institution set the basis of future feudalism.
A main characteristic of the Byzantine Empire was the great power held by the Church and the clergy. For the first time in history the political leader (the basileus) is enthroned by the religious leader (the patriarch), a tradition that holds to this day in many countries. The Church accumulated wealth and even obtained the right to try and condemn citizens in ecclesiastic courts, while two members of the supreme four-member court of the empire had to be clergymen. The basileus had to be on good terms with the Church and on several occasions the Patriarch got involved in politics. Due to this close relationship established between the empire and the Church some historians classify Byzantine society as Theocratic and the political system as “caesaro-papalism” (power is held by the emperor and the religious leader).
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire smaller kingdoms form in Europe and feudalism develops.
Feudalism (a term first used during the French Revolution) refers to a form of government where noblemen hold excessive power in relation to the monarch. Feudalism was characterized by three primary elements: lords, vassals and fiefs. The lord was the master (not owner) of the land in his dominion and he made special agreements with the vassals. In these agreements the lord granted land (fief) to a vassal in order to cultivate it. In exchange, the vassal was obliged to provide military service to the lord and occasionally part of his crop. The lord was obliged to protect the land and the people in his dominion. These agreements which supported feudalism for centuries were necessary in a society with no administrative organization mainly because they ensured the protection of the people from foreign invaders. The vassals were linked to the fief and they were transferred along with it. In several occasions, a vassal due to some deed of valour for example, could be granted a larger area by the lord and by forming special relations with the other vassals a hierarchical pyramid would be formed.
A lord grants land to vassals (14th century manuscript)
The feudal system originates in the Roman Empire when the emperor began appointing officials in charge of large territories in order to control the vast empire. Following the fall of the empire, the owners became independent by establishing laws and local rulers thus forming miniature states in their territories. In cases where a number of fiefs were under the authority of a king, he granted that authority to local lords in exchange for taxes according to the land and military service in battles. Members of the clergy and monasteries could use their land with the same privileges and obligations as the lords.
Feudalism began to collapse with the French Revolution, the creation of nations and the establishment of democratic systems of government in Europe. However, some forms of feudalism continue to exist.
In the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan was the absolute ruler aided by the Grand Vizier and the Divan. The Grand Vizier presided in the Divan which was a kind of imperial government. The Sultan did not participate in the Divan. The Grand Vizier and the Divan had a consultative role but they could influence the Sultan’s opinion. In late 16th century, the Sultan became a figure-head and the Grand Vizier became the de facto head of state aided by 4 - 11 other Viziers.
The hall of the Divan (Pera Museum, Istanbul)
The Ottoman Empire also had a feudal-like land tenure system. The fief analogue was called a timar and was granted to military officials and other nobles by the Sultan with similar terms as in the feudal systems in Western Europe. A timar could be bought by their holders and called a Çiflik (tsiflik).
Despite the prevalence of monarchies and feudalism in Europe, some institutions function in a more democratic way, while some countries begin to apply democratic procedures:
- For a very long period, bishops were elected by vote throughout the diocese.
- The Pope or Patriarch is elected- to this day- by bishops.
- In 980 AD, the Icelandic commonwealth instituted the Althing; a parliament of 39 - 55 members comprised of landowners. The Althings established the laws and were carried out in open spaces where peasants could also attend.
- In Uppsala, Sweden, every spring a general conference of all Swedes was held in which the king’s decisions were discussed and its decisions were binding on the king. This was part of a tradition existent from prehistoric times.
- In Ireland, landowners and representatives of craftsmen created a local assembly, the túath, which convened once a year and its main functions were making decisions and validating the king’s election.
- In Slavic countries, the Veche / Wiec were held; popular assemblies in different parts of the country, deciding on important issues such as declarations of war. The Sejm, a form of parliament which controlled the king, originates from this tradition and was established in Poland in 1146.
- The tradition of the Veche / Wiec also gave birth to the republics of Novgorod and Pskov in the Baltic Sea, in the 12th -13th century. In these early forms of republic, in addition to the popular assemblies, there were noblemen’s councils which functioned democratically and the decisions made by the popular assemblies were taken into account in making their own decisions.
· The “Republic” of Venice. In Venice it was called “Serenissima Repubblica” (Serene Republic). In fact, it was an aristocratic form of government where power was distributed among the Doge and a number of councils and assemblies composed of noblemen who elected the Doge and made decisions by vote. However, this “democratic” form of government instituted, in a way, a model for later European democracies.
A popular assembly (Wiec) in Pskov. (19th century painting by Vasnetsov)
Early forms of republic in America
In the American continent, between 1000 and 1450, the indigenous Iroquois had established a confederation of 5 - 6 tribes. The administration in this confederation, as well as in each tribe, was democratic. That is, there were councils elected by the people and representative councils. All citizens, even the women, could voice their opinion in these councils. It is believed that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin conceived the idea of an American Confederation and Republic, not from ancient Greece and Rome but from the Iroquois. Another civilization with democratic elements was the Aztec. However, in this case the democracy did not refer to all citizens but mainly to a group of privileged well-off citizens.
The existence of a body of texts which define the interactions among citizens began, as mentioned above, with the code of Hammurabi, the laws of Solon and Draco and continued with the Roman and Byzantine laws (Theodosianos, Neares etc.). These texts were written by those in authority or a visionary as a body of laws that defined the penalties for criminal actions and insured some form of equality among citizens of the same social class. Since the Middle Ages, consistent with the demand of higher social classes as well as of citizens, these texts had began to define the limitations of the people in authority, thus insuring civic liberties.
Constitutional Monarchy in England and the birth of the English Parliament
In the 10th century, the English kingdoms, aiming to create a powerful state, united under one king. The king, however, needed the support of noblemen to rule. Therefore, the Great Council was established comprising of bishops, abbots, barons and counts (including knights later on) which supported and controlled the king.
The Charter of Liberties
The immense power of the king often led him to arbitrary actions. Thus, when king Henry I was enthroned in 1100, the noblemen forced him to sign the Charter of Liberties which protected them from the king's abuse of power and overtaxing.
The succesors of king Henry I did not honor the Charter of Liberties and especially John of England (known as “Lackland”) who became king after the death of his brother, Richard I the Lionheart. John I, having lost English territories in the European mainland, imposed heavy taxes to the nobility and the people. This led to the uprising of the barons who invaded London in 1215 with full support of the people forcing John to agree to the terms of a document called the “Magna Carta Liberatum”.
The most significant provisions of this document were: a) the king's power was placed under the complete control of the Great Council of noblemen and b) the writ of habeas corpus allowing appeal against unlawful imprisonment.
Concerning the habeas corpus, article 39 of the Magna Carta stated that: “ No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land”.
The Magna Carta instituted Constitutional Monarchy in Europe and was a breakthrough on civic liberties and equality by protecting citizens from unlawful punishment and establishing the ability to protect their rights.
The Magna Carta is the first legal text in contemporary history. It set the foundations of equality of rights and constituted a model for legal texts and constitutions to follow.
The Magna Carta was repeatedly violated by the king. This caused the barons led by Simon de Montfort, a nobleman of French lineage, to revolt against king Henry III in 1263. The rebels arrested the king and decided to appoint a government comprised of 15 noblemen. They extended the institution of the Great Council to a new council which included two elected representatives from the burgesses of each borough in addition to the noblemen. This new council, which convened on January 20th, 1265 for the first time, was discussing administrative issues and was therefore called the “parliament” deriving from the French-latin verb parler, meaning to talk. This parliament is considered as the base of parliamentary democracy.
Upper Chamber and Lower Chamber
In 1341, the clergy and the barons decided to convene separately, thus separating the parliament to an Upper Chamber or The House of Lords and a Lower Chamber or the House of Commons in which knights and elected representatives participated. Although this action seemingly weakened the Lower Chamber, it was essentially vital in order to legitimize the implementation of laws. Laws had to be approved by both Chambers while the House of Lords was responsible for upholding the laws. This bipolar model is still existent in England. (The Labour Party administration only recently tried to limit the power of the House of Lords).
Legal texts from other countries
Important documents on civil rights are:
In 1220, approximately, in Saxony of the feudalistic Germany the “Saxenspiegel” (=Saxon Mirror) group of laws is drawn. Important elements of these laws are
it is written in a plain German language in order to be understood by all citizens and
it consisted of two sections:
the Common Laws concerning the rights and duties of all free citizens and
the Feudalistic Legislation describing the rights and duties of noblemen.
In the 14th century, the Serbian emperor Stefan Dusan establishes the short-lived “Empire of Serbs and Greeks” (1346-1371) stretching from Bosnia to the Korinthian Gulf where Serbian and Greek were the official languages. In the process of organizing this vast empire, he drew up the “Dusan Code” stating civil rights with a remarkable for the time emphasis on equality. The Code was promulgated in two conferences; in 1349 in Skopje in the Serbian language and 1354 in Serres in the Greek language. A characteristic abstract from the Code states that:
“If any poor woman cannot defend herself she will be able to choose an attorney to speak for her. The poorest spinster will be as free as a priest.
If His Royal Highness writes a letter to someone and in case such a letter is in violation of the Code and justice as it is stated in the Code, the magistrates will not comply in accordance to His Person but in accordance to what the law commands.”
In 13th century Switzerland, independent fiefs began to unite in a federation model (a model that will be later used in the structure of the U.S.A., Germany and the E.U.). In this federation, power is exercised not by a single monarch but by a group of noblemen who decide by vote.
In 1950, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is established. It included a large territory consisting of Poland, the Baltic countries and parts of contemporary Ukraine and SW Russia. The Commonwealth's political system was called the “Nobility Democracy” or “Golden liberty” because all decisions, including the election of the monarch, were made by parliaments in which noblemen represented all the fiefs of the commonwealth. This system, essentially still semi-feudal, ran smoothly for a century but was later on characterized by bondsmen uprisings, anarchy and military interventions.
Renaissance – Humanism
The humanistic movement during the Renaissance period (late 14th - 15th century) rediscovered ancient Greek and Latin literature and through that, the principles of the Athenian and Roman Republic. As a result, the absolute rule of the clergy and the nobility was challenged for the first time and the humanists developed an issue of overall public participation in administration as it existed in those ancient republics.
18th - 19th century
In 15th - 17th century Europe monarchy is the dominant form of governance, with the exceptions mentioned above, led by the clergy and fief lords. However, from the late 17thcentury, the influence of the Age of Enlightenment began to democratize the existent political systems.
In England, after the Glorious Revolution that the two Chambers launched against the king in 1688, the British Parliament drew up the “Bill of Rights” or as it is formally called “ An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown” (1689). This declaration, as a successor to the Magna Carta, constituted a new kind of Constitution for England, it redefined the rule of the monarch limiting his absolute power and it secured the parliament's authority by placing its authority above all other institutions, transforming the political system to a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. The declaration was amended in 1701 and 1707 in England and Scotland.
In 1755, Corsica under the leadership of Pasquale Paoli detached from the Republic of Genoa and instituted an independent republic. Paoli, influenced by Jean- Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, drew up the first constitution of contemporary Europe which provided, among others, women's right to vote. 14 years later, the island was conquered by the French and the Corsican Republic was incorporated into France. Paoli's constitution, however, was widely known mainly due to important figures of the Enlightenment and constituted a model for the ones that followed soon after.
After the end of the war between the English and the French in 1763, the British imposed heavy taxes on the American colonials on the pretext of protecting them against enemy troops. The colonials, having no right of representation in the British parliament, deemed this decision illegal and offensive to their civil rights, as they were stated in the “ Bill of Rights”, and thus they revolted.
In 1772, District Councils were established, replacing British authorities and after a three-year war for independence, on July 4th 1776, representatives from 13 colonies of Northern America drew up and adopted the “Declaration of Independence” which in essence founded the United States of America. The “Declaration of Independence” was influenced by the British “Bill of Rights” (the right to a fair trial) and especially by the Virginia Bill of Rights (June 1776). Contrary to European legal texts, however, there was no distinction between social classes due to the fact that American society had no nobility. Republicanism and liberalism (equality and freedom) were its basic principles: “...all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.
In 1787, the United States Constitution is drawn up. This text is the world's first federal constitution, valid to this day with the addition of some amendments.
In 1791, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the May 3rd Constitution was drawn up on the people's demand. The constitution provided for political equality between the bourgeoisie and nobility and placed farmers under state protection against injustice by the nobility. This constitution worried Catherine II of Russia, who considered the Commonwealth as a de facto protectorate of Russia, and in cooperation with Prussia in fear of an overall revolt roused by the French, they attacked the Commonwealth a year later and divided its territories, decreasing it to 1/3 of its original size.
In 18th century France, the dominant political system was absolute monarchy, as it was established by Louis XIV of France (1643- 1715). The king along with a few higher officials appointed by him could institute laws, define taxation and manage public funds in any way he pleased, using great amounts for his own pleasure. A large group of noblemen and clerics enjoyed privileges, residues of feudalism, while a third class of bourgeois businessmen had began to develop (lawyers, merchants, bankers, state employees). People in this class, however, as well as common folk had no access to power.
In the second half of the 17th century, France and its political system went into a deep crisis that lead people to revolt against the upper classes, known as the French Revolution. The reasons behind the French Revolution are numerous:
Economic crisis. The French state was in the bring of economic disaster. Their active participation in the American War of Independence had emptied the treasury.
In spite of the economic crisis, the palace continued to squander money.
The economic reforms attempted by the king had failed.
The nobility, seeing the decadence of the throne and the possibility of losing tax remission, sought the opportunity to seize power.
The emerging Third Class, which basically controlled the economy, also sought access to power.
The French philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment and other intellectuals had begun to implant the ideals of equality and democracy to the people.
The American Independence constituted a positive example.
The events leading to the revolution were:
In 1788, following his unsuccessful attempts to reform the economy, Louis XIV decided to assemble the “Etats-Generaux” (Estates-General), meaning the nobility, the clergy and the general public. Representatives from the Third Class, chosen by national vote, also participated in the assembly. The assembly convened in May 1789, but matters were made worse because although the people's assembly (Third Estate) held the majority, the other two assemblies, in order to protect their interests, decided that each assembly would be represented by one vote. The people's assembly withdrew from the proceedings in protest and led the people to revolt in a display of its power. The harvest of 1788 was extremely poor due to bad weather conditions and food was extremelly overpriced. Therefore, people were sinking to abjection and rousing a revolt needed little effort.
The starting point of the Revolution was the storming of the Bastille (holding mainly political prisoners) in July 14th, 1789 (French national anniversary since 1880).
The French Revolution stands for the social reform from a feudalistic to a modern society. The economically robust third class was dominant for the first time, taking over power from the nobility who were already declining. The representatives of the third class instituted the National Constitutional Assembly, which on August 26, 1789, voted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (“Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen»), a model for most constitutions which followed.
The French Revolution initiated a transition to democracy. The power of monarchs gradually diminished through constitutions and parliaments while in the 20th century, the percentage of democratic states had a spectacular increase. Today, although in many cases the lack of democracy is evident, democracy- even though in theory- is the indisputable political system that can guarrantee liberty, equality and prosperity.
The first historical reference to political systems was made by Herodotus (separation in kingdoms, Aristocracy and Isonomy). However, Aristotle is the one who was seriously engaged in the analysis and classification of political systems. It is believed that he wrote on the political systems of 158 countries but only the Constitution of Athens (or Athenaiōn Politeia) has survived to this day.
According to Aristotle, when the supreme authority of a state is represented by a single person the political system is called a monarchy. When it is represented by more than one person that come from the class of “aristoi” (from the Greek word for noblemen), then he calls the political system an aristocracy. Finally, when the supreme authority of a state is represented by its entire population, the political system is called a democracy. According to the philosopher, these three political systems are correct only when they work for the common good. Otherwise, they digress from their definition. He considered tyranny to be the degenerate counterpart to monarchy, oligarchy to be the degenerate counterpart to aristocracy and ochlocracy (government by mob) to be the degenerate counterpart to democracy.
Aristotle also sets subsets of these three political systems:
Aristotle’s subsets of political systems
· Monarchy –heroic era
· Barbarian monarchy -totalitarian, hereditary by law
· Aesymniteaian monarchy –tyranny with elections
· Laconic monarchy –rule by a hereditary general
· Absolute monarchy –the king rules all
· Oligarchy-by paying a great price
· Aristocracy –by paying a small price
· Aristocracy –hereditary succession
· Dynasty –hereditary aristocracy where the noblemen rule and not the law
· Democracy – of equality, equal rights for all indiscriminately
· Democracy –
defined by small social groups · Democracy –defined by irreproachable citizens
· Democracy –of overall participation
· Ochlocracy – the resolutions hold more power than the laws
Plato added another kind of political system which he called a timocracy, where power is held by one tribe which is imposed on all other tribes.
We could classify political systems into two categories according to the source and control of power:
Authoritarian systems (where power is held by one person or a small group of people and is inaccessible to the majority of the people)
Monarchy (Autocracy- Absolute monarchy- Tyranny)
Power is held by a ruler of hereditary title, a usurper or even an elected ruler.
A form of monarchy with limitations to the monarch’s power set by a constitution which he cannot alter.
Power is held by one or more people - usually military officers - who overthrow the previous system by force.
The people’s power is limited and a dictator or an oligarchy serves the nation and the prevailing nationality group, at the expense of minority or other nationality groups.
Power is held by a group of noblemen.
Power is held by a small group - not necessarily of aristocratic origin.
Regardless of the existence of a central authority, power is regionally controlled by local lords - landowners.
Religious leaders and dogma hold the primary role in decision making.
A particular social class imposes itself on the rest, to its benefit.
Democratic systems (where power can be controlled by the people in various degrees according to each system)
Power is held by the elected representatives of the people who form the parliament.
Supreme authority is held by an elected or hereditary ruler (e.g. a king) who is greatly controlled by democratic institutions, like a parliament.
A unity of small semi-independent states with a central administration where decisions are made in a democratic way.
All decisions are made by the people.
The people participate decisively in decision making.
Power is exercised in a democratic way by the people’s representatives, such as class or guild of representatives, community leaders and other elected representatives.
(The Soviet model)
Power is exercised by an extended social group e.g. the working class.
These political systems are greatly influenced by certain socio-economic systems and theories, such as:
- Capitalism (production management and capital distribution by private individuals and corporations and determination of transactions based on the free market)
- Liberalism (its main goal is the religious, political or economic freedom of the individual)
- Neoliberalism (privatization, reduction of government control on the economy and release of private initiative from bureaucracy - free market)
- Socialism (the means of production and distribution of goods are owned and controlled by social groups or the government)
- Communism (common ownership, equal social status and rights for all)
- Anarchism (rejection of compulsory government and promotion of self-management with personal responsibility for the person’s actions on him/herself and society)
- Eco-anarchism (emphasizes the environment and supports a form of society with small autonomous eco-communities of 50-150 people)
- Nationalism (the nation constitutes the supreme ideal and politics serve the interests of the indigenous nationality group often at the expense of minority nationalities or other nations. Fascism, for example, is an extreme form of nationalism)
- National-socialism (combination of Socialism and Nationalism)
Totalitarian regimes developed in different forms of government depending on the interests of the social class that established them:
a. Absolute monarchy is the type of monarchy where the monarch is bound by laws he himself establishes as the head of state. Initially, the monarch used power which came from God and personified the nation (King Louis XIV of France). In the Roman Empire, the people transfered power to the emperor and exempted him from the law. The same idea was adopted by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century when he wrote his theory on submission. In modern Greece, from 1833 until 1843, there was an absolute monarchy system imposed by the United Kingdom, France and Russia by the 1832 Treaty of London (article 3), as counterweight to the recognition of the Greek state and as guarantee that the monarch would serve their own interior and international interests. On 25.04.1832 the Treaty of London was signed and the Bavarian Prince Otto was installed to the Greek throne.
b. Constitutional monarchy is the type of monarchy where the power held by the monarch is regulated by a Constitution, which he cannot alter or abrogate. It appears for the first time in the Middle Ages with the establishment of land tenure systems, such as feudalism, which gradually limited the monarch’s power and lasted until 1919 (in Germany). The monarch holds the authority granted by the Constitution, as well as those which are not formally attributed to another office and participates in constitutional reforms. Greece was a constitutional monarchy from 1844 until 1862.
Hereditary succession was not the only principle in monarchy. An elected monarchy existed in ancient Rome, the German states of Medieval Europe and Byzantium.
In the 19th century, parliamentary monarchy appeared in Europe, parallel to the establishment of universal suffrage. Parliamentary monarchy is a type of limited monarchy where ministers are appointed and dismissed by the monarch, but must be approved by parliament in order to remain in office. This system represents the last phase in the transition to a combination of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy as exists in the United Kingdom today.
Monarchy was based on the theory of “state neutrality” by Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), according to which in order to prevent society from breaking up due to conflicting social interests you need a neutral administration, represented by a monarch who will salvage the unity and cohesion of the state. This principle is the pseudonym of a policy oriented by economic and social interests expressed by the monarchs. The goal of this policy is to rise above political and social controversy in order to appear historically and logically justified.
There are still existing political sytems based on monarchy.
Map of actual political sytems based on monarchy (2007)
c. In totalitarianism (e.g. Nazi Germany, former “existent socialism”) there is little room left for private and public action. In an autocratic regime power is not subjected to control by the majority, in contrast to democracy. Absolutism accompanies the totalitarian character of a form of government where power extends and penetrates the private aspects of people’s lives based on a dominant ideology which attempts to reproduce itself by ideologically fixed regulations. This procedure produces an administration concerned not only with economy but with social life, family, personal relations and political beliefs of citizens.
Democracy is the political system where the people hold supreme authority. Therefore, democracy means that the only source of power is the people (Pericles, in his work “Epitaph”, mentions that “Democracy is not the rule of a few but the rule of many”). The term “democracy” is included in many completely different and unrelated political systems. The reason for this is quite obvious and concerns the validation characteristics ascribed by the majority principle and the procedure it entails. Almost every political and government functions, political systems and constitutions are self-characterized as democratic. They attempt to legitimize their rule by invoking a democratic principle, showing the people as their source of power.
Modern democracy is a pluralistic system of government, based on the acceptance of the plurality of social interests and their conflict.
Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1679) “social contract” theory was the first to set the people, meaning the group of people living in a country, as the validating factor for sovereign sway in 1651. To avoid the danger of foreign assault and war, civil war included, the people of a state jointly agree to a social contract by which they assign rights to the sovereign authority (civitas), i.e. the state (Leviathan).
John Locke (1632-1704) advanced the social contract theory claiming that the rights assigned to the state are the ones which can only be realized through their assignment to the state.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712- 1778) influenced the social contract theory with his work “Contrat social”. He perceived that private property and lack of equality leads to social controversy and competition, aggravated by the establishment of a state and followed by the coercion of officials. Individuals, joined together by the social contract, can remain free because they submit their rights to the authority of the general will as a whole and are led to a state of self-determination for all members of society. Thus, in democracy the person is also a citizen, the ruler is also ruled. The result is an inalienable, undivided, infallible and unrestricted popular rule.
These notions defined the ideological content of the French revolution in 1789. In article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (26.08.1789) the nation is defined as the source of power (and not the people, because its writers didn’t want the king to be a symbol of the nation but simply a representative of the nation and its primary public servant) and it is stated that no association or individual can practice power not given by the nation. Therefore, later French constitutional texts are based on national rule while American constitutional texts are based on popular rule.
In practice, the principle of popular rule does not mean that the ruler and the ruled are the same but that the principle of majority rule is adopted. In Greece, national rule, meaning rule by the people - influenced by the French revolution’s ideals and as a way to emphasize the national character of the Greek Revolution of 1821, as well as question the King’s right to speak for the nation; a right which is constitutionally held by the people - was established for the first time in the 1827 Constitution of Troezen and followed by the Constitutions of 1864, 1911, 1927, 1952 and 1975; a revised version of which is in force today. Therefore, in a broader sense, all Greeks are part of the people and comprise the source of power. Authority is exercised in the name of everyone in the electorate, i.e. the electors, who are a part of the people having civil rights, therefore the people. Alexandros Svolos points out that “electors, provided that free will is ensured, are divided according to their social class and group and…within each of them they form a different common will according to their opposing or differing social and moral interests”. Conflicts within society are elements of the order established by a constitution, which has its legal basis on popular will, and for this reason the majority principle is instituted.
Democracy defines a procedure which leads to the formation of a unified state and political will, the materialization of which should lead to unity. In theocratic regimes, the dominant will is the one which is stated as the word of God. In monarchic regimes, the dominant will is that of the monarch. In Nazi Germany, the dominant will was that of Adolf Hitler, who as the head of state presented the joint popular will.
The establishment and practical application of the principle of popular rule produced elements such as freedom, equality, elected officials, distinction of authorities, self-limitation of the people’s rule and the majority principle necessary for the relativity of the principle of popular rule and for the appreciation of basic social conflict. The majority principle is in force in democracy, exclusively and permanently. However, other concepts like “active citizens”, “social justice”, “national interest” make democracy relative because in some cases they limit, or even cancel the majority principle and in other cases they constitute the frame and terms for its application.
There are as many democratic political systems as there are types and aspects of democracy. Some of them are direct and representative democracy, which include parliamentary and presidential democracy, democracy with a sovereign king or president, etc.
The democracy of the Golden Age of Pericles is an example of direct democracy, where the people instituted the only state function and practiced power through their assemblies. It is impossible for a true direct democracy to exist today. However, new technologies and the internet can play an important role in incorporating and improving the function of elements of direct democracy (like referendums, the legislative initiative of citizens, etc.) to existing types of democratic systems.
In representative democracy power is assigned to the people’s representatives, granted that the source of power is the people. The relationship between representatives and the people is ruled by the principle of free and not authoritative command, therefore representatives are not bound by the particular will of the group that elects them.
In presidential parliamentary democracy the government, which depends on the parliament’s vote of confidence, constitutes the executive branch while the President of the Republic, i.e. the head of state, does not actively exercise executive powers. The Greek Republic is a presidential parliamentary democracy.
In presidential democracy, as in the U.S.A., the President of the Republic is the head of state and government, therefore the government does not depend on the parliament’s vote of confidence but on the head of state. If the directly elected President is granted important authorities and the government depends on the parliament’s vote of confidence, the system is called a semi-presidential democracy, as in France. If the executive branch is totally dependent on the people’s representatives and therefore the legislative and judiciary authority are intertwined and subjected to the legislature, then the system is called a ruling parliament, as in Switzerland.
If the head of state is elected the democracy is called presidential and if the title is hereditary it is called a Westminster system democracy (modelled after that of the United Kingdom system).
A political system may be called a democracy without actually implementing the characteristics of a democratic system.
In this world map all countries who claim to be democracies are depicted in blue.
In this map the actual degree of liberty is depicted according to a research by the Economist magazine in 2007. Lighter colors represent more democratic systems.