Why an Ancient Theory?

When people encounter our work on the life-cycle of democracy and the theory of anacyclosis they often ask us, “Why are you taking inspiration from an ancient theory? Haven’t modern historians come up with better models for how democracies evolve?”

If only they had! Unfortunately, as we’ve written elsewhere, modern historians have all but stopped trying to understand patterns in history. In fact, the dominant schools of thought in academic history departments (e.g. the “Cambridge School” and the “New Historicism”) reject or ignore the existence of historical patterns altogether.

While historians of earlier generations, such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, did make attempts at identifying long-term trends, they did not offer much by way of concrete models that can be tested against historical data-sets. And if we go back to even earlier historians, they didn’t offer models for how democracies evolve because they lived in a world with hardly any democracies in it.

Thus, in order to find historians who offered models for how democracies evolve, we need to go all the way back to the last time in history when there were a lot of democracies in existence: the ancient Mediterranean of the 5th – 2nd centuries BC. This is the historical period to which the Framers of the US Constitution turned to for historical models, and for good reason. The ancient Mediterranean gives us the most expansive, varied, and long-term data-set on the rise and fall of constitutional states (including democracy) in all of pre-modern history.

Here’s why: the period from around 800 BC until the first century BC witnessed the flourishing of a vast, interconnected ecosystem of small, independent states scattered all around the Mediterranean and Black Sea coast-lines. This vast network of polities included not only Greek city-states (of which there were over a thousand) but also Etruscan city-states, various Italic city-states (including Rome), and Phoenician settlements, including the republic of Carthage. Together these sovereign polities numbered over 1,500.

All of these micro-states were connected to each other by the sea, through complex networks of trade and communication. And across this expansive ecosystem we see, over time, similar trends of political evolution and revolution, as if the entire system were somehow synchronized. For example, most of these micro-states in the 700s BC were ruled by kings and queens. By the 400s BC, many of them, if not the majority of them, had experimented with non-monarchical rule of various forms, including democracy, oligarchy, and republican government. By the 200s BC, several groups of constitutional states were experimenting with federalism (which is what we have in the US today). This unique ecosystem effectively ended with the meteoric rise of Rome and the consolidation of Roman imperial authority over the entire Mediterranean region in the first century BC.

There has never been, in any other period of pre-modern history, such a large number of sovereign states covering such a wide geographic area and all in contact with one another. At any give time, there were dozens of new city-states being founded and dozens of others being destroyed by civil war or conquest. Thus, the Mediterranean world of the first millennium BC was likely the biggest hotbed of political experimentation in history. That’s probably one of the major reasons why the Greeks and Romans produced so many great political philosophers. It’s not because they were smarter than us, but because they saw so many hundreds of political experiments happening all around them.

We know all this because a lot of written information has survived from those times. To be sure, we only have a tiny fraction of the texts that filled the great ancient libraries, such as that of Alexandria. But compared to the writings of all other ancient civilizations, we have orders of magnitude more texts from Greece and Rome. Furthermore, we are fortunate to have the writings of several of the best political thinkers from those cultures, thinkers who had access to (now lost) historical data on hundreds of ancient states that experimented with democracy and republicanism. For example, Aristotle sent off his students to research and compile detailed descriptions of the constitutions of over 160 notable city-states around the Mediterranean. Only one of those descriptions survives in full (On the Constitution of the Athenians), but we can reliably assume that Aristotle’s work called Politics (which we do have) distilled many of the insights he gained from the empirical studies his students conducted on those 100+ constitutions that have since been lost to history.

Bearing all this in mind, we can now answer the question that prompted this discussion (why we are taking inspiration from an ancient theory). The challenge in building historical models is that they can only be as good as the data-sets they are trained on. And the fact is that modern history does not provide a long-term and complete data-set on how democracies evolve over time and how they fare during crises. Most democracies in the modern world are relatively young, and none of the major ones has yet to suffer a tumultuous revolution or military/economic upset. Thus, it is hard for anyone to predict, based solely on recent history, what will happen to our current democracies over time.

By contrast, Plato and Polybius had a phenomenal data-set to work with, comprised of over a thousand city-states (including hundreds of democracies) and stretching over many centuries of evolution and political turbulences. The theory of anacyclosis was distilled from this uniquely rich data set. And we at the Anacyclosis Institute think that the theory largely fits with the trajectory of modern democracies so far.

In sum, the theory of anacyclosis isn’t just some antiquated theory or an intellectual curiosity from the ancient world. It is, in fact, the only concrete model of political evolution ever created based on an extensive data-set of democracies. We’re not saying it’s perfect. But it’s a useful starting point.


Wolfgang Theil
November 6, 2019 6:21 pm

I agree that far too many of o ur contemporary historians seem to avoid looking for patterns in history by way of systematic comparative historical studies. We all know the bonmot that “history never repeats but it rhymes”, but this precisely means that history, like music, is patterned – repeating, but never without variations.

You are pointing to what may be a parallel between the decline of the roman republic into ochlocracy: today’s emergence of authoritarian populism (for lack of a better term). I’d like to remind us that we can also find significant parallels of today’s western situation with the late roman republic and empire until the colonate, on the field of the family, demography, and “gender relations”. As Max Weber pointed out in a classic 1896 essay “On the Social Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization” (linked below), ancient roman slaves would not reproduce – just like modern free wage labourers tend towards sub replacement fertility rates. This leads to a shortage or military manpower, a rise of median age, and a general loss of “creative destruction” dynamics in western societies that some have been calling “secular stagnation”; immigrants only partially assimilated, roman law declined into vulgar law as the customary rules of the immigrating germanic tribes became a big influence, borders had to be defended by personnel recruited from immigrants in return for granting them citizenship (which may become inevitable for today’s Europe re: migration from Africa and Islam belt, as well).

Therefore, taking a closer look at historical analogies between the ancient and the modern western, which in the 19th century was a standard topic for western intellectuals but has been abandoned since, should be a fruitful field of study for future historians trying to illuminate the present and our western predicament. Thanks for providing a contribution to a re-emergence of this perspective!

Max Weber 1896: The Social Causes of the Decay of Ancient Civilization.

Adrian Brisland
November 7, 2019 10:06 pm

While I can’t claim the same knowledge base as a professional, I’ve been interested in Ancient Greece as a hobby for some time. It’s exciting to hear the ideas of that past people talked about with reverence since I have to believe that that’s why the subject is still so interesting to so many people—professional and amateur alike. The concept of history repeating itself is very dynamic, and a bold claim that I really look forward to hearing, and reading, more about, but I’m already intrigued by the idea that some claim that history has no patterns at all; that it is random and/or not worth investigating in relation to current events.

I have to wonder, how could that *possibly* be true? If history has no bearing on the present, then what do we find captivating about it? And why encourage its study? If it can’t help us progress, or help us in our current time, then reading Homer and his epics, or Caesar’s writings, or any other works from any civilization should be called some kind of perverse, self-gratification. A waste of time that distracts us away from something truly productive.

I find it easy to agree with this article in arguing against that kind of thinking. If that was the dominant attitude it seems like it would be quite a sad and cynical view of our ancestors, our fellow humans, and the energy they put into their lives. I think we can muster up more respect and appreciation than to assume thousands of years of civilization is beyond teaching us something about what it means to a member of humanity.

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