Greek historians of the fifth and fourth centuries bce also intended their works to be political commentaries. This paper concentrates on the work of Thucydides, and his interest in fifth-century ideas of constitutionalism. Honing in on the political ‘opposites’, democracy and oligarchy, this paper argues that Thucydides collapses these categories, to show not only that they are unstable, but that, built upon the same political vocabulary, they naturally lead towards his new idea of the measured blending of the few and the many in a mixed constitution, which creates political stability and a positive political experience for the community. In this sense, Thucydides’ text, which uses historical narrative as a vehicle for political commentary, needs to be understood within the framework of historical contextualism, but also as a ‘possession for all time’.
Athenian democracy depended upon political ‘champions’ in order to operate effectively, although the champions themselves were often heavily criticised. At the same time, critics of democracy looked for alternatives in the ‘best men’, or ‘best man’ to rule the state. Thucydides engages with both these issues, and informed by wider political debates and other representations of the ‘democratic monarch’ (especially that of Theseus), analyses and draws a character sketch of Pericles and Alcibiades, in their role as either ‘good king’ or ‘bad tyrant’, in order to present a critique of democratic stability.
The role of kings, the source of their authority and the nature of the practical restraints on their power have exercised political and religious philosophers, historians, competing candidates for rule and subject populations from the time of the earliest documented human societies. How the kingly image is created and presented and how the ruler performs his or her function as the source of justice are among the topics addressed in this volume, which also covers the role of queens in maintaining dynastic succession yet being the target of tales of adultery. This volume is of particular interest in bringing together studies of kingly power from Cyrus the Great and Alexander in the ancient world to Shah Abbas in the seventeenth century, and covering the European Middle Ages as well as Iran and the Muslim world.
Democratic Athens seems to have been the first place in the Greek world where there developed systematically a positive theorising of kingship. Initially this might seem surprising, since the Athenians had a strong tradition of rejecting one-man-rule. The study of kingship among the political thinkers of the fifth and fourth century has not received much scholarly attention until recent years, and particularly not the striking fact that it was democratic Athens, or at least writers directing themselves to an Athenian democratic audience, that produced a positive theorising of kingship. The aim of this essay, then, is not only to show how the political language around kingship became a way of forming definitions of what democracy was and was not, but also (more significantly), among some fourth-century intellectuals, of shaping new ideas about what it could be.