© Erik Moberg
Oligarchies are state monopolies of violence which among others, and above all, are characterized by being controlled by a rather small group of persons. It might for instance be a group of families having acquired influence by means of great land possessions, gainful commercial activities, or something else. The ruling group is thus smaller than in democracies in which, in principle, the whole people takes part in the decision-making, and bigger than in dictatorships in which, again in principle, a single individual controls what is going on.
The size of the ruling group – intermediate size if one so wants – is however not the only characteristic of the oligarchies. Had it been like that the border-lines to both direct democracies and dictatorships had been less sharp than in fact they are. In a direct democracy a smaller group may for instance take hold of the power at the expense of the rest of the people, and in such cases, if only the size of the ruling group mattered, one could talk about oligarchies. And in dictatorships the power may now and then become spread over larger groups as when the mandarins took over in China or the army in the Roman Empire. Even here one could talk about oligarchies if the number of those ruling was the only relevant characteristic. An oligarchy, as I use the term here, is however not only characterized by the size of the governing group. Important is also that there is a generally known, on the whole respected set of rules specifying the individuals belonging to the ruling group, the procedures for selecting these individuals, and the functions or particular tasks of these individuals. The existence of such a set of rules distinguishes the oligarchies from cases which otherwise would have been fuzzy, for instance direct democracies run off the rails or dictatorships similarly run off. Thus I will talk about oligarchies only when the ruling small group also is supported by an open, well-known and basically respected set of rules.
States in which the ruling group has an intermediary size, but which are lacking established and respected rules are in fact quite common, and of more types than the transformed direct democracies or dictatorships just mentioned. Consider for instance today’s Russia. The efforts undertaken after the fall of the Soviet Empire for introducing representative democracy have obviously failed, and the present situation is characterized by small group ruling without generally respected rules. And for this reason – that lack of rules strict enough – the situation is probably unstable. Within a rather short period of time – perhaps within the next ten years – considerable transformations are likely to take place. Perhaps towards democracy, or perhaps back towards party dictatorship. Something similar, as I argued in the section “Dictatorship and market economy” in chapter 5, may be presumed about today’s China.
The number of known oligarchies in the history of the world is not that great, and all of them – except, perhaps, a few Indian oligarchies around the year -500 – have appeared within what in Chapter 2 was called the main course. Furthermore they existed only during an intermediate period – the first ones appeared long after the first states, and they had all disappeared before the modern age. The first western oligarchy was probably Sparta, then came the Roman Republic, and then, much later, in Europe of the Medieval Age and the Renaissance, a number of oligarchic city-states such as Venice appeared. But many more than that they have probably not been. The pattern of existence is thus similar to that for the direct democracies, whereas the contrast to the patterns for dictatorships, as well as for the representative democracies, is striking. The former, as we have seen, have been many, have existed during all the time we are interested and in all parts of the world, and have also dominated for a very long period. The latter, the representative democracies, appeared only late, but after that spread rapidly over large parts of the world.
But even if the oligarchies have been relatively few, and existed only during an intermediate period, they have nevertheless differed considerably from each other. The property variation is, in fact, probably greater than for any other of the four types of states dealt with in this book – at least it is more difficult to generalize about the oligarchies. In this chapter I will therefore take up three individual cases, namely Sparta, the Roman Republic and Venice.
Sparta, we remember from chapter 2, was for a long time and beside Athens, the most important of the Greek city states. In the case of Sparta the city-state label is however somewhat misleading. There was thus no main city corresponding to Athens, just four large villages fairly close to each other. And neither was there any defensive wall until at a very late stage, after the Great Power era we are interested in here.
But there were also interesting similarities between Athens and Sparta. In both states the dictatorships – the tyrannies – were abandoned at the time when Greek infantry soldiers, the hoplites, began to be used on a larger scale and thereby showed their strength, that is about the year 600. In both cases it was a reaction against the tyranny and even if the extent of the change differed in the two states, it nevertheless went in the same direction. Athens, as we have already seen, went all the way to direct democracy, whereas Sparta rather stopped as an oligarchy. In Sparta as well as in Athens the new constitutional orders – the oligarchy and the direct democracy respectively – were however in place and fully developed prior to the Persian wars, so important and crucial for both states. In these wars the two states, for once, were on the same side and triumphed.
Even if Sparta never became an empire it nevertheless developed into a local great power. It occupied successively larger areas on the Peloponnesian peninsula and became the territorially greatest Greek city-state. Thereby it acquired not only valuable land but also labor force since the people of the occupied areas were made slaves. And as a society Sparta was the diametrical opposite to Athens with its free and open discussions, its philosophical and artistic creativity, and its extensive naval foreign trade. In contrast to this Sparta was a pure land-state almost exclusively aiming at war-faring. It was virtually, in fact, a permanent military camp. Since Sparta was an oligarchy I follow the terminology introduced in chapter 3 and call the ordinary Spartans, the individuals most “free”, citizens. This may seem strange since they, as we will see, did not at all enjoy the same rights as the citizens in democratic Athens. But still they were much freer than the many slaves. And possibly they were also loyal with their society.
Sparta’s male citizens were its soldiers. It was they who did the fighting, and their training began early. At the age of seven the training of the sons of the citizens’ families began, and when they had reached the age of twelve they were taken away from the families and put into training camps characterized by a brutal, mechanical discipline. During two years, from the age of eighteen to twenty, they endured the hard education for becoming effective hoplite soldiers. But not even this made them full citizens. For this they also had to be successfully adopted by a so called syssitia, a group of about fifteen men. These groups, which were the smallest entities in the military organization, and in which the men lived to the age of thirty, were characterized by, among others, homosexuality, strange and rigorously upheld meal rituals and an extreme soldier culture. The existence of these groups meant that Sparta was constantly mobilized. Spartan boys/men were thus compelled to live outside family and home from the age of twelve to thirty, even if they were allowed to marry during that time.
To this it should be added that Sparta, according to all evidence, was a manifest class society. A land-owner aristocracy was quite influential and many of the common people, even if not slaves, could nevertheless, according to the standards of the age, be quite poor.
After the Persian wars Sparta and Athens again became enemies and Sparta, due to its successes in the Peloponnesian war (431–04), came to dominate the Greek world. Somewhat later Sparta however met a superior enemy, even this one a Greek city-state, namely Thebes. At the battle of Leuctra in 371 Sparta lost forever its Great Power status.
Four different institutions or organs participated in the decision-making, namely: two kings, a board consisting of five so called ephors, a council of old men, the gerousia, and an assembly comprising all grown up, male citizens.
Sparta thus had two kings – unique in the whole history of the world as it seems – and even if they inherited their positions they came from two different families. So already here there was a separation of power element, a barrier against a return to tyranny, which certainly was intended. The kings’ most important task was leading the army in field, which, of course, was of utmost importance in the warring state of Sparta.
Going then to the three other institutions – the board, the council and the assembly – there was, among them and in the handling of current, routine affairs, a hierarchical order. The board was at the top, below it the council, and below it the assembly. But still the assembly was superior in the sense that it, at least formally, appointed the members of the board and the council. Let us however start with the current, routine affairs.
The board, which consisted of five ephors, appointed for one-year terms, had the executive power. It mobilized the army, sent orders to the commanders in the field, handled judicial affairs, supervised the educational system and received ambassadors from other states. The board, finally, was the only instance competent to summon the council. This latter could thus not do anything without the board whishing so.
The council, or the elderly council, or the gerousia, consisted of 28 elected men. For being electable an age of sixty (!) was required and the one elected remained in his position for life. Furthermore the two kings sat in the council which may be somewhat surprising. In spite of being highest in the decision-making hierarchy in a sense, the kings did not take part in the board of the ephors but rather in the council or gerousia. Possibly this contributed to the great prestige enjoyed by latter. Among the tasks of the council were decisions about death sentences. Furthermore the council prepared in detail all issues to be handled by the assembly, among others legislative proposals.
And thereby we have reached the assembly which, we remember, consisted of all grown up, male citizens. At first this assembly, as already mentioned, had the important task of appointing all members of the board and the council. This power was however not altogether un-circumscribed. The voting procedures were in fact such that those already having power – for instance because of coming from big, well-known and perhaps rich families – were favored from the very beginning. When electing new board- or council-members there was thus no show of hands but the members of the assembly, rather, expressed their views by approval shouting, applauds and the like, and the one who thereby got, or was considered having got, the most evident, audible support, was elected. Furthermore, and in addition to the task of electing members of the board and the council, the assembly also had the important assignment of saying yes or no to proposals from the council. Even this assignment was however severely circumscribed. Thus there was no free discussion – basically only those directly addressed by some superior (a king, an ephor or a member of the gerousia) were allowed to speak. And in addition to this the assembly was not sure to have its way if it voted “wrongly”, that is against the council’s proposal. In such cases it occurred that the council implemented its proposal anyway.
By now it should be clear why Sparta, in contrast to Athens, is classified here as an oligarchy. The powers of Sparta’s popular assembly were, in contrast to those of Athens’, and as we have seen, most considerably limited. In Sparta there was no freedom of speech as in Athens. In Sparta decisions were not taken by show of hands as in Athens, but by methods which, in reality, deprived the assembly of much of its formal influence. Going then to the institutions above the assembly, the conclusions are similar. In Sparta there were, beside the kings, the board and the council, which both were small and hardly democratically elected, and therefore represented a very considerable concentration of power. The Athenian correspondence to these two organs, the many-headed council appointed by means of lottery, was obviously more democratic even if some questions may raised about that as well. Finally Sparta was also lacking a correspondence to the general right of initiative existing in Athens. For all of these reasons it is thus obvious that Sparta was not a democracy, but obviously it was neither a dictatorship. Sparta and Athens had both, from an earlier tyranny, developed in the same direction, but not equally long. Athens had gone all the way to democracy. Sparta had not gone that long but the power had nonetheless become spread among a considerable number of individuals. Sparta had become an oligarchy.
Still the respect for the rules in Sparta may be discussed. Had the formal rules for the assembly been fully respected Sparta had, at least almost, been a direct democracy. It is therefore, mainly, the lack of respect of the rules for the assembly which has made me classify Sparta as an oligarchy. One may, I think, quite reasonably, and because of the lack of respect for the rules, consider the assembly as non-existing. And if so only the kings, the board and the counsel remain, that is small groups of decision-makers. The rules for these organs seem however, on the whole, to have been followed, and therefore it should be perfectly adequate to consider the state an oligarchy.
Our knowledge about how Sparta got its constitution is limited – we know much more about the creation of Athens’ direct democracy than about the emergence of Sparta’s oligarchy. In Athens Solon, and in particular Cleisthenes, played important roles, but for Sparta it is difficult to find a corresponding person. A certain Lycurgus is sometimes mentioned, that is true, but the existence of this man has become increasingly doubted. It seems however clear, as I have already written, that the hoplites were important in both cases. It also seems likely that the constitutions, in both cases and on the whole, were introduced in one step. The introductory process was not drawn out and gradual. For Athens this seems quite clear, and similarly for Sparta even if not equally clear. But why then – and in spite of these similarities – did the two states not develop equally long away from the tyranny? About this one may only speculate. Perhaps the personal characteristics of the Athenians Solon and Cleisthenes were decisive for Athens. And perhaps the great land-owners were decisive for Sparta.
Anyhow there is nothing in Sparta’s development which is difficult to explain, no more than in Athens’. Everything is compatible with the logic of collective action. Sparta’s constitution may – for just indicating a possibility – have been thought out and implemented by a small group of big land-owners. The families of the two kings may have been land-owners like that, and the land-owners may also have considered it expedient, or perhaps even necessary, to introduce the really quite power-less assembly as a concession to those actually fighting the wars, the hoplites. If so, the fundamental mechanism of change, described in chapter 3, was operating.
As I wrote in chapter 2 Rome was founded around -750 and, in -509, was converted to the oligarchy usually called the Roman Republic. Before that the state was ruled by a king, a council of elders and an assembly of warriors. The time for the Republic may be counted to -134, or possibly to -31, when the era of the Empire began. Since the period from -134 to -31 was turbulent and to a large extent characterized by civil war it is, however, in this context appropriate to set the end for the Republic at -134. But even so its life-time was long. Between -509 and -134 there are 375 years. And even if the territorial expansion was to continue after -134, it had nevertheless gone long already by that time. From the villages at the mouth of the Tiber it had expanded so as to include all of the Mediterranean as a Roman internal sea – Mare Nostrum (our sea). The Republic was in fact an extreme war-waging state, almost like Sparta even if everything was not about war as in the Greek state. Albeit the victories and war-booties were necessary preconditions the Romans of the Republic have still enriched the world with a large treasury of fantastic sculptures, architecture, writings, and so forth.
Here, however, we are concerned with the constitutional development. And a development it was, in fact – a successive, gradual development. It was not as in Athens, and probably also in Sparta, basically a one-step process. But still the fundamental reason was the same as in Athens and Sparta, namely the involvement of large parts of the population in war-waging brought about by the new infantry technique. In Athens and Sparta it was the hoplites, in the Roman Republic the legionaries. These people – so called plebeians and when not fighting usually farmers – demanded influence and power by means of various kinds of expressions of dissatisfaction, strikes, and so forth. And the propertied, the so called patricians, mostly big land owners, were forced to give in step by step. The fundamental mechanism of change described in chapter 3 operated in a long row of small steps following after each other.
Here – in the same way as in Athens and in Sparta – there is thus nothing which is incompatible with the logic of collective action. The development of the constitution in small, gradual steps did however make it increasingly difficult to handle. Successively more veto-rules made it, for instance, more and more complicated to reach any decisions at all. But it did not stop there. Eventually a situation which, without much exaggeration, could be described as run by two competing constitutions, one for the patricians and one for the plebeians, was reached. At least it could be said the constitution had two main parts relatively independent of each other. And in at least some cases that made it possible to take decisions contradicting each other. There were for instance not only two, but three, popular assemblies having legislative powers. And even if the areas of these legislative powers varied somewhat between the assemblies, they also overlapped to some extent. The assemblies could therefore now and then, each assembly for itself, take valid, contradictory decisions about the same matter. Political processes could collide.
Describing the whole constitutional development in a more detailed way should lead us too far astray. I therefore confine myself to portraying the constitution as it was in the year -134, that is just before the start of the civil war and the crumbling of the Republic.
The constitution thus had two main parts, the patricians’ and the plebeians’. The two parts were similarly, though not identically, structured. In both the roles of various functionaries with precise, far-reaching capacities, the so called magistrates, were spelled out. In the patrician part of the constitution their number was however greater than in the plebeian part. In both parts of the constitution there was also a scope for popular influence by means of assemblies – but in the patrician part there were two assemblies, in the plebeian part only one. And then, in addition to these magistrates and assemblies, there was still a very important institution, namely the Senate. It would not be wrong to consider this Senate as belonging to the patrician part of the constitution, but it is also possible to consider it as an institution shared by the two parts. For reasons which will become clear below I have settled for the latter alternative.
Let us now start by looking a bit closer at the functionaries – the magistrates – in the patrician part of the constitution. First, they did not only have precise tasks, they were also ranked in a fixed order. I start by describing the functionaries in this order – the significance of the order will be dealt with later on.
Highest ranked were the censors, of whom there were two. The Republic was all the time a multi-layered class-society and the censors should, among others, register the citizens in classes depending on their private economies, grant new citizenships, and – when considered called for – expel citizens. These tasks made it possible for the censors to intervene in the political careers of all other ones, and thus made them powerful. The censors held their positions for one year and a half whereas all other magistrates, in contrast, were appointed for only one year.
Next in the ranking order came the two consuls. They were, above all, military commanders-in-chief and, since war was almost perpetual, they were usually away from Rome, and in one place each furthermore. There therefore had to be stand-ins for the consuls in Rome, and this was one of the tasks for the next category of magistrates, the so called praetors. The consuls, and in their absence the praetors, also were entitled to summon the senate and the two assemblies.
The praetors, altogether six, were however not only stand-ins for the consuls, they also had other important obligations, in particular judicial ones. They were thus not only entitled to sentence in some cases but could also interpret, and complement, existing law, and thereby came to influence considerably the development of the Roman law. Furthermore they shared among themselves the ultimate responsibility for the administration of the provinces of the Republic.
Next came the quaestors, altogether eight, who essentially had financial tasks. They received the taxes collected and supervised the expenses of the state. They were, one might say, the Republic’s ministers of finance.
And so, at last, came the aediles. They were altogether four, but split up into two pairs of which only the one belonged to the patrician part of the constitution. The other pair rather belonged to the plebeian part. But both pairs had the same tasks. Above all they were responsible for order, safety and cleanliness in the city of Rome, and for supervising markets, including prices. And they were also responsible for the provision of public festival games for entertainment.
These, thus, were the magistrates and the order was, as I have already mentioned, of great importance. This, in turn, depended on the constitution’s frequent use of vetoes, also mentioned. Higher ranked magistrates could namely veto the decisions of those lower ranked, and this rule was clearly consequential since even lower magistrates had important tasks. The only restriction was that the group of magistrates vetoing had to be unanimous itself. And this was so not only for the vetoes here discussed but for all decisions. For every group of magistrates it was therefore the case that it could act only when unanimous – within each group every individual magistrate had a veto right.
After this we get to the two popular assemblies which can be considered belonging to the patrician part of the constitution. At a quick glance both these assemblies could perhaps seem democratic since they consisted of all male citizens, but in reality it was not so. First, since the meetings were held in or just outside the city of Rome, it was impossible for all those permitted to participate. Furthermore, the decision-rules clearly favored the patricians. So the assemblies were not democratic. That there were two assemblies rather than one, in spite of both having the same members, also has an explanation. The background histories of the two assemblies were different, they met in different places, their authorities were different, and the voting rules were also somewhat different even if the patricians were favored in both cases.
The first assembly – Comitia Centuriata – was the oldest one and had a military background. As already mentioned it was summoned by the consuls or the praetors. It had its meetings at the Field of Mars (so called after Mars, the god of war) outside the city of Rome, the proceedings were opened by trumpet fanfares, and the participants stood upright ordered in accordance with their military units. This was also the assembly in which the patricians were most favored by the voting rules. The very important main task of the assembly was to appoint censors, consuls and praetors, that is the three highest ranked categories of magistrates.
The second assembly – Comitia Tributa – had, we remember, the same members as Comitia Centuriata, and was equally summoned by the consuls or the praetors. The organization was however not military – the participants were rather assorted into thirty-five groups with equal voting power. Each one of the groups represented a geographical area in Rome and/or in Rome’s neighborhood. The similarities with the corresponding order, the phylae, in direct democratic Athens were thus striking. Even here the voting rules favored the patricians although not as much as in the Comitia Centuriata. Among others the assembly appointed the lower ranked magistrates, that is the quaestors and the two patrician aediles.
The assemblies did however have more tasks than those already mentioned even if the distribution of these tasks is unclear. Some sources indicate one distribution, other ones another. This is so, for instance, for legislative issues, issues about war and peace, and death sentences. But irrespective of these uncertainties it is manifestly clear that the participants did not have the right to initiate issues to be dealt with – they could just say yes or not to proposals presented to them – and neither did they have any right of speech. The assemblies’ capacities were thus utterly circumscribed. Once the magistrates were elected, it was they who ruled. The magistrates’ short terms in office, and thus the frequently re-occurring magistrate elections, could however be considered a kind of “democratic” safety valve. Another one was an often used tactic for escaping the speech forbidding rule. Debates were held before the formal opening of the meetings, and these debates were even considered so important that they, in fact, constituted a basis for Roman rhetoric.
The magistrates were thus the real power holders and political careers were often made by climbing from lower to higher ranked magistrate positions. For starting at the lower end of the scale an aedile – in particular if he was privately rich and prepared to pay for it himself – could arrange lavish festivals and thereby make himself popular and thus enhance his own promotion upwards the scale. For going then to the upper end of the scale, only those having been consuls could be elected censors. And the censors did not only have a purple stripe in the toga as all other magistrates, they were also buried in full purple attire.
This was thus the first main part of the constitution, but then there was also the plebeian main part. And it was basically structured in the same way as the first one, although somewhat simpler. There was thus only two kinds of magistrates – first the two aediles mentioned above, and so the very important tribunes of the plebs.
Altogether there were ten tribunes of the plebs, and they had far-reaching capacities. They could deliver sentences of various kinds, and they could veto practically all other decisions, even those taken within the patrician part of the constitution. Furthermore they enjoyed a considerable immunity. There were however also important restrictions, basically of two kinds. First they could exercise their power only within the city of Rome and, furthermore, like all other magistrates they had to be unanimous for their decisions to become valid. Each tribune could thus veto the decisions of the other ones. And therefore their great number was a factor of weakness rather than strength – the more numerous they were, the greater the likelihood that someone would veto.
The plebeian assembly – Concilium Plebis – was essentially composed in the same way as Comitia Tributa, the only difference being that the patricians were excluded. The assembly thus consisted entirely of plebeians and it was summoned and led by the tribunes. Among its tasks were the elections of the plebeian aediles, and the tribunes. And in addition to this, and as the other assemblies, it also had some legislative powers, which added to the collision risks already mentioned.
After this we have finally reached the important Senate. It had 300 members appointed for life by the censors – thus one more component in the power of the censors. Electable were only former magistrates, although not tribunes, and military commanders with war marks of distinction. More than any organ the Senate therefore represented broad, heavy-weighted experience and continuity, which is clear already from its very designation. The word “senate” means something like “the elderly counsel” – a term we met already when discussing Sparta – and which has the same radical as for instance the English word “senior”. But in spite of its impressive experience the Senate – formally – had only advisory capacity. Furthermore the senators were allowed to speak only when asked to.
In spite of this the Senate was however destined to play a crucial role – it was, in fact, thanks to the Senate that the problems with constant vetoes, and collision risks and actual collisions, could be lived with as long as was indeed the case. For understanding this it is important to know that not only the consuls, and in their absence the praetors, could summon the Senate, but that even the tribunes had considerable capacities in the context. True, they could not themselves become senators, but they could summon the Senate, and not only that. They could participate in the meetings, initiate proposals at them, and even chair them. Furthermore, the rule that a senator could speak only when asked to was not as restrictive as it seemed. When, once, a senator had gotten the word he could namely continue talking about whatever he wanted. This is what made it possible for the senator and military commander Cato – victorious in the war against Hannibal – to end all his speeches by “furthermore I think Carthage must be destroyed”.
In reality the Senate thus got an important and central position and this, in combination with other parties’ prudence, was the main reason why the total constitution worked as long as it actually did. The Senate was summoned for giving, after appropriate discussions, its advice. This advice was then taken up by some other organ with adequate capacity and was turned into a real, valid decision. And like that it went for a long, although finite, period. Finally the whole system collapsed in the way described in chapter 2. The reasons were altogether internal. The social unrest resulting from the extreme class-differences in the late Republic could, in the end, not be dealt with peacefully within the framework of the contradictory constitution. After the murder of Tiberius Gracchus the civil war leading to fall of the Republic began.
In chapter 2 I wrote about Venice’s history and therefore I concentrate on the constitutional topics here. When first populated Venice became, we remember, a province within the Byzantine Empire, which then appointed a functionary for administering the province. Then, after having liberated themselves, the Venetians turned this functionary into their own highest ruler, or doge, who was elected by a common, open, popular assembly, the so called Arengo. During an initial period there were thus democratic tendencies, and Venice could almost be considered a direct democracy. Gradually the doges did however succeed in shaking off this electoral dependency and the dignity began being inherited. Dynasties emerged and Venice, rather, almost became a dictatorship. Around the year 1000 this led to uprisings, a doge was murdered, and after that constitutional transformations followed. Functionaries having in particular the task of supervising the doge were appointed and the common Arengo was substituted for by another assembly which, in spite of being much smaller than the Arengo, was called the Great Council.
This was thus, in broad terms, the process leading up to the constitution, in some respects very complex, which will be described in the next section. In its essentials the process was completed around 1420, that is at about the beginning of the Renaissance. And this means – in accordance with what was said in chapters 2 and 5 – that Venice had already made its pioneering contributions to the development of economic institutions when the constitution was ready. The Venice governed in accordance with the new constitution was another Venice than the early, epoch-making, commercial city-state. But the constitution is interesting anyway. It had emerged out of the same milieu, or culture, as the economic institutions, and it was very special and very effective. The other Italian city-states, at the same time, were troubled by constant rebellions and drawn-out family feuds, but in Venice there was practically nothing of this. Most well-known among these competing families were perhaps Albizzi and de’ Medici in Florence. Venice’s lack of problems like these depended, at least partially, on important differences between its constitution and those of the other city-states. After having got its basically final form around 1420 the constitution was to shape Venetian politics until 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the city, that is for a good 350 years. But before turning to the ready constitution it is important to say a few more words about the very process of its development. Which, more exactly, were the mechanisms involved? And, most important, were they compatible with the logic of collective action.
At first it should be observed that the process, in one important respect, differs from a pattern we have already met several times, namely the pattern of a dictator reacting on rebellions by means of gradual concessions. First, the early rebellions or expressions of discontent did not come from armed entities, but from ordinary, non-armed human beings. Second, it was not the ruling, powerful dodge that conceded and introduced changes after the rebellions and the doge murder. Rather it was other, influential Venetians who supplied him with over-coats. But even if this differs from a common pattern, it is hardly unreasonable. At the time at issue there were, in Venice, many rich and therefore powerful merchants, and some of those may very well have cooperated for endowing the doge with supervising functionaries. In the same way well-off Venetians may also have formed the Great Council which, in the beginning, was not all that great, and which replaced the Arengo. The groups acting may very well have been quite small and homogenous so that their members know each other, and probably were so. And groups like that are perfectly able to act constructively even for complex purposes. It is all fully compatible with the logic of collective action.
The power exercising institutions were placed on three main levels. At the lowest level was the Great Council having around 1500 members. These members were not elected – the decisive element, rather, was family connections. To the council belonged all male descendants to those who, at the end of the thirteenth century (why this time is important will be clarified below), had constituted the council. The council was thus closed. Apart from some exceptions during the very first time no other ones than the sons of the original members, and their sons and so on, could become members of the council. But even if the council was closed in this sense it nevertheless became bigger and bigger, in particular as the members were appointed for life. The council’s most important task was to elect, among its own members, the functionaries at the next level, the level just above its own.
At this level, the intermediate level, there was the Senate with 260 members, and also an institution called the Council of Ten. The senate took decisions about legislation, but could not initiate such issues – the initiatives had to come from above. Furthermore the senate elected, from among its own members or possibly, but not often, from the Great Council, the functionaries at the third and highest level. The Council of Ten handled particularly urgent issues but in addition to that also had its own particular and very important tasks. The council was in fact a kind of political court, or even a secret police.
The background was that all the Italian city-states had problems with families, or groups of other kinds, emanating from the own state but living for one reason or another in exile. Groups like that could intervene in the politics of their own state, possibly violently, and therefore constituted a constant threat. When the Council of Ten was created, around the year 1300, its main, assigned task was to identify and defeat threats like these. Gradually the council was however also given similar internal tasks, which meant fighting assumed political threats. To a large extent the council, which was given some sentencing capacity, acted in secret and, gradually, acquired a reputation for great brutality and cruelty. Individuals suspected could, if they were not executed secretly, be imprisoned in narrow cells in the underground storage of the Dodge’s Palace or in horribly hot chambers immediately below its lead roof. The most well-known of all of these prisoners was Giacomo Casanova (1725–98). But even if the competence of the council thus was very far-reaching its activities were nevertheless, at least to a large extent, initiated from above, from the highest level.
There, at the highest level, were the so called Collegio, consisting of 26 persons, and the highest power-holder, the Dodge, who chaired the Collegio. Initiatives for new legislation had to come from this Collegio even if the following decisions, as already mentioned, had to be taken by the Senate, or at least at the intermediate level – they could not be taken by the Collegio itself. But even if the competence of the highest level thus were confined to initiatives – at least as far as legislative issues were concerned – the creators of the constitution had nevertheless found it important regulate matters there in more detail. The Collegio itself was therefore partitioned into a number of smaller units – units which not only should assist the doge in various ways, but also supervise him.
So those were the main traits of the constitution. That we are dealing with an oligarchy is evident already here. All functionaries were recruited, as we have seen, from a closed group of families of the population. But this oligarchy worked well and without those destructive family feuds so frequent in the other Italian city-states. The reasons for this relative peacefulness were of different kinds, but they were partly related to the constitution and those are the ones interesting us here.
Of great importance, and perhaps most important, were the rules for the composition of the Great Council. These rules, implemented by the doge Pietro Gradenigo in 1297, guaranteed, as we have seen, that at least all families important or powerful at that time could feel sure about being represented even in the future, and thereby at least some reasons for conflicts between these families were eliminated. This necessarily implied, however, that the Council became bigger and bigger. From some points of view this was possibly a disadvantage, but it could also be advantageous since it made formation of fractions within the Council more difficult. The great potential problem obviously was that families which eventually grew big and important, and which from the beginning were outside the Council, could require to become included and thereby perhaps even use violence. That, however, did not occur as it seems.
Important was also that most of the positions in the decision-making organs mentioned above were held only for short periods, a year perhaps or even less, and that the possibilities for re-election were strictly limited or even perhaps excluded. In this way a relatively large share of those formally qualified for taking part in the governing of the state also, actually, did take part. This was, in fact, a kind of rotation. No one, and above all no family, needed to feel excluded. The rules for the Council of Ten may serve as an example. The members were elected for one year terms and immediate re-election was not allowed. Furthermore one and the same family could not have more than one member in the Council. And the one presiding the Council, which was one of the members, held his position only for a month – then the chairmanship went to another member. The appointments for the Council of Ten were thus subject to principles of short terms and of rotation, and the same was true for most other organs. But even so there were exceptions from these principles. Thus senators could be re-elected, and that also happened again and again. The Senate therefore, in the same way as the Roman Senate, came to represent a lot of experience and prudence. Another exception was the Dodge who was elected for life.
Thereby we have reached a third group of reasons for the peaceful conditions in Venice. Even if I have written that there were, at the highest level, instruments for controlling the dodge, he was nevertheless, and in comparison with the corresponding functionaries in the other city-states, a rather efficient actor. Thus, and in the other states, there was, instead of a single main person, a group called Signoria. The members of such a group could find it hard to cooperate and hence the leadership of the state could be less efficient. But Venice did not have this problem, which may have contributed to its peacefulness and wellbeing. The fact the Venice had only one leading person was, we remember, a Byzantine legacy, but that did not prevent the Venetians from developing the institution in their own very particular way. The procedure for electing a dodge was utterly complex, but not without advantages. The method, essentially the same all the time, was used in all dodge elections – quite a number – from 1298 to 1797.
I start by describing the procedure. Those participating, and those electable, were all the members of the Great Council. The purpose of the process was to appoint, at first, an appropriate Electoral College, that is a group of persons likely to nominate a really good dodge candidate, preferably the best one. Then, when this candidate was nominated, the proposal was presented for the Great Council which normally accepted it. Once the nomination was achieved the real election was thus a pure formality. What is remarkable in the process is however the activities before these final steps, the series of preliminary steps taken for getting, finally, the ideal electoral college wished for. This is how it was done:
Step 1: A first, provisional electoral college consisting of 30 individuals is selected from the Great Council by lot casting.
Step 2: Those 30 are reduced to 9 by lot casting.
Step 3: Those remaining 9, by electing new, additional members, turn themselves into a new provisional electoral college of 40 members.
Step 4: Those 40 are reduced to 12 by lot casting.
Step 5: Those 12, by electing new members, turn themselves into a new provisional electoral college of 25 members.
Step 6: Those 25 are reduced to 9 by lot casting.
Step 7: Those 9, by electing new members, turn themselves into a new provisional electoral college of 45 members.
Step 8: Those 45 are reduced to 11 by lot casting.
Step 9: Those 11, by electing new members, turn themselves into a new final electoral college of 41 members.
Step 10: This final electoral college nominates a dodge candidate.
Step 11: The Great Council accepts the nomination and elects the nominated candidate to dodge.
What happens is thus that a first provisional electoral college, appointed by means of lottery, is transformed again and again. Every second transformation consists in a reduction of the number of members of the college by means of lottery, and the other every second transformation in enlargements of the council by means of elections by those remaining. There is thus in this procedure a considerable element of lottery, but the purpose of this was never that the appointment of the doge should be left to chance. The purpose, on the contrary, was to find the person most suitable for the dignity and then, finally, elect that person. The lottery was therefore of a completely different kind, and had a completely different purpose, than that in, for instance, Athens’ direct democracy. In Athens the idea was to spread the political activities, and, to the extent possible, make all those permitted take part in them – in principle all were considered equally competent. In Venice the purpose was rather to make it impossible for special interests, for instance strong and influential families, to interfere with the nomination process to their own advantage. By lot casting all tendencies towards factional coalition formations should continuously be eliminated. The purpose was to get rid of all special interests just in order to bring forward the best dodge.
Probably this was also achieved. In a modern, mathematical and statistical analysis of the procedure, posted on the Internet by the IT-company Hewlett-Packard, the authors write among others that it may have contributed Venice’s extraordinary stability and long life. The reason why these authors at all became interested in the procedure, and scrutinized it thoroughly, was that similar methods may be of interest in situations where a large number of computers need to “elect” a leader computer for being able to work together. Anyway, since the procedure was so complex and long-winded, the Venetians were obviously prepared to go very far in order to avoid family feuds and similar political struggles.
Venice was, in its own age, a very successful state. People lived will and even if the differences were considerable even the poorest were better off than in most other places in Europe. The equality before the law was significant and so the freedom of speech. The social unrest was, in particular when compared with the conditions in the other Italian city-states or the contemporary European kingdoms, almost non-existent. To a large extent all of this was results of the Venetians’ skill as merchants and sailors, even if there also were elements of chance or good luck. When, for instance, the rest of Europe and large parts of its population were hit by crop-failure this could rather turn into an advantage for Venice. The crop-failure could increase the demand for long-distance, naval transports of grains.
Of great importance was however also the very special constitution. This gave, as we have seen, ultimately all formal influence to the Great Council. Considered as a council this was certainly very large, but as a share of the population it was nevertheless quite small. Still the outsiders seemed to be loyal with the activities of the Council and the other organs and institutions. Conversely it seems as if those having positions in these various organs on the whole also felt solidarity with the outsiders, the common people. But how could it be like this? Which were the mechanisms leading to this result?
Probably the explanation is related to those very manifest barriers against all kinds of factions or small groups, whether family-related or of other kinds, which characterized the constitution. All kinds of partial, special-interest politics were intensively worked against. Political parties of the kind present in all democratic countries today, and which are consider indispensable there, could not be have been founded in Venice, and much less have worked. Probably this total absence of political parties was a necessary complement to the allocation of all formal political power to small, sharply defined minority group. If the one was there, the other had to be so too. Today, a constitution like this would obviously, and immediately, lead to grave conflicts. A small minority’s holding of all power would never be accepted. But in Venice, prior to the era of the representative democracy, it was quite acceptable. And not only that, it worked well and the result was very good. The political scientist and historian Samuel has characterized Venice – at least until the end of the seventeenth century – as the best governed state in the world.
But the constitution not only functioned well. Probably it was also unique. I do not know of any other constitution such as Venice’s, or even similar to it in the central respects here described. Most probably several persons from Venice’s leading families had contributed to this remarkable innovation, for an innovation it was. But if one individual should be singled out – a kind of correspondence to Athens’ Cleisthenes – that should be the dodge Pietro Gradenigo (1251–1311).
After this presentation of three oligarchies it may be interesting to compare them in some respects. If we start by looking at the highest level the power there was more divided in Sparta and the Roman Republic than in Venice. Sparta had two kings, The Roman Republic two censors, two consuls, and so forth, while Venice had only one dodge. For certain the dodge was completed and supervised in certain respects but the uppermost leadership was still less split than in Sparta and in Rome.
Going then to the lowest level – the popular if one so wishes – there were important differences even there. In Sparta all male citizens could participate in the assembly, but their power there was utterly circumscribed, formally as well as really. They had no formal right to speak, and their decisions were neglected if not in accordance with what was wished for by higher functionaries. In the Roman Republic the influence of the popular assemblies was reduced in other ways. First only citizens living in the city of Rome or its immediate surroundings were able to participate at all; second only one of the assemblies was genuinely popular; and third, the three assemblies could end up taking different and contradictory decisions. The real power was therefore held by the all but popular Senate. In Venice finally the lowest level was represented by the Great Council, which was completely closed and the members of which all came from well-off and successful families. At the same time the constitution however included a number of rules designed to make impossible all kinds of partial interest politics within this group.
− * −