(Warning: A very long footnote – 2,500 words - about Polybius, human moral psychology, and the use of “models” in the Classical World, written as part of research for this project.)
The extant fragments of book VI of Polybius’ Histories contain a famous (in certain circles) discussion of the “cycle of regimes” (VI.5.10-9.14). The story goes more or less like this.
Human beings start in something like the “state of nature,” without arts or sciences, and in particular without highly developed moral norms, where we herd together like other animals following the strongest or most daring man (the basic primate pattern, we might say today: I can’t help viewing a lot of the stuff I’m reading right now through the lens of Boehm’s book, and this post will be no exception). This is what Polybius calls “monarchy” (μοναρχίαν), where the authority of the leader is limited by his physical strength and daring. This sort of “natural monarchy” then evolves towards kingship (βασιλεία) properly speaking, which is no longer a simple hierarchy sustained by strength and daring but a moral community where the authority of the leader is very much constrained by relatively egalitarian ideas about justice. In such a community, the king does not attempt to distinguish himself from his subjects by their dress or in their food and drink, and he gains the support of others only insofar as he coordinates the enforcement of community norms (VI.6.11-12), even as he may be weak and infirm; tendencies to domination are effectively kept in check.
Polybius explains the development of these ideas about justice as the result of spontaneous reflection about reciprocity (VI.6.5-10): because we expect others to reciprocate our good deeds, and value the good deeds of others, norms codifying those expectations emerge, in turn sustaining the authority of those leaders who coordinate their enforcement. Our “natural” ideas of justice are thus quite egalitarian (cf. the use of “democratic” language to describe these norms in all regimes: VI.8.4 πολιτικῆς ἰσότητος καὶ παρρησίας, VI.9.4 τὴν ἰσηγορίαν καὶ τὴν παρρησίαν), though they will accommodate some hierarchy to the degree that a leader can enforce them. But Polybius argues that this sort of “egalitarian” kingship is not stable; insofar as kingship becomes hereditary (something that is common, Polybius suggests, due to the popular belief in the inheritability of virtuous dispositions) it develops necessarily into tyranny, i.e., a regime where egalitarian community norms no longer constrain the leader. The increase in the security of the position of the king’s heirs, which comes also as a result of other changes (e.g., the emergence of resources such as fortified places that can be monopolized by the leader), increases their temptations to try to dominate others. They begin by trying to distinguish themselves from the others by dress or other signals (VI.7.7), and end by trying to obtain more material resources and reproductive advantages than anyone else in the community. The basic mechanism of change in the Polybian theory of change appears here for the first time: security of position enhances a human tendency to domination (as I was writing this, I came across this recent piece by Ryan Balot that makes a similar point).
But this tendency to domination is counterbalanced by an apparently equally natural tendency to resent domination in the name of the earlier egalitarian community norms. The “best” men – those who are most high-spirited and resentful of domination – will tend to rise up and overthrow the tyrant in the name of these norms, setting themselves up in their place. As speculative political history and anthropology, this is perhaps not self-evident (why would tyranny necessarily give rise to aristocracy rather than democracy or a renewed kingship?), though in general I think Polybius gets the basic features of long-run political development right, even if modern anthropologists would insist on a finer gradation of steps from the basic primate hierarchy to relatively acephalous egalitarian societies to “big man” societies to the kind of morally constrained “chiefdom” that corresponds to Polybius’ notion of kingship and eventually to tyranny. At any rate, the transition from tyranny to aristocracy does fit the history of
well enough (and remember, Polybius is writing a history of the growth of Roman power). But as a depiction of a common political psychology, Polybius’ idea is very much on target, insofar as human nature does seem to contain both tendencies towards domination (at least among males) and tendencies to resent domination, and our “default” social norms are mostly egalitarian. Rome
We could thus say that political change, in the Polybian story, is all about the emergence of egalitarian norms, their violation by individuals capable of accumulating resources, and the restoration of such norms by those outside the “winning coalition” who still value such norms. The pattern is repeated at the next step in the cycle. As time and generations pass, the sons of aristocrats become again secure in their position, and again engage in attempts to dominate others in contravention of community norms: this is the beginning of oligarchy. Polybius describes how these new leaders no longer have any experience of the previous egalitarian norms (ἄπειροι δὲ καθόλου πολιτικῆς ἰσότητος καὶ παρρησίας), and have forgotten the misfortunes that led their parents to rise up against tyrants (VI.8.4-5). There is a kind of normative drift: signs of distinction that had been freely given to their parents for their services are interpreted by their sons as things that they deserve naturally, so that the relatively egalitarian norms that had regulated the conduct of their parents no longer regulate their own conduct. What happens instead is that the oligarchs abandon begin to pursue unrestrainedly material and other advantages: they take from others without reciprocating. But the egalitarian norms still remain strong within the rest of the population, and so eventually the people rise up and overthrow the oligarchs, banding behind any leaders who credibly promise to enforce the old moral norms. The people, however, remember with fear both the kings (and their transformation into tyrants) as well as the more recent oligarchs (note the emphasis on memory, which is partly the historian’s domain); they thus decide to manage their affairs by themselves, and democracy is born.
In democracy, as in aristocracy or kingship before, egalitarian norms remain strong as long as some are alive who experienced the previous form of domination; but when the experience is lost (with the grandchildren of the founders of democracy, VI.9.4-5), their influence weakens. People begin to take such norms for granted, and those with resources (the wealthy) begin to attempt to “aim at pre-eminence,” i.e., attempt to dominate others. This competitive struggle among rich individuals sets in motion a process of far-reaching social disintegration, where each wealthy individual corrupts the people by turning their desires in the direction of material accumulation and accustoming them to getting what they want by raiding the wealth of other wealthy individuals. This turns the democracy into a rule of violence (χειροκρατίαν), where multiple demagogic leaders compete to dominate by promising each other’s wealth to the people; the process ends with the masses turning into beasts again (cf. ἀποτεθηριωμένον, VI.9.9), i.e., returning to the state described at the beginning of the cycle, herding like the other animals without real social norms, and eventually getting a new “master,” a new leader who is only limited by his capacity for violence, though under social conditions that are different from those operating at the beginning of the cycle.
In summary, Polybius claims that simple regimes develop according to the following cyclical pattern: pre-social state of nature/natural monarchy->;kingship->;tyranny->;aristocracy->;oligarchy->;democracy->;mob rule/post-social state of nature->;natural despotic monarchy (repeat). This “theory” has sometimes been criticized by modern scholars (see, e.g., von Fritz, p. 84) for its apparently “deterministic” or “rigid” sequence of changes, and indeed Polybius’ presentation is a far cry from the nuanced discussions of political change found in Plato (on which he claims to draw, though Polybius’ discussion is very different from what we find in books VIII and IX of the Republic and in the Statesman) and Aristotle (whose discussions of the problem of political change in book V of the Politics he may not have known, given the possible loss from public view of a lot of Aristotelian writing between the third and the first century
ADBC). Moreover, the “theory” of the cycle of regimes sits uneasily with Polybius’ “historical” sensibilities; it is abundantly evident to any observer of historical reality that regimes sometimes change in ways that do not fit a clear pattern (as it was to Aristotle, for example, who criticized – wrongly - Plato for a similar idea). Democracies sometimes turn into oligarchies (as when the Thirty took power in in 404BC), monarchies into democracies, and in general any kind of regime into any other kind, as Aristotle documented in exhaustive detail in book V of the Politics. Writers who knew their Polybius well often tactfully pointed this out after summarizing Polybius’ “theory.” Thus Cicero notes in De Re Publica I.68, after a discussion of regime change that is obviously influenced by Polybius, that regimes tend to change in ways that do not necessarily fit any simple pattern (a remark that is attributed to Scipio, who had been a friend of Polybius in real life), and Machiavelli notes that a community would be unlikely to experience all the stages of change described in the theory before it was taken over by a more stable and better organized state (Discourses I.2 – there is a bit of a puzzle here, for though Machiavelli is clearly describing something like Polybius’ theory, he knew no Greek, and book 6 of Polybius had not been translated at the time). Given that Polybius was not politically or historically naïve, it seems unlikely that these observations would have escaped him. Athens
Yet the criticism is unfair. Polybius explicitly indicates that he is simplifying the “more precise” discussions found in Plato and other philosophers (VI.5.10), which he finds too complicated for pragmatic purposes. The “simplified” theory of the cycle of regimes is not to be taken as an accurate representation of historical reality, but as something like a “model” in the sense in which economists use the term: a distillation of the incentives and other influences affecting the main political actors in a regime, and pragmatically useful as a tool for analyzing political changes in more complex regimes, like the Roman one. (Polybius’ “solution” to the difficulties of the cycle, the “mixed regime,” is also best understood as that sort of model, though that is a subject for another post). These incentives are not simply incentives to behaviour (as in much modern rational choice theorizing) but to character: the model describes how certain characters emerge endogenously from certain regimes, given some assumptions about human nature and about the preservation of historical memory.
What is especially neat about Polybius’ presentation of the “cycle” of regimes is how he ties experience and forgetting with the natural tendencies to both attempt and resent domination in the explanation of political change. Constitutions change for the worse because people forget their experience of earlier attempts of some to dominate others, or rather, because the people who overthrow bad regimes are unable to pass on this experience with sufficient clarity to their children as the children’s position in society becomes increasingly secure. Without real fear of domination (which mostly comes from actual experience of such attempts), egalitarian norms do not survive, a point that applies as much to the newly victorious
of Polybius’ time as to other polities. (Incidentally, this seems to indicate that the historian’s role is to remind his audience of these misfortunes, a point argued at some length by Balot with many examples from the rest of the Histories). Thus we have a dialectic between the tendencies to resent domination (which sustain egalitarian norms) and the tendencies to dominate (which corrupt these norms): as one gains the upper hand, it immediately begins to weaken. This dialectic is also a process of corruption: healthy norms are first destroyed among a small elite, then among a larger elite, and finally among the entire people as the historical memory of domination is lost first among the heirs of the monarch, later among the heirs of the larger elite that overthrew the tyrant, and finally among the people themselves through the corrupting effects of the competitive struggle for position among rich individuals. A secure, healthy simple regime is in a sense bad for the education of its leaders, whereas a certain kind of misfortune is a good education, a theme that Polybius emphasizes throughout the Histories. Rome
Ultimately, of course, this “model” of political change is used by Polybius to understand and analyze Roman history: Rome was successful insofar as its leaders instinctively chose courses of action that constantly prevented them from giving full rein to their dominating tendencies (e.g., the “checks and balances” of the Roman mixed constitution, which has, I think, been much misunderstood by modern historians who point out, rightly, that Rome during Polybius’ lifetime was basically an oligarchy; but that is another topic) and will be unsuccessful insofar as it achieves full security (as is evident from the later books of Polybius’ Histories, or at least of what remains of them). The model may be historically implausible (in its assertion that typically tyrannies turn into aristocracies, and oligarchies into democracies, for example) but it is no more implausible than some of the rational choice models of political change in use today (which are useful too, I should note), and it has the added benefit of incorporating a plausible moral psychology. By contrast, Aristotle’s exhaustive description of political change in book V of the Politics, though empirically better informed and starting from a basically plausible principle about how the violation of norms about justice leads to political change (where justice is always understood as a form of equality, though differently in different regimes), seems to miss the forest for the trees. Aristotle spends too much time looking at purely accidental causes of political change (“exogenous shocks” in the contemporary economic jargon, such as foreign conquest or institutional drift), or exploring varieties of a single cause of political change (the attempts to dominate others by high-status individuals), whereas Polybius’ model almost begs to be formalized as a story about the interaction between tendencies to domination and tendencies to resent such domination in the absence of perfect memory about the consequences of domination, and it seems readily applicable to a variety of cases even when it cannot explain them completely. From this point of view, it does not surprise me that Polybius’ simplified story was much more influential, historically, than Aristotle’s complex and empirically informed catalogue of the causes of political change: it identifies a key cause of political change for ill, and suggests ready remedies (basically, keeping the fear of domination alive through “checks and balances,” a remedy that is mentioned by Aristotle as well, but only among many other suggestions, some major, some minor).