Anxiety about the importance of agreement on facts—and perhaps especially about agreeing on how to know and agree that they are facts—is matched in the contemporary landscape by a concern about the strength of Western democracies. One thinks of How Democracies Die (Crown, 2018) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt and Twilight of Democracy (Doubleday, 2020) by Anne Applebaum or, in a more global perspective, Authoritarian Apprehensions (University of Chicago Press, 2019) by UChicago’s own Lisa Wedeen.

It is critical to the nature of democracy’s crisis, particularly in countries that we regard as liberal, that the threat to democracy arises from so-called populism. “Populism” derives from Latin populus, meaning “the people” and, in law and politics, “the citizen body”; it is naturally also the word from which we get “popular.” How can popular movements threaten democracy? Aren’t democratic regimes based on “popular sovereignty”? Aren’t they intended to give expression to the will of the people?

On this subject, the history of ancient democracy has many important lessons to offer. The democracies of Athens and Rome, different as they were, remain the longest-lived democratic regimes in history, and each ended via legislation passed in the popular assembly. In this way, self-abrogation—which is to say, voluntary self-elimination—may be said to be the most radical of democratic acts.

In the Athenian case, the abrogation of democracy was temporary but issued not long after in another, bloodier coup. The episode in question occurred in 411 BCE, near the end of the Peloponnesian War. Athens confronted mounting losses in war, and the human suffering compounded a loss of confidence in both the traditional structures of government and the technocrats who staffed some offices.

An Athenian in exile, Alcibiades, promised to arrange for Persian support of Athens in war if Athens would agree to end its democracy and institute oligarchic rule. It was illegal in Athens to propose an improper law.

The assembly therefore voted to suspend this constitutional rule and appoint a commission to write, in essence, a new constitution. It proposed a council of state of 400 persons and to restrict citizenship to wealthy persons, limited to 5,000 in number. This, too, was passed, and, formally, at least, the people of Athens voted to surrender not only their government but also their status as citizens.

In the Roman case, the significant event occurred on November 27, 43 BCE. On that day, a tribune, Publius Titius, proposed a law that created a five-year interruption in democratic government. During this time, ultimate authority in the state would be held by a “board of three for setting the affairs of the state in order.” This was the triumvirate of Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus that followed on the death of Julius Caesar, who had himself occupied the emergency office of “dictator” in the course of the latest of Rome’s civil wars. By Caesar’s day, Romans had begun to wonder if the civil wars were not discrete after all but had become endemic, arising from some original sin that they could not escape.

According to Roman legend, before Caesar, dictatorships had generally lasted a few months at most, until the situation for which that particular dictatorship had been instituted was resolved. Caesar held the office four times in five years, between 49 and 45 BCE, and was murdered by his peers only when, seeing no other solution, he sought to make the office permanent.

Not for naught did the emperor Tiberius describe the holding of monarchic rule in a traditional republic as kindred to holding a wolf by the ears. The sense of despair—that the democratic republic should not be replaced and yet could not be saved—provoked even staunch republicans to lament, “If Caesar, for all his brilliance, could not find a way out, who will find one now?”

Compressed histories such as these must needs omit much. In particular, the institution of oligarchy at Athens was not a peaceful process, and democracy reasserted itself soon after, only to fail again as the horrors of war were visited on Athens itself. In the Roman case, the so-called triumvirs had no plan beyond rapine, and their government, such as it was, did not fall so long as it had three legs, like a tripod. When the contest was resolved to one between Antony and Octavian, war was renewed, and the outcome was republican monarchy.

What was similar, and what is worrisome, in the two cases was the reliance of the revolutionaries on democratic lawmaking. In each case, the opponents of democracy understood that the power of the law extended even to this end, that the people could accept an end to their power only if they voted on it themselves. And they did.

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy Clifford Ando