Democracy is not a natural state of affairs. Ever since the first Mesopotamian states formed, ten thousand years ago, kings and warlords have wielded power over the rest of the population. These rulers have maintained their positions with violent enthusiasm. Any who didn’t were quickly replaced.
Democracies have been rare and fleeting, popping up briefly in Ancient Greece and Rome and more recently in Europe and America.
There’s a sense today that democracy is failing. Tweets, news reports, and books point to well-funded lobbyists, foreign meddling, the corrosive effects of social media, and the inability of legislatures to decide on anything. There’s palpable worry about what’s being lost.
From our vantage point, it’s easy to think that democracy is the natural way of things. Lapses into dictatorship, as happened in Spain, Italy, and Germany in the 1930s, are the aberration. The truth is that our viewpoint, from a place of prosperity and safety, is unusual.
Instead of asking how democracy might be failing, let’s first ask: how did it ever succeed?
The Cutting Edge of Civilisation
Cities, metallurgy, pottery, and writing – “civilisation” – first appeared in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC. These early societies were certainly not democracies. They were all oligarchies, run by a tiny number of people selected by wealth, violence, or divine blessing.
Divine blessing manifested itself in the form of extreme wealth or victory in battle. Extreme wealth usually came about by taxation or other forms of theft, enforced at the tip of a sword. The key to success was violence.
The people in these early cities smelted lead, tin, and copper, but the metal that gave their age its name was bronze, an alloy of copper and tin.
Adding tin to copper produced a metal that was stronger than any other, making it ideal for weaponry. While copper was plentiful in the ancient world, tin was not. The Bronze Age civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean basin, the Mycenaeans in Greece, the Hittites in what’s now Turkey, and the Egyptians, had to get their tin from central Asia, what’s now Afghanistan, across mountains and past bandits.
Because of tin’s expense, only the aristocracy could afford bronze weapons. The machine that held Bronze Age society together was the chariot, both as a visual symbol of power and as an efficient dispenser of violence. Bronze Age peasant farmers has as much chance of affording a chariot as you or I do of buying a stealth fighter. With a monopoly on violence it was easy for the nobility to maintain control and to extract huge amounts of wealth from the rest of the population.
King Tutankhamun, shown dispensing pharaonic power, above, could not only afford the best bronze weaponry, he also had something money couldn’t buy. Among the grave goods discovered with Tutankhamun when Howard Carter opened his tomb was an iron dagger.
The God of War
Iron was known to the ancient world, but iron weapons were rare. Iron is far stronger than bronze and keeps a better edge, but it’s far more difficult to smelt than copper and doesn’t naturally occur in metallic form. At least not on Earth. Chemical analysis of Tutankhamun’s dagger showed high amounts of nickel, a composition only seen in meteorites.
While the distribution of iron was limited to meteor showers, there was no chance of bronze losing its place. Once ironmongers learned how to unlock iron from the oxygen binding it to the earth, a revolution was unleashed.
The Mycenaean, Hittite, and Egyptian civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean all collapsed around the same time, roughly 1200 BC. Historians still debate the cause but blame a compounding series of disasters: a dryer climate causing famines, internal rebellion, external invaders, and a sequence of earthquakes across the region. One disaster may have been survivable, but all together they were not.
The world became less imperial and more tribal. As the Greeks emerged from this dark age, over several centuries, metallurgical techniques improved and iron smelting became widespread. The Bronze Age was over and the Iron Age had arrived.
Iron is one of the most abundant elements in the Earth’s crust. The spread of iron was not limited by the scarcity of tin and its price fell dramatically. Plentiful iron meant that more and more people could afford swords and daggers as well as defensive items like shields, helmets, breastplates, and shin guards.
In the Bronze Age, battles were dominated by nobles on horses. Disputes were resolved by individual combat between the kings’ champions. Think David and Goliath. The logic of warfare was similar to medieval Europe.
The increasing numbers of people with weapons and widespread use of defensive armour changed the way wars were fought. Nobles on horses faded from the battlefield. They were replaced by hoplite armies, massed ranks of heavy infantry, protected by large overlapping shields. A hoplite formation could withstand a barrage of missiles or a cavalry charge, making the old aristocratic way of doing battle obsolete.
On water too, iron made a difference. Prior to the iron age, shipping was used mainly for transport. More robust ships, held together with iron nails, took fighting to the sea. Triremes were fitted with rams and used to sink enemy shipping. These navies required large numbers of oarsmen and, like on land, meant that military service was extended beyond the nobles into the lower classes.
Nobility, Tyranny, Democracy
At the same time as cheap iron made weapons available to the broader population, improving trade made increasing numbers of people, not just nobles, rich. As merchants got wealthier, they wanted more say in how their cities were run. They weren’t satisfied with public office being limited to people with noble blood lines. To ambitious merchants with wealth but no noble blood, large groups of heavily armed men with no special allegiance to their rulers were an opportunity to good to resist.
In many cases, these nouveaux riches were able to take power, with an armed citizenry as the muscle. Corinth led the way, installing Cypselus as tyrant in 658 BC. Other Greek cities soon followed. Tyrannies initially improvemed on noble rule, but things deteriorated quickly. Each Greek city, or polis, had its own political system, allowing rapid experimentation. In many poleis, tyrants were supplemented with magistrates and law-givers to limit unrest. The lower ranks of the population, who made up the bulk of the army and the navy and guarded against foreign invasion, needed to be kept onside to prevent domestic unrest.
The ever-present risk of overthrow encouraged the development of isonomy, equality under the law, the right of the people to be free of the arbitrary whim of the tyrant. In Athens, by 508 BC the nobles had won back their power, but to keep the population on side Cleisthenes proposed a radical extension of isonomy – that the power to govern Athens should lie with the entire adult male population, with decisions taken to a vote. Rule by the demos. Democracy.
Opponents of democracy conspired with Sparta to invade Athens and restore the tyranny but the newly empowered and heavily armed citizens of Athens, fighting for their right to govern themselves, repelled the Spartans. The spoils of war were widely distributed across the victorious population, giving them further incentives to maintain the democracy.
“Every citizen, it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme,” wrote Aristotle, in Politics.
The idea that “every citizen […] must have equality” is one that we in the West are soaked in from birth, most famously formulated in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
The concept of equality would have been laughable in fifteenth-century BC Egypt. The superiority of the pharaoh in his chariot was immediately self-evident. The idea that “the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them” would have been unthinkable in the Bronze Age. A few nobles in chariots could dominate huge numbers of unarmed farmers. The idea that “all men are created equal” was demonstrably false.
For the iron-clad farmers of fifth-century Athens, equality was more apparent. Hoplites standing in ranks on the battlefield, protecting each other, and in turn being protected, would have known themselves to be equal. They had proved in battle that they were the equals of the nobles and the tyrants. The weapons available to every farmer were as good as those available to the ruling elite.
In pre-classical Greece, the mastery of iron smelting made weapons available to the masses. The physical distribution of power quickly shifted away from the aristocracy but the traditions that tied power to noble blood remained in place. The mismatch made Greek politics complex and dangerous.
The legal description of how power is distributed must closely match the facts of how power is distributed. A society where the laws of power and the facts of power are mismatched is an unstable place.