Greek Cities

Marco Platania

1Poleis, a term which designated the cities and political regimes of the ancient Greeks, is not used by Montesquieu, who most often used “republics” and sometimes “democracies”.

2It was thought that in his youth Montesquieu was fascinated by this form of government. Did he not write, indeed, with regard to Rome, Athens and Lacedaemon that “the sanctuary of honor, of reputation, and of virtue seems to be established in the republics […]” (“le sanctuaire de l’honneur, de la réputation et de la vertu semble être établi dans les républiques […]”, LP, [‣]), and that “the love of freedom, the hatred of kings, long preserved Greece in independence and extended republican government far and wide” (“l’amour de la liberté, la haine des rois, conserva longtemps la Grèce dans l’indépendance et étendit au loin le gouvernement républicain”, LP, [‣])? According to Montesquieu, in past times Greece was densely populated (in the proportion of a hundred citizens to one in modern times: LP, [‣]), which also meant that the Greek republics enjoyed the “mildness of government” for it “contributes marvelously to the propagation of the species”; the equality of the citizens and of fortunes, far from preventing “abundance and life in every part of the body politic”, favored them (LP, [‣]). Yet we must not be deceived by this praise of Greek cities. Montesquieu observes that in Lacedaemon the citizens “were constantly constrained by singular and subtle laws” (LP, [‣]) and, in the Pensées, he soon asserts: “The sole advantage which a free people has over another is security of every person that the caprice of another will not cost him his possessions or his life” […] (“Le seul avantage qu’un peuple libre ait sur un autre, c’est la sécurité où chacun est que le caprice d’un seul ne lui ôtera point ses biens ou sa vie”, Pensées, no. 32a); “This security of one’s situation is not greater in England than in France, and it was hardly greater in some ancient Greek republics which, as Thucydides says, were divided into two factions. […] One faction that dominates is not less dreadful than an angry prince” (“Cette sécurité de son état n’est pas plus grande en Angleterre qu’en France, et elle n’était guère plus grande dans quelques anciennes républiques grecques qui, comme dit Thucydide, étaient divisées en deux factions. […] Une faction qui domine n’est pas moins terrible qu’un prince en colère”, Pensées, no. 32b: transcriptions prior to 1731). The security of his person and his property thus proves to be the true problem that determines political freedom, and it is in this perspective that Montesquieu thinks about Greek republics. He returns to them in Considerations on the Romans, observing that Athens fell because the abuses of power were not corrected (Romans, VIII).

3It is in L’Esprit des lois that the Greek cities are presented in the most complex manner, for their laws are examined with relation to the nature of the government, its principle, trade, justice, religion and slavery.

4As for the “nature of the government”, the Greek cities which established themselves as republics represented “democracies” or “aristocracies” according to the different moments of their history. Athens, where the sovereignty was entrusted to the people as a whole, formed a democracy until the reform of Antipater, which created an aristocracy (EL, II, 2-3). As for Lacedaemon, as Montesquieu seems to admit in the Pensées (no. 1744), it was difficult to form a “clear notion” of its government. It was early in its history a “mixed aristocracy”, but it was subsequently brought toward democracy by the creation of ephors (a popular magistracy charged with the administration of justice), while preserving an aristocratic character, for the people had only the right to decide and not that of discussing business (EL, V, 8 and XVIII, 1). The legislation of Crete was, according to Montesquieu, that of a democracy, whereas Rhodes is classified among the aristocracies (EL, V, 8). In reality, it must be allowed that with respect to the Greek cities, Montesquieu does not seek to follow rigidly the distinction between democracies and aristocracies: that is why most of the time he uses the term republic.

5The fundamental distinction, at once descriptive and normative, comes out indeed between moderate governments and despotic states. The Greek cities belong to the moderate governments, but on condition that one should not confuse “power of the people” and “freedom of the people”. The latter does not mean that the people can do “what they want”: “freedom is the right to do whatever the laws permit; and if a citizen could do what they forbid, he would no longer be free, because the others would likewise have this power” (EL, XI, 2-3). Now we understand the attention with which Montesquieu had studied the constitutional mechanisms of the Greek republics, by which the people managed the “sovereign power” (see esp. EL, II, 2). The point was for it to exercise sovereignty and at the same time prevent abuses of power by a faction (or by a part of the people) against the other or over a single citizen. As the principle of republics rested on “virtue”, which for democracies means the love of equality and frugality (EL, III, 3, V 2-4), Montesquieu examines how the Greek laws referred to these objectives. He takes into consideration the division of lands established by Lycurgus, testamentary law and the regulations on marriages introduced in Lacedaemon and Athens, approving or disapproving these laws, to the extent that they seem to him to favor or weaken virtue (EL, V, 3-6). Education too is a resource for republics, for it favors the love of country, the laws and institutions by giving the city political stability (EL, IV, 6-8; V, 7). In Athens, there were particular institutions for that: the Areopagus and the censors, whereas in Lacedaemon – where the laws resembles those of Crete, according to Montesquieu (EL, IV, 6; XXIX, 13) – reigned “the extreme subordination of citizens to the magistrates”, and “every father had the right to correct another’s child” (EL, V, 7).

6Montesquieu divides the Greek cities into military republics and trading republics, an idea which he develops using Melon (Essais politiques sur le commerce, VII, 1734). Lacedaemon and Athens represent the examples of these two models (EL, V, 7), but they do not serve alone: Crete is again seen as close to Lacedaemon, while Tyr, Corinth, and especially Rhodes practice trade (EL, XX, 4-5 and 17). The military republics are not necessarily conquering republics. Indeed, all republics cannot maintain themselves in a small territory, and it is for that reason that Lacedaemon survived until the time when it had recourse to wars, not to aggrandize its territory, but to gain glory and freedom (EL, VIII, 16). The trading republics can more easily preserve a small territory, but must flee luxury, which corrupts the mores and gives a particular appearance to interests by causing the end of that government (EL, VII, 2-4). That is why the Greek republics practiced “economical trade”, in other words trade “founded on the practice of small earnings” to maintain the equality of fortunes and frugality (EL, XX, 4-5). As far as the aristocracies are concerned, all sorts of means were preferable to encourage spending and thus favor the rapprochement of nobles and populace; Montesquieu takes the example of Greece: “The good Greek republics had, in this respect, admirable institutions. The rich used their money for festivals, musical choirs, chariots, race horses, onerous magistracies. Wealth was as much of a burden as poverty” (“Les bonnes républiques grecques avaient, à cet égard, des institutions admirables. Les riches employaient leur argent en fêtes, en chœurs de musique, en chariots, en chevaux pour la course, en magistratures onéreuses. Les richesses y étaient aussi à charge que la pauvreté”, EL, VII, 3).

7With respect to the administration of justice, Montesquieu observes that “the more the government approaches a republic, the more the manner of judging must be fixed” (“plus le gouvernement approche de la république, plus la manière de juger devient fixe”), for it falls on the people, which is not a jurisconsult (EL, VI, 3). Therefore every possibility of interpretation or modification must be removed and the popular tribunals must follow a very simple procedure for judgment (EL, VI, 3-4). Lacedaemon is reproved since its constitution had left to the ephors too extended an arbitrary power (EL, VI, 3), but it was not the only case: in “most ancient republics […] there was this abuse, that the people was at once judge and accuser” (“[la] plupart des républiques anciennes […] il y avait cet abus que le peuple était en même temps juge et accusateur”, EL, XI, 6). Athens for a time represented an exception because Solon, to take the administration of punishments away from the people, instituted a second degree of justice, charging the Areopagus with reviewing the matters that the popular tribunals had already judged, and proposed laws to discourage false accusations (EL, VI, 5).

8As far as the religion of the Greek cities is concerned, Montesquieu follows a general principle: “I shall examine […] the various religions of the world with respect to the good that the civil state draws from them” (EL, XXIV, 1; see also XXIV, 7, and XXVI, 1-2, 9). The refutation of Bayle’s paradox permits him to maintain that idolaters can derive from their gods repressive motives for good conduct in society and correction of their vices. Lacedaemon represents this type of example: “when the Lacedaemonians erected a chapel to Fear, that did not mean that this warlike nation expected it to take away the hearts of Lacedaemonians in combat” (“Quand les Lacédémoniens érigèrent une chapelle à la Peur, cela ne signifiait pas que cette nation belliqueuse lui demandât de s’emparer dans les combats des cœurs des Lacédémoniens”, EL, XXIV, 2). Even before the Greeks had formed their cities, when they were still “small peoples often dispersed, pirates of the sea”, religion could substitute for civil laws by instilling horror for murder (EL, XXIV, 18). But it also could occur that religious practices contrast with the principle of government: “The excessive number of festivals was a great disadvantage in Athens. For this dominating people, before whom all the cities of Greece brought their disputes, could not handle all the business” (“C’était à Athènes […] un grand inconvénient que le trop grand nombre de fêtes. Chez ce peuple dominateur, devant qui toutes les villes de la Grèce venaient porter leurs différends, on ne pouvait suffire aux affaires”, EL, XXIV, 23). Montesquieu moreover accepts Plato’s advice that religion should encourage frugality by requiring, at rites and funerals, simple, austere gifts (EL, XXV, 7). Religion must also respect the natural conditions in which a people lives: “Athens included an immense multitude of the lower class; its territory was sterile: it was a religions maxim that those who offered certain little gifts to the gods honored […] them more than those who sacrificed steers” (“Athènes avait dans son sein une multitude innombrable de peuple ; son territoire était stérile : ce fut une maxime religieuse que ceux qui offraient aux dieux de certains petits présents, les honoraient […] plus que ceux qui immolaient des bœufs”, EL, XXIV, 24).

9The analysis of Greek cities in L’Esprit des lois thus follows the process by which Montesquieu poses first of all the general principles and then studies particular instances (EL, Preface). He seeks to do the same with respect to slavery, but it presents more risks than advantages to the state. Slaves are “against the spirit of the [republican] constitution”, because they increase the differences between the governing and the governed, which ought to be as small as possible (EL, III, 3-4; XV, 1), and “all they do is give citizens a power and luxury which they should not have” (“ils ne servent qu’à donner aux citoyens une puissance et un luxe qu’ils ne doivent point avoir”). Again, Montesquieu introduces differences amongst the Greek cities. In Lacedaemon was found “the extreme abuse of servitude”, for the helots were subjected both to personal and to real servitude, which is to say “that they were subjected to all the labors outside the home, and all sorts of insults inside” (“qu’ils étaient soumis à tous les travaux hors de la maison, et à toutes sortes d’insultes dans la maison”, EL, XV, 10 and 17). The opposition of the helots to the constitution was such that it shook the state (EL, XV, 16). In Athens, on the contrary, the slaves were treated with “great kindness” for they were protected by the laws against ill treatment: if they could have no personal defense, they at least enjoyed a civil defense (EL, XV, 16-17).

10In the knowledge of things past, declares Montesquieu, he sought “not to view really different cases as similar and not to miss the differences of those that seemed similar” (EL, Preface). If the Greek cities present despite all the flaws of moderate governments, that is verified at different levels with respect to the modern world with numerous differences amongst them, especially between Lacedaemon and Athens. The reflection on trade, luxury, and territory of the Greek republics still inclined Montesquieu to believe that these were governments whose conditions of existence were nearly extinct at his time (with the exception of Paraguay and Pennsylvania: EL, IV, 6). But his analysis of the Greek world constitutes a unique reference which imposed itself for over two centuries, through the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and up to our own time.


David Lowenthal, “Montesquieu and the Classics: Republican Government in the Spirit of the Laws”, Ancients and Moderns. Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honour of Leo Strauss, ed. Joseph Cropsey, New York, London: Basic Books, 1964, p. 258-287.

Nannerl O. Keohane, “Virtuous Republics and Glorious Monarchies”, Political Studies 20 (1972), p. 383-396.

Thomas L. Pangle, Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism: A Commentary on “The Spirit of the Laws”, Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Giuseppe Cambiano, Polis: histoire d’un modèle politique, trans. Sophie Fermigier, Paris: Aubier, 2003.

J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Judith N. Shklar, “Virtue in a Bad Climate: Good Men and Good Citizens in Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des lois”, Enlightenment Studies in Honour of Lester G. Crocker, ed. A.J. Bingham and V.-W. Topazio, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1979, p. 315-328.

Catherine Larrère, “Les typologies des gouvernements chez Montesquieu”, Études sur le XVIIIe siècle, université de Clermont-Ferrand II, Faculté des Lettres et sciences humaines, no. 3, 1979 ; reprinted in Revue Montesquieu 5 (2001),

Donald A. Desserud, “Virtue, Commerce and Moderation in the ‘Tale of Troglodytes’: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters”, History of Political Thought, 12 (1991), p. 605-626.

Richard B. Sher, “From Troglodytes to the Americans: Montesquieu and the Scottish Enlightenment on Liberty, Virtue and Commerce”, Republicanism, Liberty and Commercial Society, ed. D. Wootton, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994, p. 368-402.

Chantal Grell, Le Dix-huitième Siècle et l’Antiquité en France, 1680-1789, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1995.

Jean-Patrice Courtois, “Poétique et politique de la démocratie: introduction à la fonction de représentation de la vertu chez Montesquieu”, Démocratie et représentation, ed. Michèle Riot-Sarcey, Paris: Kimé, 1995, p. 20-44.

Céline Spector, “Montesquieu: critique of republicanism?” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 6 (2003/1), p. 38-53.

Bibliographical reference

Platania Marco , “Greek Cities”, translated by Philip Stewart, in A Montesquieu Dictionary [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL: