Strikes me that in some parts of the world, they were fairly common in the past, while in other parts, practically nonexistent. I’m wondering the extent to which they were an Indo-European thing.

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70 Responses to Republics

  1. Lot says:

    They are a Western Civ thing spread by Greek and Roman cultural diffusion and conquest.

    Elective monarchy is a somewhat related concept seen in Germanic areas and Poland, though the Mongols did something similar and is probably pretty common around the world.

    • The Z Blog says:

      Early Germanic societies had a thing made up of the free people of the community presided over by lawspeakers. It was a proto-parliament. The Anglo-Saxons had a folkmoot, which was an assembly of representatives of clans and families. All of which predated the spread of Greco-Roman culture by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

  2. dearieme says:

    The Indo-Europeans in the new USA opted for an elective monarchy rather than a Republic. Though they called it a Republic of course.

    Perhaps they didn’t foresee or intend that it evolve into an elective monarchy. Maybe that’s it.

    Maybe the big deal isn’t a Republic, maybe the big deal is summarised in part of the Claim of Right of 1689:

    “Whereas King James VII … did invade the fundamental constitution of this kingdom and altered it from a legal limited monarchy, to an arbitrary despotic power”

    In other words maybe it doesn’t much matter whether you live in a Republic or a legal limited monarchy, maybe what matters is that you don’t live under an arbitrary despotic power.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      republic + elective war chief

      • Andrew Oh-Willeke says:

        Does the Biblical Book of Judges/Numbers era governance with representation from each of the tribes of the Hebrews in councils count? Clearly non-IE.

        • Greying Wanderer says:

          i’d imagine it’s more a function of military logic – if a particular time/place has a lot of warriors with a more or less equal military potential who demand a say then the local culture has to be more egalitarian / democratic – whereas if it doesn’t then it doesn’t.

          i guess there might be some correlation between that and IE – like maybe Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians etc had been the same before they got too civilized?

          • Woof says:

            The key seems to be the widespread ownership of effective weapons. The English longbowmen, the Swiss pikemen, the Cossacks on the Russian frontier and American colonial militias all created democratic societies and did so because they owned their own weapons and were willing to use them. Despotic societies tended to form when effective weapons were hugely expensive and thus limited to the elite, like the kit of a medieval knight, or banned from ownership by law, as in Shogunate Japan. The lack of a large middle class can also be significant.

            The modern push for gun control by (mostly left wing) politicians takes on a sinister feel when looked at historically. Legal gun ownership is either neutral or a net positive for society, while bans or tight restrictions tend to make things worse, as in Venezuela, Baltimore and Jamaica. Keep your AR-15’s folks, history isn’t kind to those who voluntarily disarm themselves.

          • Anonymous says:

            Depends on the time period and varying degrees of power consolidation. Governments in the near east looked much more ‘republic like’ in periods when power was less consolidated with the king and the palace.

        • Labayu says:

          The biblical word šōfṭîm (singular šōfeṭ) is the word translated as “judges”. It comes from the verbal root that means “to judge”, but there really isn’t a good translation for it. It’s maybe more like a combination of chieftain and magistrate. It is however, the exact word used for members of the Carthaginian senate. As you may or may not know, Biblical Hebrew and Phoenician are about as similar to each other as American and British English are, in writing anyway.

    • josh says:

      Not sure we can rely on the usurpers version of events.

  3. catte says:

    What about the Lanfang Republic?

  4. Andrew Oh-Willeke says:

    Probably not Indo-European. There were pre-Columbian systems of fairly democratic government too. Somewhat hard to tell, however, as many early governmental systems weren’t all that well attested

    • teageegeepea says:

      What pre-Columbian governments are you referring to? The Iroquois?

      • Andrew Oh-Willeke says:

        Certainly one example. There are indications that a lot of tribal/band government had strong democratic tendencies and was similar in some respects of the early Icelandic assembly government (which was really an assembly of local chiefs). The process in a lot of the Native American tribe/bands looked a bit like the Quaker meeting process. Not much voting, but lots of conferral and consensus building.

        One of the definition issues is how far along the path to a bureaucratic state do you have to be to count as a “Republic” as opposed to a direct democracy or as opposed to a system in which authority is vested in a leader whose power derives from something other than a hereditary principle (e.g. challenging the existing leader in some fashion – one broad definition of a Republic arguably current at the time of the U.S. Constitution’s adoption was a system where hereditary leadership was not involved, hence, systems like the Papal college of cardinals might qualify as a Republic in that sense).

        If you define Republic narrowly to refer to the election of multiple permanent representatives (as opposed to temporary delegates) on some basis by a rank and file group of voters to manage a corporate/bureaucratic entity that has existence separate from the representatives indefinitely and only in the context of wholistic government (as opposed to religious and guild type organizations with real power), you get a narrower pool of eligible candidates. It also matters who far down the franchise has to go. Malaysia had a council of kings who shared power for quite a while. The Saudi Monarchy has at times allowed input from the royal family into selection of a next monarch when there is not clear succession in lieu of primogeniture. The Greeks of Athens are widely hailed as a direct democracy but was limited to what amounted to minor aristocrats, or certainly, at least, a much more narrow franchise than today.

        • Taeyoung says:

          I think there’s also a tendency among some academics to reinterpret non-European governing systems into liberal democracies for polemical reasons. E.g. reinterpretation of the monstrous human sacrifices involved in the annual customs of the Dahomey into a proto-democratic consultative assembly. I am generally skeptical of claims for ancient democracies above the village/tribal level (or perhaps the tribal confederation level, where the heads of federated tribes might get a vote).

        • Hunter-gatherer bands are sometimes “democratic” in the sense of everyone getting some sort of say. While Iroquois and other native tribes were larger than that, they functioned at the band level much of the year and I think it’s a reach to call their larger-scale efforts more than confederations.

          I can’t think of a New England or Inuit tribe that qualifies, though maybe elsewhere…

          The Althing is the clearest early version I can think of. The Mediterranean city-states did not tend to assemble with representatives from each that I remember. Andrew Oh-Willeke’s idea of leaders of the tribes of Israel functioning as a type of government is interesting, but it is so much further back that we don’t have a good handle on how they actually operated.

  5. G.Marsden says:

    I have often wondered if all republics dissolve into oligarchies of family, the Roman republic, the French Republic and now the American republic that is just a few power elite families handing the crown back and forth, Kennedy ,bushes ,Clinton’s ,Adams ,with just a few usurpers scattered in, as per the present

  6. Greying Wanderer says:

    my proto-theory on republics is/was:
    rural dominant -> cavalry dominant -> aristocracy
    towns dominant -> infantry dominant -> republic
    although that doesn’t work 100% (hence proto)

  7. Whyvert says:

    Size matters. Republics were small. Monarchies were big. Areas with lots of small states, especially city-states, were more likely to have republics. Once Rome grew large …
    A Venetian regime in large state would be unworkable.

    • josh says:

      Is the US not a republic in your scheme? Maybe we need to define terms.

      • catte says:

        Not fair to compare limits of state complexity pre- and post- invention of gunpowder and the printing press.

      • random observer says:

        I think somewhere in the Federalist Papers there is actually some consideration of whether or not a large republic would prove possible, reference to the historical smallness of workable republics, and to the idea [then effectively new as we understand the term] of federalism and limited government as the solutions. Whether that means the modern US is still a republic I leave to its citizens.

    • Alex says:

      Well, the Venetian regime did become unworkable when the state grew too large, though the changing times meant that any possibility of reform became moot. That was the impression I got from Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune.

  8. PB96 says:

    Might very well be an Indo-European thing indeed.
    Did you see a recent abstract about the demographics of Rome, btw?

  9. zimriel says:

    What’s the difference between a “Republic” and an oligarchy?
    The Semites came up with several oligarchic forms of government, Carthago being the most famous. I think the Sumerians had some as well.
    Is it just that the Romans copied the Greek constitutions, which they could translate more easily; and didn’t bother copying (say) Tyre’s?
    I would not be surprised to find republics-by-another-name all along the Silk Road and in India, as well. Wherever there was commerce and a tradition of written contract law.

  10. Peripatetic Commenter says:

    Well, Jared Diamond assures us that the Papuans are the smartest people in the world, so maybe they realized that it was all unnecessary.

  11. James Thompson says:

    Though they set store in collecting the heads of other similarly bright Papuans.

  12. Realist says:

    A Republic is Democracy with lipstick.

  13. another fred says:

    My working theory is that all governments oscillate between two states sort of like a Lorenz system. One set on the “right”, becomes unstable because of abuse of power, the other, on the left, is inherently unstable because it cannot deal with “free riders”. Unlike a Lorenz system the two states are not distinct, even despots accumulate free riders and opportunists on the left abuse power.

    The systems are not inherently unstable, groups of humans are.

  14. josh says:

    Were all of the classical and pre-classical republics around the mediterranean? Could be they were emulating the Phoenician city-states. Northern Europe has more IE ancestry, right? Does EU seem more prone to republicanism than Italy?

  15. J says:

    Plato in his “Republic” divided them into democracies (mob rule), tyranny (one-man rule) and aristocracy (rule by the best). Cartago was a republic governed by an aristocracy (the shoftim). The Hebrews also were ruled by shoftim (judges) till they decided to elect a king. Except those, most peoples, Indo and others, organize themselves into hereditary kingdoms.

    • J says:

      BTW, the United Kingdom – is it a kingdom or a republic?

      • dearieme says:

        It’s a crowned republic.

        Or it was until recent weeks when it seems to have become a despotism under the thumb of the Speaker of the House of Commons, the lawyers on the Supreme Court, and a bunch of quislings.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        oligarchy – everywhere that’s had a central bank for more than n years becomes an oligarchy

      • Philip Neal says:

        Watch this one. Brexit is now about more than the EU. It is quite possible that the current government will be forced to limp on for years, in office but forbidden to govern. A substantial faction of the left has decided that there is no need for an executive branch of government presuming to formulate policy. As “The civil servant” writing anonymously in the Guardian a few months ago said:

        The UK’s civil service was rated No 1 in the world a few months ago by a respected international index. Unfortunately, because civil servants take instructions from their ministers, that’s no guarantee against disaster.

        Policy ought to be made by professional policy makers in accordance with processes such as evidence-based policy making, impact assessment and judicial review – in fact, by some such independent, non-political, liberal, decent body such as the European Commission, in consultation with the Social Partners and the Organs of Civil Society.

        Get the message, populists. We make policy, not you.

        • random observer says:

          It’s interesting how, in Britain especially, traditional elitist conceits of the Civil Service have merged with the terminology and ideas of modern progressive thinking, to arrive at an even worse result. At least the old Sir Humphrey class belonged to the same classes as most of their ministers, formed part of the same elite, thought they were leaders of the same country. Unless they went to Cambridge, became Apostles, communists, and then Soviet agents. You can’t have everything in your elites.

  16. Yudi says:

    If the book Republics in Ancient India didn’t run into the hundreds of dollars on Amazon, I might be able to find that out!

  17. The Z Blog says:

    Assuming the word “republic” here is meant to broadly mean consensual government of some sort, the first thing to come to mind would be the Iroquois Confederacy. That was at least an effort to formulate an agreed upon set of rules to create consensus.

    • Jim says:

      The Comanches had no formal government and no individuals capable of imposing their will on the Comanche bands. Comanche “chiefs” had no formal status and had to lead by persuasion. Despite the lack of any governmental institutions the Comanche bands cooperated with each other without much conflict.

      The Pueblos had associations who organized and directed community activities and rituals with functions rotating from year to year between different associations. Their authority was completely dependent on consensus. No one had the power to impose their will on the population of the Pueblo.

      • ERIC WILDS says:

        Not Indo European thing then, but an ancient north Eurasian thing.

      • J says:

        Jim, you are idealizing those savages. The first requisite to be called a Republic is to have written laws. The Indians had nothing. And they had plenty of internal an external conflicts.

        • Andrew Oh-Willeke says:

          I’ve never seen a definition of a Republic requiring written laws. Although, a few new world societies were literate in the pre-Columbian period.

        • Jim says:

          I don’t agree that the Pueblos were “savages”. They were at least embryonic civilizations and made use of pictographs. Before Columbus they had trade contacts with Meso-America. Chaco Canyon had irrigation systems and roads. The Zuni are probably descended from the people of Chaco Canyon.

          The Comanche were raiders but seem to have rarely fought among themselves.

          The Roman Republic had occasional external and internal conflicts.

      • Anthony says:

        The Comanche had lots and lots of conflict.

        With the Texans. Which is why they didn’t have a lot of conflict with each other. The Comanche were bright enough to realize that working together was the only way to prevent (or delay) being defeated in detail by the Texans.

  18. Eponymous says:

    Any examples from the eastern branch (Indo-Aryans)? I can’t think of any, but I don’t know the history very well. If none, then comparative phylogeny suggests it’s post-split.

    • P. K. Adithya says:

      There were a few in ancient India, in the centuries before Alexander’s invasion and the rise of the Mauryan Empire.

      • engleberg says:

        Ancient India battles were generally decided by a host of foot archers. The republic of these United States 1776-1914 generally expected wars to be won by a host of riflemen. What Cortez called an ‘archer’s republic’, the big city-state he allied with to fight the Aztecs, mostly gave him foot archers.

        Murder is the business of the state. When a foot army of murderers works best, the mob
        comprising it is your government. When it’s nukes or even horse cavalry you get elites.

  19. sprfls says:

    Thinking about it quickly, perhaps it has to do with the tension that arises when a mercantile class gains power. From a game theoretic perspective it makes sense to then organize into a system where you and your colleagues/competitors are protected to individually make money, while collectively still having enough sway to unify against monopolistic forces, military dictators, etc.

    I dunno, seems like an origin with East Med trader cultures to me (don’t tell Taleb).

  20. Your mom says:

    I’ve wondered if our concept of citizenship stems from the social castes of LPIEs. In many of the proto-historic and early historic groups there seems to have been a regular or free man who’s status was marked by a dagger or land ownership. For Saxons, Romans and Germans it was all something different, but I think a Republic necessarily requires a large disenfranchised slaved population as a prerequisite otherwise there is no reason for the ‘regulars’ to band together in such a way.

  21. dearieme says:

    My father’s family came from a village the name of which implies that it was the seat of a Norse “thing” – a governing assembly of freemen.

    So I’m basically a democratic republican viking. Beware! (Unless, of course, I’m principally descended from their slaves.)

  22. random observer says:

    The distinction can be a bit academic, and dependent on ideas that started in the 17th-18th centuries and a kind of settling of the meanings of the concepts that had been more fluid, or with boundaries drawn differently.

    Consider, as many above have:

    -elective monarchy. Very widespread in Europe. Many that became hereditary in practice were elective in theory until quite late. The transformation into formal hereditary monarchy sometimes went along with absolutist claims but not always. Some went from hereditary to elective upon dynastic failure. Others assumed that in this event the choice of a new ruler would be elective but then the throne would become hereditary until there was again no heir.

    -Precisely what degree of control descended on the anointed also varied. The Russians elected Michael Romanov by a zemsky sobor, then that sort of medieval assembly of the people conferred despotic power on him and his heirs, which was not fully realized for a couple of generations. I suppose that could be consider the ultimate Hobbesian social contract- if the body of the people presumes to have full power over its members, it can delegate that power.

    limited monarchy. First the limits imposed by “feudal” and medieval style conciliar or parliamentary forms, reciprocal obligations to seek nobles’ counsel and for nobles to give it, limitations and rights created by town-type charters; and the sometimes quite restrictive limitations imposed by the seemingly unchangeable medieval idea of “fundamental laws”. The last more restrictive on the French monarchy than almost any other. And subsequently, the use of these older ideas of limited monarchy to backstop new ones in the 17-18c.
    oligarchy. In Aristotelian terms, all the governments are oligarchies, everywhere, all the time. The differences lie in the formal and informal limits, mechanisms to secure consent, and mechanisms to refresh the membership. These can vary widely. Whether or not there is a one-man figurehead and whether or not that man is life-tenure or hereditary or not is almost, if not quite, beside the point.

    -slippery historical definitions. So, so many,

    We have defined systems as monarchy that were elective and also non-dynastic, like Poland ended up and the Holy Roman Empire theoretically was. Because the position was life-tenure and had all the title and trappings. In Poland it was not clear it had that much power, much of the time.

    We have even probably more than once defined systems as monarchy in which the monarch was not even life tenure, though I’m not so sure. Right now, Malaysia is a federation in which a cluster of hereditary monarchs elect one of their own for a fixed term as a federal monarch. Is that an elective non-hereditary monarchy, or what?

    Rome defined itself as a res publica long into the “empire”. ‘Res publica’ insisted there was a public realm and a public weal, not personal rule, so it didn’t quite mean what we mean in straightforward terms by republic. And yet it largely met many of the terms of a republic- the throne was not hereditary or mostly dynastic, and even centuries into the empire when it assumed the trappings of Persianate or Christian divine monarchy, it still only rarely was dynastic or hereditary. To the last, the empire at Constantinople was headed by a divinely anointed monarch whose claims were not hereditary but based on practical military power and ability to resist overthrow, combined with the formal endorsement of the senatorial classes and the [formal] sanction and [actual] necessity of popular support in the capital. Despotic caesaropapist theocratic monarchy enthroned by the authority of a propertied oligarchy, populist mob, and military putchists.

    Rome’s semi-legendary early kingship was sort of theocratic, in that way of polytheistic kings with priestly roles, and the king had life-tenure, but was elected and the post did not necessarily pass in a hereditary line. So even the institution later republicans most dreaded had its republican sides.

    In England in 1660, Charles II returned with, by parliament’s agreement, the full powers of his father with all the tensions unresolved and the revolutionary settlement annulled, as traditional law would have assumed it was illegal anyway. He had to be cunning, but he used those powers, even to dismiss parliaments and reject any attempt to alter the succession. On the other hand he wasn’t a true absolute ruler and parliament sat and legislated and voted the budget, with a narrow franchise but energetic elections, pamphleteering, and so on. In 1688, parliament successfully determined it could alter the succession and turned the monarchy into a sort of chief executive with less control of parliament, the model the American founders more or less treated as the official way the British system still worked in the 1780s. By the 19th century it had become a parliamentary oligarchy of landlords and merchants and not for nothing Bagehot could call constitutional monarchy a “crowned republic” because the hereditary formal head was less important than how the system worked, just as in other systems there was a formal republic but the reality of one man rule.

    In Venice, there was very much an aristocratic republic, but the elected Doge held office for life, had trappings akin to royalty, and it rotated among a few families. Sometimes he had a lot of power.

    The Netherlands as a republic oscillated between the two poles every generation or so. The Stadtholder was always technically a life tenure executive of one or more provinces elected by provincial estates, with a military command, but acted as a monarch in practice. A Prince, in the Machiavellian sense. In the more republican eras, the fact of being a republic meant no central executive and more open oligarchy.

    Machiavelli himself, when describing republics versus principalities, more or less defines them as oligarchic/democratic versus one man rule, where we now consider one man rule acceptable if the method includes formal elections, parties, or republican titulature. Think Assad, Saddam, and so on. A dictatorship, but its a republic because its not a monarchy.

    What exactly an Islamic Caliphate or Emirate is in the republic/monarchy spectrum, is open for debate.

    Sorry to ramble. TO the thesis, things that most nearly resemble an enlightenment republic, Roman res publica or Greek politeia seem by definition to have their main antecedents in north Mediterranean Europe, but almost any part of the world has had some sort of tribal, or later on oligarchic, style of government that could be considered republican by definitions that Europeans have recognized in the past. SOme have been raised above. I would note that early Vedic Indian polities seem to be described as republics, before the model of Hindu Kingship was fully conceptualized. Of course, Indo-Europeans too in that case…

  23. LOADED says:

    The least intelligent societies based on IQ tests have the most intricate language systems and are the most genetically diverse, as may have some of the lowest mutational loads of any group of people. All these factors should be analyzed to determine how intelligence comes to be.

    • LOADED says:

      *as they

      Low-mutational load must lead to lower intelligence because most high-IQ alleles are very rare and must be from a form of mutation. I think also that language-attainment and development can characterize mental flexibility and other forms of highly intelligent behavior but does not help build societies. This means that symbolic intelligence is a divergent characteristic than logical and abstract thought needed to do well on an IQ test or even build a society.

      Of course, I’m using the Papuans as my reference population.

  24. Sieg says:

    It seems the Iroquois had some kind of inter-tribal council that perhaps is some proto-Republic

    I think it is possible that Neolithic urban settlements were some kind of ancestor of Republican concepts. It seems to be no institution back them to fully support a king, but old richer people can accumulate enough influence trhough their lives to be the actual ruling class in a proto-Senatorian/Republican way.

    • LOADED says:

      That last part applies to today. Look at people like Gregory Cochran who can hold so much power over the anthropological field that there’s on room for younger people to fit in to the picture.

      This is the primary focus of the Mouse Utopia Experiment. People like G. Cochran and countless other elite-thinkers will hold power over the establishment of human thought, leading to a lack of progress and increased stagnation in the intellectual community.

  25. biz says:

    The Tlaxcalans, one of the traditional enemies of the Aztecs who allied with Cortez, were a republic.

  26. Respublica says:

    Classical Republics in the sense of an oligarchic government run for many landowners and proprietors with a relatively weak executive serving at their pleasure didn’t really scale well above a small city – even if we were to identify them with Indo-European peoples, we’d have to admit they have essentially always dropped them for monarchy when forming mega-empires (until the British constitution, at least) and states at a scale beyond the city state. Even the Romans (plagued by their legacy of the forms of republican government in their weak succession mechanism).

    Monarchies are just a stronger and more stable means of governing a competitive empire.

    Republics wouldn’t really have survived well in ultra-competitive theatres of warring states, such as the plains of Northern China, better in the shelter of the Med or the Alps, with all those peninsulas and islands and seas and hills. The peoples of insular Southeast Asia and the hills of Southern China might have got something going, but expanding Hindu notions of a chakravartin and Han notions of a Mandate of Heaven and a singular emperor dealt with that, first.

  27. brokenyogi says:

    The first democratic Republic in the New World was The Republic of Pirates centered in New Providence Island, in the Bahamas. They had a code of conduct by which they elected and deposed the captains of their ships. They even went to war against the Empires of Britain and Spain, with reasonably impressive results for a time.

  28. Dividualist says:

    That isn’t really the right question to ask, Greg. Remember that story that Greeks thought the Persians are slaves to their kings because they prostrate themselves and worship him like a god, while they take things a lot easier with their kings, their kings are more a first among equals, the equals being of course the aristocracy, not the demos. So it is a matter of social distance between king and subject. If that is small, like for Greeks, it can easily turn into a republic. If big, god-kings, not.

    Then as a second step, I would propose this. High social distance kings, god-kings, are sacral, religious rulers, living gods or high priests, primarily relying on the priesthood to rule. Low social distance kings, first-among-the-aristoi kings are non-sacral rulers, are war leaders, relying on the warriors to rule.

    You can see this pattern everywhere. Sacral rulers from Moctezuma to the Japanese Emperor are absolutely towering above all of the elites in a sacred, lonely, untouchable distance, while warrior leaders everywhere from the Germanic chieftain-elite warrior relationships to William the Conqueror to a Shogun are just first among the elites, they are pretty much buddies with the elites, dining together and having fun.

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