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A Short History of Voting in the Ancient World

by November 4, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Like so much else in the modern world, voting was invented by the Classical World. The complex system of elections that we see today in America and other nations was first developed in Greece and Rome. However, voting in the Graeco-Roman World was often very different from today.

Tribal origins of voting

Many early tribal societies were democratic in that they elected their kings or leaders. Many even elected a council of elders. There is a long history of elections and democracy in so-called primitive societies. Many early Greek societies had a tradition of voting. This is most apparent in the first recorded use of voting, which took place in Sparta. This involved the election of the ephors.

Solon, who first gave Athenians the vote

Ancient Greece and voting

Under the Spartan Constitution, which was written by the mythological Lygurgas, enshrined a system of voting. There is also some evidence that leagues of city-states would often vote as part of their decision-making process.

In Athens, Solon introduced a new constitution in 574 BC that allowed members of the upper classes to vote. It was only with the reforms of Cleisthenes, that the suffrage was extended more widely. By the 5th century BC, most male Athenians could vote. Indeed, they could also vote on issues such as going to war and the election of generals.

Moreover, Athenians could even vote in criminal trials and one infamous trial, they condemned Socrates to death. Voting was also central to the ostracizing of people who were deemed a threat to the state. For instance, the Athenians voted to exile Themistocles, hero of the Battle of Salmis. The electors would write the name of the person they wanted to exile on a shared of pottery known as an ostracon.

Voting ostraca from 5th century BC Athens

All voting was in public and there was no secret ballot. It should be remembered that immigrants, women, and the many slaves could not vote. Athenian democracy has been categorized as a form of radical democracy.

In Athens many offices were decided by lottery because over time the voting process was corrupted. Many other Greek states emulated the democracy of Greece and soon voting was very common. It even continued when the city-states came under the domination of the Macedonian dynasties.

The Greek city-states continued to elect magistrates even once their democratic constitutions had been limited. The right to vote was one of the distinctions of the elite and was an important privilege. All through the Roman period, municipal voting took place in the Greek world and only really ended with the rise of the Byzantine Empire.

A coin showing a Roman casting a ballot, 63 BCE

Voting in the Roman Word

Rome was originally a monarchy and after expelling its last king, the Romans developed a unique form of democracy. The Senate was an assembly of legislators and policymakers who were elected indirectly.

However, over time the Romans developed a series of legislatures and assemblies in which citizens could vote directly. Roman citizens voted for nearly all their officials including the consuls. The Senatorial elite was able to manipulate this to ensure that their interests were safeguarded.

Roman voting often took place within tribes. The lower class, or plebians, could vote in certain assemblies and this gave them some say in the affairs of the state. However, most people could not vote due to rules on property. Rome developed a very complex voting system, and it was both a direct and an indirect form of democracy. They also were the first to introduce the secret ballot, now considered essential to free and fair elections.

Roman elections were also often brutal and bloody. From about 200 BC, Roman elections were marred by political violence. Gang leaders linked to politicians would intimidate voters and they often turned Rome into a battleground. There were very few safeguards and there was a great deal of vote-buying.

Augustus Caesar

It was only with the rise of Augustus that Roman elections became less bloody. Elections continued, and so too did voting in Rome. The Senate would hold regular votes but much of it was only symbolic and only rubber-stamping the edicts of the Emperors.

However, at a municipal level, many members of the elite fought bitter elections for municipal positions, which still had real powers. Romanization meant that voting became more common throughout the Empire and many municipalities had a great deal of autonomy. Even so, only the elite could vote.

The legacy of Rome and Greece voting

After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Classical World went into decline. Voting became very rare. The Byzantine Senate that was the successor of the Roman Senate continued to vote until the 9th century AD.

However, the tradition of voting continued to Medieval Europe, especially in urban centers. This was in part influenced by Greek and Roman examples. During the Renaissance, the Graeco-Roman World was widely studied, and its systems of voting inspired many to establish more democratic forms of government. 

This was enormously influential in the development of modern democracies. For example, the Roman and Greek voting systems were studied by the American and French Revolutionaries when they were drafting their democratic constitutions.

Communism, Class Struggle, and the Roman Republic

by September 9, 2020

Written by Titus, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Karl Marx said that humanity has been in a constant class struggle. According to him, the rich and poor have been in a perpetual war throughout history. His philosophy gave birth to modern communism which went on to add another dimension in the social and international divide between people and governments since the twentieth century. Marx gave what seemed to be valuable solutions to ending this struggle and achieve societal equality.
Roughly after a century, we have come to realize it was not as potent as it seemed to be. It was also not as groundbreaking or original. Ancient Roman society had successfully acknowledged and integrated the class struggle into their ruling apparatus thousands of years ago.
Roman society was much more successful than the modern communist and capitalist regimes as it incorporated both of these philosophies that often clashed with each other politically. It was a healthier inclusion of the working class into the government. It also made it infinitely more complex.

Bust of Karl Marx

As Rome continued to steamroll much of the known ancient world, its ruling class became increasingly richer. With more conquests, they got their hands on more assets and slaves. Slowly, it began to threaten the societal balance of Rome in a way never seen before in antiquity. The rich would buy off the land from the peasant and employ their slaves to work on it.
As a result, the peasants not only gradually lost their land; they also lost the prospects of jobs to the slaves. It strained the economic condition of the Roman State as it would be forced to feed the unemployed mass of people. Also, it posed a serious threat to military recruitment for the Republic as the individuals serving in its legions were supposed to own property.
The first attempt to correct this dynamic was made by the Gracchi brothers who were ultimately assassinated by the conservative faction of the Senate, called the Optimates. The Gracchi brothers tried to redistribute the land and the rich, unsurprisingly, were not happy to hear the possibility of relinquishing their wealth.
It is worth noting that Roman society did have checks-and-balances, as the Plebeians or the low-income citizens had their say in State affairs through the Tribune of Plebs office. It was an important power check on the wealthy class of Rome or the Roman Senate. As time progressed, the social divide became wider and ultimately resulted in the downfall of the Republic itself and the creation of the Roman Empire.

Tiberius Gracchus, and Gaius Gracchus

The social divide resulted in the emergence of military commanders as the key political players. As the soldiers were recruited from the low-income class of the Republic, they started to heavily rely on their generals for securing land for them after their retirement. This meant that their loyalty would be to their generals instead of the Senate. This made them willing to fight for their generals even against the other Roman armies.
The first civil war of the Roman Republic between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla saw how one general was able to march on Rome with his army. However, the victor Sulla was still from the Optimates faction and believed in the supremacy of the Senate. Things went back to the status quo after Sulla. However, the second civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus resulted in the irreversible chain of events that ensured the downfall of the Roman Republic.
After the fall of the Republic, the office of the Tribune of Plebs continued to exert a great power even under the shadow of the all-powerful Roman emperors; most often, it would be the emperors themselves who held the position of tribune. It ensured the goodwill of common people and helped them get their concerns heard by the highest level of leadership.
Gaius Gracchus

Gaius Gracchus addressing the Plebeians.

The events that led to the fall of the Republic shed an interesting light into how Roman society worked and how complex it was as compared to modern times. The low-income class didn’t rise against their wealthy counterparts in a revolution; instead, they aligned themselves to individual generals who helped them secure what they needed.
This led to the clash of Optimates and Populares throughout the late Republic period, which in turn led to the end of Senatorial dominance in Roman politics and the emergence of powerful emperors. These emperors would work for the middle-class to increase their popularity much more than they would for the senate, even though the latter continued to function as a political organ of the State.

#CancelCulture: Lessons from the Ancient World (PART 2)

by July 24, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Classical Wisdom for Modern Minds
You remember our mandate.
Here we believe classical wisdom can ring true for modern minds. The great minds of classical antiquity still have much to teach us. You need only show up to class.
And if you’d like to know how this story ends, then open your copy of The Republic. It is to book VIII that our attention turns.
There, Plato presents a vision that is unnerving, unwelcome, and (probably) unwanted.
The Five Regimes
Living during the late fifth and early fourth century BC, Plato was the student and disciple of that granddaddy of classical philosophy, Socrates.
It was once believed that all a philosopher really needed to know could be found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s The Republic.
That’s overstating it, of course.
But give the old teacher his due.
The Republic is ambitious in its scope. Written in the Socratic dialectic tradition, the text tackles subjects spanning from ethics… epistemology… and—important to us—politics.

Marble statue of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Academy of Athens, Greece.

It remains one of the most influential pieces of literature in human history.
It is in book VIII where Plato describes the transitions of the “five regimes.”
They are…
Each regime—Plato says through the voice of Socrates—degrades and bleeds into the next.
In the oligarchical state, “the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.”
The oligarchs are the movers. The shakers. Today, they would have lobbyists, multi-billion-dollar government contracts, and modern offices in Northern Virginia.
Call them cronies. Call them “The Elite.” Call them the Deep State!
Plato calls them oligarchs…
Plato also tells us that oligarchies have “both the extremes of great wealth and utter poverty.”
We return only briefly to the 21st century to share a chart, created by America’s Federal Reserve and published by Bloomberg.
Dear reader, you don’t pay us to cheer for the winners. Or howl for the losers.
In fact, you don’t pay us at all!
Which makes our observations on this matter worth at least what you paid for them.
So, while we’re at it, let’s consider the question.
What shall the downtrodden do?
Rise up!
Classical Athenian Autonomous Zone
It is now that Plato introduces the drones. Think of them like murder wasps swarming around an otherwise productive honeybee hive.
Buzz. Buzz.
There are two classes of drones. Some with stings. And some without.
The latter “who in their old age end up as paupers.” But those with dreadful stings are of “the criminal class.”
The drones have no desire but to stir up trouble. They are to the polis “what phlegm and bile are to the body.”
The drones are always seeking to get a little “honey” from the oligarchs.

Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants, ordering the execution of Theramenes, a fellow member of the oligarchy that ruled Athens in 404–403 BCE.

And it is the sting of the drones that compel the people to revolt.
The oligarchs, in turn, get tough!
Writes Plato…
And the end is that when [oligarchs] see the people, not of their own accord, but through ignorance, and because they are deceived by informers, seeking to do them wrong, then at last they are forced to become oligarchs in reality; they do not wish to be, but the sting of the drones torments them and breeds revolution in them.
But it is no use, dear reader.
Not tear gas… nor curfews… nor anguished pleas from elected leaders can stop the drones once their blood is up.
The demos eat the rich. Confiscate their property. And divide it amongst themselves. Welcome to the Classical Athenian Autonomous Zone, CAAZ!
The drones… of course… “reserve the largest for themselves.”
The oligarchical state has been washed away. Democracy reigns.
Funeral Oration

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)

It’s important we understand Plato’s democracy.
It is not the measured, thoughtful constitutional democracy we learn of in Civics 101.
In Plato’s democracy, there are no checks. There are no balances. There is no separation of powers.
There are only the drones, and the mandate for 51% of the population—or perhaps even a vocal minority—to hoist popular fantasies onto the soul of the state.
You see where this is going…
American Drones
You know these drones, dear reader.
They set up “autonomous zones” and topple historical monuments in the dead of night.
They call for blood on Twitter and “dox” their opponents.
They post in suspicious 4Chan message boards.
They have distinguished careers on CNN… and Fox News.
They sting. And sting. And sting.

Having killed his mother, Orestes is Pursued by the Furies, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

And it is the stings that ferment hate into the well-intentioned pleas from the people. They “breed revolution” into justified movements for dignity and equity.
And yes, there are such movements. We mustn’t be misunderstood on this point.
Socrates saw his countrymen wallowing in the shade of ignorance and attempted to bring them to the light through peaceful—albeit uncomfortable—methods.
Treat your fellow man (or woman!) with dignity, we say. And speak up without doing harm.
Our quarrel is not with the demos. It is with the drones.
Because then comes the bloodletting.
The people—confused by the drones—nurse some champion (perhaps champions) into greatness.
The democratic champion(s) do away with their enemies by false accusations and banishments.
[H]aving a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favorite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen; some he kills and others he banishes, at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands.
You know this tactic as “cancel culture,” which we have discussed previously.

Illustrated | Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.
The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation.
Yes, dear reader. The drones have no need for discussion.
Maybe we should give this guy a chance to speak…
Hey… should we really set that on fire?
None of that…
Get on board this train or it will run you over.
And what is to become of Plato’s democratic state?
Destruction of empire

The Course of Empire (Series of paintings by Thomas Cole): Destruction (1836).

Tyrant Absolute
Overrun by the buzzing, stinging drones, there can only be one conclusion.
Plato once more [emphasis is mine]:
And he, the protector of whom we spoke, is to be seen, not ‘larding the plain’ with his bulk, but himself the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute.
How does this story end?
Are you certain you want to know, dear reader?
It ends the way every story of an empire ends. Slowly at first… then all at once.
Impossible you say?
Don’t be so sure.

Ancient Greek ruins.

We quote the writer Peter Savodnik of Tablet, writing on the parallels between mid-19th century Russia and 21st century America…
[I] was wary of historical analyses that sought to trace major events like the Russian Revolution to any one turning point, but that we might think of this period, starting with the liberation of the serfs and culminating with Sergei Nachayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, as the moment, or series of moments, when the language of nihilism and death acquired a certain currency and the possibility of the end of the old order came into focus.
The metaphysical gap between mid-19th-century Russia and early-21st-century America is narrowing. The parallels between them then and us now, political and social but mostly characterological, are becoming sharper, more unavoidable.
That’s right.
We are not special.
We never were.
As Savodnik points out, history does not necessarily repeat itself. But we can “[descend] into a primal state we thought we had escaped forever.”
When? How?
We don’t know…
Even Czarist Russia limped on a few more decades from the mid-1800s before it collapsed to Bolshevism.
But have some imagination.
Peer over the horizon, dear reader. Look past the vanishing point.
And squint…
What do you see?
Buzz. Buzz.

#CancelCulture: Lessons from the Ancient World

by July 17, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sometimes, late at night when we can hear the ocean outside our window, we wonder what the ancients would think of us…
Would they be proud? Amused? Perplexed?
Surely, we imagine, we won’t repeat ALL the mistakes of our classical forebearers.
Somebody must have read Aristotle, Cicero, or Thucydides.
As we’re fond of saying… no disaster has been so disastrous… no calamity so calamitous… and no idea so idiotic that somebody didn’t give it a whirl over the millennia.
Somebody must have surmised that there are lessons to be learned from people who lived thousands of years before our “enlightened” time.
Alcibiades Death

La mort d’Alcibiade, Philippe Chéry, 1791. Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Rochelle. [In 404 BC, Alcibiades, exiled in the Achaemenid Empire province of Hellespontine Phrygia, was assassinated by Persian soldiers, who may have been following the orders of Satrap Pharnabazus II, at the instigation of Sparta.]

But no…

We seem determined—hell, eager! —to stumble headfirst into the same quagmires of classical antiquity.
The old saying is that you must learn history or else risk repeating it.
What they won’t tell you is that those who do learn from history have to stand by while everybody else repeats it.
The latest throwback comes in the form of ostracism-by-tweet.
That’s right. The grand old classical tradition of banishing your fellow man for no real reason is back. And in a big way!
You know it as “cancel culture.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s first look at how the ancients did it.
Ostracism in the Ancient World
In Aristotle’s Politics,  he tells us that ostracism was originally instituted as a means to allow the common people to check the power of the political players.

Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants, ordering the execution of Theramenes, a fellow member of the oligarchy that ruled Athens in 404–403 BCE. [Following Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War, an oligarchic government was imposed on the city by Lysander and the victorious Spartans. This government, which came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants as a result of its brutal actions, exiled or drove away a number of citizens.]

It was a way to give claws to the hare when he was going up against a lion.

…democratic states have instituted ostracism; equality is above all things their aim, and therefore they ostracise and banish from the city for a time those who seem to predominate too much through their wealth, or the number of their friends, or through any other political influence.
– Aristotle (The Politics, Book III)
The procedure was rather simple. Plutarch tells us, in his Life of Aristides, that an ostracism vote was held once a year.

The citizens were allowed to write the name of any political figure on a shard of pottery. Should anyone’s name get 6000 votes, then that person would be banished from Athens for ten years.

What… we may wonder… were grounds for ostracism?
Must your fellow citizen commit a high crime?
Perhaps treason? Or murder?!

Voting ostraca. In Classical Athens, when the decision at hand was to banish or exile a certain member of society, citizen peers would cast their vote by writing the name of the person on the sherd of pottery; the vote was counted and, if unfavorable, the person was exiled for a period of ten years from the city, thus giving rise to the term ostracism.

No… not really.
“I just don’t like the guy” was sufficient grounds to banish a man from the hallowed walls of the polis.
Aristotle suggests as much when he writes…
 [Ostracism] has not been fairly applied in states; for, instead of looking to the public good, they have used ostracism for factious purposes.
That’s right, dear reader.
Ostracism was often used as a means to banishing your enemies for not toeing the line.
Fun fact: Socrates could have likely “chosen” ostracism over death during his trial in 399 BCE.
The philosopher was accused of “corrupting the youth” and “believing in strange gods.”
He was found guilty by his peers. But an interesting nuance of classical Athenian justice demands that the defendant and the prosecutor both suggest punishments in the event of a guilty verdict.
Socrates’ accusers chose death.
Socrates could have chosen—and likely would have been granted—ostracism.
But no.
He offers a grand feast and celebration as his penalty. In essence, it was a giant middle finger to the validity of the proceedings.

The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David (French, Paris 1748–1825 Brussels), ca. 1782. Source.

And given those choices, the Athenians choose death.
And that brings us to the 21st century…
You might imagine our amusement when we first learned of “cancel culture.”
Yes, dear reader, ostracism is back. But put away those shards of pottery. Instead, hit the retweet button!
It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.
The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation.
Imagine how many people the classical Athenians could ostracize if they only had Twitter!
Are you believing in strange gods, dear reader?
Are you corrupting the youth with your “open debate”?
What scourge might you bring upon our glorious city with your… ugh… tolerance of opposing ideas?
We simply can’t risk it. Out you go.

Dante in Exile by Domenico Petarlini. In March 1302, Dante, a White Guelph by affiliation, along with the Gherardini family, was condemned to exile for two years and ordered to pay a large fine to the new Black Guelph government. Dante refused and was condemned to perpetual exile; if he returned to Florence without paying the fine, he could have been burned at the stake.

You may already be familiar with the recently ostracized. But if not, allow us to bring you up to speed.
Taibbi again:
[F]rom a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out loud to a data scientist fired* from a research firm for — get this — retweeting an academic study suggesting nonviolent protests may be more politically effective than violent ones!
In the most discussed incident, Times editorial page editor James Bennet was ousted for green-lighting an anti-protest editorial by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton entitled, “Send in the troops.”
#Ostracisimculsture has gotten so bad that a slew of troublemakers got together to sign “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”
I quote from the letter [emphasis is mine]…
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
What a time to be alive for those of us with a classical background and a sense of mischief.
We chuckle. We guffaw. We laugh heartily…. and then we sob.
Ovid's Exile

Ovid Banished from Rome (1838) by J.M.W. Turner. [Ovid, the Latin poet of the Roman Empire, was banished in 8 AD from Rome to Tomis (now Constanţa, Romania) by decree of the emperor Augustus.]

Re-killing Socrates

Have we learned nothing from our ancestor’s mistakes? Are we so eager to set fire to the intellectual scaffolding built over millennia?
Socrates was dubbed the wisest of all men by the Oracle at Delphi, but not because he knew the most.
Rather, the only thing the old teacher truly knew was that he knew very little… perhaps nothing at all.
Hence the now-famous phrase: All I know is that I know nothing.
From here, the Socratic tradition would teach us that we should accept humbly the limits of our knowledge.
We should doubt every certainty… question every unchallenged dogma…
And we should strive —sometimes awkwardly—towards understanding by way of contemplation, discussion, and introspection.
plato and aristotle

The School of Athens by Raphael (1509–1510), fresco at the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.

The crowning achievement of the Socratic tradition was an emphasis on, and appreciation for, good-faith inquiry.
Wisdom is the only way to the Good.
And the only way to wisdom is to probe seriously, sometimes contentiously, into the questions of life.
But, no…
We live now in an age of saints. We are surrounded by enlightened soothsayers, untouched by sin or doubt.
Every moral truth is already known.
Every tepid question is taken as an affront.
And every gadfly is swiftly put to death.
We seem eager to kill the Socratic tradition just as they killed the old man himself millennia ago.
What would the ancients think of us?
We don’t know…
But somewhere in a far-off land, Socrates is rolling his eyes… and cursing under his breath.
[Featured image comes from]

The Classical Wisdom of the Founding Fathers

by July 3, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
The United States of America will turn 244 years old tomorrow.
From a historical perspective, the U.S. is quite a young nation. We’ve come a long way, and have much still to learn.
To those of you not already aware, it may come as no surprise to learn that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. were heavily influenced by the classics. They had a good understanding of ancient history, philosophy, and politics, and utilized that when crafting the founding documents of this country.
Yet, it was not only the wisdom of the ancients but their failings as well, that guided the ideas of this new generation of statesmen.
How could the thirteen independent states avoid falling into the turmoil, civil wars, and revolutions that plagued the ancient world? 
Destruction of empire

The Course of Empire: Destruction, Thomas Cole (1836).

That was the question on everyone’s mind. In fact, only 10 years after winning independence from Britain, a huge debate erupted in the U.S. over this exact question: the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.
During the summer of 1787, delegates from each of the thirteen states gathered in Philadelphia with the original intent of discussing and drafting improvements to the existing Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which had been approved by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. However, not long into the convention many of the delegates came to believe that the goal should be much broader, namely the establishment of a new system of government.
Those in favor of this new system of government were known as the Federalists. They supported adopting a Constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation, uniting the states under a strong, centralized governmentAgainst them were the Anti-Federalists, who thought the proposed Constitution would consolidate too much power into the hands of the federal government, undermining the rights of the states and the people.
The Federalists won. On September 17th, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed by 38 of the 41 delegates present. Yet, the Constitution would not be binding until nine of the 13 states ratified it. Thus began the real battle between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

Page one of the original copy of the Constitution.

A series of articles and essays were written by each side, responding to one another’s criticisms and putting their best arguments forward as to why their vision of the U.S. was the better one. This series of essays would come to be known as the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers. 
The Federalists were led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, all writing under the pseudonym “Publius”—Roman for “the people,” but also a reference to Publius Valerius Publicola, one of the first republican statesmen of ancient Rome.
While we know who the advocates of Anti-Federalism were, it is much less clear who wrote what when it comes to the Anti-Federalist Papers. The Anti-Federalists were led by Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Monroe, just to name a few. As for the authors of the Anti-Federalist Papers, they wrote under the pseudonyms of Cato, Brutus, Centinel, and the Federal Farmer. Though there is no agreement, it is thought that the authors were George Clinton, Melancton Smith, Samuel Bryan, and Richard Henry Lee, respectively.
Not only did both sides use pseudonyms referring to famous statesmen of the ancient world, but they often made their arguments by appealing to the history of the ancient world. Though I could briefly summarize their arguments, I think it best to let each side speak for themselves.
Constitutional convention

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy (1940).

The Federalists: United we stand, divided we fall
“Leave America divided into thirteen or, if you please, into three or four independent governments—what armies could they raise and pay—what fleets could they ever hope to have? If one was attacked, would the others fly to its succor, and spend their blood and money in its defense? Would there be no danger of their being flattered into neutrality by its specious promises, or seduced by a too great fondness for peace to decline hazarding their tranquillity and present safety for the sake of neighbors, of whom perhaps they have been jealous, and whose importance they are content to see diminished? Although such conduct would not be wise, it would, nevertheless, be natural. The history of the states of Greece, and of other countries, abounds with such instances, and it is not improbable that what has so often happened would, under similar circumstances, happen again.” – Federalist No. 4
“A FIRM Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” – Federalist No. 9
“Had Greece, says a judicious observer on her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.” – Federalist No. 18

From left to right: John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton

The Anti-Federalists: The bigger the government, the bigger the problem
“In large republics, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views, in a small one, the interest of the public is easily perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have a less extent, and of course are less protected…. the duration of the republic of Sparta was owing to its having continued with the same extent of territory after all its wars; and that the ambition of Athens and Lacedaemon to command and direct the union, lost them their liberties, and gave them a monarchy.” – Antifederalist No. 14
“All human authority, however organized, must have confined limits, or insolence and oppression will prove the offspring of its grandeur, and the difficulty or rather impossibility of escape prevents resistance. Gibbon relates that some Roman Knights who had offended government in Rome were taken up in Asia, in a very few days after. It was the extensive territory of the Roman republic that produced a Sylla, a Marius, a Caligula, a Nero, and an Elagabalus. In small independent States contiguous to each other, the people run away and leave despotism to reek its vengeance on itself; and thus it is that moderation becomes with them, the law of self-preservation.” – Antifederalist No. 3
“Where the people are free there can be no great contrast or distinction among honest citizens in or out of office. In proportion as the people lose their freedom, every gradation of distinction, between the Governors and governed obtains, until the former become masters, and the latter become slaves. In all governments virtue will command reverence. The divine Cato knew every Roman citizen by name, and never assumed any preeminence; yet Cato found, and his memory will find, respect and reverence in the bosoms of mankind, until this world returns into that nothing, from whence Omnipotence called it. That the people are not at present disposed for, and are actually incapable of, governments of simplicity and equal rights, I can no longer doubt. But whose fault is it? We make them bad, by bad governments, and then abuse and despise them for being so.” – Antifederalist No. 3

Three of the Anti-Federalists.

An Ancient Conflict
Do these issues and arguments seem familiar to ones you here today? Well, they should! As Jefferson knew, this disagreement between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was nothing new in the history of the world. There have always been those who put their faith in the people, and those who have distrusted them—the Anti-Federalist’s being the former, and the Federalists the latter.
“Men have differed in opinion, and been divided into parties by these opinions, from the first origin of societies; and in all governments where they have been permitted freely to think and to speak. The same political parties which now agitate the US. have existed thro’ all time. Whether the power of the people, or that of the ἄριςτοι [ancient greek for “aristocracy” or “nobility”] should prevail, were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions; as they now schismatize every people whose minds and mouths are not shut up by the gag of a despot. And in fact the terms of whig and tory belong to natural, as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals.” – Jefferson to John Adams, June 27th, 1813
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties. 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2dly Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them cherish and consider them as the most honest & safe, altho’ not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them therefore liberals and serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, whigs and tories, republicans and federalists, aristocrats and democrats or by whatever name you please; they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last appellation of aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.” – Jefferson to Henry Lee, August 10th, 1824

Statue of Thomas Jefferson at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Because the questions we struggle with today and which set us apart from one another are the same as those that faced the ancient Greeks and Romans, there is no doubt that we have much to learn from their wisdom as well as their mistakes. The Founders were wise to look to the ruins of the past for lessons on how to build the future.
Though the struggle between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists culminated in the ratification of the Constitution and the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the struggle continues to this day—as it always has and always will.
There will always be those who, like Hamilton, are so distrustful of the people’s ability to self-govern that they think,
“Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” – Federalist No. 55
And there will also always be those who, like Jefferson, question such distrust,
“Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?” – Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801
Jefferson and Hamilton

Jefferson (left) and Hamilton (right).

The verdict is not out on who was right. History will have to decide.
In the meantime, as we celebrate the 244th birthday of the U.S., let us celebrate the wisdom of the classics and the failures of those ancient peoples embroiled in the same conflicts we find ourselves in today. Without their failures, and without our own, we would have little to learn from.
Let us also celebrate the rights and freedoms we enjoy, but not at the expense of forgetting how many in this country still are unable to enjoy the full protection and guarantee of them. Rights and freedoms are not just to be enjoyed but to be continually fought and struggled for.
In the words of Jefferson,
“For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.”

Socrates And Martin Luther King: Lessons in Civil Disobedience

by June 26, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
At the opening of the Crito, a dialogue by the philosopher Plato, Socrates has been imprisoned. He is awaiting his execution for the supposed crimes of corrupting the youth and believing in strange gods. However, it is only by chance that Socrates is still alive, trapped in his cell. Around the time of his trial, the Athenians had sent a small galley on a religious mission to the Aegean island of Delos. It was believed that the island was sacred to the God Apollo and so while the ship was away, no executions would take place. 
Socrates’ wealthy friend Crito visits with the philosopher in the early hours of the morning. He informs Socrates that the ship from Delos will be arriving soon and that he will undoubtedly be killed once it lands at Athens. There is little time left, Crito assures Socrates that he would be able to bribe the prison guards and allow Socrates to escape from Athens. The philosopher would avoid his execution, and live out his days in Thessaly. And then something very strange happens: Socrates refuses…
Instead, Socrates launches into a series of questions (as he tends to do) and engages in a philosophical discourse with his worried friend, Crito. Socrates first asks if we should concern ourselves with the opinion of the majority, they may harm a man’s flesh, but can they ever damage his soul? Socrates does not believe so; he then asks if it is justified to harm others who have caused us harm. Crito considers this and then concludes that wrongdoing, by nature, is never justified and that we must never do wrong to others even when we suffer under injustice. Socrates consents to this point and acknowledges that many would not agree with him on this matter. He even states…
One must never, when wronged, inflict wrong in return, as the majority believe, since one must never do wrong.
Plato, Crito
Socrates dead

Socrates reaching for the hemlock.

Socrates then embarks on another line of thinking that closely mirrors The Social Contract Theory which would be refined by Thomas Hobbes some two thousand years later. Socrates considers escaping from prison to be an indictment of the entire Athenian society. It would undermine the authority of the Athenian courts and the fledgling democratic government.
After all, Socrates gave no complaint when Athens sheltered him, educated him, attended to his family, and protected him from invaders. Why should Socrates now attempt to destroy Athens simply because the city has brought unfavorable circumstances upon him? As the philosopher puts it, we may either leave a society, attempt to persuade it to change or accept whatever punishment it inflicts upon us. There are no other options for a person of integrity. 
You may disagree with the philosopher on this point. Surely if we were awaiting execution we might rightly consider escape, the laws be damned! However, Socrates has just pointed out previously that one must never harm, even when harm is brought upon us. The only real harm that can be brought on a person is that which harms the soul.  
Socrates' Death

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Socrates, a man who sought to persuade Athens to seek wisdom, would rattle the cages of those in power, embarrassing them in the process. He would inevitably attract the disdain of many prominent men. He would attempt to persuade them to change, to accept wisdom rather than ignorance. He would be punished. And while suffocating under the weight of cruelty, he would gracefully accept his punishment, throwing into stark contrast the injustice of society. 
Some two thousand years after Socrates had had this conversation with Crito, Martin Luther King Jr. found himself sitting in a jail cell as well. It was on April 12th, 1963 that King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama in response to a coordinated series of sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations. During his time in jail, King wrote an open letter that addressed the need for nonviolent resistance, civil disobedience, and the perils of racial inequality in America. 
The Letter From Birmingham Jail would become a centerpiece for the American civil rights movement and a concise proponent for the act of civil disobedience. In the face of racial inequality and injustice, the letter outlines how the use of nonviolent protest must be implemented to bring about lasting and fundamental change. King outlines that active, professed refusal to obey unjust laws is not only necessary for social activists, but should be morally obligatory for any individual who believes in true justice and human dignity. 

MLK in Jail. Don Cravens / The Life Images Collection / Getty; Bettmann / Getty. Source: The Atlantic.

King compares the laws of the American South to the laws of Nazi Germany, where it was “illegal” to aid a Jewish man or woman. And yet, King confides that if he had been in Germany at that time, he would have undoubtedly done so. Refusing to obey laws that, as King puts it, degrade the human personality is the noblest of tasks for anybody looking to seek fundamental change in an unjust society. 
A key to civil disobedience (as Socrates and King would demonstrate) is that once we refuse to obey unjust laws, we must graciously accept the punishment, regardless of what is fair. Socrates accepted his execution without quarrel. King spent time in a jail cell for holding a peaceful demonstration. This is the key to civil disobedience and social activism. By suffering under the weight of unjust punishments, we demonstrate the unfairness of society; in this way, we force others to reconsider the true nature of justice. 
King and Socrates appear to be bound by their struggle for progress. King even mentions the great philosopher in his letter when he writes…
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
– Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
MLK marching

30th March 1965: American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. (Photo by William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images). Source: WGBH NEWS

If these two men were indeed engaged in a similar struggle to break free from the chains of oppression, then it is perhaps not surprising that they would bother to suffer tragic endings for the sake of their ideals. Socrates would be put to death by the very state he wished to enlighten; Martin Luther King would be assassinated on April 4th, 1968 while standing on the second-floor balcony of his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had been shot by James Earl Ray, a man who was renting a room at a boarding house across the street from King’s hotel. It is interesting to note that Robert Kennedy, immediately following the assassination, gave a speech where he quoted the great Greek playwright Aeschylus
He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
– Aeschylus, as quoted by Robert Kennedy
Socrates and King would be remembered posthumously with admiration and respect. Their ideas would attract the hatred of many, and they would suffer unjustly for their pursuits. And tragically they would both die for their ideas, struggling to improve this world as best they could.
Separated by thousands of years of history, these two men struggled valiantly for justice in a society that sought to destroy them. United by purpose, Socrates and King remain a reminder to us all that change comes slowly and often painfully. And whatever enlightenment we enjoy, it is often thanks to great individuals throughout history who suffered on our behalf, to ensure that true justice is found.