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Classic definition of republic

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Republic is formed from two Latin words res (thing) and publica (public); it literally means 'the public thing(s)'. In the Latin context, it means 'affairs affecting the state', 'the state' itself, or 'the constitution' of the state".(1) The Latin word republic is similar in meaning to the Greek word politea. Both words constitute the meaning of state; the state being one that is made up of different classes of people and all involved in the governing of the polity under a constitution. Simply stated: a republic is a "mixed constitutional government".

A republic, in the classical form, is a type of government that is made up of a mixture of the best elements of the monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. There is the Spartan model which is a tri-political government of two kings, gerousia (aristocracy) and Ephors (democratic body). There is the Roman model that has a civilian head, and an aristocratic body which is the Senate. It is marked by a bicameral legislative body (the upper house being aristocratic) and by a written constitution that marks out the duties and responsibilities of the different bodies. A classical republic is considered by its proponents to be the best compromise between the interests of the aristocracy and those of the people.

Some ancient republics:

The founding fathers certainly took at least some inspiration from classical republics. Curiously, Sir Thomas Smyth also described England under Queen Elizabeth I as a republic in De Republica Anglorum; the Manner of Government or Policie of the Realme of England, {1583}.(2) Today, there are no governments based on the classical form.

Table of contents
1 What is a state
2 The Greek aspect
3 From Cicero
4 Mentality between republic and democracy
5 The American republic
6 Aristocracy and Mixed Government
7 Shift in meaning
8 Occurrences of the word republic
9 Miscellanea
10 Related Topics
11 References
12 Bibliography

What is a state

The Greeks defined differing governments by their dominant factor. Aristotle writes: "Now a constitution (Politeia) is the ordering of a state (Poleos) in respect of its various magistracies, and expecially the magistracy that is supreme over all matters. For the government is everywhere supreme over the state and the constitution is the government. (3) Our customary designation for a monarchy that aims at the common advantage is 'kingship'; for a government of more than one yet only a few 'aristocracy', ...while when the multitude govern the state with a view to the common advantage, it is called by the name common to all the forms of constitution, 'constitutional government'. (4) Where a government has only a king, the dominant factor, it is called a monarchy. Where a government has only a few nobles ruling, the dominant factor, it is called an aristocracy." Where the people are the dominant factor it is called a democracy.

The Greek word for State is "Poleos". It denotes "society" in general. Aristotle writes "A collection of persons all alike does not constitute a state". (5) This Greek word, "Politeia" is then named for every government that includes all classes of people as citizens and a written law, constitution that defines and delegates rights and responsibilities of those classes. A republic is one that does not have a dominant factor".

The Greek aspect

"Politea" is a Greek word used by Aristotle in his book, Politics, to describe a republican form of government.

Aristotle records that "some people assert that the best constitution must be a combination of all the forms of constitution, therefore praise the constitution of Sparta." (6) He further argues that the better the constitution is mixed, the more permanent it is. (7) The definition he gives for this kind of government is a "politean"; the form intermediate between them which is termed a republic, (mesi de touton in kalousi politeian) for the government is constituted from the class that bears arms. (8) Again, Aristotle states that constitutional government is, to put it simply, a mixture of oligarchy and democracy. (9)

Polybius (as also Plato and Aristotle) distinguishes three types of governments: "kingship, aristocracy, democracy". Furthermore, like Aristotle, he goes on to state that the best constitution is that "which partakes of all these three elements". (10) "The first to construct a constitution--that of Sparta--on this principle", Lycurgus, with some inspiration from his fellow Doric brothers in Crete (11) created a government that combined an hereditary kingship with body of advisors from the aristocracy and another that represented the rest of the people (the democracy), all being checks and balances on each other.

Polybius concludes saying: "The result of this combination has been that the Lacedaemonians retained their freedom for the longest period of any people." (12) and "...for securing unity among the citizens, for safeguarding the Laconian territory and preserving the liberty of Sparta inviolate, the legislation and provisions of Lycurgus were so excellent that I am forced to regard his wisdom as something superhuman." (13)

The Spartan republic

Plato in the Laws records how the Cretans and the Spartans could not classify their own form of government:

Megillus the Spartan: Why sir, when I consisder our Lacedaemonian constitution, I really cannot tell you offhand which would be the proper name for it. It actually seems to have its resemblances to an autocracy--in fact, the power of our ephors is astonishingly autocratic--and yet at times I think it looks like the most democratic of all societies. Again, it would be sheer paradox to deny that it is an aristocracy, while yet again a feature of it is a life monarchy, asserted by all mankind, as well as ourselves, to be the very oldest of such institutions.

Clinias the Cretan: I find myself in the same perplexity as you, Megillus. I am quite at a loss to identify our Cnossian constitution confidently with any of them.

The Athenian (Plato): That, my friends, is because you enjoy real constitutions, whereas the types we have specified are not constitutions, but settlements enslaved to the domination of some component section, each taking its designation from the dominant factor. (15)

Sparta is the site where in the first time in Greek political life and in Western culture that a body of councillors took initiative and responsibility for presenting proposals and resolutions to an assembly. This occurred in the eighth or seventh century B.C. (16)

Duties and responsiblities in the Spartan Republic are outlined in short verses called Rhetra (the constitution). These Rhetra are attributed to Lycurgus, the lawgiver of the Lacedaemonians. The Spartan society consisted of two kings from two different royal families called the Agiads and the Eurypontids. There also existed from former times a royal council called the Gerousia. Members of the Gerousia were appointed for life from the head of the aristocratic families. The council was made of 28 aristocratic members with two kings sitting in making a total of thirty. Upon this basis did Lycurgus add the Rhetra circa 776 B.C. At some time, an oligarchic body with members elected from the citizen body for one year was introduced called the Ephors. It was the Ephors who presided over an assembly of all the Spartan citizens called Spartiates which could only shout approval or disapproval of measures presented by the two bodies, the Gerousia and the Ephors. The whole legislative process required two legislative bodies and the whole body of citizens to affirm it. Furthermore, the Lycurgan constitution spelled out that if the demos passed crooked rhetra the gerousia and the kings were to veto them.

From Cicero

The American constitution was influenced by Cicero. Cicero also terms the republic as a "mixed form of constitution". Michael Grant explicates the significance of Cicero: "This 'mixed' constitution, previously admired by the historian Polybius (to whom Cicero's debts were extensive), reappeared again and again in early discussions of the constitution of the United States of America, figuring prominently, for example, in John Adams Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (1787). (17) Cicero was familiar with Dicaearchus of Messana who wrote a treatise on the mixed constitution of Sparta, the Tripoliticus. (18) Dicaerchus "was greatly admired by Cicero".

Cicero provides the knowledge train of this history of tri-political government:

"This type of discussion, which I am undertaking, derives most of its material from that other philosophical school, of which Plato, was the leader. The men who came after him, Aristotle and Heraclides of Pontus, another follower of Plato, threw light on the whole topic of national constitutions through the inquiries they conducted. Moreover, as you know, Theophrastus, Aristotle's disciple specialized in this type of investigation; and another of Aristotle's pupils, Dicaearchus, was active in the same field of study."(19)

The modality of mixed government is explained by Cicero: "When however, instead, a group of men seize the state by exploiting their wealth or noble birth or some other resource, that is a political upheaval, though they call themselves conservatives. If, on the other hand, the people gain the supremacy, and the whole government is conducted according to their wishes, a state of affairs has arisen which is hailed as libery, but is, in fact, chaos. But when there is a situation of mutual fear, with one person or on class fearing another, then because nobody has sufficient confidence in his won strength a kind of bargain is struck between the ordinary people and the men who are powerful." The result, in that case, is the mixed constitution which Scipio recommends. (It is footnoted as monarchy, oligarchy and democracy.) Which means that weakness, not nature or good intention, is the mother of justice." (20)

The Roman republic

The Roman Republic was formed basically on a tri-partite form. There were two consuls who were equal in authority and who were elected for a year, the Roman Senate which was a broad based oligarchy of about fifty aristocratic families and the citizens who were organized into Roman assemblies (comitia) which were further delineated into curia, tribes and centuries.

The Senate would pass resolutions and magistrates would present them before their respective assemblies. The citizens would either approve or disapprove the resolutions. The consuls would then carry out the decree.

Mentality between republic and democracy

Aristotle does not use the word democracy and republic interchangeably; neither does Socrates in Plato's Republic. In that historical period at least, they were seen as different institutions.

Aristotle defines a republic as the rule of law. " is preferable for the law to rule rather than any one of the citizens, and according to this same principle, even if it be better for certain men to govern, they must be appointed as guardians of the laws and in subordination to them;... the law shall govern seems to recommend that God and reason alone shall govern..." (21)

He further argues that a democracy puts the people above the law: "men ambitious of office by acting as popular leaders bring things to the point of the people's being sovereign even over the laws." (22)

Of course, the immediate objection that can be made to this line of thought is that the law does not write itself. Someone must have the power to change old laws and pass new ones. Therefore, the rule of law can be seen as the rule of those who make the law. So it can be argued that there will always be some group of people who are "above the law".

Aristotle says in V vii 7 that "constitutional government turns into a democracy". And in that situation, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle fear the possibility that "Tyranny, then arises from no other form of government than democracy." In more recent times, Huey Long said that when fascism came to the United States it would call itself "democracy". (23) See The Kyklos.

Historically speaking, however, no modern democracy older than 30 years has ever succumbed to tyranny; it just takes time for it to devolve. In this respect, it seems that classical republics (such as Rome or Sparta) are more susceptible to collapse than modern republics. On the other hand, Athens went through 11 violent revolutions and Sparta none.

The American republic

The history of mixed government goes back to the chief founders of New England. The early Massachusetts government was predominantly aristocratic. John Cotton and John Winthrop had an aversion to democracy. The Puritan preachers strongly believed that Scriptures only approved monarchy and aristocracy. "At best, Winthrop and his friends believed in what they called 'a mixt aristocracy'". (24) (See section below on "Occurrences of the word".)

When the Articles of Confederation failed, a constitutional convention was convened to bring about a better form of federal government on 25 May 1787. Curiously, the popularity of democracy among the men who attended the Convention was not as high as would be expected. These men who attended felt a deep antipathy to democracy. All of them thought that the protection of property was the main object of government. Governor Robert Morris of Pennsylvania believed that the Senate should be an aristocratic body composed of rich men holding office for life. Elbridge Gerry, a delegate from Massachusetts, declared that he "abhorred" democracy as "the worst of all political evils". Edmund Randolph, the governor of Virginia, believed that Virginia's Senate was designed as check against the tendencies of democracy. John Dickinson, another delegate, strongly urged that the United States Senate would be structured as nearly as possible to the House of Lords. (25) Finally, it appears Alexander Hamilton wanted the American government to mirror the British government and also proposed that the Senate be styled along the same lines as the House of Lords. (26)

Woodrow Wilson, in Division and Reunion (pg 12), wrote that "The Federal government was not by intention a democratic government. In plan and in structure it had been meant to check the sweep and power of popular majorities..." (27) Professor John D. Hicks in his book on The Federal Union said "Such statements could be multiplied almost at will." (28)

Whether the non-democratic ideas of the 18th century remain relevant today, and whether or not the idea of an aristocratic Senate would be accepted or even tolerated by the American people in the 21st century, is another question entirely.

Threefold structure

According to some interpretations, the tri-political concept of government and the tripartite form of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, can be seen in the United States Constitution.

The Presidency is the element of the monarchical office. The United States Senate is the representation of the aristocracy. The House of Representatives is the element of democracy, representing the people. Apparently, it was originally planned that the senate was to be filled by appointments from the states' legislatures. Furthermore, the Senate was supposed to be the inclusion of the aristocracy, the landed gentry, and a representation of state's interests, as a corporate entity, in the Federal Government. Madison said, "The Senate, on the other hand, will derive its powers from the States, as political and coequal societies; and these will be represented on the principle of equality in the Senate, as they now are in the existing Congress." (29)

This is the original principle of a bicameral legislative house; i.e. the senate and the representatives. In Article III, sec 4, it states, "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government..." This can be interpreted to mean that all the state governments must have a bicameral house with the upper house being the seat of the aristocracy, not elected by the people. However, it should be noted that not all states have a bicameral legislature, a fact that blunts the argument of those who claim that a Republican form of govenment as described in the constitution necessarily entails bicameral legislatures.

The Seventeenth Amendment

It has been claimed that the passage of the XVII amendment in 1913 fundamentally changed the character of the American government. It starts by saying that "The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof,..."

It has been argued that this amendment altered the fundamental "checks and balances" that mark a Repulican form of government as Senators were now chosen through direct election rather than by state governments or legislatures. With both the Senators and the Representatives being elected by the people, "the people" became the dominant class in government. Thus, today, both the Senators and the Representatives are elected by the people.

Aristotle notes that the disbanding of the Senate house of Athens, the Council on the Areopagus, was what turned Athens from a "politea" to a democracy. So, in classical terminology and definition, the U.S. form of government was changed from a republic to a democracy.

Aristocracy and Mixed Government

An integral part of mixed government is aristocracy. The word "aristocracy" is the combination of two Greek words: 'Aristos' means "the best" and 'kratos' means "power". Kratos is the same ending as in the word "democracy". Although aristocracy is generally regarded as a typical element of monarchy, it was also present in classical republics. Aristocracy or mid-level management is needed and present in every intstitution. An example of this is the military; between the top commander and the regular soldier is an intermediate body called the non-commissioned officers (NCO). The NCOs are soldiers who are given positions of leadership due to merit and worth; in other words, an aristocracy. Intermediate bodies are present and necessary in every human institution such as (already mentioned) armies; factories, foremen; churches, priests and deacons; etc. For the ancient Greeks, especially the Dorians, and Romans, heirarchy is throughout nature and sought to imitate it in their governments.

Such republics were Sparta and Crete. Just as Crete gave the name of Europe, she is also the birthplace of 'mixed'/constitutional government. Plato argued that "Persia and Athens show the fundamental elements of all political life exaggerated as far as possible in one direction and the other (the one monarchical, the other democratic)...the merit of Sparta is that she has been trying to blend them, and has therefore maintained herself for a long time." (30) A republic is really the Golden mean between the extremes of democracy and Asian monarchical despotism.

Werner Jaeger argues that Socrates and Plato believed that "A state is never power alone, but the spiritual structure of the man whom it represents". (31) The forms of government are physical manifestations of the spiritual condition of the individual which Socrates and Plato saw through the principle of Macrocosm/microcosm. A democracy's mentality is that the people are sovereign and therefore their opinion is the law. The mentality of Despotism, as it can be seen in the Asian kings, Alexander the Great, his successors and the Roman Emperors starting with Julius Caesar, is that the king or Emperor makes the law so he is God. For the Spartan mindset, the Law is to rule not men collectively or singly as the Spartan King advises Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae, to wit, "The point is that although they're free, they're not entirely free; their master is the law, and they're far more afraid of this than your men are of you. At any rate, they do whatever the law commands...". (38)

Shift in meaning

The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature states that the Romans translated Plato into Latin and gave it the title Respublica, "and is perhaps misleading". (32) The original Greek title of The Republic is Ty Politeia. (33) The Greek word for citizen is Polites. But because the Romans translated Plato's Politea as Republic, the revolutionaries of the French Revolution seeking to become "citizens" and run their own lives, gave themselves the title "Republicans" on the understanding that "republican" had the same meaning as "citizen".

Hence, since the French Revolution was a democratic movement, the words "democracy" and "republic" came to be intertwined. Republicanism in the French revolutionary meaning meant self-government with a constitution. In most books this is described as a democratic republic. It can also be described as constitutional democracy. Madison, in the Federalist Paper #39, uses the term "Republican branch" for the "House of Commons". In the twentieth century the word became even broader, with the French calling their parlimentary governments "Republics"; with the Spanish leftists calling their government a "Republic"; also with various autocratic governments (which would have been identified as monarchies in previous centuries) calling themselves "republics". For example, Mussolini's short-lived fascist state in northern Italy, which existed between 1943 and 1945, was called the "Italian Social Republic" (previous to the allied overthrow of his first regime, Fascist Italy had been a monarchy under king Victor Emmanuel III). Hitler once referred to the Third Reich as a "republic of the people" (eine volkische Republik), while Goebbels called it a "republican Fuhrer-state". (34) Many other non-democratic governments also referred to their states as "republics", though unlike Hitler and Mussolini, they generally tried to maintain some illusion of democracy through such means as sham elections.

Occurrences of the word republic


Related Topics

Family/State paradigm


  1. Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, section 'republic, Roman', pg 485.
  2. The Governments of Europe, Frederic Austin OGG, Ph.D., Revised Edition, MacMillan Co., NY, l922. pg 23. See also Madison Federalist Papers, #39, where he also records that some people put England as a republic.
  3. Politics, Aristotle, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1932. Bk III iv 1; 1278b 5-10; pg 201
  4. Politics, Bk III v 2f; 1279a 30-35; pg 207.
  5. Politics, Bk II i 4; 1261a 20; or page 73.
  6. Politics, bk II iii 10; 1265b 30-35; Pg 107.
  7. Politics, Bk IV x 4; 1297a 5-10; Pg 339.
  8. Politics, Bk II iii 9; 1265b 25; Pg 105
  9. Politics, Bk IV vi 2; 1293b 30-35; Pg 315
  10. The Portable Greek Historians: The Essence of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, edited by M. I. Finley, The Viking Press, NY, NY, l959. Polybius bk VI sec 3; Pg 475
  11. The Lives, Plutarch, , trans by John Dryden, rev. by Arthur Clough, The Modern Library, NY. Pg 52.
  12. The Portable Greek Historians, Pg 482
  13. The Portable Greek Historians, Bk V sec. 48; Pg 493
  14. (This needs to stay blank for the numbers to match up)
  15. The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, l961. The Laws, 712d and following.
  16. Freedom of Speech in Antiquity, Arnaldo Momigliano, as published in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. by Philip P. Wiener, Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, l973. Vol II, pg 257.
  17. Cicero, On Government, trans. Michael Grant, Penquin Books, NY, l993. Pg 7 (in the footnote)
  18. Cicero, On Government, On Laws III 14-15; Pg 200.
  19. Cicero, On Government, Pgs 199-200.
  20. Cicero, On Government, On the State 23-4, pg 180.
  21. Politics, Bk III, xi3-5; 1287a; Pgs 263-265.
  22. Politics, Bk V. iv 6; 1305a 30-35; pg 401.
  23. Liberty or Equality, Kurt von Kuenhelt-Leddihn, Christendom Press, pg 123.
  24. The Story of American Democracy, Political and Industrial, Willis Mason West, Allyn and Bacon, NY, l922. pg 74-80; specially pg 76.
  25. The Story of American Democracy, pg 276-277.
  26. The Story of American Democracy, pg 278.
  27. The Story of American Democracy, pg 276.
  28. The Federal Union, A History of the United States to 1865, John D. Hicks, Houghton Mifflin Co., NY, l948. pg 199.
  29. Madison, Federalist Papers No. 39.
  30. Padeia, The Ideals of Greek Culture, Werner Jaeger, translated by Gilbert Highet, Oxford University Press, NY, l944. Vol III, pg 236. References to Plato's Laws 693d-e
  31. Paideia, Vol III, pg 284
  32. Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, see section Republic, pg 485.
  33. Politics, Vol. 264 pg 71
  34. Libery or Equality, pg 162, 238, 248.
  35. The United States to 1865, Michael Kraus, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI. pg 259-260.
  36. Liberty or Equality, pg 326
  37. Liberalism and the Challenge of Fascism, J. Salwyn Schapiro, McGraw-Hill Book Co, Inc., NY, l949. pg 39.
  38. The Histories, Xenophon, trans. by Robin Waterfield, Oxford University Press, NY, l998. Bk VII, sec 104; pg 440.


It is suggested to use of the
Loeb Classical Library of Harvard University Press for technical purposes. The original language and the English translation is placed side by side.

Bibliography on US Republican Character