The Actual Reasons Ancient Democracies Failed

Modern democracies love to reference ancient democracies when stressing the value of participatory politics. The Athenian direct democracy and the Roman Republic are seen as milestones on the path toward more egalitarian forms of governance, yet these ancient democracies eventually failed. 

The Roman Republic traditionally spans from 509 BC to 27 BC, at which point it became the Roman Empire. It was the Athenians who coined the term democracy - "rule by the people" - to describe the system they developed in the sixth century BC. Athenian democracy lasted until 322 BC, when the city was conquered by the Macedonians under Alexander the Great.

In both Rome and Athens, elites and oligarchs exploited long-standing weaknesses in the political system to seize power for those on top, disrupting democratic processes enough to create enduring problems. In both cases, this went on for hundreds of years until all remaining vestiges of democracy ceased to exist.

  • There Was An Imbalance Of Power Between The Aristocracy And The Rest Of Society
    Photo: B. Barloccini / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    There Was An Imbalance Of Power Between The Aristocracy And The Rest Of Society

    The Problem: Thanks to an influx of wealth from Rome's recently acquired provinces, the elite grew richer while the middle and lower classes saw their resources dwindle.

    The Story: The economic divide ballooned gradually over generations in Rome, but the problem became more pronounced during the second century BC. After their fellow statesmen conquered Carthage and annexed Greece, oligarchs lined their pockets with endless treasures and spoils of war. It only got worse once Roman soldiers conquered Spain in order to profit from the country's silver mines. 

    Meanwhile, Rome's plebeian citizens, many of whom were farmers, watched as plutocrats gobbled up their land in order to create a commercial agriculture industry. Any political leaders who tried to redistribute wealth or land were blocked. This led to a period of political turmoil marked by strikes, riots, and massive protests.

  • They Broke Into Factions Who Prioritized Their Own Aims Over Their Republic
    Photo: Cesare Maccari / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    They Broke Into Factions Who Prioritized Their Own Aims Over Their Republic

    The Problem: Roman politicians were incentivized to create groups based upon legislative aims and personal goals. These factio, as they were called at the time, promoted their own agendas over the health of the overall republic.

    The Story: Rome's aristocracy, perturbed by lower-class citizens having more access to government functions, established the Optimates in the second century BC. The term itself, which translates to "the best men," is a dig at commoners who gained a voice through legislative assemblies. This combative attitude permeated all aspects of Roman politics.

    Eventually, the Optimates were at war with the Populares - leaders who sought support by appealing to the populace instead of the Senate. Both factio were manipulated by rabble-rousers who wanted to advance their own careers more than they wanted to advocate for sustainable change that would benefit all Romans.

  • Ancient Democracies Limited Voting To Select Citizens
    Photo: Vincenzo Camuccini / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ancient Democracies Limited Voting To Select Citizens

    The Problem: Despite upholding democratic ideals, voting requirements and citizenship rules limited the number of people who could participate in government.

    The Story: Athens was an ever-expanding city-state that practiced slavery and controlled the surrounding territory known as Attica. In the fourth century BC, the population of Athens included roughly 100,000 citizens; 10,000 resident foreigners; and 150,000 slaves. Of these people, only male citizens who were over 18 years old were eligible to vote. This constricted the voting population to just around 40,000 residents at the time.

    It was not much better for those under the Roman Republic. After Rome annexed Italy in the fourth century BC, Roman leaders refused to give non-Roman Italians citizenship or a voice in politics. Resentment brewed among Italians, who still paid taxes, for a few 100 years, culminating with an insurrection in the late 90s BC.

    Both systems, which claimed to be democratic in theory, proved far more oligarchic in practice.

  • Demagogues Were Able To Easily Persuade A Misled Populace
    Photo: François-André Vincent / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Demagogues Were Able To Easily Persuade A Misled Populace

    The Problem: Thanks to class divides, sectional politics, and economic inequality, one opportunist after another led everyday Athenians and Romans astray.

    The Story: In Athens, regional conflict with neighboring Sparta came to a halt when both cities signed the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC. However, power-hungry statesmen who believed there was much to gain from maintaining an aggressive stance toward any perceived enemy rallied the masses. Two such demagogues, Cleon and Alcibiades, used their oratory skills to promote senseless brutality and carnage in hopes of becoming forceful voices within the Athenian government.

    According to the ancient historian Thucydides, Cleon convinced a large audience to dispatch those revolting against Athenian rule on the island city of Mytilene by urging those listening to "make an example of them to your other allies." Alcibiades, breaking the Peace of Nicias "in his envy," helmed a series of poorly planned regional invasions and wars that led to Athens' disastrous defeat at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

    These instances echo the efforts of Roman demagogues like the Gracchi brothers, who used a populist platform to find support with the Populares and undermine the republic. Likewise, Caesar Augustus took advantage of the faltering republic so he could declare himself the first Roman emperor late in the first century BC.

  • Political Campaigns Were Expensive And Mired In Controversy
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Political Campaigns Were Expensive And Mired In Controversy

    The Problem: Campaign expenses were exorbitant by the end of the Roman Republic, and the results of elections were often questionable.

    The Story: The best example of a high-profile political campaign that involved beaucoup bucks is the pontifex maximus election of 63 BC. The pontifex maximus was the most important figure in ancient Roman religion, the high priest who oversaw the College of Pontiffs. Julius Caesar, a pontifex at the time, knew the position would lead him one step closer to his political goals, so he decided to run against the more experienced Catulus.

    Catulus attempted to bribe Caesar with a payout, but Caesar refused, borrowing such a large sum of money himself that losing the election would equate to the end of his career. "Mother, to-day thou shalt see thy son either pontifex maximus or an exile," Caesar purportedly stated on the day of the election. Caesar prevailed, and some historians speculate he threw a lot of coin at electors in order to secure the position.

  • Certain Individuals Had Their Own Personal Military
    Photo: Lionel Royer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Certain Individuals Had Their Own Personal Military

    The Problem: Aided by their own armies, some leaders were able to steal power and intimidate other politicians.

    The Story: In the final decades of the Roman Republic, Sulla, an elected leader, led a reign of terror that took out many important senators and elites. Sulla's rule signaled an end to whatever democratic policies were still intact, and it made way for Julius Caesar's rise to power. Twenty years after Sulla's passing, Caesar formed the First Triumvirate, a three-way pact, with fellow leaders Pompey and Crassus. 

    As Caesar embarked upon one successful military campaign after another, he set his sights on ruling Rome alone. From Gaul, Caesar's allies in the office of the tribune bent laws to suit his needs. The Senate demanded Caesar give up his military and come home a citizen. He refused. With a legion of soldiers by his side, Caesar returned to Rome, where he faced treason charges for his tactics.

    After stepping across the Rubicon River, Caesar's army battled Pompey's forces. Caesar was victorious, declaring himself the perpetual leader of Rome until his assassination in 44 BC.