Despotism in the Greek States

Ancient Greece Athens and Sparta

American Founding Fathers commented on the despotism of Athens and Sparta and hoped to take their lessons in history as cautionary tales in defense against making the same mistakes. 

John Adams' Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787) attributed Athens' destruction to mob-rule and the lack of a central executive or legislative branch. Unchecked liberty in Athens resulted in anarchy, which still ends up tyrannical when seized by a popular authoritarian figure. Adams wrote "The Republic of Athens, for more than a thousand years years in arts, eloquence, and philosophy, as well as in politeness, and wit, was, for a short period of her duration, the most democratical commonwealth in Greece." He hoped that innovations in the U.S. in "representation and the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers," could lead the United States to "escape the tumultous commotions, like the raging waves of the sea, which always agitated the ecclesia of Athens" (Richard, 80).

Thomas Jefferson, would have viewed Sparta as anti-republican, because its polity did not encourage free thought or individualism. In 1824 he said, "In a Republic, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion, not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of the first importance" (Richard, 18). The basic disregard for individuality or lack of emphasis on fostering individual liberty of thought would have made Sparta subject to tyrants, who as Aristotle said, "are enemies of free speech and assembly." Although public citizenry can be blinded by emotion, such as was the case in Athens, despotism can also occur when power is consolidated by the few in an oligarchy, as Plutarch said.