XI.8 Why the Ancients did not have a very clear notion of monarchy

The Ancients did not know govern­ment based on a body of nobi­lity, and even less govern­ment based on a legis­la­tive body made up of repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of a nation. The repu­blics of Greece and Italy were cities, each of which had its govern­ment, and assem­bled its citi­zens within its walls. Before the Romans had swal­lo­wed up all the repu­blics, there was scar­cely a king anyw­here in Italy, Gaul, Spain, or Germany ; eve­ry­thing was small peo­ples or small repu­blics. Even Africa was sub­jec­ted to a large one ; Asia Minor was occu­pied by the Greek colo­nies. There was the­re­fore no exam­ple of repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of cities, nor assem­blies of sta­tes ; only by going as far as Persia could one find the govern­ment of one man alone.

There were indeed some fede­ra­tive repu­blics : seve­ral cities sent repre­sen­ta­ti­ves to an assem­bly. But I am saying there was no monar­chy on that model.

Here is the way the first tier of the monar­chies we know was for­med. The Germanic nations that conque­red the Roman empire were, as we know, quite free. On this sub­ject one has only to look at Tacitus, On the ways of the Germans.1 The conque­rors spread through the coun­try ; they inha­bi­ted the coun­try­side, and the cities to a les­ser degree. When they were in Germania, the entire nation could assem­ble. When they were dis­per­sed through the conquest, they no lon­ger could. Yet the nation had to deli­be­rate on its busi­ness, as it had before the conquest : it did so through repre­sen­ta­ti­ves. Such is the ori­gin of Gothic govern­ment among us. It was first mixed with aris­to­cracy and monar­chy. It had the disad­van­tage that the popu­lace was ensla­ved. The cus­tom deve­lo­ped of giving them let­ters of eman­ci­pa­tion, and soon the civil liberty of the peo­ple, the pre­ro­ga­ti­ves of the nobi­lity and the clergy, and the might of the kings, were in such har­mony that I do not think there has been on earth such a well-tem­pe­red govern­ment as that of each part of Europe for as long as it las­ted ; and it is a won­der that the cor­rup­tion of the govern­ment of a conque­ring peo­ple should have for­med the best kind of govern­ment that men have been able to ima­gine.2

[De moribus Germanorum.]

It was a good government that had in itself the capacity of becoming better.