Ancient Greece and the idea of sovereignty

Κυριαρχία or sovereignty? Did the classic Greeks have a conception about what sovereignty was? Did they define, analyze, and study it?

If we revised at a glance their literature, we would answer in a negative way. However, if we went deeper into our research and analyzed the concept within their theoretical frame, we would find out a different outcome.

We can establish without hesitation two theoretical phenomena in their literature.  On the one hand and as in the later centuries (like in the Middle Ages) the word κυριαρχία was used by the Greek writers with another connotation. The word was there, the denotation was different from the one we use nowadays. We shall show how a thinker like Herodotus shows the usage of it in several historical episodes. On the other hand, we have philosophers that developed whole theorizations about politics, politics science, ethics and State and actually highlight the importance of the notion of sovereign and sovereignty without using the same name to frame is modern theorist do. We shall focus our attention on two of the leading figures on the issue: Plato and Aristotle.

Sovereignty within the general literature. Herodotus.

In The History (or Histories)[1]Herodotus writes in 440 B.C. (estimated) his and some others memories about events happened in Greeceand the world as it was known at that time. Although some scholars still argue that the books that integrate The History have mistaken historical references and the presence of religious and mythological episodes, it is undoubtedly one of the firsts (if not the first) historical accounts of all human being times.

In relation to our project we have simply gone through the Books that form The Histories searching for the word Κυριαρχία or sovereignty. The outcome of our approach can be found below (under “Appendix”).

What results interesting to us is that the word sovereignty is used with a similar meaning as the one we currently use in political science but in a completely different context: individual relation. And what makes this finding more unusual is that the same pattern is followed by the literature in the Middle Ages as we shall see.

At that time the term sovereignty implied freedom of will. In all and every single passages of The History we observe it is always related to a female character. Why is that? We have to remember the time frame this masterpiece is from. Women and slaves had little (if nothing) to do in political affairs and the State. They had to do what they were told to do by their partners or masters. Having sovereignty over themselves meant at that time having the right to choose; having the free will to deliberate and to decide what to do and not to do: being the ultimate authority for own issues.

We believe that as the times as societies evolved into larger, more powerful and complex organization the notion also did as a matter of practical necessity.

The philosophers: Plato and Aristotle.

 Both of them, among other classic Greek philosophers, developed theories about human life in its broadest sense: from ethics and politics, to education and sex, from the animal kingdom to the State, from a world of ideas and excellences (or values) to more practical and real issues.

As it can be expected, they also inquired about the State, the people that form it, the authorities that lead them, the possible Constitutions and law that norm them.

Although none of them has specifically written about the concept of sovereignty as we know it nowadays we believe they discussed and developed the notion.

In following posts, and in order to demonstrate our point we shall embark on an analytical journey through their major works related to political sciences. In the case of Plato, we shall observe triad composed by The Republic, The Politicus or The Statesman and The Laws; and with Aristotle, we think plausible and a sensible idea to recreate another triptych view with the Nicomachean Ethics, The Politics and the Constitution for Athens.



Book I.


“The SOVEREIGNTY of Lydia, which had belonged to the Heraclides, passed into the family of Croesus, who were called the Mermnadae, in the manner which I will now relate”.


“The Pythoness, however, added that, in the fifth generation from Gyges, vengeance should come for the Heraclides; a prophecy of which neither the Lydians nor their princes took any account till it was fulfilled. Such was the way in which the Mermnadae deposed the Heraclides, and themselves obtained the SOVEREIGNTY”.


“Of all the answers that had reached him, this pleased him far the best, for it seemed incredible that a mule should ever come to be king of the Medes, and so he concluded that the SOVEREIGNTYwould never depart from himself or his seed after him”.


“In this way he acquired the SOVEREIGNTYof Athens, which he continued to hold without disturbing the previously existing offices or altering any of the laws”.


“Pisistratus, having thus recovered the SOVEREIGNTY, married, according to agreement, the daughter of Megacles”.


“The opinion of Hippias prevailed, and it was agreed to aim at regaining the SOVEREIGNTY”.


Book IV.


“They entered Asia in pursuit of the Cimmerians, and overthrew the empire of the Medes, who till they came possessed the SOVEREIGNTY”.


Book V.


“Coes, on the other hand, as he was a mere burgher, and not a king, requested the SOVEREIGNTYof Mytilene”.


“There were two Paeonians, Pigres and Mantyes, whose ambition it was to obtain the SOVEREIGNTY over their countrymen”.


“The way in which “The Accursed” at Athensgot their name, was the following. There was a certain Athenian called Cylon, a victor at the Olympic Games, who aspired to the SOVEREIGNTY, and aided by a number of his companions, who were of the same age with himself, made an attempt to seize the citadel”.


Book VI.


“In course of time Ariston died; and Demaratus received the kingdom: but it was fated, as it seems, that these words, when bruited abroad, should strip him of his SOVEREIGNTY”.


Book VII.


“Artabanus,” answered Xerxes, “there is nothing in all that thou hast said, wherein thou art so wholly wrong as in this, that thou suspectest the faith of the Ionians. Have they not given us the surest proof of their attachment- a proof which thou didst thyself witness, and likewise all those who fought with Darius against the Scythians? When it lay wholly with them to save or to destroy the entire Persian army, they dealt by us honourably and with good faith, and did us no hurt at all. Besides, they will leave behind them in our country their wives, their children, and their properties- can it then be conceived that they will attempt rebellion? Have no fear, therefore, on this score; but keep a brave heart and uphold my house and empire. To thee, and thee only, do I intrust my SOVEREIGNTY.”


Book VIII.


“From the mainland of Greece beyond the Peloponnese, came the Athenians with a hundred and eighty ships, a greater number than that furnished by any other people; and these were now manned wholly by themselves; for the Plataeans did not serve aboard the Athenian ships at Salamis, owing to the following reason. When the Greeks, on their withdrawal from Artemisium, arrived off Chalcis, the Plataeans disembarked upon the opposite shore of Boeotia, and set to work to remove their households, whereby it happened that they were left behind. (The Athenians, when the region which is now called Greece was held by the Pelasgi, were Pelasgians, and bore the name of Cranaans; but under their king Cecrops, they were called Cecropidae; when Erechtheus got the SOVEREIGNTY, they changed their name to Athenians; and when Ion, the son of Xuthus, became their general, they were named after him Ionians.)”


(from when transcribing and referencing.

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