Institutional Change and the Roots of the Athenian Rule of Law

Federica Carugati (Indiana University)

Abstract: At the end of the 5th century BC, a massive shock to Athens’ political and economic structure brought a prosperous, imperial polis to the brink of collapse. Classical scholars have variously argued that, in the aftermath of the shock, Athens’ established the rule of law through a series of reforms to the polis’ legislative and judiciary institutions. Where did ‘the rule of law’ come from? This article explores the dynamics of institutional change in ancient Athens by analyzing how beliefs affected institutional change, and how institutional change shaped long-term political and economic outcomes. I argue that, during the late 5th century crisis, the Athenians articulated the notion of patrios politeia (i.e., the constitution of the fathers), as a commitment to the laws of the polis. The commitment to law was eventually weaved into the structure of a new, self-enforcing constitution. The constitution fostered political stability and economic recovery by enabling investments in institution building and infrastructure. Because the institutions enabling the provision of democracy and prosperity in Athens differed considerably from their modern counterparts, this study helps enrich the range of empirical evidence available to students of development. Because well-documented historical cases offer a window into the dynamics of institutional change, the emergence of the Athenian rule of law highlights the contextual nature of successful institutional design.