Democratic Stability in Ancient Greece

F. Andrew Hanssen (Clemson University)
Robert K. Fleck (Clemson University)

Abstract: Efforts to establish an effective system of “rule by the people” have had mixed results. Some polities have developed into stable democracies (e.g., ancient Athens, the modern United States), while others have produced merely transitory democracies, with periodic reversions to oligarchy or autocracy (e.g., ancient Syracuse, modern Venezuela). To provide new insight into the reasons why some democracies are stable while others are not, we study the world’s first great democratic expansion, that of ancient Greece. Building on recent work by classicists, we develop a data set of government types for nearly 200 Greek poleis (city-states) spanning several centuries. We find evidence that ancient Greek democracies, whether stable or unstable, are associated with coastal locations (a proxy for commercial potential), while stable regimes, whether democratic or non-democratic, are associated with historical records of less civil strife. We also find evidence that stable democracies were wealthier than unstable democracies. These findings support a simple theoretical model, in which decisions to democratize – and the subsequent stability of newly democratized regimes – depend on exogenous changes in economic conditions, notably changes that influence expectations regarding the prospects for economic growth.