Ancient greek origins of separation of powers?
February 13, 2013 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Somewhere I read an interpretation of the development of democracy in Ancient Greece that went something like this: A king died and three princes struggled to seize power. No one prince was strong enough to defeat the others. They made a deal that one would be responsible for military matters, the second for administrative matters, and the third for religious. This system proved relatively effective and was continued, eventually on a non-hereditary basis, and is the original source for the separation of powers between different branches of government.

Does that sound familiar to anyone? I'm looking for the origins of separation of powers, not democracy. I think it came from a book by Paul Johnson or a similar conservative historian if that helps. I'd appreciate a reference or guidance if it rings any ancient bells.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy to Law & Government (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

That kind of division is not specific to Ancient Greece, but it shows up in many cultures that speak an Indo-European-derived language, including Celtic, Germanic and Aryan tribes. The Trifunctional Hypothesis:
The trifunctional hypothesis of prehistoric Proto-Indo-European society postulates a tripartite ideology ("idéologie tripartite") reflected in the existence of three classes or castes—priests, warriors, and commoners (farmers or tradesmen)—corresponding to the three functions of the sacral, the martial and the economic, respectively.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 12:40 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Charles Montesquieu coined the term "checks and balances" in reference to the Roman Republic in his Spirit of Laws.

Before its transformation under the principate (after Ceasar), the Roman state was governed by three authorities:

The Senate - Seats inherited by elite aristocrats.
The Legislative Assemblies - Representative seats elected by citizens of various groups.
The Consuls and other Magistrates - Elected by the Senate for very limited terms.
posted by General Tonic at 1:14 PM on February 13, 2013

I suspect what you're remembering is something purporting to explain (because we really don't have an historical record, the real explanation is conjecture) the dual kingship era of Spartan government.

In any case, this concept was picked up by Plato and Polybius and became part of the Roman theory of mixed government. From there it fed into Locke and Montesquieu and from there to Thomas Jefferson, who was a rabid advocate of the principle.
posted by dhartung at 5:12 PM on February 13, 2013

Best answer: You might also be thinking of the three original archons in Athens: the king archon, who continued the religious functions of the king, the polemarch, who was the war archon, and the eponymous archon, who gave his name to the year. Here's Aristotle on the system:

Now the ancient constitution, as it existed before the time of Draco, was organized as follows. The magistrates were elected according to qualifications of birth and wealth. At first they governed for life, but subsequently for terms of ten years. The first magistrates, both in date and in importance, were the King, the Polemarch, and the Archon. The earliest of these offices was that of the King, which existed from ancestral antiquity. To this was added, secondly, the office of Polemarch, on account of some of the kings proving feeble in war; for it was on this account that Ion was invited to accept the post on an occasion of pressing need. The last of the three offices was that of the Archon, which most authorities state to have come into existence in the time of Medon.
posted by dd42 at 7:40 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Archons was exactly what I was trying to remember. Thanks!
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 4:51 AM on February 14, 2013

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