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The failure of democracy: Cyrus the Great and the obedience of the willing

Research Cluster

Speaker:Dr Lynette Mitchell, Senior Lecturer, Classics, University of Exeter
Date: Tuesday 6 November 2007
Time: 16:00
Location: Conference Room 1, XFI

Further details

By the second half of the fifth century, there were a number of different ways of theorising democracy. On the one hand, since all government was viewed in terms of ruling and being ruled, for some democracy was rule by all the people, who ruled and were ruled in turn (that is, by lot and in rotation). For others, especially those opposed to democracy, it was rule in the interests of the (poor) majority in opposition to the interests of the (wealthy) minority. On the other hand, however, by the late fifth century democracy was also being defined in value-terms as the opposite of monarchy, and especially tyranny (which stood outside law). On this basis it was argued that democracy brought freedom, which was interpreted as the opposite of the slavery of tyranny (as exemplified by the Persian King), and comprising equality before law, equality of political opportunity and equality in the right to speak. What is interesting about these various understandings of democracy, however, is their reliance on models of ‘ruling’ and of one-man-rule’ in particular.

Nevertheless at the end of the fifth century, democracy and these democratic freedom and equalities came under pressure from a number of different directions. Not only did the Athenians lose the long-running and expensive war with Sparta (for which democratic processes were thought partly to blame), but (ironically) the freedoms of democracy were seen to have been responsible for allowing the rise of the brutal oligarchic regime which took control of Athens at the conclusion of the war. Although democracy was quickly restored, confidence in democratic values and practice were seriously eroded. As a result, political theorists looked for other models for the management of the state, and there was a particular interest in different versions of one-man rule. One of the most cogent and sustained arguments was put forward by Xenophon, who, in his novelistic treatise, The Education of Cyrus, argued that the rule of law could be consistent with rule by one man, and developed the notion of the monarch who ruled absolutely through fear, but also secured willing obedience through careful management and leadership.