Public Assemblies in Early Cities

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By Yavor Tarinski

The greatest achievement of these human beings was the creation of cities.
Dimitrios Roussopoulos[1]

As Hannah Arendt has suggested, “To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence[2]. This was the main characteristic of the early cities – they created a public space within which the seeds of political equality allowed citizens to self-manage their communities. These societies were far from perfect, as one can see in the examples below. Problems like patriarchy and slavery often plagued them.

But nonetheless, they offer us an important legacy – that of democratic participation, which renders every citizen (and not only experts or representatives) capable of participating in the governance of her city. It is no wonder then that variations of the institution of popular assembly emerged in many early cities.

The following lines, written by Cornelius Castoriadis come to outline the organic relation between democratic participation and urban life: “Direct democracy certainly requires the physical presence of citizens in a given place when decisions have to be made[…] but also[…] requires that these citizens form an organic community, that they live if possible in the same milieu, that they be familiar through their daily experience with the subject to be discussed and with the problems to be tackled.”[3]

Ancient Mesopotamia

In early Mesopotamian cities was not uncommon for public affairs to be managed by a general assembly composed of a community’s free men as early as 2800 B.C.[4] Such proto-democratic decision-making bodies dealt with communal conflicts, decided on major issues as war and peace, and could—if the people deemed it necessary—grant a certain member of the city with supreme authority (namely kingship) for a limited period of time. A council of elders presided over the general assembly, but it did not held more authority than it. Sovereignty rested in the assembly of free men. Distinguished assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim writes that “the community of persons of equal status bound together by a consciousness of belonging, realized by directing their communal affairs by means of an assembly, in which, under a presiding officer, some measure of consensus was reached as it was the case in the rich and quasi-independent old cities of Babylonia.”[5]

Gilgamesh, the historic king of the Sumerian city Uruk, consulted the assembly in important matters of peace and war. Sources suggest that he first consulted the council of elders and then the assembly, consisted of the free men of the town, before he decided to engage in a military campaign. His consultation was not only for advice but for consent as the assembly was recognized as the ultimate political authority.[6]

The proto-democratic traits of these Mesopotamian cities were reflected in the religious beliefs of society. According to the Adad myth, gods and goddesses deliberated at an assembly, held in a large court called Ubshuukkinna. Anu, the god of heaven and father of all gods, along with Enlil, god of the storms, presided over the sessions, with their task being mainly to bring issues for discussion. Then all gods and goddesses deliberated, proposed, and ultimately reached collective decisions. Wise thinking was much admired by the gods, as was the ability to make others listen to one’s words. No single god possessed ultimate authority. It was their assembly that had such power.[7]

As time passed, the political structure of Mesopotamian cities became increasingly authoritarian. The position of the king became permanent, and inheritable, without the approval of the general assembly. But even after royal power became entrenched during later periods, community assemblies did not die out completely, although they were methodically stripped out of their powers.

Standard of Ur, side B. This panel shows a banquet

India

Another example of proto-democratic assembly institutions comes from the independent towns of India, which existed as early as the 6th century B.C. and persisted in some areas until the 4th century. The evidence for this is scattered, however, and no pure historical source exists for that period. Greek historian Diodorus mentions in his works in 1st century BC, without any detail, about the existence of independent and democratic cities in India[8]. While he might have used the term democracy in a distorted manner due to the epoch in which he lived (a time of political centralization as a result of the legacy of Alexander the Great), it is worth noting that his time was nonetheless close to the epoch of stateless, self-managed Greek cities, and thus he might have referred to the authentic meaning of the word.

While there was no complete political equality, as existed to a certain degree in Ancient Athens, the structure of these independent cities contained the institution of the popular assembly. In some cases, these assemblies were open to all free men. According to Eric W. Robinson, in the communities of Sakyas (the Buddha’s people) participation in the assembly was open to all, regardless of their wealth or status[9]. In other cases, only the members of certain classes or casts were allowed to attend. Decisions were usually taken by consensus, although there are proofs for the usage of voting as well[10].

But in any case, the assembly had significant financial, administrative, and judicial authority. It had the power to elect a monarch (wherever this position existed). The latter and all other official administrators had to coordinate their decisions and activities with the assembly and seek its agreement. In certain cases, there was also a council of elders or nobles.

Ancient Athens

Ancient Athens can be described as the birthplace of genuine direct democracy since at a certain point it developed a participatory system, in which the general assembly was the supreme authority and there were no monarchs or other oligarchic structures/positions existing in parallel to it.

This grassroots decision-making body was called Ecclesia by the Athenians. It was the popular assembly, open to all male citizens as soon as they qualified for citizenship. In 594 BC, after Solon’s reforms, all citizens were allowed to participate, regardless of class or status. The assembly was responsible for declaring war, military strategy, and electing the strategoi (military generals) and other officials. It was responsible for nominating and electing magistrates, thus indirectly electing the members of the Areopagus (supreme court). It had the final say on legislation and the right to call magistrates to account after their year of office. A typical meeting of the Assembly probably contained around 6000 people, out of a total citizen population of 30,000–60,000.[11]

In the 390s new measures were passed, which introduced payments for attendance at the assembly so as to allow in practice even the poorest of citizens to participate in the political deliberation. It originally met once every month, but later met three or four times per month.[12] The agenda for the Ecclesia was established by the Boule – the popular council whose members were chosen by lot among all Athenian citizens. Votes were taken by a show of hands, counting of stones and voting using broken pottery.

The regular meetings of the general assembly were held on an open-air space at the Pnyx – a hill at the heart of Athens. On the one hand, this location allowed for large meetings with thousands of participants to take place. On the other, it symbolized the openness of the political system: politics were no longer conducted behind closed doors, but outside, on the open where nothing could be hidden.

Viking’s Thing

In Nordic towns, during the Viking age, a public institution called Thing emerged. In its essence, it was an assembly where all free men of a community would gather to deliberate on laws, decide on policies, elect chieftain, judge, etc[13]. While the Thing had both judiciary and legislative powers, it had no power to carry out sentences. Instead, this was the responsibility of the injured party’s family.

Each town had its own independent Thing, with sessions held on a regular basis. Larger settlements were structured as confederations of local communal Things, who would send representatives to deliberate at the general assembly of the whole city, as was the case of Iceland.[14]

Following the Viking oral tradition, each Thing had a law speaker who would recite the law, which he had to memorize by heart. All free men of the community supposedly had a say at the assembly deliberations, although women could also be present but couldn’t take part in the decision-making.[15] The Thing’s sessions were presided over by the law speaker and the chieftain. The existence of certain roles with more power created the preconditions for Things to be dominated by a local, powerful family or families.

The Thing’s sessions would generally last for several days, often accompanied by a festive atmosphere. Traders would bring their goods for sale and merchants would set up stands with products. Things were held where water was easily obtained, there was grazing for animals, and fishing or hunting would provide food for all. Brewmasters would provide the attendees with ale and mead. During the Thing, marriages were arranged, alliances were crafted, news and gossip exchanged and friendships established and renewed.[16]

Towards the end of the Viking Age, the political system became more centralized as chieftains began consolidating their power and control over the assemblies, becoming kings. The Thing lost most of its political power and as a result, it began functioning largely as King’s court in the later Middle Ages.

Germanic Thing, drawn after the depiction in a relief of the Column of Marcus Aurelius (193 CE)

Medieval Slavic Veche

The early medieval Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea wrote in 6 AD the following words, regarding the political structure of early Slavic societies (VII. 14. 22-30): “the Sclaveni and the Antae, are not ruled by one man, but they have lived from of old under a democracy…”.[17]

In medieval Slavic towns, all important decisions regarding public life were made at the so called Veche (popular assembly). The term originates from the ancient Slavic word “vet” (assembly or council). Attendance was allowed to the free members of the community[18]. Decisions taken there were obligatory for all the community. Although a certain Veche might differ from the rest, it was still based on popular participation and existed throughout the Slavic world – from the Baltic Slavs to Novgorod.

There is scarce historic information about the structure of the Veche. It is known that in Novgorod, the popular assembly could annul a decision made by the Knyaz (chieftain) or even expel him from the town.[19] This comes as no surprise since the Knyaz or Voevoda was not a bearer of high religious or noble status, but simply a head of the warriors, and the community could even hire one as a means of protection. Despite that, with the passing of time, the warriors would gain significant power and would eventually either dismantle popular assemblies or will dominate them. Novgorod was one of the places where the institution of the Veche lasted for the longest time – until the 15th century, although there too its power was strongly diminished.

Most decisions at the Veche were taken through a simple majority vote. When strong disagreements were present one session could last for up to 5 days. There were however cases of popular assemblies where decisions were taken through consensus. Such were the veches of the Lutichi, one of the Baltic Slavs tribal unions. According to German chronicler Thietmar von Merseburg, in the Lutichi tribal union, a person who dared to question a common decision could be beaten by sticks and his house could be burned.[20] This was a means to keep people from going “against the stream”. This comes as a reminder that consensus can lead to conformism.

Pskov Veche by Viktor Vasnetsov

New England Town Meetings

The New England town meetings are a much more recent example of democratic traits in emerging cities. As puritan colonists began settling at the Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s, they formed autonomous towns with democratic characteristics.[21] Although the public life of these settlements was centered around their churches, the people of each city self-governed themselves through covenants that all members of the community wrote together at town meetings.

The supreme political institution, which governed these towns, was the town meeting (general assembly). Its sessions were held on a regular basis. In the beginning, these meetings were attended only by church members, but with the passing of time, they became open to all male citizens who had any property or regular income (even minor sums)[22]. At the town meeting, citizens would gather to decide on all aspects of public life.

The ownership of the land was distributed among all male citizens in a relatively egalitarian manner, reflecting the democratic governance of these communities, with all of them receiving plots enough to sustain a family.[23] This helped inequalities to be avoided for a significant period of time. All able-bodied males were also part of the town militia and received training.

As town meetings evolved and empowered colonists, they were increasingly viewed as a threat to the British Empire. It was the town meeting that fueled the spark that ultimately led to the American Revolution, and was at the heart of the latter.[24] However, as with the previous cases, town meetings were gradually stripped from their authority by other, much more centralized institutions, such as the presidency. Nowadays they still exist in cities like Burlington (Vermont), but the scope of their decision-making power has been significantly narrowed.

An Early New England Town Meeting, Magic Lantern Glass Slide, C.W. Jefferys

Conclusion

The paradigm of the city as a public space for social liberation is as timely as never before. It is up to us to use the historic legacy of the public assembly, together with an inclusive understanding of citizenship, in order to articulate a coherent project of direct democracy. As Murray Bookchin has suggested, “creating free cities is about developing free citizens, in whose hands power over society should be squarely placed: it must reside in popular assemblies and not in bureaucracies, parliaments, or corporate boards”.[25]


References:

[1] https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=08ScPcV0MtM

[2] Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition (London: university of chicago press, 1998), p26

[3] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p56

[4] Benjamin Isakhan: Re-thinking Middle Eastern Democracy: Lessons from Ancient Mesopotamia (Paper presented at the Australasian Political Studies Association(APSA) Conference, University of Newcastle, Australia), p.6 http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.515.6429&rep=rep1&type=pdf

[5] A. Leo Oppenheim: Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p95

[6] https://www.bxscience.edu/ourpages/auto/2017/9/28/78342001/HW2-1–Democracy-in-Mesopotamia.pdf

[7] http://www.pwhce.org/apr/apr66.html

[8]   J.A.O. Larsen: Demokratia in Classical Philology vol.68 no.1, 1973, pp. 45–46

[9] Eric W. Robinson: The First Democracies: Early Popular Government Outside Athens (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997), p23

[10] Eric W. Robinson: The First Democracies: Early Popular Government Outside Athens (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997), p22

[11] Mogens Herman Hansen (editor): From Political Architecture to Stephanus Byzantius: Sources for the Ancient Greek Polis (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1994), pp 51–53

[12] http://www.stoa.org/demos/article_democracy_overview@page=all&greekEncoding=UnicodeC.html

[13] https://www.britannica.com/topic/thing-Scandinavian-political-assembly

[14] Örnólfur Thorsson(editor): The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), pxlvi

[15] Natascha Mehler: Þingvellir: A Place of Assembly and a Market? In Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 8, 2015, p69

[16] Phillip Pulsiano & Paul Leonard Acker: Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia (Oxford: Taylor & Francis, 1993)

[17] http://users.clas.ufl.edu/fcurta/Procopius.htm

[18] https://www.slavorum.org/veche-the-ancient-popular-assembly-in-medieval-slavic-countries/

[19] https://www.slavorum.org/veche-the-ancient-popular-assembly-in-medieval-slavic-countries/

[20] https://www.slavorum.org/veche-the-ancient-popular-assembly-in-medieval-slavic-countries/

[21] https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2013/05/new-england-town-halls-these-experiments-in-direct-democracy-do-a-far-better-job-than-congress.html

[22] https://anarchyinaction.org/index.php?title=New_England_town_meetings

[23] https://anarchyinaction.org/index.php?title=New_England_town_meetings

[24] https://laurinberresheim.wordpress.com/2018/07/16/hannah-arendt-on-freedom-and-revolution/comment-page-1/

[25] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-eirik-eiglad-free-cities

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