Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room: Chapter 6 Summary

Experiments In Government: The Italian City-States

“… darkness fled, Light shone, and order from disorder sprung…”

There are moments in history when societies are organizing themselves for the first time. There is experimentation and innovation. The Italian city-states in northern Italy during the early phase of their development at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance offer one example. There emerged a form of local political authority known as the commune. These communes, though highly selective as to legal membership, were nonetheless exercises in self-government. All positions were rotated at two month intervals, chosen by lot from a predetermined pool of candidates whose names were stored in a pouch known as a borse, in the Santa Croce church. 

The general assembly elected between four and twenty consuls, usually for a term of six months to one year. The consulate wielded executive and judicial authority on a day-to-day basis. As a check on their authority, the consuls were answerable to the general assembly on critical matters.

Numerically speaking, the extent of citizen involvement was considerable. The size of the greater councils could run to a thousand or more. In Genoa, in 1292, a council of six hundred members debated for seven days on the subject of war between France and Sicily. One hundred five councilors made speeches. In the communes, there were many posts to be filled. In Pisa, in 1162, there were ninety-one. In Siena, in 1257, there were eight hundred sixty offices. Thus, a high proportion of the male population had some form of direct participation in government. It has been estimated that in ancient Athens, in a given year, one-third of the citizenry served in government in some capacity. A similar level of participation is said to have occurred in the Italian city-states.