History of Greece Volume 3: From the Age of the Despots to the Western Colonies

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Afterwards, it played a significant role in Hegel's thought as well as in Marx's writing when it turned towards the "Asiatic mode of production" theory. Finally, the concept reappeared both in Weber's thought and, in the 20th century, in Wittfogel's. The idea of Oriental despotism has an old and diversified history in European culture. It was a conceptual model in different interacting cultural contexts, it assumed various functions and meanings, and it waned with the decline of the Eurocentric preconception on which it was deeply grounded ever since its origins in Greek thought.

The classical scheme was not merely reproduced, but enriched with particular articulations and specific values which were connected to different exigencies and contexts. Hence the story of Oriental despotism is not only that of a unique philosophical and political idea, it is also a story of cultural attitudes, representations, concrete interests, interactions and direct experiences. This offers plenty of interesting variations on the same theme of the confrontation with and interpretation of an Oriental alterity.

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We could say that the theoretical force of this concept has vanished nowadays, if we mainly considered the development of post-colonial approaches or the methodological perspectives opened up by world or global history. Inside the general framework of the contemporary analysis of 'Orientalism', 2 in particular, the stereotype of the arbitrary power of Asiatic princes and sovereigns and its political, social and cultural consequences have been pointed out, showing the strong implications of an ideology of domination which was inherent in colonial and imperial European power.

Although Oriental despotism as a conceptual tool is not as common and accepted as it has been in the past, its influence on European culture has been considerable. In particular, it has shaped the modern European mind and its consciousness of civic identity and responsibility, which played a critical and controversial role in the course of many centuries of international relationships. Like many other key concepts of philosophical and political European culture, Oriental despotism is deeply rooted in Greek thought.

The words "despot" and "despotism" clearly come from a classical Greek context, where this concept became an effective tool of automatic recognition of Greek identity and superiority over other "barbarous" nations, mainly the great Persian enemy. Although the idea of a radical opposition between the Greek and Persian nations, grounded on the Greek assumption that Persians were subordinate slaves, was expressed by several authors, such as Aeschylus — BC or Isocrates — BC , it was Aristotle — BC [ ] who formulated the first solid theoretical foundation of this idea, codifying despotism as a topos of political philosophy.

In Book III of his Politics , Aristotle identified a particular form of monarchy — which, with aristocracy and the state, is one of the three possible forms of government. These three forms may degenerate and thus become tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. He explained the despot's authority in terms which correspond to the power of a master over his servant.

Despotic monarchy is precisely distinguished from tyranny, which is exercised over people against their will and consequently is illegitimate, whereas despotism is exercised over people who voluntarily or passively accept this kind of power.


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Despotic government as such is not unlawful or arbitrary; it is a special form of monarchy which can be confused with tyranny because its power is exercised in similar ways. However, it is substantially different, because despotic monarchy is both legitimate and hereditary. In many respects, this was a crucial distinction which enabled the Greeks to theoretically justify their future attitudes towards Asiatic societies and political systems.

First, Aristotle's theory clearly qualified despotism as incompatible with the natural character of the Greek people, who were free and could only temporarily be subject to tyranny because they would revolt against it as soon as possible. Instead, despotism was said to be the most suitable form of government for barbarous nations, mainly the Persians, who were thought to have a natural tendency towards subordination and would thus accept authorities which would be intolerable for the Greeks without opposition or apparent pain.

Despotism, for Aristotle, was therefore not degeneration, but a proper and possibly durable system in radical opposition to the Greek world and mind.


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This judgment followed from the idea that different ethnic groups were naturally compatible with different systems of government, which is an important element of Aristotle's political thought. From another point of view, this ancient Greek stereotype of Persians being naturally inclined to accept despotic power introduces an historical and geographical determination of despotism which has no connection with the Aristotelian concept of tyranny — any monarchy may degenerate into tyranny, in every place and time.

This establishes the "Oriental" character as a constitutive value for the notion of despotism. The history of the relationship between Greece and the Asiatic world, especially while Alexander the Great — BC [ ] was expanding his empire, is full of interactions and contaminations. A prominent example is Alexander's way of adopting Oriental concepts of conceiving and exercising power. It was criticized by his opponents because it was contrary to the idea of a necessary separation between different forms of society and government, which was stressed in Aristotelian political thought.

However, it thus opened the way for a variety of attitudes towards the Oriental world in Alexander's empire, both empirical and theoretical, which was typical of the Hellenistic era. Nevertheless, the previously established stereotypes about the Persians continued to have a strong influence.

After the foundation of the Byzantine Empire and of the so-called New Rome Constantinople , the Greek cultural and political identity found in this topos an important ideological support against the threats of the Sassanid Persian Empire , which was founded by Ardashir I died in Thus the idea of the anthropological and political otherness of the Persian people was not rejected but enriched and articulated in various ways by several authors in this new context.

In particular, moral judgments of the Eastern enemy now played an important role alongside the emphasis on geographical and anthropological diversity which had until then been predominant. We can observe that by this time the Aristotelian classification of governments was no longer the only theoretical foundation of these debates. For example, the term despotes was used with a connotation that is not negative — in the late ancient language it was mainly an equivalent for emperor.

On the other hand, the term tyranny was now employed more frequently for classifying the Persian government. Only after Aristotelian thought had been rediscovered and appreciated in late medieval culture, mainly after the translation of Aristotle's works by William of Moerbeke — , the influence of his classification and attributes of Oriental despotism grew and developed.

Still, the geographical identification of Asiatic areas, where the existence of a principatus despoticus was supposed to be naturally consistent with the character of the people, remained a mark of a qualitative difference between European and Asiatic society and politics and a confirmation of Oriental otherness in many works — especially in Marsilius's Defensor pacis or in the commentary of Aristotle's Politics by Nicholas Oresme. The classical heritage and the various implications of the Aristotelian model were of great importance for the early modern European approach towards Eastern societies and governments.

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Nevertheless, important new ideas emerged which gave the category of Oriental despotism fresh connotations from a theoretical point of view. The notion of a despotic power, notwithstanding the fact that Machiavelli did not use terms like despot or despotism , was explained as the absolute power of a monarch ruling over a nation of slaves instead of free citizens. This power was thought to be the most difficult kind to achieve, but the easiest to preserve because, in his view, the subordinates did not even know the meaning of freedom.

What is particularly important with regard to Oriental despotism is the fact that the traditional geographical delimitation of Oriental despotism changed in reaction to the emergence of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 13th century. However, Machiavelli's approach placed the fear of Islamic expansion, which was common in European Christian thought and culture, in a different context. He was more interested in analysing the characteristics of the Ottomans' particular form of monarchical government than in portraying the Islamic enemy. This state form is ruled by the Sultan, who is simultaneously the Caliph, the religious head of state, since he is considered to be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad — , with the assistance of his most powerful minister, the Grand Vizier.

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It is therefore radically opposed to European monarchies, which are led by a prince and his lords, as was the case in France at the time. Therefore Machiavelli saw the governance techniques of France and Turkey as two opposite ways of conceiving and practising power and authority, thus proposing a new outline for the traditional confrontation between East and West.

The reference to the Ottoman example for qualifying Oriental despotism is important for the political theories of the French author Jean Bodin — as well. Bodin further developed the thoughts of his predecessors by describing a monarchie seigneuriale 7 in which the authority of a prince over his subjects is limitless and similar to that of a master over slaves in the Aristotelian sense.

The word despot or despotism, however, was not included in Bodin's political vocabulary.

The essential difference between a monarchie seigneuriale and what Bodin called monarchie royale consists in the fact that the absolute nature of a king's power — legibus solutus — has some essential limits, that is property rights, divine and natural laws as well as the fundamental laws of the kingdom. As a consequence, the king of France , whose power is in fact absolute because there are no opponent authorities, does not have the same position, according to Bodin, as the kind of sovereign who, for example, rules the Ottoman Empire. In the latter case, neither property nor fundamental laws are respected; the king is the only proprietor of his subjects' possessions.

In Bodin's thought, this is not the consequence of a particular nature of the Ottoman people, as Aristotle believed, but the effect of war and conquest, which is the only origin of slavery. For this reason, not only Oriental monarchies were supposed to be despotic, but also the colonial empire of Charles V of Spain — Any monarch can incur the arbitrary power of a prince who does not respect the system of a monarchie royale and will thus be a tyrant, but his power must always be temporary because rebellion is an unavoidable consequence of his illegal authority.

Despotism, that is, monarchie seigneuriale , on the other hand, is a political and social system which may have great stability and whose duration can be very long. In fact, according to Bodin it was the most ancient and primitive form of monarchy in world history. By stressing conquest as the origin of despotic power and pointing out the absence of property rights as a characteristic of despotic government, Bodin introduced important new aspects into the theoretical debate about despotism. As a result, significant developments in the works of major philosophers like Thomas Hobbes — [ ] or John Locke — [ ] and in the general political and ideological European debate were possible.

The early modern interest in discoveries and voyages and the collection of new experience and knowledge in travel literature and encyclopaedic works also influenced the idea of an Oriental political otherness whose typical character was despotism. On this empirical basis a new comparative analysis of various Oriental societies and cultures was attempted. There were, for instance, the Relazioni Universali by Giovanni Botero — , 10 who made use of a large amount of primary sources and, above all, travel literature, describing the political relations of Venetian ambassadors and many others.

He geographically extended the idea of a despotic form of government beyond the Ottoman Empire, including a whole variety of Oriental governments, from Turkey to Persia , from Mughal India to China and Siam. This extension of the boundaries of Oriental despotism, in addition to previous philosophical and political ideas concerning the substantial difference of Asiatic governments, significantly enhanced the concept by offering a synthesis of empirical experience and theory.

Travel writings played a major role in this process, and their importance, sometimes underestimated in comparison to philosophical and political theory, deserves particular attention. Bernier painted a negative picture of the Empire by emphasizing the economically disastrous consequences of despotic government, the ruinous effects of a lack of private ownership, and the shocking contrast between the extreme wealth of the princes and the poverty of their people, who were oppressed by the taxation system and by rapacious peripheral administrators.

All this was the result of an empirical approach and direct experience, and not of mere theoretical speculation, although Bernier was also a philosopher and an original thinker. His observations in the Safavid monarchy at the end of the 17th century led him to describe the Persian despotic government as a result of incidental and historical circumstances which provided the prince with strength and extreme authority for controlling the aristocratic opposition.

Chardin did not consider despotism as a result of the natural character of the people nor of Islamic religion, which could in fact produce different political systems, as the examples of Turkey and Persia show. He therefore took care to describe the different varieties and forms of Oriental despotism in detail, and his writing is a remarkable example of how empirical experience could not only confirm but also question the use of a uniform interpretation scheme applied to every Asiatic government.

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When Charles Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu — [ ] published his Lettres Persanes in , France had already been debating on Oriental despotism for many years in a highly intellectual way, mainly in connection with the political and ideological struggle against the authoritarian trend of the French monarchy. The new term emerged during the age of the Fronde 13 and was elaborated in an intensive pamphlet war, in which the similarities between the power of Louis XIV — [ ] and that of the Grand Seigneur or the Grand Mogol were often hinted at; for instance, in the celebrated Soupirs de la France esclave by Michel Le Vassor — It would be misleading, however, to reduce Montesquieu's important contribution to this subject, which was later elaborated in his Esprit des Lois , to a mere polemical or ideological exploitation of the concept for contingent political purposes.

What distinguished Montesquieu's approach was his analysis of a particular authoritarian form of government which he may have rejected but whose predominance in the ancient and modern world, especially in Eastern countries, urged him to study its causes and conditions of existence. It led him, therefore, to define Oriental despotism as an autonomous form of government beyond its accepted categorization as a particular form of monarchy coming from the Aristotelian tradition. His analysis of despotism, of its nature — a concentration of authority that leaves no place to liberty —, and the principle of intimidation it is grounded on, as well as his systematic study of its various connections with climate, religion, manners, economy and laws, made Montesquieu's work the most important contribution to this debate in the 18th century and beyond.

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Asia — referring to all Eastern countries, from the Islamic world to the Far East — was for Montesquieu the natural milieu of despotism. He accordingly proposed a contrast between Europe and the Orient that was based on his scientific approach. L'Esprit des Lois was immediately recognized by his contemporaries as an important work and was extremely influential not only from a theoretical but also, maybe more, from a more general cultural point of view.

Its success may be connected with the fact that Montesquieu based his conclusions not only on philosophical and political speculations, but also on a variety of empirical experience. Travel literature was an essential source for Montesquieu's approach, as his careful readings and summaries of the works by Bernier, Chardin, and many others show. They inspired his interest in the particularities of despotic governments and their varieties in the context of the nature and principle of despotism, which had not always been analysed as closely as they deserved.

Islam is proposed, in this view, as a perfect ally of despotism because of the strong interaction between political and religious matters, even if the respect for religion can have a stabilizing effect, since it imposes rules that everybody must accept. At the same time, although he highlighted the radical geographical and political differences between Europe and Asia — the large plains of the Asiatic natural milieu were an essential condition for despotism, in Montesquieu's view, whereas the fragmented territory of Europe gave natural support to political liberty —, he did not deny that historical events and political situations could produce despotism in Europe as well.

For example, such a situation could have occurred after the territorial and political extension of a sovereign's authority and the weakening of its checks, even though, in Montesquieu's eyes, it would not have been typical. Although Montesquieu considerably influenced European attitudes towards Oriental despotism in the 18th century and beyond, a variety of approaches can be observed that sometimes diverged from and sometimes directly opposed Montesquieu's thesis.

The fundamental connection of despotism with religion was a central element of Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger's — Recherches sur l'origine du despotisme oriental as well, in which theocracy was established as the essential basis of despotism. Besides, Boulanger did not define religion as socially useful but as the anthropological source of a fundamental mystification that creates power. Its political consequence, reinforced by superstition and idolatry, would then be despotism. In Boulanger's analysis, the link between religion and despotism was strongly emphasized.

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A similar approach was present in the writings of various other authors of that time. This can be seen as the expression of a struggle against ecclesiastical power in which the negative model of Asiatic governments was systematically employed. At the end of the century, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet — gave this idea a concise and vigorous form in his Esquisse, 19 observing the marked contrast between Orient and Occident.

Antigonus Monophthalmos. Demetrius I Poliorcetes. Govenor, c. Ptolemy Ceraunus. Antigonus II Gonatas , Antikini [ note ]. Demetrius II Aetolicus , " Aetolian ".