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The rule of law as the measure of political legitimacy in the Greek city states

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-236
JournalHague Journal on the Rule of Law
Issue number2
Early online date11 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017


This paper explores how a conception of the rule of law (embodied in a variety of legal and political institutions) came to affirm itself in the world of the ancient Greek city states. It argues that such a conception, formulated in opposition to the arbitrary rule of man, was to a large extent consistent with modern ideas of the rule of law as a constraint to political power, and to their Fullerian requirements of formal legality, as well as to requirements of due process. Section 2 analyses how this ideal was formulated in the Archaic period, and how it became a key feature of Greek identity. Section 3 argues that in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE it came to be used as the measure of the legitimacy of Greek political systems: democracy and oligarchy, as they engaged in an ideological battle, were judged as legitimate (and desirable) or illegitimate (and undesirable) on the basis of their conformity with a shared ideal of the rule of law. Then as now, to quote Tamanaha, ‘the rule of law’ was ‘an accepted measure worldwide of government legitimacy’.

    Research areas

  • Ancient Greece, democracy, Athens, oligarchy, tyranny

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