Any sources on day to day governance in the ancient world?


I’m looking for good sources on governance in the ancient world. Specifically, I’m trying to find sources that can help me from the development of a new city (ie something like the foundation of a greek colony during archaic period, or foundation of colonies through the roman period) but it could be from the development of cities in the Neolithic or bronze age periods, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be Greek/Roman, in fact, the more variety of cultures the better.

Specifically, I’m trying to look at this from a more human perspective. Everything I’ve read are either historical accounts of major events in the ancient world (ie somebody like Livy gives you general outlines of the foundations of Rome, and then during the actual Republic/Empire period they give you major events, but not what the government did, and the issues it dealt with, and how it dealt with them, on a day to day basis.

There are the 3-4 types of governance I’m interested in.

Monarchy: Throughout much of the Bronze Age/Dark Age/Archaic/Classical and beyond period (including the Roman Empire which is a defacto complex monarchy), there were always monarchies, so this is quite relevant in understanding what/why/how government worked from a day in day out basis.

Aristocracy: From the Carthaginians, to the early romans, many societies were run by the powerful, as a group. How this was organized and examples of the what/why/how of day to day governance in an Aristocracy.

Democracy: Obviously we know the Athenians during the Classical period were run as a democracy ( and I mean a true democracy) we can follow the historical events that were from decisions of governance, but how was Athens and it’s empire governed/run on a day to day basis? We know that there were councilors who were chosen by lots who ran certain districts/held certain positions, but what did these people do on a day to day basis? How did they do it?

Republic: The roman republic is what I’m thinking here, and many of the above can largely answer how, and as Polybius says, the Roman republic was synthesis of all 3 of the above governments. But still, what/why/how was the governance done on a daily basis?

And by governance on a daily basis, mean from the how from kings, aristocrats, down through every layer of bureaucracy till you get to your local tax collector, what/why/how these people ran the government administration on a day to day basis, from dealing with a rival city who recently stole one of your citizens crops, to pirates interfering with trade on the Mediterranean, to drought, city administration, what to do with tax money, neighborly disputes, superstition, weather, crime, theft, laws and battles of ideology, to political rivalries and infighting, to a foreigner spreading strange religious ideas in the city (or dealing with somebody accused of a crime they claim they did not commit), I mean everything and everything these officials may have dealt with, daily, and how they changed over time.

Obviously this is a pretty broad question, and I don’t care if these are primary sources, to collaborative works by modern historians, to historical fictions (as I’m sure much of this detail will be left to the imagination as not much evidence will remain), but I’m looking for how humans ran societies, and the issue they dealt with, on a day to day basis, because people live on a day to day basis, and don’t, like historians, summarize a decade in a couple of pages of writing.

I’m sure that no one work will answer any of the above focuses, but any source that can clue me into any of the above would be appreciated. Feel free to ask me any clarification questions if you don’t understand what I’m asking.

PS: If there are works on the medieval period, or even the colonial period in the United States that seems like it could be relevant here, that is fine too, and as I’m sure many of the issues will overlap.

PPS: Maybe much of what the government did was basically just sitting around waiting for something to happen, which is fine, but I’m still curious how an early Village would evolve into a polis city state, and what governance issues they had to deal with from a human perspective, ie daily.

Miles Vappa

Posted 2016-02-17T21:04:50.017

Reputation: 21

Question was closed 2016-03-03T17:29:25.760

Xenophon's Anabasis seems to contain a great deal of politics - 10,000 was a fairly large population for the time and they had interesting governance issues. – user4012 – 2016-02-18T03:01:55.893

I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a history question and belongs on the [History.SE] stack. – Bobson – 2016-02-19T19:22:32.260



One way to approach finding the information on each civilization/time period you're interested in is to first find historians known for analyzing a niche area of ancient life. To do this, you could look at faculty pages of universities known for their ancient history departments/Classics departments or the university's publications page. Usually these departments keep updated lists of books written by faculty members on their individual pages. You may also want to review the syllabi (when available) of top university's ancient history courses for recommended reading.

Example: For a source on Roman day-to-day governance from a fiscal policy perspective, I recommend you look into historian Richard Duncan-Jones' work:

This book is of course a narrow range of information (and frankly very dry if you're not interested in economics), but these types of works will get you much closer to minute details on the everyday realities and decisions ancient governments faced.


Posted 2016-02-17T21:04:50.017

Reputation: 266

Late response, but thanks for the answer. I will look into it and check it out. Again, i'm looking for sources, i actually already have a book on ancient roman administration but book "topics" sometimes don't generally focus on my question, so I figure anybody familiar with any sources they think might be helpful is useful for me. – Miles Vappa – 2016-02-24T18:47:02.463


This will probably get me banned, but it won't be because I deserve a ban by any rational measure.

But here's the deal: You can think of "governance" as coercion. That's what it boils down to.

You see, each law is a command that either says that you can't do something, or that you must do something. If you disobey these "rules", you are punished for your disobedience.

It's important to see that the punishment is not for being immoral, it's just for disobeying the rules some people somewhere have imposed on you!

We're trained to think that laws represent justice, right? But where's the justice in getting imprisoned for 10 years or whatever for smoking weed or any other victimless crime for that matter? Please don't tell me it's "the will of the people" - anyone with half a brain sees it's wrong!

In reality, with the exception of a handful or so, laws have no connection to morality. They're just commands we obey under threat of punishment.

Now the real issue here is that there is a bunch of people unilaterally imposing their will on everyone else. From your point of view, what's the practical difference between getting punished for disobeying a King's law, and getting punished for disobeying a Parliament's law?

Nothing, of course. So you see, we live in an arrangement of rulers and subjects, just like Kings and their subjects back in the day.

In these times, the fact that we still have rulers is just masked with various appeals to the greater good and the ends justifying the means.

Now we have a group of "co-Kings", so to speak.

The point of being a ruler is to benefit at your subjects' expense. Why else would you care about what some random strangers somewhere do, as long as they're not harming anyone? It's fundamentally that simple. That's why they forcefully take our money (for the greater good, of course), and that's why they impose their rules on us (for maintaining order, you see!).

So there. That's all you need to know about "governance". First, we had thugs and warlords robbing people through express violence, then we had Kings looting us because God wanted them to, and now we have rulers hiding behind labels like "leaders", "policymakers", "authorities", "officials", looting us with the pretense that it's for our own good.

You may have some questions. Search for "Larken Rose", for example, and you'll get all the information you need.

Kikka Kutonen

Posted 2016-02-17T21:04:50.017

Reputation: 161

3Nice rant, and perhaps even accurate - but not at all an answer to the question of how the daily administration of the tasks of governance has changed (or hasn't) over time. – Michael Broughton – 2016-02-19T21:22:37.380

Yeah, there's a bit of a related lesson in it though. The way people in general discuss "governance" is missing the forest for the trees, exactly like our rulers want us to. Based on knowing the true nature of "governance" as coercion, we can generalize answers to the original poster's questions. For example: "councilors who were chosen by lots who ran certain districts/held certain positions, but what did these people do on a day to day basis?" -- every day, they pursued their personal gain with the help of political power. – Kikka Kutonen – 2016-02-20T04:00:50.073

Next up: "why/how was the governance done on a daily basis?", and the general answer is: "governance (coercion) 'is done' to benefit a small 'elite' at everyone else's expense. It's done through some combination of: violence, intimidation, indoctrination, and propaganda." The details of how that happened don't matter, and you shouldn't take "governance" seriously as something to "research". In a nutshell, governance is enslavement. You wouldn't discuss the nuances of 'traditional' slavery either, right? It's enough just to see that it's evil and should stop. – Kikka Kutonen – 2016-02-20T04:07:15.747

3While i do appreciate your answer, and it is enlightening, the statement of "details don't matter" is untrue (at least for me) as I am looking for details.

What you talk about, however, is a form of government. It's called a Citadel/Predatory government, and you make valid points. I would argue that not all governments are like that, at least in if you are arguing the foundation of that government is to prey on its citizens. Leadership, which can affect government, and its laws, can make it predatory, but in a purely theoretical sense, not all governments are predatory.

Thanks again tho – Miles Vappa – 2016-02-24T18:56:48.620

Of course all governments are predatory - they're funded through extortion, after all. What else could they be? You pay your "taxes", or you (eventually) get imprisoned, just like you pay your "protection money" to a mafia, or you'll (eventually) get hurt. It doesn't matter that a mafia won't first send you some sternly worded letters about how much you "owe" them, before they show up and hurt you. In both cases, you're being forced to give an organization money. In other words, you're being preyed on. – Kikka Kutonen – 2016-04-24T16:16:21.523

Kikka, I do agree to a certain degree, and certainly when one has a hard time maintaining one's freedom in the face of authority coercion I would be tempted to draw the same conclusions. However, I would also note that the lines of chattel slavery were comparatively easily defined, while the enemies we face today would perhaps consider the lines of government, and indeed the concept of oppression, more porous than they would have done in previous eras. A woman behind a desk, or a man at a lectern, or even an entertainer or a musician, might have a similar effect on us today... – Peter David Carter – 2016-05-07T17:17:48.607