Polybius’ criticism on the Cretan constitution

To pass to the constitution of Crete, two points here demand our attention. How was it that the most learned of the ancient writers Ephorus, Xenophon, Callisthenes, and Plato state in the first place that it is one and the same with that of Lacedaemon and in the second place pronounce it worthy of commendation? In my own opinion neither of these assertions is true. Whether or not I am right the following observations will show. And first as to its dissimilarity with the constitution of Sparta. The peculiar features of the Spartan state are said to be first the land laws by which no citizen may own more than another, but all must possess an equal share of the public land; secondly their view of money-making; for, money being esteemed of no value at all among them, the jealous contention due to the possession of more or less is utterly done away with; and thirdly the fact that of the magistrates by whom or by whose co-operation the whole administration is conducted, the kings hold a hereditary office and the members of the Gerousia are elected for life.

The island of Crete

The island of Crete

In all these respects the Cretan practice is exactly the opposite. Their laws go as far as possible in letting them acquire land to the extent of their power, as the saying is, and money is held in such high honour among them that its acquisition is not only regarded as necessary, but as most honourable. So much in fact do sordid love of gain and lust for wealth prevail among them, that the Cretans are the only people in the world in whose eyes no gain is disgraceful. Again their magistracies are annual and elected on a democratic system. So that it often causes surprise how these authors proclaim to us, that two political systems the nature of which is so opposed, are allied and akin to each other. Besides overlooking such differences, these writers go out of their way to give us their general views, saying that Lycurgus was the only man who ever saw the points of vital importance for good government. For, there being two things to which a state owes its preservation, bravery against the enemy and concord among the citizens, Lycurgus by doing away with the lust for wealth did away also with all civil discord and broils. In consequence of which the Lacedaemonians, being free from these evils, excel all the Greeks in the conduct of their internal affairs and in their spirit of union. After asserting this, although they witness that the Cretans, on the other hand, owing to their ingrained lust of wealth are involved in constant broils both public and private, and in murders and civil wars, they regard this as immaterial, and have the audacity to say that the two political systems are similar. Ephorus actually, apart from the names, uses the same phrases in explaining the nature of the two states; so that if one did not attend to the proper names it would be impossible to tell of which he is speaking. Such are the points in which I consider these two political systems to differ, and I will now give my reasons for not regarding that of Crete as worthy of praise or imitation.

In my opinion there are two fundamental things in every state, by virtue of which its principle and constitution is either desirable or the reverse. I mean customs and laws. What is desirable in these makes men’s private lives righteous and well ordered and the general character of the state gentle and just, while what is to be avoided has the opposite effect. So just as when we observe the laws and customs of a people to be good, we have no hesitation in pronouncing that the citizens and the state will consequently be good also, thus when we notice that men are covetous in their private lives and that their public actions are unjust, we are plainly justified in saying that their laws, their particular customs, and the state as a whole are bad. Now it would be impossible to find except in some rare instances personal conduct more treacherous or a public policy more unjust than in Crete. Holding then the Cretan constitution to be neither similar to that of Sparta nor in any way deserving of praise and imitation, I dismiss it from the comparison which I have proposed to make.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.IIΙ, Book VI, Loeb Classical Library)

Polybius

Polybius

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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