Polybius on forms of government

Polybius (c.200 BC – c.118 BC) is one of the main theorists of what we currently call classical republicanism. His political thought is heavily influenced by Aristotle, though his contributions are important enough to give him separate consideration.

Both Plato and Aristotle recognized five different forms of government. Their classification is based on two criteriums: number and quality. Number refers to the amount of people who hold power: one, few or many. Quality refers whether the government exercised power for the benefit of society (good) or only for its own sake (bad).


Not only did Polybius expand the list with forms of governments, he also developed a theory how governments evolve over time. It was known in classical antiquity that governments are not stable, i.e. a monarchy could be replaced by a democracy and a democracy by a tyranny.

According to Polybius governments evolve in the following pattern:

  1. Monarchy (rule by one, good)
  2. Kingship (transition between monarchy and autocracy)
  3. Autocracy (rule by one, bad)
  4. Aristocracy (rule by few, good)
  5. Oligarchy (rule by few, bad)
  6. Democracy (rule by many, good)
  7. Ochlocracy (rule by many, bad)

And at the end the cycle was repeated over and over again. Though one could argue over the correctness of this particular pattern, the underlying mechanism of this evolution (corruption) identified by Polybius is still relevant.

That good governments are replaced with bad ones, is in polybian theory the result of the idea “power corrupts”. Once a person is charged with a certain amount of power, there is always the temptation to use it to further one’s own interest at the cost of the public good. Even strongly willed people are not totally immune for this seduction.

Corruption starts small, with generally good rulers pursuing some personal interests, but grows at an increasing pace until the point that the ruler or rulers only pursue their own interests. Polybius argued that after this point the people would revolt against their government, because they have to pay the bill while not getting anything back. The new government then would again pursue the public good, but after time also the new rulers will got corrupted.

Mixed government

The seven governments identified above, are in the opinion of Polybius singular governments, i.e. power rests in the hands of one person or one group. According to him it is here were the cause of anacyclosis is to be found. In these forms of government the rulers have unrestrained power, which makes it easier to abuse this power.

Polybius saw the solution to the problem of anacyclosis in the constitution of the Roman Republic. The essence of republican government is the concept of mixed government or regimen mixtum. Rather than putting all power in one person or one group, power is spread over multiple institution.

According to Polybius the republic combines the three good types of government (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy) in one constitution. Since decisions involve the cooperation of the different institution, it is difficult for a single institution to abuse its power. Or to put it in modern terms: the different institutions provide a system of checks and balances.

As the different institutions of the republic are created and restrained by law, the rule of law is a natural feature of republican government.

The modern concept of separation of power or trias politica could be understood as a modern interpretation of mixed government. However, the Polybian trinity of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy cannot be related with legislative, executive and judicial power one-to-one.

Dictatorship and totalitarianism

Though these concepts are not really discussed by Polybius, we believe it is good to say a few things about dictatorships and totalitarianism.

The essence of dictatorial rule is unrestrained government, regardless it consist of one person or a committee. Theoretically a democratic dictatorship is quite possible, in the literature often referred to as “illiberal democracy”. In practice, however, dictatorships are usually oligarchies, often legitimized by show-elections.

Though dictatorships often use a republican facade in order to gain some credence of legitimacy, republic and dictatorship are fundamentally incompatible forms of government.

Dictatorships are often associated with corruption and self-enrichment, and not without reason. However, there are a few examples of benevolent dictatorships, though they are rare. A benevolent dictator does use his (or her) power for sake of public welfare.

In modern discourse dictatorships and totalitarianism are too often conflated. Though all totalitarian regimes are dictatorships, the opposite is not true. The difference is to be found in the separation of the private and public realm.

Most dictatorships limit themselves to the public realm and do to respect the private realm, at least in so far it does not affect their position. Totalitarian regimes deny the very existence of a private sphere and seek to control all aspects of the life of their subjects. Consequently there is no liberty in a totalitarian state.

Further reading



Mixed government

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