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A History of Political Ideas from Antiquity to the Middle Ages

From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

by Philippe Nemo; translated by Kenneth Casler

Publication Year: 2013

While we all seem to talk about politics, few of us actually know how today’s issues fit into the framework of political history. Indeed, as contemporary French philosopher Philippe Nemo points out, much of our Western secondary education is increasingly compartmentalized and provides no overarching framework for thought or any chronological bearings. With this engaging and comprehensive volume, Nemo provides just such context, as he traces the origins of political thinking from the earliest prestates through subsequent eras to allow us to better understand today’s super states. Nemo sets forth the premise that the beginnings of political thought—our political science—can be traced to three primary sources: the philosophers and thinkers of the Greek city-state, Roman law, and the Christian Gospels. He analyzes the pre-Greek prepolitical societies and, leaning on the work of anthropologists, shows that while these societies may have had organizing principles, they did not have the concept of an evolving jurisdiction that governed the people—a concept that is the foundation of political thought. From the Greeks—Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and the Stoics—Nemo moves on to the Romans. He demonstrates how Cicero, Seneca, and Tacitus added that sense of evolving jurisdiction and shaped political thought for generations to come. Finally, the impact of Christian thought is examined, including a discussion of the “political” ideas present in biblical texts and the attitudes of Christians living under the Roman Empire. Tracing the birth and development of canon law and the influence of numerous Christian thinkers and writers—including Saints Paul, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas—Nemo reveals the additional layer these have added to the history of political organization. By including little-known details and fascinating stories, Nemo makes these historical figures and their thought come alive for us—and, in the process, provides us with an understanding of the foundations upon which the contributions of modern (and postmodern) political thinkers continue to build.

Published by: Duquesne University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vii

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pp. viii-x

A History of Political Ideas from Antiquity to the End of the Middle Ages was first published in French by the Presses Universitaires de France in 1998. Its companion volume, A History of Political Ideas in the Modern Era and Contemporary Times, followed in 2002.
I would like to preface this English-language translation with a few comments on method along the lines of those I made in the first French edition....

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General Introduction: Anthropology and Politics

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pp. 1-20

It is customary to begin the history of political ideas with the works of the Greek thinkers. However, the relevance of this time-honored approach can be questioned. In recent decades, history, archaeology, and anthropology have progressed considerably, and our knowledge of societies before the Greek city is much improved. What was once thought to be a beginning may, in the light of new knowledge, be understood as a late moment, almost insignificant in the...

Part One: Ancient Greece

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Chapter 1. Political Ideas in Greece before Plato

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pp. 22-70

The first major works of political theory to come down to us are Plato’s the Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. It would be illogical, however, to begin the study of Greek political ideas with these two very late works. When Plato wrote the Republic around 375 BC, the Greek citystate was already in its final phase; Aristotle’s Politics was written after Philip of Macedon’s victory over the Greeks at Chaeronea (338), in other words, at a time when the independent...

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Chapter 2. Plato

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pp. 71-110

Plato (429–348 BC) was born into an aristocratic Athenian family. He was perhaps a pupil of Cratylus, a philosopher of the school of Heraclitus. Subsequently he met his true mentor, Socrates, and remained his student for a dozen years. The death sentence handed down to Socrates in 399 BC outraged Plato.1...

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Chapter 3. Aristotle

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pp. 111-139

Aristotle occupies a paramount place in the history of political ideas, not only for the range and robustness of his theories of society and state, formulated in his immense masterpiece Politics, but also for the relevance of his theories to thirteenth century thinkers in their efforts to restore the state on a natural basis against the tenets of “political Augustinism.” ...

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Chapter 4. Xenophon, Isocrates, Demosthenes

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pp. 140-182

Plato and Aristotle are not the only important fourth century writers for the history of political ideas. Their contemporaries, Xenophon, Isocrates, and Demosthenes, are also of great interest. Like Plato before them, and to a degree Aristotle as well, they address harsh criticism at the democratic form of government....

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Chapter 5. Political Ideas in the Hellenistic Age

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pp. 183-194

It seems that the fourth century Greeks did not foresee the historical evolution that finally condemned the political formula of the city-state. True, they considered uniting Hellenic countries against the kings of Macedonia and, later, against the Roman Empire, or at least to create political entities of a sufficient, critical size. But either they designed their federations on the model of symmachies without political integration, which were therefore extremely fragile, or whenever ...

Part Two: Rome

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Introduction: Roman Law and Western Humanism

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pp. 196-198

The Greeks invented the city, a community under the rule of law—the same law for all, created by men, debated rationally in the agora, making possible personal liberty. While they created the form of the law, the Greeks did not progress very far in the development of its content. It fell to the Romans to take this decisive step and to activate the potentiality of personal liberty contained in the idea of the law. The law functions as a guide to enable one to know what and...

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Chapter 1. The Historical Context

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pp. 199-219

Traditionally, the history of Rome1 begins in 753 BC and ends when Justinian I dies in Constantinople in 565 AD, not when the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, is deposed in 476 AD. Justinian momentarily restored the unity of the empire with his reconquest of Africa, Spain, and Italy, and in many respects his legal work represents a consolidation, and the crowning achievement, of all prior civilizational evolution. After this date the history of Byzantium...

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Chapter 2. Roman Political Institutions

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pp. 220-242

Taking the categories of the classical nineteenth century study by Theodore Mommsen,1 we can distinguish what, in Roman “constitutional” law and public law in the Republican period, comes under the magistracies, the people, and the senate. However, in the Imperial period the Roman state undergoes a change of nature and the institutions of this period, the Principate and the Dominate, must be considered as sui generis systems. Finally, we will devote separate presentations to the institutions of territorial administration and the social orders.2...

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Chapter 3. Private Law

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pp. 243-259

In the early days of Rome, it seems that there was a customary, spoken law, interpreted and enforced by the heads of family clans (gentes). It evolved with the emergence of federal monarchy: now the king was called upon when the security of the group was threatened, or in cases of parricide or betrayal (perduellio). When, under Etruscan autocrats, a city-state emerged, it took responsibility for handling the growing number of disputes and petty crimes. All the same, the...

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Chapter 4. Political Ideas under the Roman Republic

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pp. 260-306

While Roman magistrates elaborated on principles of public law that were unprecedented in clarity and pragmatism from previously known states, and Roman jurists forged the basic vocabulary and analytical legal tools that would later form the common basis of all modern law, political ideas were also being framed in Rome, just as earlier in Greece....

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Chapter 5. Political Ideas under the Empire

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pp. 307-382

When Augustus rose to power, Rome became a monarchy. This raises two important questions. Why had Republican solutions become obsolete after this time? And since a regression to a pre-civic form of “sacred monarchy” was impossible—among the elite at any rate—in a Greco-Roman world that was now deeply committed to a scientific and critical culture, what ideological justification could there have been for a monarchic constitution? ...

Part Three: The Christian West

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Introduction to Part Three

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pp. 384-385

Together with Hellenism and Romanitas, Judeo-Christianity is the third pillar of the Western political tradition. It ushers in an entirely new political and legal inspiration, one foreign to the spiritual universe of the Greco-Roman world: a new moral sense—a rejection of the normality of evil—implying a radical transformation of the perception of time, the idea of history as directed toward improvement, and the idea that spiritual power outweighs temporal power and...

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Preliminary Chapter. The “Political” Ideas of the Bible

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pp. 386-448

Any mention of “political” ideas in the Old Testament has to be put in quotation marks, according to our definitions (see the general introduction above, “Anthropology and Politics”). The state—in the sense of an object of political thought—did not exist in the earliest periods of Hebrew history; then, for nearly four centuries after its creation, the Hebrew state was associated with the sacred monarchies of the Near East (we will stress some important nuances...

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Chapter 1. Christianity and Politics at theTime of the Roman Empire

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pp. 449-462

Christianity’s fundamental theological stances in regard to history and temporal power, outlined in the introductory chapter to part 3, would translate into a number of specific political choices. Progressively the church fathers1 established a true political doctrine. It evolved between the time that the church was a persecuted, almost clandestine minority, and the period after the Edict of Milan (313 AD), when it became an official institution of the Empire....

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Chapter 2. The Early Middle Ages

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pp. 463-484

There is something of a paradox in devoting a chapter to the Early Middle Ages in a book on the history of political ideas. After all, the same arguments that led us to begin our narrative with classical Greece and not before—because in earlier periods and in other geocultural areas either the object of “political science” (the state) or its subject (scientific thought) was absent1—should logically lead us to interrupt it in the West between the fifth and eleventh centuries....

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Chapter 3. Feudalism and Sacred Kingship

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pp. 485-510

Two major political phenomena mark the end of the Early Middle Ages: the development of the feudal system and sacred kingship. Technically speaking, these phenomena do not belong to a book on the history of political ideas because only retrospectively were these phenomena presented in theoretical texts as a coherent system, indeed as a political ideal in its own right....

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Chapter 4. The High Middle Ages (Eleventh to Thirteenth Centuries)

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pp. 511-543

By the second third of the eleventh century, feudalism had triumphed everywhere, albeit to varying degrees and with significant regional differences. Loyalty to the feudal lord outweighed loyalty to the kingdom and the importance of the law. In addition, spiritual and temporal powers had become deeply entwined. But, in a matter of decades, various developments would transform the situation....

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Chapter 5. Saint Thomas Aquinas

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pp. 544-576

Thomas Aquinas was born ca. 1224/25 at the castle of Roccasecca near Aquino in southern Italy (the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II ruled the region at the time). He died in 1277.
Count Landulf of Aquino, Aquinas’s father, was a feudal lord. Aquinas was his youngest son. Landulf offered his son as an oblate to the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino in 1230. In 1239 Aquinas left Monte Cassino for schooling at the Faculty of Arts in Naples. This was the start of a...

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Chapter 6. The End of the Middle Ages (Fourteenth to Fifteenth Centuries)

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pp. 577-615

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries may be looked at from two points of view. On the one hand, from an economic and demographic viewpoint, it was a period of crisis and decline, due in particular to the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. In terms of culture as well, these two centuries seem less bright than the classical Middle Ages of the twelfth and thirteenth ...

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Chapter 7. Medieval Millenarianism

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pp. 616-638

The prophetic eschatology of the Bible is responsible for the fact that, in a West wholly and irreversibly converted to Christianity, time was seen as an anxious expectation of a different and better future (see above, pp. 445–46). While this expectation, filtered and moderated by ancient rationalism and law, determined the Papal Revolution and the social transformations...

Selected Works Cited

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pp. 639-648


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pp. 649-665

Back Cover

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p. BC-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705781
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704555
Print-ISBN-10: 0820704555

Page Count: 665
Publication Year: 2013